I beg to move,
That the Standing Orders be amended as follows—
The motion was tabled at the request of the Committee of Selection and has the support of Opposition spokesmen. I see that Mr. Luff is nodding. The proposal is to extend the Committee's remit to make it responsible for proposing to the House nominations not only for the departmental and domestic Committees but for most of the other Select Committees established under Standing Orders.
An explanatory memorandum has been provided setting out clearly how the motion would amend the Standing Orders. The amendment to
Mr. Forth has tabled an amendment, which he will no doubt move, and I shall attempt to answer his points, but it may help if I explain to the House the thinking behind the exceptions. It would be inappropriate for the Committee of Selection to nominate itself—in fact, at the beginning of a Parliament, it would be impossible, since it would not exist. The Liaison Committee is largely a Committee of Chairmen, and its membership is established by temporary Standing Order. The Standards and Privileges Committee, as I am sure we would all agree, is very much one of a kind: the House has agreed that the normal rules of party balance should not apply to it. Its Chairman is here, and I hope that he will express his support for the motion. It is appropriate that the membership proposed to the House should be agreed by discussion through the usual channels. For Committees set up under temporary Standing Orders, as well as those set up under Sessional Orders, discussions on membership normally take place as part of the dialogue in the usual channels, so it is appropriate for current practice to remain in that case.
I believe that this is an uncontroversial change. The Committee of Selection does its job well, as the whole House will agree, and it seems to make sense for it to take on the wider task. I urge the House to support the motion.
I am grateful to the Minister for his warm endorsement of the motion, because it has its origins within the Committee of Selection, of which I have the privilege to be a member. The Chairman very much regrets that he cannot be here, as he would have liked to contribute to our consideration of this important but modest motion.
I express genuine gratitude to my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth and to nationalist Members, because the only reason that we are having this debate is that they objected on four separate occasions to the motion going through on the nod. They are right to object to such a proceeding, as we should be able to find time for a short debate to enable the issues to be aired. The selection of the amendment shows the importance of having a debate on the motion's precise ambition. As so often, my right hon. Friend is the grit that helps to make the pearl in the oyster of parliamentary democracy. It may be uncomfortable for us, but often the result is better legislation.
I am wearing two hats today: I am a member of the Committee of Selection as well as spokesman for the official Opposition. I can confirm that the idea commends itself not only to the Committee but to the official Opposition. Indeed, it would be odd if it did not commend itself to me, because I am going to take the credit for having the idea. Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. Many people would like to take the credit, and many perhaps deserve to, but, in the formulation of a Hollywood film, it is from an original idea by the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire with valuable research by the Clerk to the Committee—
This is clearly a production not to be missed. Given that it was his idea, does the hon. Gentleman believe that, as the Committee will have these increased powers, it is now appropriate that a minority party Member should also serve on it?
I would not overstate the extent to which the Committee is being given additional powers. The hon. Gentleman, for whom I have great respect and affection, was instrumental in keeping me off the Committee for many weeks, while he repeatedly objected to my membership of it—not, as he said when we eventually had the debate on the Committee, because he had anything against me personally, but because it provided him with the opportunity to debate precisely the point that he has just raised. I have got news for him: were he to serve on the Committee of Selection, he would not find it the most riveting Committee in this place. I look to another of its members—my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire—with some nervousness concerning how many secrets I can give away. However, I can say that its meetings regularly take less than five minutes and are conducted on a consensual basis, with the arguments being had beforehand, although not always. I hope that Pete Wishart agrees that the interests of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru are being dealt with more effectively now that they are being looked after by the Government, instead of the Liberal Democrats. They certainly seem to be being looked after well in the Committee of Selection.
I have no objection to the nationalists joining the Committee of Selection. I thought that the hon. Member for North Tayside wanted to make the rather broader point—I suspect that he will seek to do so later—about membership of nationalist parties on other Committees. I am sorry that, because of the relative paucity of places for members of nationalist parties, he himself does not currently have the privilege of serving on any Select Committee.
The Deputy Leader of the House moved the motion in a very matter-of-fact way, and rightly so. Despite the best attempts of the hon. Member for North Tayside, I have been a member of the Committee of Selection for some two years, and I am still regularly confused as to which Committees we can and cannot nominate. I do not feel too ashamed in making that confession, because I know that the Government Whips have a similar difficultly, and it should also be admitted that the Committee Clerks experience the same difficulty sometimes. There is absolutely no logic at all to the current selection of Committees for which the Committee of Selection can select. I will not regale the House with a long list of the various Committees that can and cannot be nominated, but, for example, we can nominate members of the Accommodation and Works Committee and of the Administration Committee, but not of the Broadcasting Committee. I cannot think why that should be so.
One thing that I have learned in politics is that it is sometimes wise to ask the stupid question. At a meeting of the Committee of Selection, I asked why we can nominate the members of some Committees but not others and the Clerk promised to produce a note explaining the background. In my innocence, I thought that there would be a rational explanation. I expected some powerful logic to be offered as to why certain Committees come before our Committee and others do not, with the others having to be dealt with by the whole House under a motion tabled by the Government.
Of course, the Clerk's very helpful note to the Committee of Selection pointed out that there was no logic; it was just one of those accidents of history. So it was that the Regulatory Reform Committee was set up under
I use the phrase "tidying up" with some nervousness, because the Leader of House has himself used that phrase in relation to rather more ambitious proposals for the future conduct of European affairs. But I genuinely believe that this is a simple housekeeping measure that will be of great benefit to everyone concerned in the process of nominating Committees. Having said that, I have some sympathy for the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, which would tidy up the motion even more thoroughly. Although the Deputy Leader of the House provided a brief explanation as to why certain Committees should still be nominated on the Floor of the House and not by the Committee of Selection, I did not find his reasons terribly convincing. I should be interested to hear what my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire has to say; as Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, his views should carry weight in the House.
It is right and proper that we do not appoint members of the Liaison Committee, which is effectively an ex officio Committee, and obviously we cannot appoint ourselves, because as the Deputy Leader of the House said, that would be completely impossible. But I need a little more persuasion as to why the other Committees cannot be appointed by the Committee of Selection. We know that, in practice, all these Committees are negotiated using essentially the same mechanism. The involvement of the Committee of Selection would provide even greater clarity. The Committee of Selection can debate the merits of the composition of a particular Committee should it wish to do so; indeed, it did so recently in respect of a particular Standing Committee. The House could then debate such appointments subsequently if they are controversial.
I genuinely welcome the fact that this tidying-up measure also provides an opportunity to debate all Committees, whether or not any controversy attaches to them. There have been occasions, under this Government and the previous Government, when nominations to Committees have been controversial and debates on the Floor of the House have been necessary—not just to make a point about the minority parties, but to discuss the individual Members proposed to serve on such Committees.
I welcome the motion and I am delighted that the Government have found time to table it. I am grateful for that because it will make all our lives a great deal easier, but the Government need to answer the questions raised in a little more detail than they have so far been able to. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst will surely offer some powerful arguments for even greater simplicity and clarity.
I am delighted to follow Mr. Luff. He and I worked together in real life before coming to this place, so I suppose that I should not be surprised at the cheerful effrontery with which a member of the Committee of Selection has apparently defended its right to do this job on behalf of the House—a point to which I shall return.
I am sure that the Deputy Leader of the House has read with care the Modernisation Committee's report on nominations to Select Committees. If he has not done so, I am surprised, because in the previous debate he made great play of the need for the House to listen to those who do the real work behind the scenes. He will doubtless also recall the extremely important report that the Modernisation Committee produced, under the chairmanship of Mr. Cook, in the 2001–02 Session, a subject to which I shall also return.
As has been said, the reason the report on Select Committee nominations was produced was that the Government made some very controversial attempts to remove key members from key Select Committees—members who were expected to take the Chair. The House literally revolted against the attempt by the usual channels to impose the Government's will, and in July 2001 the Government's attempt to make such changes was defeated—the House acted very speedily, as all Members will recall—and they had to come back within a few days with a revised motion.
As a result, the Modernisation Committee, of which I was delighted to be a member at the time, spent a long time taking evidence from members of the Liaison Committee. It examined in advance a number of reports that had considered this issue, and it produced an exhaustive examination of the most appropriate nomination process for membership of these very important Committees. On the one hand, it sought to balance expertise, special interest and special viewpoints, while on the other hand maintaining party ratios. It was a difficult job and we spent many weeks on it, but the report to which I referred offered a very careful suggestion, based on that evidence. As the Deputy Leader of the House said in the previous debate, we must give credit to those who do such work on behalf of the whole House, and I hope that he will recognise the validity of that examination process in his response.
At this point, I, too, should make a confession. In admitting to being a member of the Committee of Selection, the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire was insufficiently contrite. I was a member of that Committee for four years, as my party's Chief Whip. We had weekly meetings, and I can say with truth that they were interesting—mainly for their brevity. On one occasion when, as the most senior Member present, I was in the Chair, the meeting lasted 30 seconds. That was not unusual. Indeed, over those four years, because of the way in which the business was carved up, the total amount of time that I was asked to devote to that important exercise was probably less than four hours. I can hardly say that being on the Committee took a huge amount of time.
Does the hon. Gentleman believe that that was enough time, given the onerous and difficult responsibility of the Committee of Selection to ensure that we have the right placements for departmental Select Committees? I am shocked and amazed that it could sit for only 30 seconds to consider some of those matters.
If the hon. Gentleman had been present when we debated the report of the Modernisation Committee he would have heard me make the same comment. That is precisely why I and the Select Committee of which I am a member, under the then leadership of the right hon. Member for Livingston, proposed to take that responsibility from the Committee of Selection, open the process up and make it more transparent and more responsive to the House, instead of occupying a small Committee Room for 30 seconds or so each week for that important exercise.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and that is why I have real doubts about the recommendation. To hear the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire say that this is simply housekeeping and tidying up fills me with alarm. I hope that it will not be thought to be a permanent and satisfactory answer to a real problem.
Is the hon. Gentleman not confusing two separate issues? At present we have a system of selecting Committees that works—I think that it works well and the hon. Gentleman does not, but that is a different point. However, he is now discussing a different issue, which is whether the way in which we choose Committees should be changed. So long as we have the present system, is this not a tidying up and an improvement?
That may or may not be so, but the motion invites us to consider the whole issue of the nomination of Select Committees. The hon. Gentleman may choose to interpret that in a certain way, but if he looks at the Order Paper he will find that the motion is described as relating to the "Nomination of Select Committees". That is why I intend to refer to the extremely important debate that took place in May 2002, based on the report published by the Modernisation Committee in February 2002.
Paragraph 7 says:
"The controversy provoked by this episode"— the episode to which the hon. Gentleman and I referred—
"made it clear that the current method of nomination, which gives a central role to the Committee of Selection, no longer enjoyed the confidence of the House".
It clearly did not, and for us to return to this subject again two years later without facing the issue seems at worse perverse and at best an ill-advised attempt to tinker with a system that is so plainly wrong that we should be more radical—if I may dare to use again the word that the hon. Gentleman so enthusiastically endorsed.
There were then many proposals made to improve the situation. I am sure that the Deputy Leader of the House knows the report backwards, because he could not have attempted to introduce the debate without a full briefing on it from his civil servants; it is the critical report on the basis of which all this should be conceived.
Paragraph 9—I shall have to read this in full, because it is so important to the debate—says:
"The Committee of Selection has come to interpret its role as limited to confirming the proposals put to it by the front benches on both sides".
Pete Wishart and I will agree that the term "both sides" is pejorative in this context. The report continues:
"This may be understandable in view of the Committee's main function of nominating Members to the standing committees on bills where party discipline is directly engaged, but has produced criticism that the Committee of Selection is no longer an appropriate mechanism to guarantee the independence of the nominations to the committees of scrutiny. Any new method of nomination needs to be independent, authoritative, transparent and able to command the confidence of the House on both sides. We endorse Lord Sheldon's comment in his evidence to us: 'the Executive, via the Whips, ought not to select those members of select committees who will be examining the Executive, that is crucial.'"
That is the Select Committee that has considered the issue; it is not the Committee of Selection saying that it would like to do more and does not understand the current rationale. It is a Committee of this House saying that the use of the Committee of Selection is not an appropriate way to undertake the job.
The report continues by saying that a recommendation could be made to the House that met the necessary requirements of balance and of parliamentary party involvement in the exercise, but which also provided a form of appeal. That is exactly what was discussed, and the recommendation in paragraph 12 says:
"In our judgment what is required is not an alternative to the party process but a fail-safe mechanism to ensure fair play and to provide a court of appeal."
Anybody who has served on the Committee of Selection knows that there is never an application from any individual member saying, "I've been maligned. The party Whips don't like me because I have difficult views. They've kept me off this Committee because they feel I would not be a supportive member of my party." In those circumstances, it is clearly absurd that the Committee should be given that responsibility—under this motion the extended responsibility—of appointing members to Select Committees.
I shall not attempt to read out the whole report, because that would be boring at this point, but I remind Members that we came up with a perfectly workable solution to the problem of the difficult balance—to have a new Committee of nomination that would be representative of the whole House, not just of a few people who happened to be Whips in their respective parties. Effectively, that would have taken the issue away from the usual channels.
I believe that the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire was in the Conservative Whips Office at the time, and I am not sure that the Deputy Leader of the House might not have been in the Government Whips Office, too. Sadly but significantly, on the evening of that debate in May 2002, when the proposals were put to the House by the right hon. Member for Livingston in an impassioned speech on behalf of the whole House—the Back Benchers, people who have real concerns and interests, and specialist knowledge that they could bring to the Select Committees—they were defeated.
The proposals were defeated by an unholy conspiracy of the Conservative and Labour Whips Offices, which worked together because they saw the power being taken away from them. I have been the Chief Whip of my party, but I never regarded this issue as an appropriate one on which the Whips Offices should dominate the way in which the House fulfils it duties to the electorate. I always considered that inappropriate and, sadly, that evening, it was only too evident that those who had a special interest in retaining their power base were determined to retain it.
Since then, that power of patronage has increased, because the House has decided to pay Select Committee Chairmen an extra salary. With a number of my colleagues, I opposed that, and members in all parts of the House had doubts about it. Now the Whips have a greater power over who should go on and who should stay off those Select Committees. I have great respect for the great majority of Select Committee Chairs, but if there is anything to be said for the power of money—I occasionally hear from both sides of the House that money, such as pension rights and so on, is important in such matters—it is undoubtedly true that that influence is even greater. Such patronage reverts to the 18th century level, which I believe to be entirely inimical to the good governance of this place.
It was a sad evening when a relatively small majority defeated that proposal. Tonight here we are again, apparently—the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire used the phrase "tidying up", but all we are doing is giving more influence to that inadequate mechanism, the Committee of Selection. It will now be able to nominate more members to more Select Committees—but the Committee does not actually do that job. The Committee, in fact, merely accepts recommendations from the Whips.
Members on both Front Benches have now referred to a tidying-up exercise, so there clearly is a conspiracy. The Minister, I fear, does not convince me: two wrongs simply do not make a right. The fact is that the present mechanism is wrong and that if we add more to it, giving more power to the people who make proposals, we will simply make it even more wrong.
Sir George Young serves on the Committee of Selection, among his many other onerous responsibilities in the House. I shall be interested to hear whether he agrees with my assessment of how that Committee operates. It may be that it has changed since my time and that there is now intensive debate about the relative merits of those put forward to serve on Committees. If that is so, it is not evident from outside. The right hon. Gentleman is, I think, the sole independent Member on the Committee—
I am corrected. It may be that those two Members are regularly lobbied by Back Benchers such as Mr. Prentice, who may say that he has great expertise on a particular issue but has been overlooked by the Whips because, just occasionally, he tends not to follow their advice. It may be that he has, on occasion, been able to lobby the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire and has managed to gain a place on a Select Committee to which he would bring great expertise and great distinction. If so, it has not been evident. Certainly, in my own experience, on no occasion during my four years on the Committee was any alteration whatsoever made to the recommendations brought by the Whips. It is, in effect, a Whips' carve-up, and the way in which the Modernisation Committee has referred to it is interesting.
The hon. Gentleman makes an impassioned speech but is building his argument on foundations of sand. I have some sympathy for what he says about other means of selecting Committees, particularly Select Committees, but how does he imagine that the Regulatory Reform Committee, the European Scrutiny Committee and the Public Administration Committee are currently selected? They are selected by the Whips, who choose their members behind closed doors with no opportunity for debate. At least the Committee of Selection provides an opportunity for debate. The motion opens the process up a bit—not much, I agree, but a bit—and I fear that the hon. Gentleman's arguments are completely wrong.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says but he is completely wrong himself. As I said to the Deputy Leader of the House, two wrongs do not make a right. If the hon. Gentleman can persuade me that there have been regular debates in the Committee of Selection—half an hour or an hour of discussion of the relative merits of different people being placed on Committees—I shall be convinced, but I do not believe that to be the case; in fact, I know that it is not. We cannot simply pass the motion without recognising the trenchant criticisms made of the process by all members of the Modernisation Committee, particularly of the way in which the Committee of Selection does its work.
Would it not be sensible for all political parties to lodge in the Library of the House of Commons a copy of the procedures that they use to propose names for Select Committees? I raised that point with the Leader of the House a couple of months ago but it did not find favour. If the process were transparent and public, it would be encouraging.
That is a valuable point, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is here to make it. The Modernisation Committee recognised that point but did not think it could impose on the parliamentary parties a rule about how they should act, even if transparency requires that the process by which nominations are made should be evident to all, not least for the benefit of members of particular parties, since it is not always entirely clear, even to them, why members are selected for nomination or deselected or not nominated. The Modernisation Committee said:
"In the great majority of cases the party process will produce an outcome which commands consensus support within that party. For many years there was no substantial dissent from the outcome of the nominations to select committees. We do not seek to supplant those internal party processes, nor do we wish to undermine them."
The point is that if it were self-evident that there was an effective process by which names came forward, it would strengthen the way in which members of Committees were nominated.
I should turn briefly to the amendment. It is difficult to respond to an amendment before it has been moved; I have been in the position myself of not having done so. I have some sympathy with the point identified in the amendment about the exclusions, particularly the temporary exclusions. I hope that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, as chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, will explain his position, and I am prepared to await his views before I make a judgment. However, there cannot be a very good case for treating temporary Committees any differently from permanent ones. I can see no logic to that, and I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will come back on the point.
The motion is not a tidying-up exercise but a bit of tinkering when what we need is radical reform of the way in which we appoint Members to extremely important Select Committees. It is unfinished business, and I hope in due course that the relatively new Leader of the House and his deputy will return to the point so that we can do properly the job of persuading the House, which we unfortunately failed to do last time.
I beg to move, To leave out from first 'Committee' to end and add
'and the Committee of Selection'.
Whether the motion is tinkering or tidying, it would appear that the argument is finely balanced. What is fascinating is the extent to which my hon. Friend Mr. Luff and Mr. Tyler have lifted the lid on what is supposed to be one of the most secret of our activities—the way in which the House nominates Members to Committees. It is supposed always to have been a great mystery, but now we know more about it than is perhaps healthy.
If the debate has done nothing else, it has shed some light, though, frankly, to our shame. I must agree with the thrust of what has been said so far. I am drawn to the conclusion that the motion is a slight improvement on a very unsatisfactory process. My only hesitation is that when speakers from both Front Benches say that they agree with a motion, I wonder whether the rest of us should. On this occasion, and rather unusually, my judgment, on balance, is that the motion is a tiny step forward.
Does the right hon. Gentleman have the good grace to accept that the Government have given time to debate the issue, which is hardly consistent with not wishing to bring transparency?
That is chutzpah, if ever I heard it. The only reason why the motion is before us today is that it was originally objected to—when the hope was, as often, that it would quietly slip through. My amendment probably helped a little in the process. For the Government to claim that it is thanks to them that we are having this debate is a bit of a try-on, to put it mildly. I accept that we are here at last and having this debate—for that I should be slightly grateful—and if I could extend my speech for another hour and 27 minutes, the damn thing would not make any progress at all. However, I am not quite in that mood tonight, and that is not my intention. I am glad that we are having this debate.
I shall press my amendment, when necessary, because I want it to be considered. I am encouraged in that, so far, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire has said that my amendment is sensible, and the hon. Member for North Cornwall has echoed that view. I am grateful to them for that. I agree that the Minister was unduly and briefly dismissive of the amendment without providing any proper reasons. I shall say just a few words about it, because I do not wish to delay the House on this occasion.
My feeling is that what lies before us today is a very small advance on a rather unsatisfactory position. For that reason, I believe that we should give it our support. I was mystified when the argument was initially advanced that the Liaison Committee and the Committee of Selection were the only ones to be excluded. That is only common sense, as the Liaison Committee is effectively a by-product or an ex officio body, and, as has already been said, a Committee of Selection cannot select itself, but I cannot for the life of me see why all the other Committees should be excluded from the process that we are now being invited to endorse.
I accept that the views of my right hon. Friend Sir George Young will be crucial, because of the important role played by the Standards and Privileges Committee. If he said that he believed that his Committee should also be brought within the ambit of the Committee of Selection, I would argue, as the amendment does, that all the other Committees should, too. If my right hon. Friend is in an expansive and lid-lifting mood, he may reveal a little of what goes on in the Committee of Selection. At least it provides an opportunity for debate and deliberation by Members other than what we call "the usual channels"—in other words, the Whips. It should give us all a tiny degree of comfort to know that it is not the Whips who are carving everything up and that at least someone else has the opportunity to intervene in the process and to speak for the Back Benchers or Members who may not be nominated. That provides at least a ray of hope—I put it no more strongly than that.
All in all, I am prepared to support the measure, but I urge the House to support my amendment, which I will press at the appropriate point. Unless the Deputy Leader of the House can give a much more persuasive and cogent reason why my amendment should not be accepted, I believe that it would strengthen the purpose and allow us to move a little further forward. That is the rationale of my amendment. What it says is self-evident and a good reason should be provided for why it should not be accepted rather than the other way round. For all those reasons, I hope that the House will accept the motion, as amended.
It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth, who exhibited some interest in my views on the matter of debate. I agree with what he said. I also agree with the argument of Mr. Tyler, but I disagree with that hon. Gentleman's conclusion and agree with that of my right hon. Friend—that the motion represents a useful step in the right direction. I sit on the Committee of Selection and I am the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, which is one of those that would not be affected by the proposed change.
The torch of publicity does not shine very often on the work of the Committee of Selection. As we have heard, when it does meet it makes very good use of its time. We meet under the brisk and efficient chairmanship of Mr. McWilliam. Most of our work is uncontentious and unexciting, and I would be misleading the House if I said that we debated extensively the merits of the various candidates that we are about to place on Select Committees or Standing Committees.
Occasionally, however, the Committee emerges, blinking, into the public gaze. As the hon. Member for North Cornwall said, that was certainly the case at the beginning of this Parliament. On
Has there been any similar occasion since that episode or since the House decided to retain that mechanism and to continue to expect from the Selection Committee a discernment on the issues that has not always been there?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, Select Committees are appointed at the beginning of the Parliament for its duration, so we have not had the opportunity to consider their membership except when changes have to be made, when the same issues do not normally arise—because the Chairman is in place and the changes are usually at a relatively junior level.
We have had other debates in the Selection Committee. It is giving away no secrets to say that we had a debate after the Second Reading of the Higher Education Bill and the vote on tuition fees. We had a debate about the appropriate number of Labour Members for the Standing Committee, because it needed to reflect accurately the views of the House. Although most of the meetings are quite brisk, on important occasions the Selection Committee discusses the sorts of issues that Members have raised in this debate.
As the hon. Gentleman also said, the Selection Committee also debated the proposals from the Leader of the House two years ago. I supported the changes, but they were narrowly defeated in the House. I have urged the Leader of the House on several occasions to revisit that decision, because it did not appear that evening that everybody knew exactly what was going on. I am not sure that the Whips were as even-handed with information as they might have been.
However, we are not discussing the radical reform that I and other Members supported. What is on offer is a modest improvement that would give the Selection Committee powers—currently held by the Government—to nominate to certain Select Committees. The change would filter through a Committee of the House nominations that at present go straight from the Executive to the Order Paper. That would be a step in the right direction, because the Committee would filter and examine—and where necessary debate and challenge—the nominations.
The present position is not logical. As my hon. Friend Mr. Luff pointed out, we do not make nominations to the Broadcasting Committee, but we do make nominations to the Catering Committee. We nominate to most Select Committees but not, for some reason, to the Public Administration Committee. I welcome the move to refer more nominations to the Selection Committee and allow them to be debated under
I have not discussed with my Committee the issue of the Standards and Privileges Committee, but, speaking personally, I would have no objection to it being nominated by the Selection Committee. Indeed, as a member of the Selection Committee, it would be a vote of no confidence in myself if I were to insist that it were excluded. The Leader of the House is right to say that the Standards and Privileges Committee is a different sort of Committee, and its composition is now different, too. The Government do not have a majority, with five members from the governing party and five members from the Opposition parties. By convention, the Opposition parties provide the Chairman.
The Minister skates on thin ice, because the convention that the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee should be an Opposition Member was a key recommendation of the Wicks committee. It was a recommendation that was accepted by the Government, so if the Government were then to use their majority on the Committee of Selection to prevent that from happening—I am not quite sure how they could do so because the Committee selects its own Chairman—they would be breaking their acceptance of the recommendation of the Wicks committee.
I see that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst is looking perplexed.
Order. I do not want to disturb the amiability of the evening, but I think that the Deputy Leader of the House was perhaps pushing the debate slightly outwith the boundaries of good order on this motion.
The Public Accounts Committee is not appointed by the Committee of Selection. I think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst was assuming that it was. In answer to the question put by the Deputy Leader of the House and by others, I would have no objection at all, speaking purely personally, if the Government indicated that they were happy with that part of my right hon. Friend's amendment that related to Standards and Privileges. Yes, the Standards and Privileges Committee does not reflect the balance of the House, but the Committee of Selection is perfectly capable of reflecting that in its decisions.
In passing, as the role of the minority parties has been referred to once or twice, although the Standards and Privileges Committee is now one smaller, we have found a place on it for a member from one of the minority parties. That place was found not from the Government's allocation but from that of the Opposition.
In conclusion, I welcome the steps that are being taken. If the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst is pushed to a Division I should be minded to accept it, but this cannot be the final word on a system that is, I agree, crying out for more radical reform.
I am grateful to Sir George Young for shedding some further light on the recesses and cobwebs of the Committee of Selection. The more I learn about the Committee and the activities it undertakes, the more the alarm bells ring in my head about exactly what goes on.
It will not surprise you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or the House to hear that we oppose the motion, for the simple and straightforward reason that we do not want an extension of the powers of the Committee of Selection as long as minority parties remain excluded from it. As long as the Committee remains the preserve of the three main parties, we believe that it neither deserves nor requires further new powers or responsibilities.
I listened carefully to the Deputy Leader of the House and to Mr. Luff and I heard what they said about the motion being a tidying-up exercise—that it was a common-sense approach to taking care of a few outstanding issues. That may be what it looks like to them, but it is not what it looks like to us in the minority parties. We are outwith that process. We are excluded from what is going on and as long as the Committee of Selection remains unrepresentative of the whole House, it should have no further new powers.
The motion could exclude the minority parties even further by entrenching the powers of what is an unrepresentative Committee. Given what we have learned about the Committee, it would be worth while to look at what it does. What it does—and it seems to do it very well—is what it is told by Government Whips and by the usual channels. There seems to be no independence of thought or strategy. The Committee does not seem to be responsible for determining its own agenda and debating its own issues. It seems to be completely at the behest of Government Whips and the usual channels.
Perhaps we should look at what the Committee of Selection should nominally do. As far as I can see, it has quite substantial powers. It is responsible for nominating positions to the departmental Select Committees. That is an onerous responsibility and an onerous task, which requires the utmost transparency and fairness, yet the Committee is asking for more powers.
Does the Committee discharge its existing powers judiciously, effectively and efficiently in all parts of the House? I have come to the depressing conclusion that the Committee does not discharge its current powers responsibly in a way that meets the requirements of the whole House. We in the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru have been two places short on departmental Committees since 2001 when the House was elected, yet the Committee of Selection has made no real effort to try to correct that wrong. On that basis, I oppose the motion.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have some sympathy for his view that the minorities parties are under-represented on the Select Committees, but I am trying to work out what he thinks that non-Government members of the Committee of Selection can do to put that right. I am not sure that the option rests with us. I need to think exactly what the procedure is, and I feel a little chastened by that.
There is no need to chasten the hon. Gentleman. There is a solution. I very much support what was said by Mr. Tyler; we have to throw out this Committee entirely. A new Committee of Selection that is representative of the whole House and that includes members from all political parties would be entirely appropriate. We should transfer the powers not to this discredited Committee of Selection that, as we have heard, does so little, meets so little and debates so little, but to a new Committee that is fully representative of all the opinions and parties in the House. That is the solution.
It would be churlish not to acknowledge that progress has been made. As I pointed out to the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire, I am on a Select Committee. I have now reached the dizzy heights of the Select Committee on Catering, and I am very grateful for my elevation to that prominent position. It is a position that I take seriously, and I manage to turn up week in, week out to exercise my responsibilities.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It is news to me, and I will examine that kind invitation in detail and at length. I am sure that he will accept that we participate on Committees when we are given the opportunity. As I said, I am a member of the Catering Committee, and I very much enjoy serving on that. I assure him that I am a diligent member of it and take the opportunity to scrutinise the operations of the Refreshment Department of the House. That is a very important task. However, believe me when I say that questioning Mrs. Harrison about the cost of a fruit scone in the Terrace Cafeteria is not quite the same as questioning the Foreign Secretary about Government policy in Iraq. Important though—
Order. We cannot have a wider debate. I have given some latitude to allow the argument to develop, but it is essentially a debate about the motion on the Order Paper. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not go too far down the line that he now appears to have adopted.
I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am just trying to make sure that the House understands that progress has been made. I think that the House accepts that the minority parties lack these places and that the Committee of Selection has not been particularly fair to us. We receive sympathy from both sides of the House, and I think that all political parties recognise that a bit of an injustice has taken place. If it is not an injustice, there are certainly issues to do with minority party representation on the Committee of Selection and, therefore, on departmental Select Committees.
If we had a place on the Committee of Selection, we would make sure that the minority parties were properly represented on the departmental Select Committees. However, the reason that we are not on the Committee of Selection or the other departmental Select Committees always comes back to the arithmetic. We are told that the numbers do not stack up. However, even when the numbers stack up in our favour, something else is added to the equation. I take the Liaison Committee as an example. It has been mentioned in the debate, and it is 34 members strong. Even by the crudest arithmetic, we are entitled to 1.3 places on that Committee. However, one can only be a member of the Liaison Committee if one is the Chair of a Select Committee.
Order. I say again to the hon. Gentleman that this cannot be a debate about the composition of the Committee of Selection. It is about the Committees to be chosen by the Committee of Selection.
Thank you again, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I accept your chastisement.
We oppose the motion, because we very much want to ensure that we have the proper mechanism for selecting the members of departmental Select Committees. That role is currently exercised by the Committee of Selection, and that suggests that that Committee has the additional powers to look after other Committees. We must question whether the Committee of Selection should have new powers when it must effectively demonstrate that it is able to exercise its current powers.
One of the major tasks for the Committee of Selection is to determine the membership of departmental Select Committees. We heard from the hon. Member for North Cornwall of the arithmetic that was carried out to ensure that parity was reached between all the political parties in the House. However, we in the minority parties are 23 strong and represent 3.5 per cent. of the total number of MPs. The Committee of Selection looks after 18 departmental Select Committees. Three of them are territorial, so we obviously get a place on them as national parties. That leaves 15 departmental Select Committees with 172 members. According to the arithmetic, we are entitled to 3.5 per cent. of the places, but we actually receive 1.2 per cent. The Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru are two short—
Order. I have tried to encourage the hon. Gentleman to desist from that line of argument, but he appears to be sticking tightly to his script. I suggest again that he reverts to the terms of the motion.
Thank you once again, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for offering me your guidance.
The Committee of Selection is important. As such, it should not remain the exclusive preserve of the three main parties, which is what will happen if the motion is passed. If any Committee should be representative of all parties, it is the Committee of Selection. Something is not working, and I question whether the measure solves the problem in the Committee of Selection. The House is not representative in the way that it does business on its Committees. We are a multi-party democracy, which should be reflected in our Committees. Collectively, we represent 3.5 per cent.—
Order. If the hon. Gentleman is not prepared to take the advice of the Chair, he must resume his place. I shall allow him some concluding remarks, but he has ignored my advice at least twice.
I am sorry if it seems that I have ignored your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
We oppose the measure because it does not address the problems and issues that we have identified. We need to ensure that the Committee of Selection—any Committee that determines the places on departmental Select Committees—is as representative of the House as possible. I ask the House to oppose the motion.
I did not intend to contribute to the debate, but I have a couple of things to say. The Committee of Selection does not select. It is a rubber stamp. It takes what is given to it by the Whips and puts the names forward to the House. I want that to change. I want the Committee of Selection to be more deliberative—to look at the composition of the Select Committees, the merits of individual candidates and, crucially, the way in which names are proposed by the political parties, as I said in my intervention on Mr. Tyler.
I was on the inside of the parliamentary committee of the parliamentary Labour Party for two years and know how the system works for Labour Members who are put forward for membership of such Committees. We are told that there has to be a gender balance, a regional balance and an ideological balance. The fact is that it is difficult in those circumstances to challenge any name without being caught out by some kind of balance. What is the result of that selection process? The figures for the last Session show that 65 Back-Bench colleagues in the parliamentary Labour party did not serve on a Select Committee. Some 56 Labour Members served on more than one Select Committee. Seventeen Parliamentary Private Secretaries or bag carriers—it sounds pejorative but I can say it; I was one myself some years ago—were members of Select Committees. Should the Committee of Selection take that into account?
What about the Liberal Democrats? Some 28 of their Front-Bench Members served on Select Committees. I understand that; it is a smaller parliamentary party. I could run through equivalent figures for the other parties—
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If I was out of order in referring to the arithmetic and numbers, why is the hon. Gentleman not out of order for doing the same thing?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point. I allowed him some latitude, and it was when he had been going for seven minutes that I decided to be a little sterner with him. I am listening very attentively to Mr. Prentice, and I hope that he will remember the terms of the motion; otherwise he, too, may find that I shall be somewhat interventionist.
I certainly would not wish you to be stern with me, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I conclude by saying that how the political parties put people forward for Committees should be a legitimate concern of the Committee of Selection. While I support the motion, I hope that we will all consider those issues and take up the suggestion that I made some months ago to the Leader of the House that all political parties represented here in this Parliament should lodge in the Library of the House of Commons a memorandum stating the criteria that they use for putting Members forward for Select Committees.
This has been a useful and largely consensual debate. [Interruption.] It has. I remind the House that the debate is taking place on the recommendation not of the Government but of the Select Committees concerned. The House will be grateful for the contributions of Sir George Young, Mr. Luff and others. Mr. McWilliam explained why he could not be with us tonight. The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire, said that he has reservations but, on the whole, he welcomes the proposals.
Mr. Tyler made remarks that he has made before. I appreciate his consistency but his statements may be characterised as anti-Whip. The hon. Gentleman does not like the idea that the usual channels influence the way that we do business. I have to say to him—I know that he will disagree, as may others such as my hon. Friend Mr. Prentice—that our system in this Parliament depends on the usual channels. It is perfectly legitimate for Members to argue against that, but that is the system.
I was not arguing that there is not a role for the usual channels. They have been referred to as the necessary sewers of the parliamentary system: unseen but nevertheless important. My point, which I hope the Deputy Leader of the House will come to, was that the report identified Select Committee membership as being inappropriate for nomination by the Whips—membership of other Committees yes, but not Select Committees.
The hon. Gentleman is consistent in his point of view, but I do not accept that one can describe the Whips as sewers; they provide the necessary lubrication of the parliamentary system. I will not go down that channel, but as an ex-Whip I take exception to the hon. Gentleman's description.
There are sensible reasons, which have been accepted by hon. Members on both sides of the House, for accepting the motion. Its motive and intention are to move towards what the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle want. It would bring appointment to some Committees into line with appointment of Select Committees generally, although it excludes some Committees that Mr. Forth would like included—his amendment would go further than the motion. It would, however, be churlish to disagree with the thrust of the proposal; indeed, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire has welcomed it as a step forward, although he expressed some reservations.
Pete Wishart spoke about the representation of minority parties. That matter was raised recently during business questions. On that occasion, it was made clear that the Government are aware of and understand the concerns of the minority parties about their representation on departmental Select Committees and other Committees. Progress on addressing those concerns has been made in several ways, for example, by accommodating their interests in the nomination of recent Joint Committees for pre-legislative scrutiny and of Standing Committees on Bills and delegated legislation. The hon. Gentleman suggested that the minority parties have been treated unfairly by the Committee of Selection, but I believe that the Committee takes great pains to be fair to all parties. Its task is not a simple one and it is not possible to reflect the precise balance of the House on every Committee—as the hon. Gentleman accepted. Inevitably, there is debate and some competition about which parties should be represented.
The changes proposed by the Committee—not by the Government—are sensible. It is not sensible to have a different method of selection for some Committees, although the Standards and Privileges Committee, whose Chairman, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire is present, offers an exception. Speaking on behalf not of the Government but of the House, let me say that it is important that we in Parliament have a system—the usual channels—that is a proper system and is seen to be so. Not only should Committees such as the Standards and Privileges Committee be seen to be appointed by the House with the consent of the House, but such matters should be subject to public scrutiny.
The motion sets out a sensible way forward. It is not as radical as some have suggested, and certainly not as radical as the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst suggests, and it would be churlish to oppose it. I believe that the change in practice that we have been debating is a modest and sensible one that is designed to streamline and rationalise the way in which we nominate Select Committees. I commend the motion to the House.
Question accordingly agreed to.
That the Standing Orders be amended as follows—