That leave be given to bring in a Bill to secure effective democratic control of the European Community by repeal of the European Parliamentary Elections Acts and by making provision for representatives to the European Parliamentary Assembly to be drawn from the membership of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. I gather that the chances of winning the first prize in the national lottery are about 14,000,000:1 and the chances of this Bill becoming law are not much better. That is a shame, because it is a modest Bill--indeed, I would describe it as being one of extreme moderation. It does not seek in any way to reduce the powers of the European Parliament. It does not even seek to reduce the enormous costs of the European Parliament, even though we could point out that it costs almost £1 million for each Member of the European Parliament, compared with a mere £260,000 for each Member of this House. My Bill does not even seek to tell other nations how they should select their Members of the European Parliament. It would apply the principle of subsidiarity to the way in which each nation chooses to select its MEPs. It would allow us to return to the indirect system that worked so well before 1979 whereby Members of that assembly were appointed from the House and, if I recall correctly, from another place.
I understand that the Bill might cause some problems for the Whips Office. Naturally I am sorry about that. I also understand that sometimes we would be deprived of the presence of some of our colleagues. I am sorry about that, too. Those are matters of deep regret, but we would have to bear them with fortitude, knowing that our colleagues from both sides of the House were in Brussels or Strasbourg exercising their democratic muscle on our behalf. Some might say that the burden would be too much for already highly overworked Members of the House, but surely in practice, with some of the modest allowances which I understand are available for administrative and secretarial help, it might be no more of a burden than that already borne by some who are members of certain Select Committees or delegates to the Council of Europe or, indeed, both. The advantages would be great indeed.
It is complained that MEPs are out of touch with Westminster. Under my proposals that would be overcome at a stroke. It is complained that Westminster is out of touch with the European Parliament. That, too, would be overcome at a stroke. It is complained that MEPs, with their enormous constituencies, cannot help but be out of touch with their electors. That, too, would be overcome at a stroke. Some uncharitable Opposition Members might think that my proposals are sour grapes because we lost rather a lot of seats at the latest European elections.
Sir Roger Moate: That is wrong. That is not the reason at all. If the hon. Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis) will reflect for one moment, he will realise that next time round--if we still have such elections--we will win them
Column 892all back again and many more besides. So, the suggestion is not so outrageous--that is if my Bill fails and we continue to have direct elections.
In his speech at Leiden in September, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister--his words are very important and might even appeal to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)--said:
"The European Parliament sees itself as the future democratic focus for the Union. But this is a flawed ambition, because the European Union is an association of States, deriving its basic democratic legitimacy through national parliaments."
That should remain the case. People will continue to see national Parliaments as their democratic focus.
My right hon. Friend also stated:
"Another clear message is that European people retain their faith and confidence in the nation state."
How right he was. Even the most ardent European integrationist or federalist must understand that there is a serious problem and that something has to change. The intergovernmental conference in 1996 is the time to change it.
What was the turnout in our European elections this year--36.2 per cent? What was it elsewhere in Europe? On 24 July, The Observer newspaper stated the case well:
"The proportion of Europe's citizens who vote in European elections has dropped steadily since the first poll in 1979, when almost two-thirds of the electorate did its duty. This year the official result of 56.5 per cent. was achieved only because voting is compulsory in Greece, Belgium and Luxembourg. Those who did vote were in most cases commenting on national politics rather than saying anything about Europe."
How much more remote, irrelevant and unintelligible will it all be when we proceed to greater enlargement of the Community, which is moving inexorably ahead? There are 567 Members of the European Parliament for the present Community of 12 nations. It will soon rise to 15 or 16 nations when the European Free Trade Area nations join, as I fervently hope that they will.
Most people would accept the inevitability and desirability of early enlargement to the east, incorporating Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Baltic countries and Slovenia. All those countries are candidates for membership and perhaps for early membership. Other people talk of the possibility of Turkey, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Malta becoming members of a greater European Community. How unintelligible that supposedly directly elected and democratic Assembly will be for a Europe on such a scale.
As we all know, democratic elections are much more than a means of conferring some form of theoretical legitimacy on Governments. Such elections are about the power of people to change Governments, or the threat of that power changing policies. The voter and even the largest of national groupings within a nation are impotent in a Europe-wide poll. That sense of impotence will only grow as the Community grows. The sense of irrelevance is the real judgment on the fatally flawed and failed experiment of direct elections. In 1996, if we change the treaty to allow each nation to choose its method of sending MEPs to the Assembly, I do not believe that we will be on our own. I hear that a strong body of opinion in France, which is well rehearsed in the French Assembly, would support the proposal. Other nations--especially the new members--would see the logic of that approach.
Column 893My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it clear that he will be ready to say no to proposals in Europe which are against British interests. I thank heaven that it is him and not the leader of the Opposition who will lead Britain into those 1996 negotiations. The latter has made it clear that he will never say no to Europe. His route and that of the Opposition--a single currency and the social chapter--will inevitably lead to a federal and centralised Europe. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it clear that ours is the route to a Community of sovereign nation states. I suggest that my Bill fits logically and completely into that pattern.
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye) rose --
In opposing the Bill of the hon. Member for Faversham (Sir R. Moate), I pay tribute to him on one basis. In the week following the summer recess when the Government have been displaying a new cohesion and unity of purpose and getting their act together, the hon. Gentleman has once again highlighted the deep divisions and disarray within the Conservative party on the fundamental issue of Britain's future in Europe, and what its correct role and relationships should be.
I shall make a number of brief points. The first, and most fundamental, is the fact that we are in the run-up to the 1996 intergovernmental conference. That conference--it has been called "son of Maastricht"--will be the proper forum in which all the relationships, power structures and representative tiers within the European Union shall be reassessed and, in many cases, recast. I would suggest that, logically, this is not the way in which to make such a fundamental change.
Secondly, it is illogical to proceed in the way in which the hon. Gentleman seeks. The aim of the Maastricht treaty to which the Prime Minister--in whom the hon. Gentleman has such apparent confidence, which the Prime Minister will be grateful to have noted--put his name is that we go precisely in the direction in which we are moving, albeit slowly, towards making the various levels of responsibility in decision-making at Union level more representative and more accountable. Many of us believe that we should be going much further than that.
The central problem in what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting is the belief that we can get greater accountability and democracy for the European Union by giving more power back to national Parliaments as a means of trying to scrutinise. That is the fundamental and honourable difference between us. We argue that the approach that we should take to the European Union is to give more, not less, power to the European Parliament and to the elected Members of the European Parliament. They are best able to hold the Commission to accountability, not the behind-closed-doors, secretive Council of Ministers, over which national Parliaments have nothing like the degree of scrutiny or accountability and where a report back on accountability by a Minister at the Dispatch Box is, as we know, ludicrous. It would
Column 894be much better if we had a more congressional system at European level, and if the power for that congressional system was vested in the European Parliament itself.
On all those bases--and although I pay tribute to the fact that here is a fresh example of complete Conservative disunity and disarray--the House should do the Conservative party a favour and defeat one of its Members who is seeking to cause even more problems for his Government.
Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Sir Roger Moate.
Sir Roger Moate accordingly presented a Bill to secure effective democratic control of the European Community by repeal of the European Parliamentary Elections Acts and by making provision for representatives to the European Parliamentary Assembly to be drawn from the membership of the House of Commons and the House of Lords: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 28 October, and to be printed. [Bill 167.]
That this House requests Madam Speaker to convey to Sir Clifford Boulton GCB, on his retirement from the office of Clerk of the House, its gratitude for his many services to this House and to parliamentary government throughout a distinguished career. In inviting the House to pay this tribute to Sir Clifford Boulton on his impending retirement as our Clerk, I rarely have been more sure that I shall command support in every part of the House, and there can indeed be few for whom such a tribute has been better earned.
Sir Clifford has been a part of this place for 40 years and more, and he has been Clerk to our most senior Committees--Public Accounts, Procedure and Privileges. For the past seven years he has been Clerk of the House. His tenure of that office has been the longest in recent times, but it will be remembered not so much for that as for its exceptional quality, with his outstanding grasp of our often complex procedures, the scholarship he brought to the editing of the current version of "Erskine May", the contribution he has made to the Industry and Parliament Trust and--not least--his help to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and his service to the Association of Secretaries General of the Inter- Parliamentary Union. As I have learned myself on visits to other Parliaments, the regard in which he is held extends well beyond our world here in Westminster.
For my part, although I have no doubt that here, too, I will be speaking for many others, in my two and a half years as Leader of the House it has been not only the quality of Sir Clifford's advice that I have valued but the manner in which it is offered: calm, courteous and considered, and set out with a clarity which belies the complexities beneath. Above all, I have valued the impartial balance that he brings to the task and his complete commitment to the House and what it stands for.
I am told that Sir Clifford's main relaxation, stemming no doubt from his background as the son of a Staffordshire farmer, is tending the garden at his home in what he firmly calls Rutland. No doubt in future, with his new- found freedom, he will occasionally take a few moments off to pen a note to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment about the reorganisation of local government.
However Sir Clifford may choose to occupy his time, of one thing I can be sure--that he will leave the service of this House not just with our thanks and our good wishes but with our very great respect.
Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury): On behalf of my right hon. Friends and myself, may I associate the Opposition with the remarks of the Leader of the House. I am sure that the whole House will be happy to support the motion of gratitude for Sir Clifford Boulton's many years of service. Sir Clifford, as the right hon. Gentleman has just reminded us, has enjoyed a long and distinguished career,
Column 896culminating in his holding the highest permanent office in the House of Commons as Clerk to the House--although he is now also known as the Corporate Officer of the House, with a new seal to match the additional title.
All Members of the House, from the newest to the most experienced, have every reason to be grateful to all the Clerks for their advice, both in the Chamber and in Committee. We must all recognise that, in Parliament, knowledge of procedure is an important element of the work of us all, not least because knowledge of procedure really is power in the House. Members of Parliament rely on the knowledge of procedure that the Clerk has, used in an impartial way, to uphold the best traditions of the House. That is what we pay tribute to Sir Clifford for today.
Tradition is certainly the right word. The post of Clerk to the House of Commons dates back to 1363, and it is remarkable to discover that there have been only 44 holders of the office in all those years. Sir Clifford recently received an honorary doctorate from Keele university, the citation for which referred to the Clerks of the House of Commons as
"the invisible men and women of Parliament".
That certainly used to be so, but one of the changes since the televising of our proceedings has been that the Clerks are now visible. I have to admit that I have been asked several times who those people with the wigs on sitting in the middle are. It is easy to answer that they are the Clerks to the House of Commons; it is far more difficult to explain to outsiders what their role involves. It is probably rather like explaining the laws of cricket to Americans. Sir Clifford has, I understand, been very keen to explain the workings of the House to people outside. I am sure that he has had some success--more than many of us have had--trying to explain to outsiders exactly what his role entails. I know that, in his role as editor of "Erskine May", he has tried with some considerable success to make it a much more accessible volume, and for that all hon. Members should be grateful.
We are all grateful to Sir Clifford for his service to the House, and we all most sincerely wish him well in his retirement. 3.48 pm
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Sir Clifford Bolton has been in the House since 1953. Throughout that time he has been an outstanding servant of the House, carrying out all the Clerks' duties at the various levels in the Clerks Department in which he has served with an exemplary blend of the qualities necessary to that office. One of those qualities is devotion to parliamentary democracy, involving as it does the rights of the House itself and all Members, groups and parties within it. Sir Clifford has been unfailingly courteous to Members of the House and has maintained that courtesy patiently in the most fraught circumstances. He is also a master of procedure. All around the Commonwealth there are stories of the guidance that he has given. Indeed, there is a story that a Commonwealth legislature was suspended while Mr. Boulton, as he then was, was telephoned in London for urgent advice.
But the duties of Clerk are not confined to procedure, and very much less so since the development of the House's own management, after the Ibbs report. Sir
Column 897Clifford has presided over fundamental changes in the management of the House, very ably assisted by the Clerk Assistant. Those changes have included the House taking control of its own buildings--a change from which I am sure he derives considerable satisfaction. But it has involved marked additional responsibility for the Clerk as the Accounting Officer of the House, and he has discharged that responsibility with very great care and faithfulness.
My right hon. Friends and I wish Sir Clifford and Lady Boulton every happiness in their retirement in the county of Rutland, of which they are so rightly fond. Sir Clifford has exemplified, enriched and sustained for the future the best traditions of the office of Clerk of the House.
Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East): On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends of the Ulster Unionist party, I take great pleasure in supporting the motion expressing gratitude to Sir Clifford Boulton for the service that he has given to the House. His is an office that demands clarity of thought, integrity and charm, to ensure that the advice given, even if it is not always acceptable, becomes acceptable to the individual to whom it is given.
Sir Clifford possesses all those attributes and has discharged his duties with distinction and great courtesy to all who have gone to him for advice. We are grateful to him for all that he has done and wish him and his family well in future.
Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East): The motion has the unqualified support of all the political parties in the House. I would like to add the voice of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party in thanking Sir Clifford.
The reality is that, although the spotlight always falls on hon. Members in the Chamber, Parliament could not function without the skill and expertise of the parliamentary staff. Therefore, in thanking Sir Clifford, I would like to wish him a long and very happy retirement.
Sir Peter Emery (Honiton): There is no Committee more in touch with Sir Clifford than the Procedure Committee. It is right and proper that I should give thanks on behalf of the whole Committee--I can see one or two members of it here--for the considerable advice that he has given, the papers that he has produced, the way in which he has been cross-questioned, his willingness to be available, both officially and unofficially, at any time and, indeed, his willingness to try to assist the Committee whenever we have requested it. Sir Clifford has done all that with charm and an intellectual ability, which is visible in all his work with which I have been associated. Therefore, it is with sorrow that I rise to wish the best to Sir Clifford and Lady Boulton, because one would want them to have a happy retirement. He is retiring a year early. He could serve another year. I assure the House that we are not driving him out. He is going at his own choice, because he wishes to be able to plough some other furrows. The Committee wishes therefore that, whatever Sir Clifford does, he will do it with the same success as he has achieved in the House, and with the same charm and ability. My Committee and I wish him very well.
Column 8983.53 pm
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): The House of Commons has had some remarkable Clerks in the past, but I think that we will miss Sir Clifford Boulton very much indeed. He has great wit. He has a strong and vigorous application to what is important in parliamentary justice and has never faltered in his commitment to those important facets of parliamentary life, which are so vital today. There is not an hon. Member of the House who has not at some point benefited from Sir Clifford's advice and help, which he gives equally to every one of us, irrespective of our status and problems.
I shall miss Sir Clifford tremendously. As much as for any other reason, I shall miss him because I believe that his strong convictions about the need to defend democracy in the House of Commons are vital to every one of us; but I shall also miss him as a friend. So, I think, will many other people. He is a remarkable man, and I am very sorry that we are going to lose him. I hope that we shall at least be worthy of the real traditions that he has laid down for us.
Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South): A short time ago I received a message from the Father of the House, who was particularly sorry that he could not be here. He is abroad, but he wishes to be associated with our tributes.
I am delighted to have been able to convey that message to the House, because I have a high regard for Sir Clifford, as we all do. He has served the House with immense distinction; he is a worthy successor to Erskine May and Rushworth, who took down the most famous words ever uttered in the House--when your predecessor, Madam Speaker, rebuked the Sovereign of the day.
Sir Clifford will leave this place with the affection and gratitude of us all. There has been no more doughty or distinguished defender of Parliament and its traditions.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): In the light of what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), I wish to reflect on Sir Clifford Boulton's generosity to those of us who have held minority opinions from time to time, in terms of both his expertise and his time. We are deeply in his debt.
Madam Speaker: Before I put the Question, I wish to add my own personal tribute to Sir Clifford. I know him as a man of absolute integrity, devoted to the parliamentary process, and a true friend and servant of democracy. As Speaker, I have been greatly assisted by his wise and sympathetic counsel, and by the support and friendship that he has offered me. He takes into retirement the knowledge of a job well done, and the best wishes of his many friends in the House. Question put and agreed to.
That this House requests Madam Speaker to convey to Sir Clifford Boulton GCB, on his retirement from the office of Clerk of the House, its gratitude for his many services to this House and to parliamentary government throughout a distinguished career.
That this House takes note of the 55th to 63rd Reports of the Committee of Public Accounts of Session 1992-93, of the 1st to 39th and 41st Reports of Session 1993-94, and of the Treasury Minutes and Northern Ireland Department of Finance and Personnel Memoranda on these Reports (Cm 2419, Cm 2446, Cm 2492, Cm 2493, Cm 2555, Cm 2577, Cm 2602, Cm 2618 and Cm 2677) with particular reference to the following Reports:
Fifty-seventh, West Midlands Regional Health Authority: Regionally Managed Services Organisation;
Sixty-third, Wessex Regional Health Authority: Regional Information Systems Plan;
Eighth, The Proper Conduct of Public Business;
Sixteenth, The British Council Account, 1992-93;
Seventeenth, Pergau Hydro-Electric Project;
Twenty-third, Development Board for Rural Wales: Allocation and Sale of Housing and Car Leasing Scheme.
Our last Public Accounts Committee debate took place at almost the same time last year, when 42 reports were included in the motion. This debate relates to 49 reports and nine Government replies. As usual, a few reports have been specified in the motion, although doubtless many others will be mentioned in the debate.
This has been another exceptionally busy and productive Session for the Committee, in which it will in due course have agreed more than 50 reports. The Committee's work continues to generate great interest. I am very much aware of the burden imposed on my right hon. and hon. Friends by the amount of time that they must devote to that work; it is a great responsibility, for the Committee meets more often than any other Select Committee. We welcome the new arrivals, as well as thanking those who have left. In particular, I welcome the right hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), who has become Financial Secretary to the Treasury following the departure of the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Dorrell), who has moved on. The most valuable aspect of our reports is the fact that they are unanimous, and not concerned with policy issues. We do not examine policy; we examine certain issues in regard to which policy would deeply divide the Committee, but our task is to ask whether the implementation of that policy will produce value for money. The Committee and the National Audit Office enjoy a very close relationship, which is fundamental and essential. Under the National Audit Act 1983, the Comptroller and Auditor General has complete discretion in choosing his investigations. It is vital that that remains the case: no one should be in a position to debar the Comptroller and Auditor General from examining any matter that he chooses. As a result of that Act, however, the Committee has the statutory power to suggest that certain matters should be included in the programme that the NAO undertakes. I was much impressed with the innovations in the way in which the NAO continues to do its work, which we see almost on a regular basis. That is greatly to the credit of Sir John Bourn and his team.
Column 900Bill Jack has retired as Comptroller and Auditor-General for Northern Ireland and I should like to pay tribute to his work in that job. Committee Members visited the new headquarters of the National Audit Office in Northern Ireland yesterday for the first time and we were impressed with what we saw. We now welcome John Dowdall to the job of CAG for Northern Ireland, although, of course, we knew him in his previous incarnation as Treasury Officer of Accounts there. We give our thanks to Tim Burr, who served us as Treasury Officer of Accounts and who has moved to become a director of the NAO, and to Ian Thomson, the second Treasury Officer of Accounts.
Accounting officers prepare assiduously for the Committee's evidence sessions. Hon. Members know full well the impact that the Public Accounts Committee has in these matters, the burden of the task that we impose on it, the way in which it must prepare assiduously for an investigation and the amount of time that it has to devote to it. That is all worth while in ensuring that public accountability is not only known, but frequently expressed. I have highlighted the six reports in the motion. They led us to believe that the Committee should deal with a number of serious matters. I have said repeatedly that, in general, value-for-money matters concern the Committee only because questions of probity, accountability, fraud and corruption rarely come before it. When they do, however, they take precedence over everything else. Committee Members have always held that the most important aspect of our work is to preserve standards in public life which we have been fortunate enough to inherit over the years.
In the 1992 debate on the Public Accounts Committee's work of that year, I mentioned the importance of non-departmental public bodies. I drew attention to the fact that the Committee could not approve of the way in which a number of them were undertaking their work and I said that we might need to pursue the matter further.
In the 1993 debate, I said that the problem had become much more serious and that the Committee would be producing a report. I expressed the view that Committee Members felt great disquiet about certain aspects. In January 1994, we produced the eighth report on the proper conduct of public business, one of the most important reports undertaken by the PAC. It is of enormous importance because it shows the need to maintain the standards that we have come to expect over the years.
Committee Members discovered a situation that was rather different from what they had been used to. New people were taking up appointments as heads of non-departmental bodies with new responsibilities. Coming from outside the public service, they had not acquired the ethos within that service or its integrity, impartiality and objectivity, which Sir Robin Butler, in giving evidence to the Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service, thought was the hallmark of the civil service.
Plenty of people came into the civil service not to make money, but to serve their country and to do something for its future. We belittle their role at our great peril. It is most important that we regard their work, in the words of Lord Callaghan, as the bulwark of our constitution. They are the protectors of so many of our rights as they continue their work for Governments of different persuasions.
Column 901Throughout this century, our economic standards have declined in comparison with other countries, but our standards of public life must not decline. That is of enormous importance. I can only go back to the early years of this century, but my room in the Committee could have been the room that Gladstone knew in the last century. Over the doorway is the marvellous Victorian word "assiduity". It is a word which constantly haunts us, because we can never be sure that we are dealing with matters as fully and thoroughly as we need to. One hundred and eighty-four countries are members of the United Nations, but how many of them are free from fraud and corruption? One thinks of the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, Germany, Holland and one or two others. One can think of a dozen without too much difficulty, but then it becomes very hard. We are an unusual country in having the standards that we have come to expect and take for granted. It is crucial that we retain those standards, which is why I am placing great emphasis on the task before us.
The Treasury has a substantial role to play and produced a Treasury minute following our eighth report. It was not as satisfactory as it should have been. I suggest to the Financial Secretary that it should have said more, but I take comfort from the fact that what the Treasury did was better than what it said, because it set out to give the type of response that we wished. Of course, the Departments have gone further, and I shall deal with them later.
The task is to ensure economy, efficiency and effectiveness. Public money is very different from private money. People coming from outside can have difficulty in acquiring the standards that we take for granted and which we regard as essential.
I should like the accounts of all non-departmental public bodies to be audited by the National Audit Office, a body in which we all have supreme confidence. It is a tribute to that office that we all agree that it has the very highest standards; but it does not have the power to audit non- departmental public bodies. As second best, I should like the auditors of those bodies to be changed frequently. The National Audit Office's accounts are audited by a professional firm. We found nothing wrong with any of the auditors, but we change them every three or five years. If non-departmental public bodies are not to be audited by the NAO, they should have similar arrangements. One does not want too close a relationship between non- departmental public bodies and their auditors.
The question now is how to deal with the several thousands--the number depends on definition, but one could claim a much lower or higher figure-- of non-departmental public bodies, quangos or whatever one likes to call them. Appointments to such bodies should at least be subject to some outside scrutiny, perhaps that of a Select Committee. I have no particular preference, but there needs to be some external observation of how appointments are made.
The relevant Secretary of State makes use of people whom he or she knows, but the numbers of appointees are now so large that, if he or she is using the very highest standards, it will be difficult to find people to fill all the posts. We are, therefore, forced to examine such appointments more closely.