HC Deb 22 July 2002 vol 389 cc729-32 7.20 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook)

I beg to move, That, (1) with effect from 23rd July, Standing Order No. 152 (Select Committees related to Government departments) be amended as follows:

In the Table
After item 9 insert
?Office of the Deputy Office of the Deputy Prime 11'
Prime Minister: Housing. Minister
Planning, Local
Government and the
Leave out item 13 and insert
`Transport Department for Transport 11'
Line 11, leave out from `Committee' to end of line 12. (2) That the unreported evidence taken by the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee shall stand referred to the Transport Committee and the Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions. (3) That, with effect from 23rd July, the Order of 5th November 2001 relating to Liaison Committee (Membership) be amended as follows: Paragraph (2), after 'Northern Ireland Affairs' insert 'Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions'. Paragraph (2), leave out 'Transport, Local Government and the Regions' and insert `Transport'. (4) That paragraph (2)(a) of Standing Order No. 121 (Nomination of select committees) shall not apply to nominations to any Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions and to any Transport Committee made before 23rd July, and any such nominations made by the House shall have effect from 23rd July.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

I understand that with this, it will be convenient to discuss the following motions: That Tom Brake, Mr. Gregory Campbell, Mr. Brian H. Donohoe, Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody, Clive Efford, Mrs. Louise Ellman, Chris Grayling, Helen Jackson, Mr. George Stevenson, Mr. Graham Stringer and Mr. Robert Syms be members of the Transport Committee. That Andrew Bennett, Sir Paul Beresford, Mr. Clive Betts, Alistair Burt, Mr. David Clelland, Mr. John Cummings, Chris Mole, Mr. Bill O'Brien, Dr. John Pugh, Christine Russell and Mr. Gary Streeter be members of the Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions.

Mr. Cook

The first motion is self-explanatory and simple—it contains no hidden tricks. It arises from the recent Government decision to separate the Department for Transport from the former Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions. We now have two new Departments—the Department for Transport and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which embraces housing and local government and the regions.

It is a cardinal principle of the Select Committee system that our departmental Select Committees track Whitehall Departments, so any change in the Departments requires a corresponding change in Select Committees. The motion gives effect to that change, which we are trying to introduce without disruption. The motion therefore includes a commitment that the new Committees will inherit the unpublished and unreported evidence taken by their predecessors; it was tabled just after the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions completed its pre-legislative scrutiny of the Local Government Bill. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam), the Chairman of the Committee of Selection, for his flexibility, enabling us to introduce the motion in the House tonight. It is important that the House considers and disposes of the matter tonight, because if the motions are carried the new Select Committees will be able to meet before the recess, elect Chairs and take a preliminary look at their future programme of work.

The Government have recently demonstrated powerfully their commitment to the Select Committee system by the historic appearance of the Prime Minister before the Liaison Committee. The motion before the House demonstrates again our commitment to keep our Select Committee system in good order, and I commend it to the House. I cannot think of any conceivable controversy that might lurk within this simple and straightforward motion. I therefore hope that it can proceed expeditiously so that the House can address itself to the richer, more complex and diverse topics that will arise on the motion for the Adjournment.

7.22 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Believe me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have tried to find something controversial in the motion, but I seem to have failed, so it falls to me to welcome the timely way in which the Government have introduced it. I accept what the Leader of the House said and the spirit in which he said it, and I urge the House to agree the motion.

7.23 pm
Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)

I thank my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for his congratulations, which are entirely undeserved as they apply to all members of the Committee of Selection. May I repeat that it is in interests of the House to deal expeditiously with the matter? If we do so, I shall move formally the motions tabled in my name.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I shall be expeditious, but not quite as congratulatory as the Conservative spokesperson. It is not what is in the motions that is controversial—it is what is missing from them.

I am relieved that the motions have been grouped together, as that helps me to deal in a more businesslike way with concerns that I share with my colleagues. We accept the logic of dividing the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions into two Select Committees. We acknowledge that the Committee has worked extremely effectively, but it is obviously important to reflect the division of departmental responsibilities since the recent change—that is not a problem and we have no difficulty with it.

Our discussion of the motions, however, could have provided an implicit opportunity to redress an injustice that occurred after the general election. There is a long-standing convention, of which you will be aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the arithmetic proportionality of the membership of the House should be reflected not only in membership of Select Committees but in the allocation of chairmanships. Members in the Chamber will probably recall that there was a major injustice after the election—the Liberal Democrat party was allocated only one chairmanship, although we had two in the last Parliament, when we had fewer MPs—which has not be subsequently redressed.

The Leader of the House has acknowledged that problem, and he and his colleagues have borne in mind the difficulty caused by that allocation, but our debate could have provided a good opportunity to correct the problem. The Modernisation Committee has produced a report on Select Committees, paragraph 25 of which reiterated the principle that chairmanships should be allocated on an arithmetic basis. That recommendation was not a matter of contention when we debated the report and, as far as I am aware, has never been challenged since, so it is the obvious way to proceed and one that has a long history in the conventions of the House.

After setting up the two Committees, we naturally progress to agreeing from which party their Chairs should be drawn. Of course, it is usual practice for Committee members to elect as Chair someone who is a member of the party that has been allocated the chairmanship. We do not oppose the motions as they are inherently sensible, but we request an assurance from the Leader of the House that the matter that I have drawn to his attention will not be overlooked yet again in the weeks and months ahead. It has been a long wait to get justice and we require a firm assurance that the discrepancy will be addressed at the earliest possible opportunity.

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that in 1997 and, I suspect, at the last election, the Liberal Democrats were offered an extra Select Committee—the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments—but they chose not to take it up?

Mr. Tyler

That is not technically true. All sorts of offers are made and it is perfectly true that the hon. Gentleman's party and the Conservative party sometimes ask that certain Committees have particular Chairmen. I assure the hon. Gentleman that my comments this evening are not intended as a reflection on the qualifications of certain Members to chair Select Committees—there is nothing personal in my comments. However, we would be grateful if the Leader of the House gave us an assurance that the conventions of the House will be obeyed in future.

7.27 pm
Mr. Robin Cook

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) raised the issue of who might chair the Select Committees. Strictly speaking, as he knows, that is not a matter to be debated on the Floor of the House—it is a matter for the Committees themselves. However, it is on record that we are creating two Committees from a Committee which had two sub-Committees. I mention this delicately because I do not know what those Committees will do, but the field is already rather crowded.

I am sensitive to the hon. Gentleman's grievance, which he has raised on a number of occasions, and assure him that I am under no illusion about the fact that he will continue to raise it until I take action to remedy it.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside)


Mr. Cook

Ah, the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) has a grievance. I will give way in a second so that he can express it.

This is not the occasion to take action in response to the grievance of the hon. Member for North Cornwall, but I am conscious of it and shall bear it in mind. Should an opportunity present itself, I shall certainly welcome the occasion to remedy it, but many factors have to be taken into account when choosing the Chair of a Select Committee.

Pete Wishart

If the Leader of the House is in the business of addressing grievances, how does he feel about the fact that there is still not one member of Plaid Cymru or the Scottish National party serving on non-regional Select Committees?

Mr. Cook

I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that the list before the House in the motions to be moved by the Chair of the Committee of Selection includes one member of a minority party. In a total of 22 appointees, a member of one minority party strikes precisely the right arithmetical balance. I know of the hon. Gentleman's grievance. I know of the grievances of most parties in the House and most corners in those parties but, sadly, it is not within my power immediately to remedy them. However, I am conscious of the matter raised by the hon. Gentleman, and we shall certainly watch for an opportunity when we can put it right.

I was enormously encouraged by the opening remarks of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who failed to find any controversy in the motion, which gives me hope that when the motion is put to the House it will be carried. I commend it to the House, as it will enable us to make good progress on keeping our Select Committees in good order.

Question put and agreed to.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With permission, I shall put together the motions relating to Committees.


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