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I beg to move,
That Mr A. J. Beith, Peter Bottomley, Mr James Clappison, Ross Cranston, Mrs Ann Cryer, Mr Jim Cunningham, Mr Hilton Dawson, Mr Mark Field, Mr Clive Soley, Keith Vaz and Dr Alan Whitehead be members of the Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department.
Let me make it plain at the outset that this is not a question of whether Lady Hermon is not an active, able and respected Member of the House or of the respective merits of her and Mr. Beith. It is about maintaining the ratio in the selection of Committees in this House.
The Committee has 11 members, which gives us a ratio of seven Labour members, three Conservative and one other. The one other member is, of course, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, a Liberal Democrat. That reflects the composition of the House, which the Committee of Selection calculates to three decimal places.
If Pete Wishart is again suggesting that we move away from a system that selects Committees that reflect the composition of the House, I suggest it is wrong to do that on a Committee that does not cover the whole United Kingdom. I also suggest to him that it is not a good idea anyway. What is more, I suggest to him that getting other parties involved in the selection of members of their own parties to allocated places on Select Committees could lead to all sorts of difficulties.
"the Liberal Democrats are currently over-represented by two".—[Hansard, 21 November 2003; Vol. 394, c. 883.]
That may be the view of the Minister on the basis of his sums, but my sums are probably rather more accurate.
Including the Select Committee that we are dealing with, which changes the ratio, there are 464 places on Select Committees. If there were a Committee with 464 places, it would break down as follows: Labour 292; Conservative 116; Lib Dem 38; UUP four; DUP four; SNP four; Plaid Cymru three; SDLP two; and independents one. However, we are dealing with a Committee of 11.
To pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for North Tayside, because of the situation in respect of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs and the need to ensure adequate representation from Northern Ireland, the Ulster Unionist party is over-represented in its membership of Select Committees. The amendment that he has tabled would exacerbate that enormously, as one can see when looking at the figures that I have just given.
If the amendment would exacerbate the over-representation of Ulster Unionist Members, why would not the motion exacerbate the over-representation of the Liberal Democrats?
The hon. Gentleman is wrong. The Labour party as well as the Liberal Democrat party is over-represented. However, that happens because the size of the Committees is rounded. [Hon. Members: "That's all right then."] Is it all right? I remember intervening on Mr. Salmond in the debate on the Committee of Selection to ask who would be cut in half. We are considering decimal points and parties that are represented by fewer than 10 Members. The Labour party and the Conservative party are represented in hundreds; the Liberal Democrats are represented in multiples of 10—there are nearly 40 Liberal Democrat Members.
Who represents the interests of the minority parties on the Committee of Selection? Liberal Democrat Members always used to try to represent not only their party but the other minority parties. There is a problem only because it appears that the Liberal Democrats have failed to represent the other minority parties. [Interruption.] Let me finish. That is also true of other members of the Committee.
As Chairman of the Committee of Selection, I act as independently as possible. I have a reputation for that. The minority parties made representations to me some time ago. They were dissatisfied with the Liberal Democrats and they made an agreement with the Government that the Government would represent them. We are dealing with that now. Nominations were tackled in the usual way.
Nominations are routinely made to the parliamentary Labour party and approved before they are put to the Committee of Selection. The other parties have their systems for nominating members. The minority parties operate through the Government Whips Office, and that happened in the case that we are considering.
My hon. Friend rattled off a load of numbers. I was waiting for the next part of his contribution because he told us the allocation but not the entitlement on a strict pro rata basis. He said, for example, Labour—292; Conservatives—160. To how many members is each party entitled? I support the underdog. We should discriminate in favour of the smaller, minority interests in such a massive Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman said earlier that the Committee deals with a Department that does not operate in all parts of the United Kingdom. I was waiting for him to explain why that observation was relevant to the debate. Will he now do that?
Yes. Scotland is part of the United Kingdom that the Department does not represent. I therefore subtract from the figures that I gave earlier the Scottish National party entitlement of four and conduct some redistribution. However, that would not result in another party receiving a different number.
If the hon. Gentleman is pursuing that point, he will have to subtract all the Labour Members from Scotland and redo his calculations. The amendment proposes the nomination of a member of the Committee from Northern Ireland, so why is the point relevant?
Even if I subtracted the Labour Members, it would not change the ratio by anything that would allow an extra member from Northern Ireland. In fact, as I have said, the Ulster Unionists are over-represented in their total membership of Select Committees.
I do not want to detain the House any longer. It has been done fairly; it has been done clearly; and it has been done openly.
I read Quintin Hogg's "The Dilemma of Democracy" when I was at school. He warned of the threat of an elective dictatorship. In the short time since I entered the House, it has surely been right to have over-representation of minority parties, whether Unionist, nationalist or whatever, to try to bring the Executive to account. Since the Committee legally covers the Union of England and Northern Ireland—there might not be much left in the future—it would be—
I caution the hon. Gentleman about using his source as an authority on the Committee that we are selecting tonight, since that source was the reason why it is only now, after 20-odd years, that we are appointing a Select Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department. The hon. Gentleman's source, the former Lord Hailsham, insisted that if the new Select Committee system was to go forward in 1979 he would vote for it only as long as it did not cover his Department. Therefore, it seems to me that the hon. Gentleman's source is tainted.
We have gone on long enough. It is obvious that we want to get on with this. We have waited 20-odd years for a Committee that should have been set up 20-odd years ago.
I commend the nominations to the House.
I beg to move, To leave out "Mr. A. J. Beith" and insert "Lady Hermon".
I begin by assuring Mr. Beith that there is nothing personal in this. Our amendment is purely political, moved in order to address the continuing exclusion of the minority parties from the vast majority of Select Committees.
We particularly enjoy these debates. They are always quite convivial and are always quite entertaining. I particularly liked the bravura performance of Mr. Forth last night on the establishment of the Committee under consideration. Such debates also allow us to draw attention to the wonderful world of Select Committees.
We have had a number of debates about Select Committees in the past year, most of them very much to the dissatisfaction of the minority parties. I particularly recall the debate on modernisation, in which we tabled what we thought was a very reasonable and sensible amendment, suggesting that one place should be set aside for the minority parties in each departmental Select Committee. We thought that that was reasonable and fair. We argued for the amendment and divided the House on it. We were overwhelmingly and comprehensively drubbed in the vote. We admit that and we expected it. We accepted that that was the will of the House.
However, we returned with an even more reasonable suggestion: that each of the minority parties should have one representative on one departmental Select Committee over and above their nation or region of interest. I do not think that it is possible to be fairer and more reasonable than that. I am disappointed that we have made no progress on what is not an outrageous demand.
What also disappoints us is that it seems to be only the Select Committees that deny this access. We are able to participate in all the other institutions of the House. We can participate in debates if we are fortunate enough to catch Mr. Speaker's eye. We are involved in question sessions and we participate in questions on statements. But for some reason, Select Committees are impervious to change. They remain out of bounds to the minority parties. Surely it is time for that to change.
We have tried patiently and consistently to put the case that Select Committees must reflect not just the crude arithmetic that seems to be bandied back and forth in these debates, but the political reality of a multi-party House in a multi-party United Kingdom.
I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, but will he reflect on the situation before 1997? The Government had a majority of one on Select Committees because of the ratios. We are trying to deal with a situation in which Governments may not always have such a huge majority. Therefore, under his proposal and in a situation such as that before 1997, the Government of the day would not have a majority at all. That would cause a problem for the Select Committees.
I find the hon. Gentleman's intervention incredible. Surely, in these circumstances—the Government have a massive majority—we have an excellent opportunity to involve the minority parties in the functions of the House and there is nothing to be lost in allowing us to participate in Select Committees. Sometimes, we have to remind many Members that there are more than just the three main establishment parties in the United Kingdom, and they would find that out if they ventured across the borders of Scotland or Wales.
Yes, and the SDLP.
I agree with Andrew Mackinlay that minorities should be over-represented. That is entirely right and it is how we achieve equality in such situations. We must over-represent the minority parties in the House to reflect the political reality of the UK. On this Bench sit Members from the SNP, which is the second party in Scotland. Our party is the principal Opposition in the Scottish Parliament and it may soon form the Government of Scotland.
Here also sit Members from Plaid Cymru, which is the second party in Wales and the principal Opposition in Wales. It will soon form the Administration in Cardiff. Behind us we have David Burnside and behind Labour Members sit Members from the SDLP. When Stormont sits, members of those two parties effectively form the Government of Northern Ireland. Surely departmental Select Committees should reflect and acknowledge that reality.
The proposal to establish the Committee was made, but when the nominations for membership were made—lo and behold and surprise, surprise—there was nobody there from the minority parties. That is what we expected, and there was as much chance of a minority party being represented on the Committee as there is of me being made Lord Chancellor, heaven forbid.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that suggestion—who knows?
I am not in the business of ruling myself out of any particular task, but perhaps Lord Chancellor may be a job beyond me.
Our amendment would replace Lady Hermon. The House must agree that one could not find a more appropriate and suitable candidate for the Committee than the hon. Lady. A more gentle and fragrant alternative to the gruff and bellicose voices of Ulster, which we usually hear from hon. Members who sit behind us, could not be found. Indeed, she has already impressed the House with her polite yet tenacious approach in debate and in Committee. She is also something of an authority in legal matters, which one would think an advantage in the Committee.
Before taking a seat in the House, the hon. Lady spent 10 years as a lecturer in European, international and constitutional law at Queen's university. Surely such specialised knowledge and experience would increase the influence and status of Select Committees, inside and outside the House. She is an asset who should be employed in the Committee. Indeed, she should have been one of the first ports of call when the Committee was being established.
The hon. Lady is a suitable choice, and we would hope that she becomes Chairman of the Committee. It is no great surprise or secret that that chairmanship is intended for the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. I have spent too long in the usual channels and the Whips Office not to know that that is the case, but we are offering the House a choice—a proper election, not an election made behind closed doors in the Whips Offices where there is the whiff of smoke and a carve up between the Whips. We want the decision to be taken here on the Floor of the House. We are extending the franchise to Members here, who have a choice as to who will be Chairman of the new Committee—the hon. Member for North Down or the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. I hope that they exercise that choice and support our recommendation that the Chairman should be the hon. Member for North Down.
If the amendment is successful, if we manage to get the hon. Member for North Down on to the Committee and into the Chair—I realise that that is a lot of "ifs"—the minority parties would have their first-ever member on the Liaison Committee. Of the 34 members of that Committee, the Liberal Democrats, with 47 Members of Parliament, already have two—
I take that correction. With the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, there would be three Liberal-Democrat members of the Committee. The minority parties have 23 members, but no place on the Committee. The House should put that iniquity right and make a strike for fair representation by minority parties on the Liaison Committee.
We watched the Liaison Committee in action last week, when members had the opportunity—
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman makes that contention genuinely, but it is not much of a trade secret that the most likely Chair of the new Select Committee is the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed.
I thank my hon. Friend. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed declines to give that categorical pledge. That does not surprise me.
The minority parties are increasingly being excluded from the Committees of the House. I gave the example of the lack of access to Select Committees, and the same applies to the Liaison Committee. We are also worried about the Joint Committees of both Houses. We believe that they will be used as a form of pre-legislative scrutiny. We are effectively debarred—
Order. The hon. Gentleman was on track when he spoke about replacing one hon. Member with another. That is the proposal to which he should be speaking.
I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My point was that the minority parties seem to be excluded from the Committee structure of the House, and from the Joint Committees of both Houses. If we are excluded from pre-legislative scrutiny, that would be unacceptable. I hope that the House does not go down that road. The minority parties have to be involved in pre-legislative scrutiny. We need an assurance that we will not be left out.
The Leader of the House has given us warm words over the past few months. We have taken them at face value. He is aware of our concerns, and is trying to find solutions. In the previous two debates on this matter, I have said that I believe that the Leader of the House and the Government have been trying to find a solution. They have been constructive and we appreciate the assistance and support that they have given the new arrangements for the minority parties. All aspects, other than access to Select Committees, have worked well.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a lot of talk about modernisation, and that the proposal would be a good move in that respect?
I am grateful again, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I conclude by acknowledging the assistance of Conservative Members, who believe that we have a reasonable case. I hope that we will be able to enlist their support for the amendment.
It is time to make progress. We want some results. We could start with hon. Members supporting the amendment.We are not asking for much—one place in a non-regional departmental Select Committee for each of the minority parties in the House. It is a reasonable request. I hope that the House supports it, and the amendment before it this evening.
Pete Wishart said that the amendment applies to a non-regional departmental Committee. That is so, but the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties are all guilty of not seeking representation in Northern Ireland, with the result that people from that region cannot join our parties. All hon. Members in those parties should reflect on the fact that we contribute to the disenfranchisement of people in Northern Ireland in that respect.
Is it really acceptable that such a major Committee, dealing with the portfolio of the Lord Chancellor's Department, should have no representation from Northern Ireland? Our Lord Chancellor also undertakes functions that historically belonged to the Lord Chancellor of Ireland. He is currently in charge of the courts, the appointment of the judiciary and all other constitutional issues relating to Northern Ireland. That is another powerful argument for accepting Lady Hermon.
I hope that Mr. Beith will not take my remarks personally as I hold him in the highest regard.
No, I shall not vote for the right hon. Gentleman because, to his credit, he is now a member of one of the principal political parties. Indeed, the Liberal Democrat party has reached critical mass and is probably the most effective Opposition party in this place. In the past, the right hon. Gentleman could have referred to himself as a member of a minor party, and I am sure that he did so. He is not challenging me because it is on the record that he referred to himself in that way. However, he is no longer a member of a minor party but of a substantial party, which could form the principal Opposition after the next general election.
The hon. Gentleman says that the Liberal Democrats are a major party in Britain, so would it make more sense if a Member from a minority party swapped with someone from the Government or the Tory Benches, rather than with the only Liberal Democrat Member proposed as a member of the Committee?
That is a good point and all the big parties should reflect on it. One of the strengths of the House of Commons is that there has always been a place for the minor voice—[Interruption.] Members may laugh, but the point is important. The office that you hold, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is charged with the protection of minorities. In a legislature of 659 Members, there is a powerful case for discriminating in favour of the smaller interest, whether geographical or political. That is one of the strengths of a democracy.
We go around the world telling new legislatures to build in safeguards and ratchets for minor interests. We should do the same in this case. I do not want to labour the point, but there is a powerful regional case to be made for Northern Ireland representation on the Committee.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful argument that a representative from a Northern Ireland party should be a member of the Committee. Some of those parties hold this House in high esteem and want it to be retained, but is my hon. Friend arguing that Members from parties that do not value this place and want to undermine it should also be able to serve on the Committee?
I am pleased that my hon. Friend made that point. Our mandate does not come from the constitution but from the folk who sent us here, so I am disappointed that Mr. Adams—the Sinn Fein Member—does not contribute to our debates. The good folk of his constituency sent him here. That is their right—they gave the mandate and they can take it away. As regards my hon. Friend's intervention, there are Members with whom I fundamentally disagree but they have been sent to this place with a mandate and they have a right to be heard
The overriding consideration is the regional dimension, so we have to recognise that we cannot have more members from the mainstream parties. It would be disingenuous of the three main political parties if we were not prepared in this case to support the nomination of the hon. Member for North Down.
I shall not pay a lot of tributes to Mr. Beith. When I saw the amendment, I determined that I should vote for him rather than Lady Hermon, because, as I am a reasonably senior Member of the House, I might have been at risk of becoming Chairman and it is not one of my ambitions to become a member of the Liaison Committee.
The Government, or the Labour party, should have learned lessons from the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges in the last Parliament. When there was a vacancy, the Conservatives proposed that Martin Bell join the Committee. He had direct experience, was a one-term Member of Parliament and served with some distinction. It is also worth recognising that Select Committees seldom have contested votes that matter. There may be times when they want to make a point, and there may have been times in the previous Parliament when there were serious contested votes, but at present that is not likely to happen, and if it did, it is not likely to matter a great deal.
So the best advice that I would offer the House is to accept the motion unamended, but see whether the Labour party will consider following the precedent set by the Conservatives in the previous Parliament and whether it might put right a point that has been well made, which is that it would be suitable for Northern Ireland to have a member of the Committee. Perhaps we can meet the point without doing the slightly offensive thing of challenging the Committee of Selection, which does a pretty good job honourably and pretty effectively.
It would be a matter of challenging the Committee of Selection if the people who were challenging it were represented on it, but, given that they are not, it is legitimate to bring the matter to the Chamber for general debate.
May I summarise in support of my hon. Friend Pete Wishart some of the key arguments? We know from the debate that this is not about arithmetic. If it were, a Liberal member of the Committee would not be proposed, because as we know from the remarks made from the Government Front Bench, in mathematical terms the Liberal party is over-represented on Select Committees.
The reason the figures given by the Chairman of the Committee of Selection do not stack up with regard to minority parties was stated by Andrew Mackinlay. The three major Westminster parties do not stand in Northern Ireland, so the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee by definition has to include all the representatives of Northern Ireland parties, and that skews the arithmetic for the Select Committees overall. In the rest of the Committees, the minority parties are well under-represented, as the Liberals are over-represented.
This should not be a matter of mathematical representation. When the late Donald Dewar and I were engaged in discussions about setting up the Committee system of the Scots Parliament, it was clear in mathematical terms that the three independent Members—the Green Member, the Scottish Socialist Member and Dennis Canavan—were not entitled to representation on the Scottish parliamentary Committees. Yet we agreed that they should have that representation, regardless of the mathematics, because we felt that any minority voice should have all the opportunities to be heard that the Parliament offered. There was not even an argument or a debate about it. It was the right thing to do. It was not a matter of arithmetic. The right thing for this House to do is make sure that minority parties are properly represented through all the mechanisms of the House.
The request articulated by my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside is not unreasonable. He asks for three additional Select Committee places across all the Select Committees. That would allow each minority party to have one place on a departmental Select Committee over and above the place that they must have on the territorial Committee. That is a de minimis demand. It is a perfectly acceptable and reasonable position.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about additional places for minority parties, but surely his argument should have been made last night when we set up the Committee with 11 members. Surely he should have moved an amendment then to add an extra person, rather than supporting the amendment tonight, which would remove all Liberal Democrat representation from the Committee.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside is perfectly capable of making our argument, but the over-representation of the hon. Gentleman's party is caused by the Liberal Democrat insistence on being represented on every Committee, regardless of whether the arithmetic justifies it. I agree that a way round the problem is to expand the size of three Select Committees. Several Select Committees already have expanded to allow the minority parties to be represented, but in all fairness, when the Liberals were charged with the responsibility of representing the minority parties, they did not fulfil it ethically. Their idea of representing the minority parties was to replace a minority party place on a departmental Select Committee with a place on the towering heights of the Catering Committee and other such Committees of the House, which are interesting and in which we enthusiastically participate, but are not quite the same as challenging Secretaries of State and Departments.
I had the enormous pleasure of doing a television piece for an event that is going on elsewhere this evening—the Channel 4 political awards—with Lady Hermon. She is one of the finalists for the Opposition politician of the year award. She has extensive legal experience, so it would be reasonable to accept the amendment.
Mr. Beith knows full well that I have the highest regard for his abilities. I have supported him for other offices in the House, but I am slightly surprised that someone of his calibre has not seen this argument coming and insisted that his party should do its bit in being fair to the minority parties.
Andrew Mackinlay says that the Liberal party has approached critical mass. Things usually approach critical mass when they are about to explode. None the less, even if the Liberal party has approached critical mass, its members should remember when they were in a minority party and therefore be fair to the minorities parties, which do not have that number of hon. Members.
My final argument is one of unity. Where else on the face of this planet would an amendment be supported by the Scottish National party, by the Ulster Unionists, who are diverse in their political views, and even by the Democratic Unionists, who are extremely diverse and, even more so, by the Social Democratic and Labour party? That is unheard of. The amendment has unified the minority parties, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside represents the minorities parties. They have never been prepared to argue their case together before, but they have come together on questions of fairness, parity and having access to the channels of the House. The House would be less than gracious if, either in the vote later this evening or, alternatively, through the Minister's means, it were not prepared to concede to those perfectly reasonable demands.
I wish to make a parochial comment on behalf of my hon. Friend Lady Hermon. I am not experienced in the procedures of the House or the Select Committee system, so I do not want to walk over ground about which I feel unsure.
Criminal justice has undergone a major review in Northern Ireland since the Belfast agreement, as has policing. There are many concerns, some of which are not shared across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland, and different points of view. I believe that Select Committee membership lasts for the lifetime of this Parliament, so it is personally appropriate that an Ulster Member should sit on the Select Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for North Down is experienced in legal matters, so it would be very appropriate in this case that she serve on that Committee at a time when many more changes have been proposed to criminal justice in Northern Ireland and there is the debate about our constitutional position in relation to the Belfast agreement and the Lord Chancellor's reserved powers in our legal system.
I simply want to place on record the fact that Lady Hermon is playing a very important role on the Standing Committee that is considering the Criminal Justice Bill, as I know from my experience of serving on that Committee. She is a great help to the whole Committee. I would strongly support her membership of the Select Committee if that were not in replacement of my right hon. Friend Mr. Beith, who would be an even better advertisement for that Committee.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that praise for my hon. Friend the Member for North Down.
The possible transfer—I think it highly unlikely—of justice and policing to a re-established Stormont Executive will also occupy the House during the lifetime of this Parliament. That strengthens my opinion that this is an appropriate one-off appointment for my hon. Friend the Member for North Down. That is all I wish to say on this subject. 7.54 pm
May I apologise in advance to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the House? I am wearing a loud tie today in celebration of cancer research week, as that is what Members have been requested to do. When I rose to speak in Westminster Hall this afternoon while wearing the very same tie, the sound system promptly collapsed and the sitting had to be suspended for quite a long period. I hope that my tie will not have the same effect this evening.
The point made by Peter Bottomley is appropriate and I hope that, in the long term, the Government will take it into account. I want to make it absolutely clear that my colleagues and I are sympathetic to the point of view of the minority parties because we have been in their position. For many years, we had precisely the same problem that they have now encountered. I very much regret that they decided that we were not their best advocates: they now look to the Government, as has been made clear this evening, to act on their behalf. If the case is made for an additional representative from the minority parties for this or any other Committee, they should look to the Government to find a place for them, and to substitute one of their Members for a Labour Member. That is not a matter for us.
What I want to make clear is that there was no discrimination—to take up the word used by Andrew Mackinlay—in favour of minority parties in the past. When I was my party's Chief Whip and previously, there was no such discrimination. We did not look for it—we would have loved it if it had happened—but we understood the arithmetic of this place. As the Chairman of the Committee of Selection, Mr. McWilliam, has made only too clear, the arithmetical equation is difficult. Often, for a comparatively small Committee, it is a very difficult task to try to find representation from all parts of the House, geographically as well as by party.
It is disappointing—I put it no stronger than that—that the minority parties have chosen this occasion to seek to remove a Member from a Committee and to put on one of their own. There have been plenty of opportunities previously that would have been more appropriate and that covered all parts of the United Kingdom represented by those parties. I accept their point, however, that it has been difficult in the past for them to obtain seats on several Committees.
Pete Wishart referred to two examples. I know that positions have recently been sought on various Bill Committees: for example, on that considering the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill. A place was requested and a Member was nominated to take up a position on that Committee, but he did not attend.
Before the hon. Gentleman develops his point further, a Government Whip put forward my name without my knowledge or permission, and I did not take part in that Committee. I removed my name via the Chief Whip's Office, so there is nothing in what the hon. Gentleman says.
I find that very interesting, as it underlines my point. If the negotiations between the minority parties and the Government Whips are not working, that is not a matter for my party, and we should not be penalised. On that occasion, we were denied a second place on the Committee because those parties did not take it up, which was very regrettable. They also insisted on a place on the Local Government Bill Committee, but they could not find a Member to take it up, although that Committee involved important issues affecting Wales. It is therefore regrettable that they should attempt to take out their grievance on my colleagues.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not insinuating that we are not doing the work on Standing Committees. That is not the case. We are prepared to do that work—we have served on several Standing Committees previously. We have no problem with places offered on Standing Committees. The issue is Select Committees.
My point is that the minority parties cannot cherry pick. If they wish to take a full part in the business of the House they cannot simply opt for the most attractive Committees. If they were so keen to increase their representation, they should have sought to amend the size of this Committee. They had an opportunity to do that last night, when there was an open-ended debate. I regret very much that the minority parties decided to use this opportunity, and that they attempted to remove my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed from the Committee. With 53 Members of the House, we are clearly entitled to one Member on this Committee. If the minority parties wanted an additional Member, they should have negotiated directly with the Government or they should have sought to increase the size of the Committee. My colleagues and I will support the motion tonight.
I pay tribute to the work of all members of the Committee of Selection. It is testimony to how well they do their task that we rarely debate their recommendations.
There are two issues to consider. The first is the principle of whether the Select Committee should be established. We decided that yesterday. The second is the narrow issue of its membership. My hon. Friend Peter Bottomley is right: it would usually seem offensive to challenge the recommendations of the Committee of Selection, but in this case something has gone wrong and the House is being asked to make an important decision on something that has caused controversy. We are entitled to ask why the minority parties are unhappy with the recommendation and have felt moved to table an amendment.
When my party was in government, the member of the Committee of Selection who represented the largest minority party spoke up for the interests not only of his or her party but for the interests of all other minority parties. For many years, that job was discharged very well indeed by Sir Archy Kirkwood. During my time in the Government Whips Office, the only dispute that I recall was over the appointment of a Conservative member to a Committee and the omission of another Conservative member. I cannot recollect any time when the minority parties had a gripe, and the system worked well.
Mr. Stunell took on the task in 2001. He has subsequently relinquished it, and it does not matter whether that was at his own request or because others were dissatisfied with his decision making. The transfer of responsibility, supposedly to a Labour member of the Committee of Selection, has not worked satisfactorily. The Committee is composed of nine members—six Labour members, two Conservatives and one Liberal Democrat. As the Government are taking on the role of looking after the minority parties, there is perhaps a case for giving the minority parties a place on the Committee of Selection so that they can have a voice. It has never been the case that the members of the Committee have represented all shades of opinion, but they have always tried to reflect accurately the views in the House. That is clearly not happening.
The impression that has been given, certainly in recent months, is that the Liberal Democrats are getting more than their fair share of plum places, such as the nomination to the Select Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Dept. We all know about the usual channels agreement, and I understand that this Committee chairmanship will go to the Liberals if the motion is approved unamended. They have two places on the important Modernisation Committee. Minority party Members do not have a voice and, as Pete Wishart said, they do not have a place on the Liaison Committee either. One cannot justify that merely by reference to the arithmetics. The operation of the House and its Committees has always been based on an element of compromise. There is a perceived injustice here, and I hope that the Government and the Committee of Selection will be prepared to reflect on that well beyond the conclusion of this debate.
I have some sympathy with the arguments of the hon. Member for North Tayside. We should not view the selection as a beauty contest between Berwick-upon-Tweed and North Down. Both Mr. Beith and Lady Hermon have qualities that would be of use and benefit on the Select Committee, but there is a feeling that we have been here before and that the voice of the minority parties has not been heard when matters of selection have been discussed. For that reason, although the amendment is not ideal, I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to support it in the Division Lobby.
I begin by associating myself fully with the remarks of Mr. Knight, who paid tribute to the work of the Committee of Selection. As he pointed out, it does its difficult job so well that we rarely have to have debates such as this.
The Chairman of the Committee has assured the House that it seeks to ensure party balance and fair representation for the smaller parties, but we are being asked to debate, and possibly vote on, an amendment to the Committee's motion tabled by Pete Wishart that would replace Mr. Beith, from the Liberal Democrats, with Lady Hermon, from the Ulster Unionist party. There is not a single Member of the House who does not think that the hon. Lady would make an admirable member of the Committee. Indeed, I think I speak for all hon. Members when I say that, in her short time here, she has won our affection and admiration. However, I urge the House to follow the judgment of the Committee of Selection and to reject the amendment, and I shall explain why.
First, let me address the point made by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire about the Government's role in defending the interests of minority parties. I do not want to intrude too deeply on private grief between the Liberal Democrats and the other smaller parties, but we have been here before. Last time we debated these matters, the point was made clearly by the smaller parties—here I do not include the Liberal Democrats—that since the Government had taken on responsibility for their interests, the arrangement had been working much better. I see that the hon. Member for North Tayside is nodding in agreement. That slightly contradicts the point made by the official Opposition spokesman that the Government are not doing the job properly or, at least, they are doing it no better than the Liberal Democrats. I shall go on to address that case in a moment.
The Government are aware that the smaller parties are concerned about their representation, and no one has done more to try to press their case than my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who this evening is at the same event as the hon. Member for North Down, and, I hope, also receiving an award.
I had something to say about the right hon. Gentleman on the same programme, which no doubt is being shown as we speak.
The Minister says that things have improved, and that has been conceded by my hon. Friend Pete Wishart. However, there is an exception in the case of Select Committees and, in particular, the Liaison Committee, where there has been no progress or improvement. If there can be improvement in one direction, cannot the Minister find it in his heart to improve the situation with Select Committees as well?
The hon. Gentleman anticipates what I am about to say.
As I was saying, the Leader of the House has acknowledged that the smaller parties, particularly the Scottish National party, have a grievance in this matter. We have said that the Committee of Selection is aware of those concerns and that it should make every attempt to be as fair as possible when proposing Committee membership.
Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay, who asked in vain for the figures on Committee membership. I have given these to the House before, but it may be helpful to the House if I repeat them. If there were strict proportionality in dishing out membership, the Labour party would have 292 places; we currently have 295. The Conservatives would have 116, and they have 115. The Liberal Democrats would have 38, and they have 40, while the Ulster Unionist party would have four, but it has five, so both those parties are slightly over-represented. The Democratic Unionist party would have four seats, but currently it has only three. The Scottish Nationalist party would have four, but it has two. The Welsh nationalists would have three, and they have three. The SDLP would have two, and it has two.
My hon. Friend said that we should fight hardest for the smallest, and that principle is right. According to strict proportionality, the independents would have no seats, but they have one, so they are the most over-represented of all the groups in the House.
Having had this conversation with officials earlier, I think I am right in saying that, given strict proportionality, the independents would have half the number of places. Obviously, that is impossible, but my point is that, statistically, the independents are generously represented in having one post.
In an intervention, Mr. Llwyd objected to the fact that, in their attempt to improve the representation of smaller parties, the Government bounced him into membership of the Standing Committee on the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill. I should say that I am in possession of an e-mail from the hon. Member for North Tayside, who is responsible for looking out for the interests of the smaller parties. According to that e-mail, he is requesting a place for that very Member on that Committee, so it is clear that there has been a breakdown of communication between them. When the Government try to do the right thing, we get it thrown in our faces.
I hear that there are currently breakdowns in communication even within the Cabinet, never mind between anyone else. Let us get back to the key point of the arithmetic and the figures that the Minister read out. I want to introduce him to a little in the way of percentages. As I understand it, he said that the Liberal Democrats are over-represented by two—they have 40 places, instead of 38—and that the Scottish National party is under-represented by two: it has two places, instead of four. Does that not constitute a 50 per cent. under-representation for the SNP and a marginal over-representation for the Liberal Democrats? Let us accept for the sake of argument that the Minister's figures are correct. Does he not understand that, where a small number of places are involved, it is rather important to make sure that the party concerned has at least its full quota, if not considerably more?
I have been totally up-front about this. I have made it absolutely clear that the Liberal Democrats are currently over-represented and that the nationalists are under-represented. In fact, the SNP is the most under-represented of all the small parties, but I agree entirely with my hon. Friend Mr. McWilliam that this is the very worst example of the case to be made for extra SNP representation—I understand that that is not what the amendment is asking for—because the nature of the Select Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department means that, to a large extent, it does not deal with Scotland. Time and again, we have accepted the point that the SNP is under-represented.
I am grateful to the Minister for accepting that point, but does he also accept that the only reason the Democratic Unionist party, the Ulster Unionist party and the Social Democratic and Labour party are close to, or above, their accorded arithmetical representation is that they have to fill places on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee?
The DUP is actually under-represented, even given that fact. Regardless of how one does the arithmetic, I was simply trying to give the House the figures on proportionality, and on representation on Committees.
As I have already pointed out, we are being much more generous than the right hon. Gentleman's party ever was when it was in power. If he will allow me, I was about to say how we hope to be even more generous in the future.
The hon. Member for North Tayside raised the specific issue of membership of Joint Committees. As he is involved in these discussions, he will be aware that the balances of such Committees are particularly complex, and that they must be approached case by case. However, discussions are under way through the usual channels, and although they are not complete, and although I would not want to pre-judge their outcome, the Government are confident that, in the right context, we can come up with a formula that can provide better representation for the smaller parties, while preserving those necessary balances. Such Committees might indeed need to be larger than normal, in order to achieve that.
I hope that the hon. Member for North Tayside will therefore feel reassured that the Government are trying to address the grievances that he raised. With that, I leave it to the Chairman of the Committee of Selection, if he wishes to, to reply to the debate.
With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall reply.
I have little to say save that it is a problem in a House of this size to make sure that everybody is represented, when some parties have four, three or two members here. As I said, we take it to three decimal places, and try our best to make sure that the ratios are accurate. We do our best to make sure that when representations are made to us, as they have been, we listen.
Regrettably, on occasion, we have to table a motion, but unless the House wants to overturn the system that it has used for a long time and introduce a system that may work in this Parliament but perhaps not in future, I suggest that it vote for tonight's motion. If it does not do so, what has been suggested could turn and bite if parliamentary proportions change dramatically.
Question accordingly negatived.
Main Question put and agreed to.
That Mr A. J. Beith, Peter Bottomley, Mr James Clappison, Ross Cranston, Mrs Ann Cryer, Mr Jim Cunningham, Mr Hilton Dawson, Mr Mark Field, Mr Clive Soley, Keith Vaz and Dr Alan Whitehead be members of the Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department.