Before I call the Leader of the House to move motion 2, it may be helpful to say how I propose to proceed.
Yesterday, the House agreed to a business motion which requires me to put the questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on motions 2 to 12 not later than four hours after the start of the debate on motion 2. I propose that motions 2 to 12, and any amendments to them that have been selected, be debated together. At the end of four hours, I will put the questions necessary to dispose of motion 2. I will then call Members to move formally motions 3 to 12 and any amendments selected to them that Members wish to move. The House will have an opportunity, if it so wishes, to vote on each motion and amendment. A list showing my selection of amendments has been placed in the No Lobby and in the Vote Office. After all proceedings on motions 2 to 12 have been completed, we will move to the debate on motion 13 on the code of conduct.
I beg to move,
That this House
approves the First Report of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons relating to Select Committees, House of Commons Paper No 224-I, and in particular welcomes its commitment to more specialist and support staff for select committees;
is of the view that the package as a whole will strengthen the scrutiny role of the House;
and invites the Liaison Committee to establish common objectives for select committees, taking into account the illustrative model set out in paragraph 34 of that report, namely to consider major policy initiatives to consider the Government's response to major emerging issues to propose changes where evidence persuades the Committee that present policy requires amendment to conduct pre-legislative scrutiny of draft bills to examine and report on main Estimates, annual expenditure plans and annual resource accounts to monitor performance against targets in the public service agreements to take evidence from each Minister at least annually to take evidence from independent regulators and inspectorates to consider the reports of Executive Agencies to consider, and if appropriate report on, major appointments by a Secretary of State or other senior Ministers to examine treaties within their subject areas.
The origin of this debate goes back to July last year when the House rebelled over the names put to it for appointment to Select Committees. There was feeling among a majority of the House that an injustice had been done to my hon. Friend Mrs. Dunwoody and my right hon. Friend Donald Anderson, who had been left off Select Committees that they had chaired until the general election. I remember that debate vividly. It was one of the more interesting afternoons that I have spent in the House, as it fell to me to propose the motions and to listen to Members' comments on them.
During the debate, there was much criticism of the Committee of Selection, which put a list before the House without questioning it. Rightly or wrongly, it was held partly responsible for the difficulty in which the House then found itself. I promised during the debate that the procedures for how we nominate Select Committees would be one of the first matters that the new Modernisation Committee would consider. Today's debate on the first report of the Modernisation Committee fulfils the commitment that I gave the House last July.
My first point is to invite those who were unhappy with the position in which the House found itself to recall how they felt on that occasion. They should remember that they owe it to themselves to support the recommendation that is before us so as to prevent the House from ever again finding itself in that position.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for giving way so early in his speech, but will he confirm that, even if many Members were unhappy then and look for a solution now, the proposals before us need not be the only or the right solution? The Modernisation Committee has done its work and the Leader of the House has come here with the result of its deliberation, but it is not a question of take it or leave it. If the House felt that the solution was not a proper one to the problem, it would be entitled to say no at this stage and to ask the Committee to do more work.
The right hon. Gentleman is perfectly correct. The House is always entitled to say no, and can say no in four hours from now when a vote is taken. However, this is not a new matter. We have been mulling it over for three or four years and it goes back to reports of the Liaison Committee in the past Parliament. Close on a year's study of the matter by the Modernisation Committee is before us, and there have been many ups and downs in trying to find the formula that is before us today. I have to say in all honesty and candour that, although the House is perfectly entitled to say no, I do not imagine that it will be feasible for the Modernisation Committee to come up with a better balance or one that is likely to command a greater consensus.
My second point in support of the proposal is to stress that the recommendation will improve and certainly amend the process by which the House receives nominations for Select Committees. It does not and cannot interfere with the process by which each party selects its members for those nomination lists. The measure replaces the role of the Committee of Selection in putting nominations before the House but it does not replace the initiative of political parties in resolving who should represent them on those lists.
I confess to my right hon. Friend that I have serious doubts about his proposals because I do not understand on what basis the proposed Committee of Nomination will put aside the recommendations of a party making its list. If it will not put that recommendation aside, what is the point of giving it the right to do so?
My hon. Friend makes a point that goes to the heart of the debate that we had last July when the Committee of Selection was criticised precisely because it did not put aside two of the proposals to the House. The Committee of Nomination will not be a court of first instance and it will not have the initiative to decide who should be on the lists, but it will be a court of appeal and be there to ensure that fair play is observed in each of the parties. It would be able to intervene if, as was the case last July, there was a sense that, in two of the names on the list, there had been an absence of fair play.
I am interested in what the Leader of the House has just said. Surely there is a court of appeal now—it is the House of Commons. Although the Government faced problems last year and although my hon. Friend Mr. Winterton was once removed from a Select Committee, there have been only three occasions in the past 20 years when the system has perhaps been found lacking. Therefore, why do we have proposals for such widespread change?
Three occasions make an argument for change. Unfortunately, one of those occasions was only last year and that is why I undertook in the debate that we would re-examine the matter. If I had failed to carry out that undertaking to the House, the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues would have been among the first to criticise me for failing to do so.
I would say to the colleagues who have intervened that I am confident that any list submitted by the Labour party would stand up to robust scrutiny in the light of our new democratic process. We have changed our procedures since last July. We have made the process more democratic and put it in the hands of Labour Back Benchers. I welcome that reform. Indeed, I served on the review committee that drafted that reform. So the choice of Labour representatives now rests with Labour Members.
The choice of Conservative representatives lies with Conservative Members—or some of them at any rate. I regret to say that the Conservative party has not taken the same steps as we have taken to make the process democratic. That is not a matter of responsibility for me; I cannot remedy that by changing the rules of the House, but I can ensure that those rules provide for the fair processing of the names and for fair play in their preparation.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that the Committee of Selection became totally discredited because, as with the previous Government and at the beginning of this Parliament, it simply approved, almost without discussion, the political party nominations? If the Committee of Nomination, which is being recommended, were to do the same, it would also be discredited. It is absolutely essential that the party Whips or the party management—hon. Members can call them what they like—on both sides of the House do not decide who will serve on the Select Committees; otherwise we will have the row that has led to the present position.
I have a lot of sympathy with that point. My hon. Friend identified the nub of the matter, which is that Committees of Parliament, appointed by Parliament to scrutinise the Executive, should be free from party influence, particularly the party representing the Executive. The decision should be taken by Parliament, and it should be ultimately in the hands of Parliament and those whom it trusts to take an impartial decision. That is why we welcome the agreement of the Chairman of Ways and Means to act as the convener of the Committee of Nomination.
My hon. Friend knows that the parliamentary Labour party has changed its position on this matter. He has lauded its democratic structures and the fact that it is in the hands of Back Benchers. In exceptional circumstances, could the Committee of Nomination overturn nominations from the PLP, or indeed those from the Conservative party or the Liberal Democrat party? I should like that aspect to be clarified.
I am happy to confirm the fact that, of course, the Committee of Nomination, as the body responsible for putting the nominations on the Order Paper, will have the right to query the nominations of any party in the House. Indeed, we stated in our report that if it were unhappy with any list of nominations—for example, if it found itself in the position that the House found itself in last July—it would, in the first instance, refer back that list for the party to think again. I would imagine that, in those circumstances, almost every party in the House would indeed think again.
I am personally very confident that now that we in the Labour party have a more open, transparent and democratic system its nominations will survive scrutiny by any fair-minded and impartial Committee.
I wish to make the same point. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what gives him such confidence that seven individuals will provide a fairer and more democratic system than the rules agreed by the PLP or the committee of appeal that the House currently affords us?
I have to tell my hon. Friend that I am not suggesting for a minute that the Committee of Nomination would supplant the PLP process. The PLP process is a very important basis on which to decide who the Labour party wants to occupy the Labour places on the nomination list. The role of the Committee of Nomination will be to transfer those lists into nominations to put before the House and, in doing so and considering nominations from any party, including the Conservative party, to ensure that there is fair play. We can safely say, with hand on heart, that fair play was done.
At the risk of alienating the Leader of the House even more from his Back Benchers by giving him some support, may I say that the difference between the previous system and what he proposes is that the Whips controlled the party lists and then the Whips approved the lists in the Committee of Selection? He proposes a far more open and accountable process for the House and all its Members. It is time to blow away the cobwebs that cause confusion and hide the processes of the House from the public.
The hon. Gentleman provides a fair and accurate précis of the basis of many of the speeches to which I listened last July when the House was unhappy with the proposals before it. That is why we proposed the remedy offered on this occasion. I recall some of my hon. Friends sharing the criticism that the hon. Gentleman has just made.
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I have been generous in giving way, and I owe it to the House to treat it to a speech, not just a series of answers.
I was grateful to the Chairman of Ways and Means for having agreed to act as convener of the Committee of Nomination. In our report, we identified as the criteria for the Committee of Nomination that its members should have
"a proven ability to perform with impartiality and a broad knowledge of the strengths and special interests of back-benchers."
No one will better fulfil those criteria than the team of Chairs whom we elect to oversee our proceedings. [Interruption.] I remind my hon. Friends that we elect all of them. One of the advantages of having the Chairman of Ways and Means to convene the Committee is that, if we want to move quickly, he is one of the few people in office immediately after a general election. The Chairman of Ways and Means would therefore bring to the role of convening the Committee of Nomination the authority of having been freshly elected with the confidence of the House.
It is, of course, important that the Chairman of Ways and Means should be kept free of party influence, and should also be kept free from great controversy, which I hope will be of reassurance to those who are apprehensive that the Committee of Nomination might meddle too much. The Committee of Nomination will not needlessly seek controversy, and will not needlessly interfere with the list submitted to it unless it feels that there are compelling grounds of an absence of fair play. It is best considered as a court of appeal, representative of Parliament not of party. In many ways, it would provide a forum for Members who felt that there had not been fair play, so that the matter could be rectified prior to it coming before the House.
It is perfectly true—[Interruption.] I am unable to participate in the discussion taking place among my hon. Friends, but it is perfectly true that the Standing Orders provide that the Committee of Selection could vary a nomination coming before the House. In practice, as the House heard when this was debated last July, the Chairman of the Committee of Selection made it perfectly clear that he would regard it as improper to vary the list submitted by party Whips. That is precisely what prompted the search for a body that would be impartial and would not meddle or interfere unduly, but which would apply judgment when considering whether there had been fair play in the preparation of those lists.
My hon. Friend spoke at length at the start of our debate last July. His speech influenced the view that emerged about the need for another process to handle the matter. My hon. Friend was vigorous, robust and frank, on all of which he is to be congratulated, in making plain that he did not regard it as the job of the Committee of Selection to change the party lists that were submitted to it.
I have given way to the hon. Gentleman once already, and I have given way several times during my speech. If I may, I shall make progress.
The Liaison Committee has endorsed the proposal that I am putting before the House. It says that it is a sensible new mechanism that is worth trying, and I agree with that. It appears, however, that in seeking to provide a Committee of Nomination to remove the controversy from nomination of Select Committees, I have not removed the controversy from the nomination of the Committee of Nomination. I understand the force of view of those who argue that the formula appears to reward gravity rather than to encourage freshness. [Interruption.] I am not sure on which side Mr. Forth places himself, but I am grateful for his concurrence.
My initial proposal to the Modernisation Committee was that, as Leader of the House, I should nominate its members. The Committee decided that I was a suspect partisan source for a Committee that is not meant to be partisan, and I bow to its collective wisdom—hence the formula before the House which removes the basis of nomination to the Committee of Nomination from any party political influence.
I recognise, however, that many of the newer Members think that the balance in the formula possibly rewards too heavily those who were here before them, so I propose to accept the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Lloyd, which has the effect of re-balancing the membership of the Committee of Nomination and appointing to it two Members from each side—four in total—who were elected in the preceding Parliament. That would allow one third of the Committee of Nomination to be Members who were elected in 1997.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reinforcing the strength of my hon. Friend's amendment to have four Members from the 1997 intake on the Committee of Nomination. I welcome the opportunity to make common ground with the hon. Gentleman on that narrow point.
My hon. Friend Mr. Bryant has tabled sub-amendment (h) to amendment (d), tabled by our hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central. It would insert the word "current" before "previous Parliament", thus allowing the four new Members to be drawn from the current election to Parliament in 2001, not just from those elected to the previous Parliament in 1997.
At this moment in Parliament, one year on from the last general election, the amendment is perfectly sensible. I only remind my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda that in future Parliaments, the Committee of Nomination will be one of the first Committees to be set up, one hopes within two weeks of polling day. Whether in practice in those circumstances any party would choose as its representative a Member who had only just been elected is a matter of judgment.
I am not aware that Alastair Campbell is seeking a nomination to this place. I am sure if he does arrive here, we will all await his interventions with great anticipation. I have not the slightest doubt that the House will be full to hear his first one. However, I doubt that his first ambition would be to be appointed to the Committee of Nomination.
There are many rumours about the press man at No. 10 wanting to take my place when I leave the House. He assures me that there is absolutely no truth in them, which he has made clear more than once. I am sure that he is correct in that.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that clarification. I am, of course, open to take interventions from any other hon. Member who wishes to give a similar assurance about their constituency.
As the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda is permissive and leaves the choice open to the political parties concerned, I will be content, if my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central is minded, to accept his hon. Friend's amendment to his amendment, which I, in turn, accept—I hope that the House is still with me. If we do accept both amendments, we will write into Standing Orders for the first time specific recognition of the right of new Members to be represented. That is another step forward for modernisation and sets a precedent that I hope the newer Members will support in the Division Lobby this evening.
The Modernisation Committee took the opportunity of its review of the nomination process to go much wider and review the present state of Select Committees and how they might be improved. The result before the House today is the most comprehensive package to strengthen the Select Committee system in the 20 years since it was set up. It offers a number of gains that Select Committees have been seeking for some years, the first of which is more resources to assist them in their work.
More specialised staff will be available to support all members of Select Committees, and there will be more administrative staff to help the Chairmen with their burden. There will be more professional help to assist with the design and layout of Select Committee reports. We want to harness the most modern technology and the most attractive design so that we can get across to the public the views of Select Committees. We have made some progress in recent months. I am pleased to tell the House that since January we have removed all Roman numerals from Committee reports. Significant though those steps are, there is a long way to go, which is why we propose that we should have available to us the best professional help in designing the reports.
In return for those additional resources, we are looking for greater focus and discipline in the way in which Select Committees approach their role. That is why we have suggested an illustrative model of the core tasks of Select Committees. I stress that it is illustrative. We are inviting the Liaison Committee to consider the model that we have proposed, to refine it further if it wishes and to make whatever changes it thinks appropriate in the light of its greater knowledge of the working of Select Committees. However, one has to start somewhere, and it is good that the Modernisation Committee has put on the table what we believe should be the core tasks and duties of Select Committees.
As the Leader of the House has in the past two or three minutes removed the possibility of at least two votes, perhaps I can help by removing the possibility of a third. My concern was that the list was very prescriptive and all those tasks would be mandatory on the Committees. Given the number of weeks in the year in which we meet, even with Sub-Committees that list would constitute an intolerable burden that would be undeliverable and exclude the possibility of doing a little free thinking, which is one of the tasks of the Committees. If the Leader will make it clear that those are suggestions of the sort of agenda that the Liaison Committee would want to look at, and that they are not intended to bind it, I will be more than content to withdraw my amendment when the time comes.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his offer. Of course we would welcome the views of the Liaison Committee, which cannot be bound by the Modernisation Committee; indeed, we do not seek to bind it in the motion before the House, which leaves it to the discretion of the Liaison Committee how it proceeds with the list.
I believe, however, that there is a lot of common ground between the two Committees. For instance. I welcome the strong passage on financial scrutiny in the Liaison Committee's response to the report. Indeed, I thought that the Committee was possibly erring on the side of being rather stern with Select Committees when it described their performance of financial scrutiny as relatively patchy and being the fault of the Committees. That is a touch harsh. Financial scrutiny is necessarily a challenging and technical task.
What might help Select Committees with that is our recommendation, before the House today, that we take up the offer of the National Audit Office to second staff to the new unit of special advisers which we are proposing. That will make it more practical for Select Committees to carry out financial scrutiny as we suggest in our core tasks, and it may make that scrutiny more penetrating.
Following his response to Mr. Curry, will my right hon. Friend be a little more specific? The concern of many Select Committee Chairmen is that the flexibility of Committees is very important. My Committee, the Education and Skills Committee, recently was pleased to hold an inquiry into individual learning accounts. The prescriptive bullet points before the House do not include such inquiries. There is only so much time to do the work of the Committee, and it is important to be flexible, and not to be in a straitjacket.
I wish to be helpful to my hon. Friend. If he looks again at the list of proposed duties, he will see that his important inquiry into individual learning accounts comes squarely into the second category—considering the Government's response to major emerging issues. We appoint Select Committees for a Parliament so it should be possible for all of them to touch on each of the duties that I have outlined.
I welcome my right hon. Friend's common objectives for Select Committees, but I agree with several of my colleagues on the Liaison Committee that, to date, the examination of reports on main estimates, annual expenditure plans and annual resource accounts has not been our top priority. To effect change, we need much more support. My right hon. Friend mentioned the National Audit Office. What discussions has he had with Sir John Bourn and others, and what will the central support unit consist of, as it will have an onerous, but welcome, task, if undertaken properly with adequate resources?
I welcome what my hon. Friend said. The Modernisation Committee and the Liaison Committee share common ground in their belief that we have not achieved rigour or consistency in financial scrutiny, which should be at the heart of Select Committees' work.
On the question of resources, my hon. Friend will be aware that the Comptroller and Auditor General has said that he is willing to second staff to assist Select Committees—and not just the Public Accounts Committee—with the work of financial scrutiny. I cannot think of a better source of expertise to support Select Committees, which could use NAO contacts to access the NAO's entire network. I hope that we can turn that offer into reality in the next year.
I should like to refer to one more proposed duty for Select Committees. The House will be aware that, over a period of years, I hope that the publication of Bills in draft will become the norm, rather than the exception. If Parliament wants a real influence on the shape of public Bills, it has to get in on the act much earlier than Second Reading, when party positions are already set in stone, so it needs to see Bills in draft. The report explains that pre-legislative scrutiny of draft Bills should normally be the job of the appropriate Select Committee.
Is not another danger of those illustrative examples the fact that the agenda will be set by the Executive, not the legislature? The legislation to be examined in advance is Government legislation; public appointments to be examined are by definition appointments made by the Government; the examination of Green Papers is, again, an Executive initiative. If, with the limited time available, a Committee followed slavishly the tick list of examples, there would be little time left for initiatives by the legislature itself.
I refer my right hon. Friend to the list in today's Order Paper, the third objective of which is
"to propose changes where evidence persuades the Committee that present policy requires amendment".
That is not dependent on the Government or Executive taking the initiative; it leaves it entirely open to the Select Committee to decide when policy needs to be changed. That said, it is difficult to get away from the fact that if Select Committees are the main instrument for scrutinising the Government, they will have to spend some of their time scrutinising what the Government propose to do. In the last Parliament, my right hon. Friend's Committee did a good job in its pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill setting up the International Criminal Court, for which I was grateful; it helped us to get the Bill through the House more quickly than we otherwise would have done. Pre-legislative scrutiny will be of benefit to both the House and the Government in making sure that when Bills come before Parliament, they are better thought-out and their rough edges have been rounded off.
My right hon. Friend will know that the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which I chair, has in the past 18 months undertaken to examine all legislation, as published on Second Reading, for compliance with various human rights instruments. It is difficult to do that under current parliamentary procedure, given restraints both on time and the opportunity for right hon. and hon. Members to absorb the lessons of pre-legislative scrutiny.
More time would allow the Government to reflect at greater length on the outcome of the pre-legislative scrutiny and make for better legislation all round.
I am very much aware of the challenges to the Select Committee that my hon. Friend chairs. She and I have discussed the issue before, and we have sought to be helpful to the Committee. I entirely endorse her point. The more we produce Bills in draft, the more it will be possible for all the various investigative and scrutiny Committees to make their contribution, including the Joint Committee on Human Rights.
It must be right that the people who perform that pre-legislative scrutiny of a draft Bill are the Members with the specialist interest and knowledge whom we find on the Select Committees. That is why we propose in the first instance—not always, but in the first instance—that pre-legislative scrutiny should be a duty on the Select Committees.
Taken together, the package will strengthen the Select Committee system. It has been warmly welcomed by the Liaison Committee. Indeed, in its press release about the paper from the Modernisation Committee, the Liaison Committee described it as "excellent"—a view that, I hope, will last at least as long as the debate this afternoon.
There was one issue to which—I must be frank with the House—nearly all members of the Liaison Committee objected violently: our proposal that the size of Select Committees be increased to 15. The proposal was born of the problems of last July, when we discovered that far more hon. Members wanted to get on to a departmental Select Committee than there were places for them. Even now, 186 Beck Benchers are not on any investigative Select Committee. Our proposal to increase the membership of departmental Select Committees to 15 would have provided an additional 50 places for those hon. Members.
At my meeting last week with the Liaison Committee, I was exposed to strong arguments to the contrary. In particular, the Chairs of the Select Committees expressed their worry about the danger of a loss of cohesion if the Select Committees became larger, and the problem of making sure that there was consensus among a greater number. I was struck by the force of the point from the Chair of the Select Committee on Public Administration, who told me that his recent report on House of Lords reform would not have been unanimous in a larger Select Committee.
Given that discussion and those views, I have reached a compromise with the Liaison Committee that is expressed in the motions before the House, in which the decision to increase the size of a Select Committee will be in the hands of each Select Committee. If the Committee decides to increase its size, it is free to do so up to 15, but it is not under any compulsion to do so. I hope that that sensible, permissive compromise will command general agreement in the House.
Conversely, I proposed a reduction in the size of the Liaison Committee. In the Committee's response, I found that, unfortunately, that proposal was almost as unwelcome as my proposal to increase the size of other Select Committees. I am therefore not proceeding with it tonight, but many on the Liaison Committee recognise that there is a problem with the size of the Select Committee, and that the problem is likely to be aggravated if it proceeds to hold public hearings, especially if those public hearings are as high profile as with the Prime Minister.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda has tabled another amendment that addresses the issue. I regret to say that on this occasion I cannot help my hon. Friend by commending it to the House. Its narrow effect would be, for instance, to leave out of the Liaison Committee the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, which I do not think would be right. However, I agree with my hon. Friend that there is a problem, and I very much hope that the Liaison Committee will be willing to consider it and propose a solution.
I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman has found the argument that would most commend itself to hon. Members on the Benches behind me. As he is aware, I understand that the parties to which he refers did not receive the best allocation of places last time round, when they were represented in the discussions by the Liberal Democrat party. As he knows, we have addressed that issue and those parties are no longer represented by the Liberal Democrat party; indeed, many hon. Members in other parts of the House would wish to commend them on their freedom from the Liberal Democrats. Over time, we shall see what remedy there may be, but I do not think that the House is likely to vote for an increase to 15 members simply because of the position of those who represent—if I may be frank—4 per cent. of the total membership of the House.
On the size of the Liaison Committee, while I accept the point that my right hon. Friend makes about the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Bryant and I, does he recall that I raised the matter in business questions last week? Does he agree that when the Prime Minister appears before the Liaison Committee, the House will be as much under the spotlight as the Prime Minister is? If the Committee has 34 members, including those from the domestic Committees, the House will not be seen in the modern light in which we would like it to be shown.
I agree that there is an issue that must be addressed. I am happy to say that when I spoke to the Liaison Committee last week, it volunteered the fact that it will be as much under examination as the Prime Minister when he appears before it. I hope that the Committee will listen in the intervening period to the views expressed in this debate and consider what consensual solution it might offer.
Will the Leader of the House indicate to the Liaison Committee that a degree of self-interest seems apparent on that issue? Is it not somewhat ironic that a Committee of 34 members thinks that it is impossible for other Committees to come to a sensible conclusion with only 15 members, while its own membership of 34, which is already in place, is apparently entirely logical?
The hon. Gentleman makes an entirely fair point with great force and eloquence. As I am seeking hard to build the maximum possible consensus, he will forgive me if I do not endorse what he suggests on this occasion, but the whole House will have heard it.
I speak in the spirit of good will that emanates from my right hon. Friend and in recognition of the fact that I am the poor man who will have to chair a Committee of 34 members trying to carry out an investigation. The Liaison Committee indicated in response to the Modernisation Committee that it did not see any point in removing representation of the domestic Committees because such a change would reduce its membership by only six and because we are not an interrogatory Committee. It is only in the past three weeks that we have taken on an interrogatory role like that of other Committees. Therefore, our judgment was made in one context, but we are being criticised in another.
My right hon. Friend's statement is very encouraging. I recall that when I appeared before the Liaison Committee last week, it was repeatedly put to me that the problem about Committees with 15 members was that not everyone would be able to put a question to the witness. I think that that argument must apply with even greater force to a Committee of 34 members. He and his colleagues would be wise to address that point as a matter of urgency.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that I was not unsupportive of him in the Liaison Committee last week? If the Select Committees are to undertake their core tasks, all of which are very valuable—I refer not least to proper scrutiny of estimates and expenditure—I am concerned that it may be necessary for Committees to increase their membership from 11 to 15. They may have to do so if they are to undertake their essential tasks of scrutinising legislation and holding the Government of the day to account.
The hon. Gentleman deserves a mention in dispatches as the only member of the Liaison Committee who supported me on the increase in size, but regrettably he and I together do not a consensus make.
I remind hon. Members that the motion—I hope that it will be accepted, because it was a compromise with the Liaison Committee—provides for Select Committees to increase their size. Come the next Parliament, we will of course be required to establish them with a minimum membership of 11 so that they can first take the decision on whether they wish to increase their size. In the circumstances of a fresh general election, a new Parliament and many Members disappointed at not having been appointed to a departmental Select Committee, Committees will find that they are under pressure to contemplate some increase in size, even if not up to 15.
I wish to refer to one last point from the report before I conclude. We have given the House the opportunity to reach a decision on whether the Chairs of Select Committees should be paid. We made no recommendation to the House on that—indeed, the Modernisation Committee was split on the issue—but we agreed unanimously that it was right that the matter should be put to the House to enable hon. Members to reach a conclusion. That is why there are two alternative motions. The only point of argument that I would make is that if the House were to vote for salaries for Chairs of Select Committees, that would give extra force to motion 7, which provides that no Chair should remain in office for more than two Parliaments.
For those of us who believe that the matter should be looked at in a wider context—sadly, amendments in my name that would have reflected that were not selected—it would be helpful if the Leader of the House could indicate whether, if the House were to approve the motion on Select Committee Chairmen and additional pay, his Committee would be prepared urgently to consider the wider issue of whether additional pay might be appropriate for other Members with additional responsibilities. I, for one, would be reluctant to single out Select Committee Chairmen, despite their great worth and distinction, then leave it at that, because others—for example, the Chairmen's Panel—may deserve similar treatment. Can the Leader of the House help me on that matter?
Before my right hon. Friend finishes, will he give a little more thought to term limitation? One or two Select Committees are not over-popular. For example, there is not a great queue of Members wanting to get on to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. Having served on it for 28 years—for half that time making it clear to the Whips that I would be pleased to be replaced—it seems a little unfair to penalise someone who is serving on one of the less popular Select Committees.
Another difficulty is that of the changing names of Select Committees. Presumably, Members who have chaired the Committees covering matters that are dealt with by the Department with responsibility for the environment would not be covered by the amendment.
I am familiar with the problem to which my hon. Friend refers. He has done sterling work on the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. In retrospect, it is perhaps a pity that there is no amendment on the Order Paper that would enable us to confine the effect of the motion to those on the investigative Select Committees, who we had in mind when making the proposal on salaries. I assure my hon. Friend that I will be happy to revisit the matter in the event of the motion being carried, so that we can protect his position before another 28 years have passed.
I understand that, apart from members of the Executive, those who receive a salary are: members of the Speaker's team, the Leader of the official Opposition and, I believe, the Opposition Chief Whip and the Opposition pairing Whip. It is for every hon. Member to consider whether that constitutes the most rational choice of priorities. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst obviously regards it as rational.
Hon. Members will consider a motion on the payment of Chairs of Select Committees. I regret that the right hon. Gentleman's amendment on the subject was not selected. It is well beyond my capability to fix that on his behalf, and it has obliged me to remove a whole five minutes from my speech. I apologise for that. However, to cheer him up, I am prepared to accept his surviving amendment on term limits. It would provide for a maximum period of service of two Parliaments or eight years as a Select Committee Chair. I offer that to the right hon. Gentleman as a modest consolation prize.
I can cheerfully comment on all the proposals because, whichever amendment is accepted, I shall probably never serve on a Select Committee again.
Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that Chairmen who oppose payment do so because we believe that the strength of Select Committees is that all members are equal? They all work together and appoint their Chairmen, and we strongly believe that payment would make Select Committee chairmanship another office of patronage under whatever arrangements prevailed.
My hon. Friend is right to say that there are strong and sincerely held views on both sides of the question. It is fair to say that the majority of the Liaison Committee favoured payment when it was last discussed. That is not necessarily a self-serving perspective. As the Modernisation Committee report points out, if hon. Members want to show that they attach equal value to scrutiny and service on the Executive, they must consider whether the only real opportunity of additional salary should be for those in the Executive rather than those who commit themselves to a career of scrutiny.
I agree with my right hon. Friend, but emphasise that the nettle must be grasped if we are serious about Select Committees. Otherwise we are destined to watch the best and brightest continually seduced away by office or its prospect. Some members of my Select Committee have lasted as long as two months before becoming someone's Parliamentary Private Secretary. The only hope of reversing the trend is increasing the status of Select Committees by some of the methods that my right hon. Friend suggested.
In fairness to my hon. Friend, the House should know that he was seduced away from the Executive to be the Chair of a Select Committee. He makes the fair point that hon. Members must tackle the issue and make a clear decision. I warn hon. Members that if motion 5 is carried, motion 6 cannot be put. Those who share my hon. Friend's view must therefore defeat motion 5 and carry motion 6.
We have taken the opportunity of the debate to implement several agreed recommendations on other matters from the Liaison Committee, the Procedure Committee and various Joint Committees. They are expressed in motions 8 to 12, none of which is controversial, and I hope that hon. Members can accept them formally.
The other measures add up to the biggest package for strengthening Select Committees since they were established 20 years ago. They stand alongside the historic decision of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to give evidence twice a year to the Liaison Committee. It is the first time that any Prime Minister has agreed to be questioned by any investigative committee. Taken together, the measures demonstrate our commitment to working with the House to make the Select Committee system a success.
I have often said that good scrutiny makes for good government. I commend the package to the House as providing for better scrutiny and better government, if that is possible.
I am aware that a lot of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House wish to take part in the debate, so I do not intend to detain hon. Members as long as the Leader of the House did.
I start by paying tribute to all the hard work undertaken by all Members from all parties who serve on Select Committees. They do an invaluable job, and they have the time to explore in detail many of the issues that are too complex to be examined in depth on the Floor of the House. We owe them all our gratitude.
I also pay tribute to the work of the Chairman of the Modernisation Committee, the Leader of the House. It is clear from his energy, involvement and initiative that he not only takes his role seriously but is genuinely interested in bringing about change. For that reason, I must advise him that he needs to watch his back, because it is clear that not all his ministerial colleagues share his enthusiasm for what he is seeking to do. Indeed, the Modernisation Committee is still reflecting on whether all his proposed changes are necessary in the interests either of modernisation or of scrutiny. The right hon. Gentleman has an agenda, however, and some parts of it are clearly desirable.
The first motion on the Order Paper in the right hon. Gentleman's name has our support, and I commend it to the House unamended. It seeks to increase the support staff for our Select Committees, and to strengthen the scrutiny that they give the decisions of the Executive.
The Leader of the House was, I think, incorrect when he said that Select Committees had been with us only for some 20 years. My understanding is that they have been used by the House for centuries. They may have been with us in their present form for only 20 years, but the setting up of a small group of Members constituted to gather information, interview witnesses if appropriate, and produce detailed reports is not new to the House.
In their scrutiny work, Select Committees use a variety of working methods. Their work can vary from the holding of a full inquiry, with the gathering of oral and written evidence leading ultimately to a published report, to taking a single evidence session to focus attention on a particular issue. Sometimes the Committees decide to visit people and places, here in the UK or overseas, to discover how problems can be handled or approached in different ways. At any one time, most Select Committees have several subjects under consideration.
Currently, it is up to each Select Committee to decide how to interpret its terms of reference. The Conservatives want to see that independence maintained. I do not think, however, that it comes amiss for the Modernisation Committee to suggest certain core tasks, such as those listed in the motion. Some right hon. and hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend Mr. Curry, are concerned that that motion will result in the loss of a Committee's discretion as to how it goes about its business. I want to underline what the Leader of the House said by referring my right hon. Friend to the word "illustrative" in the motion, which I hope will reassure him that although the activities mentioned are core tasks of which each Select Committee should take note, they will in no way inhibit the absolute right of a Select Committee to carry out its work as it sees fit.
I support what the right hon. Gentleman has been saying, but will he take on board the fact that at least one Committee—the Select Committee on Environmental Audit, on which I serve—is not a departmental Select Committee, and therefore does not shadow Ministers or legislation from any particular Department? Those core tasks are not quite so appropriate for that Committee. Will he bear in mind that we need to keep the flexibility of such Committees, which consider the work of all Departments and the sustainable development of all the Government's workings, so that they, too, can operate with the additional resources if necessary?
I agree. I refer the hon. Gentleman to page 13 of the Modernisation Committee's first report. Paragraph 33 states
"Inevitably the specific work of the scrutiny committees"— that is, departmental Select Committees—
"will vary and each should retain the freedom to balance its work in the light of the duties of its Department or in response to emerging issues."
The report makes it clear that the Committee does not seek to take away the current flexibility.
Should we not be reminded repeatedly of the many successes that Select Committees have achieved in their present form? Those successes are often underestimated, not just here but in the country as a whole. Is not the report's main purpose to strengthen the Committees, in line with what the Liaison Committee suggested in the last Parliament? Before the general election the Government did not seem prepared to do that, but the Chairman of the Modernisation Committee has gone a long way towards meeting the Liaison Committee's requirements.
I agree with Donald Anderson. I think that Select Committee Chairmen should have the right to venture into areas that they consider important within their remit, rather than merely walking in the footprints and the shadow of the Government of the day.
Amendment (d) to the motion on modernisation of the House of Commons, tabled by Mr. Hume, expresses the concerns that exist in some parts of the House about minority representation, and I am a little worried about that.
The representation of minority parties used to be dealt with, quite adequately, through the usual channels. I believe that when my party was in government and I was part of the usual channels, Mr. Kirkwood undertook, on behalf of the third largest party, to ensure that all minority parties were represented fairly. The Leader of the House touched on that in his speech. I understand that the system has broken down somewhat, in that the current Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Mr. Stunell, has decided that he is not able, or willing, to undertake the task, and it has now been given to the Government Whips Office.
I hope that the hon. Member for Foyle will not need to press his amendment, and that further discussion through the usual channels will alleviate the concerns that clearly exist. I must say I am rather surprised that the Modernisation Committee has two Liberal Democrat members; perhaps they will be prepared to give up one of those places to another minority party.
It was less a question of the Liberal Democrats' abandoning that task, and more a question of our discharging them from it. We will vote on this issue, because we have grave concerns about the representation of minority parties. I think it only fair that we should be able to represent ourselves properly in the Committee structure.
I hear that the minority parties have no confidence in the Liberal Democrats. I cannot say that I am at all surprised, but I hoped that they would be able to develop a working relationship with the Patronage Secretary. Perhaps as the debate proceeds, they will be prepared to engage in "behind the curtain" discussions in an attempt to resolve the matter.
Rather than writing us off as a minority party, will the right hon. Gentleman—and, indeed, all Members—address a serious issue? I refer to the representation of the people of Northern Ireland. The Labour party, regrettably in my opinion, does not even operate in Northern Ireland, so no Northern Ireland Labour Member will be returned to the House. Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates regularly lose their deposits at Northern Ireland elections. The Ulster Unionist party is the largest party in Northern Ireland, and represents the majority of people there. Surely to goodness it should be represented on Select Committees, which is a good reason for increasing their size. This should not be a minority party argument; the people of Northern Ireland need to be represented.
I shall not risk being ruled out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by getting involved in the politics of Northern Ireland, but I do believe that minority parties should be properly represented. Increasing the size of the Committees is one way of doing that, but the point that I was trying to make is that other methods exist. One is to ensure that the Liberal Democrats are not claiming two places on the Committee when the minority parties perhaps ought to have one of them. I hope that the matter can be looked at again.
The Leader of the House has tabled proposals to set up a Committee of Nomination, to allow Select Committees to change their size after having been established, and to introduce term limits on the service of Select Committee Chairmen. The setting up of a Committee of Nomination gives rise to two issues, the first of which is whether we really need to make any changes. If the answer is yes, we then need to decide what form those changes should take. I have always been unconvinced of the need for change, and as the Modernisation Committee is aware, I have remained an agnostic on this issue throughout its deliberations. I take the view contrary to that expressed by some Labour Members, particularly David Winnick. The current nomination system works rather well, and it is a gross distortion to say that it is totally discredited.
The Committee of Selection has existed for more than 20 years. In that time it has twice taken decisions that could rightly be criticised, and which it perhaps should not have sought to implement. The first instance involved a member of my party, and the second and more recent one involved two members of the Labour party. However, in my experience the Whips' influence on the Committee of Selection is not malign. The Whips Offices of all major parties have a vested interest in keeping their parliamentary colleagues happy. In my experience, if they feel that an injustice has been done, some attempt is usually made in another arena to right the perceived wrong.
I am slightly perplexed by the right hon. Gentleman's last point. As recently as
My view has remained constant since 1983, when I first became a Member of this House. I have not changed my opinion at all. As the hon. Gentleman knows, Members often support a Committee's report when they agree with more than 50 per cent. of its contents. The fact that they support it does not necessarily mean that they agree with every paragraph and word.
I should point out to the House that, like my right hon. Friend, I have participated in every meeting of the Modernisation Committee, and he made his position clear in at least three such meetings. With regard to change, he is something of an agnostic and is tolerably satisfied with the status quo. Because we are a smallish minority, we have tended to take a consensual view.
I am trying to understand the advice that the right hon. Gentleman is giving the House, and I think that I agree with him on the point that he is making. I like the current system, and the parliamentary Labour party now has a mechanism, free of the Whips, for deciding whom we put forward. However, the right hon. Gentleman advised us to support the motion on modernisation of the House of Commons, which approves the report hook, line and sinker, including the principle of changing the mechanism for selecting members of Select Committees. The first motion on Select Committees deals with the detail. If the right hon. Gentleman is against the principle, he should surely advise the House to vote against the modernisation motion.
No, that is not the case. We have separate motions on the Order Paper and I have dealt with my views on the first of them. I am now addressing the specifics of setting up the Committee of Nomination, from which arise two questions. First, does the House wish to bring about change? I am not convinced that the present system has failed us. I am tolerably satisfied with it, so I do not seek any change. However, as a member of a Select Committee on which the majority of members wished to bring about change, I was faced with a second question. Did I leave the debate and allow the other members to carry on in my absence, or did I play a full and constructive part in the debate about change without advocating it myself? I chose the latter course of action.
The right hon. Gentleman made a couple of points about the old Committee of Selection. First, he said that in his experience it had made only two wrong decisions. Surely the problem with the Committee was that it never made any decisions at all. The second, allied point he made was that it was not a corrupted body because the Whips on it had a vested interest in keeping their own punters happy. However, is it not true that in most cases Whips used the power of appointment to Select Committees to control their Members, not to keep them happy? In those circumstances, what sort of a court of appeal was the Committee on Selection?
The Committee made two decisions that were clearly wrong, and which offended many hon. Members. Those were the two matters that I mentioned earlier. I did not say that the Committee made only two errors of judgment. I pointed out those two glaring mistakes, but two in 23 years is not a bad record. I do not accept, either, that the Committee of Selection has always been a Whips' rubber stamp. When I was a member of the Government Whips Office, the Chairman of the Committee, the late Sir Marcus Fox, did not always follow the advice of his party's Whips, and on more than one occasion the Committee made a decision that was not in accordance with the wishes of the Whips. The Committee did show an element of independence, which the hon. and learned Gentleman suggests was lacking.
There are many parts of my shadow portfolio that I find less agreeable than others, but I do not wish to start speculating about the relationships of Labour Members with their Whips Office. None the less, my hon. Friend makes his point well.
If—I emphasise that word—a majority of Members want a change, the most appropriate way forward is that proposed by the Modernisation Committee. Therefore I do not support the amendments tabled by the hon. Members for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), for South Swindon (Ms Drown) and for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant), and I do not recommend them to my hon. Friends.
In the third motion on Select Committees, the Leader of the House proposes that term limits be introduced for Select Committee Chairmen for the first time, and suggests that each Chairman should serve for a maximum of two Parliaments. I have always regarded term limits for Select Committee Chairmen as desirable, all the more so if we decide to pay Chairmen for their extra work on our behalf. I therefore support the proposal, but as part of a package; I shall urge Opposition Members to support the proposal that Select Committee Chairmen be paid.
I accept the argument about term limits for Select Committee Chairmen, especially if those Chairmen are to be paid. However, is there not also an argument for imposing term limits on members of the Committee of Nomination? The Committee's quorum of seven very powerful people will orchestrate the proceedings of the House. Should there not be a term limit for them?
I have no difficulty with that suggestion.
The Leader of the House was good enough to say that he would be prepared to accept amendment (a) to the third motion on Select Committees, which stands in my name and that of my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth. The motion would limit the term of a Select Committee Chairman to two Parliaments, but in our system we do not have fixed-term Parliaments. The period covered by two Parliaments could therefore be anything between one year and 10 years.
In many Parliaments around the world it is accepted that people freely elected to be Chairmen of powerful Committees ought to have some limit to their tenure. The United States of America offers an example that confirms my argument rather the hon. Lady's.
To return to my point about the period covered by two Parliaments, I am sure that the House remembers what happened in 1974, when we had two general elections in the same year. That could easily happen again in the future.
I firmly expect that after the next election, my right hon. Friend Mr. Duncan Smith will be in No. 10 Downing street, where he will remain for many years. However, what if the massive Conservative revival that everyone expects is not quite enough to get him there? What if the arithmetic after the next general election is such that the two main parties have the same number of seats, with the Liberal Democrats holding the balance of power with perhaps three or four seats in total?
In that scenario, two general elections could take place in quick succession, as the outgoing Prime Minister desperately tried to cling to power before the Conservative party ultimately won through. Most attention would focus on the final result, but what about the poor Select Committee Chairmen? They would be condemned to serve for only a fraction of the time that the House could reasonably have expected. That is why amendment (a) would add
"or a continuous period of 8 years, whichever is the greater period."
The amendment is fair and equitable, and I hope that the House will approve it.
In view of the right hon. Gentleman's rosy predictions about the Conservative party's fortunes, may I suggest that he remember the writings of Horace, who said that the shortness of life prevents us from entertaining far-off hopes? Do his remarks not suggest that my hon. Friend Mrs. Dunwoody is correct that the judgment should be left to the Select Committees, and that we should not interfere?
No, I do not agree. Eight years is a fair crack of the whip for anyone; any Minister who serves for eight years thinks that he has been very lucky. To give a Select Committee Chairman, however good, a term limit of eight years is reasonable and fair, because it would allow other talented Members, who might otherwise not have the chance, to be considered for that position.
We accept the proposals about the size of Committees. Indeed, the proposition tabled by the Leader of the House is very similar to a suggestion that I made to the Modernisation Committee a few weeks ago.
Our Select Committees have served Parliament and the public well, and I believe that the first motion on Select Committees will make their role even more effective by providing additional resources for specialist support staff. If that enables Parliament to keep the Executive under more effective scrutiny, surely we should all welcome it.
On behalf of the Liaison Committee, may I welcome the undeniable commitment of the Leader of the House in trying to modernise and update the procedures of this House—whether one agrees with every proposal or not? I think my right hon. Friend deserves full credit for that from hon. Members on both sides of the House.
It has been a dramatic few months for those of us who have been involved in scrutiny for many years. For more than 12 years, the Public Accounts Committee saw Chancellor after Chancellor try to get access not just to some but to all the quangos and to open the door that was permanently closed to Government companies. Yet three months ago, after the Sharman committee—which was set up following pressure from the Public Accounts Committee—the Government accepted all those recommendations. The National Audit Office now has full access, as requested by the Public Accounts Committee. The Public Accounts Commission has already invited the Comptroller and Auditor General to submit proposals for examining the quangos and companies regarding extra budget and value for money.
Three weeks ago, as the Leader of the House said, the Liaison Committee had a quite unexpected approach from the Prime Minister; there was a message saying that he would call at 12.30 pm. The Prime Minister asked whether the Liaison Committee would welcome the opportunity to have full and public sessions with him twice a year.
We are still negotiating the details, but I can tell the House that the first session will take place before the summer recess. The Prime Minister will not know the questions in advance. We are looking at times and venues. Because of Prime Minister's Question Time and Members' Monday travel arrangements, it looks as if Tuesday mornings will be an appropriate time. Because of the anticipated extra demand from people to attend and the size of the Liaison Committee, we are looking into the possibility of holding the hearings in the Boothroyd Room in Portcullis House.
My right hon. Friend has referred to the size of the Liaison Committee. He mentioned to me earlier that he has investigated the number of seats in the Boothroyd Room. I think that there are 27 seats, whereas there are 34 members of the Liaison Committee. Bearing in mind the objections of the Leader of the House to my amendment, will the Liaison Committee consider a self-denying ordinance whereby only departmental Committee Chairs, my right hon. Friend Mr. Williams and the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee would take evidence?
There are 27 chairs in the horseshoe, so only 27 Members would be able to question the witness, but members of the Liaison Committee get on well together. At our meeting on Thursday, we shall consider that point, among other practical, logistical issues. We shall also discuss how to use our time to the best advantage of the Committee, the House and the Prime Minister.
To some extent, the proposals of the Modernisation Committee have to be taken in conjunction with the consultative document issued by the Leader of the House and currently under consideration by the Committee. Throughout its consideration of the proposals, the Liaison Committee has used the same criterion—effectiveness: whether the proposals would add to or diminish the effectiveness of parliamentary scrutiny. All Members work on the premise that without accountability there can be no democracy and that—in the way that the House works—without Committees there is no meaningful accountability.
The Committee especially welcomes pre-legislative scrutiny, which will not only produce a major change in the way in which the House holds the Government to account but will enable it to participate in the evolution of policy before Bills are finally drawn up. That is a dramatic advance and we must take that proposal into account, especially as regards the roll-over of Bills where change is long overdue. It is illogical that a Bill can progress through almost all its stages, but must then be reintroduced in the next Session. The roll-over of Bills will remove the buffers—the time limits that give the business managers the excuse to curtail discussion. Pre-legislative scrutiny and the roll-over facility will considerably enhance the powers of Back Benchers.
As regards back-up resources, I told members of the Liaison Committee that I could not believe that there had never been any pragmatic analysis or assessment of the resources needed to operate a full Committee system. That is why I suggested that we brought in the National Audit Office to make an objective assessment of the structure and resources that were needed. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for accepting that suggestion.
We welcome the review of the powers of Committees to call witnesses, as well as the opportunities offered for Sub-Committees. My right hon. Friend said that Committees would increasingly have to turn their attention to financial scrutiny and many of them may choose to do so by means of Sub-Committees. I have held discussions with almost all the Chairmen and have been most impressed with the open-mindedness of their approach to dealing with the challenges offered by the proposals.
However, a one-size-fits-all formula does not make sense. The estimates requirement envisaged in the core duties is not relevant for Committees dealing with devolved matters—the Scottish Affairs Committee or the Welsh Affairs Committee. In fairness, we must remember that the core duties as listed are illustrative and that the Liaison Committee is asked to turn them into practicality. I assure the House that it is the wish of the Committee's Chairman that we do that effectively.
I know that there are doubts about the format of the Committee of Nomination. However, other Members have made the point that it will be more independent than the system that it is replacing. We should give that Committee fair wind to see whether it works effectively. The composition of the Committee will be a matter for the House.
The Liaison Committee's reservations related mainly to the size of Committees. The membership of many Committees will increase by a third, so I wish to make the point that I made to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House when he appeared before us the other day. The Chairmen of the Committees have no vested interest in keeping the Committees small if Committees will be more effective if they have more members. The Chairman of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will, no doubt, describe his experience of trying to run a large Committee and the problems involved with that. My hon. Friend Mrs. Dunwoody has expressed her opinions and I hope that she will describe the problems that arise with the size of the Committee that she has to handle.
The Chairmen of the Committees came to an almost unanimous conclusion on the size of the Committees and they did so in pursuit of the fundamental criterion of whether the proposals will enhance or diminish Committees' ability to hold Ministers to account. The Chairmen thought that enforced enlargement would diminish rather than enhance Committees' ability to do that. That is why they took the stand they did.
Will my right hon. Friend consider the wider view and the effectiveness of our democratic institutions? My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House told us that 286 Back Benchers did not serve on any Select Committee. Is that not a dreadful waste of talent? Even if all those Back Benchers were uninterested—I know that that is not the case; many of them want to serve on a Committee—do they not have a democratic duty to contribute? Is that not more important than the ease of managing 15 Committee members rather than 11?
I think that is wrong. Tails on seats is not the basic requirement. The basic requirement of a democratic system is to hold the Executive firmly to account. Nothing should undermine that. The problem has been the House's inability to hold Governments to account. We must not damage a system that is working just to get people involved in Committees or to give them the opportunity to say that they are members of Committees.
I am coming to the end of my remarks.
I have been a Back Bencher for many years and I have been a Front Bencher for many years. Whether I have or have not been serving on Committees, I have never found it particularly difficult to keep myself gainfully occupied as a Member of the House. Perhaps one or two Members should use a little more imagination in their approach to the time they think is wasted at the moment.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for meeting us this week and for the detailed discussions that we had. I also thank him for responding positively to those discussions and for the flexibility that he has shown in the proposals before us.
I join Mr. Knight and the Chairman of the Liaison Committee in paying tribute to the leadership that the Leader of the House has given to the Modernisation Committee. I have been on the Committee since its inception at the beginning of the previous Parliament. I can honestly say that the momentum that we now have and the consensus that has now been built up between the parties has not been matched at any other moment in the Committee's short life. That is partly down to the Leader of the House, and it is partly down to the demands that the House has placed on the Committee. We have begun this exercise—or indeed our wider exercise of working out how to make Parliament more effective in scrutinising and holding the Government to account—not because we think that it is a nice idea or a good thing to do or because it gives us a warm feeling but because the House has given us that responsibility. That is why the report is very timely.
Of course this is a matter for the House. I should say that my colleagues will have a free vote, but I am interested to find that there is basically consensus among my colleagues on most of the issues before us this evening, with one important exception, to which I shall return later.
The origins of the report were, of course, the events of last summer, as other hon. Members have said.
In fairness, those us who have served on the Liaison Committee even for a short time would have to say that the content of the Committee's two reports, much of which is attributable to the now Lord Sheldon, have to be part of the reason why we are discussing this important topic today. I very much admire the work that the Leader of the House has done, but Lord Sheldon was a moving force in making the Liaison Committee a campaigning Committee to change the business of the House.
I was just about to make that point. We have built on the work that had already been undertaken, but we would not have done so but for the fact that the Government Whips ignored—let us be honest about it—all the signs that the House had already given that hon. Members were no longer prepared to put up with the incestuous way in which Select Committees were appointed. The point that I want to make is that, if it had not been for last summer's incident, the Liaison Committee's work, frankly, would have gone by the board.
It has already been said that attempts have been made under previous Governments to nobble Select Committees, to ensure that trouble makers were kept off and trustees were put on, but it would be fair to say that the Conservative party has tended to be more disciplined, or perhaps more devious, than the Labour party was last summer. Whichever it was, the fact of the matter is that all this has now come out into the open.
I now make my confession: I served on the Committee of Selection for four years. I was, ex officio, a member of that Committee, and I can tell the House—if I am breaking some dreadful convention, I shall no doubt be locked up in the Tower—that most of our meetings took less three minutes. On one occasion, when I was in the Chair as the senior member, a meeting took half a minute. That is not a proper way to take important decisions.
The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire referred to a previous regime in that Committee when he said that some of the Whips' nominations were turned down. I think that he will agree that they were not nominations to Select Committees; they were nominations to Standing Committees. There is all the difference in the world between serving on a Select Committee and having that responsibility for scrutinising the Government, perhaps for a whole Parliament, and serving on a Committee that considers a specific Bill. So the House should be fully aware that I know of no one—outside the usual channels—who wants to return to that regime.
We must be very careful this evening that we do not untangle the whole package by pulling it to bits. If we do that, the only winners will be the two main Whips Offices. I have to exclude my hon. Friend Mr. Stunell—he is not here at the moment—because my party has been excluded from those discussions all too often in the past.
The consensus is that we have to make some improvements, but let us recognise the fact that the improvements will be experimental by their very nature. Everything that we do in the House is evolutionary—we can return to the issue if the proposals do not work sufficiently well—but we must make progress tonight; otherwise we shall be in real difficulty.
I have no great problem with the proposals for the new Committee of Nomination, except to say that the amendments are excessively complicated. We may well have to consider the issue after the next election. If the two Opposition parties, whichever of the current three they may be, were extremely similar in size, perhaps differing by one or two Members, the arithmetic clearly would not work; nor would it work if—let us suppose that this could happen—women made up 60 per cent. of the House after the next general election, as these gender balance arrangements would be obviously nonsensical. Let us be clear: the proposal is for this Parliament, but we must establish the principle that the House makes the decision rather than having it made for it by Government Whips in collusion with the main Opposition party Whips.
I must say to the Chairman of the Liaison Committee in all sincerity that I am somewhat suspicious of the way in which the Committee approached the issue of numbers. It represents the establishment, the insiders, the people who have got there. As Mr. Kidney said, we are in danger of wasting good talent in the House if we automatically assume that, just because it is easier to manage 11 people, it is not possible for 15 to do an even better job.
I wish that the hon. Gentleman would do us the honour of accepting that, if the Committee one is chairing has 17 members, as is frequently the case, it is not fair to any of the members concerned. They do not have the opportunity to ask enough supplementary questions or to pick up a point made by another member, and it simply becomes a question of the Chair trying to get everybody in. That is not how a really effective Committee should work. Unless there is a basis for the objection, under all these rules, I will never sit on another Select Committee. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that what I say about Select Committees is governed by that. It is not possible to chair an investigative Committee effectively if the number of members goes beyond 15.
I entirely understand the hon. Lady's point. As she says, however, the problem comes when the number of members goes beyond 15. No one suggests in the document that we are discussing that the number should go beyond 15. That is now entirely a matter for the Committee to decide. I think that I am right that some of the best work that the hon. Lady's Committee did in the last Parliament was done in Sub-Committees. It is important that there are enough members to sit on those Sub-Committees. There is also the issue of full representation—let us not dodge that. We must try to make sure that Select Committees are fully representative of the House as a whole.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for mentioning my contribution, which is why I want to speak. There are enough places on Select Committees for about 40 per cent. of Members of the House. Does the hon. Gentleman recall that, in Canada, nearly all Back Benchers serve on a Committee; in Australia two thirds of Members do so; and in New Zealand 80 per cent. of Members do so? Is not the Committee's recommendation to add 50 Members modest in the light of that information?
In my view, it is. If we are to undertake the kind of responsibilities that the Committee wishes to place on Select Committees—the Liaison Committee wishes to do so, and several Chairmen of Select Committees have already taken the point that our list is illustrative and needs to be developed further—there will be a need for more Sub-Committee work. In relation to financial matters—or, dare I say it?—going abroad, it is not necessary for the whole Committee to go to, say, Australia. It is perfectly possible for three or four members, suitably representative, to do a proper job and come back with a report. If that is why the Liaison Committee is apprehensive about an increase in numbers, I suggest that it is in its own hands to exert a little self-discipline.
The only substantial issue on which I disagree with the majority on the Liaison Committee and on the Modernisation Committee is that we should somehow pick out the Chairmen of Select Committees as worthy of special treatment in terms of additional salary. I am not persuaded of that. I shall return to the point, but I have already heard Mrs. Dunwoody make the point that we do not have difficulty in recruiting very good people to be Chairmen of Select Committees. The difficulty is in being properly resourced to do that job, not in attracting candidates. Mr. Mullin is a good example. He took the ministerial biscuit for a few months, but he decided that he could achieve more by coming back to the House and chairing a very influential Select Committee. We have no difficulty in getting recruits; incidentally, we do have difficulty in getting people to go on the Chairmen's Panel, so perhaps the argument would be more persuasive in that regard.
Apart from those who are in the Chair or have ministerial office, Members of Parliament are here to serve their constituents. We all have different ways of doing that. I have personal crusades in which I believe passionately that have nothing to do with my constituency. I also have a responsibility to my party. Above all, however, I am here as a Member of Parliament for my constituency and as a member of this national assembly. In that context, I find it difficult to justify singling out Chairs of Select Committees as special people who need to be provided with a new career path. All that Members who sit as Back Benchers on the House of Commons Commission get are knocks; they do not get plaudits or the opportunity to lead a Select Committee. Why should we not pay them? If it comes to it, why should we pay the pairing Whip for the Conservative party when pairing is almost out of the window?
Can the hon. Gentleman clarify what he is saying? Is he saying that he is against the motion because it proposes payment only for Select Committee Chairmen and that he would support it if it was more widely drawn; or is he against additional payment for any Member of Parliament who is not a Minister?
I would have supported the right hon. Gentleman's amendment, because it is fair to consider the issue in the round. Some Members give great service to the House and do not get anything like the kudos or the plaudits attaching to Select Committee Chairs. However, as the right hon. Gentleman's amendment has not been selected, I will vote for the motion that stipulates that we should not pay more to Chairs of Select Committees.
On the controversial amendments, I believe that an illustrative list is helpful, as the Chairman of the Liaison Committee acknowledged. I hope that the Chairman of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Mr. Curry, will not press his amendment to a vote.
On the amendments to add new Members to the Committee of Nomination, I have misgivings about the format of the arrangements. The additional newer members would be nominated not by the parties, but by their Chairs. That is a new form of patronage which the Modernisation Committee tried to avoid. I think that the suggestion is a little incestuous and I would have preferred to stick with the original proposal of the Modernisation Committee.
On those Members who are lucky enough to be elected Chairs of Select Committees, the amendment tabled by Mr. Knight is logical. Eight years or two Parliaments, whichever is the longer, gives someone a good run at the job. There are plenty of volunteers to take over. On the two-Parliament rule, however, I was briefly in the House in 1974 with a small majority, which makes a nonsense of that suggestion.
The exclusion of the Chairs of the Public Accounts Committee, the Environmental Audit Committee, the Human Rights Committee and, no doubt, others from the interrogation of the Prime Minister or, indeed, anyone else in such circumstances, would be illogical, so I oppose the amendment to motion 10, dealing with the Liaison Committee.
The proposals offer a one-off opportunity to give new strength to the Select Committee system. The Committees have been in place for a long time and ways in which they can improve their performance have evolved, especially with regard to their accountability to the House. What we have not done is to analyse carefully the best way to ensure that they are representative of the House. That is why we must take the opportunity for Back Benchers in particular, of all parties, to regain control.
There is, of course, an obligation within parties to ensure that a proper democratic procedure is followed for the nominations to the Committee of Nomination. There is also an obligation on those who think that the system is not working adequately to use the Committee of Nomination.
If the essence of the Nomination Committee is that it must decide whether the right people have been nominated and make changes if it does not like the party choices, why is there any obligation on parties to ensure that the right people are chosen? The reality is that we are wresting power not only from the Whips but from Back Benchers, and giving it to a Committee of seven people who will decide for the rest of us.
No, I am bound to say that I think that the hon. Gentleman has not read carefully how the procedure will work. I understand his concern, but this procedure will be conducted very much within the parties. I cannot speak for his party but I can speak for mine, and it is incredibly democratic—some of my colleagues think that it is far too democratic. If the nomination procedure does not fulfil all the expectations of individual members of my party in this House, there will soon be a revolution.
No, not again. I accept that the procedure places a great obligation on the party and on the Committee of Nomination. As I pointed out in discussions on the proposals in the Modernisation Committee, the additions to Committees will be easy enough; it is the subtractions that will cause difficulty. We can all imagine circumstances in which Mr. Winterton makes a wonderful case for being on a particular Committee, but when the Committee of Nomination is asked to remove somebody to make a space for him, that may cause some difficulty.
No, I am about to complete my speech and other Members want to speak.
We can put the system on trial for this Parliament, and I believe that it will prove to be worthy of that test. It will fulfil Members' expectations far better than does the Committee of Selection from which we have suffered in the past. Obviously, an important responsibility will be placed on individual Members, on their parties, on the Committee of Nomination and indeed on the House, because as has been said several times, in the end the recommendations will return to the House, and I have not the slightest doubt, after the episode last summer, that if the House feels that a new oligarchy has taken over from the Whips which is equally under the thumb of the party managers, it will rebel. This is the best possible chance to break out of that stranglehold. As I confessed earlier, I am a former member not of the usual channels but of the unusual channels, and I am convinced that they cannot do this job properly.
I echo the tributes that have already been paid to the work of the Modernisation Committee and to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. Today we have an opportunity to reinvigorate the Select Committee process and to re-establish its primacy in the role of non-partisan scrutiny of the Executive, which is fundamental in a free society and a democratic system. The Select Committees have performed that role with some weaknesses.
I remember many years ago serving on the Health Committee, chaired by Mr. Winterton. I am not sure how he slipped through the previous system.
My hon. Friend is the essence of courtesy, so I am not surprised that he gives way. I recall that when I was a member of the Health Committee, there was an attempt to prevent Mr. Winterton from chairing the Committee. In fact, he was an excellent Chairman. The result was that the Whips removed him from the Committee. If we are to have a Committee of Nomination to make the final decision, as against what I thought the House had decided last time round, how can such abuses be prevented?
I, too, recall the role played by the hon. Member for Macclesfield, although I do not want this to turn into his obituary. I must point out that it is necessary for Select Committees to have an independent voice and for Chairmen to command respect in the Committee.
My starting principle is that Committee membership is not something casually to be given away. It is important that the membership is of the highest possible quality. Members of Committees must be determined to fulfil the role of independent scrutiny of the Government of the day, without fear or favour, irrespective of their party. That is a difficult challenge for the Government. It was difficult for the previous Government, and my right hon. Friend Mr. Clarke points out that at that time there were successful attempts to nobble the hon. Member for Macclesfield. That was wrong, and it would be equally wrong if the present Government, whom of course I support, sought to nobble the present Select Committee system.
We know that if Select Committees are to command respect, they must be seen to be independent. Whatever the role of the Whips and the perception of the use of Select Committee places for patronage in the past, the fact that such accusations can be made and believed more widely is a good reason to ensure that this Parliament can say that it is clear of that charge. That is why, in general terms, I endorse the Modernisation Committee's approach of having an independent Committee of Nomination, which will command respect in all parts of the House.
Last year, the House did itself no favours in the row about my hon. Friend Mrs. Dunwoody and my right hon. Friend Donald Anderson. Parliament got it right in the end when it insisted that they should be reinstated to their Committees. I concede to Opposition Members that Parliament worked in that case.
I strongly agree with the Modernisation Committee that the whole Chamber cannot be responsible for the process of nomination; there needs to be an intermediate process. On a point similar to that made by Mr. Tyler, the parliamentary Labour party now has a procedure that guarantees that the party as a whole, with all its influences—from time to time including, dare I say it, pressure from the Whips Office—decides on the names going forward on behalf of Labour Members. I trust that that will also apply to the Conservative party, although I am not certain. Perhaps Opposition Members will make that clear later.
It is important that there is a sense of independence. We accept that the Government have an in-built majority on Select Committees, but those members of the Committee must be seen to command the respect of their own parliamentary party. The process established by the parliamentary Labour party ensures that that is the case. However, we need a tiebreaker mechanism—the court of appeal that has been referred to. That court of appeal needs to be independent; the present system is not, and can no longer command respect. The Modernisation Committee has suggested a sensible step in the right direction. I am sure that Parliament could have come up with many variations on the proposals, and it could still do so if these do not work.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for considering the amendments in my name and that in the name of my hon. Friend Mr. Bryant. The criticism of the proposed Committee of Nomination is that it would seem to put power and control into the hands of the old lags, and there is a danger that they would view only those of a similar generation as suitable for inclusion in the Select Committee process. There is considerable merit in trying to recognise the contribution of hon. Members with fewer years on these Benches. Some people make contributions of enormous worth almost on entry into Parliament, while others take a little longer. There is no reason why the Committee of Nomination should not recognise the talent of recently elected Members.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and am sorry for being unavoidably late. Does he accept that every Member of Parliament, including those who do not serve on Select Committees, can act as an effective scrutineer of the Executive through activities in Westminster Hall, introducing ten-minute Bills, tabling parliamentary questions and building all-party groups? The House should recognise that every Member has a role to play and we should not be too preoccupied with the role of Select Committees in the scrutiny process.
My hon. Friend makes an intelligent and valuable point which certainly commands support among Labour Members. We ought to strengthen Parliament's role in scrutinising the Executive. Select Committees are an important part, but not the only part, of that process. We should not seek to diminish their role, because they are often at the cutting edge of scrutiny, at least of Departments. We should therefore try to maintain and even increase their influence. My amendments make common-sense proposals and the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda is also sensible, because it allows for the fact that all Members, including newly elected ones, may make a contribution. If a Committee membership is rolled over a Parliament, it would be illogical to bar Members with several years' experience. Together, the amendments would greatly improve the Committee of Nomination, and I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for endorsing their spirit and practical effect.
Briefly, on the role of Committee Chairmen and the question of payment, I was intrigued by the suggestion of my hon. Friend Mr. Mullin that we engage in economic bargaining to attract the best people to serve as members and Chairmen of Select Committees. I do not espouse that philosophy in other walks of life, so I am not sure that I should espouse it in the House. Indeed, if we reversed the argument and said that ministerial office was open to competitive bidding—we would take on as Ministers people prepared to undercut others—there would be no shortage of candidates and people who wield the knife behind their colleagues' backs would continue to do so. Members who join the Government or Opposition Front Bench do not do so for the salary. Similarly, some extraordinarily good Select Committee Chairmen have taken on the role with no thought whatever of economic reward. I shall therefore resist my hon. Friend's proposal unless I hear a more convincing argument about the money.
The hon. Gentleman has not mentioned them, but I am sure that he is aware of at least two other aspects of the argument, including, first, the issue of a career structure or path. I am sure that I do not need to point out that many people think that it is important to try to identify a distinctive career path other than the ministerial one. Secondly, the Modernisation Committee may be aiming at the wrong target: the Chairmen's Panel might be a much better candidate if we wish to acknowledge largely unsung and unseen heavy additional responsibilities and time commitments in the House, as its members undertake such duties for no extra pay.
As someone who, for reasons I do not fully understand, strayed from his initial career path, I agree that there are more ways of serving our constituents than climbing the ministerial ladder. If we are deluded into thinking that only by creating special payments can we introduce an alternative career path, we shall structure Parliament in an undesirable way. It is nonsense to suggest that a good MP is a good amateur. Nowadays, that is not an accolade, but we certainly have many demands on our time and are asked to perform a range of duties. We ought to encourage involvement in all those duties, and chairing a Select Committee is an important part of that. We should thank colleagues for undertaking that role but, on balance, it does not need financial reward.
I have some sympathy with the suggestion that we may be looking at the wrong group of people. I am not sure whether I am comfortable with special payments for extra work, as we could get into a work measurement system; after my advice bureau on a Saturday morning, I would produce, for fear that my bonus payments would be reduced, a time sheet to demonstrate that my commitment was as great as anybody else's. I therefore need further persuasion that the concept of special payment in the parliamentary system has genuine merit.
I know that many hon. Members want to contribute to our important debate, so I shall conclude. As my hon. Friend Helen Jackson said, parliamentary scrutiny of the Executive is fundamental: it is the reason why we are here. The Select Committees are at the cutting edge of scrutiny, so we have got to make them work. The Modernisation Committee report is a serious contribution to achieving that, and those concerned deserve congratulations.
I am pleased to contribute to our debate. I pay tribute to the Leader of the House for his leadership of the Modernisation Committee in this Parliament. He always seeks to achieve consensus, which is helpful in dealing with the matters under consideration. It is also beneficial that Members on both sides of the House are singing from the same hymn sheet and supporting the motions that he has included on the Order Paper.
I am wearing several hats in this debate. Not only am I a member of the Modernisation Committee but, because of my chairmanship of the Procedure Committee, I serve on the Liaison Committee, and have worked closely with its Chairman, Mr. Williams. I commend him again for his ground-breaking initiatives that will be of immense benefit to the House, both in holding the Government of the day to account and scrutinising legislation and Government policy. I am referring in particular to the Prime Minister's acceptance of an unwritten request, albeit one clearly in the offing, to appear before what may be described as the Chairmen's select committee—the Liaison Committee.
The report is long overdue. My name has been mentioned in our debate several times, but I do not wear the same rose-coloured spectacles as my right hon. Friend Mr. Knight or my hon. Friend Mr. Taylor. I remind the House that both my colleagues have been members of the mafia, meaning the Whips Office or the usual channels, as they are affectionately known. I wanted to take the appointment of members of Select Committees out of the hands of the Whips long before my experience in 1992.
I remind the House, especially my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire, that the Conservative Whips Office, in connivance with the then Chairman of the Committee of Selection, said that there was a rule that a Conservative Member should not serve on a Select Committee for more than three Parliaments. Of course, they said so to prevent my reappointment, but that dragged two distinguished Members—Sir John Wheeler and Terence Higgins—into the same net, which caused a great deal of unhappiness.
One such incident is more than enough, which is why I share the Government view that we need a new system of appointment. I therefore warmly welcome, as a package, the motions before us today. I shall support a majority of the motions on which the House is to vote. I strongly support the original motion relating to the Committee of Nomination but, like Mr. Tyler, I have some reservations about the amendment proposed by the hon. Members for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) and for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant). That adds broader membership in certain respects, but overall it does not help the nominations panel. I understand why it has been tabled and I shall not vote against it.
The Leader of the House said that he would accept the amendments and I will go along with that, as I believe that they are part of a package. We need that package, so I shall throw my support behind it. I believe that it is good for the House and that, with no disrespect to the current Chairman of the Committee of Selection, the nominations panel will do a good job of ensuring that the right people, with experience and all the necessary commitment, which I believe is vital to an active member of a Select Committee, are appointed.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, despite the fact that he does not accept the premise of my amendment. He has referred several times to experience. I tabled my amendment because in the original motion setting up the Committee of Nomination, there seemed to be an overvaluing of experience only in the House. I therefore tabled a permissive amendment.
The hon. Gentleman makes a point. I said that I would not oppose the amendments to the original motion that have been accepted by the Leader of the House. However, having been in the House for quite a long time, although as a Back Bencher for all those 31 years in this place, I believe that it is necessary for the members of the Committee of Nomination to know the Members when appointments to Select Committees are made.
I accept that I may be influenced by my own experience. I must tell the hon. Member for Rhondda that when I entered the House, it was very rare indeed for Members to be appointed to a Select Committee in their first term in the House. It was fairly rare even in the second term of office. Now it is much more commonplace. That is one of the reasons why, after some consideration, I have decided to support the motion, as amended.
I accept that the composition of the House has changed dramatically, and I am referring not just to the huge number of new Members who arrived in 1997 and the fairly substantial number who arrived in 2001. I say to the hon. Ladies on the Labour Benches that there has been a fairly substantial shift in gender balance in the House, and it is appropriate to take account of those changes. For that reason, I am prepared to support the Leader of my House—or rather, the House, although after all the years that I have been here, it is almost becoming my house.
I have been reading the debate that took place in 1992, when I had the experience to which I referred. Some very distinguished Members took part. Mr. Field intervened and made it clear that in his view, it was wrong for members of Select Committees to be appointed, as it were, at the whim of the Whips. That is how it was done then. Since then the Labour party has dramatically changed the way in which it puts forward the names of Labour Members for appointment to Select Committees. My party has not done that, but there is considerable discussion within the parliamentary party. Individual Members will be able to communicate with the Committee of Nomination and to put their own name forward, if they wish. Of course, the Whips will put forward, on behalf of the Labour party and the Back-Bench Labour party, the official Labour nominations.
In the 1992 debate, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead said:
"More important issues are at stake, however. Although the amendments are linked to certain names, they are not about the hon. Member for Macclesfield. His name features, but we are dealing with more important questions than his fate. I hope that hon. Members will vote not on the basis of whether the hon. Gentleman is liked or disliked, popular or unpopular, but on the basis of the debate that they will have heard about the role of Select Committees and their development in our constitution."
That is extremely important.
"It is important that these matters should not be handled in such a way"— he was referring to what had happened in 1992. He continued:
"Instead, they should be dealt with on an all-party basis. I hope that, in the light of the debate, we shall consider what should best be done in future. At present, it is wrong to suggest that there is a rule which has determined decisions. As I have said, these matters should not be handled in such a way."
Mr. Kirkwood, who is present, also intervened in that debate and said:
"a ludicrous claim has been made that a rule exists when it does not".—[Hansard, 13 July 1992; Vol. 211, c. 918-23.]
To me, it is wrong that we should perpetuate what happened on that occasion.
I see Mr. Fisher in his place. I pay tribute to the work that he has done, with many colleagues from all parts of the House, in Parliament First—a group which, I think, wants to re-establish the sovereignty and integrity of the House. I know that he strongly supported the report produced in the last Parliament. There were in fact two reports, but I am referring to the better known one from the Liaison Committee, "Shifting the Balance"—that is, from the Executive back to Parliament.
Having stated that I intend to support the major recommendations on which we will decide tonight, I turn to the question of payment. I suppose that I would be a beneficiary, whatever formula is adopted, so it is appropriate to declare that. I have the pleasure of being a member of the Chairmen's Panel.
If we are to encourage the most able people to participate in matters relating to the House, not merely to seek to become Ministers and to do all that that requires, we need an alternative career structure. Here I depart from the views expressed by the hon. Member for Manchester, Central. The payment of Chairmen of Select Committees and perhaps, in due course, additional remuneration for those who spend considerable amounts of time chairing Standing Committees, Westminster Hall and occasionally the House would recognise such service to the House. That service prevents hon. Members from undertaking other tasks and jobs, including other jobs outside the House, from which they could obtain additional remuneration. Bearing it in mind that people's final pensions are based on their salaries, there is good reason to consider the matter seriously.
The Leader of the House has acted responsibly. He has not put a firm proposal before the House. He has presented the House with options, so that on a free vote the House can indicate what it thinks and reach a decision. I hope that the House will decide that there will be remuneration, and the matter can then be submitted to the Review Body on Senior Salaries.
In my view, this is a very important debate. As I said, I wish that it had taken place earlier. We need to restore the integrity of this place and to give hon. Members who are committed to this House and its institutions the opportunity to do a good job.
I should like to refer to one other matter: the core tasks that were a major feature of the speech of the Leader of the House. I say to hon. Members that those tasks are very important if Select Committees are to do the job that they are there to do. To my mind, the inquiries undertaken by the Procedure Committee, of which I am Chairman, show that the House's scrutiny of estimates and expenditure is inadequate. Until we take those tasks seriously, we will not be able to hold the Government of the day to account as I believe we should.
Once again, this is a very important debate and I congratulate the Leader of the House on all the work that he has done and the leadership that he has provided. I also congratulate all the members of the Modernisation Committee, who have participated fully to a man and woman in the many lengthy sittings that we have had. To say that we arrived at our conclusions lightly and without proper consideration would be to deny the very hard work that has been put in by every man and woman who serves on the Committee.
I believe that we would do well for this House and its future by voting for the recommendations.
I should like to be brief. I want to say a word about the Prime Minister and then to use that word to make a larger point.
The word about the Prime Minister is as follows. The Select Committee system in its modern form was developed 20 years ago, and as has rightly been pointed out, that was only the latest instalment—although it was an important one—in the operation of Select Committees. There was a gap in that system, and that gap was the Prime Minister—a point that was put to me forcefully on many occasions by the great Professor Peter Hennessy, who was responsible for persuading John Major when he was Prime Minister to publish the ministerial code, as it became. Indeed, I sometimes think that Peter Hennessy is the only thing approximating to a constitution that this country has. He forcefully suggested to me that the gap had to be remedied.
We on the Public Administration Committee began to try to provide that remedy. I began a correspondence with the Prime Minister—it has been published in our reports—in which I tried to persuade him that it would be right for him to account directly to the House just as a departmental Minister would. We tried a number of stratagems and identified certain matters for which only he was responsible, pointing out that if he did not account for them, nobody could. The ministerial code was the obvious example, but as No. 10 began to expand and new Departments began to arrive, many people in government were responsible only to the Prime Minister and could be accountable to the House only through him.
When I made those points in our correspondence, the Prime Minister would reply that all the conventions were against what was proposed. I was told that Prime Ministers did not do that sort of thing and did not come to the House of Commons to appear before Select Committees. Of course, that was wrong, as Prime Ministers used to do so. The subsequent convention has developed only since the war. Indeed, it really began only because when the new Select Committee system started after 1979, Mrs. Thatcher did not want to appear before the Defence Committee in the Westland inquiry. If one scratches a convention, one will always find expediency. On consideration, the great weight of convention seemed to disappear. Ramsay MacDonald appeared before a Select Committee, as did Neville Chamberlain. What this House has forgotten are the powers that it used to have.
When I had exhausted my correspondence with the Prime Minister on one front, I went to the Liaison Committee and asked why we did not invite the Prime Minister to come to the House annually to account for the Government's annual report. Again, the same reply came back, saying that Prime Ministers did not do that sort of thing and that all the conventions were against it. Of course, the little tailspin was the removal of the annual report itself.
Against that background, let us notch up the achievement for this House in the Prime Minister's agreement to come and give an account to Select Committees of what he does in terms of his own responsibilities and those of government as a whole. However, in doing so, let us also be aware of the wider significance of that victory, which is that the House is not going into new territory, but reclaiming territory that it used to occupy.
I put it to the House that that is the fundamental point. This House used to be more powerful than it is now. The story of the past century is of this House losing power to the Executive. Either we as a House of Commons want to reclaim some of that power or we do not. When we talk about modernising Parliament, I get rather uneasy, as modernisation can mean two different things. It can mean allowing the Executive to have an easier life and to get their business through in a more straightforward way, as well as tidying up some of the untidy bits of how this House operates, including things that I like, such as ensuring that we get home earlier at night. Those are important matters, but let us not believe for a second that they go to the heart of the constitutional issue, which is that there has been a drift of power away from Parliament and towards the Executive as party discipline has tightened in the past century or so.
We have to decide either that that is how politics now is, play our part in that system, become its slavish adherents in one way or another and find eloquent ways of justifying it, or that that shift has to be reversed. That is the point about the report "Shifting the Balance".
Did not Parliament reclaim the ground because the parliamentary Labour party refused to accept the recommendation that two of our colleagues who had served as Select Committee Chairmen should not be reappointed? Is it not because the parliamentary party made it perfectly clear in the Chamber that we were not willing to put up with that and voted against it that the recommendation is before us today?
Indeed. I am grateful for that observation, as those events showed that this institution had to reach a certain point before it became clear to everyone that we could go no further down that road. We must be honest with ourselves about that and hope that people outside are not listening. The fact is that we had to decide whether we wanted our instruments of scrutiny, the Select Committees, to be owned by this House or by the Executive. That was the choice that was put to the House by the Liaison Committee in its report. It was a very clear choice as to whether we wanted to continue with a system in which the Chairmen of Select Committees were selected by the Minister whose Department they were supposed to be scrutinise. We had to decide whether those appointments were the prizes of patronage or whether the Chairmen were to act as the instruments of scrutiny and independence on the House's behalf.
I am not sure that I am as troubled by that as the right hon. Gentleman would like me to be. Having had the experience of chairing a Select Committee, I find that it is possible, almost like an oasis inside this institution, to work on a different cross-party basis, whereby some of the old antagonisms that exist in this Chamber begin to slide away. That is why many of us give such attention to Select Committees—we know that they offer a way of working and of dealing with issues that differs from the knockabout, custard pie approach that we take in here.
Is not the hon. Gentleman overlooking the fact that his chairmanship of a Select Committee is by virtue of his membership of the parliamentary Labour party? Moreover, in his admirable efforts to close the gap of prime ministerial accountability through the Liaison Committee, is not he ignoring the fact that of 27 members of minority parties in this House, not a single one chairs a Select Committee, and they will therefore have no access to the welcome system of prime ministerial accountability that he has helped to introduce? Does he see that as an anomaly?
If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I do not want to revisit the question of minority party representation, because I hope that that will be helped by the new arrangements.
On his first point, perhaps one should not confess too much on these occasions, but when I expressed an interest in chairing a Select Committee instead of being a Parliamentary Private Secretary to a Cabinet Minister, I was told—I had better not say by whom—that that would not be tolerated by the Whips, that it would not be acceptable to No. 10, and that I should forget all about it. Change came about only because members of that Select Committee said, not that they particularly wanted me, but that they would not have someone foisted upon them. Unless we build independence into the system, I am afraid that we shall have the continuation of the system that we know exists now. To echo the point made by my hon. Friend David Winnick, that system required the turning of the worm. We had reached a point beyond which we could not continue any longer. When one looks back at the history of Select Committees, one sees the way in which they were once able to send for persons and papers and properly to interrogate the Executive through Ministers, and it becomes clear that they have to relearn those techniques. We are not about to go somewhere that we have never been before—we are reclaiming a small bit of territory that we should never have lost.
As Select Committees, we have much more to do. We have not yet begun to get hold of the real centres of power outside this House. If we really want the House and the Committee system to be the apex of accountability, we must get hold of all those regulators who now determine so much about real life in this country. We must get hold of areas that we have hardly begun to get hold of if we want to put this place at the centre of the nation's affairs again.
Some things have changed over the past 100 years, not least the advent of television, which means that when the Prime Minister appears before the Liaison Committee of 34 members the whole country will see exactly what the establishment of the House of Commons looks like. Is my hon. Friend worried that a Committee of 34 will find it difficult to undertake that act of scrutiny, and does he agree that it would be better done by a smaller Committee?
I do indeed share that view. I have expressed it in the relevant quarters, and I hope that the issue will be resolved. If we get it right, it will do the House of Commons some good.
There is a mismatch between how we do politics in here and how the country expects politics to be done. Unless we can make these arrangements come together, the reputation and status of this House will not only not be restored, but decline further. I have been pessimistic on this front over the past 10 years, and this is the first time that I can say with honesty that we may just have turned the corner. Under the leadership of the Leader of the House, the House may have begun to understand that we can no longer go on as we have in the past.
It is generous of the hon. Gentleman to give way. As I will not be able to speak in the debate, I want to return him to the point made by my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House about the illogicality of his position. The hon. Gentleman is worried about the independence of the Chairman, but he should also be worried about the independence of the entire Committee. It is not only the inquisition of Ministers that goes on in a Committee, but the line-by-line scrutiny of reports. If the Government of the day has a majority on that Committee, it is likely that the end character and content of such reports will be biased towards the Government.
I think that I dealt with that point. It is simply not my experience that Select Committees work like that. Indeed, one of the joys of Select Committees is that they do not.
This is the kind of modernisation that deserves the name. It is the kind of modernisation that begins to shift the balance and to point the House in the right direction. I just hope—if I can put it this way—that the dark forces that inhabit this place do not want to prevent this package of reforms from continuing. It is a package—all the bits connect. If we put them together we can begin to see a future for this House that connects us to politics as it should be and to what people outside expect of us. If we do not get it right this time, I am afraid that this House may fall further in public affection and repute.
I very much welcome the spirit of the Modernisation Committee's report and largely accept its conclusions. It is particularly important because, over the years, as we must all be aware, scrutiny has migrated from this Chamber, which has become largely theatre. If scrutiny is to exist, it must be conducted elsewhere in the institution.
I welcome the initiative of the Leader of the House. I remember sitting in the Liaison Committee under his predecessor thinking that a fairly Stalinist attitude was being displayed towards us, so I welcome the glasnost that he has brought to the debate. I shall not ask him to react to that, because it would break the solidarity that he would wish to express with his predecessor.
I have reservations on three matters, some of which the Leader of the House has partly dealt with: first, the notion of a separate Back-Bench career path; secondly, the core tasks; and, thirdly, the size of the Committee.
Like most of my colleagues, I cannot say that I get terribly excited about the way in which Members of Parliament are chosen for Select Committees. I served on and chaired the Select Committee on Agriculture and now chair the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I have never had the feeling that my colleagues are being nobbled, and I have spent part of my time trying to tone down Labour Members' hostile comments about their own Government. I cannot get quite as exercised about that issue as many people do.
I do, however, become exercised about the very concept of the separate career path because it gives rise to one or two problems, the first of which is the fact that we are trying to graft some of the characteristics of Congress on to a parliamentary system. The United States has powerful congressional committees because of the principle of the separation of powers. Those committees can approve nominations, generate and hone legislation and bargain with the Executive. We can do none of those things, and we should not pretend that we can assimilate them into the concept of Parliament and Government in this House. There may be a case for taking the Executive out of the House. In the context of longer-term evolution, it might be desirable to move more entirely towards a congressional habit of mind in the interests of proper scrutiny—especially given the problems identified by Tony Wright as regards the Executive and presidential forms of government that we have now. However, that is not the proposition before us, and I would not wish to overplay its role or the expectations within it.
On paid Chairmen, there is a balance in this place, and its political role could be compromised if Select Committee Chairmen, and they alone, were chosen for receipt of a particular bonus. I hope that my Front Benchers will not take this as a plea for a job, but members of the shadow Cabinet have an infinitely more difficult role than any Select Committee Chairman. Getting the information to hold the Government to account on the basis of the resources available to an Opposition demands an enormous commitment of time and energy. Frankly, it is a much more demanding role than that which I fulfil. If we give Select Committee Chairmen additional money but ask hon. Members to choose between doing the hewing of wood and drawing of water on the Front Bench and becoming a grandee through running a Select Committee—I went from being a Back Bencher to a grandee without an intermediate stage—a serious dilemma will arise.
I also have some reservations about the proposed collegiate nature of Select Committees. I chair a Committee of 17 members, and I look forward to reducing its membership to 15, if the rules permit that. However, the Committee is friendly and largely based on trust—taking people's word and trying to work together. I am worried about what will happen if we introduce gentlemen and players into that system.
If the matter goes before the Review Body on Senior Salaries, I hope that it will be examined in the wider context of hon. Members' motivation. Frankly, an informed, energetic Opposition constitutes the best form of scrutiny that a parliamentary system can provide.
I have some doubts about core tasks. However, in the light of the reassurances that the Leader of the House gave, I shall not press my amendment.
The remit of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee runs from global warming to tuberculosis in cattle, nuclear waste to fisheries management, BSE to bathing beaches and CAP reform to Covent Garden—a heavy remit. We have to deal with five Ministers; six agencies, including the Rural Payments Agency, which pays out billions of pounds in CAP support; 20 executive quangos, including the Environment Agency, English Nature and the Countryside Commission to list only some of the biggest; 31 advisory quangos; two public corporations; five tribunals, and seven other advisory bodies. We can commit ourselves to interrogate them all in a Parliament, but if we do that we set ourselves a series of possibly fruitless tasks that will act as a deterrent to many hon. Members who want to serve on the Committee.
In the statement on House of Lords reform yesterday, the Leader of the House said that we had to start by thinking about what hon. Members want the House of Lords to do. What do we want a Select Committee to do? Let us begin with the tasks. There are three basic jobs. First, Select Committees provide a forum for debating issues of immediate importance when Parliament must be capable of responding quickly to events but cannot provide the detailed scrutiny anywhere else. In Select Committees, detailed and, if necessary, prolonged interrogation can take place. They also have the power to summon witnesses. The Chairman of the Select Committee on Education and Skills cited the example of individual learning accounts. I could cite a series of cases from my Committee—for example, flooding. We had to respond to that because of public expectation that Parliament is capable of dealing with something that goes bump in the night.
Secondly, we need to scrutinise policy, including quangos, continually. On the whole, shorter, sharper reports that maintain their relevance are better than long, discursive reports. However, the subject of genetically modified foods continues to be considered in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. The same applies to organic food, nuclear waste and flood defence. We should keep reverting to and niggling at some subjects. That is the key; we must revert to issues time and again, if only for one-day sessions, and ascertain developments since we last met, such as the Government's response and whether anything in the firmament has changed. That takes time, energy and application, including much staff time. The shorter the reports, and the greater their number, the greater the demands on staff time.
Select Committees must provide a forum for ideas. I would have called that blue sky thinking if Lord Birt and the Prime Minister had not given the expression such a bad name. Governments come into office with a litany of new ideas that they have culled from think tanks and universities, and are good at applying them in their first years. Governments' abiding problem is the continuing ability to assimilate new ideas rather than simply sticking to their agendas. Part of the role of Select Committees is to bring ideas together where they can be ventilated and, if necessary, conflict to create a dialectic. That can be used to tackle the way in which the country is governed.
I do not want to make the tasks so prescriptive that that function cannot continue. They must not exclude free-range thinking or lay down methodologies; even seeing all the relevant Ministers in the course of a Parliament is a good idea, but not as a mechanistic obligation. I fear that that will prove a disincentive to Committee members.
We must also bear in mind the capacity to deliver. My Committee does not have permanent Sub-Committees. We have several Sub-Committees of short duration that are chaired by different members so that everyone has an opportunity to chair and share the load. The main Committee is about to embark on an inquiry entitled, "What the blazes is DEFRA for?" Once we have worked that out, we will consider whether it is engineered to do the job. The purpose of the Department is central, by any definition of core tasks. We also currently have two Sub-Committees. That is a great burden on members' time and entails an enormous amount of work by the staff. If we want the Committees to be successful, the reports must be published quickly. There is no point in waiting three weeks for the end of a Sub-Committee before examining proposals.
If I may make a special plea, the remuneration that we offer specialist advisers is not always sufficient to get the quality of people that we want. We tend to get academics and those for whom advising a Select Committee will look good on a CV, but not people from the private sector, who want more effective consultancy rates.
The Leader of the House and other colleagues said that Select Committees would sit for longer and have many Sub-Committees. If so, perhaps we should consider the other commitments that Members of Parliament make, which we have recently multiplied. For example, we have invented longer sittings in Westminster Hall. I consistently lose members of my Committee because they have a debate in Westminster Hall or want to take part in one. We want to serve on Standing Committees that consider Bills. I do not want to divorce myself from the normal legislative process at the heart of Parliament. I want to be able to serve on a Bill Committee. However, that means that Select Committees lose Members who are recruited for Bill Committees.
The changed hours that are envisaged for the Chamber will create a greater clash between time in the Chamber and that spent Upstairs. The same core of Members usually do the lion's share of the work on Sub- Committees. If we are to multiply them and their functions, we must review some of the other demands, including those that the Chamber imposes on us.
I am grateful for the fact that the Committees will have a chance to determine their size—within limits. I am not sure about the relevance for a Committee such as mine, which already has 17 members. Some colleagues argue that it is better to have more members and give them all a chance, and that that will mean that the jobs are done better. However, the Committee's essential role is scrutiny. We can scrutinise only if we can pursue lines of argument as they arise—if the ferrets can be sent after the rabbits when they appear, to use a metaphor that will appeal to the Leader of the House.
When matters crop up in questioning, they must be pursued. I do not like the formalistic approach to a Committee, whereby all members have an allocation of questions that they ask in turn. I believe in a more informal arrangement that allows people to butt in. However, that must be effective. A large Committee will not have the power to do the job that it is allowed to do. There is therefore conflict and tension between effective scrutiny and the ability to cover the waterfront or to satisfy everyone's aspirations. In that case, we must decide what matters most; in our case, it is the ability to scrutinise.
I am not especially worried about selection methods. I find that the problem is attendance rather than nobbling. There are always difficulties with attendance. That is apparent if one examines the attendance lists. A Committee of the whole House has the same problems because of the enormous demands on hon. Members' time.
I make one request to the Leader of the House. It is rare for a Minister to refuse to appear before a Select Committee, but it is common for a Minister to claim that it is difficult to find a suitable date. We do not want to make matters difficult for Ministers, who have commitments in the Council of Ministers or international forums. However, I should like it to be a general rule of ministerial conduct or performance that a summons to a Select Committee, which will always be couched in courteous terms—the Select Committee exists to have a conversation more than anything else to glean information from people—should be tantamount to speaking in a debate in the House. That would save us all a great deal of unnecessary hassle.
The report on which we shall vote tonight is extremely constructive. I agree with the concept that the House is merely reclaiming some of its traditional powers. We still have a long way to go, but I cannot see a better way of doing this than by reinforcing the powers of the scrutiny Select Committees. Let us not, however, be naive and assume that there is a "with one bound Jack was free" solution. We must be careful that, in altering this particular piece of the mechanism, we do not cause a dislocation across the functioning of the House that we would live to regret.
Order. Many Members are seeking to catch my eye. I appeal for shorter speeches so that as many of them as possible can contribute.
I have been in the House for 15 years and I regret to say that, during that time, apart from the ending of all-night sittings, there have been very few serious attempts at modernisation. I contrast that with the jobs that I have had outside the House, which never lasted more than seven years, and usually only about three. During that time, when I ran whole departments or organisations, there was always massive change. We always wanted to develop and move on. My frustration in this place, having been here for 15 years and seen so little change, has, therefore, been acute.
That has changed only since my joining my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on the Modernisation Committee. I pay tribute to him and to his enormous vision, energy and commitment in pursuing the modernisation of this institution. We are expecting to embark on a huge agenda, as was made clear in the memorandum that he provided on a previous occasion. Today, we are tackling only a very small part of that agenda.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Tony Wright on his excellent speech today, in which he demonstrated clearly just how modest these proposals are. Despite that, the weight of tradition in this place, and some vested interests, have already led to the watering down of some of the proposals in our report, resulting in the proposals that we shall vote on tonight.
The first message that I have for my colleagues is: "If you are a moderniser, and if you want this process to continue, vote for the whole package that has been presented by my right hon. Friend. It has been constructed with considerable difficulty, it hangs together and it paves the way for greater modernisation."
What is wrong with the present system? We have heard from many others tonight, but I want to quote Lord Sheldon when he appeared before our Select Committee. He said:
He is right. The present system is not only wrong in principle; the process has lacked transparency and denied disappointed Members any right of appeal. The events of last summer served to highlight grievances, and Parliament put things right and challenged the Executive. In doing so, however, we did not provide a mechanism for a permanent solution to the underlying problems.
The proposals of the Modernisation Committee provide a court of appeal and enhance transparency, while leaving the process of producing the party lists for the Select Committees in the hands of the parties themselves. In the Labour party, as my right hon. Friend has pointed out, we have already chosen a better method, which is designed to provide greater transparency and fairness in the internal party process. Nothing that comes before the House tonight will change that, except that everyone will know that there is a court of appeal and another scrutiny system, and that, in extremis, a Member could appeal to the Committee of Nomination. I believe that the very existence of the Committee of Nomination means that it will probably never be used, because of the great influence that it will have simply by being there and by affecting the way in which the parties behave. Even if Labour Members think that we have got everything right, surely we ought to care about Opposition Members.
The composition of the Committee of Nomination, as proposed by the Modernisation Committee, has drawn many unfavourable comments: not many have been clearly voiced in the Chamber, but I can assure hon. Members that, out in the corridors, they certainly have been. They always begin with the words, "Those old . . . " I shall say no more. We now have some new, younger—we presume—people being added to the Modernisation Committee, and we all accept the proposals that are now before us, because we have accepted the amendments. We will, therefore, have 12 Members on the Committee, and they will reflect the different ages and the diversity in the House.
My only regret is that, when the amendment was tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Lloyd, it was not made clear that, of the two Government additions, one should be a woman and the other a man. There is a gender imbalance on the Chairmen's Panel, and it could be addressed by the new amendments. I hope that, if the proposals are passed tonight, the spirit of that will be understood by those who make the appointments. People should look not at personalities, however, but at the independence that will be brought to the Committee of Nomination under the leadership of the Chairman of Ways and Means. This is an extremely modest proposal, but it returns to Parliament what is rightly Parliament's: the power of decision over matters of parliamentary scrutiny.
Our report seeks to address several other problems with the present system, including the size of the Committees. I frequently go to meetings at which I meet colleagues from other European Parliaments and institutions. They always ask me at the outset, "Which Committee are you on?" There is an assumption in many Parliaments—this is now also true of the Scottish Parliament—that every Member will be on a Committee and be part of the scrutiny process, and that they will all have a place. By comparison, our scrutiny system is grossly underdeveloped, and our report seeks to address some of those problems.
In defending the present means of selection and appointment, some new Members have told me that they think it works extremely well and that it is the most interesting part of their job. I am sure that it is, but, by defending the status quo, they deny other new Members coming to the House the opportunity to serve. There should be an increase in the numbers, although I do not agree that that should be achieved in the way that our amendment now suggests. It should have been mandatory. The report recommended that there should be 15 members, and that is what we should have had. At least we should go some way towards that tonight, however, by giving discretion to Committees.
Mr. Curry talked about his Committee of 17 members. While saying that he would like it to be somewhat smaller, however, he also complained about the work load, and the complexities arising from not having full attendance. Any of us should be able to chair a Committee of 15. The Modernisation Committee—a completely cross-party Committee—has had 15 members and has been brilliantly chaired and, if I may say so, has worked extremely well. I agree with what Mr. Winterton said about that tonight.
This is not a question of the ability to chair a Committee. It is a question of the ability to ensure that the Committee spends its time doing the job that it is supposed to do, in effectively pursuing its witnesses. There is a difference between a management problem and a parliamentary political problem.
I chair the New Deal for Communities board, which is far more diverse than any parliamentary Committee, and has 21 members. I believe that there is a skill involved in enabling people in such circumstances. As the right hon. Gentleman suggested, it does not always have to be Buggins's turn. Sometimes the member who is pursuing a point is the one who should be called more often. I accept that, but the fundamental principle here involves the opportunity for many more Members to serve on Select Committees. Because we have absences and conflicts of interest, and because people have to be in other places, having 15 members is a way of making a good Committee and enabling it to work.
There has been talk of costs, but, frankly, this is about scrutiny, which is what we are here to do, and that has to be paid for. It has been suggested that if membership of the Foreign Affairs Committee were larger, it would have people travelling all over the world on freebies. All those things can be sorted out. People have distinct interests, even within a Select Committee, and not everyone has to do everything or go everywhere at the same time.
It is terribly important to understand that, if a Select Committee is divided into a number of small Sub-Committees—or even quite large ones—the other members of that Committee are excluded from considering not only the evidence but the conclusions. I hope that my hon. Friend will not go down the road of assuming that constantly fragmenting a bigger Committee gets a better result. That is not the case, and it actually defeats their purpose.
I bow to my hon. Friend's experience, but I think that these matters can be worked out. I think that, because Sub-Committees concentrate more on specific issues, they sometimes add more to the whole. I do not think there is a complete choice and we are not offering a complete prescription, but I do think the numbers need to be increased.
The report says that the parties—in effect, the Government—will still determine which party chairs which Committee. I believe that chairmanships should rotate, although the Modernisation Committee has not considered that.
Last year, as events demonstrated, the usual channels sought to determine who would chair Committees. Even according to new proposals, and with improved methods of party selection, chairmanship could still be predetermined simply on the grounds of previous tenure and the fact that someone had done a good job. Experience shows that people can remain Chairs for three, four or even five Parliaments. They may continue to produce exemplary work, but I strongly believe that there are others with equal talents who must be given an opportunity to offer those talents. I think that one term, or five years, of a Parliament is sufficient for anyone to occupy the Chair, and it is certainly fairest if payment is involved.
I have no time to give way.
I believe that there should be a limit, and I think that the Committee's proposal of eight years is both modest and generous.
Finally, let me put down a marker. One matter was not raised in the Committee, but I think it will need to be raised in the future. The House has environmental and financial audit, but what does not exist for all Departments, Government institutions, quangos and so forth is any auditing of equality. We need an equality Select Committee to consider issues of gender, race and disability. Ours is a fundamentally unequal society, and even now our Government have not been able to address all the inequalities.
That is for another day, however. I appeal to my colleagues to support the whole package presented by the Modernisation Committee, both because of its intrinsic value and because it represents the start of real modernisation. The opportunity will not occur again in the near future.
I shall observe your injunction, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and try to speak with exceptional brevity.
There has been a transformation in mood and tone since a similar debate during the last Parliament, less than a year ago. Many who are present now have taken part in debates on "Shifting the Balance", and will note that transformation. There are many reasons for it—the pioneering work of the Liaison Committee, the personality of the new Leader of the House, but also, I think, the growing appetite of Back Benchers for the reclaiming of some of the power they have lost. That, I believe, is why this is a much more consensual, constructive debate than its predecessors.
The steam escaped at the beginning of this Parliament, at the end of July, during the debate on the Committee of Selection. What happened in 1992 gave that Committee the yellow card, and what happened in July this year gave it the red card. The system was bust, there was no way the House would accept it, and those outside who take an interest in the House would have been astounded if a discredited system had remained.
My Select Committee was not one of the those for which payments were proposed, and I do not want to be paid, but I think Chairmen of investigative committees should be paid. I take the points made by my right hon. Friend Mr. Curry and Mrs. Dunwoody about the risk of damage to cohesion and integrity if Committee Chairmen were paid, but I do not agree. I think that if the House decided that the hon. Lady and my right hon. Friend should be paid, their Committees would work every bit as effectively as they do now. I do not think integrity or cohesion would be damaged if the House decided it was in the interest of building an alternative career structure for Chairmen to be paid.
I do not, however, buy the argument that that generosity should be extended to the shadow Cabinet. What we are trying to do is offer an alternative career path. The advantage for members of the shadow Cabinet is that one day they will be paid as Ministers. It would confuse the issue to start paying them on the back of the argument for remunerating Select Committee Chairmen.
Nor am I persuaded by the eight-year rule. If we are trying to offer an alternative career, why should we place an eight-year restriction on that career when there is no eight-year restriction on a ministerial term? Are we really saying that, had Mr. Mullin not taken the Queen's shilling, he should not have been eligible to chair the Home Affairs Select Committee? Should a young man be cut off in his prime? The key question, surely, is this: which member of that Select Committee would best chair it, and best hold the Executive to account? We should ask not how long the Chairman has done his job, but whether he is the best at it.
I plead guilty, and I would have been very distressed if after eight years John Major had said "I am very sorry, George, but you have had your eight years; that's it".
The key question for the Prime Minister is the question I have just posed: who is best able to discharge the portfolio? My right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Clarke was a Minister for some 18 years. He would say that he was just warming up at the end of that period, and ready for more challenges.
I want to make two final points, the first of which is about the size of Committees. I understand the argument that every Member should have an opportunity to display his or her talents by serving on a Select Committee, and I understand the argument about representation of minority parties, but I do not think that those are the key questions. The key question, in this context, is this: at what size can a Select Committee operate most effectively? What is the right size to enable it to hold the Executive to account? I think Committees should have about 11 or 13 members. The more members are added, the greater the diminishing returns. Each time the membership is increased from five to seven, from seven to nine and from nine to 11, value is added and the value of the extra member is significant, but as soon as it is increased from 11 or from 13 the diminishing returns begin.
I accept the arguments of nearly all members of the Liaison Committee. They argue that they can do their job more effectively with a smaller Committee. There is another point, which has not been mentioned: if more people are appointed to a Select Committee, they are not doing nothing else. It is not a nil sum game. If more people are asked to spend more time on Select Committees, they will probably spend less time in Westminster Hall and on Standing Committees.
My last point is about Prime Minister's Question Time, which I think is a disaster area. It is the worst possible way of holding the Prime Minister to account. It is most unusual to get any information out of the Prime Minister, but, even worse, Question Time gives people an entirely wrong impression of what politics is about. They assume that the House of Commons is always like that. That is one reason why people are switched off politics: they assume that that is what we are like. I think that there is an appetite for a less adversarial, more constructive, more strategic approach to questioning the Prime Minister.
I do not envy my right hon. Friend Mr. Williams his task of chairing the Liaison Committee, but I am sure he will do it well. Perhaps the House will learn from what the Committee does, and the format of Prime Minister's Question Time on the Floor of the House may change if the House discovers that there is a better way of holding the Government to account.
Yes, the balance is shifting; but the momentum needs to be maintained if the House is to return to what should be its position.
Although many of the Committee's proposals are good—more resources for Select Committees, the debating of reports, and so forth—I have severe reservations about two or three aspects of them. I shall begin with the question of Committee size, as that is where Sir George Young left off.
Arguing that the size of Committees should be increased to provide more people with more jobs is not very attractive reasoning. It would not make Committees more effective; indeed, evidence from the Liaison Committee and the comments that we have heard today have overwhelmingly demonstrated the opposite. Not only would there be less participation by each Committee member, and therefore less time to pursue particular lines of inquiry, but it is less likely that unanimity would be reached. One of the great strengths of the Select Committee system is the ability to produce unanimous cross-party reports. The greater the number of members, the greater the risk of party political division, and the less cogent the reports would be.
The first solution is to ensure that existing members of Select Committees actually turn up. If they fail to turn up without good reason, they should be replaced. That is the answer to the quorum question, and I am pleased that the Modernisation Committee report deals with it to some degree.
Another solution is to consider the configuration of existing Committees. We have heard about the great work load of some of the bigger Committees. If the work of some groups is sufficiently discrete, they could perhaps be divided into full Select Committees in their own right, rather than being split into Sub-Committees. My hon. Friend Mrs. Dunwoody may have a view on whether transport should have a full Select Committee in its own right. The creation of giant Departments is perhaps linked to the current anomaly, as well as to some of the transport problems that we face.
We have considered the creation of new Select Committees. Some Government Departments do not have their own Select Committees. For example, the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Law Officers' Department are lumped in with the Home Office for Select Committee purposes, and it is clear that they do not get the scrutiny that they deserve. Perhaps we should consider establishing a separate Committee to scrutinise those Departments. The same is true of the Cabinet Office; if we genuinely want to achieve joined-up government, perhaps we should establish a Committee that examines it per se.
We already have cross-departmental Committees such as the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Science and Technology Committee and the Environmental Audit Committee. I agree with my hon. Friend Joan Ruddock that we should perhaps establish a Select Committee on equality that can examine such issues across government. In establishing whether the configuration of Committees is right, perhaps we could also create the necessary additional jobs and improve the effectiveness of the scrutiny of Government, rather than simply providing more jobs on existing Committees, thereby potentially weakening their effectiveness.
My other main reservation concerns the Committee of Nomination. I agree with the approach adopted by Mr. Knight. Do we need it, and if so, why? The argument in favour of the Committee of Nomination is that it would ensure fair play and provide a court of appeal, but in what way? Such decisions will be taken by the parties, and it has been accepted that parties will produce their own lists, much as they already do. We seem to have overlooked the fact that since last summer's spat the Labour party has reformed its procedures, thereby almost certainly ensuring that such problems will not arise again.
My concern is that complaints already heard in the parliamentary Labour party, and, ultimately, on the Floor of the House, could be heard in yet another forum. We are told that that would happen only in exceptional circumstances, but three such circumstances have occurred already. The danger is that we will create a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Today's proposals certainly do not recognise the changes that the parliamentary Labour party, at least, has already made to its procedures.
I am worried about the possibility that we would be creating a whinger's charter. People who could not convince their own colleagues that they ought to be put on a particular Select Committee would be able to run and tell tales to a group of more senior, unelected Committee members—who, as the Liberal Democrats have pointed out, would have the power not only to accommodate the whinger, but to remove someone who did enjoy the confidence of the party in question. Their acquiring such power would be a natural consequence of the proposal.
The report says that we must come up with a structure that enjoys the confidence of both sides of the House. It is bad enough that a minority of Opposition Members could decide on Government appointments. For example, they would have the power to examine the Labour party's papers, demand explanations of our party's decisions and overturn recommendations. Do the Opposition seriously want a Committee with a Government majority—albeit one that might operate in a non-party political way—to take decisions on their appointments? That surely cannot be good for scrutiny. In fact, it would give a Committee with a Government majority the right to get rid of Opposition appointees and replace them with people more to its liking, which would give rise to potential for great mischief.
Will my hon. Friend clarify one important point? The premise of his argument is the retention of the existing Committee of Selection, which is dominated by Whips, and which in the past has been known to meet for some three minutes, or even, in certain cases, 30 seconds. Does he not realise that that process is discredited? Does he not further realise that the House of Commons as a whole would have the power to overturn the recommendations of the Committee of Nomination, just as it can overturn those of the Committee of Selection? In relation to the powers vested in this House and its individual Members, the proposed process is in no way different.
I hear what my hon. Friend says, but he has overlooked the fact that since the problems arose last year, the parliamentary Labour party has reformed its system—although I cannot speak for the other parties. Of course the right already exists to take such matters to the House of Commons. In effect, my hon. Friend is trying to replace one set of people with another.
As for the configuration of the Committee of Selection, an amendment has been accepted that marginally improves matters. However, in effect, existing members of the Committee owe their membership to the principle of Buggins's turn. If the proposed Committee were established today, most of its male members would have been elected between 1959 and 1983. There might be one or two new Members as well, but such a membership would certainly not represent the balance of interests in the House. Nor would they have the knowledge, strengths and special interests of hon. Members as a whole.
A series of complicated amendments has been synthesised into one to deal with that problem, but it has not worked. When I entered Parliament in 1997 I knew a few of my intake, but I knew nothing about the vast majority of the others, and I certainly knew very little about those who had been Members for a long time—excluding what one read in the newspapers, or heard on "Today In Parliament." Moreover, the media give a poor impression of what people are really like. The 1992 intake did not know much about the 1997 intake, and the 1997 intake knew practically nothing about the 2001 intake. We can tinker at the margins by trying to create places for Members from recent intakes, but that will not address the issue of knowing the strengths and weaknesses of Members throughout the House. I am therefore concerned about the concept of the Committee of Nomination and the mechanics of its operation.
No, because I am drawing my remarks to a close.
I am concerned by the suggestion that the Chairman should be chosen by the Committee itself. I question whether, when the chairmanship of a Select Committee has been allocated to the Opposition, it is right for the Government members of the Committee to be able to choose the Chairman. According to that principle, the Work and Pensions Committee, of which I am a member, would not have chosen our current Chairman—he is a good Chairman—because he is the only Liberal Democrat member of it. The suggestion is therefore rather nonsensical.
I agree that there should be a time limit on the length of service of Select Committee Chairmen, and what has been offered is a reasonable compromise in that respect. However, I want an assurance that we will not be subjected to musical chairs. Where a given Committee is reconfigured as a Department is restructured, the opportunity could arise for someone who has already served two terms to be parachuted in for a third term on a different Select Committee. The principle should be, "Two strikes and you're out", to make room for other people with an equal right to serve in that capacity.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend—if I may call him that—Mr. Dismore, who sits on the Work and Pensions Committee with me. I enjoy working with him, and as he says, the Committee operates on the basis of consensus. The idea of consensus on a Select Committee is an important point, which I am picking up from the excellent speech by Tony Wright. He was right to say that people's perception of this place is of confrontational, custard-pie politics.
The work of Select Committees, if they are operating properly, follows from the evidence presented to all their members. They draw conclusions based on the evidence presented to them. It can be difficult for members from the governing party, but if the evidence is produced they will say, "Yes, there are problems that the Government need to address." That has certainly been my experience. That is the essence of the work of Select Committees, and we need to promote that ethic and change the way in which we work in the House. Otherwise we will continue to fall in the esteem of the public, and that is a matter of great concern for the whole democratic process.
I share the enthusiasm for the tone of the debate and the proposals. I have not seen such an opportunity for change in my time in the House, which began in 1983. Other hon. Members have explained all the elements of the changes earlier in the debate, so I shall not go into those, but I should point out that the Leader of the House has played a key role in the process. The weight of his presence on the Modernisation Committee and on the House of Commons Commission has unlocked doors in a way that I have never seen before. With his authority, he has been able to confront the collective power of the Whips in a way that Leaders of the House in the past—although I say nothing against them—have perhaps not been able to do. The present Leader of the House has used his position to begin a process of change.
The hon. Member for Hendon raised detailed points of concern. He is a thoughtful man, and we would be right to consider his views, but I hope that colleagues will see the proposals as the start of a long journey. A process of evolution could shift the balance, in the way that the Liaison Committee started to identify in the last Parliament.
When we are trying to shift the balance, we should continually remind ourselves of the weight balanced against us. The total sum of money spent by central Government in the fiscal year 2001–02 was £394 billion. The total sum spent by the House on all aspects of scrutiny was £7.7 million. According to my calculations, that is 0.002 per cent. of the total sum spent by the Government. The Public Accounts Committee has control over the National Audit Office, which has 750 staff, and the House has only 150 professionals in its staff complement to support the scrutiny work of Members of Parliament. Moreover, the disproportion has been worsening.
As part of the package of changes, we need to think about how we can shift the balance. I come back to the role that the Leader of the House has played in the process. As a member of the House of Commons Commission, I can confirm that the Commission has signed up to the project. Its members have already started thinking about funding for a central unit. We cannot do anything until the disposition of the House is known after the Divisions tonight, but if it is the will of the House, it would be possible to have in place a central unit, with 18 new members of staff, by autumn 2003. That would mean the expenditure of some £850,000. I have been a Member of Parliament for nearly 20 years and a member of the Commission for six or seven years, but I have never before known it possible to devote such sums to the House of Commons' work of scrutiny.
Not only the core unit would be funded; the Internal Review Service, with the help of the NAO, is already working on plans for additional support for each Committee's office, in addition to the core unit. Mr. Williams has also played a distinguished and important role in that process. The Commission has already committed itself to trying to assist the political process that has been started, within reason and subject to the budget for the next three-year expenditure plan. Of course there is not enough money to do everything that we would like to do, but in the past 18 months there has been a sea change in the willingness of the House authorities to assist the process, and we should seize that opportunity with both hands.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the resources represent a wonderful opportunity for the Select Committee system, and we must thank many people for that. However, does he agree that the Select Committee system will be on trial? If in the end people still think that Select Committees are a little ghetto into which some hon. Members disappear and never communicate with the rest of the House, we will have failed. We have to ensure that we are worthy to be given the resources, and worthy of the confidence of the House.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I fear that the list of core tasks mentioned in the motion may become prescriptive, but it at least gives us a measure by which, over a Parliament, we can test the effectiveness of the work that we do. We will indeed need to demonstrate that the changes have made a difference to the effectiveness of the Select Committees.
The proposal to provide salaries for the Chairmen of Select Committees is the right approach, because an alternative career structure within the current system is an essential third part of the package, along with a core unit and adequate staff for each Committee. We need professional Chairmen, especially for Committees such as the Work and Pensions Committee, whose work is becoming ever more technical. It needs a specialist, who spends two, three, or even three and a half days a week on the work. We need to provide the career structure and money that will make that work worth while. For the first time ever, we have an opportunity to bring that about.
I enjoy working with my colleagues on the Work and Pensions Committee—there are 11 of us—in a spirit of consensus. However, I fear the difficulty of trying to achieve that consensus with 15 members. On Wednesday we heard from three different groups of witnesses, with two people representing each group. It was difficult even for the number of Committee members who were present—we always have a good turn-out—to cross-examine six people meaningfully, but with 15 members it would have been impossible. People would have been dissatisfied and demotivated.
As the hon. Member for Hendon pointed out, smaller memberships are necessary to produce powerful consensual reports, because people have the opportunity to get to know each other well enough. I am worried by the proposals to increase the size of Select Committees, although—I would say this, because I am member of one of them—I accept the need to try to ensure that the views of minority parties are reflected on Select Committees.
The hon. Member for Hendon thinks deeply about these issues, but I disagree with his point about the Committee of Nomination. It is an essential part of the package. I served for five years, without time off for good behaviour, on the Committee of Selection. It is difficult for the Government to ensure that all the Standing Committees, including those on delegated legislation, are properly put together, but that is different from the important work that the Committee does in trying to find people to sit on Select Committees.
I disagree with my hon. Friend Mr. Dismore about the Nomination Committee. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a misconception that the Committee needs to be concerned about the identity of individual Select Committee members? Its task is not to replace one Select Committee member with another, but to guard against the abuse of process and the corruption that has been evident for far too long in its predecessor.
We should try the Committee of Nomination process for the rest of this Parliament. If there are difficulties and it does not work, we can revisit the matter, but it is important to try it. I agree with those who say that it may be a long time before the opportunity arises again.
A very senior member of the civil service recently gave a lecture at which he was asked for his opinion of the role of Parliament as a scrutinising organ. He replied that Parliament did not scrutinise, as the press fulfilled that function. Parliament would have to find another role, he said.
We should take that observation on board. The Chamber has lost many powers to demand answers from Members of Parliament, and many other aspects have been eroded. Much of what we assumed was accepted practice is no longer so. People do not think that it matters that statements are made not to the House of Commons first, but to fit in with press deadlines. They do not think that it matters that, when asked to appear as witnesses before a Select Committee, people can respond that they are Members of the other place or that they have a problem and cannot attend.
For the first time, my Select Committee produced a report about the need for Treasury Ministers to appear before it. Those Ministers have a political role now, over and above the involvement in negotiations about cash that they have always had. We have not even had a reply from the Government.
The House tonight is debating the urgent need for reforms to the system, and what those reforms should be. We must learn the fundamental lesson that every hon. Member is responsible for holding the Executive to account. We must be able to demonstrate to our voters that, in a democratic system, we are serious about asking difficult and often uncomfortable questions. We are not here to be always popular.
I speak as someone who has made a career out of not being popular. When I first came here, the House was fiercely sexist, and now it is ageist. Neither quality has done me much good, so it appears that my political timing has been wrong on all counts.
Select Committees are vital when it comes to finding out what the Government are doing, and why, and what they intend for the future. The system must have proper staffing. The House may not appreciate how much work is done by the Clerks and the specialist advisers. Select Committees are not even able to ask for economic models from the Government such as were produced by the Treasury for public-private partnership proposals. We do not have access to vital bits of information. Select Committees need to have much bigger staff, with much better pay and resources.
I oppose the proposal to pay Chairmen, however. Select Committees work because all members are equal and must work together. I am determined that all members should be able to comment on any report that my Select Committee produces, because they have all contributed to it. It has been said that the only way to get good-quality people to work on Select Committees is to establish an alternative career structure and pay Chairmen, but I believe that that undermines the role of Select Committees.
It is sad that Labour Members are prepared to say that the worth of people can be judged only by what they earn. We should remember how paramedics have had to crawl into damaged train carriages in the past few days. We should ask ourselves whether we as a nation have our priorities right, given the vast sums of money earned by people in the media or other careers. Their work may be useful and entertaining, but they are not vital services. I do not agree that we will get the quality that we deserve only if we pay Select Committee chairmen extra.
That is nonsensical, and it plays into the hands of those who say that Members of Parliament fulfil their true worth only when they disappear into the junior ranks of Government. Many hon. Members become invisible once they do that. They do not take serious decisions or change anything, yet they seem to think that that is the only way they can progress.
All Members of Parliament are here to use their judgment and abilities. We earn a very reasonable salary, and the need to give ourselves extra carrots on top of that raises questions about our political and moral judgment.
Select Committees work because members hear evidence and reach an agreed report. They listen to witnesses and ask questions. That is the basis of the conclusions that they reach. It has been proposed that increasing the membership of Select Committees so that smaller groups can be formed and sent off here and there will improve the quality of scrutiny. That is nonsense. I assure the House that when half the membership of a Select Committee produces a report, the other half—who have not read the evidence, or listened to it—are often full of the confidence of ignorance. They are very happy to tell those who have been active in producing a report that their conclusions are wrong and should be rewritten.
That is not a constructive way to produce useful reports for Parliament. The task of Select Committees is to reply to Parliament, not to Government. We will be in considerable danger if we lose that function.
Modern government is complex and covers many different roles. Many unaccountable methods are employed to get decisions through the system. I am not talking about a Cabinet Office with three different sections and innumerable committees chaired by people who are not elected. I am talking about the business of government, and about the numbers of Departments that have their own quangos, sub-committees and arrangements.
The House has still not grasped the extent of the problem. We have lost the ability to demand that the Government remember that they are answerable to hon. Members because we are elected. Until we take back that power, progress will remain limited.
The report is important. It was produced mainly by men, so it is not perfect, but it has a great deal to offer. However, I remind the House that Select Committees are an opportunity and a responsibility. More than that, they are our hope for the future. If we mess up the chance to make them really effective, what hon. Members do elsewhere will not matter. Everything will be a matter of presentation, and the general public will rapidly cotton on to how unimportant that renders us.
I add the congratulations of the Scottish National party to those already extended to the Modernisation Committee, which has produced a thorough and robust report under the stewardship of the Leader of the House.
We very much welcome the broad thrust of the report and support the Committee in its efforts to strengthen and extend the role of Select Committees. We also agree with the Leader of the House that the measures would improve the scrutiny provided by Select Committees and would add to their ability to hold the Executive to account.
I also welcome the remarks about pre-legislative scrutiny. That has been a positive experience in the past, and I know that the Leader of the House was impressed when he visited the Scottish Parliament last year and saw how the committee structure there was focused on delivering pre-legislative scrutiny.
We contend that Select Committees should reflect, as far as possible, all shades of opinion in the House. The Government should go the extra mile and ensure that all the political parties here are represented properly in the House's institutions. We therefore support the increase in the number of members of Select Committees. I hope that the House will support our amendment this evening and that the minority parties will gain extra places.
Under the current situation, the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru have no membership of a non-regional departmental Committee. That is unacceptable—we are effectively barred from further scrutiny of important Departments that still have a major remit in relation to some of the constituents whom we are here to represent.
We support the Prime Minister's announcement that he will appear in front of the Liaison Committee. However, it means that once again, we in the minority parties are effectively shut out, as we have no membership of the Liaison Committee. The arithmetic of the House traditionally works against minority parties because of the thresholds required to obtain a place. A body that is 34-strong means that we should be entitled to a place, but the Liaison Committee is composed solely of Chairs of Committees, and we have difficulty in securing a place on a Committee, far less one of the chairmanships. The three main parties will have the opportunity further to scrutinise the work of the Prime Minister while the minority parties will not. That is one more example of how the House can be seen as unrepresentative and not including all shades of opinion.
I am disappointed that the Liaison Committee has come out against increasing the number of members on Select Committees. What would it do to try to increase the number of members of minority parties on Select Committees? I looked carefully at its response to the Modernisation Committee report and found no mention of the minority parties. I found its objection to increasing the size of Select Committees pretty unconvincing and, in parts, feeble.
The Liaison Committee doubts whether there will be enough Members to fill the increased number of places on Select Committees. Only some 40 per cent. of Members serve on Select Committees, whereas 100 per cent. of Bundestag Members serve on Select Committees of that Parliament. Members of the Scottish Parliament serve on at least two Committees. It is argued that Members might not be found to serve on Select Committees. What do right hon. and hon. Members think we are in this place for if not to provide effective scrutiny of the Government?
I think that the real reason why the Liaison Committee has come out so strongly against the increase in numbers is that its members are in real danger of becoming a self-preserving Select Committee élite. I caution it against pursuing that route; it should become a Committee of the whole House.
Right hon. and hon. Members have said, mainly from sedentary positions, that minority parties do not have places on Select Committee because our numbers are so small. We are indeed minority parties, in terms of the basic arithmetic of the House.
May I ask the hon. Gentleman to reflect on the unique position of Northern Ireland? This Government—and I am very pleased that it was this Government—entered into the Belfast agreement and guaranteed the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom unless and until a majority of people voted otherwise. Surely, then, it is essential, in fulfilling the obligations of that agreement, that the main nationalist parties—the Social Democratic and Labour Party and the Ulster Unionist party—are represented in this House in all its aspects, including Select Committees?
The hon. Lady makes a very good point which demonstrates why minority parties should be included in the membership of Select Committees. Let us start to unravel what we mean by minority parties. I represent the Scottish National party—the principal Opposition party in the Scottish Parliament and the second party of Scotland which is quickly becoming established as the first party. My hon. Friends in Plaid Cymru are the second party and the principal Opposition party of the National Assembly for Wales. The right hon. and hon. Members who sit on the Benches behind me, along with SDLP Members, are the effective Government of Northern Ireland. We have a massive constituency—we represent millions of people. Because of the electoral system and the way in which votes are cast, we unfortunately do not have the number of Members that our votes deserve, but we hope that that will change in the not-too-distant future.
I think that all right hon. and hon. Members will agree that the House must represent all shades of opinion in the country. Indeed, the House should make every effort to ensure that that happens. The Scottish Parliament includes single Members of three minority parties. They have been given Select Committee places way beyond what the basic arithmetic would suggest. That is a good example, which the House would do well to follow.
Our amendment would include the leaders of all the minority parties—or if not the leaders, the Whips. That is a significant achievement. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members consider that when they vote tonight, because we will certainly push the amendment to a vote.
We also tabled an amendment to include a minority party member in the new Committee of Nomination, but unfortunately it was not selected. We believe it important that a voice from the minority parties should at least be given the opportunity to put the case for minority representation on Select Committees. We might not be successful, but at least we should be given the opportunity to put the case.
After the breakdown of our relationship with the Liberal Democrats—an arrangement that all minority parties found unsatisfactory—the minority parties came together. We now deal directly with the Government—an arrangement that has proved very satisfactory. We agree among ourselves who should be nominated for Committee places and present the names weekly to the Government, who then put our case at the Committee of Selection. Although that has been a satisfactory arrangement, it is no substitute for putting our case directly. However, I must say that our new arrangements with the Government and, indeed, the Opposition Whips have been useful, constructive and even friendly. The Government have put our case well and we have managed to secure most of the places that we have sought. Sometimes I wonder where the Whips' fearsome reputation comes from: I found them the most congenial bunch of gentlemen, with whom it has been a pleasure to work.
We reject the composition of the Committee of Nomination not only because we will continue to be frozen out but because it is the same old story. Having seven members of the Chairmen's Panel is fair enough, as the Chairmen's Panel is the first port of call in finding people to fill the new Committee. However, the Committee will also consist of the four most senior members of the governing party, the two most senior members of the principal Opposition party, and one member of the Liberal Democrats. It sounds like the same old arithmetic.
The same old gang, as my hon. Friend says.
In addition, the Committee will include the most senior Government Back Bencher and the most senior Opposition Back Bencher. That looks like our best way in: if, by sheer willpower, we could outlive everybody else on the Opposition Benches, we might secure a place on the Committee of Nomination. I will be inquiring daily as to the well-being and health of my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan and doing all that I can to persuade him to remain in this House so that we can secure our place on the Committee of Nomination.
All the places on the Committee will once again be taken by the three mainstream United Kingdom parties, and the minority parties will be shut out. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will agree that it is important that all opinions are represented in the Committees and structures of the House, and that they will support our amendment.
My hon. Friend Dr. Starkey and I are not pressing the amendments in our name in favour of those tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) and for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant).
There is a controversy over how we move forward on the Committee of Nomination, and real lessons can be learned from this debate. The House is finally beginning to accept that longevity of Members in this place should not count. All MPs—all Back Benchers—should be equal in this place. The attitude has been that every year people spend here adds to their wisdom so that their views count more than those of others. We frequently see such people called to speak first in debates and at Question Time, but there is no basis for that. There were great talents in the 2001 intake of MPs, just as there were in earlier intakes. The views of the 2001 intake and others are equally valid; I see them as equally intelligent. Their constituents deserve to be heard just as much as the constituents of Members who have been in this place longer.
The longevity rules have created a bias against young people, yet we hear increasingly that young people are not involved in democracy. If young people do not believe that they have an equal say in this House, that will continue.
The system also creates a bias against marginal constituencies because, by their very nature, the Members who represent them will have spent less time here. Their constituents—the people in constituencies where there has been more of a political debate—will not be heard so much, whereas constituencies where the votes have been weighed for centuries will continue to have a louder voice.
Parliament has changed too slowly in the past and is still changing too slowly. We need to change dramatically if we are to catch up and bring the British public with us. When I discussed my amendment with colleagues, the pervasive view was that perhaps the 1997 intake should be considered, but not the 2001 intake—because "They won't know how Parliament works." However, it is the job of colleagues and Officers of the House to ensure that even if a Member has been here only for a day they can play a full part as a Back Bencher; they can make sensible judgments. In relation to the Committee of Nomination, Members from the 2001 intake could bring the freshest and most independent views.
I regret that the gender balance allowed for in the Modernisation Committee's original report is no longer included. We could now end up with a Committee of 11 men and only two women. If we want women to be more interested in politics and more willing to come forward, we need to ensure that they are more visible.
We must make dramatic moves forward, although I share the consensus expressed in the House today. We are moving further and faster than we have done in the past. I congratulate the Leader of the House on listening to Back Benchers and look forward to further developments.
In the three minutes allowed me, I want to make two points. First, the most fundamental change for Parliament in the long run will come from the fact that the Prime Minister will start to appear before Select Committees. I have long supported that proposal; in fact, I first discussed it a long time ago with John Major when he was Prime Minister. He was not enthusiastic about the idea.
I am pleased that the current Prime Minister has grasped the fact that there is something in it for him and that scrutiny is not a zero-sum game. I would add only that Tony Wright is not quite right to suggest that we can rely on precedent. Between the wars, Prime Ministers made only four such appearances; four times in 20 years is not remotely enough.
I do not have time.
My second point is that at the heart of the Select Committee system must be the quality of and the respect accorded to the Chairmen. Chairmen should be elected by secret ballot by the whole House. We should first go through the normal horse trading to decide which Committees go to which party and then nominations should go forward from us for election to Select Committee chairmanships. I support most of the proposals in the report, and that is the only major proposal of mine that has not appeared even as a point for further discussion.
That proposal would fundamentally alter the position of Select Committee Chairmen. If they were elected, they would have a position of great authority in the House and that would bring them far greater media attention. More than any other measure, that would tilt the balance between the Executive and the legislature. The Leader of the House has done a marvellous job so far and I warmly commend him. I hope that I do not damage his career by saying that. He has done a remarkable job and I urge him to reconsider this proposal.
It was my right hon. Friend Mr. Curry who touched on the fundamental issue, although it has not been fully articulated for reasons that I well understand: it is the anomaly that has existed since the Select Committee system was set up in its present form more than 20 years ago and attempted, valiantly, to replicate the congressional system in this country while rather conveniently ignoring the fact that a legislature that gives birth to and sustains the Executive also attempts to hold that Executive to account.
That fundamental anomaly underlies the difficulty that we have been skirting around all day. It is reflected in the fact, which my hon. Friend Mr. Tyrie has just touched on, that the chairmanships of Select Committees are divvied up, or shared out, on the basis of party in the House; and that memberships of Select Committees, as I pointed out to Tony Wright, are apportioned on the basis of party representation in the legislature. Perhaps it is no wonder that ever since 1979 we have not only struggled to identify a role for Select Committees vis-à-vis the Executive but have been asking ourselves why the Executive—or the usual channels, or whatever—are constantly seen to interfere and intervene in the working of Select Committees.
Although the proposals are a valiant attempt to deal with that difficulty, it will only be superficial until we have the courage to address that fundamental paradox and anomaly. We must not skirt over the problems arising from the fact that Select Committees have a majority of Government Members. I do not want to dwell on the matter, but the House will remember a recent episode when key members of the Select Committee on the Treasury were absent and the Committee produced a report that was not convenient to the Government.
Dr. Palmer let the cat out of the bag when he said, in essence, that it was all very well when Select Committees could operate on the basis of consensus, but that if that was ever threatened—in other words if a Committee got a bit political—the Government majority would ensure that a report was passed that was not critical of the Government. That was the gist of his remarks and it rather gave the lie to the problem and the attitude regrettably held by many Members.
Mr. Dismore, like Mr. Lloyd, touched on the odd fact that the problem experienced by the House last year over the treatment of Mrs. Dunwoody and Donald Anderson was, in the end, sorted out by the House. That challenges the whole thrust of the Modernisation Committee's argument and underpins the proposals that the Leader of the House and the Committee are recommending to the House.
The truth is that in many ways, which have been described by many right hon. and hon. Members during the debate, the existing system has served the House pretty well over the years. When that problem arose last year, it was dealt with by the House of Commons; it did not require some elaborate construct of the kind proposed today—with all the peculiarities of gender and intake balance, seniority and new Members with which we have struggled throughout the debate.
Is the game worth the candle? Is the system sufficiently broke that we feel have to fix it? Is the proposed construct the right answer?
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the House of Commons was able to remedy that serious wrong because it was an absolutely gross example of the corruption that we have been talking about today? The measures are attempting to catch the smaller corruptions.
I do not think that I share the hon. and learned Gentleman's use of the word "corruption" in any sense at all. The system is as it is; most of us understand it pretty well and we found a way of dealing with the problem. It may not have been pleasant for the powers that be—or the powers of darkness, if we want to describe them thus—but in the end the problem was resolved.
The proposals offer a series of elaborate answers to a problem that does not require the solution that is before the House. As I think the Leader of the House implied when he opened the debate, the motions are not some sort of take or leave it. A series of propositions has been put to the House with which, obviously, some Members will agree and others will disagree. I welcome the fact that the House will be able to form its view on each issue—whether it be the size of Committees, the composition of the Committee of Nomination or whatever. We shall vote as we think fit, having—some of us—listened to the debate. We shall then move on from that.
A heartening variety of views were expressed during the debate and I welcome that. Although my right hon. Friend Mr. Knight offered some guidance to my right hon. and hon. Friends, they will all vote as they choose. I am glad to know that Government Members will do the same. I am not convinced that the problem is as it was identified, and I am certainly not convinced that the solution is one that we need follow.
I am disappointed that the amendment of Mr. Forth calling for parity for the Opposition with the Government on Select Committees was not selected. As the danger in it does not now arise, I must point out that I was almost tempted to accept it if only for the entertainment value of watching the Opposition struggling to fill all the extra places on Select Committees when they cannot even fill the present places that they have without drafting in Front Benchers to replace Back Benchers.
My reply can be brief, because I have heard little in the debate that criticises the Modernisation Committee's report. I am sometimes told that some Members are unhappy with the proposals, but I can only point out that, during the debate, one Back Bencher opposed the proposals and 13 others supported most elements of the Committee's report. In fact, most of them supported all the elements in the report. I am very grateful for the generous words about me and the Modernisation Committee that Members have uttered in the debate, but I must warn them that I am a professional politician. I much prefer their votes in the Lobby to their kind words in the Chamber.
It is a fair summary of the debate to say that the House has welcomed the report. The amendment of my hon. Friend Mr. Lloyd is regarded as improving the Committee of Nomination and the House will accept the compromise on Committee size that we have put forward today.
Refreshingly, the House has dwelt very little on the question of extra pay for the Chairs of the Select Committees. I do not know how that vote will go, but I hope that tomorrow's press—perhaps even tomorrow's "Today" programme—will not report that the debate was about an increase in remuneration, but was a serious and thoughtful discussion about how the House best discharges its duty of scrutiny through the Select Committees.
The package will greatly strengthen the Select Committees. It will give them more resources, more focus and more transparency. However, Mr. Tyler and my hon. Friend Tony Wright were right. It is a package and it risks falling apart if it is picked apart piece by piece. In that context, I wish to say a word about what was said in the debate—not in speeches, but in interventions—about the Committee of Nomination. My hon. Friend Mr. McCabe twice asked why we should replace 410 Labour Members of Parliament with a Committee of seven. That is a fundamental misconception of the role of the Committee of Nomination.
The Committee of Nomination will not replace the party process; it will replace the Committee of Selection, which, as the hon. Member for North Cornwall memorably pointed out, normally meets for 30 seconds to three minutes. That is not adequate time for the free and independent play of thoughts. The Committee of Nomination will not interfere with the party process. I helped to write the new process for the Labour party, and I am proud of that process. I am confident that its democracy and transparency will produce the right outcome.
There is a paradox in the view of some of my colleagues. They are also proud of that process and are confident about its democracy, but they appear worried that anyone else should cast an investigative eye over the outcome. I am not frightened of the Committee of Nomination. It is right that Parliament should have the right to see that fair play is done in the party process. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends not to be frightened either, but welcome the fact that the Committee will reinforce the standing of Select Committees and make it clear that nomination is independent of the control of party or Executive machine. As a result, the Select Committees of the House will carry greater legitimacy, command greater confidence and bring greater authority to their task of scrutiny.
It being four hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Mr. Deputy Speaker put the Questions necessary to dispose of the business to be concluded at that hour, pursuant to Order [
Amendment proposed: (d), in line 5, after 'House', insert
'welcomes the proposal to increase the size of Select Committees; believes that the Select Committees must represent all shades of opinion in the House and therefore calls for some of these new places to be reserved for the minority parties;'.—[Mr. Wishart.]
Question accordingly negatived.
Main Question put and agreed to.
That this House approves the First Report of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons relating to Select Committees, House of Commons Paper No 221-I, and in particular welcomes its commitment to more specialist and support staff for select committees; is of the view that the package as a whole will strengthen the scrutiny role of the House; and invites the Liaison Committee to establish common objectives for select committees, taking into account the illustrative model set out in paragraph 34 of that report, namely
to consider major policy initiatives
to consider the Government's response to major emerging issues
to propose changes where evidence persuades the Committee that present policy requires amendment
to conduct pre-legislative scrutiny of draft bills
to examine and report on main Estimates, annual expenditure plans and annual resource accounts
to monitor performance against targets in the public service agreements
to take evidence from each Minister at least annually
to take evidence from independent regulators and inspectorates
to consider the reports of Executive Agencies
to consider, and if appropriate report on, major appointments by a Secretary of State or other senior ministers
to examine treaties within their subject areas.