§ Mr. Christopher Price (Lewisham, West)
I beg to move,That this House congratulates the Government on its initiative in setting up the new Select Committee system; considers that the new Committees have already achieved more efficient parliamentary scrutiny of government policy, administration and expenditure, greater parliamentary and public awareness of the various facts, options and decisions at issue, and to this extent, more effective government decision-taking; takes note, however, of Chapter 7 of the Report of the Select Committee on Procedure, Session 1977–78, and in particular of the statement in paragraph 7.27 'we do believe… that a more effective last resort should be available to Committees who find their efforts to obtain the information which is necessary to their work unreasonably hampered or restricted'; notes that there have already been occasions on which Committees have been denied papers and records; and orders that the Standing Orders of the House be amended as follows, to take account of the recommendations of the Procedure Committee:That—
- (1)If a Minister of the Crown, being the head of a Department of State, having received a request from a Select Committee to produce within a stated period papers or records relevant to matters within the Committee's orders of reference, does not comply with the request, or the Committee have ascertained, in the case of a Minister who is not the head of a Department of State, that a Minister who is a head of a Department of State has approved of non-compliance with the request, and the Committee thereupon make a Special Report to the House, the Chairman of the Committee may give notice of a motion for an humble Address or for an order for a Return of the said papers or records.
- (2)If the aforesaid motion is not disposed of by the sixth day on which the House sits thereafter, it shall have precedence of public business on the next sitting day.
- (3)Mr. Speaker shall put any Questions to dispose of the proceedings on the motion not later than one hour after the commencement thereof.That this Order be a Standing Order of the House.That Standing Order No. 6 (Precedence of government business) be amended as follows:Line 1, at end insert 'and in Standing Order (Powers of Select Committees)'.Perhaps it would be churlish not to make my first remark one of welcome to the Leader of the House in his new position. I welcome the fact that he will speak in this debate. It is a happy accident that my having won the raffle for motions today has given the Leader of the House an opportunity to give us the advantage of his thoughts on this subject at an early stage, so that we shall all know where we stand. I am encouraged by the fact that if a paternity suit were brought about the origin of these Select Committees there would be a considerable claim against the Leader of the House. I admit that his recent activities have concerned a dispute with the Defence Committee over withholding information.
It is worth reminding the House of the speech of the Leader of the House to the Cambridge University Conservative Association on Sunday 8 October 1978. I do not like making speeches at universities on Sundays, but no doubt that was an important occasion. I do not think that the Leader of the House will mind if I remind him of what he said on that occasion. There was a political paragraph first, and he then said:The second cause, upon which I intend to speak mainly today, derives from the fact that during the last three decades the activities of Government have been vastly extended, and now permeate into everyone's everyday life. Apart from the need to reverse that trend there is no doubt that Parliament has failed completely to adapt itself and its procedures to the changed conditions of greatly expanded Government.1263There is a clear need for substantial change in the method of operation so that a genuine control of the Executive by the peoples' representatives"—I like that phrase—shall be re-established.Those are good ringing words, and I applaud every one of them. In the later part of his speech the Leader of the House gave a pledge that in its first Session this Parliament would be allowed to decide about setting up these Committees. In my motion I congratulate the Government on doing that. I have been fighting for more control of the Executive, which includes more open government, for some years. I never had complete success with my party. and where credit is due it should be given.
It is also worth drawing attention to the phrase in the Conservative Party manifesto at the last election. In a chapter headed "The Supremacy of Parliament" it is stated:We will see that Parliament and no Other body—That is a reference to the trade unions—stands at the centre of the nation"s life and decisions, and we will seek to make it effective in its job of controlling the Executive.In giving this welcome to the Leader of the House I am trying to say that if these pretensions, these manifesto pledges and these speeches are to mean anything, the logic is that he ought to accept my motion with gratitude, and I very much hope that he will do so.
I welcome my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) to the Opposition Front Bench. I am also pleased to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin). We know each other very well, as we represent the same borough. It is probably the first debate on Select Committees in which they have had the opportunity of participating together. The great usefulness of these debates is that they force the official Opposition to come clean about their intentions, in much the same sort of way as the Government are forced to do so. I shall therefore be listening to the words of my right hon. Friends with as much care as I shall listen to the words of the Leader of the House.
I should like to explain very briefly the triggering mechanism that the Procedure Committee unanimously, without dissent, suggested for Select Committees when they found themselves in the position of not being able to get information, papers or records which, after due consideration, they felt they ought to be able to get. It was suggested that they should first put in a formal request, with a time limit. I shall mention shortly the way in which my motion differs slightly from the suggestion of the Procedure Committee. It is not because I wanted it to do so but because in certain senses it had to differ. If this request, as I have called it in my motion—or order, as recommended by the Procedure Committee—is not complied with, the proposal of the Procedure Committee is that the Select Committee should make a special report to the House.
It is worth noting that the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts has already made a special report to the House on this issue, to which the Government have replied. It has gone no further than that point. But the Procedure Committee suggested that such a report should go further than that, and that once it had been made to the House it should be open to the Chairman of the Committee to put down an Address for the return of papers, or an order 1264 for return—depending on whether one was ordering a Minister who was or was not a Secretary of State—that that should lie on the Table for six days, and that if at the end of six days the matter had not been resolved a debate should take place on the Floor of the House.
In my motion I have limited that debate to one hour—a short debate, as suggested in the memorandum of the former Clerk, Sir Richard Barlas—although the Procedure Committee recommended that it should be of unlimited duration because it was felt that it would be a very important issue if there were ever a debate of that kind.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) will explain the deep intricacies of the Procedure Committee's small print very much more successfully than I shall be able to do, but I should like briefly to go through the ways in which my motion differs from the recommendations of the Procedure Committee. The motion talks about "persons, papers and records". I have not included in the motion anything about enforcement. It was a Procedure Committee recommendation that Committees should have the right to send for Ministers just as they have the right to send for other people. It is because, quite genuinely, I do not think that there has been a problem with Ministers coming to Seclect Committees that I have not included it in my motion.
§ Mr. Price
Yes, they love it. They like the publicity.
Certain people have asked what would happen if, having tabled a motion of this kind, with a preamble saying a lot of desirable things and a second part ordering changes in resolutions to the House, the House were at 2.30 pm to pass the motion. I am informed by the Clerks that if that were to happen it would take force immediately. The second half of the motion would detach itself from the first half—rather in the manner of a space capsule in mid-air—and the motion would take effect. I have tabled it in this form so that the House can have a wide-ranging debate on Select Committees generally, while at the same time having the opportunity to change the Standing Orders of the House and bring in the motion immediately.
There is a second respect in which the motion is not quite in the form that I would have wished. The Procedure Committee recommended that the Select Committee should have power to issue an order for papers in the hands of Secretaries of State. I was informed that if I were to table a motion in that form I would have to have some brackets at the top, with the wordsQueen's Consent to be signified".When I saw the Leader of the House he pleaded difficulties about swapping letters with Buckingham Palace in time, so I quite happily changed the form of the motion. But it is important to state that it is not quite in the form suggested by the Procedure Committee, simply for that reason and for no other reason at all.
I have suggested in the motion that the debate that is finally triggered should last for one hour. The Procedure Committee, as I have already said, recommended that it should be unlimited. My feeling is that it is right that the Government should not be, as it were, saddled with more than an hour of embarrassing business if they do not want to be. A single hour does not kill a day's debate. It foreshortens it to a certain extent, but it is still possible to have a day's business, even if an extra hour is put into it. 1265 If the Government thought that the debate that was triggered was particularly important they could always suspend Standing Orders and provide for the debate to be a rather longer one. I understand that the effect of my motion is as near as possible that recommended by the Procedure Committee. That is why I have put it in this form.
I should like to canvass briefly the reason why the Procedure Committee recommended a particular form. The Committee spent a long time over it. It is dealt with in a whole chapter—chapter 7—of the report of the Procedure Committee, so obviously the Committee was concerned about it. The feeling was that although Select Committees have the undoubted power to send for any persons, papers and records—except members of the House of Lords and one or two other categories—there is no reasonable sanction if Ministers refuse to accede to an order under those powers.
There are powers in the hands of Select Committees to try to deal with the matter by contempt, suggesting that Secretaries of State should be cited for contempt, but the Procedure Committee—and I agree with it—considered that to be like taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It is not a sensible sort of way in which to try to deal with these problems. The House of Commons still possesses penal powers. If it wished to put them into practice perhaps it could put the Secretary of State in the Tower, or something like that.
§ Mr. Price
However, we did not wish to deal with this issue in that way. Therefore, the Procedure Committee carefully worked out a sensible and moderate measure, based on precedent. The members of the Procedure Committee read the memorandum from Sir Richard Barlas, the former Clerk of the House. The Committee wanted to achieve a system that would be deeply rooted in the precedents of the House.
In the nineteenth century it was common for Back-Benchers to move for an Address or for the return of papers. The nineteenth century cases are listed in the Procedure Committee's report. The power to move for the return of papers on the Floor of the House was swept away—as many of the House's powers were swept away—in the Balfour reforms of 1902.
The Procedure Committee recommends that Parliament should once more be given a little more control over the Executive. Indeed, the Leader of the House pleaded for such control most earnestly in his Cambridge speech of 1978. To a certain extent, such control existed in the nineteenth century. I emphasise that there is nothing revolutionary about this suggestion. It would return to Parliament a tiny bit of the control over the Executive that it once had.
Why do we need this measure? First, there is a genuine demand not only from Select Committees but from the public for greater openness in Government. The Government cannot deny that. Ministry of Defence secrets are not under discussion; we are talking about basically factual information that is in the possession of the monopoly holders of information, namely, the Departments of State. Such information should be made 1266 as readily available to Parliament as it is to Ministers. Parliaments could then join the Government in taking decisions.
I welcome the Secretary of State for Education and Science to the debate. I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will admit that the Department of Education and Science has no secrets. There is nothing in Elizabeth House that would put Britain in jeopardy if it were leaked, although the Secretary of State might be put in jeopardy.
Secondly, Select Committees are eunuchs without this sanction. There is no point in having a power without a sanction. A power without a sanction is no power at all. Indeed, that is why the Procedure Committee made this recommendation. When the Government introduced the Select Committee system they did so in a half-hearted way. They set up the Committees but they did not give them the sanction that they needed. The problem is not so much that the Government are all-powerful vis-a-vis Parliament, but that the Civil Service is too powerful. To a certain extent the balance must be redressed.
Both sides of the House have a tradition that when an all-party Committee, such as the Procedure Committee, has gone into issues very deeply and has made a recommendation, the Government do not sweep it away. Select Committees need the power proposed if they are to do their job properly.
Although we welcome the new Leader of the House, we miss the former Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas). It is right that I should pay tribute to the way in which he fought for Select Committees in a pretty cool, chilly and reluctant Cabinet. Although his tenure as Leader of the House was short, history will show that it was a distinguished one. When, on 25 June 1979, the former Leader of the House introduced the Committees he said that he would not introduce such sanctions because he did not think that they were necessary. He said:1 give the House the pledge on the part of the Government that every Minister from the most senior Cabinet Minister to the most junior Under-Secretary will do all in his or her power to cooperate with the new system of Committees and to make it a success. I believe that declaration of intent to be a better guarantee than formal provisions laid down in Standing Orders.He was interrupted by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) who is not exactly a revolutionary character. The hon. Member said:Is my right hon. Friend saying that an undertaking given from the Dispatch Box by, dare I say, a finite Minister on behalf of a Government whom I wish to go on for ever but who may not is of equal value to a provision enshrined in legislation or the procedures of this House?My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham), who was sitting on the Opposition Front Bench, said:That is why the right hon. Gentleman is doing it.As a result of those exchanges the former Leader of the House made the following pledge:I throw in for good measure that if experience shows that more formal powers are needed for Committees to enforce their wishes—if the worst fears of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds are fulfilled—the question of additional powers can be considered at that stage. But we do not consider that the case has so far been established."—(Official Report,25 June 1979; Vol. 969 c.45–46.1That was the Government's position in 1979. They were not wholly against these powers but they did not want to introduce them then. I suspect that many members of the Government would be happy to have these powers. 1267 The senior civil servants in the Cabinet Office and the permanent secretaries' club, and so on, are the persons who do not want them, because they are terrified of the openness that would result. I hope that I can persuade the Leader of the House that the time has come to enforce those powers.
The Education and Science Committee has had one or two problems. I discussed this matter with members of the Committee and I think that I speak on behalf of the Committee. A problem has arisen about a report prepared by Her Majesty's inspectors on the effect that cuts in provision have on standards in schools. Recently at Question Time the Secretary of State said quite fairly that he had not seen the report. I accept that. Perhaps he has not seen the report because it is not "ready". It has not been "ready" for an awfully long time.
§ The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Mark Carlisle)
Perhaps I can make the position clear. Some weeks ago I was shown an interim report. I was told that the final report would be presented to me when it had been completed. That final report had not been completed yesterday, and I have not seen it.
§ Mr. Price
I accept the Secretary of State's point. However, he has said that an interim report exists. The Education and Science Committee has power to send for that report. It may be an interim report, but it is available, it is a paper, and the Select Committee has power to send for papers and records. We particularly wanted the report, because we devoted a whole Session to the scrutiny of expenditure to judge the effect of reductions in expenditure on what was happening in the schools. I am glad to be told about the interim report.
The nub of the issue is: has any Secretary of State, as it were, endless rights to trawl through interim reports until he or his civil servants say that it is a final report before the Select Committee has the right to see the facts in the report? In a sense, it is too late for this year. We shall have to wait for next year to look at that report. There is an important sense of timeliness for Select Committees in getting information. From that point of view I hope that the final report will be available more quickly.
Perhaps the Secretary of State will reconsider whether we should be allowed to see the interim report. I understand that it is interim. It is not complete in that sense. But there is no need for everything to be complete if a note is attached to the report on the degree of its incompleteness.
§ Mr. Mark Carlisle
I wrote to the hon. Gentleman on 13 January making it clear that I was prepared to send to him and to the members of his Committee a draft of Her Majesty's inspector's report on the effects on the education service of local education authority expenditure when it is completed at the same time as I circulate it to local authorities.
§ Mr. Price
If the debate does nothing else it may concentrate not the mind of the Secretary of State, who I know wants to be helpful on every possible occasion, but the minds of some of his functionaries in the Department on the helpfulness that they can show towards us. I am genuinely grateful for that indication.
Before the Second World War, right back to the nineteenth century, Her Majesty's inspectors—who are 1268 appointed by the Queen and not by the Secretary of State—used to publish their reports openly, cleanly and straight. The habit of stamping them "Confidential" and not publishing them came in only after the Second World War. There has been a sort of test case over the ILEA inspectorate's report. In a sense, ILEA called the right hon. and learned Gentleman's bluff. I do not know who did not want to publish the ILEA report, but ILEA said that if no one else would publish it, ILEA itself would publish it. Therefore, it had to be published in the end.
Many Departments have inspectorates independently appointed, often by legislation, because Parliament wants an independent view, but when the reports are received they spend months in the Department being massaged, cosmeticised and messed about with before they see the light of day. We could have done with the report in November, so that when the rate support grant settlement was announced we could test it against what the inspectorate felt was an adequate standard of provision for schools. I believe that Select Committees were set up for that kind of function.
The Education and Science Committee was compelled to make a special report to the House about the amount of information that it could receive on inter-departmental consultation regarding the decision on overseas students. We made that report to the House, and the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs included fundamentally the same criticism within the text of its report. We did that because we were told to do it by the Procedure Committee. The Procedure Committee said that if Committees were not told how decisions were taken between Departments they should report to the House. So again there is a problem, and two Select Committees have seen it.
There are many other Select Committees. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) had a little difficulty with the Manpower Services Commission. In the end, he sorted it out. He tends to be able to sort these things out. However, there had been difficulties with the Select Committee on Defence and others.
I am sure that other members of Select Committees will speak in the debate. I believe that the time has come for the Government to take seriously the pledge by the former Leader of the House that it is time to think about formal powers for Select Committees and not simply declarations of intent on the Floor of the House.
We do not want to see Cabinet documents. I have never been a Minister, but from time to time I chat to folk who have been Ministers and they tell me things. I do not know whether they should tell me things, but they seem willing to do so. They say that in a typical batch of papers that goes to a Cabinet Committee there are papers which it is inconceivable that Parliament should see, although I do not wholly go along with that view. However, for the purposes of the debate I do. Often those papers contain basic factual appendices. I contend that those facts ought to be as available to the House and Select Committees as they are to the Government. We do not want the advice to Ministers—we have our own advisers to advise us—but we need the basis on which advice can be given. In all too many instances the Government have all these facts.
I should like to sum up the problems as I see them. The Government—this means the Civil Service—should have a positive attitude to creating documents that can be given to Committees. I asked the Secretary of State 1269 whether he could separate the advice to Ministers from the basic options. The right hon. and learned Gentleman, in the letter to which he referred, said thatit would not be practicable to separate the advice to Ministers".I remind him of the Croham directive, which is the bible, so to speak, of these things in the Civil Service. Sir Douglas Allen, in paragraph 6 of his letter to heads of Departments in 1977, said:One inhibition to the publication of background material in the past has been that it has often been incorporated in submissions to Ministers which could not be published in their entirety. Rewriting material specially for publication is wasteful and expensive in staff time. Therefore, when policy studies are being undertaken in future, the background material should as far as possible be written in a form which would permit it to be published separately".That was the Head of the Civil Service talking to heads of Departments. That is why I should like the Secretary of State to think again about his statement thatit would not be practicable to separate the advice to Ministers".One principle that the Civil Service must get away from—I am glad that the Secretary of State is beginning to get away from it—is that everybody must see documents before Select Committees see them. The trade unions, the local authorities and all interests must apparently see them, first. Of course, many of those interests frequently leak them to us. The Consultative Council of Local Authorities is one of the leakiest bodies in the country, partly because half of its members are subject to the Official Secrets Act and the other half are not. Local authority members feel greater freedom than Civil Service members in talking about what happens in the consultative council.
Given that, the Government must get away from the attitude that they must consult everybody before Select Committees may see documents. I am pleased that the Secretary of State has given what I consider to be a significant inch in his willingness to allow us to see the energy document at the same time as the local authorities rather than after the local authorites have finally massaged and cosmeticised it on top of the massaging and cosmeticising done by the civil servants. We must get away from the concept of Parliament's always being last in the queue in getting information.
The Government always talk about information, but our powers enable us to send for papers and records. The Government talk about information because they want to get it into a form to enable the Select Committee properly to see it.
I was at one of these gatherings that do not exist, that one does not talk about, with folk who know about these things. One of those folk, who, like the gathering, shall remain nameless, said "But you do not understand these things, Mr. Price. We do exactly the same for Ministers. We would not let them see information unless it were put in a proper form so that they could properly understand it. We are not discriminating against Select Committees. This is the way that we work as civil servants." I believe him. It is the habit of our good lords and masters in the Civil Service to tell us that a paper is written only for a particular purpose, for a permanent secretary or a Minister. The Minister has the power to call for the file to enable him to see what has previously happened. I do not think that Select Committees should have that power, but Lord Croham said that it was disgracefully wasteful of Civil Service manpower that they should spend the whole of 1270 their time rewriting documents for different people in Parliament and Government. I hope that the Leader of the House takes that to heart.
One problem is that we do not know whether papers exist. We do not have the power to send for papers of whose existence we are not aware. All too often rows develop when a paper is leaked, such as the defence paper leaked to the Press Association, and it is clear that the paper exists. It becomes a stupid argument whether the paper should be formally released as it has been informally released.
Under the Croham directive it was the practice of the previous Administration to ask each Department to issue annual lists of papers released. I do not say that all Departments were equally conscientious, but that was done. I understand that that practice has been informally stopped by the Prime Minister. I ask the Leader of the House to reassure me about that.
The principle has now been accepted in the United States, where there is more open government. When a public servant writes a paper, the information should, unless there are compelling reasons to the contrary, be available to the public and, at least, to Parliament. We shall have much discussion on that topic this year, because I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) intends to introduce a Bill on much the same lines as the Bill of the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) in the previous Parliament. All these issues will be canvassed in Committee later this year.
In the motion we are asking not for freedom of access to the public—though that may come some day—but for freedom of access to Parliament. That is a tiny reform. If the Leader of the House shows himself unhelpful it will not do the reputation of the Government any good in the wider issue of public access. The Government say that they want to reduce the size of the Civil Servce in order to save money. I agree with them. One of the best ways to reduce the size of the Civil Service is to release documents, "clean" to Ministers and Select Committees, and not to have armies of civil servants rewriting everything to persuade one interest group in one direction or another group in another direction. My proposals would save money. If the motion is approved it will merely result in a little more paper being released to the Select Committees.
I apologise for taking so long, but this is an important matter. I emphasise that the motion will not drive a coach and horses through the files of Whitehall. It is a modest proposal. It was recommended unanimously by Members of the Procedure Committee, including the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) and other hon. Members, all of whom knew exactly what they were doing. They discussed it in detail. I ask the Leader of the House to take the matter seriously and to support it, because it will not go away.
§ Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)
The hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) may have had the good fortune to win the ballot, but he has had the good sense to choose this subject He has done the House a service by choosing to raise the question of the newly established departmentally related Select Committees. I sympathise with the spirit of his well-argued, closely reasoned speech.
I am glad to follow an hon. Member who is, without doubt—as I am sure my right hon. and learned Friend 1271 the Secretary of State would agree, as he has listened to the whole of the hon. Gentleman's speech—an effective and hard-working Chairman of a Select Committee. I hope that no words of mine will damage him or his prospects in the eyes of his Labour colleagues. Equally, I hope that I shall not be damaged in the eyes of my colleagues by saying nice things about him.
Our discussion is timely, for we have completed the first parliamentary Session of experience of the working of these Select Committees and a review is appropriate. The hon. Member for Lewisham, West rightly made another point at the beginning of his speech. We have a new Leader of the House. We congratulate him on his new office and wish him well. It is right that he should have an opportunity, as I hope he will, to affirm his support early, in what I hope will be a long tenure of office, for the constitution and operation of the Select Committees.
Much credit has been given to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) for his announcement of this significant reform of our procedures. I do not doubt that the hon. Member for Lewisham, West was right when he said that my right hon. Friend played a considerable personal part in seeing that there was an early implementation of the undertaking that the Conservative Party gave to the electorate before the last election, but it is undoubted, as many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides will acknowledge, that equal credit should go to the present Leader of the House.
The hon. Member for Lewisham, West was right to say that if there were to be a paternity suit many names could be mentioned. One name that is not often mentioned, but should be, is that of my hon. Friend for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Sylvester), sitting here modestly, who was one of many who played a part in arguing the case and pressing it upon my right hon. Friend—who saw the point and publicly declared himself in the Cambridge speech to which the hon. Member for Lewisham, West referred. But whoever deserves the credit, and whether this child has 100 fathers or one, perhaps paternity is now less important than the quality of the work of the Select Committees.
The decision to establish the new Committees was by no means free from criticism and it is appropriate to consider how valid the early criticisms have proved to be in practice. One anxiety was that if we delegated some of Parliament's work to the new Committees attention would be substantially taken away from the Chamber, which is the focus of our parliamentary work. I do not believe that that has happened to a greater or lesser extent than was the case before the Committees were established.
Now that many hon. Members are provided with offices, or share offices, we have to occupy them to so great an extent because of the immense pressure of paperwork that is involved in dealing, not least, with correspondence from constituents and bodies that are interested in putting a view to hon. Members.
There has been an enormous growth in general committee work. We have our own specialist party committees looking at a host of subjects from agriculture to transport or Treasury affairs and there has been a huge proliferation of all-party groups. The House will have to consider seriously how such bodies are to be organised and controlled, because they are not only taking up a 1272 considerable amount of the time of hon. Members, but occupying, from time to time, much of the space that we need to carry out our duties.
In the modern context the Chamber is not equipped to serve as a forum for the detailed examination of Ministers, civil servants and policies. It has a part to play, but it needed to be complemented and I do not believe that the establishment of the new Select committees detracted from its authority or significance.
It was also argued that hon. Members already have a huge work load and that it would be absurd to impose additional burdens on them. It is invariably true that hon. Members work hard—vastly harder than most electors realise. That is not a complaint. Probably none of us fully appreciates how the other fellow's time is occupied. The important question is whether we invariably work at the right things, and those of us who argued for the establishment, maintenance and support of Select Committees were keen, as the hon. Member for Lewisham, West rightly said, that our attention should be focussed more closely on supervising, and thereby controlling, the Executive.
If we turn our attention more closely to that task, and if that involves a certain amount of additional work or takes our attention away from one method and using a more effective one, there is no harm in that.
Some said that if we established the Select Committees and an opportunity, indeed a necessity, for a consensus view to be reached, the ordinary political flavour of our work and the political conflict that is inherent in our constitution would be seriously diminished. I do not know whether any other hon. Member has noticed that happening, but I certainly have not.
In any case, I hope that it would be the boast of each of us that before we are politicians we are parliamentarians and that we put the enhancement, preservation and conservation of our constitution long before our own sectarian or partisan interests. I hope that as a group, as well as individuals, we would boast that we should prefer to be effective long before we should wish to earn the title of mere party hacks in the mind of the public.
It was also argued that the new Committees would be expensive. I regard the amount involved in the work of the Committees as trivial compared with other things that we do in Parliament. The answering of one question involves expenditure of £50, and more than 100 questions are answered every day. The aggregate sum is formidable, although it seems that Question Time is increasingly becoming an exchange of non-information rather than a successful tale of the extraction of important pieces of knowledge from a reluctant Executive. The expenditure on the Budget is £70,000 million. What is a few hundred pounds, a few thousand pounds, or even £1 million if we are aiming to ensure that taxpayers' money is better expended? I am contemptuous of the argument that the new Committees are spenders of great sums of money. They are not. They may eventually bring about a much wiser spending of money, and that is an objective for which we should persevere.
It was also suggested that there would be a tremendous burden on the Executive when the new Committees were set up. We hear from time to time through newspapers and friendly commentators —though never directly—that Ministers find it intolerable to have to appear before Select Committees. I am more contemptuous of that complaint than of any other. It is the duty of Ministers and the 1273 Executive in general always to be available to answer questions and so on. It would be unacceptable to me that any Minister should regard it as secondary or unimportant to appear before his colleagues in the House to give an account of his doings.
I see no reason why any Minister should be afraid of a Select Committee. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science has already indicated in two interventions that he shares my view. I am sure that he agrees, though perhaps he may be too modest to say so openly, that any Minister who is in command of his Department and what he is doing is only too ready to explain his purposes. He should find no difficulty in doing so. If a Minister finds difficulty in that, there is something wrong with his ability, and perhaps it is right to bring that into the open.
All the criticisms made at the outset, of which we hear much less now, are as nothing in comparison with the general gain. Parliament is more active and is working more competently. As a result of that, perhaps, we are beginning to, and will increasingly, reach better decisions, because we are doing our homework better. As the hon. Member for Lewisham, West implied, it is extraordinary, how the activities of the Government have grown in the adult lifetimes of all of us. They now reach every corner of our daily lives. It is a matter not only of the businesses that the Government own and their involvement in many social purposes, but of Government influence of every kind. They have a huge, almost incalculable and, I believe, profoundly dangerous patronage in our society. As that process has grown arid developed—in a somewhat ramshackle way, let it be admitted; the motives are fine, but I am not clear that we have established the best apparatus to discharge them fully—Parliament has by no means developed the machinery to scrutinise adequately and on a continuous basis what Government and the Executive are doing.
While I respect my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench and their predecessors, and will no doubt respect their successors, I confess that I have become increasingly impatient of the way in which, over the years, parliament has become no more than a rubber stamp for Ministers' decisions. They make their decisions privately in the Cabinet and in Cabinet Committees, and then come down to us from the mountain, as it were, delivering the tablets of stone, and we are obliged to accept. The stronger the party disciplines have become, the more that process has become automatic.
The point that I want to make is that, at last, we have begun—only begun—the process of associating Parliament much more closely with the evolution and evaluation of policy. We have begun to redress the balance between the Executive—which I have long called an elected dictatorship, and which the Lord Chancellor, in an admirable recent book, called an elective dictatorship—and the representatives of the people, the Back-Bench Members of Parliament—we who are entrusted to see that the democracy of which we boast lives and thrives, but alas, too often have been too ready to allow to be practised in absentia. We have made a beginning. Let us maintain the progress. That, surely, should be the spirit of this debate.
Extravagant claims have been made for what we have so far achieved in these departmentally related Select Committees. Miss Anne Davies, in her ably written paper 1274 on Select Committees, published by the Outer Circle Policy Review, quoted the previous Leader of the House as saying thatthey"—that is, the Select Committees—have altered the whole balance of power between Westminster and WhitehallI do not think that that is true, but I believe that the system is proving itself in the quality of the reports written by the Committees, and, by no means least, in their influence and in their topicality and relevance.
I have here a paper that lists all the reports. I shall not weary the House by going through them all, but I shall quote some examples from that catalogue—the report on D notices, the work done on monetary policy, the examination of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the report that I understand will be published in a few days about the Canadian constitution, the report on perinatal mortality, and so on. The reports are topical and relevant, and they are making an increasing impact on our deliberations in this place and outside. Thus, the House of Commons is better informed.
I was grateful, as I am sure was the whole House, to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House when he alluded yesterday to the decision made by his predecessor, following a request, that the Order Paper should always be tagged when a subject for debate has been referred to previously in a Select Committee report.
There has been no overlap in the work of the Select Committees. At one time it was suggested that they would be at one another's throats because they would want to trespass on one, another's territory. Nothing of that sort has happened.
As the House has been better informed, so the public have become better informed. I dare say that it will not have escaped the notice of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides that the amount of publicity for the serious work done by the House has greatly increased over the past year.
Above all, the Committees have been effective. Let me quote just two examples, though I could quote several. The Committees have been effective in insisting upon and getting a change in what is commonly called the "sus" law. They have been effective in insisting on a change in the way in which pay is dealt with in the public service. At first the Treasury refused—as the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) who has played such a great part in the work of the Select Committees and their formation, will acknowledge—but the Chancellor of the Exchequer overruled the Treasury—as indeed the Treasury Committee would have insisted be done. So, these 14 Select Committees, involving 150 Members of Parliament now on the Back Benches, are effective.
§ Mr. Christopher Price
If the right hon. Member is giving a list of effectiveness he might like to mention the intervention of the Education and Science Committee in the matter of the Promenade concerts. Three days after our intervention an agreement was made, through the good offices of Lord Goodman, between the BBC and the Musicians Union. As a result, the Proms were restarted. I think that that event is worthy of mention.
§ Mr. du Cann
I agree that that was an example, and I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for not having mentioned it. I am glad to be reminded of it, as I am sure is the House. I hope that I shall not offend any other 1275 Member by not going through the long catalogue. After all, there have been 53 reports from these Committees—a not inconsiderable year's work. When one reflects that there are now no fewer than 270 Back-Bench Members of Parliament and others involved in the work of Select Committees in general, it is remarkable how substantial a part they play in the daily lives of those of us who are qualified to serve. Obviously, many Front-Bench Members are unable to serve on the Committees.
The House of Commons, as we all are agreed, and as the first part of the motion implies, has provided the means for doing the work that we all knew had to be done better that it had been done before. In its wisdom the House has established a Liaison Committee to consider the development of the Select Committees and to give advice where appropriate. I very much hope that over the next few years the Liaison Committee will be given a more positive function than that. I believe—I do not know whether right hon. and hon. Gentlemen who serve on it with me would agree—that the Liaison Committee has got off to a good start. It is a working instrument, it is effective, it is prompt. I think that the time is coming when it could well take responsibility.
I now come to the practical operation of the Select Committees. Resources are slender, particularly in comparison with the American experience. However, the Americans tend to overdo such things. Staffs on Capitol Hill aggregate several thousands. Numbers do not always make for the most effective organisation. Sometimes, as in Roman days, the slaves begin to take command as their masters become overwhelmed with detail. Resources are slender, but they are becoming adequate.
We have appointed about 90 special advisers. Some of the Committees are as well, if not better, advised than the Government Departments whose work they shadow. I cannot speak too highly of the work that is done by the Treasury Committee. It is exceptionally well and conscientiously advised. Five staff have been engaged. One might think that modest. Another man was engaged yesterday. A maximum of about £250,000 is spent on travel. Although hon. Members stand to be shot at if they do anything at the public expense, and although we have a responsibility to be extremely modest at a time of national stringency, this is extremely important. If Parliament votes the method it must ensure that there is enough money to make a reality of the work.
Research capability in all its forms is in direct proportion to work capability. There is so much to do and the canvas is so vast that the more assistance we have, the more work we shall be able to do.
I deal next with the specific subject of the second part of the motion—the relationship of the Select Committees with the Executive, about which the hon. Member for Lewisham, West spoke most. He was right to draw our attention to the clear and specific undertaking given by the previous Leader of the House during the debate that established the Committees. The words deserve repeating. He said:I give the House the pledge on the part of the Government that every Minister"—he went on to be more particular—will do all in his or her power to co-operate with the new system of Committees and to make it a success."—[Official Report, 25 June 1980; Vol. 969, c. 45.]1276 The House took that pledge seriously. It took it so seriously that, having heard it, hon. Members decided that they could rely upon it totally. They decided to avoid formality. When the new Committees were set up the House voted by 158 votes to 100 against the proposal which the hon. Member for Lewisham, West now makes—that a Standing Order was necessary to deal with refusals by Ministers to produce papers.
The pledge was made and the House decided that it would not insist on going further. The question now is whether we should go further. The hon. Member for Lewisham, West argues that we should. I am in sympathy with the spirit of his view, but my considered opinion, for what it is worth, is that we do not at this moment have a need to go further. I am content to rely upon the pledge.
I said that I was glad that the hon. Member had given my right hon. Friend an opportunity to speak on this subject, because it gives him an opportunity to renew that pledge. I hope that he will take the opportunity. It is important that he renews the pledge. It is equally important that he tells us that he regards it as a duty, as Leader of the House and the guardian of the interests of hon. Members, to ensure that the pledge is kept. I do not think that we have the need as yet to go formal, and I hope that the hon. Member for Lewisham, West will not press the matter further. These are early days in the history of our Parliament. I am as impatient as anybody. I agree that there has been an uneasy relationship in some respects between the new Select Committees and Ministers, but we should tread a little warily.
I agree that there are a few unsatisfactory examples. The Treasury Committee said in one of its reports:It must be right for the Committee to be made aware of the basic information upon which the judgements of Ministers are made and the Committee must be put in the position to discover any gaps in the official calculations.I stand by those words.
There are certain long-established conventions. For example, advice given to Ministers is private. I should be loth to do anything today that made it more difficult for Governments to discharge their ordinary business. On the other hand, for too long the ordinary habit of the Government and the Executive has been to be obsessive over secrecy. The hon. Member for Lewisham, West is right—we must move towards a more open form of government. We have gone too far the other way. Too much is kept private that could be discussed openly.
I hope that the Leader of the House will take the opportunity, if he ever has any leisure, to examine with great care the Civil Service Department notice, Gen80/38, which gives guidance to civil servants on their relationship with hon. Members. It is a poor and miserable document. Its whole flavour is wrong. The attitude of whoever wrote it is wrong.
Let it be plainly understood that the mover of the motion and hon. Members who have the privilege of working on Select Committees do not seek a conflict with Ministers or civil servants. The reverse is true. We want an alliance to achieve a more effective Administration. We want an opportunity to work together. We want to ensure that the immense effort made by those good and conscientious people who constitute the British Civil Service—which is still the finest and most honourable in the world—is more satisfactory in the public interest 1277 than it could be if it were carried out exclusively in cloisters instead of in public with friendly constructive critics at hand. We seek co-operation.
Because believe that it is too early to come to a final judgment, I do not wish to be associated with a proposal to put an obligation upon Ministers or upon the House at this time. However, if at any time I thought that Ministers were deliberately holding back and that co-operation was not available, or that representatives of the House in a Select Committee were being treated with less than the great respect that they deserve and must have, I should at once come to the House if I were so advised by the Liason Committee or felt it appropriate in the case of the Committee that I chair. I should not ask for support, but I should demand it in order to change the situation. If it were necessary to regulate I should so recommend, but I do not think that the time is yet.
There are, however, other things on which we need the urgent assistance of the Leader of the House. For instance, in the matter of Sub-Committees, the Liason Committee, as members of it who are present today will know, has repeatedly asked for power to set up additional Sub-Committees. At present the Treasury and Civil Service Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Home Affairs Committee have that power. It has been requested by the Scottish Affairs, the Welsh Affairs and the Social Services Committees.
§ Mr. du Cann
And by the Defence Committee, as my hon. Friend the Chairman of that Committee has reminded me. If it is their wish to have Sub-Committees, I believe that the Leader of the House and the House should agree at once. I cannot think why this should be a matter of difficulty or delay. As the hon. Member for Nottingham, West will remember, the Procedure Committee was specific about how we might deal with these matters. It said, in effect, that if there were a request it should be acceded to. It is responsibly made, and it should be accepted now. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to talk about this either now or in the very near future.
Then there is the matter of legislation. the House will recall that we have agreed to have a pre-Standing Committee examination stage for some Bills. Personally, I welcome this, as I think does the House as a whole. It may delay legislation a little on occasion, but where on earth would the harm be in that? If we suffer from anything, it is a surfeit of legislation, rather than too little legislation, much too rapidly passed by the House.
The method of carrying out that examination is not clear. I hope that the Leader of the House will agree that this is something that we must look at together a little more closely. He has been kind enough to reply to a note that I wrote to him on behalf of the Liaison Committee. I think that we are in great danger of establishing perhaps a third form of operation—Standing Committees, Select Committees and something in between. Perhaps Select Committees will have to agree to take on some of this responsibility in the future. It is a matter that requires thought.
I come next to the matter of Supply. The reality is that control of expenditure in the modern sense does not belong to the House of Commons at all. That is a situation that I regard as intolerable. It is wholly unsatisfactory. We vote 1278 the expenditure of millions of pounds, tens of millions of pounds and, on occasion, hundreds or thousands of millions of pounds on the nod. The occasions when we might well debate expenditure and its effectiveness are too often regarded either as an opportunity for a few boring and rather bored experts to have the opportunity to listen to themselves talking, or, alternatively, as an opportunity for an exchange of catcalls on strictly ritualistic and party lines. This we must change.
I express a personal wish—but I dare say that I carry the House with me in it—when I say that I hope that the Select Committees will make progress in the vetting of departmental Estimates. I hope that the new Procedure Committee, just beginning its work, having been established by the predecessor of the Leader of the House, will give the Select Committees a real part to play.
I have two objectives here, and I state them very plainly. The first is that I want to see the Select Committees given a say in the Supply process. I want to see them have influence and some command. I am of the view that Estimates must be negotiable. It must be right that we should look at them in their constituent parts more closely. It must be right that we should make Ministers immediately accountable for the policy directions that give rise to certain expenditures and the like. We cannot any longer accept a situation in which by and large, in the matter of expenditures the House as a whole is invariably presented with a fait accompli, with no opportunity, or very little, to discuss the constitution of those expenditures.
The second objective is to ensure, indirectly, that we achieve better value for money, that we move the House continuously in the direction of an efficiency audit of a continuous nature. I hope that the recommendations from the Public Accounts Committee on the role of the Exchequer and Audit Department and the Comptroller and Auditor General will reflect a move in the same direction.
Then, under the head of these recommendations, there is lastly the question of debates. The hon. Member for Lewisham, West wants to go formal here. It seems to me that there are two ways in which Select Committee reports can be of use to the House in debates. It is for the House rather than Select Committees to choose the timing of debates, but the first example is when the reports are of use to the House in, as it were, an incidental sense. The hon. Member for Nottingham, West will recall that immediately after the last Budget the second report from the Treasury and Civil Service Affairs Committee of that Session was almost like a bible opened before the whole House. The references to that report were frequent.
I have no doubt that the existence of the report shaped the context of the debate, and I believe that it has done a good deal subsequently to shape Government policy in certain respects. It was not that the House was debating the report: the House was having a general debate on economic policy, and on the Budget in particular, and the information in the report was available. With the tagging to which we have already referred, I am satisfied that the reports will be used frequently and in general and will be of much use to the House. That is undoubted.
I come to the specific debates. As yet—and I think that the hon. Member for Lewisham, West will agree—none of us has found it necessary to complain that we have not been able to get time when we wanted it. We have not yet faced that situation. I repeat something of what I said earlier. If we were to face that situation, I should be the 1279 first to rise here and complain and to question my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on Thursdays. It is certainly a key point that when a Select Committee makes a controversial report it should sometimes be possible for the House to debate it and to vote for or against it. There may not have been an occasion on which an opportunity to debate a Select Committee's report has been refused, but again I think that it would be very helpful to the House to have an undertaking from the Leader of the House that he will be receptive to such a proposal if and when it is made to him in the immediate future.
I end as I began. We have begun a journey—faut en finir. Select Committees are by no means new. I believe that they were established first in this House in the days of the first—
§ Mr. du Cann
I was about to say "the first Queen Elizabeth". If the hon. Gentleman corrects me and says that they are even older, it reinforces my pride that we should be building on so ancient a foundation, which has served the House and our democracy well over the centuries.
We are not merely the mechanics of democracy in this place. It is not our job merely to tune the machine and to run it day by day and year by year. It is our job continuously to be attentive to design in the context of the age and the day and the complexities in which we live. It is our job to build it, to rebuild it, to enhance it, to love it and to cherish it, and to ensure always that it is worthy of us, of this great institution, and of the people of this nation whom we are privileged to serve. We have begun a journey—faut en finir. I hope that when my right hon. Friend replies to the debate he will do so in that spirit and in the spirit of the admirable speech made by the hon. Member for Lewisham, West.
§ 11 am
§ Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)
It is always a pleasure to speak after the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), who knows so much about Select Committees. This relaxed debate has become a sort of stock-taking of the structure that has been set up, in addition to debating the motion that appears on the Order Paper. The late Jimmy Margach, a distinguished Lobby correspondent, was kind enough in his last book to bracket the right hon. Gentleman and myself together as Select Committee men. The right hon. Gentleman either sits or has sat on almost every Committee of any importance in the State, both inside and outside the Executive. His experience in this regard is unrivalled.
I am only too pleased to serve, under the right hon. Gentleman's chairmanship, on the Treasury and Civil Service Committee. I am pleased that he is the Chairman of the Liaison Committee and thus, as it were, the apex of the structure that we have set up. I shall not take up the right hon. Gentleman's remarks on Supply, because I am a member of the new Procedure Committee, which has to consider that issue. It would be premature for me to say anything about that. However, I shall take up the right hon. Gentleman's remarks on legislation.
I had hoped to persuade the predecessor of the Leader of the House—I hope that the present Leader of the House will consider this point—that in addition to the proposed 1280 experiment with three Bills on the proposal of the Procedure Committee, which, unlike the proposals on Select Committees, was not unanimous—there was division in the Committee—there should be a reversion to the former practice of the House that has been copied by almost every other legislature in the world, and that some Bills should be considered in Select Committee.
That practice is already possible under our Standing Orders. As the Leader of the House knows, the Army Act is successfully dealt with nowadays in that manner. I hope that he will take on board the thought that, perhaps not in this Session but in the next Session, he should try another little experiment and refer a couple of Bills, or something of that character, to Select Committees, either to the departmentally related ones that are appropriate or to ad hoc Select Committees, as may seem more appropriate, rather than to a Standing Committee. I suspect that the result would be beneficial to the legislation and the country. As we are having one experiment, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not forget that to prove the point it may be necessary to have the other experiment as well.
I join in the welcome that has been given to the Leader of the House. He has suddenly appeared here like a splash of Cooper's marmalade. He illustrates why I advocate that Cabinets should, as in the Australian Labour Party, be elected by their own Back Benchers. The right hon. Gentleman and his predecessor were extremely competent Ministers, who were moved not because of incompetence but for almost totally opposite reasons. Prime Ministers have far too much power of patronage in this regard. It would be far better if the Cabinet consisted of those chosen by their own Back Benchers. However, I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) asked yesterday why the payroll vote had been summoned for 2.30 pm today. I do not know whether it has, but I know that on the first two occasions when the House met at 9.30 am and finished its main business at 2.30 pm the then masters of the business of the House forgot to summon the payroll vote. That happened on two occasions. To combine a relatively inexperienced Chief Whip with a new Leader of the House was, in my view, a mistake that the Prime Minister made, and a mistake that she has rectified by putting a man of such experience as the right hon. Gentleman into his present position.
The reason why I say that the former Leader of the House was treated unjustly is that he was as much the architect of our present Committee structure as was any man. I am probably the only person who can say that. That is because I wrote the second report of the Procedure Committee, and that Committee was kind enough to approve it unanimously. That report has been the foundation of the two main things that we have done.
I had close consultations with the former Leader of the House on this matter. There were critics inside the Executive of the proposal to set up Select Committees. The former Leader of the House got them here and gave almost nothing away in the process. The Home Affairs Committee may not summon the head of the Public Record Office. It can summon the head of the Security Service of the State, but the Lord Chancellor is left out.
The three Committees that the Procedure Committee recommended should have two Sub-Committees can have only one. That is a matter of ill-balance, but it does not stop them functioning. One of the final concessions was apparently the recommendation that my hon. Friend the 1281 Member for Lewisham, West is asking us to consider today. I should explain that giving that away to the critics was a spoof. Now it may be told, as they say in the newspapers. It was a total spoof.
The reason why it was a spoof, and why, so far, none of us has ever attempted to correct the inaccuracies that appeared in certain newspapers, is that Select Committees already have the power to send for persons and papers. They are given that power. That means that they may send for any person in the land, with two exceptions. They may not send for the Queen, but that is understandable. The Queen is part of Parliament and is institutionally separated from either House. Secondly, Select Committees may not send for a peer. I suspect that those in another place may not send for a Member of the Commons, but that is another story. This is confusing, because theoretically if a Minister were in another place the Select Committee concerned would be unable to send for him.
As has been said, I cannot imagine that a Minister would refuse to appear before the Select Committee in such circumstances. It would certainly be a cause celebre if he did. That was a little point that we wanted to tidy up. It is not very important that it has not been tidied up. As the Leader of the House has a tidy mind, I hope that he will wish to correct it as some time.
With regard to sending for persons, there is confusion in the minds of the press because of the former Industry Sub-Committee of the Expenditure Committee and its actions in relation to the Chrysler case. What happened was simple, and it was the fault of the Committee. The Sub-Committee dithered for two weeks. It was leaking constantly to the press that half of it would like to summon the person who is now Lord Lever of Manchester while the other half did not wish to do so. My right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson), who is no slouch on these matters, instantly saw an opportunity and said "You are not having him anyway". That was something that he had no power to prevent in practice. However, he got away with it because the Committee could not make up its mind.
Exactly the opposite circumstance has happened to me. Someone refused to appear before the former Sub-Committee that I chaired, which in some ways was a predecessor Committee to the Treasury and Civil Service Committee, which is chaired by the right hon. Member for Taunton. I checked, and found that he was the head of a quango and refused to come on the orders of a permanent secretary. So I went to my Committee and we instantaneously and unanimously approved an order for him to come. Almost before anyone had gone out of the room, we telephoned the permanent secretary's departmental Cabinet Minister and asked him whether he wanted us to issue the order that we had just agreed. He did not, and the order was never issued.
In the Procedure Committee, we said that one should always follow that course. It is important that the word "order" should replace "request". For the reasons that my hon. Friend has explained, this motion should not be passed in the form on the paper—but that was the only way in which we could get it debated. I hope that it will not be pressed to a Division for that reason, but it has been useful to have this discussion.
It is important that a Committee should first consider the politics—not the party politics—of what it wants. Very often one writes a letter, or asks the Clerk to get some evidence, not in a light-hearted spirit but without due consideration whether one wants precisely that piece of 1282 information. Thus, we said that if a Committee had issued a request in the normal polite letter form it should decide whether it wants to issue an order, which is a different matter. It is not contempt of the House to disagree with a request. It might be a discourtesy, but it is not contempt. It is a contempt of the House to disobey the formal order of a Committee.
The next thing that we said, which is in the motion of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West, was that one must never deal at too low a level with regard to the Executive. Some middle rank civil servant or junior Minister may refuse a Committee request for information to which often, in practice, a Cabinet Minister would instantaneously have agreed. Lower down hierarchies people are more in fear of doing things. Because they are lower down hierarchies they are less self-confident, whereas the average Cabinet Minister is more self-confident, more ready and forthcoming, and knows more readily what can or cannot be revealed. Thus, we said in the Committee that if we get a refusal at the lower level, we should always take the question to the Cabinet Minister concerned, because that will cause him to think.
Ultimately, the real question at issue is what the Floor of the House will say. If, as Ramsay MacDonald once did, a Select Committee wanted to see the security files on its own members, or, worse still, on other people, I do not think that the House of Commons would accede to its request. It is not a case of the Executive's refusing—it would refuse—but the House of Commons would support the Executive and not support the Select Committee.
If, on the other hand, one were considering a matter concerning the Crown Agents, to name a case in point, and a Select Committee believed that it had uncovered some peculation, was being refused the information to prove that point, and it came to the Floor of the House of Commons, I am almost certain that in such a case, just as the House of Commons overturned the recommendations of the former Cabinet on the Crown Agents, it would support the Select Committee and not the Cabinet of the day.
Like so many things, such as the power to direct the chairman of a nationalised industry, ultimately all this is largely unnecessary, because members of Select Committees and Cabinets are competent politicians. If matters are considered at that level, they almost instinctively know what the House of Commons would or would not support. Therefore, one does not go to the Floor of the House of Commons to have such a discussion, because it is not necessary, as hon. Members all talk to each other and understand these things.
There may be a rare occasion—the Crown Agents case may be a case in point—where the Cabinet misjudges the mood of the House of Commons. In that case, we said in the Committee that it would be sensible to have a debate on the Floor of the House so that hon. Members could, decide. They can already do that. However, the present procedure is that if an order were disobeyed the Committee could report the contempt. That is why, when the previous Leader of the House gave way to the critics, he gave nothing away.
Mr. Speaker would be bound to give precedence over the Orders of the Day to the refusal to obey the order of a Committee. The Leader of the House would be bound, as he has done this week, to say that by convention we should do nothing about that and refer the matter to the Committee of Privileges. He would be bound to support that, as the Leader of the House always does at that stage. 1283 The matter would go to the Committee of Privileges, which would then report that it was a contempt. It would then come back to the Floor of the House.
In the Procedure Committee we merely said that that procedure was rather cumbersome if one was dealing with a Minister. The argument would be political, between the Cabinet and the Select Committee, on the question whether certain information should be revealed. We said that that should be simplified. We said that we did not want to hale Ministers before the Privileges Committee because they could be in contempt, as could any hon. Member. Hon. Members are not protected from contempt, any more than anyone outside the House. It is a rather cumbersome and inappropriate procedure to summon, for example, the Chancellor of the Exchequer before the Committee of Privileges. That would be quite stupid. Therefore, we suggested cutting short that procedure, and having a quick debate on the Floor of the House on the question whether the piece of information should be revealed and not bringing contempt into the matter.
That is what the former Leader of the House gave away. When it set up the Select Committees the Cabinet decided to keep that rather cumbersome procedure of privilege to protect the Select Committees against the Executive. If the Leader of the House reflects upon that, I think that he will find that the Procedure Committee has the better solution. That is what this debate is about.
Another matter needs to be tightened up, concerning Secretaries of State. Once upon a time, in the Middle Ages, the Secretary of State was what is now the Queen's Private Secretary. There is a case for protecting the Queen's Private Secretary from being summoned by a Select Committee, but he is not so protected. If he were summoned by a Select Committee and was asked what advice he had given to Her Majesty—which nearly happened a short time ago—I should think that he would be bound, according to his duty, to refuse to answer. That would be contempt of the House.
Thus, a conceivable difficulty could arise for a Queen's Private Secretary, who is not protected. However, any Secretary of State is protected, because once upon a time, in the Middle Ages, a Secretary of State was not a Secretary of State but the Queen's Private Secretary. That is an anomaly. One can cross-question the Chancellor of the Exchequer and require any information from him, because he is not protected, and is only a Deputy Lord High Treasurer, in medieval language. Therefore, he does not appear so high on the medieval scale as do other people. He comes below Secretaries of State. All sorts of people, such as the Prime Minister, can be summoned to give evidence, but a Secretary of State cannot be summoned. One cannot require information from him by the normal process. A Humble Address must be sent to the Queen asking her to permit the Secretary of State to answer. That is an archaic and medieval procedure. The Leader of the House has a tidy mind, so perhaps at some time he will clear up that matter.
§ Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Thanet, West)
I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument carefully. I wish to draw attention to one practical aspect of the matter. A problem of this sort can arise with someone such as Sir Derek Rayner, who was believed to be giving the 1284 Government—perfectly properly—confidential information on particular issues of the day. In that case it was on the question of pension payments and the like.
When this matter came up for consideration I took the view that, as a practical matter, Sir Derek ought not to be called before a Select Committee because of the confidential nature of the work that he was doing at the time. On the other hand, I was of the opinion that he could be compelled to come and give that information, and that, of course, was the ruling.
However, from a purely practical standpoint, I use for the sake of illustration the new economic adviser to the Prime Minister, who has been flown across the Atlantic in order, no doubt, to give confidential monetarist advice to the Prime Minister. What is to be the position in practice? Are we to be able to say that we can call such a person before a Select Committee and ask him what is the advice which he has tendered to the Prime Minister? I doubt that we should get an answer if we had him there. The situation is invidious, and against what the hon. Gentleman has carefully and properly elaborated as the background we have to consider the practical way in which we can deal with that problem.
§ Mr. English
I do not see it as a problem. I say that advisedly, because the particular person whom the hon. and learned Gentleman mentions used to be my adviser before he was the Prime Minister's adviser, and I know him extremely well. Such a person is certainly compellable. There is no doubt that he can be compelled to appear. The powers of a Select Committee are basically the same as those of the courts, which the hon. and learned Gentleman knows so well.
Apart from the exceptions that I have already mentioned, anyone can be summoned to a Select Committee and, techically, can be required to answer. But there are matters of good sense and courtesy in these things and, quite frankly, in the case of civil servants—for this purpose I include this gentleman in that category—we have always, both on the old Expenditure Committee and on the present Treasury Committee, taken a certain course, I am sure that the right hon. Member for Taunton, in his capacity as Chairman of the Liaison Committee, would say that this is what any Select Committee should do. If a civil servant says that his superior has asked him not to give the information we should not attempt to compel him. One does not deal with the monkey when it is the organ grinder's responsibility.
If the Prime Minister does not want Alan Walters to come before the Treasury Committee, well and good, so far as I am concerned. If we wanted the information, it would be the Prime Minister whom we should ask. I see the Chairman of the Liaison Committee nodding his assent. That is how it should be. That is precisely what the Procedure Committee said. We said "Do not bring to us these disputes at a lower level." We said that something should be brought to the House only if one knew that the refusal came from the Cabinet. In effect, it is the Cabinet. We referred to a "Cabinet Minister", but one assumes that any sensible Cabinet Minister would consult his colleagues. In effect, it is a struggle, so to speak, between the Committee and the Cabinet, and the Floor of the House should not be bothered with anything less than that. Most of these things are settled well before that stage is reached. That is the point that I was making, and I regard it as extremely important.
1285 I wish now to mention one other matter. This is not the time and place to discuss it, but it is a fact that we are oversecretive in this country. The example that I choose is one that appeared in the report of the Expenditure Committee on the Civil Service. I refer to the convention regarding the previous Administration. Ministers are forbidden—not just Members of Parliament but Ministers—to see documents that their predecessors in another Administration have seen.
This rule does not apply in other countries. There are other conventions. In Ireland, for example, which normally follows our conventions, Ministers are not allowed to quote, even on the Floor of the Dail, from documents of previous Administrations, but they are allowed to see them. We suggested that our convention should perhaps be discussed between the two parties here.
The House may be surprised to know that the objection to that suggestion came from the Civil Service trade unions. It did not come from all of them—it came primarily from the First Division Association—and the objection was on the most foolish of grounds. They did not wish a Minister in one Administration to see the advice that civil servants had given to his predecessor, because he might think that their politics were other than they were.
The real reason, of course, was somewhat different. The one person who can see all the documents in a Department is the permanent secretary—not the head of the Department but the principal civil servant. The power of the Civil Service is unnecessarily enhanced in this country by the way in which we limit the power of Ministers.
It seems to me that this filtration process ought to be reconsidered. I describe it as a filtration process, since that is what it is. If a Minister wants to know what happened in his Department under the previous Administration his civil servant looks at the papers and gives him a different document which is a summary—a rewriting of it all over again—exactly the sort of rewriting that we have already criticised in this debate because it is a waste of time. It is a stupid practice, which should be changed, and it illustrates just how far the passion for secrecy in this country goes.
Strangely enough, a Select Committee could require a document of a previous Administration, and it would be a contempt of the House to refuse it. But by convention a Minister cannot do it. I do not propose to go into the details of the convention as a whole. There is an exception for foreign policy, and matters of that kind.
§ Sir John Langford-Holt
The hon. Gentleman reminds us that a Minister is forbidden to see the working papers of his predecessor. Can he say whence that power derives, and by whom it can be altered?
§ Mr. English
We suggested that it should be discussed by the Prime Minister of the day, who was, of course, the former Prime Minister, and by the Leader of the Opposition, who is the present Prime Minister. The matter never went further, because the former Prime Minister did not wish to discuss it with the former Leader of the Opposition. It is as simple as that. It never happened. But I think that it is a convention agreed by both parties, and it could be altered only, I think, by the agreement of the two parties. I think that that is the position.
§ Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)
But, surely, on any particular occasion when 1286 an individual Minister wished to see papers that he was not supposed to see under the convention, the authority for his not being allowed to see them would be derived from the Prime Minister who was Prime Minister at that moment in time. Is that not the answer to the question raised by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury (Sir J. Langford-Holt)?
§ Mr. English
I think that what would happen is that the permanent secretary would go to someone such as the Secretary of the Cabinet, and the Prime Minister would tell the junior Minister not to persist in his request, and if he persisted he would get the sack. These conventions are upheld by the powerful patronage of the Prime Minister, which I have already criticised.
I use that example merely as an illustration. In my view, the "previous Administration" rule is a clog upon the workings of Government. It illustrates the extent to which the passion for secrecy is carried in this country. If even Ministers are dissuaded from asking for information, what on earth will happen to the rest of the people, and how far from open government shall we remain? I hope that we shall to a large extent get away from the passion to keep secret things which do not really need to be kept secret.
In the United States the decisions of the Federal Reserve Board are published. There cannot be anything more confidential than decisions of that kind. They are decisions on changes of interest rates. All that is done in the United States to ensure that confidence is kept is that the information is published three weeks later. A decision is taken at a meeting of the board. The monetary policy of the United States is altered. At its next meeting the Federal Reserve Board looks at the minutes. It checks the minutes, as all committees do. Being assured that the minutes are right, it publishes them immediately thereafter. This could be applied to large parts of Cabinet decisions.
The late Patrick Gordon Walker said in his book that very little that is really secret is actually ever discussed by the Cabinet. The real secrets are usually discussed between two or three very senior Ministers, and not spread abroad among a whole committee of 22, or whatever the number may be in any given Administration. I am sure that that is right. I am sure that the Cabinet does not spend the whole day discussing the security of the State. It is probably hardly ever discussed in full Cabinet. Therefore, I believe that many Cabinet decisions could be published after a shorter interval than 30 years.
There is much unnecessary secrecy in the administration of this country. It is one of the causes of poor administration, because the people who know the facts do not know some of the decisions and therefore cannot criticise decisions which may be taken on inadequate information. That is a bad thing, and should be changed.
§ Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate)
I hope that the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) will forgive me if I do not follow on directly from his speech. I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) on initiating the debate. He has done a great service in giving us the opportunity to air a subject of profound significance and importance to the House. I also congratulate him on the way in which he presented his case—a way that I think was entirely correct, and in alliance with the spirit in which Select Committees have been set up and are functioning.
1287 The House also owes a debt of gratitude to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), who has on many occasions expressed his concern for the rights and privileges of the House, and more especially for the rights of Back Benchers. We owe a great amount of gratitude to him for the work that he does to protect the rights of Back Benchers and to further the interests of Parliament.
I should like to agree the motion before us, particularly the first part, which is congratulatory and with which I think we would all agree. We should all share the congratulations expressed today to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas). Speaking in a debate on procedure in the new Parliament in October 1979, my right hon. Friend said:In the long term, there is no task that this Government are undertaking that has greater significance than that of assisting the House to be more efficient and effective in discharging its duty of controlling and checking the Executive and promoting the liberties of the subject."—[Official Report, 31 October 1979; Vol. 972, c.1269.]That was a most significant statement. In reviewing the work of the Select Committees I must express here the fact that I am not a member of any of those Select Committees but an impartial Back Bencher, who has been watching with keen interest the work that they are undertaking. I venture to suggest that the work that they are undertaking is certainly moving along the road indicated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford.
As I said, I agree with the first part of the motion. I happen also to agree with the second part. But I would depart from what the hon. Gentleman is proposing in the timing that he has suggested. I do not believe that there is evidence that it is necessary to adopt the procedures that he has set out in the motion, which, of course, are taken from the first report of the Select Committee on Procedure, I shall come to that point later on in my speech.
Before the setting up of the Select Committees I think that there was a very strong feeling that there needed to be an impartial body that would be able to cut through party differences and the politics of confrontation that have resounded in this Chamber on many occasions, and for that body to be able to cut through the labyrinth and the undergrowth of departmental papers and present reports that would carry weight and would be of consequence.
Today, Parliament is surrounded by a blaze of publicity. In fact, I think that it is noticeable that when Parliament is not sitting there seems to be a problem for the news gatherers to find any news to report. When Parliament is sitting, they grab everything that they can get and sometimes they blow up a confrontation. This is something that they always go for. If they can show that there are big problems here, or if somebody perhaps has exaggerated a little in what he has said about the economy, or whatever it may be, the press will give it headline treatment. That is what the press wants. It does have a very serious effect on the public at large because they see us here as a House that consists of Members who are constantly at each other's throats, who are constantly clamouring and shouting abuse at each other. That, I think, is a grave problem. It is a pity, and it is a mistake.
In the work of the Select Committees in being able to question Ministers and to seek information, to call for papers and to present reports that have been arrived at on an all-party basis—and I think that this is the key to the 1288 matter—both sides of the House are coming together to try to seek truth and to present something that is worth while and that will carry weight. There has been over the years, and there always will be, the need to enhance the work and functioning of Parliament and to find ways of strengthening our democracy, and I think that our response to the call for this requirement of Parliament to look at things on an all-party basis and not always to look at things in political colours is one which is being served by the work of the Select Committees. There is no doubt about it that no one single Back Bencher could ever cope with the amount of investigation and the amount of work that is undertaken by the Select Committees. My right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton referred to the cost. I think it is remarkable that the cost is as small as it is. And certainly the quality of the work which comes from the Select Committees is something which can be used as an example to the country as a whole.
I think there are two things which are of vital importance. The first thing is that the Select Committees can question Ministers and have access to information which they can reasonably be expected to request. The second thing is that there should be a response to the reports of those Committees which will take the matter further and ensure that the criticism which is being levelled in the Select Committees is not just left bound up in a volume and that no further action is actually taken.
As to this question of access to information, I think that, by and large, over this last year the situation has worked extremely well. As the hon. Member for Lewisham, West said, Ministers have always come to the Committees. In fact, he said that they have been keen to come to the Committees. I think that that is a good point.
§ Mr. English
I, too, should like to pay tribute to the overwhelming bulk of Ministers in the present Administration for the way in which they have helped the Select Committees. Indeed, I think that some of the junior Ministers, at least, rather regret that they have not been summoned. But no Select Committee can summon everybody. Certainly, I do not think that people have been over-reluctant to come.
§ Mr. Banks
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that very kind and justified remark. It is the actual question of papers, and the confidential nature of some of the papers which may from time to time be asked for. I should like to turn the House's attention to the question of papers in the Defence Committee.
I know that the hon. Member for Lewisham, West said that we are not talking about Ministry of Defence secrets, but the Ministry of Defence covers a wide area. In fact, every Department is involved in one way or another with the Ministry of Defence and the work that it does. For example, on the agriculture side there is the question of the stockpiling of food. On the transport side, there is the question of movement of essential supplies in war-time, and so on. In the Home Office, there is the question of civil defence. One could go on. In the Department of Energy, there is the question of oil and gas supplies, and the necessary action which must be taken to ensure that those supplies are available during a period of tension or, unhappily, if a war were ever to occur.
Therefore, there must be an understanding among members of the Select Committees about this delicate area of confidential papers. They may not be able to draw the 1289 line. It may appear to them that a document is not of such a confidential nature as to warrant its being withheld from their scrutiny. If that led to a wrangle between the Committee and the Minister and his Department it could draw attention to a piece of information which, although seemingly on the surface it did not have much significance, could have far greater significance than would be appreciated if it were revealed. The wrangle over obtaining that paper could draw attention to an area which was sensitive, although at the time no one would realise that it was.
This will he one of the crucial factors in the future work of the Select Committees. There must be an understanding that when a Minister says "I must withhold this paper" there are good reasons for doing so. That will mean that people will have to trust what the Minister says. That is something which we as an institution will be able to evolve in a way which will allow that to happen.
§ Mr. Christopher Price
I agree with a good deal of what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but does he not accept the basic argument of the Select Committee on Procedure that if the Government Department, be it the Ministry of Defence or any other, knows that the Committee could take this matter to the Floor of the House and cause a row about it, the negotiation between the Committee and the Department would take place with a great deal more equality? Therefore, the conventions that the hon. Gentleman wants, and that I would like also, are more likely to be arrived at in that way than they are in this unequal contest, because although the Committee has the powers it has no easy way of exerting them without making a tremendous fuss about contempt, privilege and so on.
§ Mr. Banks
The hon. Gentleman has put his finger on the importance of this debate, which signifies the importance that we attach to the procedures that were recommended by the Select Committee and which exist if ever they are needed. I am sure that it has not escaped the hon. Gentleman's notice that of the six Conservative Members who served on that Select Committee, four are now Ministers and one is in another place. Another Conservative Member, who supplanted one who had to retire from the Committee, is also a Minister.
Paragraph 7.27 of the report—this is a good moment to refer to it—stated:Our aim is not to embarrass departments and Ministers or to encourage confrontation rather than co-operation between committees and departments; nor do we believe that committees would necessarily gain the sympathy and support of the House by reliance on the exercise of formal powers.It goes on to say:The duty of the Executive should be to assist the House in exercising surveillance over its work. A restatement of the powers of the investigative agencies of Parliament on the lines we have suggested should serve as a timely reminder that the House is able, if necessary, to require such assistance from the Executive and its servants.I rest my case on that. I do not think that at this time there is a case for initiating those procedures, because I believe that we are working well under the present system.
§ Mr. Price
To be fair to the House, the hon. Gentleman should read out the one sentence in that passage that he omitted. The argument for all the good things that he referred to rests on the sentence that he omitted, which states:We do believe, however,"—this is part of the same argument— 1290that a more effective last resort should be available"—that is, not messing about with contempt or privilege—to committees who find their efforts to obtain the information which is necessary to their work unreasonably hampered or restricted.I do not think that there is that much disagreement between the hon. Gentleman, who is a former member of the Defence Committee, and the rest of the House. The argument is really about the extent to which there can be a real dialogue between the Defence Committee and the Minister of Defence so that those conventions which preserve proper secrecy but allow proper openness can arise. His argument seems to be that Ministers and civil servants are better at laying down those guidelines than elected Members of Parliament.
§ Mr. Banks
I did omit the sentence to which the hon. Gentleman alluded, but I prefer the second sentence, and I prefer my case to rest on that. I am not saying that this matter should be left in the hands of Ministers and their civil servants. The power must always be with the Chairmen and the Committees. I think that that will suffice. However, if the case arose, and there was a seemingly intransigent Minister who refused to divulge papers, that paragraph would be a warning that the Committee could initiate action, such as that undertaken by the hon. Gentleman today, to re-examine the situation.
The area of defence secrets is a particularly sensitive one. I hope that any Select Committee would have special cognisance of the fact that defence secrets are vital to the security of the country. After all, defence is a question of surprise and bluff in most cases. If we gave away information which could be of use to a potential adversary we would probably cost the country a great deal of money, because a lot of extra money would have to be spent to shore up the void that would be left.
§ Mr. George Cunningham
Does the hon. Gentleman really believe that if a proposition that a certain sensitive document relating to defence and security generally should be made available to a Committee were to come before this House—which is the only issue to which my hon. Friend's motion is relevant—the House would be daft enough to compel the production of that document? Surely we must rely on the common sense of the House of Commons. A moment ago the hon. Gentleman said that the power must lie with the Committee. That is not what the report of the Select Committee on Procedure said at all. It said that it should not lie with the Committee, but only with the House. All that my hon. Friend is suggesting, and all that we suggested in the Procedure Committee, was that the fuse should be mended and that there should be a means by which it would be possible to bring the issue before the House as to whether or not such a document should be compellable.
§ Mr. Banks
I concede the point that ultimately the power does lie with this House. I would not detract from that. But I think that the Committees themselves must stand on their authority, and I am anxious to see that the authority of the Select Committees is not diminished in any way, because that is what the public are looking to—to see that the Select Committees have sufficient power to do their job in the best possible way.
§ Mr. English
I am sorry to intervene a second time in the hon. Gentleman's speech, but he chose a bad example in citing defence. Both the former Sub-Committee of the 1291 Expenditure Committee and the present Defence Committee have, I understand, excellent relations with the Ministry of Defence, which means that they are given a great deal of confidental information which they do not publish. Surely the hon. Gentleman does not think that this House is a nest of traitors. The Select Committees within their areas of responsibility are as trustworthy as Ministers—shall we put it like that?
§ Mr. Banks
I accept that. I could not possibly do anything else but accept it. But the Ministry of Defence, as I said earlier, does have information which spreads through other Departments, and it would be quite wrong for us to isolate the Defence Committee and set a precedent for it and have a different precedent for the other Committees.
I come back to the essential argument now, which is that I do not think that the argument has been put to warrant bringing in the procedures which were outlined in the report and which are contained in the motion today. I do not think that there is any evidence to convince the House that we need to go to the length of setting up this formal arrangement. I think that the House of Commons works far better on an informal basis without tying itself in knots and adopting procedures which it then has to adopt in certain circumstances. It is far better to allow a situation to evolve in the way which, certainly in my experience of being in the House for six years, tends to come out the right way at the end of the day.
I should like now to turn to the second factor, which I regard as important in the two factors I outlined—namely, the response to the reports that end up with perhaps criticism of a Minister and his Department, the way that he arrived at making a decision on the advice that he got, or the money he expended and the decision that he took on that, and the advice that led him to make that decision.
I think that what we have to ensure is that when a mistake or an error has been made a set of procedures is adopted by the Minister in his Department to ensure that that sort of situation does not happen again. It is no use going to a great deal of trouble producing a report if we cannot be assured that that sort of situation will be prevented from becoming a problem in the future.
There have been a great number of important points which have been raised in the debate. I think that the Select Committees have a vital role to play, and I think that the role that they have to play is no more vital in safeguarding the interests of the nation as a whole, because people constantly want to see Parliament act in a way which has that element of common sense about it which cuts through the party controversy and the party line. Therefore, I welcome the debate and all that has transpired in it, and I hope that we shall see the work of the Select Committees continue for very many more years to come and that their work will be enhanced rather than watered down as the years go by.
§ Mr. Charles R. Morris (Manchester, Openshaw)
It is not my intention to intervene in the debate at any great length, first, because I recognise that there are hon. Members on both sides who have yet to speak. The second reason is that in my present position—exalted though it 1292 might be as "shadow" to a Shadow—it is not without a sense of trepidation that I enter this minefield of parliamentary procedure, surrounded as I am by so many experts on the subject and so many distinguished Members on both sides who have contributed so much to the Select Committees over so many years.
But I would like to thank my hon. Friend for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) for his perceptive choice of subject for our debate. Equally, I join him in paying tribute to the present Leader of the House on assuming his new responsibility. Few have been more positive than the present Leader of the House in their support for the recommendations of the 1978 Procedure Committee report. No one can seriously doubt the right hon. Gentleman's support for the establishment of the 12 additional Select Committees. His speech to the Cambridge University Conservative Association on 8 October 1978, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West referred, carried great conviction, certainly in its reference to Select Committees. If we take that speech and couple it with the commitment of the Conservative Party manifesto of 1979, we can understand the persuasive and impressive case that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West in his speech today and in his motion on the Order Paper.
My hon. Friend's argument contains what I would describe as inescapable logic. If one wills the end, the means must be provided. If the House of Commons agrees that Select Committees should have the power to send for papers, persons and records, the House of Commons should provide the sanctions to reinforce that power.
The official Opposition recognise that this issue is essentially a House of Commons matter, one on which the House will make a considered judgment. Our position on what the then Leader of the House described as a declaration of intent in regard to the provision of papers, persons and records—this was during the debate on 25 June 1979, which foreshadowed the setting up of the 12 additional Select Committees—was made clear by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees), speaking from this Front Bench in that debate. Could our position be otherwise? The pledge given by the then Leader of the House, as the right hon. Member for Taunton, (Mr. du Cann) said, could not have been more explicit.
There have been one or two selective quotations from the pledge that was given, and to reinforce the position of this side of the House on the issue I should like to quote the pledge at greater length. The then leader of the House said:There need be no fear that departmental Ministers will refuse to attend Committees to answer questions about their Departments or that they will not make every effort to ensure that the fullest possible information is made available to them.I give the House the pledge on the part of the Government that every Minister from the most senior Cabinet Minister to the most junior Under-Secretary will do all in his or her power to cooperate with the new system of Committees and to make it a success."—[Official Report, 25 June 1979; Vol. 969, c. 45.]
§ Mr. Christopher Price
Before my right hon. Friend goes on to describe our position I draw his attention to the fact that the first pledge—There need be no fear that departmental Ministers will refuse to attend Committees to answer questions about their Departments"—was absolute, and that the second pledge, in which one can see the hands of civil servants— 1293or that they will not make every effort to ensure that the fullest possible information is made available"—was what one might call qualified. It would give me enormous reassurance if my right hon. Friend would put fewer qualifications into that second pledge than the then Leader of the House did.
§ Mr. Morris
My hon. Friend was perhaps not quite as perceptive as he usually is in listening to the point that I was making. I was quoting the endorsement of that pledge by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South, who spoke in that debate. I would go on to say that the Opposition endorse that declaration, but when one examines the declaration and seeks to match it with some of the observations made by my hon. Friend in opening the debate this morning, one is entitled to question whether the pledge has been interpreted in quite the manner in which it was given. That is the point on which I should like to focus attention.
I now deal with the motion on the Order Paper. I confess that I found what I would interpret as the generosity of spirit of my hon. Friend's drafting of the motion to be quite fascinating. Remembering the reservations that were expressed about the new Select Committees prior to their establishment, it is fascinating now to read, in the words of the motion, thatthe new Committees have already achieved more efficient parliamentary scrutiny of government policy, administration and expenditure, greater parliamentary and public awareness of the various facts, options and decisions at issue, and to this extent, more effective government decision-taking".That is praise indeed. The motion was drafted by an able independent-minded Member of this House, and a trenchant critic of successive Administrations in regard to Select Committees.
I do not think that anybody would deny that Select Committees have achieved a great deal in the short time that they have been established. I listened to the catalogue of their achievements enumerated by the right hon. Member for Taunton. I listened to my hon. Friend when he sought to add to that list the achievements of the Education and Science Committee. The achievements have been quite substantial. Personally, I found the report from the Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service on monetary policy particularly impressive, and equally the Home Affairs Select Committee's actions in regard to the "sus" laws.
Before we degenerate into what I suggest might be congratulatory "me-too-ism", I suggest that there is a real danger that we may get our picture of Select Committees slightly out of focus. I invite the House to consider that if the addition of 12 Select Committees in little over 12 months has produced the results described in the motion, Select Committees will have done for Parliament what that famous beer has done for the human condition. They will have refreshed the parts that other procedures have not reached. Inevitably, the question is posed whether we should have more Select Committees.
I now come to the debate that took place on the establishment of those 12 Select Committees on 25 June 1979. As an interested Back Bencher, I contributed to that debate. I confess that the view that I expressed in that debate was not shared by either Front Bench. At that time I suggested that we should consider establishing a Select Committee to determine the criteria and procedure for introducing greater openness for public access to official information.
1294 I was not alone when I suggested other areas that might usefully claim the attention of Select Committees. Those hon. Members who were present will recall that there were demands for Select Committees on the affairs of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. I hope that the Leader of the House will consider establishing Select Committees on regional affairs. I come from the North-West, and feel that it is a tragedy that there is no Select Committee to consider the problems of some of our English regions, because they are bearing the brunt of the current industrial contraction and economic recession.
I find it absorbing that there are so many different interpretations of the role of Select Committees. Most hon. Members accept that they have a crucial role in the monitoring and scrutinising of Government Departments. Their role in this regard is clearly understood, but, equally, it is an essential role of Select Committees to inform and illuminate debates in this Chamber. That is why I was encouraged when I listened to the right hon. Member for Taunton. He drew attention to the responsibilities that Select Committees have in that regard. I am inclined to agree with the emphasis that he placed on the need to find adequate parliamentary time to debate the reports of Select Committees.
I hope that the Leader of the House will use his best endeavours to find adequate time to debate those reports. I assure the Leader of the House that I am conscious of the heavy responsibilities that he has assumed, and I wish him well in his new role. He needs no reminding that the nation generally and hon. Members on both sides of the House find that on occasions Government administration operates in an oppressive manner.
I listened to the comments about what was described as the passion for secrecy in the Civil Service. Harking back to my former ministerial responsibilities, I think that on too many occasions we tend to overlook the fact that the passion for secrecy that is manifest in some Departments is generated by the accountability of civil servants to Ministers and this House. The curse of Civil Service administration is what I call the propensity to double bank everything because of accountability.
§ Mr. English
My right hon. Friend has, as so often. hit the nail on the head. If we decide that we want open government, we must realise, as people do in the United States, that that means saying that Joe Bloggs made the decision, and not his nominal superior.
§ Mr. Morris
I was about to conclude by indicating that I was encouraged by the small advances made in the direction of greater openness by the previous Labour Government. I was encouraged by the publication of the Croham directive. I was even more encouraged by the publication of the Green Paper on the need for greater openness concerning access to information. But I was conscious then, as I am now, that we need to do more to make access to official information a reality for ordinary citizens. The Select Committees can make a contribution in that direction, and I hope that they will enjoy the support of the Leader of the House.
§ Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)
It is with a great deal of diffidence that I follow such a cogent speech by the shadow of a Shadow, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. Morris), and attempt to 1295 follow in the footsteps of the proposer of this valuable and important motion, the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price). The hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) also gave his views on this subject, and I cannot hope to compete with his wealth of information and knowledge of parliamentary procedures.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) made a very good speech in favour of many of the things that I believe are important and will inevitably come to pass. In fact, he led us down all the lanes that I thought led to an inescapable conclusion—namely, support for the motion. Therefore, it is important that one should stay for the length of a speech, however short, and hear the conclusion. Otherwise, one could reach the wrong conclusion on where that speech was leading.
The value of the motion lies in fact that it reflects the anxieties that have been felt by most hon. Members. The quality of government is not sufficiently open. Therefore, it is with a great deal of pleasure that I speak in the first debate attended by the new Leader of the House who has been a begetter of so many of the reforms that strengthen the good opinion of our fellow countrymen of this House.
The first premise of information in Government is that it is not only the entitlement of the Government; it is the people's information. It is important to remember that the quality of judgments and decisions is often formed by information. It is an old adage that in the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man is king. Too often there has been a feeling that in our kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man has remained king by withholding information that would release people's abilities, judgments and talents to form conclusions on that information.
Who can but wonder whether the history of our country might not have been different, certainly in recent years, if those outside the House had had access to the information that has formed and shaped their lives? That is why the debate is of particular importance to me. I feel that the quality of decisions in this country has not been all that it could have been if information had been available. The Select Committees are but one step towards bringing out a better quality of judgment.
Since becomng an hon. Member and conducting regular surgeries I have been amazed and reassured by the strength, breadth of knowledge, different insights and talents of a whole range of people in this country. I have no doubt that we are a creative, innovative people, although looking at the decisions of successive Governments, one would have thought that we were narrow, uncreative and unreflective.
If we could release to hon. Members and to people outside, the information that is at the heart of Government decisions, the quality of our discussions and deliberations would be infinitely improved and perhaps we would bring about some of the things for which we all crave. There is no doubt that when we talk, as we have talked for all my adult life, about the allocation of the scarcest of resources in a diminishing economy, in relative terms, it is essential that we are aware of the consequences of decisions that affect the allocation of those scarce resources.
I am unable to comment on the byways through which procedure winds its way in the House, but I have no doubt that the motion is important. It has my full support, and I should like to think that it has the wholehearted support of all hon. Members.
§ Mr. John Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)
It is unusual for me to speak without the Leader of the House or the Government Chief Whip putting pressure on me to make my remarks brief. The reason is that the Government desperately want the motion to be talked out. I should prefer the House to take a decision, but I am a realist, and I know that many of my colleagues do not show a great interest in Select Committees and that the Government will be able to continue the debate until it has to be closed.
I believe strongly in the Select Committee system. I have the honour to be the Chairman of the Select Committee on Employment, and that has given me a useful job to do in Opposition. There are several tasks that we have to perform in Parliament. We still have to perform Parliament's original function of expressing the grievances of our people before allowing the Government to tax them. At present, taxation and grievances increase together. Our job is to make laws and to act as a check on the Government and their officials. Without Select Committees we cannot do our job properly.
Supply day debates enable us to express grievances, and they play an important part in our proceedings. Procedures on the Floor of the House in connection with legislation are satisfactory, but I agree with the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) that procedures in Committees upstairs need examination. For many years I have thought that that is an inefficient way in which to scrutinise legislation. I hope that Select Committees will formally become involved in at least one stage of the legislative process. That stage is the establishment of fact and of the views of pressure groups.
It is wrong that we spend so much time in Committee trying to establish the facts of a case by moving probing amendments and making speeches that are better not made. It would be better if before debating and voting on matters of principle—which is bound to be done on a party basis—we tried in a Committee to establish an agreed basis of fact.
It is nonsense to say that hon. Members learn of the views of pressure groups, such as trade unions, employers and the Churches, only the day before an issue is debated. Too often, when an hon. Member has a basic sympathy with an organisation, he resorts to reading a brief from that organisation in Committee, without having had the opportunity to examine the strength of the case. It is important to know the views of the Churches, unions, employers, local authorities and other pressure groups. Such views are usually informed, considered and practical. I should like a preliminary stage at which a Select Committee tests the strength of the evidence on which Governments act in the drafting of legislation.
The importance of Select Committees is that they make Ministers and officials more accountable. I am a great believer in accountability. If individuals know that they have to stand up in the House, or anywhere else, and give reasons for what they have done, their decisions will be taken more carefully. Accountability is at the heart of the parliamentary democratic process.
Question Time has become too easy for Ministers. When I was a Minister, I never had any qualms about Question Time. That was because the rule that we have developed that a Member may ask only one supplementary question, and the practice that we have developed of trying to answer as many questions as possible during the period 1297 of 45 minutes or so, mean that there is no in-depth probing of Ministers. A Minister is able to get off the hook by some other individual going off on a different tack. That is the case with the practice of taking questions from alternate sides of the House. Inevitably, there is no real scrutiny.
On many occasions I have heard Ministers give answers that have nothing to do with the question. They have read the answer prepared by civil servants to the question which they thought would be asked. Under our present system it does not matter whether the civil servants are wrong. Ministers do not get into trouble by reading the wrong answer to a supplementary question, because attention is immediately distracted by some other question from the other side. Members are often more preoccupied with the question that they are about to ask than with listening to the answers coming from the Box. Question Time is so easy.
Just after the general election I had the experience of asking a question and hearing the new Minister, for whom I have great respect, replying with an answer that I had polished up myself. The question and the answer were of my authorship. Question Time has a certain fascination. It is still important, but it does not provide full accountability. It is important that we have other methods.
One difficulty of talking about Select Committees is that we each have different, separate Select Committees. With respect to the right hon. Member for Taunton, I do not think that any of us can yet speak for all Select Committees. Each one is different. Each one is behaving differently.
The Select Committee on Employment is important in that the substantial part of its work so far has been in making a quango accountable—the Manpower Services Commission. That Committee also has responsibility for the Health and Safety Executive and for the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. Mainly, so far, we have been making the MSC accountable.
When I was a Minister there was no way in which Members could make those running the MSC account for its actions. Ministers would say from the Box "I am informed by the MSC that"—and the tone of voice in which the answer was delivered determined whether what had been done was accepted. There was very little that Conservative Members, then in Opposition, could do about the answers. We just attributed them to someone else. Until we had the departmental Select Committees, the MSC—this might be true of other quangos—was not accountable. The Select Committee has been important in that respect.
I speak with experience of the Select Committee on Employment. I do not accept some of the emphasis of the right hon. Member for Taunton. Bearing in mind the political composition of the Employment Committee, we cannot seriously lay claim to be a policy-making body. It is not possible for Select Committees to be policy—making bodies. First, Select Committees will always have inadequate information on which to act. Secondly, there will always be a lack of political coherence to enable them to make policy except on a few small matters.
§ Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)
It seems that the prime function of, and the only justification for, a Select Committee is to act as a servant of the House. Unless the House as a whole has agreed upon the policy that it wishes 1298 to see implemented, it must be an intrusion by a Select Committee if it tries to usurp a function that belongs properly elsewhere.
The hon. Gentleman said that he drew a distinction between Committees and that no one Committee was the same as another. As a member of the Defence Committee, I agree with that. Does the hon Gentleman realise that the danger in the motion is that it might have the effect of setting Committee against Committee? For example, the Employment Committee might wish to probe deeply into something that my Defence Committee, to use the personal attribution loosely, wanted to investigate, but in a different way, and without going to the depths that the hon. Gentleman's Committee would wish to probe.
§ Mr. Golding
I do not think that that is a problem. That sort of problem has not arisen. I disagree with those who have spoken about the overlapping of Select Committees. The Welsh Affairs Committee has examined unemployment in Wales, with the enthusiastic blessing of the Employment Committee. The Scottish Affairs Committee is considering youth unemployment in Scotland. That is a welcome overlapping. The overlapping or demarcation issue is not important, and I am sorry that the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) has raised it.
There will be occasions—the "sus" law is an example—when unanimity in the expression of policy will be useful. However, the most important function of the Select Committee is to examine whether the problems that face our people are being tackled by the Government. The Select Committee's job is to identify the problems and to ensure that the Government are paying attention to them. A Select Committee may represent a wide range of the political spectrum, but its job is not to solve the economic or health problems of Britain. Its task is to identify the areas of concern for the Government. Its purpose is to ensure that, on its own assumptions, the Government are doing a workmanlike job of solving the problems and getting on with the job.
The Select Committee on Employment has been successful in terms of accountability. That success has been due in no small measure to press interest in our work. One hon. Member has already mentioned that. If the press took no interest in the work of our Select Committees, their influence would be very small. That is a fact of life. It is because the BBC, particularly BBC radio but also television, and the newspapers have been so eager to report the differences of opinion between the Select Committees and the Executive that civil servants and Ministers have become wary of them. The press coverage is important.
I make two points in that connection. I should like to see television coverage of Select Committees. I believe that it would give added importance to their work. In particular, even if we cannot face breaking the traditions that go back to Elizabeth I, for goodness' sake let it be done when we go out into the country—if, for example, a Select Committee goes to Merseyside, to Newcastle, to Scotland or to the West Country, as the Select Committee on Employment has done.
If we go out into the country, why cannot we be given authority to allow television cameras into the proceedings? It does not seem reasonable that we say to our people, "You can read it but you cannot see it." It does not make sense. I am sure that we could make an impact, especially in the provinces, if that were permitted.
§ Mr. Onslow
I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman says, and I do not know why he has not commented simply on sound broadcasting, but seems to feel that some added dimension is given by television coverage of the work of a Select Committee when it sits in public. I am not at all sure that we have yet come to terms with the inherent danger that some work of a Select Committee may be selected simply because certain subjects attract the media. That does not seem to me to be necessarily the best possible criterion for the selection of a Select Committee's work.
§ Mr. Golding
In my view, it often is a good criterion, because the media will be interested in subjects about which there is public interest. In my view, it is a good reason for a subject to be examined by a Select Committee if the electors are interested in and concerned about it. Secondly, the media are often interested where there is scandal. Again, in my view, that is a good criterion for a Select Committee to pick a subject. I do not dodge the issue. My Select Committee welcomes the interest of the press, radio and television.
The radio coverage of Select Committee proceedings comes over to the public far better than does the radio broadcasting of proceedings on the Floor of the House. If I am asked why coverage should not be restricted just to radio, my reply is that people like to see things. They are interested. As I say, there would be particular value in allowing television coverage when a Select Committee goes out into the country. I regard it as important for Select Committees to get away from the House and to take evidence in provincial areas.
I sympathise with the motion, though I should add that on the Select Committee on Employment, although we have had our problems with the Manpower Services Commission and the Department of Employment, we have generally won our battles. Perhaps we have won them because we are rougher than those who sit on the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts. I give as an example the occasion when, right at the beginning of our work, we were told that we could not have the corporate plan of the Manpower Services Commission, because it is its budget. We told the MSC to send it, and we kept on telling it to do so. We told the organisation that if we did not receive it by a particular time we would call a press conference to say that we would report the matter to the House. The MSC changed its mind very quickly.
On several occasions we have had problems when we have asked for information. There is one way to get it, and that is to insist upon it. We have also had trouble with persons. There has been a reluctance to appear before the Select Committee on Employment. There has been reluctance on the part of the Commissioner for London and others. The attitude that I have taken is that they will appear. As far as I am concerned, there is no praise or thank you. They will come. That is the attitude that must be adopted. Persons will come because this is Parliament. We have experienced problems, but we have stood on our dignity, as some would say—others would say our right—and have insisted.
As time has gone on, those problems have eased. We have experienced problems other than those of direct confrontation. Some people say that all Ministers are cooperative, but they should remember what occurred at the beginning of August. The Secretary of State for Employment issued the codes of conduct on picketing and 1300 the closed shop just as Parliament was about to go into recess. When we gently remonstrated with the right hon. Gentleman we were told that we could meet in August or September. That was the attitude. When faced with that ultimatum, we met during the recess even though a little fishing and pleasure were lost.
§ Mr. Golding
And horse racing. However, we met, and I am glad that we did so. One thing that the Government continually do is to present documents for discussion and consultation during periods when they think no one will look at them or discuss them.
§ Mr. Golding
Yes, all Governments. I ask the Leader of the House for very little, but I hope he will ensure that when consultation is required, and when consideration must be given by Members of Parliament, as well as by the CBI and TUC, the publication of the documents will allow for adequate discussion to take place. That should not occur during August or September.
We have, in our view, been successful, but there are problems. The one that I face as Chairman is shortage of time. Those who resisted Select Committees on the ground that Members were already very busy had a point. We are short of time to do all the work that needs to be done, and that adds point to the requests constantly being made that we should be allowed to have Sub-Committees. We on the Select Committee on Employment would like to undertake some inquiries by way of Sub-Committees.
§ Mr. Christopher Price
Does my hon. Friend agree that the shortage of time—we all feel it and find ourselves working ludicrously long hours—would be helped by a more generous attitude by the Government and the House of Commons Commission in respect of staff? I ask not for the ludicrously generous staff levels found in committees in some other countries, but at least the staff to do basic preparatory work and get documents so that members of the Committee, particularly the Chairman, can use their time much more economically on Select Committee matters.
§ Mr. Golding
There is no way in which I can complain about staff difficulties. Everything that I have asked for I have been given. The problem is that of finding sufficient time to devote to the work. That is particularly so in respect of getting away from Westminster. One of the first Select Committees, in Elizabethan times or just after, was a Select Committee on the North. It is most important that we should be able to get away from this place.
I hope that the Select Committees will not be judged by their reports. The report is often the least significant part of a Select Committee's work, given the divergence of political opinion, because sometimes one does not have sufficient evidence on which to make firm policy judgments. The report cannot be as substantial as the most important element of the work, which is the examination of witnesses. The gruelling questioning of Ministers and the examination of quango officials on the spot are the most important parts of a Select Committee's work.
§ Mr. Onslow
I am interested in the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, because it chimes very much with my thoughts on the subject. I believe that one of the most significant ways in which Select Committees waste time 1301 is in the hammering out of a report and the time spent trying to evolve a compromise formula on which the Committee may or may not agree. That seems to be a great waste. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that the important point is to get the evidence, with which I agree, is it not also vital that the evidence should be made as widely available to the House as possible? In some of his remarks the hon. Gentleman seems to be seeing Select Committees as entities within themselves. He does not see the essential logic of making sure that the House becomes involved in the findings of the Select Committee by using the evidence to muster its criticisms of, or support for, Government policy.
§ Mr. Golding
The hon. Gentleman must make his own speech. I agree that it is important that the evidence should be made known, because that constitutes an important aspect of accountability. I reiterate, however, that the vital element of the Committee's work is the examination of witnesses. Members can scrutinise, criticise and probe from their own points of view, exposing the weaknesses of officials and Ministers in that way.
The present method by which we report is defective in a party system. I do not think that we should strive for agreed reports. Too much time is taken trying to find agreed forms of words. This is necessary because our procedures do not permit the production of majority and minority reports. We should save an enormous amount of time and make the issues much clearer if we were permitted to do that. In the Select Committee on Employment we have tried to avoid the nonsense of reports that are voted down. We have put in the minutes and, in that sense, made minority reports. We have tried to present one report containing both points of view. We need to examine the rules of reporting to see whether we can find a system that is more consistent with the spirit of the new Committee system than that which existed previously.
I apologise for the length of time for which I have spoken but, for once, I am sure that the Leader of the House will not object.
§ Mr. Fred Silvester (Manchester, Withington)
I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) said, and I shall return to his comments later.
There is a danger, when one is pleased to see the arrival of Select Committees in this House, of becoming self-congratulatory about the process and of talking about it as though it were an unreal structure. But it concerns power, and we should start by remembering that. Remembering it enables me to compliment my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and his predecessor. When we discussed these matters in the last Parliament I was always struck by the fact that everyone is in favour of reform when he is in Opposition, and no one is in favour of it when he is in Government. That is not universally true, but it is often the case. Therefore, for the Ministers to have got this Select Committee structure through is a great tribute to them.
§ Mr. George Cunningham
All the reforms that have been introduced in the last year and the reform that we are discussing now are the result of an initiative of Lord Glenamara when he was Leader of the House in the previous Labour Government.
§ Mr. Silvester
I should not like to be misunderstood. In saying that, I did not intend to make it a party matter. I realise that all the reforms are based on support from both sides of the House. However, if the matter is to work there must be an understanding that the processes that we are now developing are to seek to wrest some degree of power from the Executive. That is always a painful and difficult operation.
This motion is an attempt to extend the power of the Select Committees, even in a minor way. Perhaps we are getting over-steamed-up about it. It is right to ask whether this additional power should be added at this time. I have reached the conclusion that it should not. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), who is not present now, said that my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) had led us up to the end of the path, but had not taken that decision. I am inclined to believe that if the Select Committee found that there was an impediment to carrying out its work properly, it should be given the power to take the decision. However, it is important to make sure—leaving aside the fact that we have been considering this matter since the days of Elizabeth I—that the way in which the Select Commmittees operate is in the proper genre of the way in which the House acts.
I listened with great interest to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme. One interesting fact about the situation that he described in relation to his Committee was that there is a seeking-out of where the boundaries should be. It is not true that it is entirely a matter of bashing one's way through. There are times when one has to stand up. On the ministerial side, there is bound to be some resistance while the Ministers decide where the limit should be. That process is difficult and complicated. It relies upon a degree of both co-operation and tension. We should be reluctant to see the tension between this House and Ministers go. Like the tension between members of the press and Members of Parliament, it is a healthy and proper development. That tension will continue. It is overlaid in this system, which is different from other systems.
The presence of the members of the Executive in this House presents a different circumstance. The House operates in a very personal way. The power and authority of an hon. Member are very personal to him. That relationship is very difficult to judge and it would be premature for us to try to lay down formal structures at this time. I have not made up my mind, but I think it is quite possible that it will be necessary at some stage to introduce this power—certainly the Procedure Committee thought it would be necessary—but it is a matter that has yet to be argued. There are certain cases, as we have heard, in which the Committee seems to be quite happy with what it is getting. There are cases in which, obviously, the hon. Member for Lewisham (Mr. Price) feels that additional powers are needed. But while these matters are being thought through we should tread with great care, because there is a lot more that Select Committees have yet to do.
1303 It is here that I come to what the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme was saying. The essential weakness of the parliamentary structure is that it gets in too late in the act. We come in when everything is cut and dried and when everybody else has been consulted. We have the new procedure, which I still feel to be inadequate. I support it because it is the best that we have. I do not think that an investigation that is designed to get more facts, preceding a Bill that has already been published, is what we are after. It would be far better—except in matters such as the Budget—if the Select Committees could be involved in a pre-legislative way. I agree that it is not the job of Select Committees to determine policy, but in relation to expenditure and to legislation the sooner the House gets involved the better the contribution it can make and the better it can act as the focus of other people's advice and wisdom.
I should like to see the Select Committees getting involved in the preparation of legislation and also getting involved much more—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton was saying earlier—in the proper and detailed scrutiny of Estimates. That is their main function. A Select Committee is essentially an investigatory and interrogatory body. That is its function. It forces people to defend themselves and also to give information. That process is a delicate one and in that process we have still a long way to go.
If we get too early into the stage of trying to formalise our procedures, with people on one side protecting their interests as Ministers and with people on the other side trying to bolster the Select Committees so that they can bear a burden that they are not yet ready to bear, we may damage an experiment that some of us have long wished to see. I hope that over the next two or three years what people have seen as novelty they will gradually come to accept, so that it will become tradition. I hope that in a few years' time, when people debate these matters, they will ask what all the argument was about.
§ Mr. Silvester
It is always like that. If we go too fast too soon, we simply set up barriers and create difficulties for ourselves.
I should not like to see the proposal go through at this stage, although it may well be necessary to have it in this Parliament if things go badly. I hope thay my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will be able to confirm that it is the Government's intention to continue to assist the development of the Select Committees in the spirit of the statements that he issued in Opposition and that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) issued when he was Leader of the House.
§ Mr. Russell Kerr (Feltham and Heston)
I suppose that, more than most hon. Members, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) for introducing the motion. The reason is that I have spent a sizeable part of my parliamentary activity on the work of our Select Committees, notably about 12 years in the service of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries. I had the honour to be Chairman of that Committee for five years and Deputy Chairman for the preceding four years.
1304 I feel strongly about the subjects that we have been discussing. I was pleased to hear the contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under Lyme (Mr. Golding). He was a distinguished member of the Committee of which I was Chairman in Parliament's recent history. He has obviously learnt his lessons well. That Committee had a motto. I insisted on boring the Committee to death by saying "Let the facts be eloquent on our behalf." That is relevant to some of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Sylvester).
The function of a Select Committee is important. A Select Committee is nothing if it does not fulfil its job of parliamentary scrutiny. I regard that as its primary purpose. I am only mildly interested in whether Select Committees have a legislative function. The key thing is that a Select Committee should inquire into the industry or Department and should then present the facts to the nation through Parliament.
I agree with the last remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme. He referred to the difficulties of publishing the reports of various Committees, and particularly the difficulties involved as regards the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries. When I was Chairman, I did my best to give priority to publicising these Committee Reports. I did so not because I wanted to see my initials in neon lights or anything silly, but because I realised, as my hon. Friend does, the prime importance of getting the message across. That message will not be made known unless we ensure that the House of Commons and the press get it. The public will then get to know the results of the Select Committee's investigations.
I am currently a member of the new Select Committee on Industry and Trade. Despite the ferocious battle that we fought just before the end of the last Parliament and despite the blood that was spilt on the Floor of the House, I have learnt to live to a degree with the new form of Select Committee. My hon Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) was one of the principal villains. Despite the savage infighting that went on, I have become reconciled. However, one notable omission remains. I do not wish to reopen old wounds but the present arrangements fail to provide a proper level of scrunity over a major part—whatever ideological view hon Members may take — of our national industrial effort.
About 40 per cent. of our industrial effort is undertaken by nationalised industries. The modern incarnation of the Select Committee system arose 25 or more years ago. It is sad and dangerous, both in parliamentary and economic terms, suddenly to leave our great nationalised industries completely unsupervised. I make no comment on the rights and wrongs of the major changes that those industries are going through, although I do have views. There will be many changes and a lot of opportunity for mismanagement. Economic times are difficult. There were 43 nationalised industries under our charge during my chairmanship. and I find that incredible.
§ Mr. Golding
I agree with my hon Friend that it is a matter of regret that the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries should not so far have been re-formed. Does my hon Friend agree that cash limits alone would justify the re-forming of that Select Committee, for which there is provision by a decision of the House?
§ Mr. Kerr
Naturally, I agree with my hon Friend, not because he is my hon Friend but because of the wisdom of his remarks. Perhaps we can refer to that matter on another occasion.
On this occasion, in the full hearing of the Leader of the House who is a welcome addition to our gathering today, I should say that I am aware of the key role that he played in translating the aspirations of some of the members of the Procedure Committee in particular into political fact after the Conservatives were returned to office. That was appreciated in certain quarters.
It would not be safe to leave unattended for much longer this key sector of our national economy. Therefore, I hope that the time will not be long distant when we shall have second or bigger and better thoughts on this problem so that we do not leave this part of our national heritage totally unguarded.
Returning to my original theme— it sounds almost like a glee club "thank you" list—I am aware of the contribution to this sphere by the right hon Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann). By reason of my chairmanship of the Select Committee I had the great pleasure of working with him on the Liaison Committee for five years. Despite certain obvious political differences, I think that we worked productively and well together and understood each other. Likewise, I am sure that it was a pleasure to him to work together.
With those pats on the head to distinguished opponents and with thanks for the attention that has been paid to my somewhat infrequent remarks, I shall call that my four pennyworth for today.
§ 1.8 pm
§ The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Paymaster General and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Francis Pym)
I welcome the opportunity that the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) has given the House today to debate a subject of considerable parliamentary interest. The hon. Gentleman has given us the opportunity for a general assessment of the work, so far, of the new Select Committees. I shall concentrate my remarks on that aspect of the motion rather than on the finer points of difference in the motion regarding what the Procedure Committee reported.
In one sense, I do not feel qualified to speak at this juncture, having occupied this high office for only a few days, but my interest is well known. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words at the beginning of his speech. He referred to a speech that I made at Cambridge over two years ago, when I argued for a more systematic method for monitoring the Executive. I assure my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), in direct answer to his question, that I still remain strongly in favour and support of that principle. My emphasis, to which I adhere, was on the role of scrutiny and monitoring. I have never visualised these Committees as policy-making bodies. In that respect I agree with what was said by the Members for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) and Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr). No one attaches more importance to Parliament than I do. I really mind about its proper functioning and development and the crucial role that it plays in our national affairs.
In our election manifesto the Conservative Party undertook to ensure that Parliament, and no other body, should stand at the centre of the nation's life and decisions. 1306 But we also undertook to make effective its job of controlling the Executive. The question was: how was that best to be achieved in modern circumstances? Some of us thought that a more organised pattern of Select Committees was the right way to go. I thought about it for a number of years and I kept in mind three important principles. The first is that the whole history of this incredible, unique institution is that it has changed as the decades have passed and one generation has succeeded another.
We have to change to keep abreast of changing circumstances. But Parliament always has changed by a process of evolution, although there have been one or two historical hiccups. That has been its history. It has evolved gradually but continuously, and it is now time for a substantial step forward.
Secondly, we must never forget the basis of our constitution, the principle upon which Parliament operates and the responsibility that Ministers have, individually and collectively, in the House. Nothing must be done to alter that. In any change that we make it is important not to graft on to our existing parliamentary system—which 1 have always regarded as the most sophisticated method of resolving political differences ever designed by any country—a congressional or other system that will make it difficult or impossible for Ministers to fulfil their proper responsibilities—to be answerable at this Dispatch Box.
The third principle concerns the resources required to assist and advise the Select Committees—a point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton. Of course, they must be adequate to do the job, but I hope that they will not be more than adequate. My right hon. Friend used the word "modest", but in the creation of a new organisation of this sort there is always a temptation to demand more suport, and there is the danger of building up another Civil Service or a separate set of advisers. The Select Committees must have adequate facilities and support, but not too much.
My hon Friend the Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks) referred to the costs. In parliamentary terms the sums involved are modest, though they are much less modest in the Departments. We are not proposing to do anything about it at present, but Ministers are slightly concerned that the extra cost to Departments is more considerable than had been anticipated. That is not a criticism of the system, but the whole thing must be carried out reasonably and sensibly, as I am sure it always will be, and not have excessive resources or excessive numbers of people to back it up.
§ Mr. Christopher Price
Some of us are very sceptical about claims that the Select Committee system has added to costs in the Departments. Will the right hon. Gentleman agree that if the Government make a statement on this subject, they will tell Parliament the basis on which they have calculated that extra cost is involved?
§ Mr. Pym
There is clearly an extra cost, but it is much too soon to be able to evaluate it. It is difficult to put a precise figure on the cost, because it depends on the assumptions that one makes, However, I know from my own experience over the past 20 months that there is an extra cost in terms of valuable resources. Able people are not that numerous, and how one uses their time is a relevant factor.
In addition to what we said in our manifesto and the thought that we gave to the matter in the previous 1307 Parliament, we undertook that as one important means of strengthening Parliament we would give the House an early opportunity to come to a decision on the recommendations for a new Select Committee system that were made in the 1977–78 Procedure Committee report.
We carried out that pledge, and I pay tribute to my predecessor as Leader of the House—my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas)—for the way in which he did that and the trouble and interest that he took. I have not the slightest doubt that my right hon. Friend will be much missed at the Dispatch Box. I am the last to think that I could compete with him in style, wit and debating skill.
There is no doubt that the new system is a major development in our procedures. It is a huge advance and a substantial change, and we must watch carefully how it works. I felt that at one or two points in the debate there was a flavour of criticism, as though we had not been radical enough, or had not gone far enough. In fact, the new system is a big change and we make a mistake if we make less of it.
The motion recognises, in generous terms, the contribution that the new Committees have made to a more informed debate, both inside and outside Parliament, on a wide range of important public issues, and the facts, options and decisions involved.
Several hon. Members mentioned examples, and I should like to refer to two such examples. The report of the Home Affairs Committee on deaths in police custody did a great deal to put that controversy into perspective and dispelled some of the unjustified fears that had been raised. The Social Services Committee made comments on the proposals for changes in the arrangements for paying pensions and other social security benefits. Those comments were of considerable assistance to the Government in formulating their views on the proposals.
There is no difference between us on the importance of the work of the new Committees and there should be no question about the commitment of the Government to their success. In proposing their establishment on 25 June, my predecessor gave a pledge on behalf of the Government, which was quoted by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. Morris). That remains the Government's policy. I claim that we have fulfilled it, and I intend that we should continue to fulfil it.
It clearly follows from that pledge that, wherever possible, Ministers and Departments should meet the wishes of Select Committees with regard to the provision of official information relating to matters within the scope of a Select Committee inquiry. Accordingly, in the guidance given to officials appearing before Select Committees it is emphasised that the general principle to be followed is that it is the duty of officials to be as helpful as possible to Committees and that any withholding of information should be limited to reservations that are necessary in the interests of good government or to safeguard national security.
It is also emphasised that responsibility for deciding whether information should be disclosed rests with Ministers and not officials and that the attention of Ministers should be drawn to any proposal to withhold requested information from a Select Committee. That is an important matter for the House to keep in mind.
1308 I believe that our record in carrying out this policy of co-operation is in fact an extremely good one. As the motion acknowledges, a considerable amount of public information has been made available to the new Committees and, taking the system as a whole, there have been few instances where Ministers and Departments have not felt able to provide information that has been requested. As a recent study on the Committees has stated,the Committees have managed to make a new level of information publicly available across the whole range of Government policy".Departmental Ministers have invariably agreed to give personal evidence before Select Committees, whenever requested to do so, and, as the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) said, not all of them have been invited, to the regret of some of them, but no doubt in due course they will be invited. Even where it has not been possible to provide the particular documents requested by a Select Committee, Departments have, on a number of occasions, offered to provide as much as possible of the information in some other form. Use has also been made of the procedures whereby classified information can on certain conditions sometimes be made available.
Perhaps I could illustrate the co-operation that Departments have given to the Committees by reference to my previous and recent appointment as Secretary of State for Defence and, in particular, to the examination currently being carried out by the Defence Committee into the Government's decision to acquire the Trident missile system to replace Polaris in the 1990s. As Secretary of State, I took a particular interest in the work of the Defence Committee, both from a defence point of view and, in this area, the national security point of view, but also, more fundamentally, from my basic interest in the operation of Parliament. Self-evidently, the strategic deterrent is a subject that involves sensitive issues relating to national security. While the Defence Committee is entitled to receive classified information, it would have been very easy for me and the Ministry of Defence to prevent a great deal of its evidence being published on grounds of security. In practice, the Government and, in particular, my previous Department, made every attempt to be as forthcoming as possible. In July, we published a memorandum on the future of the United Kingdom strategic nuclear deterrent force — Defence Open Government Document 23/80; I may say that I was never very keen on that reference—the most comprehensive, unclassified account of Government policy in this area which has ever been published. Since then, the Committee has taken evidence from Ministry of Defence officials on six occasions, including sessions at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment and at Rosyth Royal Naval dockyard. I think that it is fair to say that the officials giving evidence have been as open as possible with the Committee, and that the proportion of the evidence which the Government have sought to have deleted from the published record has been remarkably small.
A similar policy has been adopted in the case of the two memoranda which the Ministry of Defence has submitted fo the Committee in response to its specific requests for information. Naturally, in dealing with a subject of this kind, some of the written evidence has to be classified. But when the Committee has completed its investigation, I think that, compared with previous Select Committee examinations in the area of nuclear policy—under both 1309 Labour and Conservative Administrations—this Government will be seen to have set new standards of frankness and openness in their dealings with the House.
§ Mr. Onslow
I intervene to echo from the Committee point of view what my right hon. Friend says. I do not think that any member of the Select Committee on Defence has anything but praise for the way in which he has helped us in our inquiries. Obviously, we have run up against barriers. That was to be expected. But as a pattern for the investigation, I think that the co-operation that we have received from the Department and, in particular, from the officials who have given evidence before us, has been of the greatest possible assistance. Might I say, in passing, that it was a matter of some regret to us that the Committee never had the opportunity of calling my right hon. Friend, so that we could have given him a going over.
§ Mr. Pym
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he says, and I appreciate all the work that he did on that Committee. I enjoyed the one occasion on which I appeared before the Committee, and I was looking forward to the next occasion, which would have been next week.
I am sure, however, that the hon. Member for Lewisham, West and the House generally—whatever views individual Members may hold on the need for more open government—would accept that there must always remain some categories of information and public documents that cannot be made publicly available. It has been a long-established convention that information should not be divulged to Select Committees about the private affairs of individuals, or about advice given to Ministers by their Departments, or advice given to Ministers by the Law Officers. These conventions are well known to Committees and the Procedure Committee, in its report, indicated general satisfaction with them.
I am not saying that the Procedure Committee's views represent the last word on the subject. There are clearly some hon. Members who are dissatisfied with the present conventions. It is only fair to remind the House, however, that the present guidance to officials does not represent some new and more restrictive policy. In this respect it follows very closely the guidance given by successive Governments, with, as I have said, the implicit approval of the Procedure Committee. It is fair to say that more information has been made available.
I turn to the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and his request for the release of more and more information, and more and more confidential information. It must remain cardinal to the proper operation of Parliament that Ministers remain responsible to this House in accordance with our conventions and traditions. Ministers must not be put in a position in which that becomes too difficult or impossible. That is of critical importance. I say that to my hon. Friend in relation to his enthusiasm for more information. The Government and Ministers must be able to conduct their business in a satisfactory way, take the right decisions, and be answerable here at the same time.
Beyond the conversations about which I have been speaking and similar well-established areas, in the Government's view there must always remain a general responsibility upon Ministers to consider, in each case where a Select Committee requests official information that has not hitherto been made public, whether the 1310 balance of public advantage lies in disclosure or whether it is necessary in the public interest for the information to remain confidential.
The hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) rightly emphasised the importance of ministerial involvement. Inevitably this must sometimes involve questions of subjective personal judgment, but in the case where a Minister decides that it would not be in the public interest for particular information to be divulged, he must be ready to explain his reasons to the House, and it must ultimately be for the House to decide whether or not to uphold his view.
The House will recall that one such instance where a difference of view arose between Ministers and a Select Committee was over information requested by the Select Committee chaired by the hon. Member for Lewisham, West. This concerned a request for information about the nature and extent of interdepartmental consultation on the funding and organisation of courses in higher education and the Government's decision on overseas students fees. A helpful exchange took place between the hon. Member and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science this morning.
In the Government's view the disclosure of such information might have jeopardised the principle of collective ministerial responsibility as well as that of the confidentiality of advice given to Ministers by officials. In the judgment of Ministers, as expressed in the Government's reply to the first special report from the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts, any request by Select Committees for information in this field has to be considered in the light of the need to maintain these two principles.
§ Mr. Price
Will the right hon. Gentleman at least agree that the Procedure Committee's paragraph on interdepartmental information and the need to report it to the House is a recognised problem between Parliament and Government? I do not ask him for an answer now, but will he examine the problems? Many lion Members believe that further information could have been given without jeopardising anything important.
§ Mr. Pym
Of course problems will arise. I shall keep a close eye on them. I shall argue later that we have not yet had sufficient experience. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Silvester) spoke about identifying the balance between what is permissible and appropriate and what is not. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall watch how this works in practice and identify the areas of difficulty.
The hon. Member for Lewisham, West and other hon. Members have already made it clear that they do not agree with the Government's view about where the balance should be struck between the advantages of disclosure and confidentiality in this matter, and there are other cases. I can only assure the hon. Member, as I have just said, that we shall keep this matter very much in mind and consider it all, and that our bias is, wherever possible, to meet the wishes of the Select Committees in these matters. We shall continue to consider every request for information on its merits, without any obsession for secrecy for secrecy's sake.
Nor shall we use "confidentiality" as a veil for official incompetence.
It has been suggested that civil servants include policy advice in what are essentially background or factual 1311 documents, so that their contents need not be disclosed. Any implication that this is ever done deliberately is complete nonsense. I am satisfied about that.
The Croham directive says:Care should be taken to ensure that the publication of unclassified material is not frustrated by including it in documents that also contain classified material".But a lot depends on the character of the document. If it is essentially a factual or analytical study, it should normally be possible to exclude any discussion of policy, so that it can be released as it stands. But if it is essentially officials' advice to Ministers, it may be impossible to separate the advice from the background material. This is the more likely if time is short.
The hon. Member raised the question of Croham. We remain totally committed to the policy in Croham—that is to say, to making as much information available as possible. What we do not do is to keep a list of documents published because of Croham. That would be quite difficult. We could keep a list of all documents made available by the Government, but I question the need or the value of keeping a central list of that kind, because Governments already produce a vast number of documents. I am not at all sure whether we do not produce too many—reports, consultation documents, press notices, and all the rest. Various lists are published by Her Majesty's Stationery Office and other bodies. But a central list is a different matter. I think that the cost of producing such a list would be rather high. I shall give further consideration to this point after this debate.
§ Mr. Christopher Price
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that within the Croham directive various methods of publishing material are canvassed—from the Green Paper down to simply allowing a document to be Xeroxed and sent, perhaps, to a single interested party. The value of the list which I understand the previous Administration got into the habit of releasing was that people knew what was available. I am not committed to any particular arrangements, but I think that it is important that if the Government decide that there is material which under the Croham directive ought to be available, although it may be only of minority interest, people ought to be able to go somewhere and find a list of what is available.
§ Mr. Pym
I take that point. I should like a little time to consider it. Perhaps I may contact the hon. Member later. It is a very important matter.
Up to now I have been outlining in fairly broad terms the Government's general attitude towards the new Select Committees and, in particular, to the disclosure of official information to them. I should now like to deal briefly, but more specifically, with the present formal powers of Select Committees to call for official evidence, with the changes proposed in the motion, and why, in the Government's view, such changes are uncalled for. In practice, as the House knows, Select Committees normally proceed informally. They request and invite, and rarely order. Although the powers are rarely used, they have formal powers to call for persons, papers and records. The present position was set out by the Clerk of the House in a detailed memorandum that was attached to the Procedure Committee's report. As will be seen from that evidence, the present position is not without its uncertainties.
1312 As I understand it, the present general position with regard to a Select Committee's formal powers to send for departmental papers is that a Select Committee empowered to send for papers and records can at present send for papers and records held in the custody of a Minister, but only if he is not a Secretary of State. In the case of papers held by a Secretary of State, a Committee has no such power—nor, indeed, has the House—and the House can proceed only by way of an Address to the Sovereign. In any case, a Committee has no power to enforce a debate on the Floor if a Minister does not comply.
Under the terms of the motion, a Select Committee would be empowered to request the production within a stated period of any papers or records relevant to a Committee's inquiry which were held in the custody of any Minister heading a Department, whether or not he was a Secretary of State. Further, if such a request were not complied with, and the Committee made a special report to the House, such a report would have to be debated on the Floor within the next seven sitting days if the Chairman of the Committee gave notice accordingly.
As the House will recall, this proposal is related to recommendation No. 65 in the Procedure Committee's report. When the House debated the setting up of the new Select Committee system in June, 1979, the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) moved an amendment proposing the acceptance of the Committee's recommendation. That amendment was rejected. I believe the arguments which were then put forward against the acceptance of that proposal apply equally to this.
In the first place, it is undeniable that there is no justification for the present procedural distinction between a Committee's powers in relation to papers sought from Departments headed by a Secretary of State and Departments headed by other Ministers. But, as I said earlier, in practice Select Committes proceed informally. I can, therefore, give the House a categorical assurance that whatever the formal position may be we certainly have not made, and shall not in future make, any distinction in considering whether particular papers should be made available to Select Committees on the question whether or not the Minister concerned is a Secretary of State.
Secondly, the effect of the motion would be that Select Committees, given the power to enforce debate on the Floor of the House on special reports, would be given the power to determine the business of the House as a whole, albeit for a limited time. In the terms of the motion, that would be for only one hour. I believe that this would be wrong in principle. I am entirely prepared to give a formal undertaking that where there is evidence of widespread general concern in the House regarding an alleged ministerial refusal to disclose information to a Select Committee, I shall seek to provide time to enable the House to express its view.
I am sure that the hon. Genleman does not visualise that his proposals will lead to many such debates—if, indeed, any. As his motion states, he sees such a power to enforce debate on the Floor as a weapon of last resort. He believes, as did the Procedure Committee, that Ministers and Departments, faced with this threat of a debate, would alter their policy towards the disclosure of information and that more official information would therefore be made available.
I do not believe that that would be the case, and I am certain that it should not be. Any official information 1313 requested by a Select Committee is refused by Ministers only after the most careful consideration of the balance of public interest.
§ Mr. English
The right hon. Gentleman will remember that I said that Ministers do not always have it. I am pointing this out on the basis of actual experience in the Expenditure Committee when, in order to get the information, I had to go to the former Conservative Prime Minister, who was then in Opposition. That was because it was covered by the previous Administration rules.
§ Mr. Pym
I have noted the hon. Gentleman's argument, which he advanced during his speech. I think that my claim is right that in this Administration these decisions are taken only after the most careful consideration by Ministers. That seems to be the central point. I assure the House that Ministers already comply with such requests unless they consider that there are strong public arguments to the contrary which they would be prepared to justify, if necessary, to the House. These same considerations would remain, whatever the power of the Committee to enforce debate on the Floor. I believe, therefore, that this resolution would not have its intended effect.
When my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) proposed the establishment of the new Committee system he said in a passage referred to by the hon. Member for Lewisham, West that if experience showed that more formal powers were needed for the Committees to enforce their wishes, the question of additional powers could be considered at that stage. But my right hon. Friend did not consider that the case for change had yet been established. Despite what the hon. Member for Lewisham, West and other hon. Members have said, I do not think that developments since then have altered this conclusion.
The hon. Member described his motion as modest. However, I think that we should continue without further change, at any rate for the moment. In that proposition I have the support of my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate, and others. Let us have some more experience first.
I noted carefully what my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton said about various other matters, including Sub-Committees. I have seen the letter on this subject which he wrote to my predecessor at the end of last year. I shall take full account of what he has said in his speech today and will give a considered response as soon as possible. My right hon. Friend also referred to possible changes in the role of the Liaison Committee and to debates on reports from Select Committees. In principle, subject to consideration of the point about Sub-Committees which he raised, it is my opinion that our wisest course would be to continue as we are now. That does not represent a closed mind on my part—quite the contrary. I could not have been involved in the sort of development that has taken place if a closed mind was one of my characteristics. I only think that it would be unwise at the moment to make any change other than perhaps a very minimal one, if it were thought desirable.
I believe that the Government's record of setting up the Committees themselves and of co-operation with Select Committees now in existence is very good. Inevitably, there will be occasions when there are differences of view. However, bearing in mind the enormous range covered by 1314 the new Committees, these difficulties have been comparatively minor. Ministers and Departments will continue to do their best to resolve such differences. Experience has already shown that that can be successfully done without the need to increase the formal powers of the Committees. From what I have already said, the House will appreciate that I sympathise with the views on this subject expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate.
§ Mr. Christopher Price
I should like to thank the right hon. Gentleman particularly for his pledge, which I think is a new one, that if there is widespread dissatisfaction in the House about Select Committees and the information which they are receiving, he as Leader of the House will arrange a debate. Could the right hon. Gentleman tell us how he interprets the words "widespread dissatisfaction"?
§ Mr. Pym
Thai would be most unwise. I have been quite forthcoming about that matter. That intervention is an example of the tendency that when one makes an advance, the first clamour one receives is to make a bigger one. About five centuries of the history of this incredible institution show that it is wiser to proceed more gradually and slowly, always looking for the right moment to make an advance and the right way in which to make a change.
Therefore, I advise the House against the acceptance of the motion. Let us continue as we are and gain more practical knowledge of how the introduction of this entirely new structure would work. My experience and instinct is to give the new system, with all its shortcomings and imperfections, more time before we start adjusting it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Withington spoke of more radical changes going well beyond present concepts, but what he spoke about are concepts that have been considered before and will, of course, be considered again. We have, however, had barely one Session's experience thus far of the new structure as we know it.
I assure the House that I shall take a keen interest in these Committees anti assist them so far as I am able, and I shall watch their work and development carefully. This interesting and valuable debate has been most worthwhile, and I am sure that the House is grateful to the hon. Member for Lewisham, West for the initiative that he took in making it possible.
§ Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)
Listening to the closing remarks of the Leader of the House one would get the impression that the House was in danger of moving at breakneck speed in its procedural reforms. I must say that in my decade in the House it has never occured to me that that was a danger to which we were exposed. I shall come back to that concept in relation to the motion in a few moments. Since we are in this debate doing two rather separate things—exchanging productive thoughts about the working of the system in general, and addressing ourselves to the specific motion — I wish at the outset to contribute a few thoughts on the first general area.
A few minutes ago the Leader of the House referred to the possibility of establishing more Sub-Committees of the existing Committees. As a member of the old Procedure Committee, I still hold the view, which we put forward strongly in our report, that the new Select Committees should be prevented from setting up Sub-Committees, 1315 except in the cases which we identified, and to the extent we indicated of one Sub-Committee each for a few of those Committees.
It is necessary, however, for the Leader of the House to recall that there are two of the new Committees which we had nothing to do with, namely, the Select Committees on Scottish and on Welsh Affairs. We had nothing to do with them because the whole devolution business was before us at the time. We therefore made no recommendation about any such Committees, and the case which we mounted against allowing the other subject Committees to have Sub-Committees freely does not apply to the freedom of those two Committees to have Sub-Committees.
The need for Sub-Committees for the Scottish and Welsh Select Committees is far stronger and totally different from the case in relation to the other Committees, and I am sure that many of our colleagues on both sides of the House on those two Committees—I hesitate to call them regional Committees—feel that the need for Sub-Committees is much stronger in their case.
My hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr), who has gone before I can reply to it, directed at me the withering criticism that I was one of the members of the Procedure Committee responsible for the recommendation that his horse, the old Nationalised Industries Select Committee, should be shot from under him. I think that we were right to do so, but I am equally disturbed, as he is, by the failure of the existing Committees to make use of the power which the House has already given them and on which no further action by the House or by the Leader of the House is required, namely, the power to set up Joint Committees between the existing subject Committees to deal with any common matters relating to the nationalised industries which need to be discussed. In addition, of course, any individual subject Committee may address itself to the affairs of a nationalised industry if it wishes to do so.
I think, therefore, that my hon. Friend is being unfair in attributing to the Procedure Committee's recommendations an effect on the coverage of nationalised industries, either in general or individually, in the way he did
§ Mr. Rees-Davies
I ask the hon. Gentleman to turn his attention back for a moment to the question of Sub-Committees. He will, I think, recognise that in the case, for example, of the Select Committee on Social Services, which, after all, covers the largest subject of all in terms of the country's finances, it is essential if one is dealing with a main subject, as a Committee of that kind does, that it be given the opportunity, through at least one Sub-Committee and no more, to deal with urgent matters which may well crop up and involve a sort-term report. It is this which the Committee on which I have the responsibility of being the Conservative leader finds so difficult. I take one example — the subject of maternity and sickness benefit, which we called in. We cannot do that by a subcommittee. It has to be done by the whole Committee and presents real difficulties.
§ Mr. Cunningham
Let us be quite frank about how that situation came about. We have the new system now and it will never be undone. But at the time when we in the Procedure Committee were making the recommendation to have it, we were deeply concerned that the House would be worried about the proposal. There were people who felt that the work of the new Committees would require too many members to service them. That has not turned out to be a difficulty, but it was thought that it was likely to be a difficulty. We recommended this restriction on Sub-Committees partly so that the prospect of the new system would not frighten the House.
We all know how easily the House is frightened of change, so we made this very conservative recommendation to get us over the watershed to the point where no one would ever be able to get us back to the old system, but not so far over the watershed that the House would be afraid of the prospect.
In due course, I had no doubt that Select Committees would be set up. Of course, the Leader of the House will say, "Yes, that is how it goes on, you make a little change and then they go for another change." Of course, if this place did not operate on that basis he would not have got to where he is. But we must move, I would not say slowly, but in an organised and gradual way.
The only other general point that I want to raise in relation to the Select Committees is one mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) in relation to the possibility of minority reports. I think that the way in which he is conducting his Committee, on this as on many other matters, is exactly the right way and preferable to the use of minority reports. If minority reports are permitted, the danger is that the two parties or, if it is not a party matter, the two factions in the Committee, will from the outset conceive that the likely and best product for the work of the Committee is two reports, and they will seek the evidence necessary to justify their own individual report.
It may amount to very much the same thing if one report permits one faction to say "This is what we think" and then goes on to say that the other, either the minority or majority, thinks as follows. That may look as if it is very much the same, but psychologically it is different because the two disagreeing factions have to process the expression of their views through an impartial medium. I think that that is a better service to the House than the explicit use of majority and minority reports.
Coming to the specific motion that is before us, it has been implied by some hon. Members that the issue is the extent to which documents should be made available by the Executive to the Committees and the House. Of course, that is a very important issue. But I suggest that it is not actually the issue raised by my hon. Friend's motion.
The fact is that Committees already have the power to call for documents and it is a contempt, subject to the qualifications that have been mentioned, for them not to be produced. The House already has the power to impose a penalty if they are not produced. The only difficulty is the question of access by the Committee or an individual Member to the House. It is as if we said that a person can go to a certain court to get an order to compel someone to do something, and that will be binding if it is done, but we do not actually create the rules which will allow the person to get into court to get his writ.
1317 That is the situation as it is at the moment. No great point of principle is involved. It is a question of commonsense access to the power to enforce something which at the moment theoretically exists, and can in practice exist, if one just happens to be lucky enough to have a bit of Private Member's time at the right moment to table a motion.
Quotations have been made by the Leader of the House from the memorandum put to us by the former Clerk of the House on the history of the power to send for persons and papers. The paragraph in that memorandum which is most relevant to our debate has not been quoted, and that is paragraph 35, where the Clerk of the House points out that the right existed in history, as it exists now, but the difference in history—this is to be found on page 22 of the report—was that because an individual Member had access to House time in practice, the right could be enforced.
It is worth quoting part of that paragraph. He said:At all times however during the currency of the precedents quoted, an opportunity existed for backbench Members to move addresses or orders for the production of papers so that the desirability of their availability to the House might be debated. The reason for this is that during that period a government did not have their present virtual monopoly of the time of the House—a monopoly that exists at present apart from Supply days and Private Members' days. It was therefore open to a backbench Member to move a motion for a return during the time of public business. Since the Balfour reforms in 1902 this opportunity has gone.We are not talking about introducing a new right—the right has always existed and it exists now. Nor are we talking about instituting a new procedure for enforcing the right. We are talking about restoring a procedure which has been accidently lost over time without a conscious decision. We are talking of making a procedure available on a regular basis which is available at the moment, at least in two possible situations—first, if the Opposition Front Bench chooses to make use of its time, because it could use Supply time to move such a motion or, secondly, if an individual Member, be he a member of the Committee or not, found himself in possession of private Members' motions time and used that, as my hon. Friend has today, to table a motion compelling the production of a document. Therefore, there is nothing new or revolutionary in what is being proposed.
My hon. Friend is proposing no more than the Procedure Committee recommended. Indeed, to a slight extent it is less than the Procedure Committee recommended. I think that he has suggested a wise amendment to what we proposed. We proposed that the offended Committee should have unlimited access to House time for a debate whether the documents should be produced. My hon. Friend has suggested that that time should be limited to one hour. That notion of giving someone an opportunity to have a decision of the House, but after a severely curtailed period, was one which appealed to the Procedure Committee in the different context of European legislation. We ourselves adopted it in one of our recommendations for that purpose. Therefore, although we were not as cautious as my hon. Friend, I am sure that most members, if not all, of the Procedure Committee would have been persuadable by him that his proposal was a better one than the one which we put forward.
1318 Because the time would be limited to one hour at the beginning of public business, the possible loss of time by Government would be small. If it was thought that there was likely to be a large number of those one-hour debates—I do not think that—the thing could be introduced on an experimental basis with a self-destruct system built into it for one Session or, preferably, two. We could then re-examine the matter, see whether enormous problems had arisen and terminate or alter the experiment if it was necessary to do so.
I feel sure that on this issue, as on so many others, all the worries that are being expressed about the terrible consequences of this happening would prove to be unfounded. I agree with the Leader of the House rather than with my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham. West (Mr. Price) that there would be occasions—I think quite a few out of the number that were brought to the House—when the House would decide to disagree with the Committee and would not compel the production. of a document. That is perfectly legitimate. It is a judgment for the House, not for the Committee. I would trust the House, because of its numbers, to be commonsensical. Of course, I trust the Select Committees chaired by those of my hon. Friends who are present because they are present, but I would not always trust every Committee to be commonsensical, given the small numbers of hon. Members who serve on them.
The Government will not think again between now and 2.30 pm, but after a year or so we shall presumably be due to review the whole working of the Select Committee system, and at the end of that time I hope that the Government will review their attitudes to this point as to others and not persuade their hon. Friends to stand in the way of this extremely modest restoration of what is for the House a historical right and procedure.
§ 2.1 pm
§ Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks)
I welcome this opportunity to take part briefly in the debate, in particular because, as a new Member here, I had the benefit of attending a course to brief us on procedure in Parliament. At that course the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) gave some valuable and timely advice to new Members from his experience here. I knew then that he was deeply involved with procedure in the House. I, like all who have taken part in the debate, am most grateful to him for the opportunity that he has afforded us today.
Debates on procedure have a low profile, both for Members of Parliament and for members of the public. It is, however, an interesting fact that the media have perhaps taken a great deal more interest in the recent changes of procedure in the House than one might have expected. That perhaps demonstrates that the media do not always slavishly follow what they think will be big news, and that on occasion they give more publicity than one might expect to matters on which they think the public should be better informed.
I welcome this opportunity also because, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) said, changes in procedure in the House of Commons concern the very stuff of our democracy. Keeping Parliament up to date, fit for the job and able to discharge its duty as effectively in the modern world as it did in ancient time must always be a vital part of any hon. Member's responsibilities here.
1319 I speak as a relatively new Member, without direct experience of Select Committee work, but with experience of a lengthy Standing Committee — that on the Employment Bill last year. It is from that experience that I speak in firm support of the proposal by the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) that Select Committees might be used experimentally to deal with the passage of a Bill through the House. In addition, I greatly welcome the opportunity that now exists for Standing Committees to act as Select Committees during their first three sittings. I hope that the practice will be widely used.
I make one plea. It is that every opportunity will be taken by the House to consider ways in which the improvement of Standing Committee work can be achieved. Even with my limited experience of Standing Committees, I am critical of the way in which they work. They can be something of a charade. Party lines in Standing Committees are tightly drawn, party pressures are strong, time limits are crucial and agreement between Government and Opposition Whips to get the business completed acts against the best interests of legislation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) made the valid point that lack of information often forms an unnecessary barrier to good decision-making. He made that point in relation to a wider constituency than this House, but it is true of the way in which Standing Committees sometimes work. Their members are short on information. Many hon. Members have referred to that problem today and spoken in support of the work of Select Committees as a way of improving the system and making more information available to members of Standing Committees.
I now come to the motion on the Order Paper. I agree with hon. Members who have taken the view that at this stage the additional proposed powers would not be of major benefit. We have moved forward dramatically, and with greater success than many of us anticipated, with the development of the Select Committees up to this stage. Proceeding on a less formalised basis than the motion proposes is probably the correct way forward at present.
Again, I thank the hon. Member for Lewisham, West for the opportunity that he has provided for this most worthwhile and, to me, extremely stimulating debate, during which, contrary to what happens during many of the debates in the House, we have not been limited by sterile party arguments.
§ 2.3 pm
§ Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Thanet, West)
We are indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) for what he has said on these matters. I agree with him and also with the hon. Member for Nottinghem, West (Mr. English) about the use to which the Select Committees could be put in the legislative process. I should like to give one or two examples of that.
The debate has been experienced and well developed, particularly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), from whom, because of his experience, one expects a speech of that ability. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House showed without a brief his great previous experience by being able to answer the large number of questions that were posed. He did so from his sheer knowledge of the subject. It is an advantage to know that we have, both in my right hon. Friend the 1320 Member for Taunton and in the Leader of the House, two Members who have these matters so closely at heart and who will monitor the operation of these Committees.
Because so much of the ground has been covered, I should like to deal with a number of matters that were not fully covered and which arise from what I would call the evolution of these Select Committees. The first was touched on by the hon. Member for Nottingham, West, by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks, and by others.
How can we make more objective use of parts of the legislative process? I should like to give one or two contemporary examples. It seems to me that we should not attempt to use the Select Committee process—whether it is an ad hoc Select Committee, or otherwise as the case may be; probably ad hoc—for matters of immense party controversy. Even then, however, if it is a matter that a Select Committee has been able to consider and come to a conclusion upon which such party political controversy has not arisen, it may well be that this is a suitable way in which to secure an effective process.
I want to give two immediate examples from my own personal experience. Indeed, I was instrumental in securing that these two matters were considered by the Select Committee on Social Services. They arise from two recent Green Papers, on sickness benefits and on maternity benefits. Each was published in November, and all the observations had to be in before the Christmas Recess. Obviously these were matters that could raise party controversy—and may still do so—but it seemed to me crucial that, although the Select Committee was engaged in a detailed consideration of medical education, we should give immediate consideration to those Green Papers. Happily I was able, with very little persuasion, to convince my colleagues on the Select Committee that, despite the absence of time and the lack of a Sub-Committee to consider matters of this kind, we should take them both for urgent consideration.
We took first the matter of maternity benefits, and we reported just before the House rose for Christmas. We were able, without much difficulty, to get agreement, and we were able to do it within the umbrella of the type of proposal put forward by the Government in the Green Paper. We have had the reply from the Government that the report will be taken carefully into consideration in setting out the legislation which they now propose at an early date.
So far so good. It took us only a very few sittings. We did not feel the need to call evidence on the question of maternity benefits, as we were contained within the umbrella of expenditure and were not able to increase that. It was, therefore, an ideal situation. We were being asked to do the type of work to which a Select Committee is particularly adapted, namely, to consider the best administrative alternative to be put up to achieve the maximum amount of benefit for those entitled to it. I believe that we have come to the suitable and right conclusion, and I greatly hope that it will be incorporated in the legislation.
What about the legislation? Would it not be possible for that matter of maternity benefits—and, indeed, sickness benefits—to be considered by a Select Committee using the new procedure? We could easily use the new procedure to deal with it, and we would be able to make the necessary and requisite amendments, if need be, in line with the Government's proposals and policies.
1321 It may he that sickness benefit would prove to be too controversial a subject, but it is well worthy of consideration whether that, too, could follow that procedure, so that one could have a Bill incorporating these matters before the House and be able to get it to Second Reading without having to run into major difficulties of too much party controversy.
There are other matters in other fields in regard to which the use of Select Committees for the legislative process — particularly where such matters are noncontroversial—would be a way in which to involve their further use, to the benefit of the House, to save time and to ensure that policy that has been laid down can fairly easily be carried out.
Another matter of evolution, is the true role of Select Committees. I have considerable experience of the old-style Select committees. The old style Select Committees took a large subject that was felt to be of benefit and called a great volume of evidence. They then delivered reports, which more often than not never saw the light of day.
I think that I have the support of my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton and that of others when I say that the new Select Committees are not involved in that type of exercise. The task of Select Committees is to monitor the work of Departments and to indicate tentatively guidelines which they believe worthy of consideration.
Although I accept that policy — and policy considerations are for the Government to decide — it does not mean that the constructive ideas of Select Committees cannot be of great value to Governments. Monitoring takes a great deal of time. In addition, it involves frequent emergencies. That is why I ask that careful consideration should be given to the introduction next year of at least one Sub-Committee for each Select Committee. Some Select Committees have Sub-Committees. However, I do not understand why the Select Committee on Social Services has not been given a Sub-Committee. It has by far the biggest expenditure to consider—£24 billion. That amount is even greater than that for defence.
As I know only too well, only one Select Committee deals with health and social services. The practical difficulty is that some members of the Committee are interested in one aspect and others in another. I have managed to attend all the meetings on both subjects, but I regret to say that absentees from the two aspects come from both sides. Today, the main topic before the Committee is medical education. Such a subject might take nine months and other subjects might be excluded.
When urgent matters came up, we thought it essential to consider them. One such matter resulted from the desperate row in the House about sub-postmasters. My right hon. Friend was good enough to thank the Select Committee for its report. We had a task. First, we had to persuade the Select Committee that it was appropriate to deal with the matter because of its urgency and because of the need for detailed consideration. It was then asked whether we could call Government advisers to give evidence. I counselled that we should not, even though we had the power to do so. That was the view that the Committee took.
As a result, we considered the whole issue and came to the conclusion that sub-postmasters had nothing to fear because there was abundant opportunity to give them other agency work—which has not been done—and for other reasons that were set out in the report. We also decided 1322 that pensions should be paid monthly, not weekly. We thought that payment could be based on the Dutch system of a fortnight in advance and a fortnight in arrears. However, by that time my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had given an undertaking to the House to the effect that the Government were not prepared to force people to accept monthly, rather than weekly payments. The Government must now use persuasion rather than mandatory action.
I believe that that is unfortunate. It would save the country millions of pounds and would not cause any hardship. I represent a constituency that has a remarkable number of elderly people who would be the first to be affected if they were unable to get their money on a fair basis. That was a matter to which we gave urgent consideration. The result was that a Committee with only nine members had to sit for many hours on many more occasions than was intended by the House or by the Committee.
I think that it is urgent for my right hon. Friend to consider next year whether some, if not all, of the Committees should have at least the power to call for one Sub-Committee to which to depute matters.
That leads to the consideration why some Select Committees have 11 members and others have only nine. I shall not go into that now, any more than I have gone into why the Government and Opposition Chief Whips, in a mandatory fashion, decided which of these Select Committees should be chaired by Tory Party or Labour Party members. It was certainly an unusual way of approching the matter. I hope that in the next Parliament careful consideration will be given to which of these Select Committees should be chaired by Government and Opposition Members.
The work that has been done has been valuable. It is taking more of the time of hon. Members than was at first thought, and I agree with the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) about the danger of putting too much on the plates of various hon. Members.
The House is to be congratulated on this process. I hope that it will continue to be evolved quickly so that it can be of real benefit, not only to the working of the House, but to curbing the power of the Executive, while at the same time learning from the Executive in a manner that we have never learnt before.
I recall the observation of the Permanent Secretary when I said "I think that you will be rather unpopular". He said "No. As a matter of fact, we were talking about it today. It seemed to us that it gave a great opportunity for you to learn as much from us as we hope to learn from you." That seems to be the right process of evolution.
§ Mr. Raymond Whitney (Wycombe)
I hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies) will forgive me and understand if at this stage I do not follow the points that he made.
I came to the House today with the firm intention of listening. The debate has been fascinating. I join in the congratulations offered by the whole House to the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) on introducing the debate. Friday though it is, it is regrettable that the usual constituency considerations have meant a relatively poor attendance at a debate on a matter of the greatest constitutional significance.
1323 My disqualifications for commenting on the constitutional implications of the Select Committee system are threefold: I am a relatively new Member, I am not a member of a Select Committee and I confess to, perhaps, being an agnostic verging on an atheist about the creation of the system. I am now moving back into the ranks of the believers.
I should like to add a few comments from what might be called the other side of the counter. We are not only discussing fundamental and important constitutional issues relating to our procedures in the House: we are moving into the area of official information. Until I was privileged to become a Member of this House, I spent my working life within the ranks of Crown servants being totally immersed in official information. Therefore, I can claim some modest authority to speak from that point of view. I can also claim to speak with the reputation of not being a revolutionary who would wish to tear down the citadels of the Establishment. However, I can claim to speak as a radical and as one who believes that radical changes are needed in many areas of our national life.
I endorse the many well-deserved congratulations to my right hon. Friend on his appointment as Leader of the House and the welcome given to the important undertaking, albeit justifiably qualified, that he has offered to the House in relation to the mechanisms for dealing with the problems that may arise with Select Committees.
There are certainly matters that must remain secret and there are certainly conspiracies and plots in our society. The enemies of our society use our democratic mechanisms and our free press to subvert the principles that we would all defend to the death. I recognise that the matters that must remain secret go much further than defence and foreign affairs. There are a range of ways in which democratic government can be brought into disrepute by its opponents. We must avoid that.
Experiments in wider official information in other countries have not been an unqualified success. However, having said all that, I urge the Government to understand the dangers of the cocoon into which Ministers can fall. I speak from the other side of the counter and I know only too well how a Minister can get into the halls of power with civil servants and before he knows where he is can forget the real pressures and responsibilities. I am not suggesting that that has happened to pesent Ministers, and I welcome the assurances tht they have given, but I submit that the efficient government for which they are striving can be achieved only with a wide measure of open government.
1324 When we look to good administration, reducing the Civil Service and getting the right decisions, we look for open government. I hope that as the Government continue to look at the problems they will bear in mind that that is a fundamental issue, whether for the constitutional element, which we are discussing, or for the wider interest of good government to which they and we all aspire.
§ Mr. Christopher Price
We have had a good debate. I welcome to the Chamber all those hon. Members who were not able to sit through the whole debate and I am gratified that they are happy to come in to listen to the final two minutes. I apologise if any hon. Members have had to break obligations in order to be here at 2.30, but I suggest that next time they might listen to the whole debate.
I thank the Leader of the House for the positive way in which he responded to the debate. I still believe that the best way to enforce open government will be to write into our Standing Orders one day a degree of automaticity about debate on the Floor of the House.
I accept the pledge given by the Leader of the House that if there is a substantial feeling on each side of the House that information — by which the Select Committee and I mean specific papers and records that have been identified—is being unreasonably withheld, that will generate a debate on the Floor of the House. I hope that that knowledge will concentrate the minds of civil servants who are trying to decide how to advise Ministers about the release of documents.
I do not have the whole cake, but half a loaf is better than no bread. In the circumstances of the pledge, of which we shall remind the Leader of the House if necessary, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.