Standing Orders Etc. (Energy and Climate Change)

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 10:36 pm on 28th October 2008.

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Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Chair, Business and Enterprise Committee, Chair, Business and Enterprise Committee 10:36 pm, 28th October 2008

These matters are never simple, and the nature of the negotiations through the usual channels—of which I was once a part, when I was in my party's Whips Office—are often complex. I do not believe that it is necessary to impose the penalty of a Committee of 14 to achieve the desirable objective of ensuring that all parties in this House have a proper say on Select Committees.

The proposition that I put to the Leader of the House's office was that the Environmental Audit Committee, chaired so ably by my hon. Friend Mr. Yeo, should be replaced by the Energy and Climate Change Committee. I understand the concerns expressed by Joan Walley about the manifesto commitment in respect of a cross-cutting Environmental Audit Committee. The work done by that Committee is overwhelmingly in the climate change and energy area, and it will create a difficulty for all of us who will have a residual responsibility. My Committee cannot ignore the issues relating to the security of energy supply, which are of huge importance for the competitiveness of UK business. We will not ignore them.

I am sure that there will still be many issues relating to climate change and energy policy that are of concern to my right hon. Friend Mr. Jack as the Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. Certainly, if the Environmental Audit Committee survives, my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk will have many issues relating to energy policy and climate change to consider. I fear that the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change could become the most scrutinised Secretary of State in the House of Commons, and he could be appearing before Select Committees on an alarmingly regular basis. The Government have not thought through the consequences of the change properly.

There is already a degree of awkward overlap between my Committee and that of my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk—I say this to him in the spirit of friendliness. Certainly, one or two of my hon. Friend's inquiries have caused a degree of confusion in the outside world, in particular an early one on "Keeping the lights on: Nuclear, Renewables and Climate Change", which was published in the 2005-06 Session. Overlap already exists, but this change will make the overlap even greater and more confusing for the outside world. My preference would have been for the Environmental Audit Committee to have been superseded by the Energy and Climate Change Committee, but we are where we are.

I shall come last to the substance of my amendment, but I shall now speak in support of an amendment that has not yet been moved. I hope that is in order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. On the thorny question of 11 members as against 14, I had the privilege of chairing what was then the Select Committee on Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform—which before that was the Select Committee on Trade and Industry—when it had 14 members. That is not a manageable number. It does not permit effective collegiate working of the Committee. It is too many.

I want to issue a public apology to Mr. Wright. Last week we had the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, Lord Mandelson, before us. The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth had questions that he wanted to ask, but even with only 10 of the 11 members of my Committee present, it was not possible to include him within the timing. I plead guilty to some mismanagement of the time, but in a Committee of 11 it is a challenge to allow all Members to have a valuable role to play in the work of the Committee. A Committee of 14 is just too big.

To be honest, I would prefer to see Select Committees made up of nine members. They would have a proper collegiateness and a sense of shared responsibility. The problems of maintaining a quorum—which, if we are honest, we must acknowledge often concern Select Committee Chairmen—would be much less with smaller Select Committees whose members would feel that they owned the Committee much more effectively. I have seen no case for a Committee of 14. A Committee of that size was a real problem to me as Chairman, in ensuring the full engagement of members of the Committee. That matters a great deal.

There is also the problem, which has been mentioned, with the increasing number of Committees. The House is casually adding yet another Committee to its total number of Committees. That has implications for two different parts of the House's work. First, Members are all under huge pressure and are often required to be in three places at the same time, sometimes four: we have Select Committees, General Committees, Westminster Hall, the Chamber of the House, meetings with constituents, and who knows what else. There are not enough Members in the House to put on the increasing number of Select Committees.

We will have that debate at greater length when the subject of the regional Select Committees comes before the House, perhaps in a couple of weeks' time. I believe that the Government are fundamentally misguided in believing that those Committees can work effectively. We do not have the time, as Members, to do that work, unless we reduce the size of existing Committees. I believe that that is a real problem.

There is also a problem for the resources of the House. Every time a new Select Committee is established, it means more public expenditure: more Clerks and more people to ensure that the Committees can work effectively. Huge expense is involved in the motion before the House, but it could easily have been avoided had we decided simply to replace the Environmental Audit Committee with the Energy and Climate Change Committee.

I move now to the substance of my own amendment—the question of timing. I am grateful to Simon Hughes for what he said from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench, and I agree that there is a need for a Select Committee to cover the Department of Energy and Climate Change. When the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform came before my Committee last week, I urged its rapid establishment, on the assumption that it would replace the Environmental Audit Committee. I was genuinely very surprised and disappointed to discover that that was not the case.

We all have work programmes. I was very grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for what he said from the Dispatch Box about my Committee's report "Energy prices, fuel poverty and Ofgem", but we had sittings planned to finish it off. Ofgem has published its initial probe and findings, and we had sittings planned with energy Ministers and Ofgem to wrap up the inquiry. It would be nice to be able to do that without fearing that we were treading on the toes of a new Committee.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde has similar issues with his Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk will soon be able to speak for himself. However, given the Government's rather surprising decision—over which I feel slightly bounced—it would be helpful to have a couple of months to finalise our work programmes. That is all that we are asking for, and it will ensure that the new Committee, when it is up and running, can do so without treading too aggressively on the toes of the other Committees.

We also need time to sort out the staffing behind the scenes of the new Committee. We have a very talented Committee specialist, Rob Cope, who was responsible in large part for writing the report to which I have referred, and I imagine that he will want to go to the Energy and Climate Change Committee. Who else will be provided to support his work with the new Committee? What new Clerks will be discovered? What will be the consequences for the work of existing Committees? Which staff will we lose? It is all a bit rushed, but it need not have been if the Government had simply replaced the Environmental Audit Committee with the new Committee.

I believe that there is a very strong case for giving us just a couple of months so that we can manage the Committee's existing work programmes and staff in an orderly fashion. I strongly support the principle of what the Government are doing: I have no problem with that, save for my belief that it would be better to replace the existing Committee rather than create an additional one. The principle behind having a new, separate Department is good, and this House must be able to subject it to effective scrutiny. I believe that that would be best served by having a smaller Committee of 11 members that can meet the legitimate needs of the nationalist parties. I think that that arrangement would allow more effective scrutiny by this House of the Committee's work.

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