HC Deb 14 April 1988 vol 131 cc357-9

4.1 pm

Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am most grateful to you, and I am conscious of the pressure of business. I wish to raise two matters connected with the selection and calling of the Standing Committee which is to consider the School Boards (Scotland) Bill.

As you may know, Mr. Speaker, the Committee was selected yesterday and has 18 members. One slightly curious factor is that we welcome the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Bruce) to the consideration of Scottish business. I mention that merely in passing. The important point is that, under Standing Order No. 86(2)(i), the Committee must include 16 hon. Members representing Scottish constituencies. As in the past, that has been achieved by selecting nine Scottish Members from the Conservative Benches, six from the Labour Benches and one who I believe is a Liberal.

One of the Conservative Members is the hon. and learned Member for Perth and Kinross (Mr. Fairbairn), who is well known in the House but who, sadly, through circumstances entirely beyond his control, will be unable to take part in the business of the Committee at least for some considerable time. I should make it absolutely clear that I imply no possible fault on the part of the hon. and learned Gentleman. None of us can cater for illness. Indeed, it is appropriate to wish the hon. and learned Gentleman a very speedy recovery. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] He is a long-standing friend of mine and very good value in the House, although his contributions are perhaps better appreciated by the Opposition than by his own party. We all wish him a speedy recovery.

It is extraordinary, however, that we are reduced to appointing to a highly sensitive and controversial Committee a Member who, at least for a considerable time, will be unable to take any part in its proceedings. I understand why this has happened. It is because there must be 16 Scottish members on the Committee. It is a comment on the Government's weakness in Scotland—a comment which is eloquent in itself and distressing in its implications.

I seek your guidance, Mr. Speaker, first, as to whether it is possible to direct the Committee of Selection or to amend the present selection in some way so that the hon. and learned Member for Perth and Kinross can be taken off the Committee, which I am sure would be a relief to him, and some other Scottish Member could be added. I make no comment about which Member it should be, but it would be possible to find that 16th member from any one of four areas of the House—the Conservatives, the Labour party or one of the two smaller parties.

I do not wish to be partisan about that, but it is in the interests of the House that there should be 16 Scottish Members in a position to fulfil their duties on the Committee, which the hon. and learned Member for Perth and Kinross clearly cannot. It is a mark of the totally unsatisfactory way in which Scottish business is being run that we have been put into this position.

The second point that I wish to raise with you, Mr. Speaker, is perhaps a technical one, but it has significant implications. The Second Reading of the School Boards (Scotland) Bill took place on Tuesday this week. The Committee of Selection met yesterday and some of the Members appointed to the Committee on the Bill knew of their appointment only this morning, when they received their cards in the post. Unless Scottish Members stay down here on Friday especially for the purpose, which is unusual, they will have only one day in which to put down amendments for a Committee next Tuesday. I appreciate that there is no statutory rule about this, but it seems a thoroughly unsatisfactory state of affairs on such an important Bill.

The final point on which I seek your help, Mr. Speaker, concerns the fact that hon. Members knew of their appointment to the Committee because they received a card summoning them to a meeting of the Committee next Tuesday. I have before me the card sent to my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Mr. Hogg). The card is timed 11 pm last night and I understand that my hon. Friend received it in the post this morning. I may be wrong, although I have made every proper inquiry that I can, but I believe that at the time when the cards were received no Chair had been appointed for the Committee. I understand it to be a rule of the House that it is the Chairman's prerogative to decide when the Committee first meets.

It seems to me, therefore, that the Committee was summoned—by whom, I know not—at a time when no Member had been appointed to the Chair, that the Committee was thus wrongly summoned and that the meeting called for Tuesday must therefore be incompetent. I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to rule accordingly. If the cards were not validly issued. Tuesday's meeting cannot be validly called and I ask you to rule to that effect. In my view, if a Chair has since been appointed it would be quite wrong for new and perhaps valid cards to be issued now at such short notice for a meeting on Tuesday. I therefore ask for your protection, Mr. Speaker, and an assurance that the Committee will not meet on Tuesday.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) was kind enough to give me some knowledge of the points that he intended to raise, which has enabled me to look carefully into the matter.

As for the appointment of a Chairman to the Scottish Standing Committee, I understand that there was some difficulty in contacting another Member, which resulted in a delay in my making the formal appointment of the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Mr. Knox). That has now been done, and the summoning of the first meeting has been validated. When that meeting should be is not a matter for me. I suggest that in the first instance that matter should be pursued through the usual channels.

The possibility that one Member appointed to the Committee may not be able to attend it should be drawn to the attention of the Chairman of the Committee of Selection.

Mr. Dewar

First, Mr. Speaker, I thank you for those remarks. I take it from what you say that I am right—you have clearly said that I am right—in my presumption that the Committee has not yet been called because the only cards issued were issued at a time when it was not possible to call the Committee. Therefore, I think that it is clear that we do not know when the Committee will meet at this stage.

I repeat for the benefit of the Leader of the House that, given that the Committee has not been called, it would he insupportable to try to call it now for Tuesday. That would be unacceptable.

This is a matter of some seriousness. The House should be careful about how it conducts its business. I am sorry that the matter has been personalised as a result of the unfortunate circumstances of my good friend the hon. and learned Member for Perth and Kinross (Mr. Fairbairn), but when we could clearly meet the 16 Scots requirement by other methods, I would take it amiss if we went along with an arrangement whereby someone was appointed as a blank, through circumstance, to make up numbers. That would mean that the proper scrutiny of Scottish legislation was not being carried out and would be something of an insult to the process of statutory scrutiny in Britain.

Mr. Speaker

I do not think that I can add anything further to what I have already said. I hope that the matter will be resolved.