§ The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Stephen Twigg)
I beg to move,That Standing Order No.152B (Human Rights (Joint Committee)) be amended, as follows:Line 40. at end insert the words ", except that for the purposes of taking evidence. the quorum shall be two".I hope that the motion is self-explanatory. We set up the Joint Committee on Human Rights, as we explicitly said, on the lines of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, which had a membership of six from each House and a quorum of three from each House, making a total quorum of six. Under the motion, that quorum will be reduced to two, for the purpose of evidence taking only. I understand that a similar change is likely to be made in another place.
§ Mr. Twigg
The motion has been tabled in response to representations from the Chairman of the Committee on the basis that it will assist the Committee in its work. It is a new Committee, and I hope that the House will support it and agree to its Chairman's request. On that basis, I move the motion.
§ Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)
I am more than a little disappointed at the what the Minister has said. Simply to say that the Committee Chairman wants fewer people to attend its sittings so that it can do its work does not seem remotely satisfactory. In fact, I am rather suspicious about this. In any case, I have suspicions about the concept of a bifurcated quorum. That is probably a bad way to do things, and we should not encourage it.
Generally speaking, any Committee should do its work with the maximum number of its members available. In fact, if we were to divide the House right now to test its opinion on the motion, 40 hon. Members would need to be present. I wonder whether the Government would like that to happen or whether they would feel confident about it.
§ Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)
My right hon. Friend will correct me if I am wrong, but I cannot see the Chairman of the Committee. the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Jean Corston), in the Chamber. It might have been polite if she had been available to explain her request to the Government.
§ Mr. Forth
I agree with my hon. and learned Friend. Not only would it have been a courtesy, but if the Chairman had bothered to turn up to make the case that the Minister has tried valiantly to make, the House might have been convinced. Perhaps understandably, he has failed to be his usual persuasive self. Perhaps he assumed that the Chairman would turn up and explain why she thought that we should agree to this extraordinary motion. As I have said, I am uneasy about the idea of having two quorums for different aspects of the Committee's business. That, in itself, requires some explanation.
1022 Ah, the Chairman of the Committee is now in the Chamber; I welcome her to the debate. Unfortunately, the rules of procedure do not allow me to resume my seat, listen to what she has to say and then make my speech appropriately, so I will have to deliver the rest of my speech on an entirely speculative basis, wondering what on earth she will say to persuade the House why she thinks not only that the Committee needs a quorum of two, but that it can legitimately conduct its business on that basis.
I clearly recall our being told when the Committee was set up how extraordinarily important it would be, what extraordinarily important work it would do and that hon. Members would very much welcome its deliberations. Some hon. Members—I was not one of them—swallowed that argument hook, line and sinker. Now, according to the Minister, the Chairman thinks that the Committee's work is so vital that, occasionally, only two of its members may be around to conduct its business.
I suspect that that says much about the Committee and, regrettably, about the attitude that is increasingly prevailent among some hon. Members about how seriously they are prepared to take the work of Committees and the House.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)
Is not my right hon. Friend puzzled that the Government are seeking to do this at a time when they have had to tear up part of the Human Rights Act 1998, which came into force only last year? It is somewhat of an insult to suggest that on this important matter, when the Government have had to renounce measures implemented as recently as last year, only two people will be able to consider the evidence—
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)
Order. Some of the hon. Gentleman's remarks are outside the terms of the motion.
§ Mr. Forth
I am cognisant of the points that my hon. Friend makes. I am not entirely sure that the Minister presented his case with his normal oomph and enthusiasm. He may have been technically relaying what he thought the Chairman had thought so that the House could consider the matter. We must now wait with bated breath to hear the Chairman explain how the Committee, allegedly important as it and its work is, cannot muster not only its full membership for the deliberation of its business but even a normal quorum of three.
§ Mr. Stephen Twigg
I apologise if I was insufficiently enthusiastic in presenting the proposal to the House. Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that it does not mean that we would have a Joint Committee with only two people taking evidence? It would be two Members from the House of Commons, with a similar change being made in the other place. Will the right hon. Gentleman also acknowledge that this is a narrow and focused proposal that does not cover the full range of the Committee's work, but applies simply to the evidence-taking part?
§ Mr. Forth
I am grateful to the Minister, and of course I accept what he says. He is saying that as many as four out of the membership of 12 might participate in the work of the Committee. I expect that he means me to be impressed by that. Regrettably, it does not impress me at 1023 all. This rather sums up the attitude of all too many hon. Members. We seem to have arrived at a position that is redolent of what is prevalent on the Labour Benches. You would not allow me, Madam Deputy Speaker, to divert myself into the issue of counselling Members, whether attending Committees or not, and how the delicacy of Labour Members has to be looked after, not least by the Chairman of the Committee. You can be assured, that I will not elaborate on those points.
§ Mr. McNamara
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that one of the difficulties that we have had is that a Conservative Member is yet to be nominated to the Committee? What is the percentage of Members required for a quorum on other Committees?
§ Mr. McNamara
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, but he is not answering my question. We are now in November and the Committee has not had a Conservative representative. The very important legislation to which the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) referred was discussed without any Conservative Member being present.
§ Mr. Forth
That is a matter for my colleagues to consider. Perhaps it reflects the lack of interest in the Committee, not only on Conservative Benches but, because of the nature of the resolutions before us, more generally. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman's comments accurately reflect the value that the House places on the Committee. If it is expected that we can muster only two out of six Members of this House to do the Committee's allegedly very important work, we can draw our own conclusions.
§ Mr. McNamara
I will worry away at it, because I would not like it to appear that my colleagues on the Committee from this House have been found wanting in any way, when this is really to do with the other place.
§ Mr. Forth
I will certainly not be drawn into casting aspersions on Members of another place; I will leave that to the hon. Gentleman.
1024 My point, and I shall stick to it narrowly because it is important, concerns the attitude behind the motion, which is that we must anticipate that fewer and fewer Members of the House will turn up to do the work of Committees.
§ Mr. Garnier
It may well be that between now and Monday, when a derogation from the European convention on human rights is to be discussed, the Chairman intends to hold a meeting of her Committee so that, with the three other members who will be needed to form the quorum, she can take evidence on that derogation.
§ Mr. Garnier
The hon. Lady says that she took evidence last night. No doubt she will publish that evidence before we discuss the matter on Monday. My right hon. Friend may find that information helpful in alleviating his concern.
§ Mr. Forth
That may be the case. I would be even more impressed if the Committee were to deprecate the fact that on Monday evening the matter will be dealt with by the ghastly deferred Division process. I hope that the Committee is prepared to express strong views about that, and I await the moment, but I will believe it when I see it.
I return to the point at issue. Why does it now appear that a very important Joint Committee of this House and another place should have a reduced quorum? I have no doubt that the Chairman will seek to persuade us that she is so lacking in confidence about her very important Committee, which deals with very important matters, that she wants to provide for the possibility that only two people may be available to take evidence.
Worse, we are to have this peculiar bifurcated quorum, which means that although two people may be present to take evidence, three will be needed to make a substantive decision. As with deferred Divisions, the people who sat and listened to the evidence may be rather different from those who will vote on the matter for which the evidence was taken. The whole business is starting to become not only bizarre but rather unsatisfactory. Unless the Chairman comes up with some convincing answers, I doubt that the House will be very happy with the proposal.
I suspect that Government Members thought that the House would give a casual nod and wink to the motion in conspiratorial acceptance of the idea that fewer and fewer of us need turn up to do any of our business. Of course, that is very much the attitude of many Labour Members, as we know from their words and their behaviour, and that is very much to be regretted. However, in this case there may be special considerations that I have been unable to anticipate, so I look forward with more than usual relish to what the Chairman of the Committee now has to say.
§ 3.3 pm
§ Jean Corston (Bristol, East)
I apologise for not being in the Chamber at the start of the debate. You will no doubt be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, that there was a meeting of the Liaison Committee, and I had expected this business to be taken a little later.
1025 I take full responsibility for the motion, which is in my name as I have the privilege of chairing the Joint Committee on Human Rights. As its name implies, it is a Joint Committee of both Houses. It is rather unusual in that it has an equal number of members from the Government and the Opposition—six of each—and an equal number from each of the two Houses, six MPs and six Lords. No doubt my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) is, like me, delighted that at long last we will be joined by a Conservative Member of the Commons. The absence of such a Member has been noted.
The Committee is unusual also in that its quorum is 50 per cent. of the membership.
§ Jean Corston
I have never yet heard the right hon. Gentleman or any other Conservative Member complain about the fact that the normal quorum for a Select Committee is three out of 11 members, which is far lower than what I am proposing on behalf of the Committee.
There is another reason why the quorum is appropriate. Members of the House of Commons should be here to attend a Select Committee meeting whenever the House is sitting or during the recess. However, many of our colleagues on the Joint Committee who are from the other place have outside jobs and interests. We have a civil service commissioner, the deputy chairman of the Independent Television Commission, a lawyer and a university lecturer.
§ Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)
Is that not also a problem with Conservative Members of this House who do not always turn up because they are somewhere else doing something else?
§ Jean Corston
That may well be the case. Attempts were made through the usual channels to ensure that Conservatives were represented on the Committee. They had the opportunity from June onwards to contribute to the Committee when, as the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said, we dealt with legislation of the most fundamental importance in terms of human rights and the emergency situation. It has been a great failing on the part of the Conservatives that not one of their Members from this place was present.
§ Mr. Garnier
Having criticised the hon. Lady, I of course, fully accept her apology and explanation for not being present at the outset of the debate.
The hon. Lady is confusing me slightly. I was under the impression—it may be my fault for being obtuse—that we were discussing the quorum of Members from this House, not of the overall Committee. The fact that we are reducing the quorum to two is a reference to membership from this House alone. She may well be misleading herself and not doing her case justice by making such wide-ranging attacks when dealing with this narrow issue.
§ Jean Corston
I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for that comment. It is true that I am proposing two members out of six for the Commons quorum, which is a third.
§ Mr. Garnier
On that basis, the hon. Lady's remarks about noble Lords being members of other bodies—civil service commissioners or whatever—are beside the point. It is interesting, but not relevant.
§ Jean Corston
It is entirely relevant because a Joint Committee by its very name and nature must have an 1026 equal number of members from each House. If two Lords members are to serve as a quorum, there should be two Commons members, and vice versa. That has been the basis of the reasoning. For understandable reasons, such as academic or court commitments, Lords members have found it difficult to be present at the beginning of a meeting or during the deliberations. That makes it difficult for the Committee to function if it is examining a Minister in an evidence-taking session—that has happened.
I am not suggesting that members from the other place do not do their best to be diligent in their attendance. There are two Conservative members from the other place, one of whom, as the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst may know, is the head of an Oxford college who finds it difficult to attend a meeting if it is held at an extraordinary time. A quorum of a third of each House is reasonable and, indeed, higher than in Select Committees in the House of Commons, which require a quorum of three members out of 11. I am proposing two out of six.
§ Mr. Forth
The hon. Lady may not know—there is no reason why she should—that I raised the issue of inadequate quorums regularly in the context of these very debates in a previous incarnation on the Floor of the House. It has concerned me for some time, so I am being reasonably consistent.
For the hon. Lady to say that Members of another place are very busy people with important outside work to do and that we must understand why they cannot make it to meetings of an important Committee is simply not good enough. Committee members—whether Lords or not—should not accept the commitment of being on the Committee if they are regularly too busy to attend. That is not an acceptable excuse. Lords or not, Committee members should take responsibility for reviewing their commitments and making appropriate adjustments rather than asking us to reduce quorums to accommodate people with other priorities.
§ Jean Corston
I always find that trying to debate with the right hon. Gentleman is like trying to stir a bucket of treacle with a matchstick. It is entirely pointless. I merely make the sensible point that to insist on a quorum of 50 per cent. of the membership of this Committee—which is unlike any other Committee in this House or the other place—would be to place too great a burden on the Committee. For example, if one or two people were unwell, it would be difficult to hold an evidence-taking session with a Minister or with anyone else from whom we might want to hear evidence in public.
All the members of the Committee—Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour—are of the same mind. Our Committee has functioned well. In the short time that we have existed, we have published reports on legislation, such as the Bill that became the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, and we are in the course of producing a report in what might be record time on the emergency legislation that the House will consider next week. We are proud of our record. However, we do not want to be placed in a position where, not for reasons of sloth or lack of interest, we cannot function.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
I have great respect for the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Jean Corston), who is the Chairman of the Committee. However, I am now more confused than I was at the beginning of the debate.
As the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) pointed out, the number of Lords necessary to form a quorum on their side is irrelevant to this debate. As far as I know, nothing is written down to suggest that the quorum from the two Houses in a Joint Committee has to be identical. That point is taken care of at the outset.
The original proposal was to reduce the quorum for all the Committee's sittings, and not just the evidence-taking sessions. That would have been even worse, but we could try to reach a sensible conclusion that means that the quorum for all sittings is the same. All Select Committees often move straight from taking evidence into a deliberative session because that is a good way of ensuring that the points raised by the witnesses are immediately addressed. One would assume that the same quorum would be appropriate for both types of session.
The Joint Committee is very important. In the previous Parliament, I spent much time trying to persuade the then Leader of the House to appoint the Committee. The Government had committed themselves to doing that, but its appointment was long delayed. Given the fact that the Committee represents both Houses, I also argued that its numbers should not be restricted to 12. That would have sorted the problem out. If my suggestion of 18 members had been accepted, it would have ensured a reasonable spread of representation from both Houses, and the problem of small quorums would not have arisen.
Another problem has been mentioned in the debate. It was felt necessary that a Government Back Bencher should chair the Committee, so that the Government would have a majority if a decision came to a casting vote. That is true when the Committee has 12 members, but it would not follow if my suggestion had been accepted. The hon. Lady does not seem to agree, but I assure her that the negotiations that I had with the then Chief Whip took place on that basis.
§ Mr. Tyler
If that is the case, the then Chief Whip's argument that it was necessary for a Government Back Bencher to chair the Committee is blown out of the water. As has been pointed out, a membership of 12 means that the Government and Opposition parties are evenly split. I have argued—I maintain this argument—that a significant scrutiny Committee such as the Public Accounts Committee can do its job well only if its Chairman is completely free from Government influence.
The hon. Lady is a distinguished chair of the Committee. However, when she was appointed, she did not have any other responsibilities. She is now chair of the parliamentary Labour party and that puts her in an awkward position not just in relation to this Committee but in relation to the Liaison Committee. An extraordinary anomaly exists.
As the hon. Lady said, the Committee is examining on our behalf the most controversial issues before the House. I welcome that; I am sure that it is doing so conscientiously. It took evidence from the Home 1028 Secretary yesterday, and I understand from the hon. Lady's comments that before our debates in the Chamber on Monday, it will produce a report on the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill and the derogation from the Human Rights Act 1998. Such matters could not be more important. This is therefore an extraordinary moment effectively to propose that we diminish participation in the Committee's deliberations.
I think that the answer—if we are allowed to reopen the issue so soon after the appointment of members of the Committee—is to increase the membership from 12 to 18. As I understand the arithmetic in the two Houses, that would ensure that the Government retained their majority and it would no longer be necessary for a Government Member to chair the Committee. That would deal with the hon. Lady's dilemma over where her loyalties should lie and at the same time mean that more Members from both Houses were available for the deliberative and evidence- taking sessions. That seems a sensible solution. If the Minister's argument Is, "Oh well, we do not want to disturb what is after all a fairly new Committee," why is the motion before us?
§ Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)
First, when the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) reads the Committee's report, he might want to reconsider his argument. Secondly, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Jean Corston) was elected as Chairman of the Committee on the nomination of Lord Lester of Herne Hill, who, I understand, takes the Liberal Democrat Whip. Moreover, she was unanimously re-elected.
§ Mr. McNamara
I think that the decision was taken after that. My hon. Friend was elected as chairman of the PLP at the start of this Session, before the Select Committees had been re-established. She was then elected as Chairman of the Joint Committee. I am sure that my chronology is correct; if it is not, I apologise to the House.
I have some sympathy with the point about the size of the Committee, but no amendment has been tabled to that effect. The House must think very carefully about whether Members serving on the Joint Committee will have greater demands made of them than of those serving on an ordinary Select Committee. Three members out of 11 is just over 25 per cent. If the motion is not passed, we shall be demanding 50 per cent. of the Members of this House who are members of the Joint Committee to attend its sittings. I am certain that that is unfair and in many ways improper. It is right that we should agree the motion.
On the point about the logic of deliberating with such a small number of members, I see no difficulty in an amendment to that effect. I hope that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) tables such an amendment, and that if he does not do so, my hon. Friend the Minister will. In demanding that there are four members to reach a conclusion, we are in any event asking for one more than that required in any Select Committee. Where is the logic in such a suggestion?
I would go further: I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will think in terms of establishing Sub-Committees of the Joint Committee because there is 1029 a great deal of work before it. That would enable us to consider specific pieces of legislation that cover a variety of fields in which different Members have an interest. People have various interests and expertise, including criminal law, health law, housing and a whole range of issues, and could report back to the full Committee. We are told that that can be done informally, but that is not the proper way of dealing with the matter; we have to have proper Sub-Committees.
§ Mr. Forth
The hon. Gentleman is arguing, not unreasonably, on the basis of consistency across Committees. Does he agree that we should increase the quorum on Commons Committees so that Members take them more seriously? If their work was regarded more seriously, that might counter the view that a tiny rump of member can be expected to do the work of an entire Committee.
§ Mr. McNamara
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will deal with the Committee attendance of Conservative Members. I would be happy if he suggested that we increased the Commons representation on a Joint Committee to match representation on other Committees, which would help even more to deal with Sub-Committee work. If he did so and if we maintained the quorum that we have in the Commons, that would be acceptable.
As a member of the Joint Committee, I believe that we should support the motion. It is important that the amendment to the Standing Order is agreed. As the hon. Member for North Cornwall suggested a moment ago, we should not denigrate the work of Select Committees, whether their membership is drawn from the Commons, the Lords or both Houses.
§ Mr. Stephen Twigg
First, I reiterate the point made by a number of Members by paying early tribute to the work of the new Joint Committee. I know that some Members did not support the passage of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the incorporation in British law of the European convention on human rights, but that had overwhelming support in both Houses.
The establishment of the new Joint Committee is important. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Jean Corston) and her colleagues in all parties in this House and the other place for moving quickly so that it could begin work. I have no doubt that if the fifth motion on the Order Paper is passed, the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) will be a valuable addition to the Committee. Having served alongside him on the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons, I know that he is an assiduous and articulate Committee member; I am sure that he will make a positive contribution to the work of the Joint Committee.
From the Government's point of view, it seems that we cannot win. We have had a cross-party request from a Committee. Had we resisted that proposal or suggestion, we would have been criticised by the Opposition for obstructing Committee work. Instead, we have offered the House a sensible proposal, for which we have been attacked. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has said on several occasions, the Government believe that good scrutiny makes for good government; our 1030 proposal attempts to provide a sensible balance, as has been said by those of my hon. Friends who are members of the Joint Committee. I particularly welcome the fact that our proposal has clear cross-party support within the Committee; that is especially true of Lords members. Our proposal is about making the Joint Committee work and ensuring that it can succeed.
There have been a number of Joint Committees; some have had quorums of three members from each House, others a standard quorum of two. We are not proposing such a standard quorum; we are simply proposing that a quorum should exist for the purpose of evidence taking. When decisions are considered by the Committee, the quorum will be larger, as originally agreed when the Committee was established. There is no question of casting votes in the Joint Committee. If such a Committee is to be successful, it is important that it works by consensus. If five votes were cast against five, or six against six in the Committee, that would suggest that it was not progressing as originally envisaged.
I took note of what my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) said about Sub-Committees; we shall probably wish to return to that matter later. For all that we have heard from the Conservative and Liberal Front Benchers this afternoon, this is a sensible and modest change that will enable the new Joint Committee to work more successfully. On that basis, I commend it to the House.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
As the next item of business is set down for 4 o'clock, I suspend the sitting until that hour.
§ Sitting suspended.