§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. MacKay.]
[Relevant documents: The Second Report from the Select Committee on Procedure of Session 1989–90 (HC 19), on The Working of the Select Committee System, and the Government response (Cm. 1532.)]4.27 pm
§ Sir Terence Higgins (Worthing)
I greatly welcome this opportunity to debate the role of Select Committees. It is 15 years almost to the day—the actual anniversary was last weekend—since the House approved a motion for reforming its Select Committee system and establishing departmental Select Committees to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the various Government Departments.
At that time, Norman St. John-Stevas, who was much involved in these affairs, said that it could constitute the most important parliamentary reform of the century. While that may have seemed a little over the top at the time, none the less there is some justification for saying that it has made a substantial difference to our procedures, and in many ways has been a considerable success.
It is almost four years since the Select Committee on Procedure reported on the working of the Select Committee system. The House should be grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) and that Committee for the report which they produced after taking a great deal of evidence from all those who were concerned about these matters. The Government replied formally to the points raised in the Procedure Committee's report, but it is rather extraordinary that we have had to wait four years for an opportunity to debate it.
The Committee reached the conclusion that the departmental Committee system as a whole had proved itself a valuable and cost-effective addition to the House's ability to perform its proper function of holding Ministers to account. Certainly I believe that, in that respect, it has been a considerable success.
Looking back over the past 15 years to when the change was made and a new Administration came in under the then Mrs. Thatcher, it is strange to reflect that her most lasting contribution to political events may not have been the Falklands war or the miners' strike or even—in the light of what was said a few moments ago—her battles with various members of the EC, but the introduction of the departmental Select Committee system. That may be something of an irony, but nonetheless I think it is interesting.
I recall that some distinguished Members at the time—Michael Foot, Enoch Powell and others—said that we would draw attention away from the Floor of House were we to establish such a system. I do not believe that that has been the case. It is certainly the case that some Members have difficulty being both on the Floor of House and in Committee at the same time. The reality is that that there are no fewer than four Committees sitting at this moment whose Members are therefore unable to be with us this afternoon.
§ Mr. Giles Radice (Durham, North)
I just wish to correct a factual mistake by the right hon. Gentleman. Enoch Powell was a member of the Select Committee of 571 1976 which proposed the system of departmental Select Committees and, while he took some persuading, he came out in favour of that. He was a supporter of that idea.
§ Sir Terence Higgins
Enoch Powell certainly was a supporter of the idea, but he had some qualms that it would affect the Floor of the House. I do not believe that that has been the case. The crucial thing is that the system has greatly improved the ability of the House to hold Ministers to account. For many years, power seemed to be shifting from the House of Commons towards the Executive. That was reversed.
We all know that, at Question Time on the Floor of the House—not least because the questions change from moment to moment—it can be very difficult to pin a Minister down. It is also very often the case that, during a winding-up speech, a Minister will have little difficulty in avoiding the more difficult questions which have been put to him. It is a different ball game in exchanges in front of a Select Committee, where a Minister can be questioned for two hours or more. If the Minister is clearly on weak ground, the Committee can make that clear.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
Can the right hon. Gentleman think of any examples off the top of his head when, on a crunch issue—an issue that really matters—a Minister has been held to account? I sat there when Leon Brittan, who has been much mentioned this afternoon, came before the Trade and Industry Select Committee on the crunch issue of Westland, and I realised how feeble the Select Committee' powers were.
§ Sir Terence Higgins
That is the exception which may prove the rule. The reality at that time was that it was difficult to pursue matters to a conclusion, and I think that that was an exception. In many other cases, it has been possible to pursue Ministers very effectively—not least, for example, on the Treasury Select Committee.
§ Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)
My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) asked for an example of someone being held to account, and Professor Joad would ask what we meant by "being held to account". It is noticeable that the person mentioned by my hon. Friend is not now a Member of this House.
§ Sir Terence Higgins
That may be the case.
May I also make an important point suggested during the rather excellent debate on procedure which we had only last week: that the House would be very different if it sat in a semi-circle, rather than in confrontation across the Floor of the House. I believe that current design of the Chamber is undoubtedly the right set-up. There is no doubt, however, that the semi-circular arrangement in Select Committees, where witnesses appear before an all-party group, has created an effective forum. That is especially clear, for example, on television.
It is also extraordinary that Select Committees seem to reach unanimous conclusions and publish unanimous reports, which never seems to happen on the Floor of the House. In the past 15 years, one of the undoubted strengths of the system has been the fact that Select Committees have published unanimous reports, across party lines. Those reports have correspondingly had a greater influence than would have been the case if those Committees had simply divided on party lines.
§ Sir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West)
Does my right hon. Friend also agree that it was extremely wise of the Select Committee on Broadcasting to insist that Select Committees, rather than merely the Chamber should be broadcast on television? As a result, although the public regard what goes on in the Chamber with some cynicism and contempt, they are greatly impressed by the work of those Select Committees.
§ Sir Terence Higgins
My hon. Friend has made a good point. In common with all hon. Members, I have received letters from constituents complaining about the behaviour during Prime Minister's Question Time, which is what most people watch on television. In contrast, I have received a number of letters from those who watch the affairs of Select Committees on television. They believe that those Committees provide a much more in-depth, civilised and sophisticated approach to dealing with political issues. That is extremely important to the standing of the House.
§ Sir Terence Higgins
I shall gladly give way later.
Apart from holding Ministers to account, Select Committees have given officials a much higher profile than before. They are now subject to more stringent scrutiny than that which they may receive from their Ministers, who might be preoccupied with a great many other issues.
The role of the Liaison Select Committee—
§ Sir Terence Higgins
Let me make a little progress, please.
The Liaison Select Committee normally meets in private and rarely publishes reports, so its work is not generally understood. It has the important role of co-ordinating the work of the various Select Committees and resolving difficulties between them.
I have had the privilege of chairing that Committee for seven years, and it is surprising to note that I have co-operated and worked with no fewer than six different Leaders of the House. I seem to have survived in my position rather better than they have. Every one of them has been a great supporter of the Select Committee system. On the whole, the interface between the Liaison Committee and Government has worked remarkably well. I have also enjoyed similarly successful discussions with and co-operation from the Opposition, which is important.
There are problems of co-ordination from time to time—for example, because of the overlap between the work of the Public Accounts Committee and a departmental committee, when covering the same ground. Problems have also arisen about getting information from the Government, particularly when it is classified or confidential. We have, however, worked out a reasonable modus vivendi.
I should like to comment, on an all-party basis, on the role of the Whips in Select Committees, which I believe should be limited. I recognise that, if we are to have a Government majority on each Committee, while ensuring that some of those Committees are chaired by Opposition Members, that can be achieved only by consultation through the usual channels.
That system has worked pretty well on the whole, but I 573 believe that, once the chairmanship of Committees has been agreed at the beginning of a Parliament—always a difficult task—the actual election of those Chairmen should be left to the Committees themselves. I have become concerned about the role of the Whips, for two reasons.
First, in the debate that took place on 13 July 1993, the view was clearly expressed that there was a rule that Committee Chairmen should not serve more than a certain length of time. I believe that there is no such rule, and that it was invented by the Select Committee on Selection at the time. It was absurd to suggest that such a rule applied only to one side of the House. I hope that we shall hear no more of that rule. On the other hand, we would not want to end up with a seniority rule such as exists in the United States.
I say all that with no personal interest, because I had already decided that I should not continue as Chairman of the Treasury Select Committee. I hope that a similar case, in which the hand of the Whips is clearly discernible, will not arise in future.
Similarly—as Chairman of an all-party Committee, it is appropriate that I be even-handed—I was deeply concerned about the events of recent months when restrictions on travel by the Opposition Whips inhibited Committees' work. That was totally counter-productive. Committees were not just prevented from travelling abroad, but the Education Committee, for example, was prevented from travelling around the country to visit schools. The Opposition's idea that that would annoy the Government was ridiculous. I hope that we can treat it as a one-off event. It is important that Committees established to serve the House should be able to operate in an uninhibited manner.
§ Mr. Faulds
In case my earlier "Hear, hears" were not recorded, I stand simply to put it on the record that I thought that the nonsense a few months ago was absolutely ridiculous, and typical of some of the rather raddled minds of the Whips. I strongly endorse the comments which the right hon. Gentleman has just made.
§ Sir Terence Higgins
It is clear from the expression on the face of the Opposition Whip that the hon. Gentleman's views have been duly noted.
May I say a word about overseas travel? Some of the comments that have appeared in the press are entirely misplaced. We operate on a budget which, compared to those of other countries, is extremely limited. The Liaison Committee seeks to deal with the matter stringently, so that we get value for money. In its report, the Procedure Committee suggested that there should be a sub-committee of non-travelling members on the Liaison Committee. At least we have moved some way in that direction.
I was originally elected as Chairman of the Liaison Committee because I was serving on that Committee and had a base, in that I was also Chairman of the Treasury Committee. In this Parliament, the view was taken that it was a conflict of interests if the Chairman of the Liaison Committee also held the chairmanship of another Committee. So it was decided that the Chairman of the Liaison Committee should not have a base Committee. That is the position in which I now find myself. It follows that I do not travel overseas with Select Committees, and can be impartial.
574 I strongly stress that travel proposals are examined stringently. Anyone who has been on one of those visits knows that they are hard work and of value to the Committees concerned.
§ Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman. I have sat under his chairmanship and believe that he is an extremely impartial, hard-working and intelligent Chairman of the Liaison Committee.
Will he emphasise strongly that, despite its best endeavours, the Liaison Committee is so mean with Parliament's money that Select Committees have to rush across time zones with little respect for the work which they are supposed to carry out? I have been on Select Committees on three occasions when insufficient time was allowed to members physically to recover from the travel which they were expected to do. That is damaging, and I hope that it will be taken into account in future.
§ Sir Terence Higgins
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the commercial at the beginning of her intervention. Clearly we must strike a balance on those matters, and I hope that we do so as far as possible, taking account of the important point which she has just made.
The House may not be fully aware of an interesting development that has occurred largely at the initiative of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry. It has carried out an experiment on so-called "video conferencing", whereby, instead of travelling overseas, a video conference links the Committee with witnesses abroad.
It raises some technical problems with regard to the evidence that is taken, the procedure of the House and questions of costs. None the less, we must examine it to see whether it enables Committees to take evidence from people overseas without the expense of them coming here, or the expense and time consumed by colleagues going overseas. That development may not commend itself to everyone, but it is well worth considering. We shall need to take careful account of the implications for the formal procedures of the House.
The other formal duty of the Liaison Committee concerns the selection of estimates days, of which we have three a year or, in practice now, six half days a year. I wish to disagree with the report of the Procedure Committee, because it suggested that those estimates days should be replaced by days for debate on Select Committee reports generally.
Estimates days are the only occasion when the House can debate the detail of public expenditure. They were introduced because the House was in an absurd position, with literally no opportunity to debate the detail of public expenditure. Although, to some extent, estimates days are a little artificial as, under Standing Orders, the House is allowed to debate only a reduction in public expenditure and not an increase, they provide an important opportunity for it to study the detail.
It is important that Committees' terms of reference say clearly that they are responsible for looking at the expenditure, policy and administration of the Departments concerned. No one who serves on Select Committees could doubt that the first of those items—expenditure—is not dealt with as thoroughly as the other two. The reason is largely technical. The form of the estimates is scanty, consisting of bare titles and figures, and Committees have found them difficult to assess.
575 Over the years, and since I left the Chair, the Treasury Committee has been assiduous in looking at the form of those estimates, and we have gradually seen the development of the departmental Select Committee reports, which incorporate much of the information that used to appear in the raw state in the estimates. Technically, it is important to have estimates days, but the new departmental reports provide Committees of the House with a real opportunity to study expenditure in a broader framework, and to deal with the merits of the case.
§ Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)
Will my right hon. Friend take into account the fact that, in proposing subjects for debate that were not concerned with the estimates, on a number of occasions Committees put in rather fallacious factors about estimates, so that they could come forward, on an estimates day, and have those debated? I do not disagree with my right hon. Friend about the need to ensure that estimates can be debated, but, equally, an important Select Committee report that is not concerned with estimates should not be ruled out from debate because it does not deal with estimates.
§ Sir Terence Higgins
I entirely take my right hon. Friend's point. I suggest that we retain the estimates days, but also have an opportunity each year for a certain number of debates on departmental reports and the expenditure described in them, on the basis of the reports from the various Select Committees. Perhaps, as with the estimates days, the choice of which reports to debate should be left to the Liaison Committee.
This year, a "unified Budget" has been introduced—but it is a myth. It is not really a unified Budget. We have always debated public expenditure and taxation together, in the autumn statement and during the Budget debate. Nothing has been gained in that respect. However, there has been a substantial reduction in the amount of time that the House has for debating economic affairs.
Instead of the autumn statement and the public expenditure White Paper in the spring, and the Budget running through until August, we are now down to a single event each year.
At the moment, we spend nearly all our time debating taxation, not public expenditure. With a unified Budget, insteadof having more debate on public expenditure and therefore bringing the two sides together, we now have even less time for debating public expenditure.
I say to the Leader of the House that there has been a considerable saving in Government time as a result of the so-called unified Budget. I believe that a reasonable amount of that time ought now to be allocated to the debates on the Select Committee reports on the public expenditure described in the annual reports of the Departments.
The third leg of this argument, which emerges very clearly from discussions in the Liaison Committee, is that time is needed to debate other Select Committee reports. Some Committees, such as the Defence Committee, have set opportunities during the year for doing so; the Treasury Committee also, although on the limited basis that have described, has a regular opportunity for doing so; many of the reports are "tagged", as the expression is, so that they can be used in debates on specific subjects, but still no regular time is available to debate the reports of Select Committees in general. We need a separate allocation for 576 that, which would reflect the growing importance of the Committees and the growing respect in which they are held.
I shall briefly mention one or two subjects before concluding—one, mentioned in the Procedure Committee report, concerns Standing Order No. 116 and the issue of advanced copies of reports. There have been some problems about that. I know that one of the Committees, whose Chairman is unable to be here this afternoon, is concerned about it. I hope that we could amend the Standing Order to two sitting days instead of 48 hours. That would enable Committees, in exceptional circumstances, not to publish reports before the weekend, but to release them on an embargo basis and publish them on the Monday. I hope that it will be possible to do that.
The Procedure Committee has dealt adequately with powers. Committees have very great powers to require the production of persons and papers, but those powers do not extend to the summoning of Members of this House or Members of the House of Lords. I think that that is right. The Procedure Committee rightly draws attention to the fact that, although there was a slight problem with the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) some time ago, it is unlikely that anyone will refuse to give evidence if they are asked to do so by a Select Committee. The Government have adhered to their promise to ensure that Ministers do.
It is true that we may not summon Members of the House of Lords, although I was rather surprised at the comments of Lady Thatcher, who was invited recently to appear before the Foreign Affairs Committee, saying that she was not prepared to do so, as an ex-Prime Minister. She was entitled to say that she would not appear as a Member of the House of Lords, but to my knowledge no similar rule extends to ex-Prime Ministers. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) and Lord Callaghan have, I think, appeared before Select Committees.
§ Mr. Ainger
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned accountability and the importance of the unanimity of reports, and now he has moved on to powers. Does he accept that it is important that topicality is also taken into account in specific reports, and that the Government respond to those reports in a reasonable time?
I mention that because the Transport Select Committee, of which I am not a member, published a report on search and rescue in west Wales and the Dover straits, and the evidence contained the information that a search-and-rescue facility would be withdrawn from my constituency on 1 July. That report, which recommended that the search-and-rescue facility was not withdrawn, was published on 29 March. The Transport Select Committee still has not received a response from the Government.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, in such circumstances, powers should be given to the Select Committee to obtain a response in a reasonable time?
§ Sir Terence Higgins
A specific provision already exists, as I think the Leader of the House will confirm—a time limit in which the Government are required to respond. I have on occasion pursued the matter when it appears that that time limit is likely to be exceeded, but I shall happily inquire into the matter that the hon. Gentleman has rightly mentioned.
577 I shall make a point about the European Legislation Committee, which is a non-departmental Committee. Both it and the Public Accounts Committee in its traditional role, and especially its extended role with regard to value for money exercises, continue to serve a very important function. However, the position of the European Legislation Committee is extremely difficult. It considers about 800 to 1,000 Community documents a year, it recommends examination of about 300 to 400 a year that have legal or political importance, and it takes evidence on seven or eight every week from the Government.
In spite of the enormous efforts of this Committee, we must consider whether that is a satisfactory way to proceed. I have a hankering after the proposal that I made the previous time the subject was examined—that there is a case for the individual departmental Committees to have a Sub-Committee that considers European affairs.
The departmental Committees have the expertise, whereas the ad hoc Committees that meet in the morning move from subject to subject and have no serious expertise on the specific matters that are being discussed. It might be necessary to augment that Sub-Committee with volunteers who are specifically interested in European affairs. I hope that we may reconsider that proposal.
Finally, I make two arguments about the future. First, I have been deeply worried, as was the Procedure Committee, about the delay in establishing Committees at the beginning of a Parliament. The problem is that, at that crucial moment, no one in the House represents the interests of Select Committees. Therefore there is prolonged delay, not only while the Government are appointed—that takes place very quickly—and not only while the shadow Cabinet is appointed, but afterwards. The Procedure Committee report said that, on previous occasions, about one eighth of a whole Parliament had passed before the Committees were set up.
Before the next general election, we need to establish some mechanism for ensuring that that delay is not as prolonged as it has been in the past. However, I pay tribute to the present Leader of the House, who was extremely helpful in setting a record—but not a very good one—in getting the Committees set up after the most recent general election.
It is a real problem, because the staff are sitting doing nothing, the Committees are unable to proceed with the work, and the Government remain unscrutinised during that period. That is a very important issue, which we need to tackle very shortly, so that the mechanism is in place before the next general election, either by setting a specific time limit or making an arrangement about the time expiring after the shadow Cabinet and the Cabinet have been appointed.
I do not believe that our system will ever develop into the American system, as there is a fundamental difference between our two constitutions. We have a system in which the Executive comes from the legislature, which necessarily means that Select Committees cannot have effective functions in the same way as those in the American system.
I believe that the Committee system in its reformed state is a substantial improvement on the previous system. The amount of work done in Select Committees is not generally appreciated by the public at large, but it is valuable. We 578 need a firmer link between the Committees and the extent to which their reports can be debated on the Floor of the House. I hope that we can make further progress on that.
§ 5 pm
§ Mr. Giles Radice (Durham, North)
I was a member of the 1976 Procedure Committee which first proposed the establishment of a system of investigative departmentally related Select Committees. It is not revealing any secrets to say that our proposal was a compromise between those who merely wanted to keep the Expenditure Committee system—including Mr. Enoch Powell—and those of us, including Phillip Whitehead, who has just been elected as a European Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett), the right hon. Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker) and myself, who wanted a much more ambitious system.
Eventually, after a long debate and an all-day seminar session—in which we persuaded Mr. Powell that a departmentally related Select Committee system would merely draw out the implications of the Expenditure Committee system of the 1960s because that system included a series of Sub-Committees—we came up with the following ideas. We stated at the time:a new balance must be struck, not by changes of a fundamental or revolutionary character in the formal powers of the institutions concerned, but by changes in practice of an evolutionary kind, following naturally from present practices.That was a nod to Mr. Powell. We said:We have approached our task not in the hope of making the job of government more comfortable, the weapons of Opposition more formidable, or the life of the backbencher more bearable, but with the aim of enabling the House as a whole to exercise effective control and stewardship over Ministers and the expanding bureaucracy of the modern state for which they are answerable, and to make the decisions of Parliament and Government more responsive to the wishes of the electorate.We hoped that the investigative Committees wouldbecome the 'eyes and ears' of the House in relation to Government departments, drawing the attention of Members to matters which require further political consideration and providing Members with advice and informed comment which can nourish the work of the House in scrutinising and criticising the activities and proposals of the Executive.That was what we were trying to do.
We were fortunate to have as Leader of the House of Commons when the Thatcher Government first came to power, Norman St. John-Stevas. I am not certain that the then Prime Minister, now Lady Thatcher, knew what was happening when she set up the Select Committees. That system was very much the baby of Norman St. John-Stevas, who took the proposals of the Procedure Committee—I am sad to say that they had not been implemented by the Labour Government, partly because the then Leader' of the House, Michael Foot, was against the idea—and ran with the ball. As soon as the Conservative Government came to power he introduced the proposals.
Norman St. John-Stevas saw the new system as the most important parliamentary reform of the century. I think that that was going over the top. He implied that if departmentally related Select Committees were set up it would enable us to change the balance between Parliament and the Executive. I think that he had an inappropriate model in mind and thought in terms of the American committee system. As the right hon. Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins) said, comparison with the United States of 579 America is inappropriate. There is a separation of powers in America, with a weaker party system; America operates in a different political framework.
When departmentally related Select Committees speak, Governments do not fall and Ministers do not resign.
§ Mr. Radice
It is a pity perhaps, but that is the reality. But the Committees have been a success. They have become the focus for ideas, pressures and debate. If my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) was still in his place I would have mentioned the good work that his Committee, the Select Committee on Social Security, has done on social security and, in a previous form, on the national health service. The hearings and reports of Select Committees influence the climate of opinion in the country.
As was mentioned by my right hon. Friend—I wanted to call him my right hon. Friend because he is my friend—the Member for Worthing, Select Committees help to call Ministers and civil servants to account. We do not expect them to resign, although occasionally they should have done so, but they come before us to answer a series of questions on their policies and decisions. The departmental Committees provide a good forum—a much more effective forum than the Floor of the House of Commons. In Question Time any Minister who is on form, well briefed and worth his or her salt will be able to answer questions on an issue as there will not be a sustained series of questions.
In a Select Committee, if a Minister has a serious problem and is asked a series of questions by a well-briefed member of a Select Committee, he or she will find it much more difficult to evade the question. If he or she does evade the question, it will be obvious that that is precisely what is being done and when, as at present, the proceedings are on television or radio, that can be telling. It is no accident that the 6 pm and 7 pm news often carry the proceedings of Select Committees as that is where Ministers let their guard drop for a moment or two and occasionally come out with information that is embarrassing to the Government.
I remember asking the present Chancellor of the Exchequer a series of questions on the impact of the Budget. I asked him whether it was not the case that if the two Budgets were put together the combined result would amount to 7p on the standard rate of tax and he said yes. I do not think that he would have said that on the Floor of the House of Commons, but he did so in the Select Committee. It was a revealing moment that was picked up by the popular press precisely because it was shown on television. In an odd way it helped people to realise that the Government had raised tax considerably. But if one listened to the Budget one would not have gained that impression. That shows how Select Committees—through the different format of the hearings—can influence debate in the country and the public's knowledge.
The departmentally related Select Committees are fortunate in having their own radio and television programmes. I have met people who have watched on television or listened on radio to those programmes, sometimes in their baths at 11 o'clock on a Sunday night, and who like to talk about them the next day—so we have our fans, and the programmes are clearly effective.
The point has also been rightly made that, in these Committees, an element of consensus can develop which is 580 impossible on the Floor of the House. Of course, it does not go very far; if there is a major policy difference between the two parties, it cannot be papered over in a Select Committee. But the very fact that the views of the parties can be rehearsed in a hearing represents a plus for Parliament. Indeed, sometimes the hearings are more important than the reports that we issue. That sometimes applies to the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee, when it is difficult to get a consensus—although the right hon. Member for Worthing would agree that our analyses are often better than those of the Treasury: they certainly stand the test of time better.
A word about reforms. I heartily agree that we need to protect the system against the party Whips. I do not want to go over history here, but the way in which a couple of Chairmen were leaned on and got rid of at the beginning of this Parliament was little short of scandalous. It is perhaps a pity that we took our retaliation—during the divisions between the two parties earlier this year—on the Select Committee system. I hope and am sure that that will not happen again.
It is fair to say that Government responses to Select Committee reports are sometimes so bland as to make them rather pointless. I have been looking at one or two Government responses to Treasury Select Committee reports, and they are good examples of what I mean. On the whole, Governments try not to take reports too seriously, particularly if they criticise the Government. Perhaps those reports need to be better linked with debates on the Floor of the House. Many years ago the Procedure Committee recommended eight such debates a year; we still have only three.
The development of the next steps agencies has not been fully taken into account by the Select Committee system. Now that nearly three quarters of all civil servants operate in agencies, the Select Committees must respond to that fact more effectively.
There may be a case in this for more specialist staff for the Committees. Hon. Members should remember that there is in fact no limit on the number of specialist staff that Committees can have. It is therefore up to us: if we see the need, we have to do something about it. A careful look should be taken at that.
My last point about the reforms concerns "the sending for persons and papers", in which area Select Committees have on a number of occasions been blocked by Government. The Westland affair was one occasion when Select Committees wanted certain members of the Executive to come before them but were blocked by the Prime Minister of the day. The problem was either that there was no majority on the Committee for insisting on attendance, or that the alternative meant coming to the Floor of the House, where the Government's majority would have come into play. So the power to send for persons and papers was inoperable.
In most cases, of course, Governments are prepared to accept Select Committees' demands, although the Osmotherly rules, drawn up by the Executive—without the support of Parliament—to govern how civil servants should operate before Select Committees, stipulate that civil servants appear to answer on behalf of Ministers, and only if Ministers want them to. There is a possible conflict between departmental Select Committees and Government Departments; it does not usually come into play, but it has done on occasion and it will again.
581 We therefore need to tighten up the rules in that area. Select Committees should not have to come to the Floor of the House to obtain their powers when they are challenged by Ministers or Governments. They should just be given full powers to send for persons and papers. That would give them the strength that they need when Governments try to resist them.
As an example of conflict that can arise between the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee and the Government, I offer the fourth special report on the proposed attitude survey of the civil service. It might be thought sensible of the Committee to want to ascertain the views of civil servants before reporting on the future of the civil service. We have said that we do not believe that Sir Robin Butler, or the Minister, or the trade unions, can necessarily tell us the views of civil servants on a number of key issues—hence we needed to conduct a survey of attitudes.
We certainly realise that this is a delicate matter, and we have said that we are prepared to co-operate with the Government and to submit questions to them. Unfortunately, that offer has been rejected outright by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. We have published his correspondence on the subject, which reads like a script from "Yes, Minister". It has certainly caused some laughter among Members of Parliament and journalists.
In the correspondence, the Chancellor argues that our questions are political, that they are concerned with Government policy, that they would help to politicise the civil service and that they would set a dangerous precedent. The Committee, with its Conservative majority, was united in disagreeing with that view. We said that the views of civil servants on the management matters that directly affect them are very different from matters of policy. And it is about the former that we want to ask questions, not about policy.
Secondly, we say that we are a responsible, cross-party Committee with a built-in Tory majority and with no interest in politicising the civil service. Thirdly, we point out that the Government, academics and trade unions have asked similar questions in the past. Sir Robin Butler says that he does not want outside bodies interfering in the relationship between him and the civil service. I pointed out in return that I did not think Parliament or its departmentally related Select Committees were just any old outside bodies. We represent the taxpayers; as such, we are perfectly entitled to find out the views of civil servants. That is what we have been trying to do, but we have been blocked.
Although we have issued a report, there is probably no way in which we can proceed to conduct an attitude survey at the moment. We could table a motion, but then we would draw into play the political majority on the Floor of the House, where other considerations also apply. That is why I have come out this evening in favour of giving the departmentally related Select Committees the power to send for persons and papers—precisely so that we can conduct an attitude survey of that type.
The reforms introduced by Norman St. John-Stevas and proposed by the Procedure Committee of 1976 have provided a useful additional and effective weapon for Parliament in the scrutiny of the Executive. All those who were involved in that should be congratulated, as should 582 hon. Members who do the work in the departmental Select Committees. On the whole, they do a good job. The Committees are one of the most hopeful features of this Parliament.
But it would be wrong to be complacent. We must consider ways in which the system can be reformed and in doing so we must remember that that is not just in the Government's hands, but in our hands, too.
§ Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins) on bringing about this debate. The report on the working of the Select Committee system was published in the 1989–90 Session of Parliament, so I hope that we are not returning to the old structure of delayed debates on Committee reports which I thought that we had improved. Indeed, I recently congratulated my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council on holding a debate fairly quickly after the publication of the Procedure Committee's most recent report.
I also thank my right hon. Friend for apologising to the House on my behalf for my absence during a debate on a procedural matter a week ago. The debate was announced only on the previous Thursday, when I was already on my way to the far east to represent Parliament in a certain matter. I wrote to both my right hon. Friend and to the Liberal Democrats, who initiated that debate, apologising for my absence.
The creation and the working of the departmental Select Committees have been a considerable success. That success is absolute and definite and no one can deny it. At no time before their creation could Back-Bench Members have a Minister or senior official sitting in front of them answering questions solidly for two and a half hours, if necessary, on the subjects for which that Minister or official was directly responsible. It is not like Question Time, when a Minister has to respond to only two or three supplementary questions. If a Select Committee is doing its job properly, it can persevere until it either obtains an answer or shows up the inadequacy of the Minister in dealing with the matter before the Committee.
Perhaps even more important—although this is not always accepted and has not yet been mentioned in the debate—is the fact that any Secretary of State will say that his Department is now much more aware that its actions or the actions of its Ministers are liable to be open to the closest parliamentary scrutiny in way that has never previously been the case. Therefore, Departments are much more acutely aware of acting in ways that are acceptable to Parliament and do not run the risk of appearing to ride roughshod over parliamentary restrictions or opinions. That is of considerable importance.
The Select Committees have been successful, but can they be improved? The answer must be yes. The hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) has made some suggestions for achieving that. I want to make three suggestions. The work rate of some Committees could be improved. Perhaps they could consider more than one subject at a time. I accept the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing that the financial spend of Departments should be more closely examined. Often, that is not a popular thing for the Committees to do; it is not as sexy as a political or policy inquiry. However, it is 583 important that Chairmen look more closely at how they examine the estimates of the Departments that they are monitoring.
On administration and policy, it is important that Select Committees follow up their reports to determine how, and in what manner, the Government have reacted. Once a Committee receives the Government's response, it should look at the matter again, not just let it die as though it did not matter any more.
The 1989–90 report was extensive, running to 80 or 90 pages, and extensive evidence was taken. For students of history, it is important to recognise the closeness of the examination. It is of interest that one of the major factors was the unanimous view of the Committee that Select Committees should not be turned into something akin to the American congressional investigatory committees, usually staffed and run by young lawyers and ambitious research assistants out to establish their reputations. The view of the Procedure Committee was that our Select Committees should be dominated by Members of this House and that their effectiveness should be assisted by the proven excellence of the Clerks in the Clerks Department and by the Committee's ability to call on specialist advisers when necessary.
I must point out to the hon. Member for Durham, North that there is no restriction on the number of advisers or experts on whom the Committee can call for assistance if it thinks that to be necessary. However, they do not have to be a permanent staff. There need not be a build-up of people permanently on the payroll. Paragraph 93 of the report said about additional staff:present staffing levels are probably about right…and I fear that if we had more staff our inquiries might become staff-driven rather than being Member-driven as they are at present.
§ Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
I accept what the right hon. Gentleman is saying about not having excessively large staffs, but it is also important that the Clerks Department should be given proper weight when delegations go abroad. The Clerks are absolutely essential to the taking of evidence and the recording of minutes. I want to follow up a point that I made previously and emphasise that it would be quite wrong if, for any reason, delegations were allowed the services of only one Clerk. That would be quite unfair on a 10-day visit. It would also be counter-productive.
§ Sir Peter Emery
I respect the hon. Lady's views, but I am diametrically opposed to them. I believe that unless a Committee divides into two parts and therefore must have a Clerk to deal with each of those parts, it is quite possible for one Clerk to deal with a Select Committee. After all, he should not have to nurse hon. Members; they are adults who should be able to look after their own arrangements. They should not have to rely on being herded around by a Clerk. They should be responsible enough to be on parade when they are meant to be. My judgment is that, in the spending of money, one Clerk will do in most instances—but that view is not unanimously held by the members of the Committee chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing.
Paragraph 162 states:There is little or no demand from Select Committees for any increase in their powers to send for persons, papers and records.That view was held by almost every Chairman that we interviewed.
I noted with interest the point made by the hon. Member 584 for Durham, North—and it is nice that we can begin debating matters, which is not always the case. However, the Government must have some protection, to be able to ensure that their view can be heard and perhaps accepted. I urge the hon. Member for Durham, North and his Committee to table a motion to be considered on the Floor of the House. It may be that the Government, rather than debate the matter in full, would give way. There are different ways of applying pressure. The structure that we set goes further than perhaps the hon. Gentleman imagines, in the way that he interpreted the position in his arguments.
§ Mr. Radice
That is probably good advice, and I will communicate it to the Chairman of my Committee. It may influence him and other members of the Committee in future. I say only that it is problematic. The right hon. Gentleman implied that Select Committees will go in for irresponsible surveys that have no purpose or point other than to embarrass the Government. I am sure that that is not the case. It has not been my experience as a member of Select Committees over a long period and as someone who entered the House many years ago. It is about time that we trusted the parliamentary side with a little more responsibility. If we do not, we will be blocked if we try to extend its power and influence.
§ Sir Peter Emery
This is the first time in 14 years that such a matter has arisen. The last occasion was the Westland affair—but that was different, in that the witnesses were blocking the way. Both the Ministers called blocked the situation. It was not so much the Committee's inability to get papers as the inability to break down the defence that two different Ministers were making.
Certain important recommendations made by my Committee in 1989–90 have been implemented, for which I thank the Government. We recommended that the Health and Social Security Select Committee should be divided with the splitting up of the Department of Health and Social Security. We insisted that there should be a Scottish Affairs Select Committee. That took some time, but it eventually came about in 1992. We pressed for a joint committee with the other place or a sub-committee on science and technology, and we now have a Select Committee dealing with that subject.
We also ensured that when new Departments are established, a Select Committee is created—as happened with the Select Committee on National Heritage. We also insisted and insisted and insisted that there should be a Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee, which was the last of our recommendations to be adopted.
Procedurally, exchanges of evidence between the Public Accounts Committee and departmental Select Committees, which were something new, have been accepted, and Standing Orders Nos. 122 and 130 were amended to allow Select Committees to call on the Comptroller and Auditor General. Select Committees had not fully considered the use that they could make of the CAG in their work.
The recommendation that the remit of the Home Affairs Select Committee should include the work of the Law Officers' Departments was also adopted, as was the proposal for a maximum of one hour's debate on motions to replace Committee members, with the amendment of Standing Order No. 14. I give those as examples of the Government working to meet the Select Committee's 585 recommendations. I thank them for that, despite my criticisms of the Government for not debating the issue for some time.
I draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council three recommendations that were not adopted. The first has already been mentioned. We recommended that the embargo on the publication of reports under Standing Order No. 116 should be amended from 48 hours to two sitting days, which would allow for the weekend factor. That is still a problem and, after close consideration, I do not believe that the Government's objection to that proposal stands up.
Secondly, I said earlier that departmental Select Committees should be able to ascertain cases to take up in respect of the National Audit Office. The Government did not object, but that recommendation does not seem to have been adopted.
Thirdly, the Committee urged greater use of a Special Standing Committee on Bills, which has not happened. I hold the Government to blame for not dealing with that matter. Every Minister who has piloted a Bill that passed through a Special Standing Committee—there is evidence of this in our report—said without exception that it greatly helped. The Whips' concept that such a procedure automatically delays the Standing Committee was negated by evidence from Ministers, including that from one well-respected Secretary of State in the present Government.
§ Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)
That is one of the report's most important and valuable recommendations. If it helps the right hon. Gentleman's case, we would be willing to consider timetabling to make such arrangements work.
§ Sir Peter Emery
I must consider the hon. Gentleman's exact words, but that sounds like a major step forward. I am delighted to hear that from a member of the Labour Front-Bench team because that proposal would not hurt the Government but would help Parliament. It would certainly help outside bodies to know that their evidence would be fully and properly put to a Select Committee.
The report's general conclusion is that Select Committees work effectively and are most efficient when there is no strong political division on the matter under consideration. Select Committees and their reports are of most use and influence when they reach unanimous conclusions. When a conclusion embraces all political opinions, that has a considerable effect on the Government, who must take note of what is said. Most Committee Chairmen realise that inquiring into a politically motivated subject does not get anywhere, because that is not the best way to proceed.
What really interests me is the fact that the vast majority of reports from departmental Select Committees have been unanimous. The House can work in unity, although the press often suggests otherwise, and what the television cameras show at Prime Minister's Question Time makes nonsense of the idea. When hon. Members are giving serious consideration to important subjects in Select Committees, they are able to reach a unanimous view: that is the strength of Select Committees and of our political system. Select Committees hold the Executive to account, which is what Parliament is here to do.
§ Mr. Richard Caborn (Sheffield, Central)
It could be said that a little local difficulty in the Select Committee on Trade and Industry precipitated this debate: some of the views expressed to the Liaison Committee on its behalf probably gave rise to the need for such a debate on the Floor of the House.
Unfortunately, I am not as well prepared as I should be. The Select Committee returned at the weekend from a visit to South Africa; when I left on the previous Friday, my Whip told me that there was a three-line Whip tonight—not on this subject—but when I arrived home, I found that the Committee Clerk had sent me a note asking me to come down this afternoon to take part in the debate. In any event, I wish to raise some points of principle.
In October 1992—for the first time ever, I believe—a motion was tabled asking for a report to be prepared by a Select Committee on the closure of 31 pits in the United Kingdom. That was a politically charged debate; the Government made something of a concession in requesting the Select Committee to deliver a report to the House—they did not ask for a referral. It is important that Select Committees are not brought into disrepute and used by Governments as safety valves to resolve politically charged situations, but I think that that is what happened then.
When we presented the report with its 31 recommendations, those recommendations were carried nem con. I had approached the Chairman of the Liaison Committee, the Leader of the House and the President of the Board of Trade, asking not only for the report to be debated on the Floor of the House—which it was—but for the recommendations to be voted on. Unfortunately, that did not happen: although the Chairman of the Liaison Committee made strong representations to the Leader of the House, he was unable to secure the necessary time.
That would have been possible only if the Government had allowed a procedural motion, enabling you, Madam Speaker, to select not just one but two or even three amendments to the motion relating to the White Paper and the Committee's report.
Two inquiries were running simultaneously at that time. The Select Committee's inquiry was transparent, in that some 97 per cent. of the evidence received was in the public domain: I believe that the taking of evidence was televised extensively. Also in progress was the Government's inquiry into the closure of the pits, which took place in camera—although some of the evidence emerged via the Select Committee. The reports were debated, but we were not allowed to vote on the Select Committee's recommendations. Try as I might, I—as the Committee's Chairman—was unable to bring that about.
It was a disappointment. The Government should not table a motion requesting a Select Committee to conduct an inquiry and compile a report, and then deny the House the right to vote on the Committee's recommendations. I accept what the right hon. Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins) said about general debate on estimates, and the tabling today of a motion allowing a special debate on Select Committees; but I think that we should also consider Select Committee recommendations. We should explore the possibilities, and consider whether it is best for us to engage in debates such as this on a motion for the Adjournment, or to have the right to vote on such recommendations.
587 I agree with a number of hon. Members who have spoken that the strength of Select Committees is unanimity of purpose: without that, the system would fail. A few weeks ago, during a discussion on the subject, someone observed to me that Select Committees provided the only opportunity for consensus politics in our adversarial system. I accept that such a system is probably right for the United Kingdom, but it should contain a little island of consensus politics.
Why was a Select Committee containing a Government majority able to reach a certain decision on a controversial issue such as the closure of those 31 pits? Partly, I believe, because when evidence is subject to scrutiny an argument becomes compelling. Although political dogma will come into play from time to time, a logical consensus will be reached by people who sit in a Committee for two or three months, taking evidence twice a week, with all the evidence and the background before them.
As an eminent person who is now in the House of Lords said to me, had the poll tax—among other major issues—been subjected to the same process, a saner view might have prevailed, and the tax might never have been introduced.
As I have said, it is wrong for Governments to do what I believe the Government did at the time of the coal inquiry, and use Select Committees as safety valves to defuse politically charged situations before a proper debate can take place.
It was unfortunate that the Chairman of the Liaison Committee mentioned video conferencing immediately after he had spoken about Select Committee visits. My report to the Committee was very carefully worded. I hope that the Committee will consider the matter, and that the Leader of the House will also take it on board.
Using new technology, the inquiry into fibre-optics was able to take evidence from two high-ranking Americans that we could not have obtained without video conferencing. We should consider such facilities for the House, especially in view of our position in the European Union: I understand that Brussels has them. Perhaps they could be installed in Parliament street, where the new developments are taking place. We could use such state-of-the-art technology for a number of purposes, not just in Select Committees. I am sure that the excellent evidence that we have obtained from our two American witnesses will have made our report more authoritative.
My hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) raised an interesting point about the development of next steps agencies and quangos. A number of people have expressed concern about the continued removal of powers from the House, because—as my hon. Friend pointed out—of the number of civil servants who are employed by agencies.
A review similar to that suggested in the 1989–90 Procedure Committee report, should be conducted of the future role of Select Committees in, for example, the procedure outlined by my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing and video conferencing. It should consider the scrutiny of appointments. If we are to continue to take powers from the House and give them to unelected quangos, the eyes and ears of the House should examine appointments before they are made. It has been alleged that appointments are becoming increasingly political. Whichever party is in office, I do not believe that political appointments are good for the democratic process.
Select Committees should review how this place and the 588 Executive evolve. The report that we are now debating is some five years old, which shows the need to ensure that Select Committees are up to date, are in tune with current thinking and are fully scrutinising the Executive. The terms of reference of the next review should not be as wide as those for the 1989–90 report, which stated that the system was evolutionary and should be monitored from time to time to ensure that it was working well.
I apologise for the fact that, because I promised to meet some people at half-past six, I may not be here for the Minister's winding-up speech.
§ Sir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West)
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), not only because I agreed with much of what he said but because it gives me the opportunity to say that he has been a wise, sensible and thoughtful Chairman of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry. I was delighted to serve under him—and long may I do so.
A great consensus is growing in this Chamber. I am in considerable agreement with everything that my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins) said, except for one point, which I shall deal with shortly.
Last week, Madam Speaker uttered a little homily on the way in which questions should be expressed to the Prime Minister. Obviously, she recognised that, over the years, Prime Minister's Question Time has descended into a pantomime farce. She referred to the proper way in which to obtain information from the Government—which I fear was the triumph of hope over experience.
For years, Question Time has not extracted a scintilla of information from the Government, whichever party has been in office. As a humble Minister, I found it the easiest thing in the world to avoid giving any revealing answers at Question Time. If the Government wanted to publicise something, the written parliamentary answer was a useful medium.
The adversarial atmosphere of the Chamber bears little relevance to the search for information. There may have been a time many years ago when Question Time and debates afforded some scrutiny of the Executive, but that was when there were fewer and more independent Members, and much looser party ties. Alas, the Chamber has become more and more show business and a source of copy for local press and media.
We should consider the Select Committee system in that context. In 1979, I had some doubts when Select Committees were introduced by Lord St. John of Fawsley. I was impressed by the romantic view of the Chamber held by Enoch Powell, Michael Foot and, I believe, Lord Whitelaw. Having served on three Select Committees, I am convinced that they are the only way forward in terms of scrutiny and restraining the increasingly all-powerful Executive.
Select Committees have done something to arrest the decline in the public's esteem for Parliament. I sat on the Broadcasting Select Committee, which saw through the introduction of television into Parliament. As I pointed out to my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, that Committee wisely insisted that the media were not only to concentrate on Prime Minister's Question Time and idiotic occurrences in the Chamber but to give a broad picture of the House and to broadcast Select Committees.
589 I have been struck by public's comments about Select Committees. They said, "In the Chamber, you looked exactly as we expected you to look when we heard you yelling and bawling on radio." But they were amazed and impressed by Select Committees, saying that they had never thought that hon. Members could behave so well and so sensibly. They had not realised that hon. Members could call to account Ministers, civil servants and bureaucrats in Select Committees, which is not possible in the Chamber.
That was a distinct plus for the Select Committee system and for Parliament. We must consider Parliament as a whole and do our best to raise our esteem in the eyes of the public.
One can take two views of Select Committees: first, that they are a useful means of keeping restless or idle Members out of mischief and harm's way—that is probably the establishment view—and, secondly, the better view, that they are the only means under our constitution of properly scrutinising the Executive.
If that system is to be improved and built on, a few suggestions should be borne in mind, some of which have already been referred to. First, more powers should be available to Select Committees.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Central referred to our great work—it was three months' hard labour as far as I was concerned—on the pit closure report. We conducted the most vigorous internal debates before we agreed on the final report. Good God, we went away for drinks, came back and got in a huddle. It was 11 o'clock at night, after all-day activity, before we came finally to the virtually unanimous conclusion. As the hon. Member said, that is a valuable aspect of Select Committee work.
If Select Committees are to continue to develop, they must be properly supported. I contrast our system with the back-up system in the United States of America. I agree that we should not copy the United States system, but the back-up there is substantially greater.
I agree that the question of the Clerks must be considered. With respect to my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), I am slightly more impressed by the arguments of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) than by his. Clerks are often overworked, particularly on overseas visits, where they have a tremendous amount of work.
I believe that there is too much cheeseparing—this is typically British—or spoiling the ship for a ha'p'orth of tar. It is important that members of Select Committees should go abroad. We should not have to worry about the media complaining about it—they travel abroad at the drop of a hat, and do so first class on Concorde, with huge expense accounts. We need to ensure that the job is done properly. If the job is worth doing, it is worth doing well, which means looking carefully at the back-up provided.
Secondly, the House should have adequate time to consider reports. It simply will not do to undertake work in immense detail, with Clerks, experts and Members of Parliament sitting all hours only for a report tamely to run into the sand. The procedure should be reformed, although I do not know how it should be carried out. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will pursue the matter to ensure that we can insist that Select Committee reports get proper and adequate consideration on the Floor of the House.
§ Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)
Does my hon. Friend agree that the real difficulty is that, the more effective a Select Committee report is, especially if the Committee has analysed and scrutinised matters such as Government expenditure programmes, the less welcome it is to the Executive? There is a real difficulty in ensuring that the reports that most need to be debated are given time. We could end up with many debates on the innocuous reports and no time for debates on the difficult ones.
§ Sir Anthony Grant
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; I shall say a word or two about that in a moment.
§ Sir Peter Emery
Our hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) is not right. The decision on what should be debated is left to the Liaison Committee. An application is made to the Liaison Committee, which then decides, once the time is allocated, which reports will be debated. It is nothing to do with whether the Government wish to restrict time on a report. It is right to have that clearly understood.
§ Sir Anthony Grant
In that case, I shall direct my remarks away from the Treasury Bench and entirely to my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins), who I hope will consider carefully the need to give adequate time to our reports.
Thirdly, the Committees should be properly constructed. They should be drawn from a broad base of knowledge, experience and enthusiasm. I believe that too many hon. Members are excluded. Perhaps too many Front-Bench Members are excluded; that is for the Opposition to say. There may be too many Front-Bench Members. Too many people may be involved in party committees who do not seem to qualify.
I believe that there are far too many Parliamentary Private Secretaries. We seemed to get on perfectly well with half the number when I first came into the House, but we are now knee-deep in them. If we had fewer, they would be able to perform a useful function on Select Committees; many of them are excellent people.
I now come to the one point on which I differ slightly from my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing—the chairmanship, which is always a difficulty. A case could be made for the senior Member to take the Chair, as happens in the United States. That should not, of course, happen if he is ga-ga. We can all point to examples of that.
§ Sir Anthony Grant
I was not looking at anyone except you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
In normal circumstances, there is a case to be made for the senior Member taking the Chair. That would avoid a great deal of party chicanery, bickering and ill-feeling.
Above all—here I come to the most important point, which has already been stressed—there should be the minimum of interference in the work of Select Committees by the Government or by the Opposition establishment through the usual channels. Other hon. Members have referred to Enoch Powell. He said that the usual channels and the Whips Offices performed the same functions as sewers; they are essential. However, the activities of the usual channels should be kept as far away as possible from Select Committees.
There are many Select Committees apart from departmental ones. The members of those Committees are directly appointed by the Executive. There is the Select 591 Committee on Procedure, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), whom the Government wisely chose. There are the Select Committees on Members' Interests, on Privilege and on Administration. There are a range of Committees in which the Government have a very direct say, so the less say they have in the setting up of the departmental Select Committees, the better.
I cite two examples, which have probably been referred to, of bad interference by the Executive during this Parliament. At the start of this Parliament, there was deplorable confusion, and there was a conspiracy over chairmanships. That caused great annoyance to hon. Members on both sides and to me; many people were very irritated. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing said, a rather spurious doctrine was enunciated about the length of time people could serve as Chairmen. It was a tiresome and tedious time, and what happened was wrong.
The second example which happened this year—the hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) will know about this—was the blocking of a visit by the Trade and Industry Select Committee to South Africa. We were doing a report on trade with South Africa, and it was ludicrous to suppose that we could conclude our report without actually going to the new South Africa. The visit was blocked by the Opposition establishment during the non-co-operation war.
That was absolutely wrong. Party political rows between Front-Bench Members or anyone else in the Chamber should not block the work that Select Committees need to do to produce their reports. We should be ever vigilant to ensure that such incidents are not allowed to happen again.
All who believe, as I do, in parliamentary democracy, and who believe that it is fundamental not only to our constitution, but to our freedom, should unite and be determined to enhance and strengthen the Select Committee system—which is undoubtedly here to stay.
§ 6.5 pm
§ Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cambridge, South-West (Sir A. Grant). I agree with almost all his comments. I certainly agree with his comment about the all-party nature of the Select Committees; I have found that to be a tremendous strength.
The Welsh Affairs Select Committee was the only Committee in the previous Parliament which did not have a Government majority. In this Parliament, the Government have been unable to ensure that every member of the Committee represents a Welsh constituency. If the choice was between retaining the Committee and abolishing it, we would be willing to pay that price. I am in the 11th year of my chairmanship of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee. I am therefore especially pleased that I am an Opposition rather than a Conservative Member in terms of security of tenure.
I intend to make a few points about the role of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee. I appreciate that its features are not common to all the Select Committees. The post of the Secretary of State for Wales encompasses a wide range of responsibilities, although it does not include the major responsibilities of defence, foreign affairs and the police.
592 The first thing that we try to do is to involve as many people as possible in giving written evidence. The gap between power and people can become wide. We believe that it is important that as many individuals and groups as possible feel that what they have to say about their experience will be listened to by the Select Committee.
Our next inquiry will be into the rehabilitation of those with serious head injuries. National organisations such as Headway—the National Head Injuries Association—and the Carers National Association will, of course, give evidence, as will the Department of Health, the Welsh Office and other significant players in the field. However, it is important that individuals who have gone through the trauma of, for example, being involved in a serious motorway car accident, being taken to a trauma unit and taking many years to recover from that horrible experience—and their families—can write to the Select Committee to say what their experience has been. They will be able to feel that they are participating.
I find such participation especially valuable when we take oral evidence in the Principality, which we do as often as we can. When, for example, the sea wall at Towyn broke and many hundreds of families were made homeless, it was a superb experience to be able to take evidence in Towyn so that the people who had been affected could see what we were doing in taking evidence and then publishing our report, after which the Government would publish their response.
Secondly, certainly in a Select Committee of our kind, the micro-level of analysis is especially significant. From my experience, it is easy for a Government Department, with its army of civil servants, to be able to duck and dive, and weave all kinds of cul-de-sacs for Select Committees to go down. However, if that Select Committee is operating at the micro-level, it is virtually impossible for the Government to follow it down the path that it takes. I shall give a couple of examples.
In 1983, the Department of the Environment and the Welsh Office issued waste management paper No. 25 on clinical waste incineration. That document was in existence until 1990, when the Welsh Affairs Select Committee looked at toxic waste disposal in Wales. We discovered that the health authorities were not especially quick in responding to requests for information on their incinerators, so the Committee sent them a questionnaire to attain information on every clinical waste incinerator in the Principality, including questions on what the temperature was to be in the main burner and in the after-burner, what scrubbing facilities they had and so on.
When we then asked the health authorities—every one of them—to appear before us in the House and they came, we were amazed to discover in January 1990 that only three of them had ever heard of waste management paper No. 25. Indeed, those three had only discovered its existence two weeks previously, when we had asked them to come up here and pay us a visit. We asked the Welsh Office and the Department of the Environment what had happened, to be told that, unfortunately, the document had not been issued to the relevant pollution bodies in England or in Wales—the health authorities at that time—but had been sent to every district authority in England and Wales, which had no responsibility whatever for that form of air pollution.
The response was wonderful. Of course, it was not from the Secretary of State for Wales. He delegated that responsibility to a clerk in the Welsh Office. When the 593 letter came back—it was published, of course, as an appendix to our report—it contained a wonderful sentence, referring to why the wrongful issuing had occurred, along the lines that, with the given level of hindsight, it was impossible to know what went wrong, but it was reissuing waste management paper No. 25 and that this time it was being sent to the bodies in England and Wales which were responsible for monitoring the emissions from clinical hospital waste incineration. Only at that micro-level of considering every incinerator were we able to identify such a matter.
The second example is to do with local authorities and their relationship with the Welsh Office over rural housing in Wales. We decided to ask every local authority for information on the number of houses that had been given planning permission in the open countryside in Wales which were departures from and contrary to local and county structure plans and Welsh Office planning policy guidelines.
We were so shocked by the results of the questionnaire that we looked back a few years before that date and followed up what had been happening with six of those authorities. We found that hundreds of houses in the Welsh countryside had been given planning permission contrary to Welsh Office guidance and the respective county structure plans. When we asked the Welsh Office about that, it found it rather astonishing and representatives from various councils were summoned to London to meet the Under-Secretary of State at the Welsh Office to try to explain why particular houses had been given permission against the structure plan. The experience in north Cornwall was certainly salutary because it came at the right time.
When the Select Committee pays visits, certainly in the Principality, I have found it worth while never to tell the people whose premises we are looking at that we are coming. Whereas advance notice is convenient for them, it is especially inconvenient for us because it enables what we want to see to be easily concealed. I shall never forget the time that one of Her Majesty's inspectors of pollution started to come round Wales with us when we looked at landfill sites in the Principality. We were astonished to find that those sites could have been pleasure camps for any recreational form of sport or whatever, so clean were they, so seagull-free and without a whiff of any odour of any kind. However, when we decided to ask the inspector to return home and we continued our journey without visiting the sites which had been planned, the story was rather different. Therefore, it is well worth while not to turn up when the red carpet is laid out, but to turn up unannounced and see what is really going on.
The fourth rule of Select Committees is about informing people of what is available to them when we consider particular topics. We astonished the people of Wales when we considered treatment centres. They do not exist in England, but are unique national health service facilities in the Principality. If any person has been waiting for more than four months for in-patient surgery on cataracts, major joints, or hernias and varicose veins, they may be admitted not only to their local hospital, but to one of the treatment centres, which provide a marvellous facility for elective surgery. We were able to educate and train doctors because 594 they seemed to be especially slow in knowing about the existence of the centres and, therefore, patients were being denied access to them.
Fifthly, Select Committees are useful as a method of educating hon. Members who serve on them. We have no in-training facilities in the House, no retraining facilities, and no way in which to keep us up to date, in detail, of what is going on. We tend to be cocooned in this establishment and the usual channels try to keep us here as long as possible. It is no disgrace at all to admit that it is of enormous benefit for those of us who serve on Select Committees to be aware in depth of what is going on in the subject areas which we consider.
Sixthly, it is important that Select Committees pay more attention to Government responses. It is fine to spend months looking in detail at a topic, to feel some sort of enormous relief to reach the end of an inquiry, to have written the report, for—one hopes—unanimous agreement to have been reached, for the report to be dispatched and to be waiting for the Government to respond. Then the response is filed and no more is heard on the issue until we want to examine it again. It would be useful for the Select Committee to examine the Government on that response. The Minister could be asked back to the Committee and questioned in detail on why this or that recommendation was not accepted. That could be a way forward.
Lastly—I do not think that the Leader of the House is in a position to accept this readily—in terms of open government, it would be rather nice if Select Committees could spend the occasional day or, pushing it, the occasional week, nosing around the Departments that they monitor. The Welsh Select Committee could spend a week in the Welsh Office in Cardiff. Members of the Committee could roam round the Department finding out how it works at first hand and prodding here and there into files to see what is the ambience of the Department.
I get the impression that Governments are not too happy when a Select Committee starts walking around the Department that it is supposed to monitor. Although it may be a little early for the Leader of the House to make such a decision, I would certainly welcome an arrangement whereby we could enter the hallowed places of knowledge to mix with civil servants without some watchful eye behind us ensuring that we do not talk to the wrong person in case we find out things that are a little embarrassing for us to know.
With those few comments, Madam Deputy Speaker, I thank you for allowing me to make this speech. The Select Committee system is superb. Without it, I would have long left this place because, as many hon. Members who have spoken before me have said, it gets rid of the adversarial element and allows us to look objectively as best we can at the evidence before us and constructively to move the debate forward. We do so in the hope that, if the Government accept some of our constructive recommendations, the quality of life and the decisions of the Government will be improved for the benefit of us all.
§ Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton)
The debate has enabled us to pause, even for just two and a half hours, and take stock of the achievements of the departmental Select Committee system and to assess its value to good government and 595 parliamentary activity. It has allowed us to assess the extent to which it commands the interest and, to a greater degree, the confidence of the public.
Perhaps the most obvious advantage of the Select Committee system has been manifest today. The House is at its best, it is always said, when we are not too adversarial, everyone agrees with everyone else and, if disagreement forces itself upon us, we respond only in the most civilised and well-mannered way. As a result, I am sure that this debate will not feature on either the 9 o'clock or the 10 o'clock news later today.
I was a member of the old-style Select Committee, which was all things to all Departments. I was on the sub-committee of the Social Services and Employment Sub-Committee of the Expenditure Committee under the leadership of Mrs. Renee Short. In one period, we reported on preventive medicine, juvenile crime and unemployment. As hon. Members will realise, that spread our expertise so wide as probably to be of little use to anyone. I am sure that the departmental Select Committee system that we have now is a decided improvement on that.
I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins), who is a most worthy, diligent and effective Chairman of the Liaison Committee and Select Committee Chairman, that the record of departmental Select Committees is considerable and well justifies their creation. I agree that they hold Ministers to account effectively and that they keep civil servants on their toes. A civil servant never knows when he or she might be called to account personally for his or her work.
Select Committees inform Parliament of the important evidence available on subjects of current importance. The Home Affairs Select Committee has taken up raging issues such as legal aid and violence on video at the very moment when they have raged. As the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell), the Chairman of the Welsh Select Committee, said, the Select Committees ensure that we become experts and therefore much more able to make the work that we do in Parliament credible.
Lastly, Select Committees come to conclusions which influence Government, as I hope that the Home Affairs Select report published this week on racial attacks and harassment will do before the Government conclude the proceedings on the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill.
I would go further and suggest that in the public eye, now that television is with us and has highlighted the knockabout of politics, the Select Committee system may be seen as one of the saving graces of Parliament itself. The public, who might otherwise be led to believe that this place is a madhouse of shouting, ranting, cantankerous, unobjective noisemongers, can see that Parliament is much more than that. I understand from the television operators that there is a surprisingly high level of viewing of programmes based on Select Committee activity. In short, the Select Committees have raised the standard of Parliament higher in the estimation of the people we represent. That is a thoroughly good thing.
To go even further, in a world in which nations are emerging into the daylight of democracy, the example of this Parliament, both good and bad, may have some effect in influencing the structure of new parliamentary democracies and in helping to reform democracies of longer standing. My American friends tell me that they sit glued to their armchairs with their popcorn while they watch what happens in this place, not only at Prime Minister's Question Time. Certainly, the departmental 596 Select Committees have been the subject of great interest among visiting democratic Parliaments as they have emerged from communism or wherever. That is another source of pride for the system.
I shall not take up the time of the House by commenting on the procedural points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing and other colleagues, save to say that I agree with most of them and that the strengthening that has been called for is likely to improve the working of the system even further. However, I would add that there are some rather silly rules that we could well get rid of, particularly those relating to broadcasting.
Last week, the Home Affairs Select Committee visited the offices of the British Board of Film Classification. The hon. Member for Gower will note that we go out into the hallowed precincts of agencies and Government Departments. While we were there, we discovered that although the proceedings were public, they could not be televised because there was only one instead of two cameras in a fixed position. That afternoon we held a press conference upstairs here in the House. It could not be televised even in a room with two fixed cameras approved for the televising of the proceedings of Parliament because it was not a formal meeting of the Committee. I hope that common sense will prevail in such matters when the procedures come to be reviewed, as they are clearly absurd.
I wish to raise one other matter which I hope will be considered for the future. It is a matter of some substance and importance and would take our Select Committee system into a completely new area. One of the agencies with which the Home Affairs Select Committee has dealt is the Law Commission. One of the tasks of that august body under a series of distinguished judicial figures and latterly under the guidance of Mr. Justice Brooke has been to reform the criminal law.
Almost everyone agrees that what would most reform the criminal law is the creation of a code of criminal law. However, that is light years away under our present system. There is simply no machinery for dealing comprehensively with a large subject such as the codification of the entire criminal law because there is no time in the parliamentary year to deal with it, even though much of what would be agreed by a commission and then fed into what I postulate might be a new Select Committee would be entirely non-contentious.
If we do not have such a system, one problem is the frustration that is engendered. The inadequacy of Parliament may lead the Commission to recommend the taking of policy decisions, or inspire the judges to take policy decisions, which they did recently in deciding against Parliament—although they seem to have forgotten that that was so—on the introduction of a crime of marital rape. Public policy decisions are for Parliament; they are not for academics, agencies and judges.
I ask the Procedure Committee and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to consider whether we might devise a Select Committee, perhaps of both Houses of Parliament, whose function was solely to reform the criminal law—to do it steadily and relentlessly over a period, calling witnesses, arguing the issues and coming to conclusions which are reasonable, sensible and acceptable to all those involved in the administration of the criminal law.
Of course, it would be necessary—here is the rub—to bypass the Chamber on all issues except those which raise questions of public and political principle and policy. The 597 age of consent, the question whether there should be an offence of marital rape, the age of criminal responsibility, the question whether the sentence for murder should be mandatory or discretionary and a whole string of other similar issues would be a matter for this Chamber, and this Chamber alone, but most of the matters that would be included in a criminal code would be non-contentious matters which Parliament, through either the House of Lords or the House of Commons, or both together in a Select Committee, could agree. That would reflect adequately and properly the needs of society.
If we could devise such an additional Select Committee system, we might be able to make progress on criminal law reform in general and on a code of criminal law in particular. We could thus simplify, clarify, spread knowledge and understanding of, and speed the administration of the criminal law, and Parliament would have taken a big step towards improving the social fabric and order of our society. That is, after all, the main reason for our existence.
§ Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)
I rise for the second time in about a week to talk about parliamentary reform. For the sake of those who heard my speech the first time round, I shall try not to duplicate the remarks that I made on that occasion. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence). I spent much of Thursday eulogising, if not the hon. and learned Gentleman personally, the report on racial violence and racial harassment to which he referred. It is a superb report, although I wonder whether the Home Office will see it in such a good light.
Many of the reports produced by the House are the result of a great deal of research and wisdom. Regrettably, that wisdom is rarely transmitted to those at whom it is directed—that is, the Government. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell) said, we spend a long time on a report, wait three months for an anodyne response and that is virtually the end of the matter. The report may circulate around the Department, never to resurface. If anything is acted on, it may be a little bit of a recommendation. Academics may pick it up, so it is regurgitated later.
I should like to see a serious study done, as was done by the old Expenditure Committee. I was interested to see that the Defence and External Affairs Sub-Committee of the Expenditure Committee did a detailed analysis of the recommendations that were made. What happened to those recommendations? Regrettably, much of the endeavour has totally dissipated. When one adds the amount of time that we put into researching and arguing a report, it seems to be an inadequate response.
Frankly, I am disappointed that we are debating a report that was published in the 1989–90 Session. It has taken a long time to debate the report; it is almost time for a new Procedure Committee. I am even more disappointed by the appalling response of Members of Parliament. I am pleased that there are some Committee Chairmen present, although I am disappointed that we do not have infinitely more. The Leader of the House can gleefully pass on to his colleagues the message that the troops are not really interested in parliamentary reform, so there is not much impetus. I hope, 598 however, that he will seek almost self-generation in the matter and try to go down not only as the Leader of the House who was seriously interested in parliamentary reform but as the Leader of the House who sought and was successful in implementing a number of significant changes.
Regrettably, we are complacent about the way in which we operate. We pat one another on the back and say that the Select Committee system is basically satisfactory. The Government say in their report that they agree with the Procedure Committee that thesystem is basically sound and does not stand in need of major reform".That is like asking the Italian mafia whether they are happy with the performance of the Italian police. Of course the Government will say that they are happy with the existing arrangements. They are the substantial beneficiaries of a Select Committee system which does not properly harness the abilities, competence and knowledge of hon. Members, for two basic reasons.
First, Members of Parliament do not seem to be all that enthused about procedural change; secondly, Ministers are delighted that having got over the worst in 1979, with the system being more or less imposed on them, it has not proceeded much further. I was desperately hoping that the report of the Procedure Committee would say something like this: "As the Select Committee system has been operating since 1979, we have had ample opportunity to analyse its successes and failures. We have now decided that, having conferred no power whatever on the Committee system, other than the power to send for persons and papers, the time has come to confer some significant powers on the Select Committee system". There is nothing at all about that in the report. If another Procedure Committee is set up, I wonder whether it would exude the same sense of self-satisfaction.
I very much admire what the right hon. Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins) said. Indeed, I agreed with almost everything that he said. However, he exhibited a tendency of which we are all guilty—that of comparing the House of Commons with the United States Congress, which is an unfair comparison because the constitution of the United States conferred decision-making powers on Congress as part of the reaction to the reality of strongly centralised decision making in the United Kingdom. When we say that we cannot go too far down that road, of course we cannot. However, we do not often compare our parliamentary and Select Committee systems with similar parliamentary committees. It would seem that we do not compare at all favourably with the United States system.
We produce reports that are as good as any, but we have no power to legislate and we have no power in the Budget. What we have is a factory for manufacturing reports which are often completely ignored. We say that there should be a bridge between reports and debate, but there is hardly any bridge at all. The Government said that they do not want to give more time for such debates. Of course they do not. I find the whole thing profoundly unsatisfactory.
We have influence only in the Select Committees. Occasionally, we are able to move, change and reverse policy. Often, when a report comes out, there may be no other news and the Government are forced on to the defensive—there are instances where that has happened. The media may concentrate on one report and the Government may be embarrassed into taking action.
599 I recall a report with which the Defence Select Committee was involved in the early 1980s regarding the physical security of military installations. It was an important report, because a Standing Committee on privatising the royal ordnance factories was proceeding parallel with the Select Committee inquiry into physical security in military installations. The Government intended to privatise security, kick out the Ministry of Defence police and bring in a contract security firm.
I was a member of both the Select Committee and the Standing Committee, and by the time we reached clause 27 of the Bill the Defence Select Committee had totally destroyed the Government's argument. Everyone on the Committee was happy that the Government relented. That was one of the few triumphs for the Standing Committee system. In reality, an inquiry by the Select Committee resulted in the change and it was accelerated by the fact that when our report came out there was no other news. The Government were therefore forced into a corner and they climbed down.
There are two lessons there. We should not need to rely on the fortunate absence of other publicity and the process of legislation should be linked with the process of investigation. The Procedure Committee report recommended that greater attention be given to Standing Committees and that in Session 1990–91 there should be more Special Standing Committees, but nothing whatever came of that.
Looking at the Government's response—the paper is yellow with age and fraying at the corners—I agree that there should be more emphasis on broad expenditure priorities. The trouble is that We tend to be more interested in high policy than in the boring minutiae of the budgetary process. In that sense, some of the blame lies with ourselves.
The Government said that there would be no sub-Committees because the Procedure Committee did not want them, but I see sub-Committees as a means of increasing one's output by putting more pressure on the Government on a variety of fronts. The Government do not want that to happen.
On special advisers, the Government and the Clerk of the House said that they did not wanta standing army of Parliamentary experts".The use of the words "standing army" is clearly abusive. I believe that a Select Committee backed by professional expertise is the best way to proceed. If there is not animosity between the Clerk and the advisers, there is some turf protection and I can understand why the Clerk does not always want to see too many advisers.
We should have more power to increase staffing levels, and I agree that we should do more to link with the Library. We have a marvellous Library with marvellous staff, but I would ask anyone who gets too carried away to go to the congressional research service and see the extent of research there. No one can dispute that it is a different political system, but I believe that the quality and extent of research being done for congress members by the congressional research service is such that we should seek to bridge the gap between it and our system.
On allowances and facilities for entertainment, the Defence Committee had a visit from a Nordic defence committee a few years ago and its members dragged out of us our entire allowance. They could not speak a word of English, but they knew all the brands of whisky and other 600 drinks and we were destitute as a result. It is a good idea to entertain modestly, but we can hardly be described as the last of the great spenders.
In conclusion, we should have appropriate powers as we often have to deal with labyrinthine bureaucracies. My hon. Friend the Member for Gower talked about nosing around Departments. He may find the task of nosing around the Welsh Office difficult, but I suspect that nosing around the Ministry of Defence would result in immediate incarceration. As a Back-Bench Member, I sought an unclassified briefing from a middle-ranking civil servant in the MoD. The meeting was arranged, but it was vetoed because a Back Bencher could not get into the MoD to talk to a middle-ranking civil servant. The bunker in the MoD is not under it—it extends up to the brain: it is an Ottoman approach to decision-making and we are not the beneficiaries of it.
§ Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)
My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) makes a powerful case for the rights of Select Committees, and in particular for the right of Select Committees to eat into time on the Floor of the House. He makes that case in an effective and unique way.
The right hon. Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins)—unusually for him—opened the debate on a note of controversy. He said that the setting up of the Select Committees may turn out to be Baroness Thatcher's lasting monument, and something for which she will be enduringly remembered. I dare him to go and tell her that. I do not think that that would be her perception of the 1980s, but the right hon. Gentleman is a brave man and I wish him well.
The core issue—all speeches have drawn this out—is the balance of power between the Executive and Parliament. Speaking from memory, I do not think that Baroness Thatcher was always to be found on the libertarian side of that argument. Perhaps for the right hon. Member for Worthing, history and the passage of time lend enchantment.
The purpose of Select Committees is to underpin Parliament's right to scrutinise, investigate and influence the work of the Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) spoke about effective control and stewardship over Ministers. He also spoke about Select Committees being the eyes and ears of the House over Departments. The conclusion from the Procedure Committee's report was that, in general, the Select Committee system is essentially sound and not in need of major reform. I accept that, but there are a number of issues arising from the report which deserve further consideration.
The broad conclusion of the Procedure Committee is right, and I thank the Committee for its review. I do not mean it unkindly when I say that the debate is timely. I know that the report came out in 1989–90, but nevertheless the debate is timely because, as the House will know, a number of matters concerning the reform of parliamentary procedure are under consideration. The report usefully informs future debate and will act as a benchmark. The fact that it does not propose any substantial change does not detract from its value, nor from its thoroughness. The 601 Chairman of the Procedure Committee, the right hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), fairly observed that it is a comprehensive piece of work.
Among the important issues raised are the relationship between Select Committee reports and the Floor of the House, and the role for departmental Select Committees in scrutinising departmental expenditure, including scrutiny of executive agencies. My hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North pointed out that three quarters of all civil servants now work for agencies, rather than directly for Departments.
The Procedure Committee report comments on the giving of evidence. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) referred to the scrutiny of appointments and my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell) mentioned the scrutiny of the Government's responses to individual Select Committee reports.
The other key issues to emerge from the Procedure Committee report include the points made about the role of the National Audit Office, and the relationship between the NAO and the Public Accounts Committee on the one hand and departmental Select Committees on the other. A very important recommendation by the Procedure Committee—I intervened in the speech of the right hon. Member for Honiton regarding the matter—was about the use of Special Standing Committees.
Time is short, so I can only refer to one or two points rather than doing the debate justice. I can see clearly that it is frustrating for departmental Select Committees to produce reports which do not get a chance to be considered on the Floor of the House. I understand the pressures of time on the Government—any Government, and not just this Conservative one—but we should try to find a middle way. If the suggestion of using estimates days is flawed, we should try to find some other way to ensure that the work of Select Committees is reflected in debate here on the Floor of the House. Not everything will be debated, but something should. In the current discussions, we can at least examine that issue again and see if something can be done.
Another continuing theme in the debate has been the extent to which departmental Committees should involve themselves in scrutinising departmental expenditure. The Conservative party's view on that seems to have changed, because at one time it was very enthusiastic about it. Each year, Departments produce a document that sets out their spending plans. We used to have a whole day's debate on those plans, but the last one was in May 1991 and it has now slipped out of the parliamentary calendar. We cannot even get an assurance from the Leader of the House that that debate will be restored to us this year. It is right that Parliament should take seriously its responsibility for scrutinising public expenditure, and the Select Committees have a role to play in that.
The establishment of Special Standing Committees is an important suggestion. Some Bills occur every year, the Finance Bill being an obvious example, and they contain controversial and less controversial measures. There is an overwhelming case for a taxes management Bill, which could be dealt with by a Special Standing Committee to which experts with specialist knowledge could give evidence. Such a Bill would consider matters that do not tend to be the subject of controversy between the parties. 602 Those relating to anti-avoidance represent a shared objective between the Opposition and the Government, although one would not necessarily think so when one considers how they are dealt with in the Finance Bill. It would be far better for us to listen to the specialist evidence from the Inland Revenue, the Institute of Taxation and others and then make considered recommendations.
§ Mr. Brown
I know that accepting such a proposal would mean a longer gap between the Second Reading of the Finance Bill and its formal Committee stage, but the Opposition would be willing to agree to a timetable on a taxes management Bill. That would mean that the less controversial matters, once considered in the Finance Bill, could be dealt with in a measured and orderly way. Everyone in the outside world, as well as parliamentarians, would know on which day specific rafts of clauses would be dealt with and that consideration would be undertaken in a mature and considered manner. If the drafting was defective—that is a problem for Ministers—it would be exposed through the Special Standing Committee procedure and the relevant changes would have to be made. That could be achieved with all-party agreement, rather than in an adversarial manner.
There will always be rows between the parties on the main issues contained in the Finance Bill, because whether to raise or lower taxes is a controversial matter. That should be fought out when considering a truncated Finance Bill in Committee or on the Floor of the House, which is where we consider the main tax proposals anyway.
The hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) referred to the work of the Law Commission, which considers similar complex issues. There is a clear case for establishing Special Standing Committees to consider specialist, complex legislation. I urge the House and, in particular, the Leader of the House to consider it.
The hon. Member for Cambridge, South-West (Sir A. Grant) said that in the past 15 years there had been a shift in the balance of power from Parliament to the Executive. I believe that that is apparent even within the Executive, with a further concentration of power in the hands of the office of the Prime Minister and the closest advisers to that individual. Almost imperceptibly, British government is becoming increasingly presidential. There are many reasons for that, not least government by a single party since 1979. We have to accept our share of the blame for that.
If parliamentary democracy is to work and command respect, we must assert Parliament's rights as enthusiastically as the Executive asserts its own. The case for the reform of parliamentary procedures, by consent, is overwhelming. The case for Select Committees will have been reaffirmed by today's useful debate.
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)
This has been a most interesting debate. The first thing I should do in what will perforce be a fairly brief contribution is to thank and congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins) on pressing for this debate—I was happy to accede to his request—and on the way in which he introduced it. I should like to thank and 603 congratulate all the hon. Members who have taken part, because we have had a genuinely constructive debate, even if it is not the kind which reaches definitive conclusions. A number of issues have been raised and I undertake to reflect on them.
I have had the privilege to be Leader of the House for just over two years and I hope that I can at least claim that my support of Select Committees and my desire to ensure that they work as well as possible has been reasonably demonstrated. Despite the observations from one or two people on the occasional delay in setting up Committees, we have not done too badly in this Parliament. I have checked up on the dates and I can tell the House that the new Parliament met for the Queen's Speech on 6 May—it had met earlier for swearing in and the like—and we had set up the Select Committees in a mere two months on 13 July.
That was done against a background in which I was told almost daily by the representatives of the newspapers that they did not believe that we would get the Select Committees set up by the summer recess. That achievement was a demonstration not just of my support, but of the Government's support for Select Committees, as is our acceptance of the great majority of the recommendations of the Procedure Committee, together with the recent establishment of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland.
I will say no more, and I say it quite unequivocally, than that I am a strong supporter of Select Committees for precisely the reasons that have been echoed during the debate—the improved scrutiny of the Executive, the scope that they provide for constructive consensus across party boundaries on a number of issues and their real and constructive influence. I would not be as dismissive or as pessimistic about them as the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) was. Those Committees have exercised that constructive influence on a number of important issues, not least those with which I was concerned for many years as a Minister with responsibility for health and social security.
The debate has highlighted a number of important issues for consideration by the members of the Select Committees themselves, as right hon. and hon. Members have generously acknowledged today, and by the Liaison or Procedure Committee. I am sure that the Chairmen of those Committees have taken careful note of the suggestions made.
The unanimous theme expressed during the debate—it is always one of the most popular themes in Parliament—has been to bash the Whips. One or two Whips are present and no doubt they feel duly chastened. They will take note of what was said. The proposals concerning the membership of Select Committees, which drew some criticism from hon. Members on both sides of the House, were made by the Committee of Selection. I am sure that the Chairman of that Committee will take note of what has been said, as will those who were castigated over the difficulties that arose from visits abroad or the absence of 604 such visits during the period when the usual channels were not operated by those in the Opposition. I do not want to be drawn further into that potentially contentious matter in the circumstances of this brief speech.
A number of points raised are in the hands of Committees and their members, including those made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) about the work rate. Other hon. Members spoke about the scrutiny of spending plans. Many Select Committees consider their Departments' spending plans and there is nothing to stop them doing so. There is nothing to stop them looking at the work of executive agencies and calling for evidence from the heads of those agencies. There is certainly nothing to stop them doing more to follow up their reports, as hon. Members have urged them to do today.
The debate has highlighted tensions, which I so often see in my role as Leader of the House, between the conflicting demands made from different quarters. Against the repeated desire of hon. Members for as little interference from the Whips as possible, to use their terminology, must be set the tension created by the suggestion for enhancing the powers of Select Committees to act directly without seeking a resolution from the House.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) also suggested that the recommendations of Select Committees should automatically be put to the vote in the House. If those suggestions were put into effect they would, almost inevitably, enhance the interest that the Whips would feel they would have to take in Select Committees. I put that as gently as I can, but it is the likely effect. I believe that the House would be right to be cautious before adopting some of the proposals made in the debate.
The Chairmen of the Procedure and Liaison Committees must accept that there is an obvious tension between the persistent demands for progress on the Jopling report—with which they sometimes associate themselves—and the demands for more and more time to debate the reports of Select Committees. Perhaps those tensions can be resolved, but they certainly exist. They come alongside many of the other difficult points which the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) and I are trying to tease out in our on-going discussions, which will also take account of some of the points that have been made about our economic debates.
I have little time in which to comment on the specific proposals that have been made. The Procedure Committee may care to look further at some of them, including video conferencing and the points about the European Legislation Committees. It is for my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing and his Committee to decide whether they wish to undertake further examination. I hope that we shall all reflect on the useful points that have been made in this debate. I conclude my remarks simply by saying that, in line with the spirit in which I have approached the establishment of Select Committees, their work and this debate, my response will be constructive.