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Mr. Ainger : The right hon. Gentleman mentioned accountability and the importance of the unanimity of reports, and now he has moved on to powers. Does he accept that it is important that topicality is also taken into account in specific reports, and that the Government respond to those reports in a reasonable time ?
I mention that because the Transport Select Committee, of which I am not a member, published a report on search and rescue in west Wales and the Dover straits, and the evidence contained the information that a search-and- rescue facility would be withdrawn from my constituency on 1 July. That report, which recommended that the search-and-rescue facility was not withdrawn, was published on 29 March. The Transport Select Committee still has not received a response from the Government.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, in such circumstances, powers should be given to the Select Committee to obtain a response in a reasonable time ?
Sir Terence Higgins : A specific provision already exists, as I think the Leader of the House will confirm--a time limit in which the Government are required to respond. I have on occasion pursued the matter when it appears that that time limit is likely to be exceeded, but I shall happily inquire into the matter that the hon. Gentleman has rightly mentioned.
Column 577I shall make a point about the European Legislation Committee, which is a non-departmental Committee. Both it and the Public Accounts Committee in its traditional role, and especially its extended role with regard to value for money exercises, continue to serve a very important function. However, the position of the European Legislation Committee is extremely difficult. It considers about 800 to 1,000 Community documents a year, it recommends examination of about 300 to 400 a year that have legal or political importance, and it takes evidence on seven or eight every week from the Government.
In spite of the enormous efforts of this Committee, we must consider whether that is a satisfactory way to proceed. I have a hankering after the proposal that I made the previous time the subject was examined--that there is a case for the individual departmental Committees to have a Sub- Committee that considers European affairs.
The departmental Committees have the expertise, whereas the ad hoc Committees that meet in the morning move from subject to subject and have no serious expertise on the specific matters that are being discussed. It might be necessary to augment that Sub-Committee with volunteers who are specifically interested in European affairs. I hope that we may reconsider that proposal.
Finally, I make two arguments about the future. First, I have been deeply worried, as was the Procedure Committee, about the delay in establishing Committees at the beginning of a Parliament. The problem is that, at that crucial moment, no one in the House represents the interests of Select Committees. Therefore there is prolonged delay, not only while the Government are appointed--that takes place very quickly--and not only while the shadow Cabinet is appointed, but afterwards. The Procedure Committee report said that, on previous occasions, about one eighth of a whole Parliament had passed before the Committees were set up.
Before the next general election, we need to establish some mechanism for ensuring that that delay is not as prolonged as it has been in the past. However, I pay tribute to the present Leader of the House, who was extremely helpful in setting a record--but not a very good one--in getting the Committees set up after the most recent general election.
It is a real problem, because the staff are sitting doing nothing, the Committees are unable to proceed with the work, and the Government remain unscrutinised during that period. That is a very important issue, which we need to tackle very shortly, so that the mechanism is in place before the next general election, either by setting a specific time limit or making an arrangement about the time expiring after the shadow Cabinet and the Cabinet have been appointed.
I do not believe that our system will ever develop into the American system, as there is a fundamental difference between our two constitutions. We have a system in which the Executive comes from the legislature, which necessarily means that Select Committees cannot have effective functions in the same way as those in the American system.
I believe that the Committee system in its reformed state is a substantial improvement on the previous system. The amount of work done in Select Committees is not generally appreciated by the public at large, but it is valuable. We
Column 578need a firmer link between the Committees and the extent to which their reports can be debated on the Floor of the House. I hope that we can make further progress on that.
Mr. Giles Radice (Durham, North) : I was a member of the 1976 Procedure Committee which first proposed the establishment of a system of investigative departmentally related Select Committees. It is not revealing any secrets to say that our proposal was a compromise between those who merely wanted to keep the Expenditure Committee system--including Mr. Enoch Powell--and those of us, including Phillip Whitehead, who has just been elected as a European Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett), the right hon. Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker) and myself, who wanted a much more ambitious system.
Eventually, after a long debate and an all-day seminar session--in which we persuaded Mr. Powell that a departmentally related Select Committee system would merely draw out the implications of the Expenditure Committee system of the 1960s because that system included a series of Sub-Committees--we came up with the following ideas. We stated at the time :
"a new balance must be struck, not by changes of a fundamental or revolutionary character in the formal powers of the institutions concerned, but by changes in practice of an evolutionary kind, following naturally from present practices."
That was a nod to Mr. Powell. We said :
"We have approached our task not in the hope of making the job of government more comfortable, the weapons of Opposition more formidable, or the life of the backbencher more bearable, but with the aim of enabling the House as a whole to exercise effective control and stewardship over Ministers and the expanding bureaucracy of the modern state for which they are answerable, and to make the decisions of Parliament and Government more responsive to the wishes of the electorate."
We hoped that the investigative Committees would
"become the eyes and ears' of the House in relation to Government departments, drawing the attention of Members to matters which require further political consideration and providing Members with advice and informed comment which can nourish the work of the House in scrutinising and criticising the activities and proposals of the Executive."
That was what we were trying to do.
We were fortunate to have as Leader of the House of Commons when the Thatcher Government first came to power, Norman St. John-Stevas. I am not certain that the then Prime Minister, now Lady Thatcher, knew what was happening when she set up the Select Committees. That system was very much the baby of Norman St. John-Stevas, who took the proposals of the Procedure Committee--I am sad to say that they had not been implemented by the Labour Government, partly because the then Leader of the House, Michael Foot, was against the idea--and ran with the ball. As soon as the Conservative Government came to power he introduced the proposals.
Norman St. John-Stevas saw the new system as the most important parliamentary reform of the century. I think that that was going over the top. He implied that if departmentally related Select Committees were set up it would enable us to change the balance between Parliament and the Executive. I think that he had an inappropriate model in mind and thought in terms of the American committee system. As the right hon. Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins) said, comparison with the United States of
Column 579America is inappropriate. There is a separation of powers in America, with a weaker party system ; America operates in a different political framework.
When departmentally related Select Committees speak, Governments do not fall and Ministers do not resign.
Mr. Radice : It is a pity perhaps, but that is the reality. But the Committees have been a success. They have become the focus for ideas, pressures and debate. If my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) was still in his place I would have mentioned the good work that his Committee, the Select Committee on Social Security, has done on social security and, in a previous form, on the national health service. The hearings and reports of Select Committees influence the climate of opinion in the country.
As was mentioned by my right hon. Friend--I wanted to call him my right hon. Friend because he is my friend--the Member for Worthing, Select Committees help to call Ministers and civil servants to account. We do not expect them to resign, although occasionally they should have done so, but they come before us to answer a series of questions on their policies and decisions. The departmental Committees provide a good forum--a much more effective forum than the Floor of the House of Commons. In Question Time any Minister who is on form, well briefed and worth his or her salt will be able to answer questions on an issue as there will not be a sustained series of questions.
In a Select Committee, if a Minister has a serious problem and is asked a series of questions by a well-briefed member of a Select Committee, he or she will find it much more difficult to evade the question. If he or she does evade the question, it will be obvious that that is precisely what is being done and when, as at present, the proceedings are on television or radio, that can be telling. It is no accident that the 6 pm and 7 pm news often carry the proceedings of Select Committees as that is where Ministers let their guard drop for a moment or two and occasionally come out with information that is embarrassing to the Government.
I remember asking the present Chancellor of the Exchequer a series of questions on the impact of the Budget. I asked him whether it was not the case that if the two Budgets were put together the combined result would amount to 7p on the standard rate of tax and he said yes. I do not think that he would have said that on the Floor of the House of Commons, but he did so in the Select Committee. It was a revealing moment that was picked up by the popular press precisely because it was shown on television. In an odd way it helped people to realise that the Government had raised tax considerably. But if one listened to the Budget one would not have gained that impression. That shows how Select Committees--through the different format of the hearings--can influence debate in the country and the public's knowledge.
The departmentally related Select Committees are fortunate in having their own radio and television programmes. I have met people who have watched on television or listened on radio to those programmes, sometimes in their baths at 11 o'clock on a Sunday night, and who like to talk about them the next day--so we have our fans, and the programmes are clearly effective.
The point has also been rightly made that, in these Committees, an element of consensus can develop which is
Column 580impossible on the Floor of the House. Of course, it does not go very far ; if there is a major policy difference between the two parties, it cannot be papered over in a Select Committee. But the very fact that the views of the parties can be rehearsed in a hearing represents a plus for Parliament. Indeed, sometimes the hearings are more important than the reports that we issue. That sometimes applies to the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee, when it is difficult to get a consensus--although the right hon. Member for Worthing would agree that our analyses are often better than those of the Treasury : they certainly stand the test of time better. A word about reforms. I heartily agree that we need to protect the system against the party Whips. I do not want to go over history here, but the way in which a couple of Chairmen were leaned on and got rid of at the beginning of this Parliament was little short of scandalous. It is perhaps a pity that we took our retaliation--during the divisions between the two parties earlier this year --on the Select Committee system. I hope and am sure that that will not happen again.
It is fair to say that Government responses to Select Committee reports are sometimes so bland as to make them rather pointless. I have been looking at one or two Government responses to Treasury Select Committee reports, and they are good examples of what I mean. On the whole, Governments try not to take reports too seriously, particularly if they criticise the Government. Perhaps those reports need to be better linked with debates on the Floor of the House. Many years ago the Procedure Committee recommended eight such debates a year ; we still have only three.
The development of the next steps agencies has not been fully taken into account by the Select Committee system. Now that nearly three quarters of all civil servants operate in agencies, the Select Committees must respond to that fact more effectively.
There may be a case in this for more specialist staff for the Committees. Hon. Members should remember that there is in fact no limit on the number of specialist staff that Committees can have. It is therefore up to us : if we see the need, we have to do something about it. A careful look should be taken at that.
My last point about the reforms concerns "the sending for persons and papers", in which area Select Committees have on a number of occasions been blocked by Government. The Westland affair was one occasion when Select Committees wanted certain members of the Executive to come before them but were blocked by the Prime Minister of the day. The problem was either that there was no majority on the Committee for insisting on attendance, or that the alternative meant coming to the Floor of the House, where the Government's majority would have come into play. So the power to send for persons and papers was inoperable.
In most cases, of course, Governments are prepared to accept Select Committees' demands, although the Osmotherly rules, drawn up by the Executive--without the support of Parliament--to govern how civil servants should operate before Select Committees, stipulate that civil servants appear to answer on behalf of Ministers, and only if Ministers want them to. There is a possible conflict between departmental Select Committees and Government Departments ; it does not usually come into play, but it has done on occasion and it will again.
Column 581We therefore need to tighten up the rules in that area. Select Committees should not have to come to the Floor of the House to obtain their powers when they are challenged by Ministers or Governments. They should just be given full powers to send for persons and papers. That would give them the strength that they need when Governments try to resist them.
As an example of conflict that can arise between the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee and the Government, I offer the fourth special report on the proposed attitude survey of the civil service. It might be thought sensible of the Committee to want to ascertain the views of civil servants before reporting on the future of the civil service. We have said that we do not believe that Sir Robin Butler, or the Minister, or the trade unions, can necessarily tell us the views of civil servants on a number of key issues--hence we needed to conduct a survey of attitudes.
We certainly realise that this is a delicate matter, and we have said that we are prepared to co-operate with the Government and to submit questions to them. Unfortunately, that offer has been rejected outright by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. We have published his correspondence on the subject, which reads like a script from "Yes, Minister". It has certainly caused some laughter among Members of Parliament and journalists.
In the correspondence, the Chancellor argues that our questions are political, that they are concerned with Government policy, that they would help to politicise the civil service and that they would set a dangerous precedent. The Committee, with its Conservative majority, was united in disagreeing with that view. We said that the views of civil servants on the management matters that directly affect them are very different from matters of policy. And it is about the former that we want to ask questions, not about policy.
Secondly, we say that we are a responsible, cross-party Committee with a built-in Tory majority and with no interest in politicising the civil service. Thirdly, we point out that the Government, academics and trade unions have asked similar questions in the past. Sir Robin Butler says that he does not want outside bodies interfering in the relationship between him and the civil service. I pointed out in return that I did not think Parliament or its departmentally related Select Committees were just any old outside bodies. We represent the taxpayers ; as such, we are perfectly entitled to find out the views of civil servants. That is what we have been trying to do, but we have been blocked.
Although we have issued a report, there is probably no way in which we can proceed to conduct an attitude survey at the moment. We could table a motion, but then we would draw into play the political majority on the Floor of the House, where other considerations also apply. That is why I have come out this evening in favour of giving the departmentally related Select Committees the power to send for persons and papers--precisely so that we can conduct an attitude survey of that type.
The reforms introduced by Norman St. John-Stevas and proposed by the Procedure Committee of 1976 have provided a useful additional and effective weapon for Parliament in the scrutiny of the Executive. All those who were involved in that should be congratulated, as should
Column 582hon. Members who do the work in the departmental Select Committees. On the whole, they do a good job. The Committees are one of the most hopeful features of this Parliament.
But it would be wrong to be complacent. We must consider ways in which the system can be reformed and in doing so we must remember that that is not just in the Government's hands, but in our hands, too.
Sir Peter Emery (Honiton) : I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins) on bringing about this debate. The report on the working of the Select Committee system was published in the 1989-90 Session of Parliament, so I hope that we are not returning to the old structure of delayed debates on Committee reports which I thought that we had improved. Indeed, I recently congratulated my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council on holding a debate fairly quickly after the publication of the Procedure Committee's most recent report.
I also thank my right hon. Friend for apologising to the House on my behalf for my absence during a debate on a procedural matter a week ago. The debate was announced only on the previous Thursday, when I was already on my way to the far east to represent Parliament in a certain matter. I wrote to both my right hon. Friend and to the Liberal Democrats, who initiated that debate, apologising for my absence.
The creation and the working of the departmental Select Committees have been a considerable success. That success is absolute and definite and no one can deny it. At no time before their creation could Back-Bench Members have a Minister or senior official sitting in front of them answering questions solidly for two and a half hours, if necessary, on the subjects for which that Minister or official was directly responsible. It is not like Question Time, when a Minister has to respond to only two or three supplementary questions. If a Select Committee is doing its job properly, it can persevere until it either obtains an answer or shows up the inadequacy of the Minister in dealing with the matter before the Committee. Perhaps even more important--although this is not always accepted and has not yet been mentioned in the debate--is the fact that any Secretary of State will say that his Department is now much more aware that its actions or the actions of its Ministers are liable to be open to the closest parliamentary scrutiny in way that has never previously been the case. Therefore, Departments are much more acutely aware of acting in ways that are acceptable to Parliament and do not run the risk of appearing to ride roughshod over parliamentary restrictions or opinions. That is of considerable importance. The Select Committees have been successful, but can they be improved ? The answer must be yes. The hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) has made some suggestions for achieving that. I want to make three suggestions. The work rate of some Committees could be improved. Perhaps they could consider more than one subject at a time. I accept the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing that the financial spend of Departments should be more closely examined. Often, that is not a popular thing for the Committees to do ; it is not as sexy as a political or policy inquiry. However, it is
Column 583important that Chairmen look more closely at how they examine the estimates of the Departments that they are monitoring.
On administration and policy, it is important that Select Committees follow up their reports to determine how, and in what manner, the Government have reacted. Once a Committee receives the Government's response, it should look at the matter again, not just let it die as though it did not matter any more.
The 1989-90 report was extensive, running to 80 or 90 pages, and extensive evidence was taken. For students of history, it is important to recognise the closeness of the examination. It is of interest that one of the major factors was the unanimous view of the Committee that Select Committees should not be turned into something akin to the American congressional investigatory committees, usually staffed and run by young lawyers and ambitious research assistants out to establish their reputations. The view of the Procedure Committee was that our Select Committees should be dominated by Members of this House and that their effectiveness should be assisted by the proven excellence of the Clerks in the Clerks Department and by the Committee's ability to call on specialist advisers when necessary.
I must point out to the hon. Member for Durham, North that there is no restriction on the number of advisers or experts on whom the Committee can call for assistance if it thinks that to be necessary. However, they do not have to be a permanent staff. There need not be a build-up of people permanently on the payroll. Paragraph 93 of the report said about additional staff :
"present staffing levels are probably about right . . . and I fear that if we had more staff our inquiries might become staff-driven rather than being Member-driven as they are at present."
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) : I accept what the right hon. Gentleman is saying about not having excessively large staffs, but it is also important that the Clerks Department should be given proper weight when delegations go abroad. The Clerks are absolutely essential to the taking of evidence and the recording of minutes. I want to follow up a point that I made previously and emphasise that it would be quite wrong if, for any reason, delegations were allowed the services of only one Clerk. That would be quite unfair on a 10-day visit. It would also be
Sir Peter Emery : I respect the hon. Lady's views, but I am diametrically opposed to them. I believe that unless a Committee divides into two parts and therefore must have a Clerk to deal with each of those parts, it is quite possible for one Clerk to deal with a Select Committee. After all, he should not have to nurse hon. Members ; they are adults who should be able to look after their own arrangements. They should not have to rely on being herded around by a Clerk. They should be responsible enough to be on parade when they are meant to be. My judgment is that, in the spending of money, one Clerk will do in most instances--but that view is not unanimously held by the members of the Committee chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing.
Paragraph 162 states :
"There is little or no demand from Select Committees for any increase in their powers to send for persons, papers and records." That view was held by almost every Chairman that we interviewed. I noted with interest the point made by the hon. Member
Column 584for Durham, North--and it is nice that we can begin debating matters, which is not always the case. However, the Government must have some protection, to be able to ensure that their view can be heard and perhaps accepted. I urge the hon. Member for Durham, North and his Committee to table a motion to be considered on the Floor of the House. It may be that the Government, rather than debate the matter in full, would give way. There are different ways of applying pressure. The structure that we set goes further than perhaps the hon. Gentleman imagines, in the way that he interpreted the position in his arguments.
Mr. Radice : That is probably good advice, and I will communicate it to the Chairman of my Committee. It may influence him and other members of the Committee in future. I say only that it is problematic. The right hon. Gentleman implied that Select Committees will go in for irresponsible surveys that have no purpose or point other than to embarrass the Government. I am sure that that is not the case. It has not been my experience as a member of Select Committees over a long period and as someone who entered the House many years ago. It is about time that we trusted the parliamentary side with a little more responsibility. If we do not, we will be blocked if we try to extend its power and influence.
Sir Peter Emery : This is the first time in 14 years that such a matter has arisen. The last occasion was the Westland affair--but that was different, in that the witnesses were blocking the way. Both the Ministers called blocked the situation. It was not so much the Committee's inability to get papers as the inability to break down the defence that two different Ministers were making.
Certain important recommendations made by my Committee in 1989-90 have been implemented, for which I thank the Government. We recommended that the Health and Social Security Select Committee should be divided with the splitting up of the Department of Health and Social Security. We insisted that there should be a Scottish Affairs Select Committee. That took some time, but it eventually came about in 1992. We pressed for a joint committee with the other place or a sub-committee on science and technology, and we now have a Select Committee dealing with that subject.
We also ensured that when new Departments are established, a Select Committee is created--as happened with the Select Committee on National Heritage. We also insisted and insisted and insisted that there should be a Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee, which was the last of our recommendations to be adopted.
Procedurally, exchanges of evidence between the Public Accounts Committee and departmental Select Committees, which were something new, have been accepted, and Standing Orders Nos. 122 and 130 were amended to allow Select Committees to call on the Comptroller and Auditor General. Select Committees had not fully considered the use that they could make of the CAG in their work.
The recommendation that the remit of the Home Affairs Select Committee should include the work of the Law Officers' Departments was also adopted, as was the proposal for a maximum of one hour's debate on motions to replace Committee members, with the amendment of Standing Order No. 14. I give those as examples of the Government working to meet the Select Committee's
Column 585recommendations. I thank them for that, despite my criticisms of the Government for not debating the issue for some time.
I draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council three recommendations that were not adopted. The first has already been mentioned. We recommended that the embargo on the publication of reports under Standing Order No. 116 should be amended from 48 hours to two sitting days, which would allow for the weekend factor. That is still a problem and, after close consideration, I do not believe that the Government's objection to that proposal stands up.
Secondly, I said earlier that departmental Select Committees should be able to ascertain cases to take up in respect of the National Audit Office. The Government did not object, but that recommendation does not seem to have been adopted.
Thirdly, the Committee urged greater use of a Special Standing Committee on Bills, which has not happened. I hold the Government to blame for not dealing with that matter. Every Minister who has piloted a Bill that passed through a Special Standing Committee--there is evidence of this in our report--said without exception that it greatly helped. The Whips' concept that such a procedure automatically delays the Standing Committee was negated by evidence from Ministers, including that from one well-respected Secretary of State in the present Government.
Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East) : That is one of the report's most important and valuable recommendations. If it helps the right hon. Gentleman's case, we would be willing to consider timetabling to make such arrangements work.
Sir Peter Emery : I must consider the hon. Gentleman's exact words, but that sounds like a major step forward. I am delighted to hear that from a member of the Labour Front-Bench team because that proposal would not hurt the Government but would help Parliament. It would certainly help outside bodies to know that their evidence would be fully and properly put to a Select Committee.
The report's general conclusion is that Select Committees work effectively and are most efficient when there is no strong political division on the matter under consideration. Select Committees and their reports are of most use and influence when they reach unanimous conclusions. When a conclusion embraces all political opinions, that has a considerable effect on the Government, who must take note of what is said. Most Committee Chairmen realise that inquiring into a politically motivated subject does not get anywhere, because that is not the best way to proceed.
What really interests me is the fact that the vast majority of reports from departmental Select Committees have been unanimous. The House can work in unity, although the press often suggests otherwise, and what the television cameras show at Prime Minister's Question Time makes nonsense of the idea. When hon. Members are giving serious consideration to important subjects in Select Committees, they are able to reach a unanimous view : that is the strength of Select Committees and of our political system. Select Committees hold the Executive to account, which is what Parliament is here to do.
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Mr. Richard Caborn (Sheffield, Central) : It could be said that a little local difficulty in the Select Committee on Trade and Industry precipitated this debate : some of the views expressed to the Liaison Committee on its behalf probably gave rise to the need for such a debate on the Floor of the House.
Unfortunately, I am not as well prepared as I should be. The Select Committee returned at the weekend from a visit to South Africa ; when I left on the previous Friday, my Whip told me that there was a three-line Whip tonight--not on this subject--but when I arrived home, I found that the Committee Clerk had sent me a note asking me to come down this afternoon to take part in the debate. In any event, I wish to raise some points of principle.
In October 1992--for the first time ever, I believe--a motion was tabled asking for a report to be prepared by a Select Committee on the closure of 31 pits in the United Kingdom. That was a politically charged debate ; the Government made something of a concession in requesting the Select Committee to deliver a report to the House--they did not ask for a referral. It is important that Select Committees are not brought into disrepute and used by Governments as safety valves to resolve politically charged situations, but I think that that is what happened then.
When we presented the report with its 31 recommendations, those recommendations were carried nem con. I had approached the Chairman of the Liaison Committee, the Leader of the House and the President of the Board of Trade, asking not only for the report to be debated on the Floor of the House--which it was--but for the recommendations to be voted on. Unfortunately, that did not happen : although the Chairman of the Liaison Committee made strong representations to the Leader of the House, he was unable to secure the necessary time. That would have been possible only if the Government had allowed a procedural motion, enabling you, Madam Speaker, to select not just one but two or even three amendments to the motion relating to the White Paper and the Committee's report.
Two inquiries were running simultaneously at that time. The Select Committee's inquiry was transparent, in that some 97 per cent. of the evidence received was in the public domain : I believe that the taking of evidence was televised extensively. Also in progress was the Government's inquiry into the closure of the pits, which took place in camera--although some of the evidence emerged via the Select Committee. The reports were debated, but we were not allowed to vote on the Select Committee's recommendations. Try as I might, I--as the Committee's Chairman--was unable to bring that about.
It was a disappointment. The Government should not table a motion requesting a Select Committee to conduct an inquiry and compile a report, and then deny the House the right to vote on the Committee's recommendations. I accept what the right hon. Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins) said about general debate on estimates, and the tabling today of a motion allowing a special debate on Select Committees ; but I think that we should also consider Select Committee recommendations. We should explore the possibilities, and consider whether it is best for us to engage in debates such as this on a motion for the Adjournment, or to have the right to vote on such recommendations.
Column 587I agree with a number of hon. Members who have spoken that the strength of Select Committees is unanimity of purpose : without that, the system would fail. A few weeks ago, during a discussion on the subject, someone observed to me that Select Committees provided the only opportunity for consensus politics in our adversarial system. I accept that such a system is probably right for the United Kingdom, but it should contain a little island of consensus politics. Why was a Select Committee containing a Government majority able to reach a certain decision on a controversial issue such as the closure of those 31 pits ? Partly, I believe, because when evidence is subject to scrutiny an argument becomes compelling. Although political dogma will come into play from time to time, a logical consensus will be reached by people who sit in a Committee for two or three months, taking evidence twice a week, with all the evidence and the background before them.
As an eminent person who is now in the House of Lords said to me, had the poll tax--among other major issues--been subjected to the same process, a saner view might have prevailed, and the tax might never have been introduced.
As I have said, it is wrong for Governments to do what I believe the Government did at the time of the coal inquiry, and use Select Committees as safety valves to defuse politically charged situations before a proper debate can take place.
It was unfortunate that the Chairman of the Liaison Committee mentioned video conferencing immediately after he had spoken about Select Committee visits. My report to the Committee was very carefully worded. I hope that the Committee will consider the matter, and that the Leader of the House will also take it on board. Using new technology, the inquiry into fibre- optics was able to take evidence from two high-ranking Americans that we could not have obtained without video conferencing. We should consider such facilities for the House, especially in view of our position in the European Union : I understand that Brussels has them. Perhaps they could be installed in Parliament street, where the new developments are taking place. We could use such state-of-the-art technology for a number of purposes, not just in Select Committees. I am sure that the excellent evidence that we have obtained from our two American witnesses will have made our report more authoritative.
My hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) raised an interesting point about the development of next steps agencies and quangos. A number of people have expressed concern about the continued removal of powers from the House,because--as my hon. Friend pointed out--of the number of civil servants who are employed by agencies.
A review similar to that suggested in the 1989-90 Procedure Committee report, should be conducted of the future role of Select Committees in, for example, the procedure outlined by my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing and video conferencing. It should consider the scrutiny of appointments. If we are to continue to take powers from the House and give them to unelected quangos, the eyes and ears of the House should examine appointments before they are made. It has been alleged that appointments are becoming increasingly political. Whichever party is in office, I do not believe that political appointments are good for the democratic process. Select Committees should review how this place and the
Column 588Executive evolve. The report that we are now debating is some five years old, which shows the need to ensure that Select Committees are up to date, are in tune with current thinking and are fully scrutinising the Executive. The terms of reference of the next review should not be as wide as those for the 1989-90 report, which stated that the system was evolutionary and should be monitored from time to time to ensure that it was working well.
I apologise for the fact that, because I promised to meet some people at half-past six, I may not be here for the Minister's winding-up speech.
Sir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West) : It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), not only because I agreed with much of what he said but because it gives me the opportunity to say that he has been a wise, sensible and thoughtful Chairman of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry. I was delighted to serve under him--and long may I do so. A great consensus is growing in this Chamber. I am in considerable agreement with everything that my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins) said, except for one point, which I shall deal with shortly.
Last week, Madam Speaker uttered a little homily on the way in which questions should be expressed to the Prime Minister. Obviously, she recognised that, over the years, Prime Minister's Question Time has descended into a pantomime farce. She referred to the proper way in which to obtain information from the Government--which I fear was the triumph of hope over experience.
For years, Question Time has not extracted a scintilla of information from the Government, whichever party has been in office. As a humble Minister, I found it the easiest thing in the world to avoid giving any revealing answers at Question Time. If the Government wanted to publicise something, the written parliamentary answer was a useful medium.
The adversarial atmosphere of the Chamber bears little relevance to the search for information. There may have been a time many years ago when Question Time and debates afforded some scrutiny of the Executive, but that was when there were fewer and more independent Members, and much looser party ties. Alas, the Chamber has become more and more show business and a source of copy for local press and media.
We should consider the Select Committee system in that context. In 1979, I had some doubts when Select Committees were introduced by Lord St. John of Fawsley. I was impressed by the romantic view of the Chamber held by Enoch Powell, Michael Foot and, I believe, Lord Whitelaw. Having served on three Select Committees, I am convinced that they are the only way forward in terms of scrutiny and restraining the increasingly all-powerful Executive.
Select Committees have done something to arrest the decline in the public's esteem for Parliament. I sat on the Broadcasting Select Committee, which saw through the introduction of television into Parliament. As I pointed out to my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, that Committee wisely insisted that the media were not only to concentrate on Prime Minister's Question Time and idiotic occurrences in the Chamber but to give a broad picture of the House and to broadcast Select Committees.
Column 589I have been struck by public's comments about Select Committees. They said, "In the Chamber, you looked exactly as we expected you to look when we heard you yelling and bawling on radio." But they were amazed and impressed by Select Committees, saying that they had never thought that hon. Members could behave so well and so sensibly. They had not realised that hon. Members could call to account Ministers, civil servants and bureaucrats in Select Committees, which is not possible in the Chamber.
That was a distinct plus for the Select Committee system and for Parliament. We must consider Parliament as a whole and do our best to raise our esteem in the eyes of the public.
One can take two views of Select Committees : first, that they are a useful means of keeping restless or idle Members out of mischief and harm's way-- that is probably the establishment view--and, secondly, the better view, that they are the only means under our constitution of properly scrutinising the Executive.
If that system is to be improved and built on, a few suggestions should be borne in mind, some of which have already been referred to. First, more powers should be available to Select Committees. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Central referred to our great work--it was three months' hard labour as far as I was concerned--on the pit closure report. We conducted the most vigorous internal debates before we agreed on the final report. Good God, we went away for drinks, came back and got in a huddle. It was 11 o'clock at night, after all-day activity, before we came finally to the virtually unanimous conclusion. As the hon. Member said, that is a valuable aspect of Select Committee work.
If Select Committees are to continue to develop, they must be properly supported. I contrast our system with the back-up system in the United States of America. I agree that we should not copy the United States system, but the back-up there is substantially greater.
I agree that the question of the Clerks must be considered. With respect to my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), I am slightly more impressed by the arguments of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) than by his. Clerks are often overworked, particularly on overseas visits, where they have a tremendous amount of work.
I believe that there is too much cheeseparing--this is typically British-- or spoiling the ship for a ha'p'orth of tar. It is important that members of Select Committees should go abroad. We should not have to worry about the media complaining about it--they travel abroad at the drop of a hat, and do so first class on Concorde, with huge expense accounts. We need to ensure that the job is done properly. If the job is worth doing, it is worth doing well, which means looking carefully at the back-up provided.
Secondly, the House should have adequate time to consider reports. It simply will not do to undertake work in immense detail, with Clerks, experts and Members of Parliament sitting all hours only for a report tamely to run into the sand. The procedure should be reformed, although I do not know how it should be carried out. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will pursue the matter to ensure that we can insist that Select Committee reports get proper and adequate consideration on the Floor of the House.