HC Deb 19 July 2001 vol 372 cc508-16

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That Janet Anderson, Mr. Ronnie Campbell, Tony Cunningham, Mrs. Janet Dean, Mr. Lindsay Hoyle, Miss Julie Kirkbride, Mrs. Jacqui Lait, Mr. Simon Thomas and Mr. Dennis Turner be members of the Catering Committee.—[Ms Karen Buck, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

With this it will be convenient to debate motions 7 to 17.

5.27 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Well, here we are giving mature consideration to a matter that has caused considerable controversy. This is an opportunity for the House to think again about how we have arrived at this position. We have arrived at it, have we not, because the House woke up rather late in the day to the fact that the way in which proposals were made to us for the membership and chairmanship of Select Committees was less than satisfactory. The reason for that is that, for as long as anyone can remember, and in probably all the political parties, the composition of Select Committees has been dealt with by a process of hon. Members going to the Whips and saying, "Please may I be on this Committee?"

The Whips then deliberate in their mysterious and sinister way on whether hon. Members should be pleased or not. Then, worse than all of that, the usual channels—the Whips and the so-called party managers on each side of the House—come together and divvy up the membership of Committees. That is all bearing in mind, of course, that every Select Committee must have a clear majority of Government Members. That is the absurdity. That of course sets the whole tone and gives the whole flavour, and was all thought to be very satisfactory—was it not? It meant that the Whips and the party managers were able to please certain Members by giving them a Select Committee position and to punish others by withholding such a position. It is from that situation that the discontent that we have seen in the House recently has arisen.

The point that worries me even more than that, and where there may even be a slight departure from integrity, is that we are in danger of accepting that a similar mechanism is at work in the allocation of Committee chairmanships. This whole problem arose in relation to chairmanships, although it has now spilled over into the membership of the Committees. The irony is that we are, I suspect, being asked to sanction the position we would have been in had the whole mechanism not worked to the disadvantage of certain Members: we are about to be asked to sanction, or agree to, the carve-up of Select Committee chairmanships in the same way as we were asked to do for the Committee memberships.

I simply put the question—the next 90 minutes will, I suspect, he the only opportunity for us to do so—are we, as the House of Commons, now satisfied, first, that Select Committee chairmanships should be allocated arbitrarily between Government and Opposition Members and, secondly, that Select Committee members should be expected to accept that as a given? Are they to be told by their respective Whips and the usual channels, "This is the person that we have decided will chair your Committee"?

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

When did the right hon. Gentleman become so passionate about this issue? On 13 July 1992, when the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) was sacked—when he was not reappointed to the Select Committee on Health—there was a Division on the issue. I know that the right hon. Gentleman was a Minister at the time, but presumably he did not feel so passionately about the issue as to resign and vote with those of us who thought that the then Government's decision was wrong.

Mr. Forth

That is true. When the hon. Gentleman is a member of the Government, as I am sure he will be shortly when his talents are recognised by the Prime Minister, he knows that he will have to face the same dilemma—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah!"] I plead guilty to the fact that I was not prepared to forsake a modest—indeed, a minuscule—ministerial career for the principle that now advocate. I plead guilty to that. I further plead guilty to the fact that, yes, my view of the world, of the universe, of the House of Commons and of my role has changed since 1992. That may come as a revelation to the hon. Gentleman—I know that he is a bit slower on the uptake than most of us. However, I remind him that as I have had the privilege and the pleasure of four years in opposition, of which I have enjoyed every minute, and that as I propose to continue enjoying it—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] —for the next four years, under whichever leader we choose, I see the matter differently. I make no secret of that, nor do I make any apology for it.

I point out to the House that this will be the only opportunity, possibly for four or five years, for us as a House to express how we feel about the mechanism for deciding, first, who are the members of Select Committees and secondly, and of equal importance, who will chair those Committees. If hon. Members think that they won a great victory during the past two or three days I shall not burst their balloon, but I suggest that we are still sleepwalking through the system. By and large, we accept the system. although in a moment or two I shall have a word to say about the International Development Select Committee which has, rather bizarrely, been an exception to it. In general, it appears that the House and Members are prepared to accept the proposition that the Whips in each party will decide who shall be the Chairman of each Select Committee.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

The right hon. Gentleman and I have known one another for a long time. He was always passionate about things in the European Parliament and has continued to be passionate in this place. I think that we are in agreement that the chairmanship of Select Committees is a matter for the Committees themselves: it is not for the Whips or for the parties to decide between them who should be the Chair of a Select Committee. The rules on Select Committees state clearly that the Committees themselves should choose the Chairman—not a named Chairman, but a Chairman from among the Committee's members. In the debate earlier in the week, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House made it clear that he wants that to happen. That is one reason why the International Development Committee failed to agree on who should be its Chairman.

Mr. Forth

That may or may not be the case, and I shall come to that Committee in a moment.

I want to make a challenge to hon. Members, and I speak as someone who is not a member of a Select Committee, so I have no interest in this matter at all. Although the hon. Lady and I would like the Committees to elect their Chairmen, I hesitate on that point, and I suspect that what I am about to say may lie behind the view of the Leader of the House. As long as the Government have a clear majority of members on Select Committees, the hon. Lady might understand a slight reticence on the part of Opposition Members about freeing up the whole system, as she and I would like, and letting a thousand chairmanships bloom, with Committees able to make their selection. Would there be any protection for Opposition Members in those circumstances? That, I predict, will be the reply from Ministers. The Leader of the House will say that the carve-up that occurs gives protection to Opposition Members.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

I do not want to prolong the right hon. Gentleman's remarks, but I must point out that there is a difference between an agreement between the Whips on the principle that certain Committees will have a Chairman from an Opposition party and an agreement between the Whips on a named person. It is the latter that is wrong and objectionable, and the Whips have increasingly been pushing for such agreements in the last two Sessions.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. That may well be a solution, or at least a partial solution, that we should all consider. It would make a lot of sense to me if Committees were given, perhaps not total choice, but at least a degree of choice. The system could allow the chairmanship of certain Committees to be at the disposal of Opposition Members.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

Order. May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that we are discussing not the Chairmen but the membership of Committees?

Mr. Forth

I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I will say no more about chairmanships per se. I simply believed that the subject flowed naturally from the substance of the membership of the Committees that we are being asked to consider.

I sense that other Members want to speak—I hope that they do—and I do not want to prevent that, although hon. Members know that I am capable of speaking at length, if I want to. I trust, however, that others want to make a contribution, and this is the opportunity to do so.

I want to say a few words about the membership of the International Development Committee. We will have to return to the issue on another occasion and at greater length. I suspect that some rather disgraceful things have taken place, and I am sad to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) is to be discharged from the Committee, to be replaced by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry). I suspect that the reasons for that discharge are pretty seedy and will not bear close examination because I do not think that they will reflect any credit on the Whips, the party managers or, I regret to say, the members of that Committee.

I do not want to air the subject now, but I want to state on the record that what occurred in that Committee was regrettable and unfortunate. I hope that some of the Members involved feel ashamed of themselves. I am not sure that it is any sort of guide as to how selection should happen. Those events give occasion for hesitation about whether we should completely free up the system.

Many issues arise from the motions. I had intended to ask about the to-ings and fro-ings on the Modernisation, Procedure and Public Accounts Committees, but I will leave it to others to do that, if they believe that important issues are involved. Suffice it to say, this is the opportunity for Members to make their points about the membership of Committees. This is the opportunity for the House to express and reinforce its view, not only to the Leader of the House but to my hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench, because it affects all of them equally. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will take that opportunity because it may not arise again for quite some time.

5.40 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook)

I am in full agreement with the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) on at least one thing—he can continue to enjoy being in opposition. I assure him that all Labour Members will work to ensure that that continues for as long as possible.

The right hon. Gentleman's observations as a tribune of the people, standing up to the forces of authority and the Whips, would have more moral force if there were evidence that he had done that when he sat on the Government Benches. He may wave his hand dismissively, but that is absolutely the case. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) referred to the vote in July 1992 when the Government removed the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) from the chairmanship of the Select Committee on Health. At that time, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst was certainly not sleepwalking because he walked through the Division Lobby to vote him off the Committee.

The right hon. Gentleman has made a clear and commendably frank admission that the Conservative Government did not allow a genuinely free vote on a House of Commons matter. We allowed a free vote on Monday and are here again today because we have acted to put into place the will of the House, which they tried to frustrate when in office.

David Winnick

Is there not another aspect to consider? Not only have the Government rightly accepted Monday's decision, but the Modernisation Committee, as my right hon. Friend confirmed in business questions, is rightly examining the way in which we appoint hon. Members to Select Committees. The current system is unsatisfactory. The Tory Government refused to budge on the issue, as they did on so many others while they were in office.

Mr. Cook

I am happy to agree that the Modernisation Committee has met and considered the matter. I shall return to that topic before I conclude because it is right that the House knows what we intend the timetable to be.

I hope that this debate will prove less controversial than Monday's debate. The motion on the Order Paper puts my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee and my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Donald Anderson) on the Foreign Affairs Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) intervened on me on Monday to ask whether it would be possible for the timetable for those appointments to be made before the House rises for the recess. I agreed that it would be, but that time was tight. I am pleased that this debate allows us to fulfil that commitment and deliver what we agreed on Monday.

We have also taken the opportunity to bring before the House the members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee so that that last departmental Select Committee will be approved before we rise. If the House approves the names, there are contingency plans for all three Committees to meet shortly after the debate to choose a Chairman and work out a programme. We have set up the Select Committees within four weeks of the Queen's Speech, which is in record time. That beats even our previous record of doing it within two months in 1997 and is way ahead of the five months that the Conservative Government took in 1987.

Over the past week, things have been said about the Whips Office which have not been unmingled pleasure and flattery. I want to balance that. People worked very hard to ensure that the names were brought before the House on Monday and, as a consequence of the vote then, presented today. We should recognise the effort that went into that. The Whips have ensured that 350 places have been filled from a possible 500 candidates. That is not a bad achievement within a space of a week and a half.

On the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North, the Modernisation Committee is one of the Committees that has met since Monday. It may help the House if I outline how we intend to proceed. We decided at our meeting on Wednesday that our first priority would be to produce a report on the working of the Select Committees. I would expect that report to be comprehensive and to consider the many recommendations made in the previous Parliament by the Liaison Committee, as well as those that we have received from bodies outside the House.

There are several issues to consider—for example, the proposal that the Liaison Committee repeatedly made in the previous Parliament to hold a half-hour debate on matters of topical interest suggested by the Select Committees immediately after Question Time once a week. Another contentious suggestion—I heard voices against it on Monday and since then—is the Liaison Committee's proposal to introduce a salary structure for the Chairmen of Select Committees. The Modernisation Committee should examine that matter and report back to the House.

Another matter, which is recognised universally on both sides of the House, is the presentation and style of Select Committee reports. Leaving aside the excellence and the exciting nature of the contents of those reports, their presentation does not necessarily convey that excitement in an attractive style and format. The reports appear to predate the invention of graphics and colour printing. We should address those issues if we want to ensure that the House exercises its powers of scrutiny in a way that connects with the public and that they find attractive and inviting.

We have resolved that, to take forward that study, we will take evidence from the members of the Liaison Committee in the previous Parliament; from those who served on the Norton commission, set up by the Opposition; and from those involved in the Hansard Society's recent report. Any report in which all those issues are considered in the round will necessarily take rather longer than is desirable to address the process of appointing Members to Select Committees. That is why it is important that we respond urgently to the need for a report on the nomination process to Select Committees. That is urgent because, in the autumn, we shall be faced with the need to fill vacancies as they arise on Select Committees.

I understand that it must be the will of the House to try to have in place a new system before such vacancies arise and before the House is asked to fill them. That is why the Modernisation Committee has already resolved to meet in September to discuss the issue. This depends on the agreement of the Committee, but I hope that it will be possible to bring a report on nominating Members to vacancies on Select Committees before the House shortly after we return from the recess.

Last month, we were faced with a choice—whether we sought to set up the Select Committees by the recess, or whether we first sought to lever into place a new nominations system for Select Committees. If we had done the latter, we should have been unable to proceed with the nominations for the Select Committees until well into the autumn and, possibly, not until November.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

I accept the point made by the right hon. Gentleman, but I am sure that he will agree that if towards the end of the previous Parliament better recognition had been given to the growing disquiet about the Select Committee selection systems and the opportunities that were presented—only in Opposition time—to debate such issues had been taken, we could have made progress before the general election, which would have prevented the events that have taken place from occurring.

Mr. Cook

It is always the case that if decisions had been taken beforehand, one would not be faced with the need to take them afterwards. Starting from where we began after the election, we faced the choice that I have mentioned. It is always very nice to think that we can press the fast-rewind button and have a different set of choices, but that option was not available to us.

The Government are entitled to be given credit for meeting the timetable of setting up the Select Committees by the recess. Since Monday, 26 Select Committees have met and have started the process of appointing a Chairman and choosing a work programme. After this debate, a further three will have met, so by the recess, 29 separate Select Committees will have begun scrutinising the Government.

I entirely accept, however, that the message of the past few days is that this is not a time for the Government, having set up the Select Committees, to rest on their oars. We now must apply the same urgency that we put into setting up the Select Committees to the task of implementing a fair system of nomination to them. That is why I give an undertaking that we will work through the recess and immediately when the House returns in the hope that, by autumn, before there are vacancies on Select Committees, we have implemented a new system that is accepted as transparent, seen by all Members as fair and ensures that this Chamber has the final say in appointments.

5.50 pm
Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

I am delighted that the House is faced with another set of Government motions that cover substantially the points raised in debate and by the results of the votes on Monday. It is fortunate, to say the least, that we have had three opportunities in a fortnight to address the fundamental question of how the House can best hold the Government to account. We welcome the change of heart on nominations to the Select Committees on Transport, Local Government and the Regions and on Foreign Affairs. We shall support those motions unreservedly.

However, it would be a mistake to suppose that all the problems have been solved and all the difficulties relieved simply by returning to the subject today. I was pleased to hear renewed assurances from the Leader of the House that the processes of examination and reform will go ahead speedily. I say again to him that the House has debated some clear proposals that would go some way to resolving the problems. I hope that the Modernisation Committee, on which I happily serve, will make proposals that will satisfy the demands of the House.

There are even doubts and reservations among Members about some of today's nominations. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) referred to the International Development Committee. Some of us have concerns about the change in its membership and the implication that another Member is to be imposed on it in sequence. Whatever the ins and outs, the appointment has been disputed and difficult. It is to be regretted that revised procedures for nominations will not be established before the Committee appoints a Chairman. The Leader of the House will be well aware, too, of the difficulties over the Information Committee, which was reduced to appointing what it described as a temporary Chairman until October, while difficulties are resolved.

There is no doubt, therefore, that reform must be pursued vigorously. Nevertheless, on balance it is our view that the motions should be supported because it is of fundamental importance that the Committees be up and functioning in some form or another, even if subsequently they must be reviewed and reformed.

5.53 pm
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Enoch Powell once said to me that gratitude is a commodity in short supply in politics, and never were truer words spoken. The House owes a debt to the Leader of the House because he has responded with alacrity. He took what could have been interpreted as a defeat on Monday with charm and graciousness, and he has honoured his promise, which augurs well for his time as Leader of the House. I for one am grateful to him, as I hope are Members of all parties.

It is essential that if the Modernisation Committee is considering the payment of sums of money to Chairmen of Select Committees, those Chairmen are not appointed or imposed on Committees by the Whips. It would be wrong if that became another example of patronage. In fact, it would destroy the good effect of the move. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to bear that in mind, and in doing so, to recognise that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) made one very good point.

Mr. Forth

Only one?

Sir Patrick Cormack

Well, I am always a little careful about what I say about my right hon. Friend, for fear of encouraging him to say more. However, he made one very good point, about the appointment of Chairmen, which was taken up and amplified by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) —

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I have already made the point that we are discussing the membership of Select Committees, not the chairmanship.

Sir Patrick Cormack

All right, Madam Deputy Speaker; of course I accept your strictures. I urge the Leader of the House to bear those points in rnind and thank him again for what he has done; I hope that we shall see some good proposals early in the autumn.

5.56 pm
Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

As a member of the International Development Committee, I should make the situation concerning membership clear. Obviously we accept that the Committee has been allocated to the Opposition, but perhaps we would have liked some discussion of the allocation of various Committees. I hope that in future there will not be a status quo, and there will be more movement in party ownership of particular Select Committees. In this case, the argument is not about who should have the ownership of the Committee; we accept that it is from the Conservative Members allocated to that Committee that we choose a Chairman. We have had two meetings: yesterday the group was split, five Members against five, and again today, so there is obviously deadlock. It is good for Committees to have the opportunity to question candidates for the chairmanship closely, as we did yesterday.

Mr. Forth

Is the hon. Lady aware of such a process in any other Committee? Did the Modernisation Committee, for example, quiz the Leader of the House closely on his credentials for taking an even-handed approach to the so-called modernisation of the House? I am puzzled why that process has taken place in only one Committee, as far as I know. Can the hon. Lady explain why it should happen in the International Development Committee and not, apparently, in any other Committee?

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. Once again, I remind all hon. Members that we are discussing the membership of Committees. Could they please confine their remarks to that?

Ann Clwyd

Thank you for putting us back on track, Madam Deputy Speaker; I shall keep closely to the path that you have outlined.

The International Development Committee deals with developing countries, and subjects such as the position of women in those countries, and poverty. The Chairman meets many people throughout the world. It is important that the Committee, on which I have served from the start, should have faith in the person who is going to become Chairman; the membership should therefore be able to decide who should hold that position. I do not want to go over the subject again, but there should not be strong intimations about who the Committee should support. The Select Committee rules say —

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I really must bring the hon. Lady to order. As I have said before, we are discussing the membership of the Committee; we are not here to debate who should chair it.

Ann Clwyd

Thank you Madam Deputy Speaker. The role of Committee members is important. People who have served on a Select Committee for a number of years should be considered as candidates over and above people who are parachuted in because the Whips have decided who should take the chair. That is why I object to the way things are being done. The Leader of the House has made it clear that he intends to reform all that.

I think that we were all pleased that the Select Committees got under way very early, but perhaps on reflection we should not have put pressure on our Whips to set up the Committees before the beginning of the recess. On reflection, that was a mistake. We should have had more time to ponder the matter.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

Is my hon. Friend saying that the list of members of Select Committees usually has one member who has been put in, parachuted in or whatever, and that the process of compiling the membership of a Select Committee needs some attention?

Ann Clwyd

Yes, I am.

I shall now wrap up my speech, my hon. Friends will be pleased to know. The matter needs a lot more reflection. There should be more transparency. We want to know why some people get on Select Committees and others do not, and why some people who have served on Select Committees are taken off and not given a reason why. I support the proposal by the Leader of the House to make the membership of Select Committees much more transparent in future.

Question put and agreed to.


That Janet Anderson, Mr. Ronnie Campbell, Tony Cunningham, Mrs. Janet Dean, Mr. Lindsay Hoyle, Miss Julie Kirkbride, Mrs. Jacqui Lait, Mr. Simon Thomas and Mr. Dennis Turner be members of the Catering Committee.

Forward to