Standing Orders Etc. (Energy and Climate Change)

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 10:46 pm on 28th October 2008.

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Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase 10:46 pm, 28th October 2008

I have no doubt that the new Department will be distinguished, or that the Minister leading it will do so in a distinguished way. The House's Select Committee system has to respond when a new Department is established, and the tradition is that a Department is matched by an appropriate departmental Select Committee, so the logic is clear.

In some ways, the challenge is for the Select Committee system, which is perhaps the most conservative part of this institution. I speak as one who chairs a Select Committee, and it is natural for us to want to defend our territory. We are not always very imaginative in thinking about how the system might work differently.

In a sense, the Government can be commended for thinking more thematically and sensibly about producing a departmental change to reflect a changing aspect of Government, but the consequence is that the House must think about how it can match that in an intelligent way. It may not be the most intelligent response simply to set up yet another Select Committee, because, as we have heard, many Committees already operate in those areas. We need a more sensible response to match the new Department, beyond inventing a new Committee simply because there is a new Department—but, as I say, that is a challenge more for the House than for the Government.

I want to say two other things briefly, although they may be less helpful in terms of what is being proposed. The first takes up a point made by Simon Hughes, and it reflects an argument—or at least a conversation—that my Committee has been having with the Government for quite some time about how machinery of Government changes should be handled. Indeed, we had my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, in his previous incarnation, before us on this matter not so very long ago.

It seemed very odd to my Committee that when dealing with other public bodies or bits of Government apart from ourselves, we insist on all sorts of consultative processes before substantial reorganisations take place. There is a good reason for that: we want to know the logic behind, and the case for, the reorganisation, and we want to evaluate the costs and benefits. There are always costs, although there may well be benefits, too. We want to do that in a calm, measured way, so that the sort of considerations that are being raised now, at the 11th hour, can be raised over a decent period. Of course, we learn things through that process; we learn whether we have got the reorganisation right.

Until we took an interest in such matters, the Government did not even issue a piece of paper describing such major changes. Now we do get a piece of paper, but nothing more than that. Parliament ought to be involved. Of course the Government will decide on such changes, but Parliament should at least be consulted on major changes to the machinery of government, just as we would expect to be consulted if other bits of the public sector were to be reorganised.

When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and I had an exchange on the subject, he told me that that would be highly unconstitutional, but I do not think that he really believed that, although he had been advised to say it. I have learned over the years that when things are said to be constitutionally impossible, they may on the very next day turn out to be constitutionally necessary. Parliament has to return to the issue. It would be in the interests of the Government and Parliament to ensure that the process of making large-scale changes to how the Government operate is slightly more reflective.

When we set up new Committees, as we are doing today, we have to be mindful of what it means for Parliament and the Select Committee system. When my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House opened the debate, he rightly talked about the gains that have resulted from the Select Committee system in its modern form, and the general support for it. All that is true, but it depends for its vitality on the relationship between the House of Commons and the Executive. We have to be able to operate a vital Select Committee system that scrutinises what the Executive do. If the balance between the Executive and the Commons changes materially, the ability to provide that scrutiny effectively is diminished. What I am really saying is that it is easy to set up a new Select Committee system, but less easy to make sure that it becomes part of an effective system of scrutiny, because that requires the institution itself to be effective. I put the case in that way because I have a certain worry.

The Executive grows; there are now many more Parliamentary Private Secretaries. There is the issue of whether such people can sit on Select Committees. The idea would have been abhorrent at one time, because it confuses the scrutiny role with the executive role, but the problem reflects the fact that we will have some difficulty making the system work unless we compromise in such areas. There is also the new invention of unpaid Ministers—my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House is one of them—and the new invention of assistant Ministers. In many respects, there is now an expanding unofficial Executive. The effect is necessarily to deplete the resources available for the scrutiny work of the House of Commons. We have to be clear about whether that is what we want when we set up a new Committee.

I am told that new regional Select Committees are to be introduced. With my understanding of how the Select Committee system works, I simply do not know how all that will be possible. The Department of Energy and Climate Change seems to be splendidly conceived and led, but it needs to be matched by scrutiny by the House of Commons. I hope that that will come about not simply through invention, but through imaginative re-ordering; that is the challenge for the Commons. I simply flag up the fact that if we are not careful, the balance between Parliament and the Executive will change in a way that diminishes the ability of the House of Commons to perform the role that my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House described when he opened the debate.

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