§ [Relevant documents: The Government's response to the First Report from the Liaison Committee, Session 1999–2000, Cm 4737; and Second Report from the Liaison Committee, Session 1999–2000, Independence or Control? The Government's Reply to the Committee's First Report, HC 748.]
§ Motion made, and Question put, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]2.26 pm
§ Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)
Over the past 20 years, the role of Select Committees has grown in importance. Of course, we always had the Public Accounts Committee, which I joined in 1965, and other Select Committees. In those days, hon. Members were frequently pressed to serve, as Chairmen virtually ran their Committees. Things have changed, and I understand that recently there has been a scramble to take part in the valuable work that the Public Accounts Committee has always performed on behalf of Parliament.
However, the major change, introduced as a result of the work of John Mackintosh and David Marquand, was the introduction of departmentally related Committees. Those Committees were subsequently refined, and now we have Select Committees that independently scrutinise Government Departments.
That has been an undoubted success. Select Committee members become expert on the activities of the Department with which they are concerned. Questions about the Departments can be pursued and repeated until an answer is obtained—a method that is not readily available across the Floor of the House. I recall that the present Secretary of State for Scotland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid), when he was a member of the Committee, pursuing a civil servant again and again until he got the yes-or-no answer that he wanted—in that case the answer was yes.
It is not easy to do that on the Floor of the House. It is therefore possible for Select Committees to supplement the work of the Chamber.
There is a great deal of expertise available to Select Committees. Lord Howe was Chancellor of the Exchequer when the then Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee was looking at monetarism. It had examined a particular matter with great care and it was interesting, when the Chancellor appeared before them, that the Committee's members knew more about that matter than he. With a certain amount of dedication, it is possible for Select Committee members to acquire that level of expertise—albeit in a restricted area—and get suitable answers. That is not always possible on the Floor of the House.
In each Select Committee, there has been a search for bipartisan agreement. Point scoring has a part to play on the Floor of the House, but it has no role in Select Committees. Members of Committees understand that and know full well that indulging in point scoring would be to the disadvantage of the Committee and of their investigations. As a result, Select Committee members form relationships based on trust and co-operation. They judge issues on the facts, rather than according to preconceived lines of argument.
474 Some people considered that such a state of affairs would be difficult to achieve because Parliament does not have the separation of powers evident in the United States Congress. We understand that the first priority of hon. Members is to support or oppose the Government, but it is possible, in a Select Committee, to move away from that confrontation and look at the facts of a matter. It is interesting that the trust and confidence that grows between Select Committee members means that it is more difficult for them to play the party game at the expense of the investigative role that is their proper task. Some saw the stronger party system as a barrier to achieving meaningful agreement.
In practice, such agreement generally has been achieved to the benefit of the inquiry process and the holding of Ministers to account. The Select Committee system has shown that determined Members can be surprisingly effective. Our Select Committees have to operate without the strength given by the separation of powers. Within the context of the Government and the Opposition, with their own agendas, it is possible to achieve informed and more objective conclusions.
That has shown itself in a number of valuable initiatives, notably the confirmation hearings by the Select Committee on the Treasury, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice). While not dictating the appointments, the Committee offers the opportunity to test publicly—through the confirmation hearings—the suitability of candidates for public office. That has some effect upon people who are put into positions of responsibility without a general agreement that they have the requisite qualifications. There has been some systematic monitoring of recommendations, a practice which is to be more widely used in future. I will deal later with how we can monitor effectively the work of Select Committees and the consequences of their publications.
There have been some outstanding examples of changes to general public perception, as well as the perception of the Government and the Opposition, as a result of certain Select Committee reports. For example, the eighth report of the Public Accounts Committee in the early 1990s showed that the standards of probity and of dealing properly with public money had been abused. The eighth report initially was rubbished, but it came to be accepted by the then Prime Minister, who publicly praised the report.
The Committee examined the many things that went wrong in the Wessex regional health authority, the Welsh Development Agency and the West Midlands regional health authority. In a number of other matters, Select Committee reports have played a prominent part. The Select Committee on International Development has played an important role in alerting us to what could be going wrong on Montserrat. The Trade and Industry Committee reported on BMW, Rover and Longbridge; the Select Committee on Health on the tobacco industry; the Transport Sub-Committee—chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who is always active in these matters—on air traffic control and aircraft safety. There are many other reports which have changed public perceptions and, via public perceptions, have changed Government actions.
The report "Shifting the Balance" is one of the most important reports from the Liaison Committee since it was set up 20 years ago. It arose from a number of anxieties 475 expressed by Chairmen in the spring of last year concerning certain Government responses. In following that up, other matters were raised and the Committee decided that it would seek to examine the working of Committees. The Committee also thought it advisable to open up the discussion to other interested bodies.
As a result, the Hansard Society became involved and the London school of economics kindly offered to host a one-day session. This took place on 19 November last year, and much of the report reflects that most important session. I would like to thank both the Hansard Society and the LSE for their help and contribution to the debate.
Among the matters dealt with in the report are the way in which the composition of each Committee should be arranged, the manner of presenting the work that Committees undertake to Parliament and staffing and secondments. I shall deal first with the composition of the Committees. Twenty years ago, the Committee of Selection acquired the responsibility of choosing members of each Committee. It copied the method of choosing members of Standing Committees; that is, mainly from a list supplied by the Whips.
Members have been kept off Select Committees—or even, in some cases, removed—because of their perceived lack of party loyalty. The case we must cite is that of the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton)—now, fortunately, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Procedure and a Deputy Speaker in Westminster Hall. He was the Chairman of the Health Committee and a novel arrangement was suggested; that, having served for two Parliaments, he was no longer equipped to deal with a third. That was so blatant an affront, but the hon. Member for Macclesfield dealt with it well and regained his reputation as a result.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his generous remarks in referring to this incident in parliamentary development and history. Does he agree that the real nonsense of the proposal—dreamed up by the then Government Whips Office to prevent my reappointment to the Health Committee—hwas that it referred only to Conservative Members? The real problem was not only that it was a plot by the then Government Whips Office, but that the Opposition Whips Office connived.
§ Mr. Sheldon
The interesting thing was that I was about to embark on my fourth Parliament as Chairman of the PAC and there was no problem with that. I was criticising all sorts of people, as I have done unfailingly throughout my period in this House.
The introduction of a new system to deal with a problem such as that is clearly wrong and we must find better ways of handling such matters. In light of the current demands for modernisation—a matter discussed on Tuesday, when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House played a prominent role—it is wholly unacceptable for the Government, through their Whips, to choose the very Members who will be examining aspects of the Government. Nor should the charge be made—however unfairly—that the basis of membership of a Select Committee should be at the disposal of party, rather than the basis being the Member's knowledge, understanding and commitment.
476 The Liaison Committee proposed that the Committee should be renamed the Select Committee Panel and that it should copy the role of the Chairmen's Panel for Standing Committees. The proposal is that the Chairman would have two Deputy Chairmen. The current membership of the Liaison Committee is 33; it is too large for detailed decision-making. The Panel should have the power to appoint an executive of the Committee and the Chairman and Deputy Chairmen, after consideration with all concerned, would put forward names for the House to consider.
I emphasise that the important point is not the precise formulation by the Committee, but that there should be a firm acceptance that Members examining the Government should not be chosen by the Government; nor should they be chosen on the basis of convenience to the party managers.
The Whips have an important role to play in putting forward names for consideration. They have a detailed knowledge of the interests and concerns of Members, and that information needs to be relayed to the Panel who would put the names of Members to the House to accept, reject or amend. We wish to make the House much more involved in the manner and details of selection.
Paragraph 29 of the report mentions "An alternative career".Ministerial office has a powerful attraction for many back-benchers on the government side of the House. But it is a matter of concern when able and effective select committee members—and sometimes even Chairmen—are so easily tempted by the lowliest of government and opposition appointments. We must be realistic about this; many Members understandably aspire to be Ministers, and of course former Ministers bring valuable knowledge and experience to their service on select committees.It goes on to say:What we would like to see is a better balance between the attractions of government office and of service on select committees. If all the recommendations in this report are implemented, we think there will be a significant shift in that balance. Members generally (and perhaps especially those relatively new to the House) should then see service on select committees as a career path which, in terms of status and influence, will be a proper reward for their hard work and commitment.It is probable that a career path is more important now that the House of Commons has 659 Members who have an overwhelmingly full-time commitment to the parliamentary process. This has been an undoubted change over the past five or 10 years—certainly in the many years since I first came to the House. Not only can proper use be made of their time but a proper scrutiny of Government can be undertaken which many members of the Government respect, appreciate and frequently welcome. Civil servants frequently make that point to me.
One of the most useful suggestions to emerge from the valuable meeting that we had last autumn at the London school of economics was from the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis). Paragraph 40 says:What is needed is a new way of giving timely and effective exposure to reports. We propose that, once a week after Questions, there should be a period of half an hour devoted to a report—normally one published within the previous fortnight. The proceedings would begin with a Minister giving an initial response to the report for five minutes…The recommendation is for an initial response, not a final response. After all, the press and everyone else give an initial response. Let the Government say which matters 477 need to be considered. They do that in emergency situations; why not in this case? Paragraph 40 goes on to say that the initial response would befollowed by the Chairman of the committee, or another Member speaking on its behalf, for five minutes. The remainder of the half-hour would give an opportunity for Opposition front-benchers to comment, together with any back-benchers who caught the eye of the Chair. A procedure of this sort is already used in some other Parliaments, for example in Australia and Canada.There is nothing new about the suggestion. We are saying that there are 659 Members of Parliament, but where are they all? What are they doing? There is plenty of work here for them to do, and the sooner they devote themselves to it and develop an alternative career structure, the better. We may want to reduce the numbers of Members of Parliament at some stage in the future, but that is a very long way off. Meanwhile, there is work for them to do.
Paragraph 40 concludes that the introduction of such a procedure herewould help to keep the work of select committees at the forefront of Parliamentary and public attention.Half an hour is not very long, and such a debate could be fitted in easily. If the House regards all the work we do and the reports we produce as important, they should he worth half an hour's debate a week.
I shall now deal with some of the other recommendations. Paragraph 52 says:Some select committees have made a practice of following up their recommendations and criticisms at regular intervals; and the Agriculture and Defence Committees produce annual reports bringing matters up to date and detailing any progress made. This is an area where we believe that concerted action will have a disproportionate effect. Accordingly, we will expect all appropriate select committees, by the rise of the House for the Christmas 2000 recess, to assess progress on "live" recommendations and criticisms, and to report. This may be possible with written evidence only; or one or more oral evidence hearings may be necessary. But we are in no doubt of the value of the exercise.This recommendation follows the monitoring by the National Audit Office—incidentally, I happen to be the chairman of the Public Accounts Commission. The NAO produces reports which are examined and commented on by the members of the Public Accounts Committee. Those comments are published in a report, and it does not end there. The NAO is asked to keep the matter under review, and it does. A year or so later, it tells the PAC that progress has been such-and-such and the matter is considered further. That is an automatic process, and we propose that it should also be applied to Select Committee reports. At present, so much of the work of the Select Committee is dealt with in the report and the matter does not proceed very much further. It needs to be monitored in the same way.
Paragraph 55 says:Each committee should make its annual report before Christmas each year. In the following January, we (or our successor Panel)—if it is introduced—will consider all the reports, with two aims: first to draw conclusions about the overall effectiveness of the select committee system; and second to address any problems affecting committees, such as—for example—access to documents, attendance of witnesses, or quality of government replies.One area where there is a need for monitoring is that of departmental expenditure plans. Not much time is spent on them at present—it is not very well organised. 478 Of course, the estimates are very difficult to read, other than by those who have a professional or particular interest. However, it is crucial. In Public Accounts Committee annual debates, I used to tease Select Committees whose members did not examine departmental proposals in the estimates. I used to say, "For heaven's sake, let us just say that we agree with everything that the Department is doing, and move on to the next business." That shows what a nonsense it is. However, it is now possible to do something about that because resource accounting will make it much easier for Committees to understand and focus on expenditure, and to make useful comments on it and the order of the priorities involved.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the view on estimates that he is expressing to the House on behalf of the Liaison Committee, which he chairs with distinction, is also fully reflected in the unanimous report to the House from the Procedure Committee?
§ Mr. Sheldon
Undoubtedly; I shall pay tribute any time on these matters to the hon. Gentleman.
It is essential that expenditure is considered and that useful comment is made on it. In that way, the Committee can see how Departments deal with problems that the Committee knows something about—for example, by accepting the estimates, putting them in limbo or amending them.
§ Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)
My right hon. Friend knows that I am a relatively new Chairman of a Select Committee. His recommendations place great demands on Select Committees and their staff. I find it very difficult, with the slender resources that we have, to give our full attention, in sufficient detail, to the growing burden of work. My Committee would like to do more work, but the staff and resources that we have are simply inadequate to do the job and be accountable to the House for the efficient working of the Select Committee. I was amazed at the smallness of the resources provided for doing an expanding job.
§ Mr. Sheldon
There is no question about that. We have quite a bit to say on staffing. I shall be dealing with that later, although not in any particular detail, as there is so much, and showing the kind of approach that I believe to be necessary.
We have at present three days of the Session on expenditure linked to Select Committee reports. We consider that that should be increased to six days. For more than 30 years, those interested in the ordering and priorities of public expenditure—including many in the Government and the civil service—have wanted these priorities to be debated and decided in a rather better way than has been the case for so long. That was, in effect, the birth of departmentally related Select Committees.
The proposals would make it possible to look at priorities and make assessments. There is now a great momentum in the country and the House for more informed and better decision making—no question about it. Resource accounting is expected to lead finally to a proper assessment of how we decide on the Government's detailed expenditure plans.
479 On the issue of evidence, uncorrected replies by Ministers are available on the internet the following day. We managed to get that concession, but other uncorrected evidence, which is reported in the press and on the radio, is not available on the internet or, indeed, in any other form. I have been saying for some time that all uncorrected evidence should automatically be available on the internet so that the following morning we can look up what has been said, as I do with ministerial evidence. Large typeface makes it clear that the evidence is uncorrected. It can, of course, be corrected subsequently. All uncorrected evidence should be available to everyone. We see that important evidence in the press, but we cannot get access to it for ourselves. That is nonsense, and I have made my views on that clear.
§ Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I was going to refer to him as my right hon. Friend because we have served in the House for so long together. I hope that he would not take that amiss.
Given the criticisms that the right hon. Gentleman has outlined and those contained in the report, and the fact that the Government talk about wanting to listen to the House, does he agree that it is not fair that this subject is being discussed in an Adjournment debate? There should be a proper motion so that the House can vote and show its disregard for the replies that were given to his two excellent reports.
§ Mr. Sheldon
I shall come to that matter before I conclude. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman—or perhaps I should say my right hon. Friend—for raising it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) mentioned staffing. The report deals with the format of our publications and the publicity that they receive. Those are important matters and I hope that they will receive full consideration. Staffing is also important. Responsibility for that lies partly within our own province, but we need the assistance of the Commission. Our demands are modest in comparison with demands generally. The whole expenditure of the Select Committee system is manageable if it is regarded as important. We have set out what staff would be needed to produce the information that my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield wants. I will not go into detail, but it is in the report, and I hope that staffing will receive proper consideration.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) rightly makes much of the format of our publications, and it is awful that our reports are produced in such a way. Government reports have lots of colour and are fancy, but we are prohibited from publishing reports that look like that. It is an absurd situation and relegates us to the.also-rans in the publicity stakes.
§ Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)
I am sorry to trouble the right hon. Gentleman at this stage of his speech, but will he press the rewind button and return to the subject of the composition of Committees? In light of his earlier remarks, does he agree that it is curious—to put it most charitably—that the Modernisation Committee should not 480 only be chaired by a member of the Government, no matter how distinguished that individual might be, but that it should also include no fewer than three parliamentary private secretaries to Ministers? Is it not wrong that such a Committee of the House should have the fingerprints of the Government Whips Office all over it?
§ Mr. Sheldon
I should not like to comment on that. I have a great deal of admiration for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. She was born in my constituency, remember. She visits it from time to time and I welcome her with great pleasure.
Following our first report "Shifting the Balance", other commentators have published plans that largely follow our main recommendations. They go further than our report, but their involvement gives an idea of the pressure for change that has certainly been aroused. Three or four major non-Select Committee reports have commented on the future and how we should proceed.
Early-day motion 1135 was tabled yesterday. It is signed by the 30 Select Committee Chairmen. I do not usually sign early-day motions, but I was delighted to sign this one. The signatories include the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the Chairman of the Treasury Committee, both Chairmen of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee and the Chairman of the Procedure Committee. All 30 are dedicated Members of the House who seek to improve the administration and competence of the Government and the laws of our country.
The report was passed unanimously by the Select Committee Chairmen, all of whom are senior Members of the House. On Tuesday, substantive motions were introduced in the Chamber on the second report of the Modernisation Committee, but that Committee was divided on its report, not unanimous. Proposals to implement the majority report of the divided Committee were agreed to. I am not arguing against that, but explaining that our report was unanimous. We are entitled to ask for substantive motions on it to be put to the House.
§ The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)
Perhaps the first and most important point to make is that the Government are not attacking the worth of the work done by Select Committees, nor do we seek in any way to weaken their responsibilities, independence or role in the House. It should not be necessary to say that, but I think it is necessary because of the way in which the Government's response to the very profound and far-reaching recommendations in the Liaison Committee's report have been reported and described.
The Liaison Committee itself describes its proposals as modest. It does itself less than justice. My own view is that the overall impact of its recommendations would be profound. They would impinge on the role of every individual Member in the House, not just on the way in which the House deals with the Executive. It is arguable that they would even impinge on our constitutional conventions because it seems to me that the Committee envisages a perceptible shift away from the long-established role of Select Committees—perhaps going back hundreds of years—to scrutinise decisions of Government. and towards Select Committees beginning, 481 unprecedentedly, to substitute their judgment for that of Government. [Interruption.] I am glad to hear that the Opposition agree that that is what is envisaged. It is, of course, worthy of discussion, but it is a profound and not a modest change.
Moreover, recommendations in the Liaison Committee's report, such as the call for decisions to be taken on substantive motions, may well lead to greater party pressure on Select Committees and their members than is the case at present or, indeed, has been the case for many years. I accept, of course, that the case of the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) was an exception, but we all know that, outrageous though that case may have been, it was probably unique and certainly did no good to those who brought it about.
Let me remind the House that the Government have already and without pressure made improvements for Select Committees. The European Scrutiny Committee has been given new scope and a new remit—the full role that it should have had. Select Committees have been given a role in examining treaties and draft legislation. Albeit with some opposition from the Opposition, the rules have already been eased—we are perfectly prepared to look at them afresh—to make it easier for Committees to work together. Guidance has been issued telling Departments to co-operate with Select Committee reviews of their previous work, as well as on-going reports and recommendations. Moreover, the Westminster Hall experiment has meant that the number of debates on Select Committee reports is now higher than even the most ambitious Committee ever requested, and the matter may be reconsidered. Far from resisting the extension of scrutiny, the current Government have shown remarkable willingness to envisage greater scrutiny, and that shift towards greater scrutiny has been larger in the three years of this Government than in many previous years.
However, as I have already said, one fundamental principle underpins the Government's approach to Select Committee work: it is that Select Committees exist, as they always have, to scrutinise the decisions made by Government, not to substitute their own judgment for that of the Executive. Those who draw simple comparisons between our work and that of other legislatures sometimes overlook the huge difference between a legislature in which the Executive is not represented, and one from which the Executive draws its authority and to which members of the Executive are, as Ministers, personally accountable. For example, accountability for ministerial appointments runs through the Minister directly to the Members of this House as the legislature, and the Minister is answerable for the decisions that he or she takes. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) referred to the Liaison Committee's proposals for which legislative authority is sought, but he knows, and I remind the House, that, as is pointed out in the Government's reply,The Committee on Standards in Public Life considered this issue and recommended not Select Committee hearings, but a Commissioner for Public Appointments.That is one of the areas in connection with which the Government have some concerns about the Liaison Committee's report.
The Government have been accused of rejecting "virtually every recommendation" in the Liaison Committee report. I reject that accusation. The Government wholeheartedly accept the need for joint working, 482 whether between Committees in this House or between Committees in this House and in the House of Lords. The Government also accept the Committee's strictures on the need for sound and timely responses to Select Committee reports. We do not dispute a number of recommendations made by the Liaison Committee about what is best practice and how that can be spread. Several other recommendations are for the Select Committees themselves, but the Government do not in any way disagree with them.
However, there is a genuine and key difficulty, which might have led to the remarks I mentioned earlier, in that a substantial number of the recommendations made by the Committee depend on one central and key recommendation relating to the role of the Chairman of the Liaison Committee and his or her colleagues on that Committee: the report proposes an enormous increase in their role and authority. The Government believe that that needs serious and thoughtful examination because it has genuinely profound implications for the working of the House as a whole.
Let me highlight one of the central propositions underlying the report—one that does not depend directly on the detailed proposals regarding the role of the Liaison Committee, but does underpin many of the recommendations. I refer to the thrust of the recommendations that would, in effect, establish a separate career structure for Members of the House who choose to make a Select Committee route the chief focus of their work as Members of Parliament.
I fully recognise, as do the Government, that it has long been argued that not only is the work of Select Committees valuable, but it should be even more highly regarded than it is today. That is a view I strongly share. However, in many ways, the route to that greater regard lies in the hands of individual members of Select Committees themselves. The report deplores the fact that some hon. Members are less than assiduous in their attendance at the Select Committee to which they are appointed, suggesting that some have been appointed who are less than anxious to serve on those Select Committees. All of those problems, which I realise are genuine, appear to lie at the door of the Whips of the relevant parties and the appointments mechanism itself.
I suggest to the House, in all seriousness, that we ought to stop and think for a moment about what we are saying about the interests and concerns of individual Members. The stated assumption is that there is a plethora of Members of Parliament burning to serve on the Select Committees in place of those who, for whatever reason, have found it difficult to find sufficient time to carry out their Select Committee responsibilities. Would that it were always so. All Members of Parliament carry more burdens and face more calls on their time and more responsibilities than any human being can sustain; they all have to make choices about their priorities, but only the individual Member can make his or her own choices. I accept that the Liaison Committee has tried, in all good faith, to find answers to the question of how we make Select Committees work more highly regarded, but I maintain that many of the answers to the problem that they pose lie in the hands of individual Members themselves, in the attitude they adopt to the work of the Select Committees, in the nature of their reports and in the studies that are carried out.
§ Mr. Sheerman
My right hon. Friend and I have been friends for a long time, but I have to tell her that I think 483 she is missing the issue underlying the Committee's report and the work that we put into it, which is the role and authority of Parliament, not of the Select Committee system. Those who have been Members of Parliament for some time know that this place is dying on its feet. If we do not find a proper role for Parliament, we shall become merely subservient to Ministers and the Executive. My right hon. Friend says that Parliament is a busy place in which people have lots to do, but, after many years as a Member, I have come to believe that, soon, parliamentary private secretaries will start to have parliamentary private secretaries. Everyone on the Front Benches on both sides seems to have a PPS, and we cannot run a Select Committee system when, every five minutes, someone is promoted to PPS or junior Minister.
§ Mrs. Beckett
My hon. Friend is right to say that he and I are friends of long standing. That is why I am sorry to disagree with him. I am genuinely dismayed to hear him echo that easy and, in my view, empty criticism of the role of Parliament, expressed most frequently by Opposition Members and used in a partisan way—
§ Mrs. Beckett
I know that my hon. Friend is not saying that—he believes that the problems go back many years and I accept that the issues have long been the subject of argument. They are, in a sense, old chestnuts—what happened to the giants of yesteryear, or why are today's politicians so trivial? The debate has been going on for centuries. Perhaps I am too old-fashioned for the taste of my hon. Friend and those who are participating in the debate, but I regard being elected to be a Member of Parliament as one of the greatest honours that the people of this country can confer on one of their fellow citizens and I reject with contempt the assertion recently made by a fellow Member of Parliament that being a Member of Parliament is not work for a grown up. There is plenty of work to be done—certainly, I have never had any difficulty finding work to do, even when I have not held office.
§ Mrs. Beckett
Yes, I shall give way in a minute—I thought I saw my hon. Friend inching forward.
First, let me tell my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) that I do not accept that the House is as diminished, nor that it is as subservient, as it has become fashionable to allege. However, I accept that there is always room for improvement in the way in which we carry out our duties and I am always prepared to consider proposals on how we might do so.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
Does my right hon. Friend not know that one of the best tricks in politics is to set up one's own guys and then knock them down? She is being a trifle unkind to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) when she answers a question that he did not put.
Is my right hon. Friend not aware of the fact that often—I can quote a specific case—Members of Parliament with lots of relevant experience are not picked 484 for service on a Select Committee, whereas someone who does not want the job is drafted in and becomes an extremely unwilling member of the Committee. In the week in which, for the first time, we have, by changing voting times, unhooked the relationship between a debate and the decision made in the light of that debate, should we not consider that the House of Commons stands in grave danger of losing the rationale on which it was created, and should we not start to think seriously about some other role?
§ Mrs. Beckett
I am aware—the matter is referred to in one of the Committee's reports—that, from time to time, there have been suggestions that individuals have been placed on Select Committees when they did not wish to be on them and when others would have preferred to exercise such a role. I accept that that is highly undesirable. I am also aware—I say this with even greater regret—that it is difficult to find Members who are willing to serve on some Committees. The assumption that the thrust of the difficulties that arise is simply and only that Members are jostling to hold office in different Select Committees is perhaps over-simplification.
That brings me to the next issue that I wish to raise. It is something that Members as a whole should consider. I am not sure that many have done so. It is whether we need or want an alternative career structure. I fear that it might lead to at least two, if not three, kinds of Member.
§ Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)
I apologise for intervening as the right hon. Lady moves to the next issue. I thought that she would take up the point that, in my mind, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) crystallised brilliantly, when he said that there is something wrong when those who are at the forefront of scrutinising government should be chosen by the Government of the day. What is her response to that simple question?
§ Mrs. Beckett
I shall return to the issue of how nominations are made. My right hon. Friend asked a brilliantly simple question, but the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I do not share my right hon. Friend's view and that of the right hon. Gentleman that it is the Government who choose members of Select Committees.
There is the group of Members who have been fortunate enough—some may say unfortunate enough—to be drawn into Government ranks. If I understand the underlying thrust of the proposals, there is to be a second group of Members for whom the Select Committee work will be the chief focus of their work and careers. Presumably, there will be a third group of Members who are neither in the Government nor on Select Committees, who simply make up the remnant of the House.
§ Mrs. Beckett
That is a matter that should be clearly aired and clearly put to the bulk of our colleagues, who will presumably be that remnant. It should be made clear to them that we may, in these proposals, be creating a particularly privileged role for Select Committee members.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)
I agree that it may be useful to have the debate on the 485 Adjournment. However, when my right hon. Friend says that these matters should be put to our colleagues, will she ensure that, at some stage, we have a chance to vote on the recommendations?
§ Mrs. Beckett
When I said that the matter should be put before our colleagues, I was referring initially to this debate. I keep being told of the views of the Members who have contributed to the discussion and put forward the report. They have had, as has my hon. Friend, their opportunity to contribute to all the discussions through which the report was thrashed out. He knows as well as I do that the bulk of Members are perhaps hardly aware of the report, and certainly not of its contents. The first step that should be taken, before we are advised to come to any decision, is to try to ensure that there is awareness of what is being proposed. That is the reference that I made.
§ Mrs. Browning
The right hon. Lady must know that it is on the record that an early-day motion refers specifically to the Liaison Committee's report. It has been signed by more than 250 Members, most of them Labour Members. I therefore contest her assertion that many Members are not aware of the report. Not only are they aware of it, but they have supported it by putting their names to the early-day motion to which I refer.
§ Mrs. Beckett
The hon. Lady makes an interesting point about the role of early-day motions, on which I do not intend to dwell.
In the report, the Liaison Committee highlights as a problem the undervaluing of Select Committees work because some Members, if offered the opportunity, would choose the route to decision-making, even at a junior level in Government, over a senior though advisory role on a Select Committee. The Committee does not suggest that Members must choose, but it seems to postulate a potential choice of future members, not least by deploring the decision of some individual members to move from a Select Committee role to a role in government.
Of the 121 Members who have been appointed to ministerial office since the last general election, only nine have moved to do so from within a Select Committee. Equally, however, of the 33 members of the Liaison Committee, I think that I am right in saying—I do so partly from memory—no fewer than 20 have in the past enjoyed ministerial or shadow ministerial office on their respective Front Benches. The number may be higher. In some instances, they have held senior office at Cabinet or shadow Cabinet level.
The suggestion that it is perhaps a bad thing for Select Committee members to move into government is not a view that in any way I share. I believe that the potential for Members to move into and out of Government and Select Committees, between the one and the other, is one of the strengths of our system. Certainly, it is clear from the membership of the Liaison Committee that if the suggestion is that the route should be only one way or that it should not exist at all, we would see a very different group of Select Committees from the one that we see now.
486 That brings me to the Government's and my own principal concern about the largest group of recommendations made by the Liaison Committee. The most profound change proposed is the different role for the Chairman of the Liaison Committee and for his or her panel. I shall set out clearly what is proposed. It is the intention, as indicated in the report, that immediately after a general election, three Members, identified as Members of seniority and impartiality, should be appointed to handle Select Committee work. To those three Members would fall the role of nominating every member of every Select Committee now appointed by the Committee of Selection. It is not wholly clear to me whether it is intended also that they should appoint all the members of the Select Committees whose nominations now come directly from the party Whips.
Those three Members would have the additional role of deciding, and in effect implementing the decision, which Select Committees would be chaired by members of which party. Those are considerable powers. For example, the three Members could decide whether, to take an example at random, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs or the Select Committee on the Treasury should have a pro or anti-European bias.
As the Select Committees chosen by the three come to take up their role and as those Committees elect their Chairmen, those individuals would join the original group of three. From among the entire group of Chairmen of different Select Committees gradually returned, a Sub-Committee or an Executive Committee would be drawn. That would exercise in future the general responsibilities that follow the responsibilities initially exercised by the initial three. It is proposed that the Sub-Committee—in itself obviously very much influenced, if not directly chosen, by the original three Committee Chairmen—should handle any future nomination.
The report recommends that the Executive Committee should be charged with handling what I understand to be all the funding of Select Committees themselves; the Chairman of the Liaison Committee should have responsibility for deciding what reports are tagged to, or can be taken in conjunction with, debates, including debates instigated not only by the Government but by the Opposition and individual private Members. Thus it will be up to the Chairman of the Liaison Committee, and to him or her alone—they can consult the Sub-Committee—to decide that the purpose of a particular debate, perhaps chosen by an individual Member or the Opposition, can encompass a particular Select Committee report.
I draw the attention of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) to the proposal—perhaps it is one that she has not been following—that the Liaison Committee Chairman should have a role in advising the Government on which legislation, following the Queen's Speech, should be put forward to the House in draft. Each of those is a substantial and considerable power individually. Collectively, they represent an enormous accumulation of power and influence in the hands of a Member, albeit one initially chosen by the House.
All hon. Members know that I bow to no one in my admiration for my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne, who presently holds that post, but I shall not disguise from the House the fact that one of my main concerns is that, if we set up a structure and positions of that nature, we shall be in danger of 487 replicating the seniority provisions that have led so many people to criticise the American legislature, for example, in that respect. Whatever disagreements hon. Members have with their Whips—all of us have them from time to time—there have been eight Chief Whips during the 17 years served by the previous two Chairmen of the Liaison Committee.
§ Mrs. Browning
The right hon. Lady correctly points out those aspects of the Liaison Committee report with which she disagrees, and she explained her reasons clearly. Does she not understand that, had she tabled orders on a substantive motion on the report, she could have identified her areas of concern and we, as Members of Parliament, could have voted on them or tabled amendments? The trouble is that we now face an all-or-nothing situation, not her carefully thought-through reasons for disagreeing with certain aspects of the report.
§ Mrs. Beckett
The hon. Lady is entirely wrong. I shall presently discuss her point but, for the moment, I simply say that this is the first occasion on which the House has had an opportunity to discuss these matters. It is the first occasion on which hon. Members have had the chance to express their views and, in fact, the first occasion on which I have had an opportunity to express my views on the Floor of the House. That is all—no more, no less. Nothing about today's debate will confine the House's options in future.
§ Mrs. Beckett
No, I shall get on. I may give way on it later. [Interruption.] I have not finished making my case, and I want to complete this part of my speech.
Certainly, I take the view that were appointments to Select Committees in comparatively few hands—particularly at the outset in a new Parliament, but even later in a Parliament—we would not have dispensed with a system of patronage and information about the interests of Members or about who may or may not be a worthy person to contribute to a Select Committee's work. Instead, we would have replaced a system of patronage that all know and understand and relate to the system of patronage within the parliamentary parties with a free-standing system of patronage that would depend entirely on the judgment of individuals, on the information that was made available to those individuals and on the channel of knowledge and influence that they themselves, as individual Members of the House, would exercise.
I do not doubt—I say this in all sincerity—that there is a case to be made for such proposals. I simply say that they are indeed important proposals that should be seriously considered and not merely nodded through or accepted as if they were of no consequence whatever, because they are of considerable consequence to every Member of the House.
I know that the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton said, "We should have an opportunity to put our views." If I recall correctly, the Leader of the Opposition committed the Conservative party, from the Opposition 488 Dispatch Box, to accepting many of the proposals. I very much doubt whether he had read all the report before he did so. My response to the hon. Lady is that hon. Members should re-read the report, think about it and come to a view about whether the proposed path is the one that the House should tread.
§ Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)
Is not the essence of the right hon. Lady's argument the fact that she objects to the transfer of power from the Government, the individuals who lead the Government Whips Office and the Leader of the House to those who are elected by Parliament?
§ Mrs. Beckett
The hon. Gentleman is entirely mistaken. After all, however the names arise—I shall discuss that in a second—they will be put to the House on a motion with which the House could disagree. He will know that although it is rare for the House to disagree with a nomination, it has been known to do so. I cannot recall whether I shall discuss this matter further later in my speech; if I do, I apologise to the House for the repetition. Whatever the position of the Conservative party—in this context or in others, it has never been my practice to dwell on private grief—my party has a procedure, which is neither infallible nor perfect, for self-nomination to the membership of Select Committees. That procedure is open, and recommendations have to be put to my party for affirmation before they are put forward by the Whips to the Committee of Selection. There is no need for a wholly changed system to secure input of that kind.
§ Mr. Bercow
A few moments ago, the right hon. Lady observed that this is the House's first opportunity to debate the report, and she apparently sought thereby to justify the fact that we shall not have a chance to vote on it today. Does she agree, on reflection, that that is an entirely spurious argument, because the fact that every Second Reading debate is also the first opportunity to consider a Bill's merits or demerits is not used to justify holding a debate on an Adjournment motion?
§ Mrs. Beckett
The hon. Gentleman will have to forgive me; although I shall come back to his argument, I shall not respond at this point.
§ Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway)
My right hon. Friend's point about the number of people who are involved in selection is, of course, one of substance; it is also a point of detail, and that detail can be changed if the principle is accepted. Does she understand that the principle in this context—the root principle in terms of patronage—is that such people will of course exercise patronage, but that they will do so on behalf of the House of Commons and that they will do so transparently? There is a difference between that and patronage being exercised by the Whips, transparently on behalf of the Government or party, which is a completely different matter.
§ Mrs. Beckett
I shall make two brief points to my hon. and learned Friend. To pick up the latter first, yes, he is quite right—the situation that he described is different from a role exercised in a party, whether the party of opposition or of government. There is scope for a debate about the way in which we, in the House and in 489 this country, discuss the role of the party—I might have much to say, perhaps when I retire from the Front Bench, on that. I think that we take too little account of the role of political parties. With the possible exception of the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell), whose circumstances are unique, not one hon. Member is in Parliament for any reason other than because we are representatives of our parties. However, the workings of the House continue to treat all hon. Members as if we were gentlemen and amateurs who were returned to the House several hundred years ago. That approach does not reflect the role and the existence of parties, although it should do so, and I take issue with my hon. and learned Friend in that respect. Only in this country is it considered somehow ignoble to be a party representative, and to be above parties is considered to be the highest accolade that a politician can receive. It is usually given when politicians are either superannuated or about to be kicked out of their party.
§ Mr. David Davis
Given what the right hon. Lady has just said, I hope that she will not take it amiss if I say that I look forward to her return to the Back Benches, if only so that she can reveal that information.
On the very important point that was made by the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews), the difference that the right hon. Lady did not highlight—between members of the Liaison Committee choosing which parts of the Queen's Speech should be presented as draft legislation before going through the normal procedure, and the Government so choosing—is that members of the Liaison Committee have a single interest: enhancing scrutiny.
Since the genesis of that argument, a good example of the reverse situation has occurred in the Public Accounts Committee. A year or so ago, my Committee was promised a draft of what became the Government Resources and Accounts Act 2000. The arrangements were such that it was impossible for the Committee to examine the draft Bill, with the result, which is understood by hon. Members on both sides of the House, that it was badly flawed. That situation arose because the Government and the Scrutiny Committees have different interests with regard to Bills.
§ Mrs. Beckett
Without dwelling on what I know was a matter of contention and disagreement in the past, I simply say to the right hon. Gentleman that I hope he is aware that the Government have already proposed further mechanisms whereby hon. Members across the House can give an opinion about the weight that they give to various proposals. It is true that, like our predecessors, we have at present only a limited range of proposals about what is looked at in draft, but I hope and anticipate that we will expand that aspect of dealing with legislation. The right hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not dwell on that now.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) made a slightly different point about structure. I say to him—with the deepest respect for my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne and for any others who may be proposed as part of the initial group that begins to make appointments—that much thought needs to be given, not least by hon. Members who have not been engaged in the discussions on the Liaison Committee and who may not have considered as fully as my right hon. Friend no doubt has, to the full implications of the recommendations.
490 if we were to take the route recommended in the report, we would have a separate group of hon. Members not coming through the route of party office—hon. Members who may be in that position and hold that responsibility for far longer than anyone does, given the transient nature of appointments in our party political structure.
Those hon. Members would, as individuals, exercise enormous influence. How would they make their judgments, as now we do, about which new hon. Members coming in were particularly interested? Yes, there could be self-nomination and so on, but we all know what will happen: they would draw on the experience, understanding and discussion of other hon. Members. That is what happens now, but it happens through the Whips Office and with party influence and changing personnel. These are interesting ideas, but they require considerable thought and weighing.
§ Mr. John Healey (Wentworth)
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way on that point. Does she agree that the case is not made in the report and that it is not self-evident that a system whereby three individuals, no matter how senior, would decide on the nominations to all Select Committees would not necessarily produce a more transparent system, a system less open to the influence of patronage or party, or a system that would bring about a stronger Select Committee scrutiny process?
§ Mrs. Beckett
I share my hon. Friend's reservations. The situation is bad enough now, even within party and even within our party, where we have a structure for the proposals. There are occasions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) correctly identified, when such appointments become a matter of considerable contention. There is the real possibility that it could be a matter of even more contention where a group of individuals exercise the patronage and are explicitly intended to be outside the normal system and route of pressure.
I shall say no more about that now, as I must make progress. I am conscious of the time that I have taken, and I must deal with a couple of other issues.
The report suggests also that we ought to increase the business taken in the main Chamber. That, as hon. Members will recognise, goes against the flow not only of the handling of business in the House over many years, but of many reports that have come from outside this place from people—about whose work I am sometimes sceptical—who have asked how Parliament can be made of more interest. As far as I am aware, none of them has suggested that we should add to the work of the House; indeed, many have suggested that we should reduce the work of the Chamber.
The Liaison Committee proposes not only that we should move the ten-minute rule procedure from a Tuesday to a Monday, which I would be reluctant to do, as it is very much to the advantage of an individual private Member, but that we should add to the business in the main Chamber at prime time by providing an opportunity to debate briefly a Select Committee report shortly after it has been produced, with the Minister being required to give, in effect, an off-the-cuff response to what might and should be, if we are to take the Select Committees as seriously as we ought, a report of considerable weight and moment.
491 There are already—there always are—more claims on prime time in the main Chamber than any Government have been able to entertain. Of course, under the present Government, there is scope to expand the opportunities for Select Committee scrutiny in Westminster Hall—opportunities that are, perhaps, not as fully exploited at present as they might be.
There are other suggestions about how debates on Select Committee reports should be handled. It is proposed that those debates should be taken on substantive motions. I understand that, of course, but I simply say to the House that if Select Committee reports are to be taken on a substantive motion which gives an expression of opinion about the recommendations of that report, there is no way that will not become a matter of party political interest and party political decision and pressure.
Anyone who imagines that that party political interest and pressure will confine itself merely to the occasion when the report is debated is living in cloud cuckoo land. Any Government who did not take an interest in the likely recommendations of a Select Committee would be taking no heed of their interests and of the position in which they might find themselves in the House.
I had always understood that one of the most cherished traditions of our Select Committees was that they should be able to be independent in party political terms. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne rightly referred to that in his remarks.
If we are to see decisions of substance being put to the House on the recommendations of Select Committees, we are going in the opposite direction; so too are we on the mechanics. The proposal of the Committee is that such votes should not only be substantive, but that they should be taken not at a fixed time, as they are, say, on estimates day at present, but whenever the debate of substance on the report comes to an end.
We are talking about more debates and decisions in prime time; we are talking about their being taken on a basis where there will be a party political interest; and we are talking about their being taken at unpredictable times, not at a fixed time, as now arranged for the convenience of the House. All these proposals in their different ways run counter to the way in which the House has been moving for the past 10 years.
There is much in the Liaison Committee's report that is worthy of serious consideration. There is very little in it that is of so little weight and substance that it justifies the House simply accepting it and coming to a decision off the cuff and without mature consideration.
I make one final observation on that, in response to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton and her hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). Two days ago the Government brought before the House programming proposals which have been aired, discussed, re-discussed, recommended and considered for a minimum of 10, and probably more like 20, years.
In sharp contrast, we have been invited, not just by the hon. Lady and her hon. Friend, but by many engaged in the report, after its publication to move to a decision on it today, before even the formality of an initial debate in the House. The Government were not and are not prepared 492 to take that step. This is the initial debate. This is the first opportunity that anyone in the House has had to pronounce on the recommendations of the Liaison Committee, and sadly—I use that word advisedly; it is sad—we all know that not many hon. Members will have focused on the detailed implications of what the Liaison Committee proposes.
§ Mr. John Maples Stratford-on-Avon)
The right hon. Lady says that the House is invited to come to substantive conclusions when it has not had the opportunity to discuss the issues. When that matter was put to her in several interventions on Tuesday, she denied that that was the case and said that it was perfectly all right, when the Government tabled proposals, for extensive debate and discussion not to take place. Today she is saying the contrary.
§ Mrs. Beckett
The hon. Gentleman seems not to have followed the point that I have just made—most uncharacteristically, I know. What I said today is precisely what I said on Tuesday. The issues that we decided on Tuesday—it was Tuesday, was it not? Sometimes the days run together—were issues that had been aired and discussed in various forms—[Interruption.] They were discussed in the Select Committee on Procedure and were part of the recommendations of the Jopling report 10 years ago.
One of those on the hon. Gentleman's Front Bench—speaking, I accept, as an individual, but as a member of the then Government—recommended the Jopling committee's proposals. I referred to that on Tuesday night. The vast bulk of that advice was that we should go to programming of all our discussions and all our legislation. To compare that with this report, which has come out only in this Session and which is being aired in the House for the first time, is not, I suggest to the hon. Gentleman, a valid comparison.
§ Sir Peter Emery
The Leader of the House's comments on guillotining or programming are true: the procedure has been around for a long time. However, the concept of taking votes which would usually be taken after 10 pm on Wednesday at 3 pm is new. It has hardly been discussed in the Modernisation Committee. The idea that it was all right to present that proposal to the Committee, vote on it with next to no debate, and almost guillotine that debate, is unacceptable. We must get the facts right. The right hon. Lady is correct about programming, but wrong about voting.
§ Mrs. Beckett
I accept that there is a substantial difference between the two, but I stress two points. First, on Tuesday, I made the point—albeit one that the right hon. Gentleman does not consider valid—that on occasions, we separate the decision from the debate, especially in the case of Report and Committee stage. Earlier, I referred to another occasion when we do that: estimates days. It has been decided for the convenience of the House to take a vote at a specific point. The Liaison Committee suggests that we should reverse that.
Secondly, while I accept that the proposal for a specific day on specific issues was new to the House—although it had been discussed in the Modernisation Committee—the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) knows that the principle has been before us for a long time.
§ Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)
I apologise for impeding my right hon. Friend's progress, but I should 493 like her to clarify a point. She said, quite properly, that it would be improper to have a vote after a first debate. For the avoidance of doubt and for the record, can I establish that there will be a second debate, when a vote will be held, and that, as the Prime Minister promised, it will be a free vote?
§ Mrs. Beckett
It depends what exactly my hon. Friend means. He is right to say that, when the Prime Minister was asked whether any vote on the matter would be a free vote, my right hon. Friend confirmed that, as always for Labour Members, votes on House matters are free votes. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) will note that I emphasise that point because many Conservative Members had grave reservations about the report, but they seem to have diminished or evaporated since Conservative Front Benchers expressed pronounced views in favour of it. The Prime Minister gave an assurance that free votes are held on House matters. He went so far and no further.[Interruption.] I must progress.
The Government welcome much in the Liaison Committee's report. Indeed, we would have liked the Committee to say much more about the implications for joint working between Departments and for cross-cutting the Select Committees than the report contains. I should have liked the Committee to say more, not only about the publication of draft legislation, but about the role that Select Committees can play in post-legislative scrutiny, and in ascertaining how legislation works in practice, as opposed to the way in which we imagine it will work when we put it on the statute book.
I am mindful that, whether recommendations are made for the scrutiny of the financial reports of Departments or for pre-legislative or post-legislative scrutiny, we stray increasingly into the realm of prescribing Select Committee's actions. That has hitherto been unwelcome to Select Committees. I was reminded of that again by the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne. That aspect of the report deserves further consideration.
I have said nothing about the available resources, whether for our method of paying for the Chairs of Select Committees, for extra research support for them or for such support for Select Committees. Those matters are all worthy of consideration. However, just as those issues are important, the full package that is currently proposed could completely reshape the work of a Member of Parliament, create two-tier or even three-tier membership structures in the House and bring Select Committees into government and party politics. That has hitherto been anathema to those who have so much admired our Select Committee structure.
The proposals in the report are worthy of examination. None should be decided off the cuff.
§ Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)
I begin with one of the later points that the Leader of the House made. Hon. Members from all parties have asked her about the Government's intentions for the report. She has suggested that our discussion constitutes the first debate on it. We must conclude from her words that she has in mind a plan, which she believes to be sensible, for considering the proposals and ultimately making decisions about them. We must therefore also assume that she has a timetable in mind.
494 The Leader of the House values the opportunity for the House to consider matters in a timetabled manner, so I hope that before the end of the debate she will spell out the way in which she intends to proceed and the timetable that hon. Members—who obviously have a great interest in the report—can expect before we see, in terms, Government proposals that we can possibly amend and on which we can vote. I agree with her that although there is much support for the Liaison Committee report, we want to explore some aspects further through amendments and votes.
I must begin by taking her back to the commitment that the Prime Minister made to the House in the Opposition day debate on 13 July about Parliament and the Executive. The Prime Minister was asked specifically about the Liaison Committee report and the conduct of votes. The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) raised the matter. I make no apology for putting on the record again the discussion between the Front Benches. The hon. Member for Pendle began:The Liaison Committee report has huge support across the House…He said that 211 Members—the vast majority were Labour Members—had supported the early-day motion. That number has subsequently increased. He continued:If the Liaison Committee report is a parliamentary issue rather than a matter for the Government, may we have a free vote on it?He was not asking about general matters, but about the Liaison Committee report.
The Prime Minister replied:There we are. That is the legitimate voice of Back Benchers speaking…This is a matter for the House, and of course we shall have a position on it.The Leader of the House has today spelled out the Labour Front Bench position. The official response to the Liaison Committee report further elaborates the Government's reaction to the Committee.
In the debate on 13 July, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said:I do not think that the Prime Minister has given a full answer to the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). The hon. Gentleman asked whether, in view of what the Prime Minister has just said about the importance of free votes on House of Commons matters, members of his party could have a free vote on the Liaison Committee report.My right hon. Friend was not asking about general matters that affect the House, but about the Liaison Committee report. My right hon. Friend continued:Opposition Members will have a free vote. Will the Prime Minister do the same as me, and—as a party leader—undertake to vote in favour of Select Committees no longer being appointed by the Whips, as is suggested in the report?Again, that question was specifically about the report. The Prime Minister replied:Yes, there will be a free vote, as I have just indicated.—[Official Report, 13 July 2000: Vol. 353, c. 1099–1100.]In the course of many debates in the House, we experience the way in which language can be manipulated, but in anybody's language, the Prime Minister made a commitment, in terms, about the way in which votes would be conducted on the Liaison Committee report. I readily accept that Labour Front-Bench Members will have views on the Liaison Committee report and will not wish to accept it lock, stock and barrel. [Interruption.] Of course they have views; 495 we all do. However, in the interest—and rights—of Back-Bench Members to be able to determine a parliamentary matter, the right hon. Lady must now introduce a timetable that will allow us to understand how each Member, especially Opposition Members, can make a contribution to the report, which should not just be discussed today in an Adjournment debate and then kicked into the long grass. That will allow us to see exactly how suggestions in the report can be taken forward. There is no doubt that many of those suggestions have mutual support across the Floor the House.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping)
§ Mrs. Browning
The Parliamentary Secretary is nodding. We should move forward on issues on which we can find common ground and conclude our deliberations with activity that will both improve the way in which Select Committees work and acknowledge the importance of Select Committee procedure in the democratic scrutiny of legislation.
§ Mr. Bercow
My hon. Friend has just caught the Government leg before wicket and, as she did so, the right hon. Lady was chuntering in apparent disagreement. Would it be helpful if the right hon. Lady indicated that she stands by the words that the Prime Minister uttered on that occasion? If we have no such assurance, how can we believe anything that the Government say?
§ Mrs. Beckett
I resent the implication of dishonesty. As I have repeatedly said from the Dispatch box to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) and the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), I do not accept that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave anything other than a commitment to the fact that any decision taken about the House on this or any other issue is taken on a free vote. I do not accept that there is any implication for the timetable, as we have not even started the debate. I do not accept that there is any implication for when the debate may be carried forward, when it may be concluded and when or whether a vote may be taken. I accept none of those implications, and the position is precisely that which I set out, as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton knows, which is why she and her hon. Friends keep asking me about it.
§ Mrs. Browning
I appreciate that the right hon. Lady is speaking in that way because she is under considerable pressure from her colleagues in the Cabinet. This is a parliamentary matter, and it is the will of Members on both sides of the House that it is dealt with as such. I am new to the job of shadow Leader of the House, but I believe that one of the primary tasks of the Leader of the House is to consider carefully the views and will of hon. Members on both sides of the House.
I am sorry that the right hon. Lady, in an uncustomary manner, is denying the will of the House and not accepting what is on the record. The Liaison Committee's report is referred to on more than one occasion in the exchange of dialogue on 13 July. There is no ambiguity 496 about that, and it is clear that the Prime Minister made a commitment. I shall not embarrass the Leader of the House by pressing her further, but I hope that she will look carefully at the wording of Hansard.
§ Mrs. Browning
The right hon. Lady says she was there, but we were all somewhere at sometime, and we are discussing the record of the House and the word of the Prime Minister of this country. If she is to do justice to her position in the House, she must agree to go back and look at that wording. There can be no doubt about what was intended and meant in that exchange of dialogue.
§ Mrs. Beckett
I do not accept the case made by the hon. Lady. I was present on that occasion and heard what the Prime Minister said. I am perfectly well aware of the substance of the exchange and the attempt to pretend that, in some way, I am saying something different to the House from what I have repeatedly said, either on my own account or that of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in the weeks and months since the Liaison Committee report was produced is simply not justified.
§ Mrs. Browning
I do not intend to press the right hon. Lady any further on the matter. As Leader of the House, she must stand by the words that she has spoken today, which will be on the record. When we have a record, such as that for 13 July, which is interpreted differently by the Leader of the House, then the determination of hon. Members will be that the House must sit in judgment of her. It is not for me to do so.
I hope that the Leader of the House will bear in mind the fact that there is overwhelming evidence on both sides of the House that the Liaison Committee's report is worthy of the House's attention. We should scrutinise the report today, and—I put it no more broadly than this—take forward those parts that will improve the House's democratic process and involve a shift of power from the business managers of the House to those people who represent their electorate through the Committee system of the House.
I must seriously ask the Leader of the House to reflect on her words today. Will she make recommendations on what the next steps will be and give the House some form of commitment so that hon. Members may be assured that they will be able to take the proposals forward within a reasonable time?
§ Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)
Did my hon. Friend notice the inconsistency in the right hon. Lady's approach to events in the House on Tuesday, when a substantive vote was taken? Those events may well have the effect of increasing Back Benchers' power, whereas today's proposals, which may have the same effect, are not to be taken on a substantive vote.
§ Mrs. Browning
I hope that, before today's proceedings are concluded, the right hon. Lady will give us an indication of when that vote will be taken so that we can take the matter forward. I said that I would not pursue that issue any further and have made my position clear. The right hon. Lady has certainly made her position clear.
497 The membership of Select Committees was the subject of a large part of the right hon. Lady's contribution and is an important part of the Liaison Committee's report. The report states that the de facto practice of the Whips in all parties in choosing Select Committee members is not conducive to Committees being objective in their findings, as some members have been kept off or removed from Committees because of their views. My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) spoke of his own experience in the last Parliament, which I recall very well. The report's proposals would bring about changes which, I believe, will be for the good. I therefore hope that the way in which the membership of Select Committees is determined, as outlined in the report, is a matter that could be moved forward quite quickly, regardless of those parts of the report about which there may be more controversy.
The Liaison Committee believes that it is wrong in principle that party managers should exercise effective control of Select Committee membership. Instead of the existing system, it proposes a system in which the selection of Committee members is more independent of party managers. That is not naive, as there is a willingness among Members on both sides of the House to try to correct the perception outside that we are incidental to the democratic process. The proposed change will be fundamental to altering that. It is proposed that the Liaison Committee should be reconstituted as a Select Committee panel with the task of proposing to the House the names of Members who should serve on Select Committees.
The right hon. Lady expressed reservations about that procedure, and I hope that we will have an opportunity to explore in more detail the way in which members of the panel are elected. The democratic process should be brought to bear on the way in which the panel is constituted, rather than it being the preserve of a form of nomination. I hope that members of that important and privileged panel would be subject to a form of scrutiny or qualification regarding their experience in the House and what they would bring to the panel. There would have to be a structure to determine how Members could qualify to sit on the panel.
I do not want to get into the detail of the report, but it would be useful for us to debate those aspects. The right hon. Lady seemed to think that these question could be dismissed because of the proposed transfer of power from the Whips—who certainly hold it at the moment—to the panel. There are ways to make the process far more democratic.
§ Mr. Clive Efford (Eltham)
The hon. Lady's party has a well-developed Back-Bench system—it is perhaps even more influential in her party structure than it is in our party. Does she agree that it is open to the political parties to establish their own Back-Bench system for selecting members of Select Committees and to remove that power from the Whips without the need to change the system in the House as proposed by the Liaison Committee, laudable though the proposals are? Would she consider establishing an independent selection system within her own party structure tomorrow?
§ Mrs. Browning
I understand why the hon. Gentleman puts that case, but we want the reform of House procedures to provide greater transparency, which I accept 498 is needed in my party as much as it is needed across the House. The debate that surely must follow the publication of this report should consider those structures, so that it is not merely an internal party matter, but there is transparency across the Floor of the House.
§ Mr. Bercow
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because the plot is now thickening. Is she aware that, quite apart from the Prime Minister's observations on 13 July in the debate on the relationship between Parliament and the Executive, the Leader of the House referred to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) and said:He asked whether there would be a free vote on the Liaison Committee report. Indeed, there will—[Official Report, 13 July 2000; Vol. 353, c. 1170.]Is that not game, set and match?
§ Mrs. Browning
My hon. Friend never lets go when he knows that he has right on his side. I said that I would not pursue the right hon. Lady further on this matter. She will have heard my hon. Friend's words. I am sure that Hansard of 13 July will be her bedtime reading tonight, and that she will want to revisit the words that she and her right hon. Friend used in that debate. I wish her joy.
The membership of Select Committees is extremely important. The Liaison Committee report proposes that the Select Committee structure should become more relevant to Members of Parliament. I am disappointed that, in just eight short years in Parliament, I have noticed that the enthusiasm of Members to serve on Select Committees has waned. I do not understand that. When I was a Minister, I always waited—sometimes with trepidation—to hear what the Select Committee report had to say. I took those reports very seriously. Although we are now considering amending and reforming the Select Committee process, it commands the respect not only of Members of Parliament but of the outside world.
§ Mrs. Browning
If I may finish this point, I shall then give way to the hon. Lady.
The Liaison Committee report's proposal that the Select Committee structure could provide an alternative career path for Members of Parliament is welcome. For various reasons, not everyone in any generation of parliamentarians is made a Minister or takes part in government. Indeed, many of them are in opposition for the whole of their parliamentary life. It is unfair that they should be denied the chance to hold a position of influence in the parliamentary system. I support the proposal to recognise a career path, especially for Select Committee Chairmen. I pay tribute to all hon. Members who chair Select Committees. Those who have served on a Select Committee understand the responsibility that its Chairman has for the work that has to be done in the many hours when the Committee is not sitting. All hon. Members respect the work of those Chairmen, and it is appropriate that they should have a career path with attendance allowances and possible remuneration, as the Committee has recommended.
499 Someone asked me to give way—
§ Mr. Bennett
Will the hon. Lady be careful when she refers to remuneration for Chairmen of Select Committees, because there is already a tendency for other members of the Committee to assume that they can rely on the Chair to do the work? It is important that we do not have two categories of people on a Select Committee: the Chair who does all the work and the other members who follow.
§ Mrs. Browning
That is absolutely right, and we should consider that problem in the context of these proposals. The proposal for it no longer to be the prerogative of the Whips to appoint people to Select Committees requires us to consider more carefully how individuals can nominate themselves for Select Committee service. One would hope that positions could be sought outside this place, so that people would have a CV showing their interest and experience in a certain area, and their continued attendance and contribution to a Select Committee could also be taken into consideration when deciding on their future position on the Committee.
§ Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston)
Does the hon. Lady accept that those considerations are relevant to appointments to Select Committees now? Technically, nominations are made by the Whips, and the Selection Committee makes the appointments. Does she think that Whips on both sides of the House decide who should be appointed to Select Committees solely on the basis of who will do what they say? [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] That is nonsense. If that were so, there would be no dissent in Select Committee reports. Does she really think that that is what happens now?
§ Mrs. Browning
The report covers the composition of Select Committees, the way in which members are appointed, and the role of the Chairman. I do not intend to go through all aspects of the report, but the House will be aware that the Norton report, which considered ways of strengthening Parliament, also examined departmental Select Committees. Many of the Norton recommendations mirror some of the proposals in the Liaison Committee report. There is common ground on the appointment of Select Committee members being taken out of the hands of the Whips, so it is not just the view of the Liaison Committee.
Other work has been done that contributes to the debate and to the views of the Liaison Committee. The Norton Committee report supports the idea of an alternative career path to ministerial office through the Select Committee process.
§ Mrs. Beckett
I do not want to detain the hon. Lady, because I know that she wants to get on with her speech. 500 However, the Leader of the Opposition committed the Conservative party to supporting the Norton report. He was careful to say, and wisely so—more wisely than he sometimes is—that he wanted to consider the detail of the recommendations. She says that the Conservative party supports the proposal that the Whips should not have the sole say and that there should be a proper structure of nomination and self-nomination, as we have in our party. Is the Leader of the Opposition introducing such a system for the Conservative party? I understand that that is not the case at the present time.
§ Mrs. Browning
I am delighted that the right hon. Lady takes such an interest in our policy development. I assure her that, in my new position, I am carrying on the work of my predecessor. We are examining the Norton committee proposals in great detail.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has already accepted some of those proposals, and they are now part of the Conservative party's common-sense agenda. By the time we draw up our manifesto, we will have produced our commitments based on research and on the work that has been done. I assure the right hon. Lady that many of the Norton committee's recommendations will influence our policy in time for the next election.
§ Mrs. Browning
I am responding to the right hon. Lady's intervention, but I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment.
If the right hon. Lady would like me to keep her informed of progress on our policy development, I would be happy to make her party to that information on a confidential basis. I am delighted that she shows such an interest.
§ Mrs. Browning
The right hon. Lady is being far too uncharitable. As a new girl in this job, I am trying to learn what "other channels" actually means. I hope that the right hon. Lady will help me: I am sure that she would be a very good tutor, and I am trying to show willing.
§ Tony Wright
While the hon. Lady is endeavouring to learn, perhaps she will reflect on the experience of the last Parliament, when her party was in government and many of us were pressing issues such as this on that Administration. They refused even to allow the House to discuss a major Hansard Society report on parliamentary reform, over many years. Does not the approach to such issues depend very much on whether one is in government or in opposition?
§ Mrs. Browning
I shall study what the hon. Gentleman has said very carefully. When his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was at the Dispatch Box, she seemed to be trying to persuade us that these matters were all so new that we could not make decisions about them too soon, because the ideas involved had not been around very long. I will look at what the hon. Gentleman says was 501 being debated in the last Parliament, because that is the reason the right hon. Lady gave for our not making those decisions soon.
§ Mrs. Beckett
I think that the hon. Lady has misunderstood me. If I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) correctly, he was making the same point as me. The issue was not debated in the last Parliament. My hon. Friend argues that it could have been, because reports have been produced, but the hon. Lady's party refused even to discuss it.
§ Mrs. Browning
When the right hon. Lady's party was in opposition it was against guillotines, but it has now changed Standing Orders so that our debates can be curtailed. I do not think it is appropriate for Labour Members to keep praying in aid what happened in the last Parliament; we must concede and move on, and that is what I intend to do.
We in the Conservative party, under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks, have commissioned our own report, which I think shows willingness and a genuine interest in the subject. We have done that in the last year, and it shows that we really are interested in making progress.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
I am sorry to say that, whenever it is suggested that the House of Commons should take to itself powers that would not only improve its scrutiny but give it a real role and return the powers that it once had, all Governments—whatever their complexion—resist the suggestion to their dying day. I am very sad that my Government are following a well-worn path set by Governments of other colours.
§ Mrs. Browning
The hon. Lady is a well-respected Select Committee Chairman, as I am only too well aware, and she is absolutely right: Governments resist things.
It is very easy for an Opposition to present proposals. I hope, however, that the Leader of the House accepts that I, as shadow Leader of the House, am pressing for proposals to be presented in a timely manner so that they can be implemented in the certain knowledge that we support them in opposition, and will be bound by them in government. There is a vast difference between our saying that and what the Liberal Democrats say: knowing that they will never come to office, they support just about anything that is going.
I say, in the sure expectation of a Conservative Government next year: give us a timetable. We will scrutinise and support these changes, and will do so knowing that we will be bound by them when we come to office.
§ Mr. Stunell
The debate is altogether more lively than I had expected it to be, but may I remind the hon. Lady that my proposals at least add up?
§ Mrs. Browning
In that case, it is probably the only Liberal Democrat policy that ever has added up.
502 I think that I have detained the House for long enough. There is a genuine willingness on this side of the House—and, I think, on the other side—to make progress. We do not want to be cavalier about decision-making; decisions require proper scrutiny, and need to be thought through. However, I urge the Leader of the House to produce a practical timetable before the end of the debate, so that all Members understand how the report can be implemented.
Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I appeal for more brevity, so that hon. Members seeking to catch my eye will not be disappointed.
§ Mr. Clive Efford (Eltham)
Debates in the House remind me of London taxis: for a long time there is never one in which you want to take part, and then, all of a sudden, they all come along at once. A debate affecting my constituency will take place on Monday, and I hope to speak in that as well, so I will be brief on this occasion.
This is an extremely important debate. I am not disappointed that there will be no votes, because that provides us with an opportunity to give the issues a good airing today. Although I support the thrust of the report, and support almost all the report itself, it contains issues that need further consideration, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House pointed out.
In terms of increasing accountability and empowering Back Benchers, this debate strikes me as being more important than last Tuesday's debate. I do not think that that debate was primarily about increasing accountability; in fact, I thought that it was like moving deck chairs on the deck of an oil tanker and suggesting that that would somehow make it change course. Today's debate gets to the heart of bringing about a change of course in terms of accountability and scrutiny.
I see this as a natural progression in the debate about devolution. As a new Back Bencher, I quickly became aware that I had been far more influential as chairman of a major committee in my town hall than I was in the House of Commons. I see a great deal of devolution: quangos are being empowered, individuals are being empowered, and—quite rightly—we are creating regional development agencies and the like. However, we as Members of Parliament are being given no power to scrutinise all the issues that we are discussing today. We are not automatically being given a role in the development that is taking place in the constituencies that we represent.
I would go so far as to suggest that some Select Committees could be given a scrutiny role in regard to issues outside the House. I am thinking of, for instance, regional development agencies. We might want a regional basis for Select Committees, which would allow us to call in the mayor of London. As London Members, we could perhaps scrutinise the role and activities of the new Greater London Authority. That would give us some say and some influence in the way things develop in the communities we represent, and the way in which the new bodies that are being established affect those communities.
I believe that our Select Committees and their membership are influenced far too heavily by the Executive. I want to examine ways in which the two could 503 be separated, because I think that such separation would empower the House a great deal more, and would give Back Benchers a more influential role. The report suggests a panel of Chairmen; I would like to know more about how such a panel would be established and how it would be accountable to me, as a Back Bencher, rather than to the Executive. Like my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, I would like that to be given more serious and thoughtful consideration.
Before I became an MP, one of the things that impressed me most about the House was the cross-party co-operation that existed in the Select Committee system, and how effective that co-operation could be. That, I think, portrays the House in a favourable light outside. The public often see the House at its best when it is dealing with Select Committee business. Having said that, let me add that it is unfortunate that today's debate has already featured a petty attempt at party political point-scoring, which has added nothing to its value. It draws attention to the fact that we Back Benchers should debate that issue among ourselves and, with respect, try to ignore the influence of Front-Bench Members because, frankly, our Front Benchers will want to resist devolving power to us on the Back Benches and Opposition Front Benchers will certainly not want to tie themselves to proposals that they would not want to agree with if—heaven forbid—they ever managed to sit on the Government Front Benches.
§ Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)
Does my hon. Friend find it surprising that the one Select Committee that actually legislates—the Deregulation Committee—given its powers under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1998, has a difficulty finding Members to serve on it? We must recognise that some Select Committees are extremely popular, but hon. Members must have their arms twisted to serve on others so that they have sufficient members to function.
§ Mr. Efford
I agree with my hon. Friend. Perhaps that reflects the fact that Back Benchers did not set up the Committee structure. If Select Committees were thought to be more relevant, more Back Benchers would want to become members of them. When I was first elected in 1997, I did not even know that the Select Committee on Procedure existed, but I found myself member of it. I have been a member of that Select Committee for three and a half years. I now find myself being dragged forward, blinking into the spotlight, to sort out the mess about the election of the Speaker. I am being forced to do that in double-quick time when we should also be considering other, wider issues, such as whether our Front-Bench Members should be involved in electing the Speaker or whether Back Benchers only should do so, as in other Parliaments. That matter needs more consideration and consultation than the suggested time scale that will allow, but I shall not go any further down that path.
I should like to stress one point in my short contribution to the debate: the Whips' influence on the membership of Select Committees. That is the one matter in which the report, if it achieves nothing else, should achieve some success. It is open to Members to achieve that success within our own party structures. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that, within the formal structures of the House, we do not recognise the 504 party structures. We are here because our respective parties have bestowed that honour on us, but that is not reflected in the structure of the House.
Under the current system, involving the House of Commons Commission, we could nominate Back Benchers for Select Committees through a body that is independent of the Whips within our own party structures. That body could determine the membership of Select Committees without such matters having to go to the Whips. We could achieve that without making major changes to the structure of the House if we genuinely want to ensure the separation of legislative scrutiny from the Executive.
The Hansard Society recommends further powers for Select Committees. We could consider certain issues—for example, the requisitioning of items perhaps even from the House of Lords, which has a backlog of work. It might be to the benefit of the House if Select Committees could take on the scrutiny of measures, perhaps co-opting Members of the other place. We could make progress without the in-built and undemocratic Conservative majority that exists in the Lords dictating the progress of Bills, which are often held up there. We would have greater influence if we could determine the timetabling of such Bills. That would stop any party political influence being exerted on their progress. That influence has nothing to do with scrutiny and brings the House into disrepute.
§ Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)
Would it not be better if legislation were better thought out in this House before it went to the House of Lords so that the Government tabled fewer amendments in the House of Lords?
§ Mr. Efford
Yes, we can all make several points along those lines and some of us may agree with the hon. Gentleman, but it is undeniable that legislation is being held up because it contains measures that the Conservative party does not like. That is why there is a legislative backlog. We must find ways in which the House can become more effective so that we can deliver the policies that the people elected us to deliver without falling foul of the party political system that is so easily corrupted.
§ Mrs. Browning
I must put on record the fact that Lord Carter, the Labour party's Chief Whip in the other place, has said on record that the Conservative party was not unnecessarily delaying legislation.
§ Mr. Efford
I shall not debate that issue further—[Interruption]—because we all know the facts. We can all select various statements from different individuals to try to make our case, but the facts are before us.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way because he is making an interesting speech and I do not want to break his flow. I hope that he will give some weight to the reality that, nowadays, legislation—even Government legislation—can return to the Floor of the House as late as Third Reading with several hundred amendments. Frankly, that is an example not only of extremely bad drafting but of extremely bad management. That has a direct effect on progress of legislation.
§ Mr. Efford
I have already said that I accept the point that has been made along those lines by the hon. Member 505 for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). I find it incredibly frustrating that the House, which is seen as the Government of this country, is so easily thwarted by the systems that exist. Members should have more influence and greater ability to intervene. I think especially of some of the Back-Bench proposals that have been thwarted. It should be possible to expedite matters more effectively without allowing certain tactics to frustrate the demonstrable will of the House and the people.
Before I finish, I should like to repeat that, if the report achieves nothing else, it should end the unwarranted influence of the Whips over the selection of members of Select Committees and Standing Committees. Even if the report does not result in a change in the way in which the House deals with such matters, our own party political structures should ensure that Back Benchers have greater influence in scrutinising the Executive.
§ Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)
It is very good news indeed for the House that time has been set aside to debate such issues today. The report of the Liaison Committee should be commended in principle and accepted to a large extent. I had thought that much of the report was non-controversial and very much formed common ground among Members of Parliament. Indeed, in some places I thought it lapsed into a self-congratulatory tone about how well the system had been developed over the years. Then I listened to the speech of the Leader of the House, who was kind enough to inform me that she would not be able to be present for my speech. She was very combative in what she said. She not only underlined but entrenched some of the mori negative parts of the Government's response to the report. I found that rather disturbing. I hope that we will look at that.
It was all too clear from what the Leader of the House said that she does not accept the report's fundamental premise that some change is necessary. The Government's response and her response today were all about how we are in the best of possible worlds—we should think ourselves lucky to have what we have and, if we make too much fuss, we might lose it; indeed, she explicitly said that in relation to Select Committee reports. Commenting on the suggestion that they might regularly intrude into the House's business, she said that we already have in the House more than the wildest wishes of Select Committee Chairmen and that we might have to look at that again. It seemed to be a case of, "Shut up at the back or you will lose your play time." The whole tone of her contribution failed to engage with the mood of the House and with the intentions of Members.
There is a mood for change and a need for change. The report outlines a list of those.
§ Maria Eagle
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, although there may be a mood for some changes, that does not mean that every Liaison Committee recommendation would be equally welcomed? Does he accept that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House welcomed large parts of the Liaison Committee report, but had strong words to say about other parts?
§ Mr. Stunell
I do not suppose that any Member, with the possible exception of the Chairman of that Committee, is absolutely signed up to the explicit implementation of 506 every recommendation in the precise form that it appears. We can all find things that we think should be changed or thought about some more. That is proper. For that matter, I am happy to put it on the record that it is for the benefit of the House that this is an open debate without recommendations at the end of it. I do not share the view that we should have had a set of proposals before us, but to say that is an entirely different thing from the approach of the Leader of the House. She made it clear that she was happy to agree with the page numbers, but not a lot else. The whole point of such a debate should be that there is some discussion, some negotiation and some progress on what needs to happen.
The report says that there are some issues about the membership of the Committees. Quite a lot of the discussion so far has focused on that. There are the big structural issues, but there are also some shorter, tactical issues about how long it takes to set up Committees at the beginning of a Parliament, and the delays that there can be in replacing members when vacancies occur. Clearly, all those matters can be addressed if the House's procedures are tightened and developed.
There may be something to be said for the criticism of the three wise men, or the three wise senior Chairs, as it may be. They may be legitimate points to make in developing proposals, but what I want to hear from the Government is an acceptance that something different is needed to ensure that we can establish Committees rapidly at the start of any new Parliament.
There are some longer-term issues about the power of the Whips and of the Government to dictate who serves on Committees. Perhaps that shows up in two ways, only one of which has been talked about. We have talked about the possibility—the reality even—of people being kept off Committees if they might embarrass the Government, create waves, or do various things. A particular illustration has been given—my near neighbour, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), and his experience as Chairman of the Select Committee on Health, but we all know that that is probably not the most pernicious part of it. The most pernicious part of it is that the Whips use the possibility of attaining Committee membership to subdue the behaviour of Members in wholly unrelated areas of their parliamentary activities. It is the fettering of the discretion of Members by the use of patronage that we should put our finger on.
The Select Committee has come up with a particular solution: to have a Committee of Chairmen; a Committee of the great and the good. To have three people who have senior experience in this place and who are Chairmen or Chairwomen taking the decisions in the open, with open nominations, is clearly an advance on a system that is completely opaque. Names emerge. They are never even seen by the rest of us when they go to the Committee of Selection, which incidentally is pretty well entirely bunged up with Whips of one sort and another. The nominations come to the House in a pro forma manner, which it is exceptional to challenge.
Therefore, that solution is an improvement. It is more transparent, but I would want to hear from the Committee, as it refines its proposals, exactly what criteria those people will use when they select the people whom they nominate to come before us and to serve on the Select Committees. How will they ensure that fairness and equity is achieved? How will they ensure that balance 507 is achieved? How will they ensure that the skills, preferences and time of Members are properly allocated to a particular Committee?
I say that not because I think that those people will deliberately get it wrong, but because that is complex and difficult to achieve. If the rules are not established properly when a new system is introduced, it might rapidly fall into disrepute and be perceived to be as bad as the thing that it replaced. A recipe is given to us by the Select Committee, but it is indicative and we do not know precisely what might follow.
That is a good reason for us to have this debate. It is a good reason to hear from the Government what they think sensible improvements might be of the existing system, or, if we moved to a new system, what they see as the essential elements of it. I will not use the time of the debate to set out my views on that. I am sure that, if we set about establishing a new, more objective procedure, we could all get round—I hesitate to say, the table; I suppose that we would have to sit in the Chamber and shout at each other. However, there must be opportunities for some working papers to define a system that could meet widespread consent. Perhaps we need the Select Committee to do it, as Select Committees often can.
The issue of the power of the Executive against the restraining hand of the House is one of perpetual balance and negotiation; it changes all the time. Had she been here, I would have said to the Leader of the House that part of the balance was adjusted on Tuesday. I was happy to support the changes that were introduced on Tuesday. I have argued on their behalf in the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons and elsewhere because I believe that their benefits outweigh their disadvantages.
The Government did not lose in the balance or negotiation as it was struck on Tuesday. I was hoping that, in today's debate, the Leader of the House might have been prepared to acknowledge that, even if only subconsciously, and say, "Yes, we got a lot of things that were important to us on Tuesday"—and that were important to the House, too—"and we now think that on Thursday we can go a little further and take another step forward in liberating Select Committees, so that they are more independent of the power of the Whips and of the Government." It would have been good to have some acceptance from her of the problems that are identified by the Select Committee, and some acknowledgment that the Government can play a part in solving the difficulties that have been identified, and in setting a timetable for action to put in place the changes that we need.
I shall take only a few minutes more. There are two or three points, which have been alluded to, that are important and where we need to have some clear moves forward. One is the support and resources that are available to Select Committees.
We have the least well equipped Select Committee system of any Parliament in western Europe, north America or the old Commonwealth. It does not matter with which group we are compared or whatever one's political complexion, the fact is that our Select Committees are less well serviced than any of those. Therefore, it is not a great surprise to find that our Select Committee system has the weakest impact on the 508 Executive of any of those Parliaments. Those things are connected, although not directly. I am not saying that if we doubled the resources, we would double the impact, but there is a link. We need to make our Select Committee system stronger, and to do that we need more support and greater resources.
I am not particularly committed to the model in the Select Committee's report, but I would have hoped—it would have been helpful—to have received some acknowledgement from the Government that they would at least not obstruct that being developed.
Another issue that has been mentioned is the career structure that might be developed as an alternative to getting into Downing street. Most people imagine that when we enter the House, we are provided with our knapsack and the key to No. 10, and that some of us might be lucky enough to use it.[Interruption.] In reality, there are about 655 hon. Members who will not achieve that, but we do not know who the remaining four might be. In all probability, they do not include the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) or me.
§ Mr. Stunell
The serious point is that the career structure for Members of Parliament is a notional dream world, which is so subject to the laws of chance that it almost seems obscene to suggest that we should have a structure that is carefully designed via the Select Committee system.
There is a great difference between status and power. One may gain status by becoming a Select Committee Chairman, but whether one has power is another matter, and is perhaps part of today's debate. Select Committee Chairmen might be given a few extra thousand pounds, but that might not make them more powerful, more influential or more able to do the job. These are wide-ranging issues that are not easily resolved.
There is a good case for making sure that people of real quality are drawn into the Select Committee system and are prepared to devote a substantial chunk of their lives to that work. However, to suggest that the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) is not such a person, is offensive to him and demeans the House. The system does draw in high-quality people. However, if we are to have 33 Select Committees, a drawing through of Members and people finding that they are promoted or taken out of the system for one reason or another, we must ensure that there is sufficient incentive for people to come forward. Money may be part of that, but what is more important than being paid to do the job is whether hon. Members think that the work they do is effective, appreciated by the House and influential in the development of policy.
§ Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)
If payment is to become an issue, surely that would require some reform of the selection procedures. If not, it merely becomes another means by which the patronage of the Treasury Bench is increased.
§ Mr. Stunell
For perhaps the first time in our parliamentary lives I agree with the hon. Gentleman.
509 I want to comment on what I understand to be an annual audit of outstanding Select Committee recommendations. That is an excellent idea. It should not just be an accumulation of recommendations that have not been implemented, but there should be proper scrutiny of those unresolved recommendations and a proper report to the House on what has been done. Following on from that, we could and should expect a full and proper response from any Government to the outstanding recommendations so that the House could judge the effectiveness of the system as it is described in the report and the effectiveness of the Government in dealing with such matters.
This is a revealing debate on a thoroughly useful Select Committee report. I hope that, after thinking about it more carefully, the Government will feel able to take a more positive attitude to what I believe could be one of the great steps forward for the House in this decade.
§ Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)
I want to take the House backward before taking it forward. On 17 November 1966, Richard Crossman confided in his diary. He said:Cabinet. The Prime Minister had decided to take my procedure package of parliamentary reform. Actually it took nearly two hours and was a ghastly discussion. How ghastly you certainly wouldn't get an idea from the Cabinet minutes…The moment I'd finished George Brown said, "Well, it's asking a terrible lot of us, Prime Minister. We're busy men."…He was followed by Minister after Minister round the table simply saying how busy they were, how they were harassed by all these Cabinet Committees and how they simply couldn't be burdened with any more work by the House of Commons.Richard Crossman went on to say:Most of these Ministers were individually as well as collectively committed to parliamentary reform. Yet, after two years they've become Whitehall figures who've lost contact with Parliament. And of course what they're saying is pure nonsense. The Executive rides supreme in Britain and has minimum trouble from the legislature. Perhaps it's because Parliament is so entirely subordinate to the Executive that my colleagues were saying, "We can't allow this Parliamentary Party to bother us.That was 34 years ago. It is a reminder that we have been round this circuit many times before and that we keep coming back to the fundamentals. However, we have made some progress.
§ Mr. Sheldon
The hon. Gentleman mentioned Dick Crossman, but he should also mention Norman St. John-Stevas, now Lord St. John of Fawsley.
§ Tony Wright
Indeed, they were the two formidable Leaders of the House, from different parties, who were decisive in driving forward the process of reform, particularly the strengthening of scrutiny, and that is what is important.
The month following the presentation of his proposals to Cabinet, Richard Crossman asked the House to put them into action. He said:Procedurally, we still behave as though we were a sovereign body which really shared with the Government in the initiation of legislation, which exercised a real control not only of finance, but of the administration of the Departments…The House of Commons, too, has surrendered most of its effective powers to the Executive and has become in the main the passive forum in which the struggle is fought between the modern usurpers of parliamentary power, the great political machines.510 As I have said, that was 34 years ago, but the analysis is adroit.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
I agree with that absolutely, but before my hon. Friend becomes too starry-eyed about the great Crossman, I should point out that at the first Cabinet Committee I ever attended, Richard Crossman, then the Leader of the House, spent a long time saying that we should get rid of the Select Committee on Agriculture because it was causing enormous difficulty, going to Brussels and discovering things which were inconvenient.
§ Tony Wright
I am grateful for that—although I have only rarely been accused of being starry-eyed. Richard Crossman was a bully and a rather disagreeable man in a variety of ways. Nevertheless, I am grateful to be reminded that, unfortunately, there is no correlation between great reformers and great characters.
In the same speech, Richard Crossman went on to saythere is a difference between modernisation and Parliamentary reform.—[Official Report, 14 December 1966: Vol. 738, c. 479–0.]I think that that is worth reflecting on.
We are engaging in some modernisation of the House, but the question is whether we are engaging in parliamentary reform. The point about the Crossman reforms all those years ago is that they were reforms in the round. The reforms came not only with a package of modernisation measures—he wanted morning sittings, more sensible hours and timetabling of legislation—but with the commitment to strengthen Parliament in relation to the Executive. It was a genuinely reforming package of measures.
In the current reforms, we are taking a rather different approach. I think that it is a source of great regret that, at the beginning of this Parliament, the Modernisation Committee did not take a view in the round on what parliamentary reform required. To do so, one would have to determine one's own view on the role of the House of Commons and on whether there is a case for shifting the balance—as the report says—between the House and the Executive. If one believes that there is such a case, one should say what proposals flow from that conclusion.
At the beginning of this Parliament, it would have been possible to integrate proposals on sittings, more sensible hours and timetabling with measures to strengthen scrutiny and the Commons's power in relation to the Executive. Unfortunately, that did not happen, and, consequently, we have no benchmarks. We do not know to what purpose and in what direction we are modernising, and we are suffering greatly as a result.
I have enormous regard for the Leader of the House, and we are well served by the fact that she clearly very much believes in the view that she is expressing—which is a challenging presentation of an alternative position. Although she did not do it today—unlike previously, in other settings, when faced with such proposals—she is wont to ask, "Why ask us to make the change? Why are they asking us to do it? They never asked anyone else to do it." Those are very fair questions. However, one of the axioms of parliamentary reform is that Oppositions are enthusiastic about reform and Governments are cool towards it. That is clearly the case now, and it has always been the case. They are, however, not questions that trump the argument.
511 We are being asked to make the change because it is right to make it. The balance needs to be shifted, and we now have the opportunity to do it. If we always ask where the balance of party advantages lies, we will never make progress. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford) said, and as Opposition Members have shown in this debate, the instincts of all hon. Members is to look for party advantage, to see whether easy political points can be scored even in an argument about the rights of Parliament as a whole. It is the default option into which we all relapse almost immediately.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the group of 30 Chairmen who have signed the early-day motion seeking change to shift the balance back to the House of Commons and away from the Executive is dominated by Government supporters who serve with distinction as Select Committee Chairmen? Change is supported also by various Opposition Members who certainly do not seek to score any party political advantage at all, but wish merely to enhance the role of Parliament.
§ Tony Wright
Of course I accept that. However, I have sat through enough of these debates to know precisely what happens, the character of the exchanges, and how hard it is to make genuinely House of Commons points, as opposed to those seeking purely to exploit current party political advantage. That is the difficulty that we have in making such proposals.
Nevertheless, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) was right to point out, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) did, the central issue that the House will eventually have to confront. Through Richard Crossman and Norman St. John-Stevas, now Lord St. John of Fawsley, we invented a scrutiny system which is undoubtedly Parliament's greatest advance in scrutinising the Executive. Now, however, we have to move on to answering the next question—which is, who owns the scrutiny system that we have created? Is it to be owned by the Executive or by the House of Commons?
We can shuffle round that question, explore some of its difficulties and say, "This is not the right model; that one is better." All that is very proper. However, we cannot shuffle round the central question. At some point, every Member of Parliament will have to answer that question for himself or herself. The answer to the question defines not only what we are, but what the House is.
I do not underestimate for a second how difficult it is to give the answer that ownership should lie with the House of Commons, and realise that all the pressures are in the opposite direction. If we are honest with ourselves—this is a moment to be honest with ourselves—we would admit that this place runs itself as a permanent election campaign. Election campaigns do not happen only every four or five years; they happen every moment of every day in the House. The whole way in which the House is organised reflects the fact that, in the House, there is a permanent election campaign. That is exactly how the Front Benchers of both parties want to regard the role of Members of Parliament. Moreover, Members of Parliament have never been better equipped to perform the role of permanent election campaigners.
512 An interesting part of Richard Crossman's speech in the House 34 years ago was on the balance between what he referred to—perhaps rather archaically now—as full-time and part-time Members. He was exploring the difficulties of different sitting hours for part-time Members and for full-time Members. I think that we are now into different territory, as we are all more or less full-time and decently paid Members. I also think that that status brings with it obligations to be proper Members of Parliament.
I am not saying for a second that Members of Parliament are not busy people—they are immensely busy people who work extraordinarily hard—but, if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that they are as busy as hamsters in a wheel, going round and round, often doing little of productive value. Although we might try to persuade ourselves that that is not true, I think that, in our hearts, we know it is.
There are many reasons why Members of Parliament feel unhappy with their lot. However—we have to pick our words with care in talking about these issues—large public sums are devoted to enabling Members of Parliament to be permanent election campaigners. That is the important change that has occurred. There are no brownie points, here or anywhere else, for being good scrutineers of government, particularly when that Government are of one's own party.
If we are serious about shifting the balance, we have to be serious about what we think Members of Parliament are all about. I do not for a second say that that will be easy, and I do not even believe that it is possible. Although I was accused a moment ago of being starry-eyed, in fact I am deeply gloomy about the issue. It was Enoch Powell who, many years ago, said—I may not have this quite right, but essentially—that Parliament does not exist. He said that all that exists is the Government and the Opposition, locked into permanent conflict. He said that if one sought to construct an independent, collective entity called Parliament, one would get nowhere. He may have been right about that. Indeed, although she used different words, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was seeking to persuade us of that view. Some of us have been saying that the next step has to be to try to build some independence into the scrutiny system, but that may be impossible, rather than undesirable. I hope not.
We have in this country a system of strong government, and that has many virtues. It provides a great capacity for action and that is not easily to be dismissed, but in my view strong government can be defended only if it is matched by strong accountability. The Government are taking many admirable measures to insert new checks and balances into our political system, but the area where they have not done that—and they have to do it—is Parliament itself.
I end by quoting Crossman again, from the same speech that I referred to earlier. He said:This reform would be good for the prestige of Parliament, good for the morale of back benchers, and, I believe, very good for the Government as well, because a strong and healthy Executive is all the stronger and healthier if it is stimulated by responsible investigation and criticism.—[Official Report, 14 December 1966; Vol. 738, c. 483.]That was true 34 years ago and it is true today. It will become more true if the House adopts the recommendations of the Liaison Committee.
§ Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)
I start by making the most important point that needs to be made in this debate. Although the Government claim—and claimed in their election addresses and their manifesto—to be massively in favour of modernising Parliament and to want to do everything to that end, the three documents that are the basis of the report that we are debating today prove one thing absolutely: that, to the Government, modernisation means lessening rather than enhancing the control of Parliament over the Executive. Their purpose in modernisation is to strengthen the Executive and override any major suggestion of allowing Parliament to have a greater impact on the Executive. The documents prove what the Government are setting out to achieve and, if that is their way of modernising Parliament, it is a pretty depressing factor.
I served on the Liaison Committee for 14 years from 1983 to 1997 with the present Chairman, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), and I congratulate him on the service that he has given that Committee, for introducing today's debate and for his report.
As I said in an intervention on the right hon. Gentleman, this debate should have been on a motion on which the House could have divided. It really is not good enough that it should be palmed off on an Adjournment debate so that the Government can turn around and say, "We have had all that before the House." The House has not had the opportunity to ensure by a vote that the majority of the proposals in the Liaison Committee report are carried out. I believe that, if a motion were put before the House without the Whips on it, the Liaison Committee's proposals would get a considerable majority. Indeed, I suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary, who is to reply to the debate that he says to the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne, "If you table a number of motions and get them on the Order Paper, we will allow the House to debate them and to vote on them without a Whip." That would be the way to test whether the Government are really convinced of the desire to modernise this place.
The Leader of the House, who always speaks with considerable charm and raises temperatures by only a very small amount, made a charming and delightful speech, but it did not add up to a row of beans.
I have another minor criticism to make. Where are all the Blair babes today? I see only two or three ladies in the House.
§ Sir Peter Emery
I have known the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) since she was my constituency neighbour when she represented Exeter. At no time have I ever believed that she was in the hands of the leader of her party or any other party.
§ Maria Eagle
Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that I am in the hands of the leader of my party? He does not know me well enough to know whether that is the case.
§ Sir Peter Emery
During Tuesday's debate, between 30 and 35 hon. Ladies were usually present. They were pushing forward the reforms, as they saw them, proposed 514 by the Modernisation Committee. Their amendments sought to reduce the working hours of the House. I believe that their support was not adding to the control of the House over the Government, but was in fact giving way to the Government and allowing them to proceed with their legislation more quickly than they can do at present.
§ Fiona Mactaggart
I feel tempted to ask you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for a ruling on whether "Blair babe" is parliamentary language.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that some 50 per cent. of Labour Back Benchers present in the Chamber are women? That is a larger representation of women than in the parliamentary Labour party. If only we were half the parliamentary Labour party. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will accept that women are as interested in issues of democracy in the House as they are in making the House work more efficiently, which is what we were discussing on Tuesday.
§ Sir Peter Emery
There are always a number of ladies who are interested in what is happening in the House. Indeed, two are waiting to speak in the debate. I hope that they will prove by what they say that they really are interested in achieving greater control by the House over the Executive, but that was not evident in Tuesday's debate.
The issue of selecting members of Select Committees has taken up a great deal of time. I believe that we have to find a way of doing it other than having them nominated by the Whips. I am not saying that the Liaison Committee's proposals are perfect, but at least they are a stab at trying to get it right. If the Government feel that the proposals are too involved, let them come up with a method of their own that does not involve the Whips. If they do that, I am sure that the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne and the Committee will examine it thoroughly. They should not dismiss the idea of changing the system simply because they do not like the alternative that has been proposed.
If we want reform, we must get rid of the control of the Whips. We need to get away from the shadow of the black hand of the Whips, which has fallen in particular on my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton). There is no doubt that, as Chairman of the Health Committee, he was responsible for some excellent reports that were highly critical of the Government and that an excuse was found in the following Parliament to get rid of him. We all know that that is wrong.
That is not the only instance. I will now reveal something that I have kept to myself. When the Trade and Industry Committee was created, the late Sir Donald Kaberry and I were candidates for the chairmanship. He won, and he was an excellent Chairman. At the end of the first Parliament, when he was retiring, the Committee decided that it would like me to be Chairman. I had spoken to the Chief Whip and, as far as I knew, it was all agreed.
Suddenly, a new member was put on the Committee. He was rather disillusioned about not having been made a Minister, and the Whips wanted to find something for him to do. Without any consultation with me, the Chief Whip talked to Labour Members to persuade them to vote against me. My opponent had two supporters on the 515 Conservative side, as did I, but to get him elected, the Labour votes needed to be twisted. One Member of Parliament came to me and said that the Chief Whip—now Lord Cocks—had spent 45 minutes twisting his arm to vote against me. The excuse was given that if the Conservative Chief Whip did not get his way, Mr. Cocks could not be certain of getting the Labour Chairmen that he wanted elected to various other Committees.
Those are the real facts of the behind-the-scenes operation of what I call the black hand. I have kept that fairly quiet, but it is about time that some people realised that when they say that the Whips do not really interfere, that is a lot of baloney.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) has left. He suggested that Parliament was all about Government and anti-Government, in a permanent election campaign. That is entirely wrong in one area: it is surprising how much co-operation there is among all the parties in the work of Select Committees. When they see the real facts, Select Committee members are willing to criticise Governments of their own party. In that way, Parliament has worked as people in the country would like it to work.
Ministers do not like appearing before Select Committees. They have to prepare themselves well and they know that they cannot wriggle. They are pressed time and again on the same subject, especially when they are seen to be wriggling. That is surely one of the ways in which the House can begin to have some influence on how the Executive is performing.
If that is the case, are we right to allow our Select Committees to do as little as they do at present? Some hon. Members will throw up their hands and say that they are terribly busy and cannot afford the time, but I believe that the Select Committees' influence over the Executive is much greater than that exerted by hon. Members, nine times out of 10, on the Floor of the House. Question Times do not really hold the Executive to account, and neither do most debates. What happens on the Floor of the House is regarded as the most important factor in the parliamentary process, but more often than not it is what happens in Select Committees that attracts headlines about the problems of Governments and their overriding and often overweening power.
I wonder whether we should not ask Select Committees to sit twice a week and take over more subjects. If they did so, they would have to be given the staff that they would need, and their members would have to be dedicated, as Members of Parliament, to looking after the control of the Executive. However, that control is much more likely to be exerted by Select Committees than by any other bodies involved in the work of the House.
If Select Committees were to take on more work, the recommendation of the Liaison Committee that the Chairmen of Select Committees should have a special allowance would be appropriate. Such an allowance may total, say, £10,000 a year, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield and the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne will know, being Chairman of a Select Committee involves a vast amount of extra work.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
That is quite all right, I am used to being ignored. The right hon. Gentleman is making an interesting point, but I have reservations about paying Chairmen an allowance. We can justify having extra staff with no trouble at all, because those of us who do a lot of work in Select Committees put enormous pressure on staff. That would still be the case even if their numbers were increased. However, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that a better alternative would be to ensure that we had more people to do the work necessary to assist Chairmen?
§ Sir Peter Emery
I do not disagree with the hon. Lady's thesis, but I do not preclude the possibility that Chairmen could receive some allowance recognising the extra work that they do for, and the dedication that they bring to, Select Committees.
However, we must be certain that such an allowance would not become an aspect of the Government payroll, and that hon. Members appointed as Select Committee Chairmen would not consider that role to be secondary. That is why I should prefer Chairmen to be appointed by the Select Committees and not by the Whips. In that way, we would ensure that appointment to the chairmanship of a Select Committee was not a placement by Government.
I have seen it happen several times that Ministers who are no longer in office turn up as Select Committee Chairmen. That is wrong, and it should not happen in the House of Commons.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton
To an extent, I agree with the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), but does my right hon. Friend agree that the recommendations in the paragraph in the report entitled "An Alternative Career" supply the answer to the problem? The right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) referred to them very positively. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Parliament must offer hon. Members an alternative to becoming Ministers—who, of course, do receive additional remuneration? Should we not encourage hon. Members who are prepared to sacrifice being political all the time, for the sake of democracy and the workings of Parliament? I believe that recognising the chairmanship of Select Committees as an alternative career is the best way to achieve that.
§ Sir Peter Emery
I am delighted to hear what my hon. Friend suggests. The records show that that suggestion first appeared in a report from the Procedure Committee that was compiled when I was its Chairman. My hon. Friend will not be surprised that I agree entirely.
Members might say that they are too busy to spend two days a week on Select Committee reports. I am concerned, as I believe that a Member of Parliament's work is here in Westminster and not in the constituency. Why do Members have to get away early on a Thursday to have constituency Fridays or Saturdays? What are they? Are they councillors, county councillors or social service officers? We already have those; that is not the role of a Member of Parliament as I believe it to be.
§ Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes)
The answer to my hon. Friend's question as to why more Members of Parliament 517 do not spend more time here is the Liberal Democrats. They have made it difficult for Members of Parliament not to spend more time on pavement politics. More and more hon. Members feel that they have to head off the Liberal Democrats' obsession with pavement politics; they cannot spend enough time here and they have to look after their constituencies.
§ Sir Peter Emery
My hon. Friend speaks a great deal of truth. Pavement politics started with Mr. Lubbock, who won a famous by-election in Orpington and preached that one won seats by spending all one's time knocking on people's doors. That is not what a Member of Parliament is for.
§ Mr. Stunell
I know that the Liberal Democrats have had to take the blame for many things in this country, but that is the first time that we have been accused of causing the downfall of parliamentary democracy. I am delighted that my colleague, Rachel Oliver, is doing such an excellent job in the right hon. Gentleman's constituency.
§ Sir Peter Emery
I have never said that that was the sole reason for hon. Members not spending more time here. I am saying that Members of Parliament should be spending more time here, controlling the Executive, rather than attempting to be councillors. I will say no more about the lady who was mentioned. I did not even know that she was there; obviously, she must be doing a marvellous job.
I wish to refer to travel. When the Select Committees were considered, it was thought that all the work should be done in this country. It was then pointed out that the Defence Committee would have to travel to the many bases and troops around the world, and it was thought fair that the Committee be given the right to travel. Then, the Foreign Affairs Committee said that, as it had to look after the embassies, it ought to be given the right to travel. The Trade Committee then said that certain trade matters—disputes between this country and America or within Europe, for example—meant that it might be necessary, occasionally, for it to travel. However, that was all; just those two and a half Committees.
Now, the prestige factor means that every Select Committee has to travel. I do not believe that that is necessary. With telephone and television conferencing, the need for Select Committees to travel as much as they are doing should be looked at by the Liaison Committee, which controls this matter. One difficulty, as the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne will know, is that as the Liaison Committee is made up of all the Chairmen of the Select Committees, the Chairmen of a number of Select Committees get together and say to each other, "You support my bid to travel and I'll support yours." [HON. MEMBERS: "Shocking."] Well, some truths need to come out.
Again, the Procedure Committee recommended having a sub-committee of the Liaison Committee made up of the Chairmen of Committees whose members do not travel, and that they should decide whether money should be allocated to Committees whose members want to travel. [Laughter.] From the laughter that I hear, that idea is not so foolish. Whether it would be accepted is another matter. However, it is the only way that I can see of dealing with the problem.
My final point—about the problem of dealing with secondary legislation—is equally important, and I am sorry that the subject was not really dealt with in the 518 Liaison Committee's report. The volume of secondary legislation that goes through the House every year is vast, and the amount of supervision or examination carried out by Members of Parliament is minimal. We must look at that. If there are difficulties in passing a Bill through the House of Commons, it is much easier for the Minister to leave the thing that will cause problems to be dealt with under secondary legislation after the Bill has been enacted. That is not a new way for Ministers to behave—they have been doing it for years. Therefore, we must look even more carefully at the secondary legislation coming before the House, and we are not doing so.
I apologise for having taken more time than I intended, but I have allowed one or two interventions. Again, I congratulate the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne and say to him, "Keep up the good work." We must deal with the matter, and unless there is strong pressure from people like him, it will not happen.
§ Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston)
It is a pleasure to be able to speak in the debate. I am not sure that I was quite so pleased to be referred to by the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) as a Blair babe. I consider myself the Member of Parliament for Liverpool, Garston, and am perfectly happy to be referred to as such.
I think that I understood the point that the right hon. Gentleman was trying to make, and it brought to mind something that occurred to me recently. The debate on the modernisation of the House has been represented outside, certainly in the press, as solely about the hours that we sit, family friendly policies and the convenience of Members of Parliament—about our terms and conditions. I think that Labour Members of Parliament who are women have been used a shield to deflect criticism. We are spoken of as the people who are pushing for modernisation. Of course, some of us have pushed for it, while others are more wary about some of the procedures. One cannot simply say that all those of one gender believe one thing while all those of the other do not.
In the debate on the election of the Speaker, it struck me that all the candidates had something to say about changing and modernising the way in which the House works, and not all of them were female. So perhaps Labour women Members of Parliament have been used as a shield to deflect criticism from outside. The discussions are often portrayed in terms of us simply wanting to make our lives easier, but in fact there is a real discussion going on in the House, which was reflected in the debate on electing the Speaker. All the candidates had something to say about modernisation; they said it in the Chamber and in other places as well in advance of the debate.
I welcome the opportunity to debate issues such as this, although I have some fear, coming from the Labour party, that one can get too obsessed with internal constitutions and little niggling bits of procedure. People outside the House do not necessarily think that that is what they sent us here to do. We must be careful not to navel-gaze too much, but we need such debates, and it is important that we are having one today.
I believe that it is too soon to have substantive motions on the Liaison Committee's report and I do not accept the criticism, advanced mainly by the Opposition, that they should have been tabled today. Although I agree with 519 much of the report, I would not have been moved to speak—but I would probably have listened to the debate—if I had not disagreed strongly with some elements of it. Had I been faced with substantive motions based on the report, I might have had to vote against parts of the report that I agreed with. Substantive motions at this stage would have been premature.
Let me say a little about what I agree with in the report. I agree that Select Committees are an important part of the House. In my short time here, I have served on the Public Accounts Committee, which is chaired by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis). The right hon. Member for East Devon does not think that the right hon. Gentleman should be a Select Committee Chairman because he used to be a Minister. The PAC is well served because it has the National Audit Office at its disposal, so it receives more support than the departmental Select Committees. However, because it meets twice a week, it also requires its members to work harder and put in a great deal more effort.
When I served on that Committee, party politics did not enter into the consideration of National Audit Office reports on value for money, for example. There was no need for a vote, and I do not think that it was the practice of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) to call for votes in that Committee. We undervalue our achievements as scrutineers of the Executive if we do not recognise the qualities and fine work of Select Committees, which is achieved even under trying circumstances and without all the resources that they wish they could have.
I also reject the idea that because Whips serve on the Committee of Selection, which sorts out the membership of Select Committees, people are put on them who have nothing to offer. That is an insult to Members of the House. Every hon. Member who manages to get elected to the House—it is not something that one stumbles into by accident—has considerable, although possibly varying, experience of life. We can bring that to bear on the role of Back Bencher—or Minister, if we get that opportunity. We can bring it to bear in scrutinising the Executive when serving on a Select Committee, or in scrutinising legislation if we serve on a Standing Committee. It is a bit insulting to suggest that members of Select Committees are not up to the job if Whips put their names forward. There is no single set of qualifications that fits one person for Select Committee membership better than any other. Everyone has something to offer in any one of those roles.
I shall be brief, because I know that other hon. Members want to speak, and concentrate on elements of the report with which I disagree. There are two issues. The first, which is difficult to grasp, is the idea of an alternative career. It is mentioned in a heading in the report and is floated as an idea, but I must confess that I do not really understand what an alternative career through the Select Committee system would mean for someone who comes into the House. I suspect that the proposal would establish an alternative career structure that would enable people to serve on Select Committees on the understanding that they did not go into Government so that there would be another way of making a mark that currently does not exist. Currently, only the chairmanships, of which there are a mere 33, offer career 520 progression in that sense, so the alternative career structure is somewhat limited. Presumably, had they entered the House at a time when the recommendations had been implemented, some of the people who chose to pursue the proposed career path would have had little more chance of advancement than they have now.
§ Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)
Does the hon. Lady not realise that the aim of the proposal is to ensure that there are senior Members who feel somewhat independent of their party and are therefore able to use the Committee to focus scrutiny and enable cross-party working?
§ Maria Eagle
How does one become a senior Member, independent of one's party?
Our experiences, whether as Back Benchers or Ministers or in some other arena, enable all Members to bring something to the scrutiny they carry out as a member of a Select Committee. To say that anyone wanting to become a Select Committee Chairman cannot ever go into Government would be a nonsense, because it would deprive the Committees of the valuable experience that Members bring with them. Who better to scrutinise the workings of the Executive than someone who has been through the Whitehall system, seen how government works and tried to make it work better?
It would be a mistake to separate the two roles, not least because it would lead to two classes of Member of Parliament. Apart from Front Benchers, we are all Back Benchers together, whether we sit on the Government or the Opposition Benches. We might serve on the Front Benches for a while, but we shall inevitably end up back on the Back Benches. What would be wrong with then becoming a member of a Select Committee and bringing our experience to bear? Many distinguished Select Committee Chairmen have done that and we should not prevent others from doing the same.
In addition, if the suggested career progression is insufficiently appealing, no one who has any hope of ministerial office will opt for it. That raises questions about whether we would be able to fill the membership of Select Committees.
My main objection to the report centres on the proposals for the Select Committee panel. I understand that they are designed to increase the power of Select Committees—and therefore strengthen parliamentary scrutiny—rather than that of the Executive. However, we have to remember that our constitution provides that the Government can govern only if they have a majority in the House of Commons: Ministers are Members of Parliament. It is therefore not fair to suggest that it is impossible to hold such people to account without entirely separating parliamentary scrutiny in the fashion proposed.
If we implemented all the recommendations, there would be three people—the Chairman and two Deputy Chairmen of the Select Committee panel—who held enormous power. They would almost be a self-perpetuating oligarchy, because they would choose the members of the Select Committees from which Select Committee Chairmen were drawn. They would be able to select those who could have the alternative career; thus members of the Select Committees would owe them a certain obligation.
The panel would be able to select subjects for debate on the Floor of the House and in Westminster Hall. Other hon. Members have mentioned recommendations that its 521 members should be paid or get an increase in their office costs allowance to reflect their work. The Norton report even set out salary scales and stated which Select Committee Chairmen should be paid the equivalent of a Cabinet Minister's salary.
The panel would have the power to report those who failed to attend Select Committee meetings, to decide the format and presentation of Select Committee reports, and to propose changes in the budgets of Government Departments through the referral of estimates to departmental Committees. That sounds as though elements of the Government are to be supplanted, rather than scrutinised. The panel would be able to control whether or not joint inquiries could be undertaken and it would provide communications support, which sounds as though a spin machine is to be established to enable Select Committees to publish reports that look nicer than such reports do now.
All that does not give the impression of scrutiny; it sounds as though an alternative source of power would be established in the House. We are all politicians in this place, and politics is about power. The members of the Liaison Committee are all senior Members. Many of them are Privy Councillors who have been in the House for many years. They are owed a great deal of respect, but perhaps they think that they should have a little more respect and power than at present. The report proposes that they should get that.
Having read the report, I am not surprised that the Government might think, "Hang on a minute, is this really about scrutiny of the Executive?" It is about establishing a separate power structure within the House that is not necessarily accountable to Back Benchers. I cannot see that the Select Committee panel would be accountable to Back Benchers, and that worries me. It is an alternative source of power that is outside of party.
We must be careful. It is fashionable to suggest that party influences are terrible and represent everything that is wrong with the legislature and its power to scrutinise the Executive. The House could not function without the proper functioning of the party systems. There is too much legislation, too much secondary legislation and too many pressures on individual Members time for us to be able to function without party. We weaken party in this place at our peril. We should consider carefully the implications of what we are doing.
It is for these reasons—
§ Maria Eagle
I am coming to the end of my remarks. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not give way.
§ Maria Eagle
I did, but I do not want to take up too much time. Other Members wish to speak.
It is easy for us all as Back Benchers to say, "It's terrible. The Executive has too much power and we need more carefully to scrutinise it." We need extremely carefully to examine the proposals for changing the balance and allowing Back Benchers to scrutinise more carefully before we implement them. They could change 522 many other things in the House, which would be to its detriment. That applies not only to the present Government but to any other Government who are elected in future.
§ Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)
It is a pleasure to speak while you are in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have not congratulated you before on your appointment.
I never expected to hear such a Conservative speech made by a Labour Member as that of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle). The hon. Lady is right to say that the report is an attempt to create a power structure within Parliament and to grab back the power that the Executive has grabbed from Parliament. The speech of the Leader of the House would have pleased Charles I. It would certainly have pleased any President of the United States. Both the right hon. Lady and the hon. Lady are saying that they disagree with parliamentary supremacy, which the English civil war delivered to Parliament. They want to run an Executive system when they are in office. However, they do not want that when they are not in office. That is true of both the Conservative party and the Labour party. It is a considerable fault and a serious undermining of Parliament.
I would like to see substantive motions come forward from Select Committees to the House. The whole House could discuss them and the motions would change Government policy.
§ Mrs. Beckett
This is the second time, although not in this debate, that I have heard a Conservative Member talking about taking back power that the Executive has removed from the House. It is my understanding—it may be at fault—that hitherto Select Committees have not been encouraged to substitute their judgment for that of the Executive. I do not quarrel with the hon. Gentleman for making the case that they now should. It is a legitimate case, but I happen to disagree with it. To talk as if we are turning back the clock to a "golden" age is perhaps unfair.
§ Mr. Wells
There is no golden age within the memory of the House as currently constituted, but one, especially that after the English civil war and during the commonwealth led by Cromwell, is within the House's historical memory. Parliament had supremacy, but has consistently lost that over the years.
Why has Parliament lost its supremacy? The reason is that the civil service does not want Parliament to interfere with its suggestions. Although the Government succeeded a Conservative Government, they have proposed exactly the same propositions, which came from exactly the same civil servants. Civil servants could not persuade Conservative Ministers to introduce proposals, flawed as they were, so they sought to convince Labour Ministers to do so. The civil service does not want an alternative body to be established before which it would have to account for its actions and policies, with the inevitable consequences.
Membership should be taken away from the command of the Whips. My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) explained the 523 way in which Whips work. I am well aware of that process because I have been a Whip. The Labour party excludes from the Committee that I have the honour to chair Members whom the Whips do not want on that Committee. I can make that assertion because Labour members of the Committee told me so. That is the only evidence that I have, but I believe that it is reliable.
We need a body—I agree that it may not be that proposed in the Liaison Committee report—that is independent of the Whips Office. That wish is unlikely to be fulfilled, because the Whips Office will make certain that its influence is felt, whichever body is established. The Whips Office is well practised in that, and needs no protection from the House in that respect.
As the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said in an intervention, staffing is the great problem with our Committees. Committee staff are expert and extremely hard working, but only three or perhaps four people service the Committees. The International Development Committee could not do more work simply because its staff could not carry out the work that we could generate. Equally, Committee members cannot do much more than they presently do and the idea that Select Committees meet once a week is a joke, at least with regard to the International Development Committee. We meet on average twice a week, and often, when considering reports, much more frequently. We also have to carry out ancillary work, such as meeting those from outside the House—perhaps from international sources—who wish to influence the Committee. We do not conduct our affairs on only one or two days a week.
It is essential that Select Committees consider all Bills that come before the House before they reach Standing Committee. We need a system that carries out pre-legislative scrutiny along the lines on which Select Committees operate. That need not be done by the relevant departmental Select Committee—the heavy legislative loads that would fall on, for example, the Home Affairs Committee would make that impossible. However, a Select Committee process needs to operate before each Bill is considered clause by clause and line by line.
I did not support the right hon. Lady's programming proposals on Tuesday because, before we consider programming every Bill, we should establish a pre-legislative Select Committee process. Indeed, I would not agree to the proposals until we had such a process. There should also be a post-legislative process, which the right hon. Lady proposed, to establish how legislation has been implemented and whether it has produced the result that the House expected. That consideration is more important now that we have such a plethora of judicial review processes. In my view, those processes hold the Government up to scrutiny more effectively than Parliament manages to do, in view of the dominance of the House by the Executive, backed up by the civil service.
My next point concerns the powers of Select Committees, which I believe should be enhanced. Under the current rules, Ministers do not have to attend Select Committees, nor do Members of the House of Lords when called upon by a Committee to attend. Many Ministers—all the Ministers whom I remember—do not resist calls to go before Select Committees. That is established practice. 524 However, there is one Minister who has refused to attend any Select Committee hearings: the Prime Minister. When Lady Thatcher was Prime Minister she refused to attend a Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, of which I was a member, when she was called upon to do so, and I believe that the present Prime Minister is following the same rules.
A Select Committee should have the power to call Ministers, as well as its present power to call others. Members of the House of Lords should come to our Committees; equally, Ministers in this House should be prepared to go before House of Lords Committees. The powers of Select Committees therefore need to be increased.
The hon. Member for Garston spoke about ex-Ministers. Former Ministers who serve on the International Development Committee have told me that, compared with their role as Ministers or on the Floor of the House, working on that Committee has been their most rewarding and most influential experience in the House or elsewhere. The most satisfying aspect has been the fact that they have been able to argue from strength, information and evidence to persuade Ministers to change policy.
That is the huge value of Select Committees. The International Development Committee has no difficulty in getting members.
§ Mr. Tipping
I am interested in the point that the hon. Gentleman has just made. He is the Chairman of a Select Committee, and he has just pointed out to the Chamber the advantages of having ex-Ministers on his Committee. If that is the case, why has he signed up to the notion of an alternate career structure in the report? The two propositions do not hang together.
§ Mr. Wells
I do not agree. I was in the House when the departmental Select Committees were introduced and the noble Lord St. John of Fawsley, who was then Leader of the House, occupying the position of the right hon. Lady, said that they would provide a satisfying career and an alternative career to a ministerial one. I see no inconsistency in that. After a Minister has left office, he is available to pursue another career on a Select Committee. Indeed, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich is in that position. I agree with the Parliamentary Secretary that former Ministers add a dimension that should not be denied to Select Committees. I see no contradiction in stating that that is an alternative career path, which can be influential in the House.
§ Mr. Tipping
If that is the case, an opportunity to serve on a Select Committee, adding value, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, should be good preparation for being a Minister. His argument suggests that he would have to deny that.
§ Mr. Wells
Select Committees offer opportunities pre-and post-ministerial office. I do not exclude either possibility, but I believe that serving on a Select Committee makes a satisfying alternative career to being a Minister. The hon. Gentleman, who has not been a junior departmental Minister, may think that Select Committee membership is a more influential position than a junior Minister often occupies.
§ Mr. Tipping
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. This is the last time I shall seek to intervene 525 in his speech. His comments imply that the notion of an alternative career does not exist. If one can be a member of a Select Committee before being a Minister and after being a Minister, what is the notion of an alternative career, referred to in the Liaison Committee report? Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will spell it out to me.
§ Mr. Evans
The Parliamentary Secretary has missed the point. Paragraphs 29 and 30 of the report state:and of course former Ministers bring valuable knowledge and experience to their service on select committees. What we would like to see is a better balance between the attractions of government office and of service on select committees.
§ Mr. Wells
That makes the point. However, I must conclude my remarks because many other hon. Members want to contribute.
The Liaison Committee report looks forward to the way in which an effective Parliament can be seen to be working by the public. That is important for the prestige and power of Parliament. Select Committees are much more suited than the House to the television camera because the viewer can see what happens, watch the exchanges and identify with the proceedings.
The Select Committee system should be expanded, enhanced and given extra powers. That is the future for seeing Parliament respected again in our country, and enabled to be more powerful than it is at present.
§ Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway)
Congratulations, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) and the Liaison Committee on producing a luminous report. It is terse, short, but in many ways perfectly formed. That also applies to the demolition of the Government's response in the Committee's reply.
The most important passage is short. Paragraph 12 states:Members have undoubtedly been kept off committees, or removed from them, on account of their views.That is a simple, spartan statement, which enjoys the support and imprimatur of 30 of the most distinguished and experienced Members of Parliament. That passage is of paramount importance.
When I learned, within days of arriving in this place, that Labour membership of Select Committees was vetted by the Government through the Whips, I thought that it beggared belief. With great respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), that is not a pettifogging matter. If we explained the process to the British people, and said that those who scrutinise the Government are selected by the Government, they would be astounded.
§ Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)
Does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the percentage of hon. Members on the Select Committees is also important? 526 Members are selected in proportion to the ratio of Metnbers in each party, and therefore more Members of the party of Government serve on the Committees. Should not the equal representation of parties be discussed?
§ Mr. Marshall-Andrews
I do not agree with that, and I do not want to follow a tributary of the argument; I prefer to stick to the bull point of the report. That point is much more important than the alternative career proposals. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Consolidation of Bills, etc. I should not want that to become an alternative career. It is not one of the Committees that is besieged by hon. Members wishing to join it.
There are two compelling reasons for the House to move as fast as possible and use all the agencies at its command to ensure the implementation of the proposals in the report. The first is the changing nature of the constitution of the House. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House came to this arena rather late in life, having had the good fortune to pursue and enjoy careers in other places. We do not seek preferment or office, and the vast majority of us are delighted to serve on the Back Benches and whatever Back Bench Committees we are invited to sit on. That is pretty fortunate in some cases. It is easy for those of us who are in that happy band of brothers to look at the gross, transparent abuse of power by the Whips Office and treat it with the contempt that it deserves.
The same cannot be said for many other hon. Members because, let us face it, we live in the age of the career politician. There are people who perceive politics not simply as a dedication and calling, but as a vocation and a job which, they hope, will last for life. There is nothing wrong with that, and I do not criticise that position. Politics is a noble calling and we even have our own patron saint—one thanks God nightly that that did not involve the elevation of Cardinal Wolsey. For people who come to this place as career politicians, the Whips wield a deadly, capricious power that affects both the reputation, however transient, that they seek but may never have, and their entire career and raison d' etre. Of course, many Members apply themselves honourably to ignoring that and getting on with the business. However, human nature is such that many will not do that, and there will be growing pressure for conformity, which is the handmaiden of a lack of principle.
By that means and as a result of the changing nature of the House, the Whips power will continue to grow. As it does, the corollary is that the power of the House to curb the Executive will be steadily eroded. I agree that this matter is an old chestnut that has been before Parliament many times, but it is timely because of the change in the nature of the House.
My second point is much simpler and shorter. Quite simply, the use of that power is an exercise in political corruption. This Administration has been free of the taint of economic and commercial corruption, of which we should be justifiably proud. However, that does not apply when we come to look at the question of political corruption. It does not matter whether one calls it nepotism, cronyism or the abuse of patronage, because they are all the same. Unless we root it out, we will not be heard with respect and, indeed, the House will forfeit the right to be heard at all.
I am pleased to have made a short contribution on those two matters. I share the pessimism of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), who made a wonderful speech, but I hope that the measure will, at the very least, be debated and voted on without fear.
§ 6.4 pm
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
I welcome you to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. I hope that you will be happy in your duties.
I am delighted to follow the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews). In his brief, articulate and succinct speech, he summed up the essence of and the principle that lies behind the Liaison Committee report "Shifting the Balance", which we are debating today.
It was mentioned earlier that I may have a vested interest in the debate because of my experiences in the House. I fervently believe in the House and in the role that it plays in holding the Government of the day to account and scrutinising legislation. As hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, the only effective way in which the House of Commons can properly hold the Government of the day and their Ministers to account is through the Select Committee system. It is quite wrong that the Government, however tenuously, should have any say in the appointment of hon. Members to Select Committees. Of course, the Government can have a say through the usual channels—the Whips Office—on which Committees are to be controlled by the Government party and which by the main Opposition party and other parties. Should the Government have any direct say in the appointments to the Select Committees? The answer is no.
In its report, the Liaison Committee has made propositions that should rightly be voted on in due course. The Government reacted quickly to include motions on the Order Paper to change Standing Orders in response to the Modernisation Committee's report, which was not unanimous. They have a duty and a responsibility to the House to table in this Session of Parliament—and I mean in this Session—substantive motions to enable the House to vote on the proposals contained in this report, which was unanimous. The Minister will recognise that there is substantial support on both sides of the House for the conclusions and recommendations contained in the report.
The Chairman and two Deputy Chairmen of Committees could be appointed as you, Madam Deputy Speaker, the Chairman of Ways and Means and the other Deputy Speakers are appointed. Such appointments can be put to the House to be agreed or otherwise. I liked the speech of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle). I did not agree with her, but she was honest and direct. The House could have a say over who is appointed as Chairman and Deputy Chairmen of Committees. The House could make appointments to all the Select Committees within a short time after a new Parliament came into being. Hon. Members from all parties would then have a vital role in holding the Government of the day to account.
Having gone through a rather sad experience in 1992, I do not believe that the House should tolerate any longer a system of selecting people for Committees that allows such abuse to occur. In a way I am quite proud that the Winterton rule, as it is now known, is part of parliamentary history, is in textbooks and is taught in universities in this country and elsewhere. What went on was condemned by those who value the role of the House of Commons. What the Government of the day did brought them no credit.
The Minister misunderstands the reference to an alternative career. Of course people who serve on Select Committees, and even become Chairmen, could go on to become Ministers of the Crown. Nothing in the report prevents that. Likewise, nothing in the report prevents 528 someone who has been a Minister of the Crown from becoming a member of a Select Committee—perhaps even a Chairman.
My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), who is currently an Opposition Whip, said to me, "Of course that is right, but such people must not be imposed on Committees. There must first be a voluntary decision by the House to appoint them as members; then the Committee must elect a Chairman."
I ask the Minister to understand what is being said in the report, and also in another report. I do not have a copy with me, but I think it was called—perhaps someone can remind me—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Independence or Control".] That report was our brief but, again, unanimous response to the Government's very inadequate reply to the Liaison Committee's initial report.
Both new and old Members have served on the Liaison Committee, providing a wealth of Back-Bench experience. Let us be fair: the present Chairman, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), was a very distinguished Treasury Minister in an earlier Labour Government. He does not bring just a Back-Bench perspective to the report; he brings to it the experience of having been a distinguished Minister in a Labour Government.
It is not a matter of Back Benchers versus the Government of the day, or the Executive. A Member of Parliament with many years service, together with his colleagues, has brought to the House a wealth of experience in trying to shift the balance of power back to Parliament in order to give it a meaningful role—and the alternative career structure to which I have briefly referred represents one way of doing that.
The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) has been very honourable about expressing her opposition, even during Committee sittings. She says that we should not start talking about extra salaries or allowances. That may well have to come in due course, but I do not necessarily advocate it in the short term, either.
The hon. and learned Member for Medway, who is a practising lawyer and a man of great distinction, articulated his point—which he was right to make—in an incisive legal way. I listened to him with great respect. While being considered—like me—to be a maverick, the hon. and learned Gentleman is honest and honourable, and it is right for both honesty and honour to be part of this place.
Nowadays, more and more MPs are professional career politicians. We want MPs who do not just want preferment. We want MPs who will serve the House, not only on Select Committees but in other ways—MPs who believe that their role is important to Parliament, and to the role that Parliament itself plays.
We need an alternative career structure. I hope that both the Liaison Committee and the House will consider that. There will, I assume, be limited time before the Government table substantive motions—I suspect that the Minister will not tell us that they will be tabled before the end of the current Session—but let me make a plea. If the Government believe in democracy, and in Parliament's real role of being able to hold the Government of the day to account, will the Minister tell us that before the end of the current Parliament Members will have an opportunity to vote on the issues, principles and recommendations mentioned in today's debate? That will at least show that the Government believe that the House has a meaningful 529 role to play, that there are Members of Parliament who do not want become Ministers because they believe that they can fulfil other roles and that there are those in this House who are prepared to appeal not just to their parties.
I have sat on the Back Benches for 29 years, and I am proud of it. This is my 30th year as a Member. Some hon. Members may say that I do not have the ability to be a Minister, but I do not believe that that is the case. I have the ability, but I chose a particular way to fulfil the role of a Member of Parliament. I do not regret that; I do not want to push the water back under the bridges. I fervently love the House of Commons, and I want it to have more control over the Executive so that we produce not only better legislation but a better Government.
§ Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
Governments of all kinds—even the best intentioned—suddenly discover that power is very comfortable after they enter office, and they know what they want to do with it; they want get their way. Even those who have been completely committed to the House of Commons and the democratic system suddenly discover that the exigencies of day-to-day life are inconvenient when they have to return to the House to justify their actions. That is not a party political matter; it is true of every Government whom I have ever known. The reality is that the House allows its powers to slip away at its peril.
Life becomes more complex. More work is done and more decisions are taken outside the House. More people are unanswerable. There are more stand-alone agencies and more parts of Government that impinge on our lives in every way but answer to no one. I am sorry to say that it is not true that the report suggests a revolutionary return to an alternative centre of great power. Would that it were so. The Liaison Committee simply told us that if we continue down the current path, the House will consist of people who regard their constituency work as more important than legislation; who find time for many social occasions, but little for the detailed scrutiny of highly complex legislation; and, most importantly, who do not have access to sufficient informed and accurate back-up to be able to tell when legislation is not only wrong but dangerous. We have seen that with the use of secondary legislation and other measures that give Ministers enormous powers, which are then backed up outside or in subsidiary Committees.
The House must begin to make a stand. We should hold a Speaker's Conference to consider in detail the work that is necessary. While we wait for that, the Liaison Committee's recommendations should be put to the House in an understandable and acceptable way. I have never seen so many Guys put up as I have by the Government in relation to the report. All the details about whether or not people are paid or whether they have access to certain information are totally unimportant. The House can determine those details. However, we in Parliament must be able to tell people that, as life becomes more complex, we are ahead of the game and capable of scrutinising all those changes that affect them in every aspect of their lives. We have let some of that go in the most dangerous way. It is a matter not simply of drafting or organising, but of Select Committees having the time, information and sheer commitment to hold Ministers to account for their actions.
530 Of course, Ministers hate coming to our Committees. Of course, when we do too much work, they find it inconvenient. I found one of the comments in the Government reply vaguely amusing. It said, in effect, "The Committees are doing too much work. They are calling us forward too often. We have been called before the departmental Committee at least once every fortnight." Frankly, on occasions, I would prefer to have the senior civil servant. It is Ministers who are determined that I shall not have access to that source of information, not anyone else.
I say to the Government that, in the whole of politics, it is essential to have someone who stands at their shoulder and says, "You may take that decision, but the difficulties and implications are bad for democracy, bad for the country, but above all very bad for you. If you are clever, if you are a good politician, you will ask Parliament to perform the role of scrutiny because you need it." We all need it, but the Government need it more than we do. The Government need it as a protection against the almost unconscious arrogance that goes with the constant exercise of power. This is the place that needs to ask the awkward questions.
I say one thing very simply: put the Liaison Committee's report to the House of Commons. Give it the time to debate it. Do not get involved in absurd details, just accept that the principle is what matters. The principle is that Parliament needs to take back the right to speak for the people because Parliament's greatest enemy is not hatred, but apathy and lack of connection with what we are doing.
§ Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)
I welcome you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to the Chair.
Having sat through the debate, I have decided more or less to change my speech. Some Members have suggested that, in the past, the House has had lots of powers, has been able to bring the Executive to account on its Budget and to be an effective scrutiniser. I challenge that idea. One of the reasons why I like the report is that it begins the process—it is a very small step—towards the radical constitutional reform that needs to happen to the House.
I quote from the 19th edition of "Erskine May" with respect to the process of supply and the scrutiny of Government Budgets.The financial relations between the Crown and Parliament took shape during the period while the King still governed through ministers responsible to himself, and the House of Commons only exercised a negative control through its power to withhold supplies. These constitutional relationships have been maintained in essential continuity, despite the establishment of Cabinet government dependent upon the support of the House of Commons.The House has had only a negative role in all the Budgets that have been passed over the centuries.
To give another example, the last time that the House told the Government of the day that they could not have the money that they requested was in 1919. The then Government had put forward an estimate requesting money in the royal palaces vote for a second bathroom for the then Lord Chancellor. The House of Commons decided in 1919 that the money for that second bathroom should not be granted. In the current Parliament, there was a hue and cry about a certain Lord Chancellor's expensive wallpaper. Members got up and made some criticism of that expenditure, but we did not vote it down.
531 I give that example simply to say that the House has been powerless for far too long. I do not think that it has ever had the power that it should have had. The Liaison Committee report begins to address that centuries-old problem.
Indeed, one of my criticisms of the Liaison Committee report is that it is too complacent about the current situation and therefore conservative in its proposals. The Select Committee system is not the great, wonderful scrutinising system that some colleagues have suggested. With a few honourable exceptions, many of our reports do not have the effect that they should have. They do not lead to changes in policies, to rethinks and to changes in expenditure priorities. They should lead to that because they are the result of an awful lot of work.
The only real effect of Select Committees tends to come from their hearings, when Ministers are giving evidence and the press are listening. If Ministers are given a hard time, they might have an embarrassing headline the next day. That is important and is part of Parliament's role in scrutinising the Executive, but it is hardly a major role. It defines "scrutiny" in a narrow way, relating just to asking a few difficult questions. My view of accountability and scrutiny is a rather more powerful one. I thought that we were elected to this place not just to ask the odd difficult question or give the Minister an embarrassing headline, but to scrutinise properly and attempt to amend or change the direction of Government policy. That is why I think that the report, excellent though many of its proposals are, is too conservative.
I accept that we have to begin somewhere. Page 2 of the white summary sheet to the report makes it clear that the Committee wants to recognise the reality of the current political situation and take a small step forward. It would be unwise of Ministers to suggest that there are hon. Members who would be happy with this rather timid set of recommendations. Many of us want to go much further so as to make this Chamber an effective and active participant in the formation of Government policy.
I shall give just one or two examples and leave some time for other colleagues to participate in the debate. I believe that we need to challenge Standing Order No. 48. For those who do not know that off by heart, it is the basis for the Crown financial initiative. It says that only Ministers of the Crown can propose spending. I believe that parliamentarians—Members of the House—should be able to propose spending plans; not just switches between expenditure heads, as the report suggests, but spending increases.
I am not suggesting legislative anarchy because I believe that the Executive should retain the ability to veto financial proposals. A few years ago, the New Zealand Parliament, which is very much like this Parliament, changed its Standing Orders to get rid of the Crown financial initiative. It has put in its place something slightly weaker, called the Crown financial veto. It has opened up the Budget process so that ordinary Members can make constructive and well-thought-through spending proposals. If a proposal would wreak havoc with the financial stability of the country, the Executive can table a certificate of financial veto, which is not debatable, and defend the viability of the Budget.
532 That change in Standing Orders would create a huge incentive for hon. Members to get their hands dirty and get involved in the nitty-gritty of scrutinising the Budget. I believe that the suggestions about changing our procedures and the way in which we scrutinise the Budget that are contained in this report and in the report from the Procedure Committee, on which I had the pleasure to serve under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), do not go far enough. We need to ensure that hon. Members are given more powers, more training and greater resources to be able to undertake the scrutiny role.
I hope that, after looking again at the proposals and taking note of the arguments that we have heard today, the Government do not try to sit on this for years, or until after the election. I hope that they come back urgently and realise that there is a need for radical reform of the House. Perhaps they will be even braver than the Liaison Committee.
§ Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)
I welcome you to your new position, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is grand to see you in the Chair.
I welcome the Liaison Committee report, particularly its objectives of ensuring more effective scrutiny of legislation, more pre-legislative scrutiny and more effective work by the Select Committees. However, I was almost depressed by what sounded like a bit of hypocrisy from the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), who demanded a vote on the proposals. Although she claimed to support the report and its proposals, she was not convinced by some of the details. However, even if we were debating such motions and we all supported the report's main theme and objectives, we would not all agree with the precise recipe that the report offered to achieve those objectives.
As the Leader of the House said, the report highlights the danger of swapping the current system of patronage held by the Whips Office for one in which patronage is exercised by a committee of three wise men—and they probably would be men, would they not? Perhaps it would be sensible to determine whether we can create a procedure to select Select Committee members that really is transparent, really does reflect the composition of the House and really does involve Back Benchers.
Derek Fatchett—the former Member for Leeds, Central, who is sadly no longer with us—wrote a pamphlet for the Fabian Society in which he suggested that Select Committee members should be elected by hon. Members, excluding Ministers. I would like to go further than that. I think that there is much merit in the points made by hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), on the importance of the party system and of maintaining the party tradition that underpins our democratic system.
Perhaps the best way forward would be to allow political parties to organise internal elections to choose Select Committee members. Such a system would certainly ensure greater eagerness to serve and greater commitment to Select Committees. It would also create a genuine alternative career structure.
Many people seem to think that one can have only one career at a time—that one can run along only one set of career "tram lines" now, only one set later, and that one 533 cannot jump at will from one set to another. I have had at least six different careers, and, on two occasions, I have had two careers at the same time. The opportunity for Members to serve on a Select Committee, and therefore to contribute even more than they do as Back Benchers, should not entail the exclusion of career alternatives.
The Committee's report offers some good challenges. In his pamphlet, Derek Fatchett urged us, when we came to power, not to do what Conservative Members had done. He said that the Conservatives will have had 17 years in power—he guessed that it would be that long, but was one year out—with their noses in the trough, but that we should not think that our time had come to do the same. He said that we should be bigger than that. He said that, to ensure and strengthen democracy and community, we need a Parliament that works well.
For four years of my life, I was a member of a local council, and for two of those years I led the opposition on the council. There were 31 members of the majority party and 30 members of the minority party. One consequence of that small majority was that fewer mistakes were made. As leader of the opposition, I helped that council to be a better council, and that helped it to become a very popular council.
Strong scrutiny produces better decisions and better government, regardless of who is in government. We need the courage and the bottle to admit that, and to create a democratic structure that can more effectively deliver it.
§ Fiona Mactaggart
I am sure that it was.
Not all of the details in the report are right. I urge the Liaison Committee to do one more job. I think that we have to widen the debate so that it continues beyond this Adjournment debate, and include more hon. Members in it. I also think that the Committee should take evidence on how to develop the proposals. I think that it has got the principles right in respect of what we are trying to achieve, but in practice the transparency is not being delivered. If the Committee intends to propose that appointments are approved by Select Committees, as was proposed in the 1992 Labour party manifesto, it must be very clear about which Committees will be involved and how the system will work. There is more work still to do, but we have made a good start. Let us do the work as well as pressing the Government to act on some of these proposals.
§ Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)
I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart). I declare an interest as a member of both the Liaison Committee and the Norton commission, although I recognise that the report of the latter is not part of today's debate. I should also declare that although I am a member of the Liaison Committee, I did not sign the early-day motion tabled by the right hon. Member for 534 Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon). As a matter of principle, I never sign early-day motions, except when they are of a memorial nature. I did not think that this one was of a memorial nature, although having heard the speech by the Leader of the House, perhaps it is.
Select Committee reform—not modernisation—received a powerful stimulus 20 years ago when my noble Friend Lord St. John of Fawsley was Leader of the House. The Liaison Committee's reports are a further stage in that process. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne not only on the speech with which he opened the debate, but on the way in which he has led our collective endeavour. Just as the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms revolutionised our civil service 40 years ago, the St. John Stevas-Sheldon reforms will do the same for the scrutiny of the Executive by Parliament.
I shall not dwell on the circumlocutions by the Leader of the House on free votes, but her answers to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) and myself at business questions today, let alone in the debate on 13 July, amounted to her saying, yes, there will be free votes but only if the Government agree that there should be substantive motions—or, in Marie Antoinette's words, "Let them eat cake. "
I am of a profoundly conservative disposition, even if not quite to the level of the Scottish judge who said that a change for the better was a contradiction in terms. Not least as a member of the Norton commission, I have been driven to the conclusion that we need to reform our ways in order to strengthen Parliament's scrutiny of the Executive, which is what the Liaison Committee's reports are also about.
I use again the word "reform" rather than "modernisation". The latter is a Humpty Dumpty word. It is a porous word, neither rigorous nor muscular. On 13 July I quoted the opening three paragraphs with which my noble Friend Lord Norton launched his eponymous report on 10 July. I shall now quote only the middle of the three. If I quote it again hereafter, I shall have fulfilled Humpty Dumpty's other dictum, "What I tell you three times is true."
Lord Norton said:we identify the functions of Parliament and the purpose of parliamentary reform. Too often, reforms are proposed for different purposes. Some are designed to expedite the business of Government, some are for the convenience of Members of Parliament, some are designed to remove archaic practices. Others are designed to strengthen Parliament in calling government to account.In his final paragraph, he went on to say that the Norton report was devoted purely to the last of these aims, and the same could be said of the Liaison Committee's report.
When we debated the report of the Modernisation Committee on Tuesday, I thought that its aims were devoted more closely to the other aims referred to in the paragraph that I have just quoted. I have yet to hear a speech by the Leader of the House explaining why her changes and proposals strengthen Parliament's scrutiny of the Executive.
The Leader of the House did seek to rubbish the Liaison Committee by flank attack, but in resisting our proposals—I agree with the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) that that was what she was doing—she has never offered any alternative vision of how scrutiny of the Executive might be strengthened.
535 I do give her credit for Westminster Hall sittings and the frequency of debates there on Select Committee reports, although ironically it weakens her case for resisting the Liaison Committee's proposal for an early half-hour debate on the Floor of the House on a Select Committee report. She said that the Minister replying to such a debate would be obliged to respond off the cuff. I have attended a debate in Westminster Hall where, months after the Government had given a considered response to a Select Committee report, the Minister replying to the debate in which half a dozen reasonable questions had been asked—again, no names, no pack drill—was scarcely able to answer any of them and could not have done worse off the cuff. Indeed, one had the impression that it was off the cuff. Had it been a debate on the Floor of the House, the Minister would have taken the trouble to be prepared.
Before I dwell briefly on the Select Committees, which understandably are at the heart of the Liaison Committee's report, let me turn briefly to the historic parliamentary role of scrutiny of the Executive and who chose to do it by a series of examples over the last quarter of a millennium from a variety of parties. If I had had more time, I would have described their careers. Burke, Fox, Wilberforce, Shaftesbury, Cobden, Bright and the late Enoch Powell had massive parliamentary reputations, yet they served in government for only 20 of their collective 225 years here. That is a tradition that we need to maintain, and the Select Committees are one vehicle for doing that.
I wanted to say something about the influence of the Whips on the composition of Select Committees, and specifically about the disappearance of the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) to be Mayor of London and the fact that he was not replaced by someone of comparable political views—the use of the Whips is extremely dangerous when it excludes people who could make a contribution to the Committee—but as we are pressed for time, I shall now sit down.
§ Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)
I, too, welcome you to your new position, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I am loth to start a speech by paraphrasing Bill Clinton, but here goes. He said that, in the United States of America, the people had voted and spoken, but it would take a little time to work out what they had said. In this debate, by contrast, the House has spoken, but, because the Government know what it has said, it will not be allowed to vote. I do not see this as party political. Nearly 250 Members of Parliament have signed early-day motion 476, the vast majority from the Government Back Benches.
I may not have time to refer to all today's speeches, but I enjoyed the debate immensely and some of the speeches were very good. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said that the House is dying on its feet and the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said that it is in grave danger of losing its rationale and must think of some other role. They are both Government Members and they are both absolutely right.
The membership of the Liaison Committee reads like a roll call of the great and the good, plus one or two hopefuls for that accolade. It contains a wealth of 536 experience in the House. We have heard much of that from the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon). I congratulate him and his Committee on an excellent report. It has been said that one of the reasons we cannot vote on it today is that we have not had enough time to consider it, but it has been out for eight months and the Government commented on it six months ago, so we are hardly rushing to judgment.
It is, however, right to give the report proper deliberation. It is timely and comes at a time when journalists are writing about how Parliament has changed. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) says that we must find a new role for it but, irrespective of our judgment of what the role of Parliament and the House of Commons has been, we can all agree that the changes suggested in the report are worth considering. I am not saying that we should adopt them all, but it is right for us to have the opportunity, hopefully in the near future, to say which of them we should take on board to strengthen the House of Commons.
The Opposition day debate on 13 July rehearsed the arguments well and clearly demonstrated the desire of hon. Members of all parties to strengthen Parliament. The fire for strengthening Parliament burns brightly among some Government Back Benchers, but not so brightly—indeed, it is flickering badly—among members of the Executive. This is all about bringing the Executive to account. That is a vital role for both Opposition and Government Back Benchers.
Like many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I break out in a cold sweat when I hear about changes that are to take place under the guise of modernisation. We all know what modernisation means. It is a euphemism for streamlining the House so that a quantity of legislation can be got through as quickly as possible. The quality of that legislation does not matter any more, and adding value is not deemed so important. As a result, we have longer recesses, truncated days, and timetabled or guillotined legislation.
I am not in favour of sitting through the night. I was elected in 1992, and was here for the deliberations on the Maastricht legislation, some of which went on through the night. Probably enough midnight oil was burned during those proceedings to heat a small city, but I should prefer to find ways to improve the strength of Parliament. Talking through the night will not do that, but neither will the changes made so far.
For example, last Tuesday we debated the separation of votes and debates. As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) noted, that change that did not receive much deliberation, but was voted on none the less.
§ Mr. Evans
The Minister's Parliamentary private secretary, the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin), is trying to make a sedentary intervention. I wish that he would keep quiet, as we are talking about the ability of Back Benchers to have their say. That is the change that we want implemented, but the Leader of the House said that we could not vote on the Select Committee report that is at the centre of this debate.
The right hon. Lady said that there had not been proper time for discussion of the report, but few of the changes that it contains are revolutionary: they are, rather, 537 evolutionary. The introduction of Select Committees in 1979 was a good idea, and they strengthened Parliament. We must build on that innovation.
I have served on three Select Committees. I was a member of the former Transport Select Committee with Robert Adley, who could be an absolute pain in the side of the Government of the day. We miss him. I also served on the Select Committee on Public Administration. I was asked to do so because the Whips were desperate. I enjoyed my time as a member of that Committee, and I hope that I contributed to its work, but we know that appointments can be a problem with some Committees.
I found serving on Select Committees a rewarding role. I am glad that I have never had to go before a Select Committee. That can be a harrowing experience, but Parliament is all about analysing, scrutinising and dissecting what is going on. Select Committees can be far more effective in that regard than the Chamber, and we must look for ways to improve that situation.
The recommendations in "Shifting the Balance" and in the Norton commission report build on what needs to happen to ensure that better legislation leaves the House. The right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne spoke eloquently about some of the changes that he thinks need to be made.
The proposal that Select Committees be given extra staff is absolutely right. I recall from my time as a Select Committee member that we needed more staff and resources to facilitate our work. I do not want to enter the debate about whether Chairmen ought to be paid an allowance, but their work should be recognised. That work can be very time consuming for those who do the job properly.
The report also recommends that hon. Members who do not turn up for hearings should be thrown off Select Committees. That is a jolly good idea. Any Members who do not pull their weight in Committees should make way for others who will make a difference.
I enjoyed many of the speeches in the debate, none more so than that made by the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews). He said that he was a member of the Joint Committee on Consolidation of Bills, Etc. I wonder whether that was a punishment for him, or for the other members of that Committee.
My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) is, like the hon. and learned Member for Medway, a self-styled maverick. He is very independent. He is a relatively near neighbour of mine, and I know that people in his constituency who would vote Labour anywhere else vote for my hon. Friend because he is a person of independent spirit. He told the House about how the Whips treated him when he was Chairman of the Health Committee, a post from which he was ultimately turfed out. Perhaps that could be called the Winterton of discontent.
The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich —a great defender of Parliament—put it correctly when she said, "Put it to the House." That is all we are asking. We have a commitment from the Prime Minister that this matter would be given time in the House and that Members would be given a free vote. Irrespective of what the Leader of the House says, I have read the quotes from the Prime Minister on 13 July; what he said was quite clear, and it is incredibly difficult to twist it. It is one of the few straight answers that he has ever given to a straight question.
538 A lot of work has gone into the report; let us not put it on the back burner. The Government love timetabling; let us have a timetable for these recommendations. When will we have the second debate? When will we have substantive motions put before the House on free votes so that this House finally can have its say?
§ The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping)
First, I apologise on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who anticipated being here for the wind-up. Clearly, she has been unavoidably delayed.
Unlike the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), I always thought that this was going to be a lively debate. It is clear that there is a difference of view between the Committee and the Government, as expressed by a number of Committee members tonight. I cannot pretend that divisions do not exist; they do. It is easy to concentrate on the divisions and the places where the Government and the Committee do not agree.
I want to sketch out areas where there is agreement between us, because there is a great deal of agreement, as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) said. Those agreements have sometimes been obscured by the big issues that divide us.
The Government could not agree more thatThe 1979 select ctte system has been a success,as the report points out. I wholeheartedly endorse the statements in paragraph 4:At a bargain price, it has provided independent scrutiny of government. It has enabled the questioning of Ministers and civil servants, and has forced them to explain policies…Its very existence has been a constant reminder to Ministers and officials, and many others in positions of power and influence, of the spotlight that may swing their way when least welcome.I agree even more wholeheartedly that the systemhas shown the House of Commons at its best…with constructive co-operation rather than routine disagreement.I was particularly impressed with paragraph 58, which states:When Ministers and departments have got their act together, and are prepared to be co-operative rather than defensive, the results have benefited both Parliament and government. We will encourage this style of working.The difference between the Government and Back Benchers centres on whether reforms would increase the Committees effectiveness or diminish it, and whether they would foster constructive co-operation or undermine it. The Government's position has been clearly set out and was commented upon tonight by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. The Liaison Committee could, and is likely to, take on some of the duties that it identified for the Select Committee panel. We have no problem with that. We welcome steps to spread best practice among Select Committees—and some of the practice is extremely good.
One of the examples of best practice that the Committee identifies is the examination of treaties. We have undertaken to send treaties to the relevant Select Committees and we will normally provide a debate on treaties of major importance if the Select Committee concerned and the Liaison Committee so request.
Another example of best practice—referred to by the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells)—concerned the scrutiny of draft legislation. The 539 Government have undertaken that, in general, we will give Select Committees first refusal of Bills falling within their remit. The constraints on the production of draft legislation have been explained and the Liaison Committee welcomed that part of our response. However, I hope that in time the Government will produce more and better draft legislation.
Another example of best practice is the systematic monitoring of action on recommendations. The hon. Member for Hazel Grove mentioned that. Committees have begun this work, and a letter was sent from Sir Richard Wilson's office reminding Departments that the Government have undertaken to assist Committees in follow-up inquiries.
§ Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)
The Intelligence and Security Committee also undertakes pre-legislative scrutiny of draft Bills. I am not in the least surprised at the Government's findings and the wish not to change the present arrangements. Unfortunately, the Liaison Committee did not bother to consult the Intelligence and Security Committee, which is the most senior Committee of parliamentarians in the House. I hope that the Government will be anxious for the Liaison Committee to consult the Intelligence and Security Committee, whose members have collectively given 200 years of service in the House, before making any change in the future.
§ Mr. Tipping
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is important to consult across the whole House on these profound matters.
The Liaison Committee wants Committees to have greater powers to work together. Its solutions rely on the existence of a Select Committee panel. We cannot accept those solutions, but we have indicated that we are willing to bring forward Standing Order changes to facilitate joint working. We have gone further: the Government's response to the Liaison Committee clearly states thatthe Liaison Committee itself will be able to identify the need for any ad hoc committee and make a case for it to the Government. The Government would have to retain the right to choose whether to put such proposals before the House, but the presumption would be that reasonable requests would be granted, and repeated refusals would lead to political controversy.A number of right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned Select Committee staffing. This is, of course, a matter for the House of Commons Commission, not the 540 Government. However, we would be the first to agree that the Committee staff do a superb job with very limited resources, ably assisted by specialist advisers—experts drawn from many fields. Select Committees have differing practices. There is a case for extra resources. In its second report, the Liaison Committee notes at paragraph 66:we are grateful for the consideration which the Commission has given to our submission.An important point which the Liaison Committee makes is that the drive to work must be done through the Committee members rather than the staff. It is important for Committee members to thrust forward.
The report also recommends secondments. The Government have been happy to work with the House authorities to facilitate secondments both into and out of the civil service, and will do so in future.
Many people have spoken tonight, and some have said that the Government's concessions do not go far enough and that we cannot satisfy them. However, I hope that when the dust has settled, right hon. and hon. Members will reflect on everything that has been said today and accept that the Government have already made changes to improve matters for Select Committees. For our part, we too will reflect on this debate.
We have not agreed to debates on substantive motions, but we have provided more time in Westminster Hall than most reformers could ever have dreamed of. Westminster Hall is indeed a parallel Chamber. Ministers must take debates there as seriously as they do on the Floor of the House, and we will ensure that they do.
We have extended the European scrutiny system. We have agreed to the Procedure Committee's proposals on scrutiny of treaties. We have already eased restrictions on joint working at the request of the quadripartite Committee, and will do more. We have sent draft legislation to Select Committees for scrutiny, and we hope to do much, much more. I hope that this will be a defining moment—a defining task—of the Government.
Right hon. and hon. Members may not consider that the changes go far enough, but there has been more change in three years than in the previous 15. The balance may not have shifted far enough for everyone, but we must recognise that it is already shifting towards the Committees.
§ It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.