Select Committees

Oral Answers to Questions — President of the Council – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 30th January 2001.

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Photo of John Healey John Healey Labour, Wentworth 12:00 am, 30th January 2001

What representations she has received following the publication of the Government's response to the first report of the Liaison Committee, Session 1999–2000, HC 300, on Shifting the Balance: Select Committees and the Executive. [146223]

Photo of John Healey John Healey Labour, Wentworth

I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. The Liaison Committee's report is certainly a mixed bag. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the half hour that the report recommends be used for a debate after questions each week is too short for a decent debate, and that such a debate is the wrong format for holding Ministers to account more effectively? Will she acknowledge the case for devoting more time on the Floor of the House to major reports? Will she consider a slot for tabled oral questions, which could give priority to members of Committees, but would also allow the whole House to exercise its scrutiny function?

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office)

My hon. Friend makes an interesting proposal. He will know that the Government were unattracted by the suggestion that there should be a special half hour for those debates, and he makes a different point that the time would be too short and the format wrong. I wholeheartedly share the view that it is important that we scrutinise and discuss more Select Committee reports. He will know that successive Governments have always found it difficult to find more time to do so on the Floor of the House, by whatever means.

I know that my hon. Friend, and I hope the whole House, will be pleased to learn that whereas in the whole of the previous Parliament we debated only about 50 of the nearly 600 Select Committee reports produced, in the previous Session we discussed 22. That is a good way not only to hold the Government to account but to reflect the worth of Select Committees' work.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire

Will the right hon. Lady give the House the opportunity to vote on the proposals before the end of the Parliament?

Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody Labour, Crewe and Nantwich

Is it not precisely because previous Governments have always run away from the problems of Select Committees that it would be in the Government's interests to set a new and good example to parliamentarians everywhere by accepting that Select Committees' work is best not only debated but questioned? The response of Ministers, which at the moment is given in written form, would not only enliven but assist the House if it were debated for half an hour as suggested by the Liaison Committee.

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office)

As my hon. Friend knows, I think that the idea is perfectly legitimate and worthy of discussion. Indeed, it has been discussed. She invites us to set a new and good example, and I believe that we have done so by providing far greater opportunities to debate Select Committee reports. However, the Government are not of the view that it would assist the House, irrespective of any impact in Government, for Ministers to be invited or pressed to give an off-the-cuff response, which is in effect what we are talking about, to what may be weighty Select Committee reports. There is genuine creative tension on that point. Surely, the more serious and the more in-depth the work of Select Committees, the more Select Committees want the Government to consider their work fully and give an in-depth response, rather than reacting in the relatively short term.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate

The right hon. Lady will recall that the Prime Minister gave an undertaking that there would be a free vote on the Liaison Committee's report, and she has just told my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) that there will be no occasion to have that vote. Is not that a demonstration of the way in which this Executive treat the legislature and of how the right hon. Lady has betrayed her position as Leader of the House?

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office)

No, it is a demonstration of how difficult the Opposition find it to pay attention to what is said. When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was asked whether there would be a vote on the matter and whether it would be a free vote, he correctly said yes, because it is a House matter and House matters always have a free vote.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

May I invite my right hon. Friend to read column 1100 of the Hansard of 13 July 2000, where the Prime Minister explicitly gave the undertaking that there would be a free vote?

Secondly, will my right hon. Friend bear it in mind that, in 1992 and 1997, the Select Committees were constituted almost in the last week before the summer recess, and they were not operational until the October? One reason why the House wants to have a free vote on the matter, which is our property, is that the Select Committees can be set up and operational soon after the general election, and not six months later, with Government unscrutinised in the meantime.

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office)

I am entirely familiar with the Hansard reference that my hon. Friend quotes. I am familiar also with what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said because I was sitting two places away from him at the time. I understand my hon. Friend's concern about delays in appointments. I hope that he will appreciate that, whatever may have been the position in 1992, in 1997 there was a substantial change in the membership of the House. He will know that, at least in the Labour party, Members were invited to indicate on which Select Committees they would prefer to serve, and an attempt was made to meet as many of those requests as possible. That process takes time. I hope that he will acknowledge that the Government proceeded as expeditiously as we reasonably could in perhaps somewhat exceptional circumstances.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Paragraph 28 of the Government's response to the Liaison Committee's report, which recommends a debate on a substantive motion, says: The Government also see little advantage in debates on a substantive motion since this would be likely to lead to more pressure on members to take a party political stance not less. This is unlikely to be conducive to a respect for the independence Committees rightly value. Moreover, the more substantial reports often contain a complex set of comments and proposals. It is hard to see how a considered decision could be made purely on the outcome of a substantive motion. Why, then, are the Modernisation Committee's proposals put to a substantive motion in, for example, introducing deferred votes to our Standing Orders? Could it be that, unlike other Select Committees that are chaired by Back-Bench Members, the Modernisation Committee is chaired by the right hon. Lady and is really a tool of government to force on the House changes in our Standing Orders?

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office)

As I am sure the hon. Lady is aware, because she has raised the issue before, the decision to set up a Select Committee on Modernisation and to have it chaired by the Leader of the House was a manifesto pledge made on behalf of the Labour party.

The hon. Lady makes a rather separate point, as was made in the Liaison Committee's report, about the suggestion that there should be substantive motions on Select Committee reports in general. She is correct to say that the Government expressed reservations about that for exactly the reason that she quotes, namely that it would be much more likely to introduce a decision to have whipped votes than to leave the House to deal freely with Select Committee reports.

If I recall correctly—I am sure that if I am wrong, someone will correct me—it was for precisely that reason that the previous Government abandoned the notion of private Members' motions. It had become an issue where there was whipping on both sides of the House, and it was thought to be counter-productive.