Motion made, and Question proposed,
That Mr. Joe Ashton, Mr. Kenneth Clarke, Mr. Edward Davey, Ms Ruth Kelly, Mr. Richard Ottaway, Mr. Chris Pond and Dawn Primarolo be members of the Select Committee appointed to join with a Committee of the Lords as the Joint Committee on Tax Simplification Bills.—[Dawn Primarolo.]
This is the motion for which we have really been waiting—the previous motion was a taster. Having set up a rather ill-begotten Committee, against my better judgment, with all its loopholes and rules that we do not quite understand, we come to the exciting stage of considering whether the Members proposed for it are appropriate. It is always invidious—[Interruption.]
It is always invidious for the House to have to judge its colleagues. However, we are forced to do so in this instance because the Government have brought forward a list of proposed names for the Committee. As we teased out in the previous debate, the Committee may well be able to have an effect on rates and the burden of taxation, albeit in alliance with Members of another place, without knowing who they will be. The Minister helpfully told us earlier that she believed that the other place may be deciding on its membership of the Committee this evening, but at this stage we are unable to know. We are being asked to give consideration to our membership of the Committee without necessarily knowing who the members from the other place will be.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that that means that we shall not know what the political balance of the Committee will be because we do not know who the other place will nominate? Secondly, we will not know what the expertise will be. We do not know what areas of competence will come from the other place. That being so, we will not know whom we should seek to appoint.
I intended to move on to competence.
The Minister told us that she believed that in another place there would be proposed two Labour members of the Committee, two Conservative members, one Cross-Bencher and one Liberal Democrat. We know what the Minister thinks the other place will do, but whether it will jump to her instructions remains to be seen. We have a hint from the hon. Lady of what the possible political composition of the delegation from the other place will be, but we cannot know what their competence will be. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) is right about that. In that sense, we are operating in a vacuum. We must deliberate and decide on the qualifications and relevance of the Members who have been proposed to us on the basis of our own knowledge of them.
One of the problems is that there appears to be something of a hybrid, which is a cross between a Standing Committee and a Select Committee. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is his understanding that both the hon. Members for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly) and for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) are currently Parliamentary Private Secretaries? Will he confirm also that the convention in relation to a Select Committee is that its members—this is extremely important—do not confer, still less collude, in the course of their proceedings with members of the Executive? Does my right hon. Friend appreciate the importance of these two PPSs having no discussions in advance of meetings of the Joint Committee with a member of the Executive?
My hon. Friend would intervene on himself and talk about pigs flying. I intended to move on to the point that he has made. However, I want to go through the list of names in a slightly mote orderly way, so that we can establish whether the House is happy with the proposed list of names.
The first is the very senior and distinguished hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), who was first elected in 1968. It is a pity that he is not present to hear such praises heaped upon his head. I understood from the public prints that the hon. Gentleman had announced that he was retiring from the House at the end of this Parliament. If that were the case—he is not here to confirm it or otherwise—it would seem rather odd that we are being asked to approve the appointment of a colleague to an important and influential Committee, as we have repeatedly been told that it will be, when that person may serve but a few weeks, if an election is coming upon us as rapidly as is speculated.
The hon. Gentleman, very senior as he is, and respected and loved by us all, spent most of his life before entering the House as a journalist. He spent a brief time as a Government Whip. Whether that qualifies him as being of stoutly independent mind or whether it means that we should be slightly suspicious of where he might be coming from, with regard to his membership of the Committee, I leave it for others to judge.
In "Dod's Parliamentary Companion", the hon. Gentleman gives as his interests the media, trade unions and the national lottery. Whether that qualifies him for membership of such an important and influential Committee, I leave the House to make its own judgment. Media, trade unions and the lottery do not strike me at first glance as being the ideal interests and qualifications for a member of the Committee.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has been focusing on the first-named in the motion and dealing with the matter of continuity. One thing that is certain about tax law is that one needs to study it and understand it over a period of time. Does my right hon. Friend agree that anyone who is appointed to the Committee by the motion should have a good prospect of serving in the House after the next election and bringing to the Committee such continuity?
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. That is partly the point that I had intended to make. When I get down the list to one of the other members, I shall raise a slightly different query. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw is, regrettably, not present. I am beginning to wonder what level of commitment we can expect from the members of the Committee, who apparently cannot be bothered to turn up for the very debate in which the House is expected to decide to entrust them with the job of serving on the Committee.
A few moments ago we discussed the quorum, and some of us expressed an anxiety that members of the Committee may not be able to fulfil even the modest quorum requirement. If they cannot be bothered to turn up to be praised and lauded and perhaps, depending on the view of the House, to be appointed to the Committee, I am rather pessimistic about whether they will turn up to the Committee itself.
I am reluctant to interrupt my right hon. Friend's train of thought, but before he moves on from the first hon. Member named in the motion, may I point out that "Dod's Parliamentary Companion" to which he referred states that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw is interested in travel and do-it-yourself? I wondered whether either of those has any bearing on the Bill. Have I missed something? I assumed that the Committee would not be one of those travelling Committees that are so popular with some hon. Members, and I thought that the idea was that one did not DIY when it came to tax reform, but perhaps I got it wrong.
Perhaps we had better not tell the hon. Member for Bassetlaw that the Committee will not travel. If that is one of his interests, he may attend the Committee even less than we suspect.
My right hon. Friend drew attention to the fact that most of those named in the motion are not present, with the honourable exception of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway), the Minister and the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond), the Parliamentary Private Secretary. Is it possible that other members of the Committee whose names appear on the Order Paper have not been informed of the honour that is about to be imposed upon them?
We will want to hear about that from the Minister who, uncharacteristically, if I may say so, did not catch Madam Deputy Speaker's eye when she introduced the debate. I do not know whether the Minister was ashamed of the list of names, or whether she thought that the House would nod it through. She should understand that under the exciting and radical modernisation proposals, nothing gets nodded through the House. The House insists, properly, on scrutinising everything that comes before it, so the Minister should not be too surprised that we want to give full attention to the matter. That is what I hope to encourage the House to do.
My right hon. Friend has provoked me to a further thought. The reason that the hon. Lady moved the motion formally and did not wish to speak to it may be that she recalls that during the 1992 election campaign in Bristol, South—where, I confess, she was not only triumphant, but a very courteous opponent—she was decidedly and perhaps even gratuitously rude about my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) who, at the time, if I remember rightly, was Secretary of State either for Health or for Education. May that be why—
Madam Deputy Speaker, I am about to come to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke)—he is next on my list—so my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) is simply anticipating me. At his invitation, I shall come to our right hon. and learned and distinguished and senior Friend the Member for Rushcliffe, who is nominated as a member of the Committee. It goes without saying that our right hon. and learned Friend may be more qualified than almost anyone else to take part in the deliberations of such a Committee.
My right hon. and learned Friend's qualifications must be above and beyond question, but I wonder whether he has been asked how much time he will be able to give to the Committee and its deliberations. As we know, he is an extremely busy man, and a senior man much sought out in international forums and other important meetings. I raise only the slightest scintilla of a question about whether my right hon. and learned Friend will be able to give to the Committee and its deliberations the amount of time and commitment that we would expect, particularly in the light of the question mark that we raised over the quorum in the earlier debate.
Surely the House should not approve the names in the motion unless we have the opportunity of hearing from the Members named, to the effect, first, that they knew they were to be appointed, and secondly, that they are willing to commit the time that, as my right hon. Friend suggested, will be necessary.
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. I am beginning to think that it might be a good idea to adjourn the debate to give those right hon. and hon. Members an opportunity to come to the House, seek to catch Madam Deputy Speaker's eye, and tell the House briefly whether they are prepared to make that degree of commitment. That would be an extremely good idea. We have touched on only two Members, one of whom may be retiring at the end of this Parliament, and the other who, for reasons that we all understand, is a very busy man. Questions arise after only two potential members of the Committee have been discussed briefly. You may wish to consider, Madam Deputy Speaker, whether it would be proper for the debate to be adjourned.
My right hon. Friend has drawn attention to the commitment that will be required of members of the Committee. Has he considered that, at this moment, our right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) may be diverted? It is proposed that the Second Reading of the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill will take place next Monday. As our right hon. and learned Friend is deputy chairman of British American Tobacco, I wonder whether that Bill will distract him from his membership of the Committee—rightly, as it is an important Bill which he, like us, will undoubtedly want to resist. I wonder also whether he may have a possible conflict of interest if the tax simplification measures extend to tobacco.
That is an important point, which our right hon. and learned Friend will have to ponder. He may have to recuse himself from the Committee—that is an American word of which I am extremely fond, which we heard quite a lot during the recent presidential election. If, in the event of a conflict of interest, our right hon. and learned Friend had to recuse himself from the Committee, that would threaten the quorum. Time and again, as we go through the motion and think about the matter, we may see the sense in the quorum being set at such a low figure. I suspect that many of the Committee members will hardly ever be there.
Those of us who have a high respect for my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) or, for that matter, the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), would not wish to impose on them the obligations of belonging to the Committee unless we had been assured that they wanted to be members of that Committee. Is not it strange that we do not know whether they do or whether they do not?
We may find that out, because I get the feeling, as we develop this little debate, that the Minister will enlighten us. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) may help us by giving his view of the degree of commitment that we are giving to the Joint Committee. I know that his commitment will be total—we can take that for granted, because he is here with us and we know the assiduity with which he approaches his responsibilities.
Before my right hon. Friend proceeds to the next prospective member of the Committee, will he agree with me that, subject to a guarantee of conscientious attendance, there could be two great merits in having my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) on the Committee? The first would be the considerable expertise that he would bring to its deliberations as a result of his service as Chancellor of the Exchequer. The second would be that it would minimise the amount of time available to him to indulge in Euro-babble.
Does my right hon. Friend think it would be easier for us to judge the commitment required and the aptitude of the candidates if the Minister had helped us in the previous debate by explaining how often she thought the Committee would need to meet to consider a Bill such as may be introduced at a later stage? If we knew the timing and how much detail she, as a perspective and leading member of the Committee, will want it to indulge in, it would be easier for us to judge how busy someone could be and still do a good job on the Committee. I hope that all the proposed members can do a good job, but I find it difficult to judge without knowing how much time is required.
My right hon. Friend has raised a matter that has not come up in this or the prior debate. We are wandering about in a bit of a fog, because until we know the frequency of meetings envisaged for the Joint Committee and the length of time it is likely to sit, it will be difficult for us to judge whether the commitment that we expect of our colleagues will be forthcoming. That is another important issue that the Minister may be able to help us with, and that will allow us to judge the suitability of these candidates as we develop the argument and when we vote on the motion, which I suspect we will have to do.
We now come to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey). The good news about him is that he is styled as a management consultant. That leads me to believe that he has some expertise and experience that have a bearing on the matter in hand. That is my hope, but it is the only good news about him. The bad news is that he is a Liberal Democrat, so he may or may not be able to bring much of value to the Committee. The even worse news, which follows the point made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, is that the hon. Gentleman has a parliamentary majority of 56. For the benefit of those who do not follow these matters closely, that means that his chances of holding his seat at the next general election, which we are led to believe will be soon—
That is correct, Madam Deputy Speaker, but knowing this place as I do, it is likely that the usual channels will want to roll these people forward after the next election, except for the hon. Member for Bassetlaw. If I am correct, he is not standing again, so why are we nominating him in this Parliament?
Following the Chair's ruling, I contend that during this Parliament it is likely that a Member with a majority of about 56 will be away from his parliamentary duties rather a lot.
I endorse the right hon. Gentleman's comments. He has a high regard for my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), and so do I. Does he agree with me that my hon. Friend is eminently well qualified to be a member of the Committee? Furthermore, he knows that he is to be appointed, and he wishes to serve.
I am glad to hear that. That is the first time we have had such an assurance about a prospective member of the Committee. We shall watch the hon. Gentleman's attendance in the Committee closely, if and when it meets—I am beginning to wonder whether it will.
The Liberal Democrats have not pointed out that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) is regularly used by them as a spokesman on radio and television shows. I wonder what would happen if an interesting offer from the media clashed with a Committee sitting, as it undoubtedly will. I have a terrible fear that the hon. Gentleman may be tempted to offer himself to the media rather than attend the Committee.
That remains to be seen. Suffice it to say that, although the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) believes that someone styled a management consultant is an expert, that is a matter of some debate. I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, but that is another question mark over this proposed name.
We now come into difficult territory. It is a tradition of the House that such matters and Select Committees—if, indeed, the proposed Committee is to be a Select Committee—are free of Government influence as far as it is possible for them to be so. I exonerate the Minister from that because the Procedure Committee, no less, made it clear that it was important for the Minister to be part of the Committee.
I am delighted to say that the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly) has an MSc in economics, which would eminently qualify her for the Committee. That is the good news. The not so good news is that, according to "Dod's Parliamentary Companion", which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham is studying assiduously, the hon. Lady is a Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. That gets us into some difficulty, because the question must arise whether it is proper for someone to be a member of the Committee who is also a member of what is known in the trade as the payroll—which is a bit misleading in this case, because although the hon. Lady is a PPS, she does not get paid any more. However, as a PPS she is bound to the Government by conventions of loyalty and obligation. That must surely raise a question mark over the hon. Lady's ability to act as an impartial and, in her case, expert member of the Committee.
I regret to say that the same argument applies to the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond). He glories in having a BA in economics—regrettably from Sussex, which probably puts it in a slightly different light. That is good news, but he is also PPS to the Paymaster General.
Would my right hon. Friend forgive me if I am slightly less courteous than he has been? Should not the House be cautious about the proposition that the Committee should contain three members of the payroll? Does not that suggest that the Government want to control the Committee that they are putting forward as independent and impartial? In fact, they are trying to make it a creature of the Government.
That is the worry. In the previous debate, some of us expressed anxiety that the Committee could be used as a vehicle for stealth taxation or for the inadvertent, incompetent or even deliberate raising of taxes—be it tax rates or the tax burden. Suspicion is raised by the names being nominated to the Committee. The fact that the hon. Member for Gravesham is PPS to the Paymaster General raises considerable doubt about his ability to take an independent view on these matters.
I seem to recall that, in a previous life, the hon. Gentleman played an honourable and expert part in poverty issues. Whether being an expert on poverty makes him an ideal candidate for membership of a Committee considering taxation is an interesting question, but I will not go into it too far. I will say, however, that the hon. Gentleman could favour either increasing taxes to impoverish even more people, or increasing taxes to transfer their money to others who are in poverty. Which he would do I know not; we may learn that only when he starts to deliberate in the Committee.
Will my right hon. Friend consider another question? Is the hon. Member for Gravesham on the list because of his expertise, or because he is the Paymaster General's PPS? If the latter is the case, should he cease to be the Paymaster General's PPS, will the House be invited to replace him with someone else? That, surely, is something that we are entitled to know now.
We may have to consider that further. The hon. Members for Gravesham and for Bolton, West may have to confront an important choice: they may have to decide whether they value their roles as PPSs more than their roles as members of the Committee, if the House approves their membership. The need to allow them to make that choice might constitute a good reason for postponing a decision.
According to convention, a PPS appointed to a Standing Committee does not speak. He is present to assist the Minister, especially in his relations with officials. In Select Committees, it is axiomatic that all members have equal weight, and equal authority to speak. However, given the Paymaster General's membership of this Committee, will it not be rather difficult for her PPS—distinguished though he is, and although he has a voice of his own—to speak without merely repeating her words?
That is true. Furthermore, Parliamentary Private Secretaries—busy people that they are, carrying bags all over the place—may not even have time to attend Committee meetings.
It appears that the Committee is to contain a member who I believe will soon retire, a very busy former Chancellor of the Exchequer, someone with a majority of only 56 who, if he has any sense, may spend most of his time in his constituency—he is up against a formidable opponent, our former hon. Friend the Member for Dover, who will probably win the seat—and two Parliamentary Private Secretaries, who may either—
Indeed. That allows me to go on to consider my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South. I will not embarrass my hon. Friend by lavishing praise on him. Suffice it to say not only that he has wide experience and has been a Member of Parliament for a long time, but that he is here with us now, attending to his duties, showing an interest in the matter, and being modest enough not to have spoken on his own behalf so far—although he may be tempted to give us some of the reassurances that we have sought. I do not hesitate to endorse his membership, because he has none of the shortcomings that, regrettably, we have identified in all the other potential members.
That brings me back, briefly, to the Minister. The Procedure Committee recommended her membership; moreover, she has—characteristically—sat through this and the last debate, has been utterly courteous throughout and has done her best to inform us. She did not feel inclined to answer a simple query of mine during her summing up of the earlier debate, but I have already forgiven her for that. Nevertheless, I hope that at the end of this little debate she will give us the reassurances that we expect, not least about the role of Parliamentary Private Secretaries and of her colleagues.
During our brief canter around the course I have been uncharacteristically brief, because I know some of my hon. Friends want to speak before we move to other items on the Order Paper which, I am delighted to see, are open-ended. I hope, however, that so far our little debate has illustrated the real difficulties we may face in setting up the Joint Committee and in appointing its members. I am thinking of their degree of commitment, their freedom to be impartial, their freedom to speak and their ability to fulfil the needs of the quorum, low as we may have set them.
I have some qualms about whether the House, as opposed to the other place, will be adequately represented. We await the names of those who will represent the other place—as the Minister said earlier, the other place may be deciding them even now. I hope I have persuaded my hon. Friends to approach the matter with some trepidation, and not to accept on the nod—with no debate or examination—the cosy arrangement made by the usual channels or those on our Front Benches, and to view these issues as they should be viewed, in a critical way.
Although this involves our colleagues, love them though we do and respect them as we invariably must—at least according to convention—we must consider whether the proposed membership is the most appropriate for a Committee that we have repeatedly been told is both influential and important.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is right to argue for a short and penetrating debate on the selection of members to serve on this important Committee.
My worry relates primarily to the nature of the work involved, and whether it is properly married to the individuals and personalities concerned. I freely admit that I would not be the right person to serve on such a Committee, because I am interested in lowering taxes. I am interested in tax policy, so I would want to change taxes because I think that they are too high and that there are too many of them, and I do not like stealth taxes. I would find it difficult to concentrate on the minute detail, to try to ensure that the proposals being made had not changed tax policy. I would be saying to myself, "But I want to change tax policy." That is one reason why I stood for Parliament: those who wish to take such action should obviously put their case to a wider group of people and try to gain endorsement.
I suspect that at least two of the Labour Members on the list are like me, in that they came here because they had views and wanted to campaign and advance their arguments. I fear that they would find their work in the Committee rather tedious and difficult, given the nature of their minds. We are fortunate that one of them is with us tonight, which implies that he may even be slightly interested in the appointment that is about to be thrust upon him. I refer to the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond).
When I read about the hon. Gentleman's record—he held interesting jobs before coming here—I see a man who, like me, cares a great deal about poverty, although he has reached slightly different conclusions from mine as to how it should be dealt with. Now he is putting up with carrying a Minister's bag. Tonight—he is giggling a bit, because he knows how implausible it is—he even seemed to be suggesting that he likes to spend hour upon hour in Committee, trying to guarantee that the same tactics are imposed on the poor at the end of his deliberations as were imposed at the beginning. Why does he not say, like me, that he would like to take taxes away from the poor, because that is one way of taking people out of poverty, and also take taxes away from other people?
I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be pleased to know that I agree with what he says. Would it not be helpful, however, if the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) took this opportunity to tell the House how he envisages his function on the Committee, the extent to which he will feel able to speak freely, and whether he thinks he can remain a member when he ceases to be a PPS? Are we not entitled to know, as the hon. Gentleman is apparently a candidate, how he sees his role? Indeed, he might care to tell us what he thinks the Committee will do.
I fear that my right hon. and learned Friend's implication is correct. I have the impression that the hon. Gentleman is rather reluctant to take on the task. As he has not expressed a view that is distinctive from others that we have heard in the two debates on what the Committee should do, and has not said how he would like to do his work, I begin to fear that he will not enter into it wholeheartedly. I fear that he will not speak with an independent voice, but will be looking out of the window and dreaming of a time when he might have an interesting job enabling him to do the things about which he has written and spoken in the past with such passion and concern.
I have exactly the same fear about the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly). Like the hon. Member for Gravesham, she has written and thought a lot about policy. She is clearly interested in getting into the big debates about policy, how the economy works, what the Chancellor should do and so forth. She finds herself cursed or burdened with the task—it looks as though it has been thrust upon her; she is not here to say how much she welcomes it, or wants to take it on—of sitting on a detailed, technical and probably long-winded Committee that must do crucial work to ensure that all the things that she wants to change have not changed as a result of the deliberations.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend because he rightly hurries me on to my next important argument.
My second worry about the choice of the three members representing the Government is just that—we have three members representing the Government on the Committee. My recollection of when I was a Minister with a PPS is that PPSs were required to follow the line precisely. On one occasion, my PPS erred a little in what he said one morning on the radio. I was not too worried—I thought that it was just one of those things—but the Chief Whip was extremely worried. The PPS, who is now no longer in the House, was severely reprimanded for saying something that I could not have said or did not want to say, but that he had wanted to say for himself, so I have a feeling that the two PPSs, in a Government who pride themselves on being highly controlled, will have to take the Government line.
That raises an interesting point in relation to Select Committee procedure. Will the PPSs receive the official briefing beforehand? Is that within the rules of the procedure, or would they find that an embarrassment? Normally, Select Committees are distant from the Executive.
Clearly, the Minister will have to know the Government's official line because she is there to represent that on the Committee. I suspect that, rightly, the PPSs will want to be fully apprised of the Government's line, so three people, if they all turn up to the Committee at any given time, will be charged to say exactly the same thing. Indeed, the two PPSs will be under pressure to ensure that they do not say anything different to prove that they are loyal and attentive members of the Administration.
Will my right hon. Friend consider this point? We do not know the composition that may emerge from the other place, but is it not possible that one or more of the Labour appointees will themselves hold ministerial office? Therefore, we will have a Committee almost entirely dominated by the Government Front Bench.
My right hon. and learned Friend makes a powerful point. We could have four or even five members of the Committee all coming along, if they turn up on the same occasion, to say exactly the same thing. That does not seem a sensible use of their time. It is certainly not a sensible use of the Committee's time.
I have every belief that the Minister could read out the official Government position perfectly adequately without needing two PPSs and perhaps one or two spokesmen or Ministers from the Lords saying exactly the same thing, but, more importantly, does that not make it an impoverished Committee? The purpose of this type of open procedure is to apply a wide range of different minds to what are technical, not political questions—they are not huge, but they are important—as to whether the law as amended is exactly the same in its impact as the law that the measure seeks to replace. The next question is: if so, has it simplified anything? I still find it difficult to believe that one can do both those things satisfactorily, but I hope that I can be proved wrong. However, I believe that the more minds there are to puzzle over those conundrums the better, and the House would be foolish to allow three, or perhaps four or five members of the Committee all to say exactly the same thing as the Minister.
That brings me to the other proposed names. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, I am happy that a Minister should be on the Committee. Indeed, it would be bizarre if the Government did not have one of their chosen ministerial spokespeople putting forward their view on important technical taxation measures. I am sure that she will take the official brief and do the job as we would expect her to—in her distinctive and charming way.
Unlike my right hon. Friend, I have no worries about my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). I am sure that he must be aware that his name has been put forward. I guess that he is not here because he is happy with that. I am sure that he will realise that time will be needed to sit on the Committee, but his task would be easier—our task would certainly be a lot easier—if the Minister told us how much time is involved. I understand the concerns of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. It is normal when setting out a job specification, even in this august place, for people to be told a little more about what is entailed before they are signed up, or put into the position of perhaps having too many commitments.
In agreeing with my right hon. Friend, I have serious doubts about the ability of the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) to turn up often enough. The hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett), another Liberal Democrat, is pricking up his ears. I was not about to disparage the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton, but he is a busy man. I would have thought that anyone with a majority of 56 wanted to spend a lot of time in the next few weeks in his constituency, particularly when he has an energetic candidate against him. I know that he has various media commitments, which he obviously thinks are important. I worry that those could conflict with the time required for the important but technical work on the Committee. Therefore, I urge him perhaps to think again, or I urge the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon to have a word with him and say that it has become a matter of debate. He might like to come to the Chamber to clarify the matter.
There is a bright aspect about the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) not being able to attend the Committee. In reality, the Liberal Democrats are part of the Labour party. If he is not able to turn up, that will have the beneficial effect of reducing Labour control by one.
My right hon. and learned Friend takes me in an interesting direction. There are considerable worries that the Liberal Democrats are often not a party of opposition, although they choose to occupy one of the Opposition Benches. They seem to agree with the Government.
I will endeavour to keep my remarks precisely on the motion, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton could do what the Liberal Democrats often do, effectively, and take the payroll line. We could then be in a position where we had not just the three whom we know about from the House of Commons, but the two who could be appointed from the other place, if that is the Government's wish, and the Liberal Democrat who, if he did manage to get to the Committee, might say to the Government representative, "What is the line on this?", as Liberal Democrats often do and then go along with it.
My right hon. and learned Friend points out that a Liberal Democrat from the other place could be on the Committee. We are told by the Minister that there is likely to be a Liberal Democrat representative. I dare say that the Minister and the usual channels have enough control to know what they are talking about on these matters. A Liberal Democrat from the other place could add to the payroll opinion, so hon. Members can understand my concern about the possibility of a large number of members on the Committee having no independent view, in an area where independence of mind—the critical skills, the aptitude of members—should be the main consideration. It is not high politics or high drama. We are looking not for great actors and actresses, but for people who are seriously minded to go into all the detail of the legislation.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) is a thoroughly independent person who will exercise a profoundly benign effect on the Committee. He is an utterly reliable and independent individual.
I hope that that is right, but I have a fear that, on the occasions when the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton does turn up—I hope that he does, although I still have my worries—he might dash in, having been too busy and had too many other things to do, not properly prepared and not having read all the detailed papers, which clearly a Committee member would need to read. The Liberal Democrats could be tempted to turn to the Minister or to the PPS and to say, "What is the line on this? We do not want to rock the boat. It does not matter to us. It will not win any votes in Kingston and Surbiton", or wherever.
You are right, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was provoked by the intervention of the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon. It led me into a little repetition. I will go on without hesitation or, I trust, repetition, so that you will regard me in order again.
That brings me to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway). I know him to be an experienced and hard-working parliamentarian. He spends a lot of time in and about the House. If I can make him blush a little, he is likely to have the best, or certainly one of the best, attendance records of any Member whom we end up appointing to the Committee. Attendance is very important.
My hon. Friend will also be one of the few Committee members who will take the brief mg papers home in advance, despite their bulk and weight, and go through them. I see him smiling in agreement with me on that crucial point. I can see him salivating already at the thought of all those fascinating papers that he could be reading rather than watching "Match of the Day".
I am a little worried that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) might find "Match of the Day" more exciting. He might have to decide whether Italian football, on a Sunday afternoon, is more exciting than those very bulky papers that he needs to read over the weekend to be well prepared for the Committee. It would be lovely today to see him in the Chamber and to hear how he would put those temptations behind him, and how—in the remaining weeks of this Parliament, as it splutters towards its conclusion—he would wish to give his undivided attention to the crucial matter of tax reform.
I should like all the Committee members to be independent, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and fully briefed, to have read all the papers and taken a bit of independent advice, to make use of the large budget that the Minister was too coy to tell us about in the previous debate, and to ensure that they are properly apprised of all the crucial issues that will come before the Committee. Looking at the list of Committee members, however, I just fear that we shall end up with some people who have not read the papers, and quite a few people who just take the Government's line. If that is the case, I fear that the Committee will not be able to do its work as well as it should.
I do not wish to detain the House for long, because my right hon. Friends the Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) have done an extremely good job of surveying the issues. Nevertheless, I should like, in a moment, to return to one or two of the points that I made in interventions on my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst.
Like my right hon. Friends, I agree entirely that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, is extremely well qualified to be a Committee member. He spent many years at the Treasury, navigating the country back to economic prosperity and into a fit state, which the current Government inherited, and he will certainly bring a fine mind to the Committee. Nevertheless, I recognise that his other commitments will inevitably limit the time that he can give to the Committee.
I also agree with my right hon. Friends that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) is extremely well qualified and will serve well on the Committee. He and I have something in common, as we both have a picture in the parliamentary calendar; his for December, and mine for September—[Interruption.] I do not think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) understands the significance of the pictures, which are perfectly honourable. A year ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South and I both submitted pictures for the parliamentary exhibition and, fortunately, they were both chosen to be used in the parliamentary calendar.
I am a great admirer of the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett), who is a substantial improvement on his predecessor. However, I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) might have two difficulties in serving on the Committee. First, we are unquestionably approaching a general election, and his small majority will inevitably draw him down to the south-west extremities of the capital. Secondly, it is fair to say that, on so many of the key issues, Liberal Democrat Members seem to be in bed with the Government.
Order. The hon. Gentleman is engaged in repeating arguments that have already been made more than once in the debate. I must urge him not to persist with that line.
I take your guidance entirely, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was merely seeking to reinforce the argument made by my right hon. Friends the Members for Bromley and Chislehurst and for Wokingham. My comment on Liberal Democrat Members was made only in passing.
I have already made the substantive point, on the nature of the Committee, in an intervention, and I should now like to expand on it. Last week, we had an extensive debate on the constitution of the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill. You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would rule me out of order if I were to try to discuss that Select Committee, and I do not wish to do so. However, I do wish to draw to the House's attention the clear parallel between the motion on that Committee and today's motions.
Two weeks running, we have been seeking to create hybrid Committees. However, not one member of the Select Committee on Defence was proposed to serve on the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill. In relation to today's motions, at least it can be said that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe is undoubtedly well qualified to serve on the Select Committee. The Paymaster General is clearly wholly qualified to serve on the Committee—and is therefore safe from my strictures. However, as my right hon. Friends have asked, what qualifications do some of the other proposed members—other than my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South—have? I shall, however, not revisit that issue.
It is also fair to point out that the Select Committee will not be a Select Committee in the sense that each of its members will be a free agent, charged by the House with a duty quite independently to examine the issues that it considers. Tax simplification is an extremely important issue. I do not know what discussions the Paymaster General has had with her accountant, but my accountant tells me that he is tearing out his hair at the complexity of the tax regulations. No one can dispute that tax simplification is an extremely important issue both for the accountancy profession, and by definition, for members of the public.
My hon. Friend introduces the very interesting idea that it will be a hybrid Committee: not quite a Standing Committee in which the Parliamentary Private Secretary does not speak but merely helps the Minister, and not quite a Select Committee all of whose members are independent. Does my hon. Friend have some intelligence from the Government that I missed on how the hybrid Committee might work? Will the PPS vote and speak? Will they speak only in line with the Government, or will they have an independent judgment? Has he been given information on that?
Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman has been given no such information, as it would not be relevant to what we are discussing now, which concerns the names of those who have been proposed to serve on the Committee. If the hon. Gentleman persists in straying outside that, I shall apply Standing Order No. 42.
I have no intention of straying outside that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I entirely understand your strictures. However, I hope that you will agree that it is fair to make the point that we are being asked to approve the membership of a Select Committee although we do not think that its members will be able to behave in accordance with the conventions of the House and in the manner that is usually expected of Select Committee members.
I refer you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the previous business that we discussed. Paragraph 5 of the previous motion states:
The procedure of the Joint Committee shall follow the procedure of select committees of this House—
We are debating a Select Committee. Forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I think that the House is entitled to be assured about certain matters. I am a member of the Home Affairs Committee, and I know that I am not beholden to my Front Benchers and that I am a free agent. Much as I like the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond), I do not know whether he will have the approval and authority of his boss, the Paymaster General, to convey his own views to the Committee. Conversely, will he be bound by other conventions of the House which prevent Parliamentary Private Secretaries—I was once one—from speaking on certain matters?
Does my hon. Friend accept that the conventions are plain and that Parliamentary Private Secretaries must follow the Government line? In all probability, they will not be entitled to speak and must keep strictly to the Government brief if they do so. Those are the conventions and practices that will be operating; there are no others.
My right hon. and learned Friend makes the point succinctly. I share his view. The House is entitled to know whether the conventions that he described will be applied to the Committee or whether it is intended that they will be dispensed with. Especially in the light of the manner in which the Government operate, I cannot conceive that anybody who is on the payroll, paid or otherwise, will be allowed to depart from the official line. Nevertheless, it would be helpful if the Paymaster General would give us her thoughts on the matter. As I understand it, the point applies also to the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly).
As far as the Committee that considers the Finance Bill is concerned, I am sure that my hon. Friend is entirely right.
I was briefly Parliamentary Private Secretary to my noble Friend Baroness Thatcher, sadly after she lost office. I was debarred in 1991 from voting against the Government on any issue, because such a vote would have been perceived as a vicarious vote by my noble Friend. Roy Hattersley mentioned the matter when I abstained from voting on the Maastricht treaty in December 1991. The House has a clear and long-established convention, but the motion invites us to establish a Select Committee from which one of the key features of such a Committee is excluded. A Select Committee should be independent of the Government and should comprise hon. Members who are allowed to express their individual views and are not subject to the Whip. The House is entitled to some clarification from the Minister on that point, as well as those made by my right hon. Friends the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and for Wokingham with regard to the Committee's other members. I hope that the Minister will deal with those points. I rest my case.
I rise to support the reservations expressed by my right hon. Friends the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth).
A number of serious points must be made about the motion. I begin with considerable anxiety about the Committee process. I voted against the motion on the establishment of the Joint Committee, which was considered previously, because I am concerned that tax simplification will be turned into a form of tax changing.
Order. The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) was not here for a considerable part of the previous debate. The points to which he refers have been amply rehearsed, so I cannot hear anything further from him on that subject while we are considering the current motion.
I had the opportunity to address the House on the matter in December, when, as you may recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it was last debated. It is relevant to the point that I am about to make. We need to understand where we are coming from. A Committee such as that which is proposed, which is ostensibly about simplification, can also be used as a mechanism for changing the law. It is, therefore, especially important that we consider its membership. That as why I stressed my first point.
On membership, the first question that one is entitled to ask is whether the hon. Members who are nominated wish to serve on the Committee. With the exception of the Liberal Democrat member of the Committee, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway), I do not have a clue about that. I assume that silence from the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) means that he wants to do so, but he has not told the House that. I have no means of knowing whether the hon. Members who are named in the motion want to serve on the Committee. Even if they want to do so, can they devote to it the time that the House has a right to expect of them? That, too, is something about which we are entitled to know before we vote on their names.
I am perfectly prepared to accept that the Paymaster General and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South will devote the proper time. As Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Paymaster General, the hon. Member for Gravesham is her creature, so I am prepared to accept that he, too, will be present during the Committee's proceedings, although what else he will do is another matter. What about the rest of them, however? Will my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), for whom I have the greatest respect and affection, be able to devote the necessary time? Will the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) be able to do so, especially as he is standing down at the next election? I think that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton has a majority of 56, so he will most certainly be cultivating his back garden.
The chances are that the majority of the hon. Members who are nominated will not be able to devote the proper time. It would be helpful if they were present in the Chamber to assure the House, which is being asked to decide on their names, that they will be able to devote that time. Their absence suggests that they are heavily committed elsewhere. If that is the case, why should they be present during the proceedings of the Committee? Their absence makes me very cautious.
Furthermore, I have to ask how the nominated hon. Members were identified for membership in the first place? I did not play a part in their nomination, although I might have done so; my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe is an admirable candidate. Who selected them for consideration? It is the usual channels. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South knows that I am extremely cautious about the usual channels, down which some pretty rum things flow. I am very cautious when I see a coterie of names that has been cobbled together by the usual channels.
It is a great pity that we cannot amend the motion, but must either accept it en bloc or reject it en bloc. I would like the ability to pick and choose, a la carte, and to make other suggestions. I approach the matter with considerable caution.
Were my right hon. and learned Friend to be a member of the Committee, would he not want to be present in good time for the next debate, which will provide a practical working example of how the tax reform process might work? Is it not rather strange that some of the nominated hon. Members are not present? They might have thought that we would have proceeded to the next business, as we all want to make progress.
My right hon. Friend is correct. He raises the important issue of continuity, which was also mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. Study of the tax law involves continuing experience. It is a fairly boring and esoteric subject. No doubt the Paymaster General has begun to master it after three and a half years, but it takes an extremely long time to do so. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw will not be present in the next Parliament and it is likely that the same will apply to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton. Consequently, hon. Members will serve on the Committee only for a short duration. Where possible, the names will be rolled over into the next Parliament, but I have a strong suspicion that some of the hon. Members will not be available for consideration next time round.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot made an important point about Select Committees, in respect of the general position of Parliamentary Private Secretaries. The motion describes the Committee under discussion as a Select Committee. Select Committees are expected to display a sense of independence. However, this Select Committee will not be independent of the Government. The Paymaster General will be on the Committee, and we shall be pleased to welcome her to it. However, there will also be two Parliamentary Private Secretaries, and you know as well as I do, Mr. Deputy Speaker, what the conventions are: PPSs are the creatures of their ministerial bosses. They may carry messages, and they may even be allowed to carry the bag, but they will certainly vote as the Minister tells them to vote. If they are entitled to speak at all, which I doubt, they will speak precisely to a script, if they are wise, which I am sure they will be.
Order. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is now not only repeating the arguments of his right hon. and hon. Friends, but repeating his own argument, which he made in an intervention. I must ask him to desist.
It was a form of emphasis, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I think was worth making. It will be even more worth making when one bears in mind that there will be members of the Committee coming from the other place who may be tainted in a similar way. After all, there are to be two Labour nominees from the other place. We do not know who they are or what their competence or status will be. Let us assume—there is nothing improbable about this assumption—that they hold Government office or that they are former ministerial sidekicks all clad in ermine. At that point, one would have one Minister and four sidekicks. Is that really what one wants on a Select Committee?
As we are talking about sidekicks, we shall also have the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton on the Committee. He is a Liberal Democrat and therefore a Government sidekick. There will also be a Liberal Democrat from the other place, so there will be five or six Government nominee sidekicks, who will do precisely what they are told. Mr. Deputy Speaker, is that something that you and I, as old serving Members, really wish to see? I leave that question hanging in the air, lest you should suggest that I am being in some way improper. However, it takes me back to where I started.
What worries me is that the Minister has not intervened on my right hon. and learned Friend to say that the two Committee members from the other place will definitely not be Ministers or Government representatives. That leads me to fear that my right hon. and learned Friend is right, and that we could have five members of the Committee all saying the same thing. I hope that the House would not want such a Committee.
I would hope so, too. We are all looking forward to the Paymaster General rising to her feet in due course to tell us rather more precisely who the Committee members from the other place will be—or, at least, who the candidates are—and what expertise they will bring to bear.
This brings me back to the point with which I started, and the reason why this matter is important. A tax simplification committee is well and good if it simply tidies up anomalies. I do not mind that. However, I mind very much if the Committee extends itself and starts to change substantive law. I shall not be out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am never out of order if I can avoid it.
Order. I shall be the judge of that, and I have already ruled against the right hon. and learned Gentleman once on that point. I hope that he will not persist.
I shall be very cautious not to do so.
If there were a serious risk of the Committee acting in the manner I have described, one would have to address the question of its composition. If its membership were not genuinely independent, and its functions were as enlarged as I fear likely, substantive law could be changed at the dictates of the Government and their nominees. I suspect that that is what the House is being asked to agree to, and I am very much against this process.
I think the Ayes have it, the Ayes have it.
Question accordingly agreed to. Main Question put and agreed to.
That Mr. Joe Ashton, Mr. Kenneth Clarke, Mr. Edward Davey, Ms Ruth Kelly, Mr. Richard Ottaway, Mr. Chris Pond and Dawn Primarolo be members of the Select Committee appointed to join with a Committee of the Lords as the Joint Committee on Tax Simplification Bills.