Science and Technology Committee

– in the House of Commons at 9:32 pm on 31st January 2001.

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Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office 9:32 pm, 31st January 2001

I beg to move, That the Select Committee on Science and Technology shall have leave to meet concurrently with any committee of the Lords on science and technology or any sub-committee thereof, for the purpose of deliberating or taking evidence, and to communicate to any such committee its evidence or any other documents relating to matters of common interest. The motion proposes that the Commons Science and Technology Committee should have the power to meet with the Lords Science and Technology Committee. In general, Committees with analogues in the Lords, such as the European Scrutiny Committee, have powers to meet with their counterparts. All Lords Committees have powers to meet with Commons Committees. In its second report last Session, the Science and Technology Committee asked that it be given the power to meet with its Lords counterpart.

I know that the motion has the strong support of the Chairman and members of the Science and Technology Committee, and I am delighted that the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar) has joined us. I am pleased to move the motion to give the Committee the power that it desires.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst 9:33 pm, 31st January 2001

This interesting motion, which is not without its controversial elements, provides us with an opportunity to pause and consider the merits of the approach that is suggested. I confess to a feeling of unease at what I detect as a trend, which has emerged recently, and of which this is just the latest example, for joint meetings with Committees of the House of Lords.

I want modestly to praise the Minister for doing us the courtesy, as ever he does—I wish his colleagues would do the same—of coming to the House and giving us a succinct and rather elegant exposition of why he thinks the motion necessary. I have a number of questions that I want to ask him which relate directly to this seemingly innocuous motion and to the principle behind it, which is that of a joint approach. I also have a number of practical questions that are relevant at this stage.

Standing Order No. 152, which is the foundation of our Select Committee system, states: Select committees shall be appointed to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the principal government departments as set out in paragraph (2) of this order"— straightforward enough, one would have thought. That applies, of course, to the Commons Select Committees, one of which is the subject of the motion. Item 11 in the table that forms part of the Standing Order shows that the Office of Science and Technology is the relevant Government Department.

We know, therefore, that the Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology is tasked under Standing Order No. 152 with giving its attention to the Office of Science and Technology and with examining its expenditure, administration and policy. We are all familiar with that territory, so it should not give rise to any difficulty.

However, I am mystified by the form of words used in the motion. Recently, we have dealt with motions referring to Joint Committees of the Commons and the Lords. The motion does not use that form of words. It rather intriguingly uses a different form of words and states that the Select Committee on Science and Technology"— of the Commons, it is taken for granted— shall have leave to meet concurrently". I do not want to quibble excessively or be too pedantic. That is not in my nature, as the House knows, but I am intrigued as to why the motion is framed in that way. The word "concurrently" can imply a number of different things. It can imply meeting at the same time, or meeting in the same place, or both. I am not sure that the motion is sufficiently clear to give any guidance as to what it might mean. Perhaps the Minister can clarify that when he winds up the debate.

That is the immediate difficulty—the lack of clarity for which one would hope in such a motion. The motion goes on, even more confusingly, to state that our Select Committee will meet concurrently with any committee of the Lords on science and technology". I confess that I am not sufficiently familiar with the way in which the other place works to know whether—[Interruption.] I am educating myself.

Photo of Ashok Kumar Ashok Kumar Labour, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland

Perhaps I can help the right hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Ashok Kumar Ashok Kumar Labour, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He said that he does not want to quibble. That is precisely what he is doing. He is quibbling all the way. He indulges in his song-and-dance tradition of quibbling with everything, and reads into everything far more than is meant.

Perhaps I can help the right hon. Gentleman. The spirit of the motion—[Interruption.] I am trying to be helpful. The right hon. Gentleman is struggling, and I want to educate him. He could benefit from education.[Interruption.] As a member of the Select Committee, may I explain to the right hon. Gentleman that the spirit of the motion was that we would try to make progress in the way that we take evidence. Rather than duplicating effort and wasting the resources of both Houses—the right hon. Gentleman never stops lecturing us about wasting resources, so I am trying to be helpful to him—

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will be helpful to me. His intervention is too long.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar). I hope that he will feel free to intervene again and again. He anticipated one of the later points that I intended to make. If he is patient, and waits until a little later in the evening, I will come to the point that he was so helpfully trying to make. I am genuinely grateful to him. I was trying to probe the reasons for the form of words in the motion, which refers to working, concurrently with any committee of the Lords on science and technology or any sub-committee thereof'. The flexibility that that allows is over-generous. Although I appreciate the reasons for the motion's focus on our Select Committee on Science and Technology, which we all know, love and greatly respect, the motion's open remit for concurrent meetings, with any committee of the Lords on science and technology whatever that means; it could mean literally any Committee— or any sub-committee thereof", places us in potentially difficult territory about who decides with whom the concurrent meeting will be held.

To whom will we give the remit and for what purpose? We must be clearer about that. The motion continues helpfully, for the purpose of deliberating or taking evidence, and to communicate to any such committee"— the wording is again less clear than I should like. I now wonder to which Committee the phrase refers. I presume that it refers to our Select Committee communicating with "any such committee". But the Committees are already meeting concurrently. In that case, why should our Select Committee seek such communication? The motion includes several confusing elements. I fear that it has been drafted rather sloppily. Indeed, I may suggest later that the Parliamentary Secretary should withdraw it and redraft it to make it much clearer.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, if the two Committees—and potentially more—met at the same time, in the same place and took evidence before the public, the proceedings would be largely indecipherable to those attending?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I am glad that my hon. Friend made that point. Before I go deeper into the helpful points that the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East raised, I want to cover the more mundane considerations that arise from the motion, and to which my hon. Friend referred.

On previous occasions when we have discussed joint or concurrent Committees—and I deal with both in the same way for the purposes of tonight's debate—we have rightly concerned ourselves with who presides over the Committee, the role of advisers and support staff and the procedures—those of the Commons or of the Lords; they are not necessarily the same—that will be followed. The quorum is crucial in tonight's debate. I am anxious to reach motion 7 because I really want to have a go at it. I have tabled an amendment on the quorum, and you will tell us later, Mr. Speaker, whether you have been kind enough to select it. I have become increasingly alarmed of late that the quorum that is set, especially for Select Committees, is inadequate to maintain their credibility.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. The right hon. Gentleman knows that the motion does not affect the quorum.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Indeed, and I regret that. I am grateful to you for pointing that out, Mr. Speaker, but I wish that the motion covered the quorum. Perhaps I should table a wee amendment to it; I accept the blame for not doing so. However, I learn as I go along. It has taken me nearly four years, but I am getting there. I shall try to do better next time.

Let us consider the extent to which the concurrently meeting Committee will be able to commit the House or another place to travel. On whose budget will it draw? It may be assumed that such matters are easily subsumed in the word "concurrently", but one has only to consider the brief list of who presides, the procedures and the quorum—I shall not go into that—and the travel and the budgetary arrangements to perceive the difficulty into which we may fall by accepting the motion in its current ill defined, or undefined, form. None of those matters are, therefore, satisfactorily dealt with, and we need the Minister's guidance on them.

A more fundamental question was raised by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East in his intervention, for which I am grateful, and I shall characterise it in the following way simply to move the debate along. What added value shall we get from joint or concurrent meetings? The assumption seems to be growing, of late, that a joint or concurrent meeting is automatically better than separate meetings of the Committees of the two Houses. I want to challenge that.

I want to challenge the whole basis on which the motion is predicated, because it assumes that the Committees will produce better results by meeting concurrently. I am not sure that we have yet convinced ourselves of that. The two Houses of Parliament have traditionally different roles. The House of Commons has its elected accountability and its Members' responsibility to their constituents, and we are often told that the House of Lords is the repository of expertise that is often not available in this House. One could, therefore, argue that a fusion of those two elements would produce a better result. I am not sure that that would necessarily be the case. Whether it would be the case in the important, focused area of science and technology is another matter.

Photo of Ashok Kumar Ashok Kumar Labour, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that most of the members of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology are scientists, former scientists and engineers? They therefore complement the Members of the House of Lords in building up its progress on the issues.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

The hon. Gentleman was trying to be helpful, but he has alarmed me considerably. If we are now faced with the prospect, as apparently we are, of a number of self-appointed experts sitting together concurrently, I shall be really worried. I was about to concede the point that some gifted amateurs from this House, with their elected accountability, and some experts from the other House, with their expertise but no accountability, might have provided added value. Now the hon. Gentleman has worried me, because he tells me that all the members of the concurrent Committee will be experts. I wonder whether there is, therefore, a real risk of a conflict of expertise.

Photo of Ian Gibson Ian Gibson Labour, Norwich North

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Here is another one who is going to help me.

Photo of Ian Gibson Ian Gibson Labour, Norwich North

The right hon. Gentleman will remember the debate on stem cell research. He sat in the Chamber and listened to expertise from both sides of the House. He probably also read what was said in the House of Lords on that issue. He was, I am sure, persuaded by the technical expertise and scientific excellence of the arguments put forward on the Labour Benches in explaining the issues.

The right hon. Gentleman must understand that there are sincere people in the House of Commons who have some understanding of science. We recognise his expertise, although it fails me now to describe it. Labour Members must have persuaded Opposition Members that the arguments in the stem cell research debate were worth supporting. We can take science and technology forward to ensure that the United Kingdom is foremost in that area of endeavour.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

The hon. Gentleman's example is a relevant one. However, there is a problem. Of course, expertise has a role to play in many debates, although one wonders how many hon. Members—particularly on the Labour Benches—who participated in the debate on the Hunting Bill have ever been on a horse or chased a fox. I do not know the answer to that, just as I do not know how much expertise they were bringing to bear.

I shall pursue the hon. Gentleman's point. I query whether it would be of the greatest value that only people with expertise could legitimately participate in such a debate.

Photo of Ian Gibson Ian Gibson Labour, Norwich North

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I will give way in a moment.

Some of the contributions made during those debates arose from passion, conviction and a sense of moral values. Therefore, my point is that we must decide the relative role that we expect the Committee to play—first in terms of expertise and/or representation and, secondly, in terms of Commons and Lords.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way because there is a particular significance, which will certainly not have escaped you, Mr. Speaker, in the fact that the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) has intervened. Is my right hon. Friend aware that, as long ago as 28 November 1997, the hon. Gentleman made it clear that his judgments are based not in any way on scientific evidence but on his insatiable thirst for class struggle?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Well, I am of course grateful to my hon. Friend, but I do not know whether matters of class or struggle came into the hon. Gentleman's consideration of stem cell research.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

They came into his consideration of hunting.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

On this matter, I shall give the hon. Gentleman the benefit of the doubt.

I do not want to be diverted or deterred in any way from my central and focused purpose, which is to try to bring to the attention of the House the question whether joint or, as the motion says, concurrent, meetings of Committees of the Commons and the Lords would give better value to the taxpayer. That is an open question that has yet to be proven. What worries me is that, time and again, we plough on with the assumption that such an approach is better. The Minister said in his opening remarks, for which I am grateful, that the Chairman of the Committee is apparently very keen on such a development, but I look in vain for the Chairman of the Committee. I do not see him.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will accept that the Chairman sends his apologies. I know from personal discussions with him that he is extremely keen for the motion to be passed. I am sure that he will read the right hon. Gentleman's words with great interest.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Well, I am impressed—I really am—by the Minister saying that a Member of the House who is so keen on the motion sends his apologies.

Photo of Ian Gibson Ian Gibson Labour, Norwich North

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would be better for a Joint Committee to go to Porton Down tomorrow to consider issues of great purport to many people in this nation, and perhaps even some in his constituency, than for two Committees to undertake consideration independently?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

No, I do not accept that. The hon. Gentleman is making the same assertion—I shall not call it a mistake. He is simply saying, as a matter of fact, that surely it is better for two Committees to travel together and consider the same issues together. I do not necessarily agree with that proposition. That is the point that I am trying to make, although it is obvious that I shall have to labour it further to impress him and his colleagues.

I put a proposition to the hon. Gentleman and to the House: the two Committees, rather than travelling together, could sit separately and under different chairmanship, use different staffs, consider the same proposition from different perspectives and reach more valid conclusions in their different ways. If that were not the case, it would be logical to merge all the Committees of the two Houses to achieve the improvement or added value that has been suggested.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

The right hon. Gentleman believes in this place passionately, but does he recall that, only a matter of days ago, the House passed by 486 votes to three a motion to establish with the Lords a Joint Committee on Human Rights? I presume that he was among the three. Against such a background, does not he think that he is a little out of touch?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Well, no. The 400 were out of touch with me. I try to be consistent in these matters and I recall that I was indeed one of the three. On human rights, I argued on a similar basis and for similar reasons that I doubted the validity of the approach, as I do in this case. It occurs to me, as it did in connection with human rights—perhaps, if anything, even more than in connection with this—that the perspective that might be brought to this matter from another place could, legitimately, be very different from the perspective from which it might be viewed here, and that therefore the two Committees might reach differing conclusions.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

There is, of course, a strong argument for suggesting that the Select Committee on Science and Technology should be part and parcel of the Trade and Industry Committee, given that the DTI is the Department in which the Committee should interest itself. Is it not significant that tomorrow there will be a debate on a Trade and Industry Committee report on space policy? Many would assume that that was a science and technology matter.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I do not want to become involved in a discussion of that kind at this stage, because I suspect that, in a sense, the question is settled by our Standing Orders, to which I referred at the beginning of my remarks. However, what my hon. Friend has said is relevant in one respect.

Let us examine the wording of the part of the motion that deals with—if I can put it like this without sounding disrespectful—the Lords end of things. It is proposed that meetings should take place concurrently with any committee of the Lords on science and technology or any sub-committee thereof'. In that context, my hon. Friend's point is highly relevant. Although we can be clear in our own minds about the role played at this end of the building by our Committee, governed by our Standing Orders, real doubts must arise about exactly which other Committee will "meet concurrently" with our Committee, and under what auspices and what chairmanship it will meet.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Is it not intellectually unsatisfactory, to put it mildly, for the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) to cite a much earlier vote in support of the passage of motion 6? Does my right hon. Friend agree that Conservative Members, at least, subscribe to Johnson's view that right rather than fashion should prevail?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Of course I subscribe to that view; and, much as I normally admire precedent, which I think has an important role to play in our affairs, the reference by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston simply to a vote on what on the face of it seemed to be a similar matter is not in itself conclusive.[Interruption.]

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston says, from a sedentary position—I do not often report such remarks, but in this case I think it rather helpful—that it was the will of the House. Yes, on that occasion it was: as he has reminded us, 400 Members voted the wrong way and three of us voted the right way. But that concerned an entirely different matter, namely a Joint Committee on Human Rights. That, in all conscience, can hardly be seen in the same light as a very much more focused Committee on science and technology. I am sure the hon. Gentleman's colleagues would agree that such a Committee must necessarily take a very different view of things, and must have a different methodology, different procedures and different expertise.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Labour, Erewash

I should be interested to know whether the right hon. Gentleman sought the opinions of any Conservative members of the Science and Technology Committee before speaking tonight.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I am grateful for that question. I hoped that members of the Committee would take the trouble to be present.

Photo of Ian Gibson Ian Gibson Labour, Norwich North

Where is the Chairman?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Will the hon. Gentleman contain himself for a moment?

The hon. Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman) made a perfectly reasonable point. I should have been happier if, following the Minister's courteous opening remarks, Conservative Committee members had been present to show their support for the motion, and to explain why they considered it to be of value. In their absence, I must speculate, and I find myself in a difficult position. I agree that this is unfortunate, and to that extent I agree with the hon. Lady. She said, quite reasonably, that the debate would have been helped by positive contributions—in addition to those of the Minister—explaining much more fully why the proposal was a good idea. If that had happened I might not have had to speak at all, which, as you know, Mr. Speaker, would have helped things along quite a bit. In the absence of any Conservative Committee member being prepared to make a contribution to the debate, all we can do is to speculate, despite the fact that the Minister did his best to give a brief outline of why the motion was to be supported.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Labour, Erewash

We have very little time, but given the fact—

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed tomorrow.