HC Deb 30 April 2002 vol 384 cc805-6
40. Martin Linton (Battersea)

What plans he has to take forward his proposals for reform of Select Committees. [51333]

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

I intend to bring Standing Order changes before the House in the near future to implement the recommendations of the Modernisation Committee. These will strengthen our system of scrutiny by providing for a more transparent and independent system of nomination to Select Committees and by increasing the resources and specialist staff available to them. In the meantime, I warmly welcome the decision last week by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to appear twice a year before the Liaison Committee, which will be the first time any Prime Minister has appeared before a Select Committee in modern times.

Martin Linton

Does my right hon. Friend hope to submit the new proposals in time for the new Scrutiny Committees, if agreed, to give pre-legislative scrutiny to draft Bills in the next Session? Will he consider including in the objectives of the proposed Scrutiny Committees not only taking evidence from Ministers but scrutinising the agendas of European Council meetings in advance?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend wrote to the Modernisation Committee with the helpful proposal that we might add to the core tasks of the Scrutiny Committees the requirement to make sure that they remain abreast of the scrutiny of European directives and legislation. The point has force and we will consider whether to amend the core tasks accordingly before we debate this in the House.

On draft legislation, it is of course open to Select Committees to carry out their scrutiny under their present powers. I hope that before the House comes to the end of the Session we will have had the opportunity to introduce some draft legislation and that Select Committees will wish to carry out pre-legislative scrutiny. The earlier we can get Parliament in on the act of the preparation of legislation, the better the prospects are for Parliament to shape that legislation.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

Does the Leader of the House recognise that members of the Liaison Committee warmly welcome most of the proposals from the Modernisation Committee? On their behalf, I express their delight at the remarkable announcement from the Prime Minister that he will face two full public sessions of questioning before the Liaison Committee each year.

Will the Leader of the House accept that the Chairmen collectively are equally sincere when they say that they are genuinely worried and concerned that the proposed 33 per cent. increase in the size of the Committees could prejudice and damage their effectiveness? Before my right hon. Friend brings his proposals before the House, will he have look at the issue again?

Mr. Cook

First, may I welcome what my right hon. Friend says about the decision of the Prime Minister to appear before his Committee? It is absolutely right that the Prime Minister should appear before the Liaison Committee, which contains the Chairs of all the Select and Scrutiny Committees and can thus carry out scrutiny of any issue within the office of the Prime Minister.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the size of Committees. We considered that carefully in the Modernisation Committee and came to the conclusion that it was not right that Members who want to take part in that scrutiny process should be debarred from doing so because of the present size of the Select Committee. Although I understand the anxieties of some members of the Committee as to the importance of retaining cohesion, I am myself the Chair of a Select Committee—the Modernisation Committee—which has 15 members and succeeded in reaching a unanimous report. It can be done.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider that point? It does not matter how big the Select Committees are—some Members will always want to be on them. Surely, what is crucial is the effectiveness of the Select Committees and maintaining good and regular attendance of their 11, nine, or whatever, members. Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore think carefully before putting the current proposal before the House?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman makes with strength a point about which he obviously feels powerfully. I shall have an opportunity to discuss the matter with the Liaison Committee when I visit it next week, and I hope that on that occasion we can understand each other and see whether there is a way forward.

I remind the hon. Gentleman and the House that there are already two Select Committees of 17 members and that they have traditionally been of that size—[Interruption.] I think that I am hearing what I am about to say to the House. Those two Committees have traditionally operated through a Sub-Committee system. If Select Committees are to face up to all the matters and core tasks that we set out, more of them will have to set up Sub-Committees and may welcome a larger size in order to do so.

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