§ Mr. Speaker
I have not selected amendment (a), but I have selected amendment (b) in the name of the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), and amendments (c) and (d) in the name of the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) and his hon. Friends. I suggest that the two motions and all the amendments are debated together and, after one and a half hours or earlier, I shall invite the hon. Members concerned to move their amendments and divide the House on them if that is their wish.
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John MacGregor)
I beg to move,That the following Amendments be made to Standing Order No. 102 (European Standing Committees):in paragraph (1), line 1, leave out 'three' and insert `two';in paragraph (3), line 15, leave out 'ten' and insert `thirteen';in paragraph (6), line 34, leave out 'several' and leave out the table following paragraph (6) and insert the following table:
I should like to start by explaining to the House why this matter has been brought before it for the second time in less than three months. On 24 October, the House debated and approved several amendments to Standing Orders. Those amendments were made in response to recommendations from the Select Committee on Procedure and were intended to improve our system of scrutiny of European Community legislation.
European Standing Committees Principal subject matter Matters within the responsibility of the following Departments— A Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Transport; Environment; and Forestry Commission (and analogous responsibilities of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Offices); B Other Departments
The main change agreed was the establishment of three new European Standing Committees, whose members would be appointed for a whole Session and in which scrutiny debates would be held.
§ Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)
Does the Leader of the House accept that the Select Committee on Procedure recommended five Standing Committees, not three? It agreed to the Government's proposals only on the strict assurance that the Government would consider increasing the number.
§ Mr. MacGregor
The Procedure Committee proposed five Committees, but I should like to explain why I am bringing forward these proposals tonight.
§ Mr. MacGregor
If my hon. Friend will allow me, I have hardly started and I am coming to his point. We have only a brief time for the debate, so I would like to explain as quickly as possible the Government's attitude to the amendments.
270 Unfortunately, as hon. Members know, the Committees have not yet been appointed. The effect of that has been that since the start of the Session all scrutiny debates have had to be held on the Floor of the House, directly contrary to the Procedure Committee's intention that fewer debates should be held on the Floor of the House and more should be in Standing Committees. That point is highly relevant to another issue that has been raised with me by a considerable number of hon. Members on both sides of the House—the hours of the House and, in particular, late-night sittings.
Three months ago we ran into some difficulties about the composition of the Committees as originally agreed by the House. As it is a House matter and I was keen to proceed on an agreed basis, I engaged in further consultations. It is as a result of those that the Government have now revised some of the proposals which are the subject of this debate. I very much hope that those will find favour on both sides of the House as I am keen to put an end as soon as possible to the delay in establishing the new system for both the reasons that I gave.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)
In the opinion of the Leader of the House, is the division of responsibilities between Committees A and B a fair division of labour?
§ Mr. MacGregor
I am coming to that. It is the best division of labour that we can establish at this stage. I shall also make it clear that we shall review the position in the light of some experience of the working of the system.
The revised proposals are that, instead of three Standing Committees of 10 members each, there should be two Committees of 13 members each. Under the formula for having regard to the composition of the House, each Committee will comprise seven members from the Government side, five members from Her Majesty's Opposition, and one from the minority parties. The Chairman will come from the Chairmen's Panel.
As the Committees are subject-based—here I come to the hon. Gentleman's point—this change necessarily entails a reallocation of subject matter between the Committees. Standing Committee A, which under the original proposals dealt with agriculture, fisheries and food and environment, will now also cover transport. The second Standing Committee will include trade and industry with the other Departments already covered.
That is the extent of the Government proposals before the House today. The other motion on the Order Paper is in effect consequential on the main motion. It simply reallocates those documents which currently stand referred to one of three Standing Committees between the two Committees that we now propose. I recognise that, with only two European Standing Committees, there will be a heavier work load on each of them than under our earlier proposals. That is something that I shall monitor carefully, and at an appropriate time we might take stock. In the light of—
§ Mr. MacGregor
Perhaps I may finish my sentence first. In the light of what the Procedure Committee recommended, the facts that it considered and the experience of the previous two parliamentary Sessions, 271 and making a judgment about the documents which are considered on the Floor of the House and those which go to a Standing Committee, it seems likely that each Standing Committee will have about two sittings per month. But that is a matter that we shall monitor.
§ Mr. Dykes
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way and for his explanation of these matters. Does he not find it ironic that, although certain hon. Members shrieked hysterically about the importance of scrutiny and thorough coverage of these matters, the generality of hon. Members on both sides of the House have shown so little interest in the exercise that it has been impossible to continue with the original plan and structure? Does he further agree that that also inevitably means that the Select Committee on European Legislation, of which I am a member—and of which other members are present on both sides of the House—will refer fewer matters for debate in the Standing Committees because of the reduced structure?
§ Mr. MacGregor
I have brought forward revised proposals, not because of lack of interest in the House but because, in the light of further consultations with various parties in the House, it seemed that that was the best way to proceed on the composition of the Committees and other matters.
I do not think that more will be taken on the Floor of the House. I have just given the type of work load that I think that Committees will have. The proposal will mean closer and more expert scrutiny of some of the documents that come before the House, because not only will the membership of the Committees be able to build up expertise over a period, but it will be posssible for any hon. Members with a particular interest in a document to participate in that Committee's work. Therefore, taking this step will enable those who wish to take an even closer interest. Under the proposal, the relevant Minister will be subjected to an hour of questions in the Committee before the one and a half hour discussion by the Committee. That is something not available to the House at present, which is why the steps will aid those many Members who take an interest in such matters.
Work load is one of the issues that we shall monitor carefully and, at the appropriate time, review.
§ Mr. MacGregor
It would be better if I moved quickly now, because I want hon. Members, particularly those who have tabled amendments, to have the opportunity to make their case.
As there are only six months or so remaining in the current Session, I am anxious above all that the Committees should start their work as soon as possible, so that we can get some experience of how the new system works and also because the Committees will help to relieve the pressure for late-night debates on the Floor, as many hon. Members have been urging me to try to do in recent weeks.
It may be helpful to the House and assist our discussion if I now turn briefly to the amendments accepted for debate tonight. Amendment (b), tabled by the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) proposes raising the quorum for the Committees from two to three. Since the Government are proposing increasing the size of 272 the European Standing Committees, I recognise that it is reasonable to raise the quorum. I therefore propose that we accept the amendment.
Amendment (c), in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor), seeks to give any hon. Member the right to propose amendments to motions debated in the Standing Committees, whether or not he or she has been nominated as a member of the Committee. I am advised that the amendment is unnecessary, because all hon. Members already have that right. The Standing Order says that those not nominated to the Committee may not vote, move a motion or be counted in the quorum, but it does not stop them from moving amendments to a motion. I hope that my clarification is helpful to my hon. Friend. I can reassure my hon. Friend that even if he or anyone else is not appointed to one of those Committees, he or any other hon. Member will be entitled to attend, speak, and move amendments. I hope that on that basis and with that reassurance my hon. Friend will be content to withdraw the amendment.
However, the Government cannot accept amendment (d), also in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East, which would completely change the character of the new Standing Committees. The Standing Committee meetings will allow the Committee members, and any other hon. Members who wish to attend as I have stressed more than once, to question the Minister and to participate in the debate thereafter. The Committee may also amend the motion before it. But there is no mechanism for it to arrive at a separate set of conclusions, and it would be quite wrong to expect any Standing Committee—as opposed to a Select Committee—to be able to do that. Such an arrangement could not be contemplated without re-drawing the whole system. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend will not press the amendment, because I cannot accept it.
The new arrangements will allow more effective scrutiny in Committee, so it is crucial that they are now able to get under way and have a chance to work. The Government have undertaken to review the new arrangements at the end of the first Session of operation, and unless they are set up soon, there will be rather limited experience on which to base our review. I commend the motions and amendment (b), in the name of the hon. Member for Newham, South, to the House.
§ Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)
I appreciate that the Government faced a dilemma and that, after consultation following the previous debate and votes on 24 October 1990, it became necessary to reconsider the matter, although I may have reservations about the conclusions drawn. After the detailed and worthy deliberations of the Procedure Committee and the alternative recommendations proposed, the House may be disappointed at the way in which the experiment has turned out. However, that sadness should not be allowed to delay the matter any further. The important thing is that the Committees be up and running as soon as possible so that we may be able to examine their effectiveness in the light of experience.
Although events outside this House—indeed, outside this country—preoccupy us, we should be conscious of the fact that we are considering matters that are of acute 273 importance to the country and to the future well-being of many of its people. That applies especially to European legislation.
I accept that we should now go ahead with this experiment. We must make it as successful as possible and, in the light of experience, come back to the matter, perhaps with guidance from the Select Committee. We might then consider whether there were better ways of proceeding.
The number of Committee members is not the important matter, nor is the subject matter to be dealt with; the important matter is the depth of scrutiny. All too often it is forgotten in the country that much of the European Community legislation that comes before this House—often obscured by technical descriptions—is primary legislation affecting the daily lives of citizens. We get excited, quite rightly, about primary legislation in the form of Bills, but we should recognise that European Community legislation can be just as important, and its implications just as direct.
The key to the success of these two Committees and of whatever results from their deliberations will be the opportunity to cross-examine Ministers in respect of their wide and pivotal role as European legislators. Indeed, the experiment will stand or fall by the ability of the Committees to make Ministers accountable in respect of that role. That being so, I want to put to the Minister questions about a number of matters that still puzzle me. He may care to return at the end of the debate to these matters.
Non-members will have the right to attend and now, the right to move amendments. What right will they have when it comes to questioning a Minister? Will priority be given to members? Will others be accorded equivalent rights during cross-examination? My particular reason for putting these questions is that I am concerned about the role of Front Benchers. It is not entirely clear to me whether Ministers will be full members of the Committees. If not, who will be responsible for the legislation? Currently, a Minister is responsible for each item of European legislation and has to steer it through. If the Minister is not to be a member, who will carry that responsibility? On that will hinge the role of Opposition Front-Bench members.
We should not lose sight of the fact that, as much European legislation is of a technical nature, the technical expertise of both Front Benches will be needed. I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify that important matter.
My second question is about the servicing of the Committees. We are creating a new organism. At the moment, we have Select Committees, the members of which are given an expert and able service by the Clerks Department, on an all-party basis, and that makes their effectiveness much sharper. We also have Standing Committees, in which, apart from the procedural aspect, all servicing is provided for Ministers and hon. Members of the party in government, and nothing is offered to the Opposition. How does the Leader of the House see the Clerks Department being involved in the servicing of the Committees? Will it be provided on a basis closer to that of the Select Committees than that of the Standing Committees?
In the sequence of cross-examination, will measures come before the Committees following recommendation 274 from the Select Committee on European Legislation, or will there be opportunities for the wider issues, involving the subject matter of these Committees, to be debated, bringing Ministers before them? Will that be precluded by the Standing Order, or is it within the province of the Select Committee on European Legislation?
Having reduced the recommendation from five to three Committees and now to two, we are within one Committee of the concept of a European Grand Committee, put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) and me in our evidence to the Select Committee on Procedure. It did not find favour in the Committee, but it is interesting that, in the practical world, we are almost down to that, although the suggested membership of 26 is too small to do justice to the concept that we designed.
I draw the attention of the House to the fact that the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office is already starting an initiative designed to consult Members of Parliament and others about various matters, and this should be welcome. We should not stop with one means of scrutiny, as this matter is of enormous importance. We should continue to look at ways in which the House can examine European legislation in much greater detail.
As a Member of Parliament representing a Scottish constituency, and knowing the strength of feeling in Scotland and among my colleagues representing Scottish constituencies about the fact that the Leader of the House is spending so much time trying to find a useful and relevant model of Committee to consider European legislation, I express my personal regret that we are now embarking on this experiment before forming the Scottish Select Committee, as the House has an obligation to do.
It is right and proper that we should be looking at the European experience and creating institutions to mirror its importance to the House and the country, but it is a scandal that we still have not managed to deal with the domestic problems foisted on the Leader of the House by his right hon. and hon. Friends. That means that the House of Commons still does not have that important Select Committee.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)
Order. That has nothing to do with the matter before the House. I remind the hon. Gentleman and the House that we are discussing amendments to Standing Order No. 102, and his points have nothing to do with that.
§ Mr. Robertson
I accept your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I thought that it was relevant to draw a contrast between the successful experiment and the failure. If you say that that is not in order, you must be right.
I draw my remarks to a conclusion by saying that while we may have regrets or reservations about the way in which the debate is going, it is the light of experience that will guide us. The sooner the experiment is up and running, the sooner we will have the facts on which to make a judgment.
§ 11 pm
§ Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)
The proposals that the Government are advancing after the very short debate that we had on 24 October are an insult to the intelligence of the House of Commons and a grave insult to our democracy and our right to consider legislation.
275 My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House put forward only two arguments in favour of what he wants to do. First, he said that people were complaining about the late-night sittings on European legislation. I am sure that people do complain about having to come here after 10 o'clock, sometimes after midnight, to debate important Euro-issues, particularly when the public have not the slightest idea what is happening because tonight none of the organs of the press is present to hear what we are discussing. That may indeed have been one of the reasons.
If my right hon. Friend wishes to ensure that more Members pay more attention, if he wants the people of Britain to know what is going on, would it not be possible for the Government to have, say, one day a week to consider these vital Euro-measures? It is difficult to say that, because they are considered after 10 o'clock, we have to find another opportunity, when the Government know that they could take action in other ways.
The second matter is rather important. It concerns the way the Government have treated the issue in appointing two Committees. The Minister said that the original proposal was for three Committees. I have the pleasure of pointing out to him that the excellent Select Committee led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) had said that one needed five Committees to look at this issue. The Committee looked at the matter objectively, sat for a long time, and came to the conclusion that five Committees were needed to do this kind of work. The Government on reflection, having considered the matter, said no, they wanted three Committees. It seems that this was accepted reluctantly on the strict understanding that the Government would consider increasing the number. Now the Government have come back proposing just two Committees to consider a full range of desperately important legislation affecting every one of our constituents.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House explained that there had been consultations between the usual channels. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes), who is always helpful on these matters, said the reason was that nobody appeared to be interested in taking part. Who was consulted? I can assure the Leader of the House that, on the basis of those whom I know to be true democrats and who are interested in looking after the liberties of this country, I could have filled up five Committees simply by asking my friends. I would ask my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East whether anyone else in the House has been approached about this. Has my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), who is sitting next to me, been asked? I am sure that she has not. Indeed, has anyone on this side been asked? Has anybody in the Labour party been asked?
§ Mrs. Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)
May I ask the hon. Gentleman to make the same effort in relation to forming a Scottish Select Committee?
§ Mr. Taylor
There is certainly a case for having more of these Committees. Today we are discussing the European Committees, which examine legislation that affects us all. The repeal of legislation is also required.
§ Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)
I should put it on record that there were sufficient Members from the minority parties willing to take up the one place 276 allocated to them on each of the Committees, to such an extent that some members of the minority parties were disappointed that they could not get on them.
§ Mr. Taylor
I can understand why some Members from the minority parties are disappointed. No doubt they have tried to serve on Committees. This is a sickening aspect. The House should be aware of the only occasion in my 25 years here when I asked to be a member of a Committee. I wrote asking to be on the Committee dealing with consumer protection because there were important matters affecting my constituents. The Minister knows to whom I wrote and that I regarded the matter as important. I was told that it was very sad but as there was a huge demand to attend that Committee, it was not possible to fit me in. Nevertheless, I went to the Committee and sat through every sitting. Three members came to me and said that they had been press-ganged to go onto it.
What sickens me is that, instead of this legislation, which vitally affects all our constituents, being properly considered by the House of Commons, it will be shoved into Committees, on to which no doubt once again Members will be press-ganged. To show balance, we shall probably have one of the delightful people from the Bruges group.
§ Dr. Godman
Given the customary sparseness of attendance at debates such as this, I find it difficult to believe that the hon. Gentleman could find enough right hon. and hon. Members to staff five Committees. Is he not being a little idealistic, and is there not much more sense in his proposal that one day a week should be devoted to EC matters?
§ Mr. Taylor
The hon. Gentleman is right. It is ridiculous to shove these matters into quiet Committees composed of people press-ganged into serving on them who will simply go bang, bang, bang and approve things. Everyone else will say that they know that the European legislation is important but because two important Committees are looking at the matters first they will switch off and say that they have done their democratic duty. If the Leader of the House wanted to ensure that the British people knew what was going on, if he wanted to ensure that democracy would be preserved, he could have allowed one day a week to discuss these measures in prime time so that people would know about them.
§ Mr. Haselhurst
Is not my hon. Friend overlooking the fact that any hon. Member is entitled to attend the Committees, so if his view is correct, a whole gang of people could turn up, play a full part and carry out the scrutiny that they felt might not be carried out by those officially appointed?
§ Mr. Taylor
That is the most ridiculous argument that I have ever heard. My hon. Friend says that any Member can go along, and the Leader of the House says that any amendment can be moved, but I am not sure exactly how that will be done when other amendments will no doubt be pressed. Will all hon. Members be able to go along and have status without the ability to vote or to take a meaningful part in the discussions? How will we be notified of such Committees? Has my hon. Friend ever looked at Euro-legislation? There are 30 documents awaiting consideration now. Is it suggested that every hon. Member 277 will go to the Table of the House, get all that information and look at it? My hon. Friend knows that all we are doing under this proposal is switching off.
If my hon. Friend doubts that, he should consider what has happened under the leadership of the Leader of the House to hon. Members' ability to get information. The Leader of the House was formerly a Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and I am sure that he looked after farmers well. In the old days, we had food mountains and people asked questions about them. Happily, because of a Conservative initiative, they were wiped out. Now, unfortunately they are going up again, and people might want to know about that.
If any hon. Member tables a question today about the size of the food mountains he will find that, instead of being given an answer, he is referred to the database in the Library—a new development, which simply means that the information is not made available to the public. The database people will then say that there are different ways of looking at the matter. What about the trade figures? They are very important to our democracy. Last year and the year before, we used to be able to ask questions about trade with Germany or the EC. Try doing that today. Again, hon. Members will be referred to the database.
What really worries me, as every hon. Member here tonight must know, is that all these vital issues affecting all our constituents, important issues about the control of EC spending, will simply be referred to two quiet Committees and everyone else will be able to switch off. That is terribly wrong.
I have tabled an amendment which I thought might be helpful. If those public-spirited Committees are to look at all the legislation, they might want to tell us something. For example, they might think that an agricultural policy document was heading us for a crisis. They might take the view that the law was not being observed. They might take the view that proposals on equal treatment for men and women would create a problem for British industry. How would they make their views known? The Minister said that that would not arise in a Standing Committee because detailed amendments are moved, proposals are put forward and arguments are made. The core Committees cannot move amendments to European legislation. They do not have the same power at all.
What on earth is wrong, after the Committees have deliberated for two or three months, in their saying that they have come to certain conclusions about which they want the House to know? What on earth is wrong with that when these are not normal Standing Committees?
We are doing a shameful thing tonight. The Leader of the House may remember that, on 24 October, this motion and four others were discussed for one hour. Mr. Speaker told the Government that, if they felt that the time available was too short, they did not have to move all the motions. Now we are having a debate again at a time when no one will be aware of it, in which we are simply saying that this mass of legislation will go to two Committees which will have to cover all their work—an impossible load, considering that we have been told that we ought to have five Committees to cope with it. I honestly believe that what we are doing tonight is shameful. It means that we can all switch off. It takes away our role in examining legislation.
278 We know that European legislation is not always considered on its merits. Sometimes there is horse trading. We have a duty to let people know what is happening.
§ Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)
If the Executive suggested that legislation emanating from the Government rather than from Brussels should be treated in this way, the idea would be laughed out of court.
§ Mr. Taylor
That is so, as the Minister knows. Things happen in fishing, but what can he do about it? What questions can he ask? We do not have the right to switch off. Most of us will forget about this; we do not need to trouble about it any more. We do not need to ask ourselves whether it is our duty to come along at 10 o'clock to talk about these matters. We have a social charter. We did not sign it, but, as hon. Members know, all the matters are going through under the Single European Act and it will affect every firm in our constituencies. Do we not have a duty to offer advice? We have that duty, and if we are to be fair to our constituents, we must therefore consider this matter.
We should reject the motion and ask the Government to give us a day—any day of the week—when we can discuss these issues, and not after 10 o'clock at night. We must tell the Government to stop encouraging us to switch off, and to stop preventing the people of Britain from knowing what is happening. The Government must stop the conspiracy of silence which is almost becoming part of Government policy, as the Leader of the House well knows. Let us reject this ridiculous proposal and have a day to discuss the important issues which affect us all.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
I beg to move amendment (b). On behalf of the Scrutiny Committee, I thank the Leader of the House—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but it would be inappropriate for him to move his amendment now in the light of the advice given by Mr. Speaker. It might be more appropriate for him to move it at the end of the debate.
§ Mr. Spearing
I apologise for that procedural slip. Sometimes one sees in Hansard such words that are not actually said, so I thought that I would say them. I will nod at the appropriate moment at the end of the debate.
I was about to thank the Leader of the House for his gracious acceptance on behalf of the Committee. I shall show in a moment how amendment (b) reveals some of the difficulties to which he alluded, but before I do so, I should make one or two points about the speech by the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor). I understand his concern, but I think that the forebodings are rather different and are shared by Members on both sides of the Scrutiny Committee, and not simply by those with one particular view of the European Community.
For the past 15 years it has been up to any hon. Member of the House to attend such Committees, and unless the Standing Orders have been changed—I do not think they have—any hon. Member can move amendments. Amendments can also be moved when the matter comes back to the Floor of the House, albeit forthwith. If the amendment is selected, there can be a Division.
It is up to the hon. Member and his hon. Friends to go to Committees and to table amendments which take a view 279 of the document concerned. Those amendments can be accepted on the merits of their effect on particular constituencies, and can result in a motion on the Floor of the House. Indeed, for the first hour, an hon. Member can question the Minister on that document. That is the main feature of improvement in this package.
Having said that, the package—apart from the hour for questions, on which we are all agreed—is a step backwards. The Select Committee thought the same. The idea of having a quorum of three for a Committee of 13 illustrates my argument. Such a small quorum would show that something was wrong.
We told the previous Leader of the House, the right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe) that the changing of the polarity or automaticity of putting everything in Committee unless moved by a Minister of the Crown on the Floor of this Chamber was risky and taking things too far. In particular, instead of having one-off Committees as we do now—horses for courses, chosen by the Selection Committee—we are to impose an extraordinary load on the members of two Committees, or of the five Committees originally proposed by the Procedure Committee, whose Chairman may catch your eye shortly, Mr. Speaker. We are not clear about better scrutiny in toto, because there will be two eyes to the needle, which will be restrictive to some extent.
Whatever views right hon. and hon. Members may have on the merits of the proposal, they should be aware of the question of publicity, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Southend, East. The Leader of the House will correct me if I am wrong, but 1 recall that his predecessor gave an undertaking that the Thursday business statement would contain an additional statement on the Committees due to sit the following week. Let us hope that the media, who are rather variable in their attendance at Committees, will publicise that information. It would also appear on the Order Paper, which would serve to inform right hon. and hon. Members, who could enter the dates in their diaries. That would be of added help, and it is a pity that that procedure is not followed already.
We may sometimes think that Bills are complicated, but they have a logical order. However, some legislation is not easily understood at first sight. There might appear in the middle of a document a table containing an alteration that could have an enormous impact on an individual industry, firm, or type of crop, yet that might not be immediately discernible. That is why the Scrutiny Committee attempts to report to the House the likely impact that such a proposal might have, without necessarily saying whether we think it is good or bad.
The Government's new procedures will be improvements only in so far as the questioning of Ministers is concerned. With television coverage and improved publicity, it is just possible that it may offer a net advantage over the existing conventions. However, I sense that there will still be personnel problems. The Select Committee on European Legislation expressed concern about that aspect right from the start. We conveyed that concern to the right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East. The Government's response to the report of the Select Committee on Proceedure, Cmd. 1081 of May 1990, stated, in recommendation 19, in respect of the recommendation for five Committees that 280it would be difficult to find sufficient Members with the relevant interest or expertise to man five Special Standing Committees. The Government therefore propose initially that three Special Standing Committees should be established".We know that proposal has run into trouble.
When the Leader of the House undertakes the review promised by his predecessor, I hope that he will consider not just the procedure that may operate in Committee in respect of questions and the attendance, no doubt, of the hon. Member for Southend, East and his hon. Friends, but the question of membership. My hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant) has indicated his interest, as have other noble volunteers, in serving on such Committees in order that the necessary quorum can be reached.
I am not sure that it would redound to the credit of the House if 20 or 30 right hon. and hon. Members turned up at such a Committee and, quite rightly, started questioning the Minister and he failed to give satisfactory answers. Is that not what Parliament is all about? The Minister then runs to earth in some foxhole, people literally jump up and down, and the Chair must maintain order. Then the Question is put, and it is carried by two votes to one. Imagine how that would look on television. I am not. saying that that will happen, but under the present Standing Orders it is possible.
Perhaps in the review we should consider not merely what has happened, but what could happen. I advocate consideration of the idea of a one-off Committee for each batch of documents—we try to batch them together so that we can get through a lot of them as efficiently and effectively as possible. If these Committees work reasonably well, the Selection Committee may not run into the sort of timetable and selection troubles that they have run into so far. I hope that that is true, because, when questioned by our colleagues in the EEC, we have already had to admit that, as a Committee, we had the power to make recommendations on the Floor of the House or in Committee and the Government accepted that but the power of the Committee to make recommendations has now gone.
Until these amendments are made, there will be a decision at 3.30 pm on whether the Committee is held on the Floor of the House or upstairs. That decision will now lie wholly with the Government. In another Parliament, or if there is a balance of hon. Members on a particular document, it will be possible for a number of hon. Members to stand up and ensure that the matter is dealt with on the Floor of the House. These may not necessarily be party political matters, or anything to do with the merits of the EC establishment.
§ Mr. Favell
The hon. Gentleman is a great expert in his field. Can he tell the House how wide a trawl there was in his party about whether it was possible to man three Committees as opposed to two? I and other Conservative Members are not sure why there was a sudden change of mind from three Committees to two. Was it because there were not enough Opposition Members to man the Committees and if so, can the hon. Gentleman throw some light on that?
§ Mr. Spearing
I have no knowledge about that. The difficulties about numbers were foreseen by the Select Committee on European Legislation. We have been monitoring what Committees have been doing for 15 years. The hon. Member for Stockport, and various other hon. Members, considered the problem and foresaw the difficulties, which may or may not be within one party. Perhaps there would be such difficulties under any Government and with any Opposition. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's question is relevant to me, or that it tackles the real problem, which is whether all Committees are made up of volunteers to make up the necessary quorum, or whether Committees are selected for the job in hand. I should have thought that, in principle, and wherever possible, the House would have preferred the latter.
We look forward to supporting these new arrangements, although they fall short and, in some respects, step backwards. Let us hope that experience will enable the House, at some future date, after the review and possible further adjustments, to take two steps forward.
§ Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)
Please excuse me if I croak, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I have a rather severe cold.
I am pleased that the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), who is the Chairman of the Select Committee on European Legislation, has tabled the amendment about the quorum. I should have had great pleasure in supporting it with him, and I am delighted that his wisdom has persuaded the Government to move in that direction.
I welcome the desire of both the Government and the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson), that the Committees should be up and running as soon as possible.
The wisdom of the House must obviously be greater than the judgment of the Select Committee, but if the House is to adopt the Government's recommendations tonight—these Committees need to start working in some form or another—we should study some of the bases upon which the recommendations were made by the Select Committee, as they are being overlooked.
When the Procedure Committee suggested that there should be five Committees rather than one large Grand Committee, as suggested by the hon. Member for Hamilton and his colleagues, we were keen to establish a number of points. First, we wanted to ensure the involvement of specialists—people with a specific interest in the subjects with which the Committees would deal—and also of volunteers who would be willing to spend at least a year considering such issues.
We judged that, if a host of subjects were dealt with by a single Committee, the volunteers would not be interested; the establishment of five Committees to deal with agriculture, trade and industry, Treasury, customs and excise, transport and the environment, would attract specialist volunteers, and we would not have to incorporate pressed men.
§ Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher)
Would the specialists include MEPs? As fellow parliamentarians, they are interested, as we are, in the procedures of democratic scrutiny.
§ Sir Peter Emery
We did not make such a recommendation, because giving MEPs exactly the same role as British Members of Parliament would mean 282 changing the whole structure of the constitution of the House of Commons. The approach of the Procedure Committee is fairly pragmatic: we try to make recommendations that have a chance of being accepted by the House, rather than recommendations which may in theory be desirable but which would fall at the first hurdle.
We were also anxious not to give the Committees too much work. That may sound strange, but we wanted to attract volunteers. Paragraph 68 of volume I, dealing with the scrutiny of European legislation in the Session 1988–89, suggested that no Committee would have to meet more than about 10 times a year. We thought that even busy Members of Parliament could be persuaded to volunteer, and to take an interest in the subjects with which they were dealing. We gave consideration to the questions of expertise, numbers, work load and the time that would have to be spent; we believed that a link could be established between the departmentally oriented Select Committees and the European Standing Committees, with a member of, say, the Agriculture, Treasury or Transport Select Committee also serving on a European Committee.
In the debate before Christmas, the Government suggested starting the experiment with three Committees rather than five. I said then that we would go along with that, but suggested that, if it did not seem to be working, we should have the option of returning to the original idea. What worries me is the likelihood that we shall not achieve the degree of specialisation that we want, that the work load will be too heavy and that the desired relationship with the departmental Select Committees will not be achieved. All those factors may well mean the failure of the experiment. That worries me very much indeed.
§ Mr. Favell
May I ask my hon. Friend whether he has had any explanation of why the Government are now moving from three Committees to two?
§ Sir Peter Emery
I am afraid that that is a question that the Government must answer, not the Chairman of the Select Committee on Procedure. I know of no other reason than those given by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House this evening.
We will therefore have two Committees which are really quite different from those envisaged by the Procedure Committee. Having said that, I want to return to what I said at the beginning, that it is better to get some Committees up and running and to deal with this matter rather than to delay it any further.
May I therefore ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, when he replies to the debate, to restate his assurance that, at the end of the Session, in the summer or perhaps in October—
§ Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)
It seems to me that what my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) is suggesting is that the membership of these Committees could usefully be much larger. There should then be a rule that not more than a certain number could sit at any one time. This would allow the specialists to be called in on specialist subjects. Would this not be one way of dealing with the very real problem that my hon. Friend has outlined?
§ Sir Peter Emery
I partly follow what my hon. Friend has said: that is another line of approach, and not one 283 taken by the Procedure Committee. As I know that other hon. Members wish to speak, I will not go down that particular valley at the moment.
I would, however, ask my right hon. Friend to give us an absolute assurance that, at the end of the summer, when we have seen some of the work of these Committees, he will look at them again, because when we compare two Committees of 13 members each, making 26 in all, with three Committees of 10 members each, making only 30 members in all, the membership argument seems to be slightly weak—although I accept that there may be some problems with the division of members of the Committees as regards the different parties in the House. We need the absolute assurance that, if this experiment appears not to be working as well as it might, the whole concept will not be rejected, because we have moved so far from what was originally recommended by the Procedure Committee.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)
Both the hon. Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell) and the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) put a very difficult question tonight concerning the quality and quantity of consultations which had taken place within the parties about the membership of these committees. It may be the case that the only party which has had such a series of discussions is the Liberal party—and, characteristically, its Members are absent from this debate. I have not been involved in any such consultations, and that is a problem common to both major parties in the House, whatever may have happened in some smaller parties.
§ Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)
In reply to the hon. Member's query, I can say that there has been full consultation with all the minority parties, including the SLD.
§ Dr. Godman
I am pleased to hear that. I look forward to regular attendance by these hon. Members at the Committee meetings. That will be the proof of the pudding when it comes to their interest.
Initially, I sympathised with the idea of five. Committees, but I just cannot believe that we could find in this place the hon. Members with the qualifications outlined by an earlier speaker. In my seven and a half years in the House, I have always noted the sparse attendance at these debates.
While I have some sympathy for the proposal by the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) that we devote a day each week to European Community matters, I still do not believe that there would be a large attendance unless we were dealing with controversial issues. There is still massive indifference here to the European Community, despite the fact that we now have in Brussels, among other things, a supreme court where the English and Scottish legal systems are covered, and that this House, along with the other 11 national legislatures in the EC, cannot impose upon the decision-makers in Brussels the necessary democratic checks and restraints.
All hon. Members, whether pro-integration or anti-integration, should be demanding checks and balances to be instituted formally in this House and in the other 11 legislatures. Failure to do that will accelerate the continuing diminution of power. We should be doing something about that. I am not speaking as someone who detests the European Community. In my part of Scotland, 284 we have benefited considerably from some Brussels decisions, but it is essential for us to acquire the power to which I have referred.
The proposal for five Committees is a fine ideal but utterly unattainable, given the massive indifference to which I have referred. We should be talking of three Committees. Again, that might be a difficult objective to achieve.
Earlier, I asked the Leader of the House about the fair division of labour between the two Committees. Considering the spread of responsibilities, I have difficulty in accepting the provisions on the qualifications of members. I suspect that members will be chosen on an ad hoc basis and that there will not be tough selection criteria for membership.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) asked the Leader of the House about the precedence to be given to hon. Members in the questioning of Ministers. That privilege should be given to the members of the Committee. If it is not, come a controversial subject and the appearance of a Minister to be cross-examined, hon. Members who are assiduous attenders of sessions may be pushed to one side by a gang of hon. Members who are anxious to be picked up by the television cameras.
§ Dr. Godman
My hon. Friend suggests Privy Councillors. Priority must be given to members of the Committee.
For the reasons already outlined, I sincerely hope that the two Committees are a success in the very important work which they have to carry out on behalf not only of the House and its largely indifferent Members but of the people whom we represent in our constituencies.
§ Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)
I strongly support the Leader of the House in his motion tonight, because I want to see the House scrutinise European legislation far more effectively than it has tried to do in the past. I make common cause with my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) on that point. How many times have I sat in this Chamber when we have had the late night debate about which he has complained and said that the whole process was a farce?
There will, of course, be problems with the new Standing Committees. I should like to go further than the proposals we have tonight. I have always thought that these Committees should have their own Chairmen rather than these being drawn from the Chairman's Panel. That would give them greater coherence and enable them to have a much bigger public impact, just as Select Committees are having a bigger public impact.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East was crude enough, perhaps, to say that some people would be press-ganged to serve on these Committees. I have certainly made it known to certain people that I should be very happy to serve, and I think that others would do the same. But there would be a problem here. You would quickly rule me out of order if I referred to last night's debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but there is a problem about manning the Committees of the House which has perhaps been ignored up to now. Without going into details, perhaps some hon. Members were rather surprised to find 285 themselves being nominated for a particular Select Committee, possibly in contravention of Standing Order 104. I will not weary the House or labour the point, but there is a problem.
I therefore think that the proposal before the House tonight that we should have two Standing Committees, although I would like to see three, is a realistic one.
§ Mr. Harris
I am quite happy with the present proposal to exclude them, because they are not being debarred from giving these new Standing Committees the benefit of their considerable experience. I envisage a situation in which, for example, the Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee, given his intense interest in these issues, will come along to one of the Standing Committees and make known his views and the views of his Committee.
My hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) is absolutely right: we have not got a perfect situation by reducing the number of Standing Committees to two, but it is a darn sight better that what we have had up to now, and I think that the House, at the end of this debate, should give the authority for the establishment of those two Committees and let them make a good job, in spite of all the difficulties, of the very important task in front of them.
§ Mr. Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden)
I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will take careful note of what is being said in the debate, because he is acute enough to realise that there is a degree of questioning right across the House about whether we are anywhere near getting our procedures right for scrutiny in all its aspects.
I want this proposal to go forward tonight. It is more modest than I would have liked and I think that, if it is to work, and if we are to have confidence in the improvement of scrutiny, a great deal of good will is required on all sides. Good will is needed on the part of hon. Members, to attend if they are appointed to these Committees and if scrutiny is to be effective. Good will is also needed on the part of members of the Scrutiny Committee itself to ensure that we are operating in the right spirit in the recommendations that we make as to where debates should take place.
It requires good will from the Government to recognise unease in the House. Major issues may arise from documents that merit debate on the Floor of the House. Were the Government to take a restrictive view of the number of documents that could be considered on the Floor of the House following a recommendation by the Select Committee, it would create some dismay among hon. Members. We must try to achieve the right balance. I hope that the Government will be prepared to experiment and quickly reconsider the proposal if it does not appear to be working out.
The debate has been enlarged from the modest proposal that is before us. The proposal is worth supporting if it is seen as only a start. It is at least an improvement and I am glad to speak in support of the hon. Member for Newham, 286 South (Mr. Spearing) who is my Chairman in the Select Committee on European Legislation. It should be better to have a Committee that has continuity than one that is appointed ad hoc to consider particular documents, and it will have the added benefit of being able to question a Minister about a document. The mechanism to improve scrutiny is available. Much will depend on the good will of hon. Members who are appointed to do the job properly and in the right spirit.
There has been a credibility gap floating like a bubble over the debate on whether hon. Members will be prepared to do their duty in carrying out scrutiny on behalf of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) and his 149 friends, if he is to be believed, must be a stock that can be drawn on. Is there, by contrast, some doubt among hon. Members that the reality of attendance at debates in the Chamber and in Committee is not always what it should be? There is no point in deluding ourselves. As one or two of my hon. Friends have pointed out, much as we complain about the system, we have not always distinguished ourselves in operating the systems that are available to us.
Some adverse comment has been made about tonight's attendance, but it would do credit to some debates held earlier in the day. It has been a thoughtful debate, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will take it in the right spirit and will be prepared to see it as a further chapter, and not the last word, in the way in which the House deals with scrutiny.
§ Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst). To some extent, that indicates the natural wish of hon. Members of the Select Committee on European Legislation, of which he is a member—its Chairman, the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), like the Chairman of the Select Committee on Procedure, my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), has contributed to the debate—that this experiment should be successful. That is important, and not for the ironic result of trying to apply strict and more profound scrutiny to EC legislation than to domestic legislation.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden implied, it is somewhat suprising and ironic to reflect that, on major financial legislation, the House can vote billions of pounds of new Government expenditure and Supply with only a few hon. Members paying the slightest attention, while a Commission proposal costing a couple of million ecu produces an over-excited reaction from more hon. Members, as if yet another act of rape is taking place by European Community institutions of the hapless British body politic. We must keep that in perspective.
Members of the Scrutiny Committee agree with the recommendation of the Procedure Committee and are particularly anxious that the new Select Committees succeed. We share the disappointment that has been expressed that it is a watered-down and reduced structure, although we acknowledge that the Leader of the House and his predecessor did their best in trying to get this together.
I was intrigued by the remarks of the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) that members of the two Committees would be selected ad hoc. I surmised that he meant Members in the Tea Room who 287 could not get out of the door before being pounced on and having their name added to the list. I assume that the selections that are made through the usual channels, in sophisticated conversations and consultations, are more scientific and subtle than that. [Interruption.] Some of my hon. Friends suggest that that is not the way in which we will work. I am disappointed, because we should have a Parnassian procedure to achieve the right composition of the two Committees.
Although he rejected the affectionate overtures of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris), my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) was wrong to assume that we do not share his objectives. That is where hon. Members from both sides of the House and from different parties come together. It is not true that those who have a slight sceptism at the margins about some elements of our membership of the Community—if I can put the attitude of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East in that way—are the only people who are enthusiastic about thorough and profound scrutiny.
§ Mr. Dykes
Not for the moment, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.
I know that my hon. Friend wants to have thorough scrutiny because he wants to improve the Community's legislation and make us a stronger and more integrated member of it. Thorough scrutiny is a common objective of all Members of Parliament.
In a way, we are burdened with the original, somewhat artificial, constitutional political objective. Scrutiny was introduced for different reasons from ours. We are now lumbered—if that is the right word to use—with a procedure which is on some occasions too profound for the material under consideration, if that is not too much of an irony.
§ Mr. Dykes
May I continue for a moment?
Precisely because of the original objective, we must make the Committees work. Therefore, it is essential that members of the Committees—and those who are not members, when they choose to attend—do not attend only for the ministerial interrogation and then disappear. I hope that a good number of people will attend, especially if the Committees are televised and broadcast, which would be a good thing.
If members disappear for the rest of the sittings of the Committees, the Committees will be like Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, which hon. Members attend to do their correspondence and leave as soon as possible. There is sometimes a game to see how short the Committee can be. Everyone then agrees that the Statutory Instrument has been considered. If that happens, the Committees will be run down and will not have the significance that my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) and his colleagues wished when they drew up the procedures.
At least the suggestions of the Committee on the European Standing Committees were taken up by the official channels in the office of the Leader of the House more quickly than other suggestions made by the Procedure Committee over the years. That is a good sign, but it is an uneasy mixture. It is as uneasy as the mess with the 288 telephones. We are still waiting for the office of the Leader of the House to respond on that matter. I do not want him and his colleagues to rush excessively, but we have been discussing it for five years. It is a recklessly short period, but people are gradually coming to the conclusion that if possible—the engineers tell us that it can be achieved and they do not rush to conclusions either—we should have dedicated lines so that we can interrogate officials in the Commission and elsewhere, both British and foreign—although, of course, it is more difficult and dangerous when one is talking to foreigners—about aspects of proposed and putative Community legislation. That would also be good for the members of the Committees.
§ Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)
I preface my remarks by saying that I am one of the people who abhor the concept of the European Community loading our already overburdened legislative programme with many more regulations, which, if the Community has its way, will set in concrete almost every aspect of our national and private lives. I am torn between examining this stuff in detail in several Committees, or doing as the French do—nodding it through and then operating it to suit ourselves—or as the Italians do—nod it through and then ignore it. But we always like to do things properly in this country, so we must examine this stuff and in some respects modify it. I entirely support my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) in his desire that it be properly scrutinised.
I am worried by the idea that we should staff the Committees with experts. It was suggested that the reason why we could not have as many Committees as originally planned is that we cannot find enough experts. Heaven forbid that we should have these regulations, which a re bureaucratic nightmares, scrutinised by teams of experts. Surely the whole concept of this place is that it should be a jury of everyman, putting a common-sense view of what the legislature would thrust on us.
§ Dr. Godman
I must have explained myself in an obscure way. I am cynical enough to believe that we would never find enough volunteers for three Committees, let alone five.
§ Mrs. Gorman
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am one of a number of people present to whom the idea of serving on the Committees has never been mentioned. It may well be that I am known for my temperamental dislike of Committees, which take up a great deal of our time when we might be more usefully occupied, but I support the idea that there should be an opportunity for those of us with particular concerns to go and discuss them at some length.
The most interesting point to be raised in the debate, apart from the informative description of the Procedure Committee's idea that we should have five Committees, was the remark made by the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson), who proposed a Grand Committee. Perhaps he can say whether the Government's inability to proceed with the Procedure Committee's suggestion has something to do with Opposition Members pushing for a Grand Committee. By failing to co-operate with the idea of producing enough Members for the Committees, perhaps the hon. Member for Hamilton is actually trying to move towards one Grand Committee to consider the enormous amount of legislation. If that were so, would he not agree 289 that the Grand Committee would have to sit as often and as long as the House to pay proper attention to the amount of legislation that the European Community puts our way?
§ Mr. Robertson
I do not think that this is the time or place—particularly not the time—for a lengthy debate on the idea of a European Grand Committee, which I think is sound. However, for the sake of accuracy and so that the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) can return to other aspects of her speech, the Grand Committee proposal is not the reason why the Leader of the House is here today with his suggestion for two Committees. That was not the motivation behind the workings of the usual channels.
§ Mrs. Gorman
1 thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. As my hon. Friends have suggested in their interventions, I am still intrigued to know how the Government came to their conclusion that two Committees were enough. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will say whether there must be 13 people on the Committees or whether, instead, there could be three Committees of eight, nine or even seven, especially as the quorum is only three, presumably the Minister, the Opposition spokesman and A. N. Other—[HON. MEMBERS: "The Whip."]—and the Whip. All those details have yet to be made clear, and I am concerned that the Government should pay due attention to the need to scrutinise the information adequately.
§ Mr. Favell
My hon. Friend has addressed the issue of the number of Committees, which is important, and I have asked about it. Will she consider amendment (d), tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) on the necessity of the Committees, no matter how many of them there are, reporting back to the House? If they do not, the power will not lie with the scrutineers, but with those who choose them. The power will be with the people who decide the make-up of the Committees, rather than with the House, and the power of the House will be taken away.
§ Mrs. Gorman
My hon. Friend makes his point perfectly well. I will not continue with my remarks, as I see my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House anxiously looking at the clock, but I hope that, when he winds up, he will make clear the reasons for the Government's decision, as I am not clear what their motives really are.
§ Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)
I shall make three quick points. First, I support my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) in his disquiet at the choice of Chairman for the Committees. They would benefit greatly from permanent Chairmen, not ones chosen ad hoc from the Chairman's Panel. There has been plenty of talk about that, so I will not pursue the matter, but I believe that there is a need for permanent Chairmen.
The automaticity of the proposed procedure will make it very difficult for the House to intervene, despite the fact that very serious issues, with political ramifications, ought to be discussed on the Floor of the House. The report-back situation, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell), is very important. If one of the Committees disagreed with the position that a Minister intended to take at the Council of Ministers, a 290 difficult situation would arise. It would be very difficult indeed to proceed with a measure with which Parliament disagreed.
Lastly, I want to know how a Minister, having been ignored or defeated by the Council of Ministers, would report to the House.
§ 12.1 am
§ Mr. MacGregor
In the few remaining minutes, I shall respond to as many points as possible.
This has been a very interesting debate. I am glad that so many of my hon. Friends and Opposition Members support—albeit sometimes with reservations—the course on which we are embarked.
My hon. Friends the Members for St. Ives (Mr. Harris), for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst), for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) and for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) all agree that it is right to get on with these proposals, as they represent a considerable improvement. I certainly agree with my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives that scrutiny will be improved and intensified. I am grateful for his support.
The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) asked whether non-members of the two Committees would be able to question Ministers and, if so, what priority their questions would have. Indeed they will be able to put questions. The degree of priority will probably lie with the Committee Chairmen. No doubt the Committees will evolve their own ethos. The hon. Gentleman asked whether Ministers would be full members. No, they will not. However, they will be questioned in the hour's session, and they will be able to sum up and respond to points in the normal way.
The servicing of these Committees—another point that the hon. Member raised—will be similar to that of other Standing Committees. Indeed, these will be Standing Committees, not Select Committees.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) raised a number of points, with which I shall deal as quickly as possible. He made several critical comments about the number of hon. Members involved. I repeat that any hon. Member will be entitled to attend and participate in Committee meetings. Clearly, Members will want to hear the debates on documents in which they are interested. Scrutiny of documents will be longer than it is under the present arrangements.
The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden wondered just how many Members would attend for some of these scrutiny operations. Their doubts may well be justified: that is why we set the quorum at a reasonable level. I hope that we are wrong; I hope that 149 of the colleagues of my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden will attend each Committee meeting. We shall have to wait and see, but I doubt it very much. Certainly we are providing more opportunity for participation. In any case, this is one of the matters that may be subject to review in the light of experience.
The hon. Gentleman made a great deal of the point that this would not enable the House to examine European issues. Indeed, he went way beyond the documents, to deal with such issues as agricultural surpluses. The House, he said, would not be able to examine these matters sufficiently closely. He knows as well as I do that there are many other means of addressing wider issues. They can, for instance, be dealt with by Select Committees and on the 291 Floor of the House, as is done pretty frequently. For instance, on Thursday we shall have an all-day debate on the important subject of economic and monetary union.
It is a substantial misrepresentation of the situation to suggest that the major European issues will be dealt with solely by these Committees, or that the House's general scrutiny of European matters will be confined. Far from it —the Committees will be concerned with particular European Community documents that the Select Committee recommends for further consideration. The documents that are most important politically will still be taken on the Floor of the House.
I spent about four years attending intense debates in the Council of Agriculture Ministers and I experienced the decision taking, the policy making and everything else. The House probably scrutinises most of the European proposals more than most, if not all, of the other European legislatives. This is a great help to Ministers, and I believe that this proposal will be an even greater help. The Minister who has been questioned and has listened to views for an hour and, following that, to a debate for an hour and a half in Committee, will have his hand strengthened for when he goes to the Council of Ministers, because he will have a greater knowledge of the views taken by Parliament. That opinion is based on my experience.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) knows, in the Council of Ministers, decisions are often taken on a majority basis, and if we cannot make our view prevail on any issue, there is not a great deal that the scrutiny Committees can do. Il was never intended that these Committees would deal with that issue.
I confirm to the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) that I intend to announce forthcoming Committee debates in the weekly Business Questions. That will strengthen the position of the Committees, and will alert hon. Members who are not on the Committees to what will happen, and enable them to adjust their diaries accordingly. As he rightly said, it will also bring the Committees more publicity.
The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) raised, both in an intervention to me and in his own speech, a point about the division of the subjects between the two Committees. This is also something that can be adjusted in the light of experience, and each session will be different. In the last Session, 23 scrutiny debates would have fallen to Committee A, and 19 to Committee B, so I hope that we shall get balance right.
My hon. Friend the Member for Honiton has great knowledge of these matters, so I listened to his speech with great interest. I accept that the Committees that we are proposing are different from those proposed by the Procedure Committee, of which he is Chairman. There can be a number of views about how we set up these Committees, and about their membership.
I hope that the fact that any hon. Member will be able to come to these Committees—I keep stressing this point because it is an important feature—will mean that some of the worries about their being simply confined to the 13 members of each Committee will be overcome. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for saying that it is better to get the Committees up and running so that we get the experience, because they are an improvement on the 292 present system. I am also grateful for all the work that he and his Committee have done in enabling us to get to this point.
I am happy to restate my assurance that I am prepared to review this at the end of the Session—a point about which my hon. Friend asked. Many of the hon. Members here tonight will wish to express their views in the light of the experience of the next six months. I hope that we can get on with these Committees so that we can gain that experience.
Amendment made: (b), after 'thirteen', insert`in paragraph (4), line 24, leave out "two" and insert "three".'. —[Mr. Spearing.]Amendment proposed: (d), at end add`in paragraph (8), line 65, at the end add "The Committee shall also have power to report to the House its conclusions on any matter arising out of its consideration of documents referred to it under the provisions of the Order.".'.—[Mr. Teddy Taylor.]The House proceeded to a Division; but no Member being willing to act as Teller for the Ayes, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER declared that the Noes had it.
It being more than one and a half hours after the motion was entered upon, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER proceeded, pursuant to the Order [18 January], to put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the motion, as amended, and of the motion relating to European Community documents.
Ordered,That the following Amendments be made to Standing Order No. 102 (European Standing Committees):in paragraph (1), line 1, leave out 'three' and `two';in paragraph (3), line 15, leave out 'ten' and insert `thirteen';in paragraph (4), line 24, leave out 'two' and insert `three';in paragraph (6), line 34, leave out 'several' and leave out the table following pargraph (6) and insert the following table:
European Standing Committees Principal subject matter Matters within the responsibility of the following Departments— A Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Transport; Environment; and Forestry Commission (and analogous responsibilities of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Offices); B Other DepartmentsThat—
- (1) European Community Document No. 6701/90, relating to pollution from diesel engines, which stands referred to European Standing Committee B, shall instead stand referred to European Standing Committee A; and
- (2) the following Documents which stand referred to European Standing Committee C shall instead stand referred to European Standing Committee B:European Community Documents Nos. 8353/90, relating to customs controls on baggage, 8073/90, relating to organisation of working time, 9025/90, relating to nuclear fusion research, 6703/88, relating to burden of proof in the area of equal pay and treatment for men and women, 8461/88, relating to import duties on weapons and military equipment, 8162/90, relating to procurement procedures of water, energy, transport and telecommunications undertakings, 8075/90 relating to safety on temporary work sites, 8792/90, relating to protection of pregnant women at work, 8460/90, relating to protection of individuals in relation to processing of personal 293 data in the Community and information security, 10149/90, relating to the promotion of energy efficiency in the Community, and the Commission Report on the benefits and costs of economic and monetary union.—[Mr. MacGregor.]