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Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent) : Does my hon. Friend agree that the real difficulty is that, the more effective a Select Committee report is, especially if the Committee has analysed and scrutinised matters such as Government expenditure programmes, the less welcome it is to the Executive ? There is a real difficulty in ensuring that the reports that most need to be debated are given time. We could end up with many debates on the innocuous reports and no time for debates on the difficult ones.
Sir Peter Emery : Our hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) is not right. The decision on what should be debated is left to the Liaison Committee. An application is made to the Liaison Committee, which then decides, once the time is allocated, which reports will be debated. It is nothing to do with whether the Government wish to restrict time on a report. It is right to have that clearly understood.
Sir Anthony Grant : In that case, I shall direct my remarks away from the Treasury Bench and entirely to my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins), who I hope will consider carefully the need to give adequate time to our reports.
Thirdly, the Committees should be properly constructed. They should be drawn from a broad base of knowledge, experience and enthusiasm. I believe that too many hon. Members are excluded. Perhaps too many Front-Bench Members are excluded ; that is for the Opposition to say. There may be too many Front-Bench Members. Too many people may be involved in party committees who do not seem to qualify.
I believe that there are far too many Parliamentary Private Secretaries. We seemed to get on perfectly well with half the number when I first came into the House, but we are now knee-deep in them. If we had fewer, they would be able to perform a useful function on Select Committees ; many of them are excellent people.
I now come to the one point on which I differ slightly from my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing--the chairmanship, which is always a difficulty. A case could be made for the senior Member to take the Chair, as happens in the United States. That should not, of course, happen if he is ga-ga. We can all point to examples of that.
In normal circumstances, there is a case to be made for the senior Member taking the Chair. That would avoid a great deal of party chicanery, bickering and ill-feeling.
Above all--here I come to the most important point, which has already been stressed--there should be the minimum of interference in the work of Select Committees by the Government or by the Opposition establishment through the usual channels. Other hon. Members have referred to Enoch Powell. He said that the usual channels and the Whips Offices performed the same functions as sewers ; they are essential. However, the activities of the usual channels should be kept as far away as possible from Select Committees.
There are many Select Committees apart from departmental ones. The members of those Committees are directly appointed by the Executive. There is the Select
Column 591Committee on Procedure, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), whom the Government wisely chose. There are the Select Committees on Members' Interests, on Privilege and on Administration. There are a range of Committees in which the Government have a very direct say, so the less say they have in the setting up of the departmental Select Committees, the better. I cite two examples, which have probably been referred to, of bad interference by the Executive during this Parliament. At the start of this Parliament, there was deplorable confusion, and there was a conspiracy over chairmanships. That caused great annoyance to hon. Members on both sides and to me ; many people were very irritated. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing said, a rather spurious doctrine was enunciated about the length of time people could serve as Chairmen. It was a tiresome and tedious time, and what happened was wrong.
The second example which happened this year--the hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) will know about this--was the blocking of a visit by the Trade and Industry Select Committee to South Africa. We were doing a report on trade with South Africa, and it was ludicrous to suppose that we could conclude our report without actually going to the new South Africa. The visit was blocked by the Opposition establishment during the non-co- operation war. That was absolutely wrong. Party political rows between Front-Bench Members or anyone else in the Chamber should not block the work that Select Committees need to do to produce their reports. We should be ever vigilant to ensure that such incidents are not allowed to happen again.
All who believe, as I do, in parliamentary democracy, and who believe that it is fundamental not only to our constitution, but to our freedom, should unite and be determined to enhance and strengthen the Select Committee system--which is undoubtedly here to stay. 6.5 pm
Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower) : It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cambridge, South-West (Sir A. Grant). I agree with almost all his comments. I certainly agree with his comment about the all-party nature of the Select Committees ; I have found that to be a tremendous strength.
The Welsh Affairs Select Committee was the only Committee in the previous Parliament which did not have a Government majority. In this Parliament, the Government have been unable to ensure that every member of the Committee represents a Welsh constituency. If the choice was between retaining the Committee and abolishing it, we would be willing to pay that price. I am in the 11th year of my chairmanship of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee. I am therefore especially pleased that I am an Opposition rather than a Conservative Member in terms of security of tenure.
I intend to make a few points about the role of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee. I appreciate that its features are not common to all the Select Committees. The post of the Secretary of State for Wales encompasses a wide range of responsibilities, although it does not include the major responsibilities of defence, foreign affairs and the police.
Column 592The first thing that we try to do is to involve as many people as possible in giving written evidence. The gap between power and people can become wide. We believe that it is important that as many individuals and groups as possible feel that what they have to say about their experience will be listened to by the Select Committee. Our next inquiry will be into the rehabilitation of those with serious head injuries. National organisations such as Headway--the National Head Injuries Association--and the Carers National Association will, of course, give evidence, as will the Department of Health, the Welsh Office and other significant players in the field. However, it is important that individuals who have gone through the trauma of, for example, being involved in a serious motorway car accident, being taken to a trauma unit and taking many years to recover from that horrible experience--and their families--can write to the Select Committee to say what their experience has been. They will be able to feel that they are participating.
I find such participation especially valuable when we take oral evidence in the Principality, which we do as often as we can. When, for example, the sea wall at Towyn broke and many hundreds of families were made homeless, it was a superb experience to be able to take evidence in Towyn so that the people who had been affected could see what we were doing in taking evidence and then publishing our report, after which the Government would publish their response. Secondly, certainly in a Select Committee of our kind, the micro-level of analysis is especially significant. From my experience, it is easy for a Government Department, with its army of civil servants, to be able to duck and dive, and weave all kinds of cul-de-sacs for Select Committees to go down. However, if that Select Committee is operating at the micro-level, it is virtually impossible for the Government to follow it down the path that it takes. I shall give a couple of examples.
In 1983, the Department of the Environment and the Welsh Office issued waste management paper No. 25 on clinical waste incineration. That document was in existence until 1990, when the Welsh Affairs Select Committee looked at toxic waste disposal in Wales. We discovered that the health authorities were not especially quick in responding to requests for information on their incinerators, so the Committee sent them a questionnaire to attain information on every clinical waste incinerator in the Principality, including questions on what the temperature was to be in the main burner and in the after-burner, what scrubbing facilities they had and so on. When we then asked the health authorities--every one of them--to appear before us in the House and they came, we were amazed to discover in January 1990 that only three of them had ever heard of waste management paper No. 25. Indeed, those three had only discovered its existence two weeks previously, when we had asked them to come up here and pay us a visit. We asked the Welsh Office and the Department of the Environment what had happened, to be told that, unfortunately, the document had not been issued to the relevant pollution bodies in England or in Wales--the health authorities at that time--but had been sent to every district authority in England and Wales, which had no responsibility whatever for that form of air pollution.
The response was wonderful. Of course, it was not from the Secretary of State for Wales. He delegated that responsibility to a clerk in the Welsh Office. When the
Column 593letter came back--it was published, of course, as an appendix to our report--it contained a wonderful sentence, referring to why the wrongful issuing had occurred, along the lines that, with the given level of hindsight, it was impossible to know what went wrong, but it was reissuing waste management paper No. 25 and that this time it was being sent to the bodies in England and Wales which were responsible for monitoring the emissions from clinical hospital waste incineration. Only at that micro-level of considering every incinerator were we able to identify such a matter.
The second example is to do with local authorities and their relationship with the Welsh Office over rural housing in Wales. We decided to ask every local authority for information on the number of houses that had been given planning permission in the open countryside in Wales which were departures from and contrary to local and county structure plans and Welsh Office planning policy guidelines.
We were so shocked by the results of the questionnaire that we looked back a few years before that date and followed up what had been happening with six of those authorities. We found that hundreds of houses in the Welsh countryside had been given planning permission contrary to Welsh Office guidance and the respective county structure plans. When we asked the Welsh Office about that, it found it rather astonishing and representatives from various councils were summoned to London to meet the Under-Secretary of State at the Welsh Office to try to explain why particular houses had been given permission against the structure plan. The experience in north Cornwall was certainly salutary because it came at the right time.
When the Select Committee pays visits, certainly in the Principality, I have found it worth while never to tell the people whose premises we are looking at that we are coming. Whereas advance notice is convenient for them, it is especially inconvenient for us because it enables what we want to see to be easily concealed. I shall never forget the time that one of Her Majesty's inspectors of pollution started to come round Wales with us when we looked at landfill sites in the Principality. We were astonished to find that those sites could have been pleasure camps for any recreational form of sport or whatever, so clean were they, so seagull-free and without a whiff of any odour of any kind. However, when we decided to ask the inspector to return home and we continued our journey without visiting the sites which had been planned, the story was rather different. Therefore, it is well worth while not to turn up when the red carpet is laid out, but to turn up unannounced and see what is really going on.
The fourth rule of Select Committees is about informing people of what is available to them when we consider particular topics. We astonished the people of Wales when we considered treatment centres. They do not exist in England, but are unique national health service facilities in the Principality. If any person has been waiting for more than four months for in-patient surgery on cataracts, major joints, or hernias and varicose veins, they may be admitted not only to their local hospital, but to one of the treatment centres, which provide a marvellous facility for elective surgery. We were able to educate and train doctors because
Column 594they seemed to be especially slow in knowing about the existence of the centres and, therefore, patients were being denied access to them.
Fifthly, Select Committees are useful as a method of educating hon. Members who serve on them. We have no in-training facilities in the House, no retraining facilities, and no way in which to keep us up to date, in detail, of what is going on. We tend to be cocooned in this establishment and the usual channels try to keep us here as long as possible. It is no disgrace at all to admit that it is of enormous benefit for those of us who serve on Select Committees to be aware in depth of what is going on in the subject areas which we consider. Sixthly, it is important that Select Committees pay more attention to Government responses. It is fine to spend months looking in detail at a topic, to feel some sort of enormous relief to reach the end of an inquiry, to have written the report, for--one hopes- -unanimous agreement to have been reached, for the report to be dispatched and to be waiting for the Government to respond. Then the response is filed and no more is heard on the issue until we want to examine it again. It would be useful for the Select Committee to examine the Government on that response. The Minister could be asked back to the Committee and questioned in detail on why this or that recommendation was not accepted. That could be a way forward.
Lastly--I do not think that the Leader of the House is in a position to accept this readily--in terms of open government, it would be rather nice if Select Committees could spend the occasional day or, pushing it, the occasional week, nosing around the Departments that they monitor. The Welsh Select Committee could spend a week in the Welsh Office in Cardiff. Members of the Committee could roam round the Department finding out how it works at first hand and prodding here and there into files to see what is the ambience of the Department.
I get the impression that Governments are not too happy when a Select Committee starts walking around the Department that it is supposed to monitor. Although it may be a little early for the Leader of the House to make such a decision, I would certainly welcome an arrangement whereby we could enter the hallowed places of knowledge to mix with civil servants without some watchful eye behind us ensuring that we do not talk to the wrong person in case we find out things that are a little embarrassing for us to know.
With those few comments, Madam Deputy Speaker, I thank you for allowing me to make this speech. The Select Committee system is superb. Without it, I would have long left this place because, as many hon. Members who have spoken before me have said, it gets rid of the adversarial element and allows us to look objectively as best we can at the evidence before us and constructively to move the debate forward. We do so in the hope that, if the Government accept some of our constructive recommendations, the quality of life and the decisions of the Government will be improved for the benefit of us all.
Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton) : The debate has enabled us to pause, even for just two and a half hours, and take stock of the achievements of the departmental Select Committee system and to assess its value to good government and
Column 595parliamentary activity. It has allowed us to assess the extent to which it commands the interest and, to a greater degree, the confidence of the public.
Perhaps the most obvious advantage of the Select Committee system has been manifest today. The House is at its best, it is always said, when we are not too adversarial, everyone agrees with everyone else and, if disagreement forces itself upon us, we respond only in the most civilised and well-mannered way. As a result, I am sure that this debate will not feature on either the 9 o'clock or the 10 o'clock news later today.
I was a member of the old-style Select Committee, which was all things to all Departments. I was on the sub-committee of the Social Services and Employment Sub-Committee of the Expenditure Committee under the leadership of Mrs. Renee Short. In one period, we reported on preventive medicine, juvenile crime and unemployment. As hon. Members will realise, that spread our expertise so wide as probably to be of little use to anyone. I am sure that the departmental Select Committee system that we have now is a decided improvement on that. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins), who is a most worthy, diligent and effective Chairman of the Liaison Committee and Select Committee Chairman, that the record of departmental Select Committees is considerable and well justifies their creation. I agree that they hold Ministers to account effectively and that they keep civil servants on their toes. A civil servant never knows when he or she might be called to account personally for his or her work.
Select Committees inform Parliament of the important evidence available on subjects of current importance. The Home Affairs Select Committee has taken up raging issues such as legal aid and violence on video at the very moment when they have raged. As the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell), the Chairman of the Welsh Select Committee, said, the Select Committees ensure that we become experts and therefore much more able to make the work that we do in Parliament credible.
Lastly, Select Committees come to conclusions which influence Government, as I hope that the Home Affairs Select report published this week on racial attacks and harassment will do before the Government conclude the proceedings on the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill.
I would go further and suggest that in the public eye, now that television is with us and has highlighted the knockabout of politics, the Select Committee system may be seen as one of the saving graces of Parliament itself. The public, who might otherwise be led to believe that this place is a madhouse of shouting, ranting, cantankerous, unobjective noisemongers, can see that Parliament is much more than that. I understand from the television operators that there is a surprisingly high level of viewing of programmes based on Select Committee activity. In short, the Select Committees have raised the standard of Parliament higher in the estimation of the people we represent. That is a thoroughly good thing.
To go even further, in a world in which nations are emerging into the daylight of democracy, the example of this Parliament, both good and bad, may have some effect in influencing the structure of new parliamentary democracies and in helping to reform democracies of longer standing. My American friends tell me that they sit glued to their armchairs with their popcorn while they watch what happens in this place, not only at Prime Minister's Question Time. Certainly, the departmental
Column 596Select Committees have been the subject of great interest among visiting democratic Parliaments as they have emerged from communism or wherever. That is another source of pride for the system. I shall not take up the time of the House by commenting on the procedural points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing and other colleagues, save to say that I agree with most of them and that the strengthening that has been called for is likely to improve the working of the system even further. However, I would add that there are some rather silly rules that we could well get rid of, particularly those relating to broadcasting.
Last week, the Home Affairs Select Committee visited the offices of the British Board of Film Classification. The hon. Member for Gower will note that we go out into the hallowed precincts of agencies and Government Departments. While we were there, we discovered that although the proceedings were public, they could not be televised because there was only one instead of two cameras in a fixed position. That afternoon we held a press conference upstairs here in the House. It could not be televised even in a room with two fixed cameras approved for the televising of the proceedings of Parliament because it was not a formal meeting of the Committee. I hope that common sense will prevail in such matters when the procedures come to be reviewed, as they are clearly absurd.
I wish to raise one other matter which I hope will be considered for the future. It is a matter of some substance and importance and would take our Select Committee system into a completely new area. One of the agencies with which the Home Affairs Select Committee has dealt is the Law Commission. One of the tasks of that august body under a series of distinguished judicial figures and latterly under the guidance of Mr. Justice Brooke has been to reform the criminal law.
Almost everyone agrees that what would most reform the criminal law is the creation of a code of criminal law. However, that is light years away under our present system. There is simply no machinery for dealing comprehensively with a large subject such as the codification of the entire criminal law because there is no time in the parliamentary year to deal with it, even though much of what would be agreed by a commission and then fed into what I postulate might be a new Select Committee would be entirely non-contentious.
If we do not have such a system, one problem is the frustration that is engendered. The inadequacy of Parliament may lead the Commission to recommend the taking of policy decisions, or inspire the judges to take policy decisions, which they did recently in deciding against Parliament-- although they seem to have forgotten that that was so--on the introduction of a crime of marital rape. Public policy decisions are for Parliament ; they are not for academics, agencies and judges.
I ask the Procedure Committee and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to consider whether we might devise a Select Committee, perhaps of both Houses of Parliament, whose function was solely to reform the criminal law--to do it steadily and relentlessly over a period, calling witnesses, arguing the issues and coming to conclusions which are reasonable, sensible and acceptable to all those involved in the administration of the criminal law. Of course, it would be necessary--here is the rub--to bypass the Chamber on all issues except those which raise questions of public and political principle and policy. The
Column 597age of consent, the question whether there should be an offence of marital rape, the age of criminal responsibility, the question whether the sentence for murder should be mandatory or discretionary and a whole string of other similar issues would be a matter for this Chamber, and this Chamber alone, but most of the matters that would be included in a criminal code would be non-contentious matters which Parliament, through either the House of Lords or the House of Commons, or both together in a Select Committee, could agree. That would reflect adequately and properly the needs of society.
If we could devise such an additional Select Committee system, we might be able to make progress on criminal law reform in general and on a code of criminal law in particular. We could thus simplify, clarify, spread knowledge and understanding of, and speed the administration of the criminal law, and Parliament would have taken a big step towards improving the social fabric and order of our society. That is, after all, the main reason for our existence. 6.32 pm
Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South) : I rise for the second time in about a week to talk about parliamentary reform. For the sake of those who heard my speech the first time round, I shall try not to duplicate the remarks that I made on that occasion. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence). I spent much of Thursday eulogising, if not the hon. and learned Gentleman personally, the report on racial violence and racial harassment to which he referred. It is a superb report, although I wonder whether the Home Office will see it in such a good light. Many of the reports produced by the House are the result of a great deal of research and wisdom. Regrettably, that wisdom is rarely transmitted to those at whom it is directed--that is, the Government. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell) said, we spend a long time on a report, wait three months for an anodyne response and that is virtually the end of the matter. The report may circulate around the Department, never to resurface. If anything is acted on, it may be a little bit of a recommendation. Academics may pick it up, so it is regurgitated later.
I should like to see a serious study done, as was done by the old Expenditure Committee. I was interested to see that the Defence and External Affairs Sub-Committee of the Expenditure Committee did a detailed analysis of the recommendations that were made. What happened to those recommendations ? Regrettably, much of the endeavour has totally dissipated. When one adds the amount of time that we put into researching and arguing a report, it seems to be an inadequate response.
Frankly, I am disappointed that we are debating a report that was published in the 1989-90 Session. It has taken a long time to debate the report ; it is almost time for a new Procedure Committee. I am even more disappointed by the appalling response of Members of Parliament. I am pleased that there are some Committee Chairmen present, although I am disappointed that we do not have infinitely more. The Leader of the House can gleefully pass on to his colleagues the message that the troops are not really interested in parliamentary reform, so there is not much impetus. I hope,
Column 598however, that he will seek almost self- generation in the matter and try to go down not only as the Leader of the House who was seriously interested in parliamentary reform but as the Leader of the House who sought and was successful in implementing a number of significant changes.
Regrettably, we are complacent about the way in which we operate. We pat one another on the back and say that the Select Committee system is basically satisfactory. The Government say in their report that they agree with the Procedure Committee that the
"system is basically sound and does not stand in need of major reform".
That is like asking the Italian mafia whether they are happy with the performance of the Italian police. Of course the Government will say that they are happy with the existing arrangements. They are the substantial beneficiaries of a Select Committee system which does not properly harness the abilities, competence and knowledge of hon. Members, for two basic reasons.
First, Members of Parliament do not seem to be all that enthused about procedural change ; secondly, Ministers are delighted that having got over the worst in 1979, with the system being more or less imposed on them, it has not proceeded much further. I was desperately hoping that the report of the Procedure Committee would say something like this : "As the Select Committee system has been operating since 1979, we have had ample opportunity to analyse its successes and failures. We have now decided that, having conferred no power whatever on the Committee system, other than the power to send for persons and papers, the time has come to confer some significant powers on the Select Committee system". There is nothing at all about that in the report. If another Procedure Committee is set up, I wonder whether it would exude the same sense of self-satisfaction. I very much admire what the right hon. Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins) said. Indeed, I agreed with almost everything that he said. However, he exhibited a tendency of which we are all guilty--that of comparing the House of Commons with the United States Congress, which is an unfair comparison because the constitution of the United States conferred decision-making powers on Congress as part of the reaction to the reality of strongly centralised decision making in the United Kingdom. When we say that we cannot go too far down that road, of course we cannot. However, we do not often compare our parliamentary and Select Committee systems with similar parliamentary committees. It would seem that we do not compare at all favourably with the United States system.
We produce reports that are as good as any, but we have no power to legislate and we have no power in the Budget. What we have is a factory for manufacturing reports which are often completely ignored. We say that there should be a bridge between reports and debate, but there is hardly any bridge at all. The Government said that they do not want to give more time for such debates. Of course they do not. I find the whole thing profoundly unsatisfactory.
We have influence only in the Select Committees. Occasionally, we are able to move, change and reverse policy. Often, when a report comes out, there may be no other news and the Government are forced on to the defensive-- there are instances where that has happened. The media may concentrate on one report and the Government may be embarrassed into taking action.
Column 599I recall a report with which the Defence Select Committee was involved in the early 1980s regarding the physical security of military installations. It was an important report, because a Standing Committee on privatising the royal ordnance factories was proceeding parallel with the Select Committee inquiry into physical security in military installations. The Government intended to privatise security, kick out the Ministry of Defence police and bring in a contract security firm.
I was a member of both the Select Committee and the Standing Committee, and by the time we reached clause 27 of the Bill the Defence Select Committee had totally destroyed the Government's argument. Everyone on the Committee was happy that the Government relented. That was one of the few triumphs for the Standing Committee system. In reality, an inquiry by the Select Committee resulted in the change and it was accelerated by the fact that when our report came out there was no other news. The Government were therefore forced into a corner and they climbed down.
There are two lessons there. We should not need to rely on the fortunate absence of other publicity and the process of legislation should be linked with the process of investigation. The Procedure Committee report recommended that greater attention be given to Standing Committees and that in Session 1990-91 there should be more Special Standing Committees, but nothing whatever came of that. Looking at the Government's response--the paper is yellow with age and fraying at the corners--I agree that there should be more emphasis on broad expenditure priorities. The trouble is that we tend to be more interested in high policy than in the boring minutiae of the budgetary process. In that sense, some of the blame lies with ourselves.
The Government said that there would be no sub-Committees because the Procedure Committee did not want them, but I see sub-Committees as a means of increasing one's output by putting more pressure on the Government on a variety of fronts. The Government do not want that to happen.
On special advisers, the Government and the Clerk of the House said that they did not want
"a standing army of Parliamentary experts".
The use of the words "standing army" is clearly abusive. I believe that a Select Committee backed by professional expertise is the best way to proceed. If there is not animosity between the Clerk and the advisers, there is some turf protection and I can understand why the Clerk does not always want to see too many advisers.
We should have more power to increase staffing levels, and I agree that we should do more to link with the Library. We have a marvellous Library with marvellous staff, but I would ask anyone who gets too carried away to go to the congressional research service and see the extent of research there. No one can dispute that it is a different political system, but I believe that the quality and extent of research being done for congress members by the congressional research service is such that we should seek to bridge the gap between it and our system.
On allowances and facilities for entertainment, the Defence Committee had a visit from a Nordic defence committee a few years ago and its members dragged out of us our entire allowance. They could not speak a word of English, but they knew all the brands of whisky and other
Column 600drinks and we were destitute as a result. It is a good idea to entertain modestly, but we can hardly be described as the last of the great spenders.
In conclusion, we should have appropriate powers as we often have to deal with labyrinthine bureaucracies. My hon. Friend the Member for Gower talked about nosing around Departments. He may find the task of nosing around the Welsh Office difficult, but I suspect that nosing around the Ministry of Defence would result in immediate incarceration. As a Back-Bench Member, I sought an unclassified briefing from a middle-ranking civil servant in the MoD. The meeting was arranged, but it was vetoed because a Back Bencher could not get into the MoD to talk to a middle-ranking civil servant. The bunker in the MoD is not under it--it extends up to the brain : it is an Ottoman approach to decision-making and we are not the beneficiaries of it. 6.44 pm
Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East) : My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) makes a powerful case for the rights of Select Committees, and in particular for the right of Select Committees to eat into time on the Floor of the House. He makes that case in an effective and unique way.
The right hon. Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins)--unusually for him-- opened the debate on a note of controversy. He said that the setting up of the Select Committees may turn out to be Baroness Thatcher's lasting monument, and something for which she will be enduringly remembered. I dare him to go and tell her that. I do not think that that would be her perception of the 1980s, but the right hon. Gentleman is a brave man and I wish him well.
The core issue--all speeches have drawn this out--is the balance of power between the Executive and Parliament. Speaking from memory, I do not think that Baroness Thatcher was always to be found on the libertarian side of that argument. Perhaps for the right hon. Member for Worthing, history and the passage of time lend enchantment. The purpose of Select Committees is to underpin Parliament's right to scrutinise, investigate and influence the work of the Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) spoke about effective control and stewardship over Ministers. He also spoke about Select Committees being the eyes and ears of the House over Departments. The conclusion from the Procedure Committee's report was that, in general, the Select Committee system is essentially sound and not in need of major reform. I accept that, but there are a number of issues arising from the report which deserve further consideration.
The broad conclusion of the Procedure Committee is right, and I thank the Committee for its review. I do not mean it unkindly when I say that the debate is timely. I know that the report came out in 1989-90, but nevertheless the debate is timely because, as the House will know, a number of matters concerning the reform of parliamentary procedure are under consideration. The report usefully informs future debate and will act as a benchmark. The fact that it does not propose any substantial change does not detract from its value, nor from its thoroughness. The
Column 601Chairman of the Procedure Committee, the right hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), fairly observed that it is a comprehensive piece of work.
Among the important issues raised are the relationship between Select Committee reports and the Floor of the House, and the role for departmental Select Committees in scrutinising departmental expenditure, including scrutiny of executive agencies. My hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North pointed out that three quarters of all civil servants now work for agencies, rather than directly for Departments.
The Procedure Committee report comments on the giving of evidence. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) referred to the scrutiny of appointments and my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell) mentioned the scrutiny of the Government's responses to individual Select Committee reports. The other key issues to emerge from the Procedure Committee report include the points made about the role of the National Audit Office, and the relationship between the NAO and the Public Accounts Committee on the one hand and departmental Select Committees on the other. A very important recommendation by the Procedure Committee--I intervened in the speech of the right hon. Member for Honiton regarding the matter--was about the use of Special Standing Committees.
Time is short, so I can only refer to one or two points rather than doing the debate justice. I can see clearly that it is frustrating for departmental Select Committees to produce reports which do not get a chance to be considered on the Floor of the House. I understand the pressures of time on the Government--any Government, and not just this Conservative one- -but we should try to find a middle way. If the suggestion of using estimates days is flawed, we should try to find some other way to ensure that the work of Select Committees is reflected in debate here on the Floor of the House. Not everything will be debated, but something should. In the current discussions, we can at least examine that issue again and see if something can be done.
Another continuing theme in the debate has been the extent to which departmental Committees should involve themselves in scrutinising departmental expenditure. The Conservative party's view on that seems to have changed, because at one time it was very enthusiastic about it. Each year, Departments produce a document that sets out their spending plans. We used to have a whole day's debate on those plans, but the last one was in May 1991 and it has now slipped out of the parliamentary calendar. We cannot even get an assurance from the Leader of the House that that debate will be restored to us this year. It is right that Parliament should take seriously its responsibility for scrutinising public expenditure, and the Select Committees have a role to play in that.
The establishment of Special Standing Committees is an important suggestion. Some Bills occur every year, the Finance Bill being an obvious example, and they contain controversial and less controversial measures. There is an overwhelming case for a taxes management Bill, which could be dealt with by a Special Standing Committee to which experts with specialist knowledge could give evidence. Such a Bill would consider matters that do not tend to be the subject of controversy between the parties.
Column 602Those relating to anti-avoidance represent a shared objective between the Opposition and the Government, although one would not necessarily think so when one considers how they are dealt with in the Finance Bill. It would be far better for us to listen to the specialist evidence from the Inland Revenue, the Institute of Taxation and others and then make considered recommendations.
I know that accepting such a proposal would mean a longer gap between the Second Reading of the Finance Bill and its formal Committee stage, but the Opposition would be willing to agree to a timetable on a taxes management Bill. That would mean that the less controversial matters, once considered in the Finance Bill, could be dealt with in a measured and orderly way. Everyone in the outside world, as well as parliamentarians, would know on which day specific rafts of clauses would be dealt with and that consideration would be undertaken in a mature and considered manner. If the drafting was defective--that is a problem for Ministers--it would be exposed through the Special Standing Committee procedure and the relevant changes would have to be made. That could be achieved with all-party agreement, rather than in an adversarial manner.
There will always be rows between the parties on the main issues contained in the Finance Bill, because whether to raise or lower taxes is a controversial matter. That should be fought out when considering a truncated Finance Bill in Committee or on the Floor of the House, which is where we consider the main tax proposals anyway. The hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) referred to the work of the Law Commission, which considers similar complex issues. There is a clear case for establishing Special Standing Committees to consider specialist, complex legislation. I urge the House and, in particular, the Leader of the House to consider it. The hon. Member for Cambridge, South-West (Sir A. Grant) said that in the past 15 years there had been a shift in the balance of power from Parliament to the Executive. I believe that that is apparent even within the Executive, with a further concentration of power in the hands of the office of the Prime Minister and the closest advisers to that individual. Almost imperceptibly, British government is becoming increasingly presidential. There are many reasons for that, not least government by a single party since 1979. We have to accept our share of the blame for that.
If parliamentary democracy is to work and command respect, we must assert Parliament's rights as enthusiastically as the Executive asserts its own. The case for the reform of parliamentary procedures, by consent, is overwhelming. The case for Select Committees will have been reaffirmed by today's useful debate.
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton) : This has been a most interesting debate.The first thing I should do in what will perforce be a fairly brief contribution is to thank and congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins) on pressing for this debate--I was happy to accede to his request--and on the way in which he introduced it. I should like to thank and
Column 603congratulate all the hon. Members who have taken part, because we have had a genuinely constructive debate, even if it is not the kind which reaches definitive conclusions. A number of issues have been raised and I undertake to reflect on them.
I have had the privilege to be Leader of the House for just over two years and I hope that I can at least claim that my support of Select Committees and my desire to ensure that they work as well as possible has been reasonably demonstrated. Despite the observations from one or two people on the occasional delay in setting up Committees, we have not done too badly in this Parliament. I have checked up on the dates and I can tell the House that the new Parliament met for the Queen's Speech on 6 May--it had met earlier for swearing in and the like--and we had set up the Select Committees in a mere two months on 13 July.
That was done against a background in which I was told almost daily by the representatives of the newspapers that they did not believe that we would get the Select Committees set up by the summer recess. That achievement was a demonstration not just of my support, but of the Government's support for Select Committees, as is our acceptance of the great majority of the recommendations of the Procedure Committee, together with the recent establishment of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland.
I will say no more, and I say it quite unequivocally, than that I am a strong supporter of Select Committees for precisely the reasons that have been echoed during the debate--the improved scrutiny of the Executive, the scope that they provide for constructive consensus across party boundaries on a number of issues and their real and constructive influence. I would not be as dismissive or as pessimistic about them as the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) was. Those Committees have exercised that constructive influence on a number of important issues, not least those with which I was concerned for many years as a Minister with responsibility for health and social security.
The debate has highlighted a number of important issues for consideration by the members of the Select Committees themselves, as right hon. and hon. Members have generously acknowledged today, and by the Liaison or Procedure Committee. I am sure that the Chairmen of those Committees have taken careful note of the suggestions made. The unanimous theme expressed during the debate--it is always one of the most popular themes in Parliament--has been to bash the Whips. One or two Whips are present and no doubt they feel duly chastened. They will take note of what was said. The proposals concerning the membership of Select Committees, which drew some criticism from hon. Members on both sides of the House, were made by the Committee of Selection. I am sure that the Chairman of that Committee will take note of what has been said, as will those who were castigated over the difficulties that arose from visits abroad or the absence of
Column 604such visits during the period when the usual channels were not operated by those in the Opposition. I do not want to be drawn further into that potentially contentious matter in the circumstances of this brief speech.
A number of points raised are in the hands of Committees and their members, including those made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) about the work rate. Other hon. Members spoke about the scrutiny of spending plans. Many Select Committees consider their Departments' spending plans and there is nothing to stop them doing so. There is nothing to stop them looking at the work of executive agencies and calling for evidence from the heads of those agencies. There is certainly nothing to stop them doing more to follow up their reports, as hon. Members have urged them to do today.
The debate has highlighted tensions, which I so often see in my role as Leader of the House, between the conflicting demands made from different quarters. Against the repeated desire of hon. Members for as little interference from the Whips as possible, to use their terminology, must be set the tension created by the suggestion for enhancing the powers of Select Committees to act directly without seeking a resolution from the House.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) also suggested that the recommendations of Select Committees should automatically be put to the vote in the House. If those suggestions were put into effect they would, almost inevitably, enhance the interest that the Whips would feel they would have to take in Select Committees. I put that as gently as I can, but it is the likely effect. I believe that the House would be right to be cautious before adopting some of the proposals made in the debate.
The Chairmen of the Procedure and Liaison Committees must accept that there is an obvious tension between the persistent demands for progress on the Jopling report--with which they sometimes associate themselves--and the demands for more and more time to debate the reports of Select Committees. Perhaps those tensions can be resolved, but they certainly exist. They come alongside many of the other difficult points which the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) and I are trying to tease out in our on-going discussions, which will also take account of some of the points that have been made about our economic debates.
I have little time in which to comment on the specific proposals that have been made. The Procedure Committee may care to look further at some of them, including video conferencing and the points about the European Legislation Committees. It is for my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing and his Committee to decide whether they wish to undertake further examination. I hope that we shall all reflect on the useful points that have been made in this debate. I conclude my remarks simply by saying that, in line with the spirit in which I have approached the establishment of Select Committees, their work and this debate, my response will be constructive.