HC Deb 25 October 1999 vol 336 cc775-80

Motion made, and Question proposed, That Standing Order No. 151 (Statutory Instruments (Joint Committee)) be amended as follows:

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

With this it will be convenient to consider the following: That Standing Order No. 152 (Select committees related to government departments) be amended as follows:

  • In item 12 of the table, to leave out the words in column 2 and insert the words "Scotland Office (including (i) relations with the Scottish Parliament and (ii) administration and expenditure of the offices of the Advocate General for Scotland (but excluding individual cases and advice given within government by the Advocate General))"; and
  • In item 16 of the table, in column 2, after "Welsh Office" add the words "(Office of the Secretary of State for Wales (including relations with the National Assembly for Wales))"

8.10 pm
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I agree with the motion as far as it goes. I put down one marker: the Procedure Committee felt that the role of the Scottish, Welsh and, I hope, in due course, Northern Ireland territorial Select Committees should go further than the current Standing Order, or even the amendment to the Standing Order. It appears to the Procedure Committee that the work of the territorial Committees for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be unnecessarily limited if they cannot go further in inquiring into matters that will have a major UK impact on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Secretary of State for Scotland, who I am delighted to see in his place, at one stage had responsibility for transport. One can imagine matters relating to transport having a major impact on Scotland. Therefore, the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs might want to take evidence from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. It was the Procedure Committee's view that, if we were to have excellent co-operation between the devolved areas of the UK and the UK Parliament, the territorial Select Committees, which we recommended should remain, should no longer fall under the current Standing Order, but be able to take a broader perspective.

The hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman)—I am glad that I have got the constituency right; it is an important constituency in Scotland—raised a matter relating to agriculture. Clearly, in that instance, it would be important for the Scottish Affairs Committee to be able to take evidence from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I have already referred to transport.

I put that down as a marker. Last week, both the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Leader of the House talked about flexibility and leaving doors open for future discussion and amendment. I hope that the Government and the House will change the Standing Orders to enable the territorial Select Committees on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to adopt a broader perspective to ensure that the interests of all parts of the UK are properly taken into account.

8.14 pm
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

Some months ago, during the passage of the Scotland Bill through this place, I questioned the advisability of retaining the Select Committees on Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland and, indeed, the Grand Committees, once the two Assemblies and the Scottish Parliament were up and running and had developed institutions and procedures of their own, but I acknowledge the good sense of what the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) has said. If the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food comes back to the House from the annual negotiations in Brussels concerning total allowable catches and quotas, it might be useful for him or her to be questioned on behalf of Scottish fishing communities by the Select Committee.

I am doing a headstand, but I believe that, in the long run, the Committees should go. We should devise other means of cross-examining Ministers and of carrying out our work on behalf of our constituents—I am talking about Scotland, of course.

The recommendation in paragraph 21 of the Procedure Committee report has been honourably adopted by the Government. The recommendation is that such Committees liaise with colleagues in the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly". The motion says: In item 12 of the table, to leave out the words in column 2 and insert the words 'Scotland Office'"— I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is here— '(including (i) relations with the Scottish Parliament'". Let us look at what is being deleted in terms of the examination of the Scottish Office, the administration of and expenditure by the Advocate General's Department and the policy functions that are discharged by the Advocate General.

Perhaps in the short run the policy makes sense, especially in light of what I said earlier about the need for Scots Members of the UK Parliament to liaise and to develop relations with Members of the Scottish Parliament. It appears that the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs will act as some kind of liaison committee with Committees in the Scottish Parliament. I wonder—the Minister will have to write to me, of course—whether discussions have taken place with the Executive in the Scottish Parliament concerning a similar Committee being set up in that Parliament to negotiate with the Scottish Affairs Committee in its role as a liaison committee.

I remind the Minister that several Committees in the Scottish Parliament are concerned with the functions that are the responsibility of the First Minister and his Executive. Therefore, I should like to know whether there is a likelihood of a liaison committee being set up in the Assemblies, particularly the Scottish Parliament, so that the relevant two Committees can get together to deal with matters that appear to be reserved, yet are devolved in some respects.

I am sorry to come back to the fishing industry, but it is an important matter. In relation to Brussels, it will be dealt with by a concordat, presumably. I am glad to accept that, but it seems that issues may be raised within both the Scottish Parliament and UK Parliament, involving the Secretary of State for Scotland in the latter case, of course, where we need to liaise closely with our colleagues in Edinburgh.

I should like to know what discussions have taken place with the body in Edinburgh concerning the important matter of maintaining good relations with the Scottish Parliament. It is not a bad idea for the Scottish Affairs Committee to perform that function in the short and medium term. That important aspect of the Select Committee's modus operandi might be overtaken in time with the setting up of a council of the isles, where matters of mutual interest will be debated by representatives of all the Assemblies and Parliaments. Until that comes along, despite my view of the Scottish Affairs Committee and Scottish Grand Committee, we will, as the Minister rightly said, inevitably have to review such matters, perhaps annually. Perhaps the Standing Order will have to be amended again in a year, when our Scottish Parliament will be a year older and, I suspect, our colleagues in that Parliament will—vis-à-vis the United Kingdom Parliament—be even more jealous of their powers.

I should like the Select Committees and the Grand Committees to go eventually, but think that, in these very early days of what can only be described as a form of asymmetrical devolution, the Procedure Committee and the Government have acted very sensibly in their proposals. There are bound to be difficulties, conflicts and tensions, and to say otherwise would only be to act the daft laddie. I know from my discussions with the convener of the Edinburgh Parliament's Local Government Committee that there are differences of view on those issues. However, I believe that the Scottish Affairs Committee, playing the type of role that I have described, could enable both Parliaments to avoid, reduce or eliminate some of the tensions and conflicts that are inevitable in the early days of devolution.

Some months ago, I said in the House that there will be not only intended, but unintended consequences of such remarkable constitutional change. In the short run, the Scottish Affairs Committee will have an important role to play in dealing with Members of the Scottish Parliament.

8.22 pm
Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South)

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) in his statement that the Select Committees should continue in the short and medium terms. However, in the long term, I should like there to be a change in the Select Committees, as we should have members of the National Assembly for Wales and of the Scottish Parliament on a Joint Committee. I think that that would probably be a better way forward.

Last week, we debated in full the Procedure Committee's report. I agree absolutely with the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) that that report was an extremely good one. He has also said, and I agree with him, that the motion that we are now debating is good in so far as it goes. However, I think that there are some problems with the motion, which I shall illustrate with an example—although not the one that I used in last week's debate, as that was perhaps not good enough.

Currently, the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, which I am delighted to chair, is considering the matter of structural funds. Although the matter of structural funds in Wales is dealt with by the Assembly, public expenditure cover and match funding will have to come either from the Welsh block or from central Government funding. I shall not go any further into that example, as I am sure that I would be ruled out of order if I did.

The problem with the Standing Order is that it will not compel the Secretary of State—or, in the case of structural funds, the Chancellor of the Exchequer—to appear before the Select Committee, although it is necessary for the Committee to be able to interrogate various Departments on specific policy matters. Conversely, the Secretary of State for Wales—whom the Committee will be able to continue to call before us—does not have any role in policy making, in either devolved or non-devolved matters.

The Select Committee will be examining cross-border issues, such as structural funds. If we cannot invite a Secretary of State to appear before us—and have a reasonable expectation that he or she will do so—to discuss policy on non-devolved issues, we shall be operating at a disadvantage. I do not think that the Government want Select Committees to work at such a disadvantage, because I believe that Ministers want Select Committees to work and to make devolved government work in Wales and Scotland.

I accept that the Standing Order amendments will almost certainly be passed today. I do not object to the amendments, but think that they are good so far as they go. However, I should like a statement from the Minister, if he would be so kind, that Ministers and departmental representatives will be expected to appear before the Welsh Select Committee and—provided that the Committee makes a case—to give their views on policy issues concerning legislation on England and Wales that exclusively affects Wales. I shall be grateful if the Minister will deal with that matter.

8.25 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping)

Hon. Members have made supportive remarks on the roles and responsibilities of Select Committees and, to a lesser extent, of Grand Committees. Hon. Members seem to recognise that—in the short and middle term, although one or two hon. Members think not in the long term—there will be a continuing role for those bodies. The Government clearly believe that, at this stage, the Committees provide flexibility and serve as vehicles enabling us to deal with a changing situation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones), who is Chairman of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, spoke about an issue that his Committee is currently considering—a review of structural funds—and a desire to have the Chancellor of the Exchequer give evidence. I should say that this is not a new debate. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and some other hon. Members will know that there has long been a real dialogue between Departments and Select Committees seeking to get Ministers before them, to answer questions and to be grilled on their ministerial responsibilities. Clearly, with both the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs and the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, the relevant Secretary of State will be the key point of contact, and the strong voice of Scotland and of Wales in both the Cabinet and the Westminster Parliament. It will be important for Ministers to give evidence to those Committees.

Over the years, however, there has never been a compulsory mechanism, forcing Ministers to appear before Select Committees. Over the years, various schemes have been intended to ensure that Ministers do give evidence. My expectation, however, is that things will not change overly. Nevertheless, as my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South said, if a real and a strong case can be made, quite properly, there will be an expectation that Ministers should respond and give evidence.

My hon. Friend is right to say that the order does not introduce that. All that I am at pains to say to him is that there is nothing new in his argument. We have talked about this being a two-way process that needs good will and adult politics. Ministers would be well advised to heed requests for their attendance. My hon. Friend need have no doubt that the report of this debate will be on the desk of my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary. I hope that it helps his case in the short term.

The hon. Member for Macclesfield also talked about the need for a wider discussion. It is important that the relevant Secretary of State should be the touchstone and key point of contact with the Select Committees, but Select Committees and Grand Committees will also want to see other Ministers. The hon. Gentleman mentioned transport. I come from a rural area. I should like an opportunity to press Treasury Ministers on the fuel escalator, as would some of my constituents. Those in the rural parts of Scotland might want the Select Committee to press a case with a Treasury Minister on transport policy and the fuel escalator. A similar case could be made on excise duty on Scottish whisky. The Secretary of State is an important point of contact, but the matter is the responsibility of the Treasury and a strong case could be made. There would be anticipation that Ministers should respond.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

I am grateful to the Minister for the guidance that he is giving to members of the Government in all Departments, albeit the touchstones will be the Secretaries of State for Wales and for Scotland. I hope that they will use their good offices to ensure that if the territorial Select Committees want to tackle Ministers from other Departments of the United Kingdom Parliament, the process will be facilitated and encouraged.

Mr. Tipping

Despite what occasionally appears quite erroneously in the newspapers, my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Wales want the process to work. They know that they cannot achieve that by themselves. They will use their considerable power and influence to ensure that other ministerial colleagues take part in the process.

In a sense, that is what my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) was asking. He has undergone a conversion on Select Committees and Grand Committees. He now believes that they can be helpful in the short term. He has also been helpful in saying that the Scottish Affairs Committee could be a liaison device with the new Parliament. He asked me what discussions had taken place with the new Executive and the new Parliament about formalising that role. I will have to write to him about that. The new Parliament in Scotland is still in its infancy and coming to terms with its roles. It will be some time before we can achieve that. My hon. Friend asked for flexibility and a good working relationship. The model that he is putting forward is worth further exploration.

Dr. Godman

It is not so much a question of conversion as one of pragmatism. I said that the Select Committee had an important role to play in the short run. I want the development of the Council of the Isles, which will tackle matters of mutual concern and interest. That body might take on some of the duties and responsibilities of the Select Committees.

Mr. Tipping

The Council of the Isles is a new body in its infancy. If my hon. Friend wants me to look in my crystal ball and tell him the weather forecast, I think that the council will grow in influence and importance. We have to gauge the pace of change and work towards a goal.

My hon. Friend asked whether it would be possible to amend the orders in the future. The spirit of the debate has been to accept that these are new and difficult areas. We shall not be renewing the orders annually, but, as night follows day, it will be necessary at times to change the Standing Orders. If it is in the interests of making progress and making the process work, there will be no hesitation, and efforts will be made to find the time to ensure that that happens.

With that, I hope that the House will approve the order.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered, That Standing Order No. 151 (Statutory Instruments (Joint Committee)) be amended as follows:

Ordered, That Standing Order No. 152 (Select committees related to government departments) be amended as follows: