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Sir Fergus Montgomery: I see that the hon. Gentleman is nodding. I maintain that we had a majority on the Floor of the House. The point that I am making is that the Government had lost their majority. I found it quite amusing that the
Column 175hon. Members for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden), for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) and for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker)--he has not spoken yet, but has sent a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley--voted that day for the Labour Government to keep a majority of one on all Standing Committees, yet tonight they are putting up entirely different arguments.
The present Government have lost four seats in by-elections, and that has reduced our overall majority. My nine hon. Friends have shown no inclination at all to cross the Floor of the House. They have not wanted to join any other party. They have maintained repeatedly that they are still Conservatives. I hope that tonight, when we vote on the motion, they will support the Government. 4.55 pm
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire): The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) has played a very distinguished role as Chairman of the Committee of Selection. He has, largely through his own personal qualities, managed to keep the argument on an even keel in terms of the personalities involved. The Committee of Selection was clearly in a difficult position, and he was quite right to take the decision, supported by his colleagues on the Committee, to bring the matter to the Floor of the House. The Committee could have used its majority to railroad just about anything through, but if it had done so it would have ruined the relationship that is essential for the Committee to work properly. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman.
I watched the Leader of the House carefully and have not seen him look quite as uncomfortable at the Dispatch Box for some time. He made a speech, but I do not think that he was particularly committed to the merits of the case that he was seeking to establish. I say that because the motion is designed to cover the Government's embarrassment. It was not the right hon. Gentleman's fault, as it was not his decision; it was taken in other parts of the Government. The Government are trying to make the best of a bad job. Politically, they are trying to have their cake and eat it. They cast nine of their Members into the wilderness, yet they are trying to maintain them as part of their number for the purposes of the Committee of Selection. The two things are entirely incompatible. I have a clear view about the relationship between any Member of Parliament and his or her political group. A simple analogy is that of contract law, under which there must be consensus between both parties before an agreement can be struck. An hon. Member must say that he or she is willing to be associated with a parliamentary group and, equally important, the grouping in turn must associate itself with that Member. Those two parts of the bargain are essential before consensus is possible. It seems quite impossible to argue that somebody can be considered as a member of a parliamentary grouping without those two essential parts of the bargain being struck and without consensus being achieved. If that is true, it is impossible for one part of that bargain to be withdrawn unilaterally and the situation to remain the same. It seems inconsistent to argue otherwise.
Column 176The motion is bad because it establishes a bad precedent. I listened to the valuable speech made from the Labour Front Bench by the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor). I made the point to her in an intervention--I hold it to be true--that the House will invariably return to this precedent, but goodness knows when and in what context. We have trawled over some of the precedents of 1974 and before that. One day, this motion and the action that the Government take will be used in circumstances that we cannot foresee and in a way that is wholly bad practice. It could be used by others in a future Government, such as the hon. Lady, to disfranchise the left wing of the parliamentary Labour party, which would be equally as wrong as the Government's approach to the motion.
Mr. Newton: The hon. Gentleman refers to the absence of precedent. I advert to the fact that the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) made no comment on what we have been told by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) are the standing orders of the Labour party--that the removal of the Whip makes no difference in the Labour party. Therefore, my motion is effectively the same as the standing orders of the Labour party.
Mr. Kirkwood: The Leader of the House is looking in the wrong direction if he expects me to defend the official Opposition. I have enough trouble trying to defend the Ulster Unionists, the nationalist parties and the others as the shop steward for the minority parties. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) is big enough and long enough in the tooth to be able to answer for himself. I want to make two quick points in the remainder of the time available to me. Despite the assurances that the Leader of the House gave to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South- West (Mr. Budgen) and others--I shall read Hansard carefully tomorrow-- unless there are changes in the practical way of working that until now the Committee of Selection has adopted, I do not think that he can deliver that promise.
The only member of the Committee of Selection who invariably is obliged because of his position to offer alternatives for consideration for the make-up of Standing Committees is myself. By definition, I am supposed to look after and try to reconcile the conflicts between the other minority parties and my own. Members of the Committee will confirm that from time to time I will announce to it that I have had bids that I have not been able to resolve by bilateral discussions from the minority parties for positions on Standing Committees. If I cannot reconcile them, the obvious commonsense method of proceeding is for me to go to the Committee of Selection and for the Committee, using its powers under the Standing Orders, to make that decision, as it is entitled to do.
The other two main parties exercise their discretion, perfectly properly under Standing Order No. 86(2), in assessing the composition of the House and the qualification for membership of the Standing Committees before they come to the Committee of Selection. Otherwise we would all be arguing about one another's suggested members. Invariably what happens in the Committee of Selection is that names are proffered and accepted without argument and the only member of the Committee of Selection who offers alternatives at the moment is me.
Column 177The only way in which the Leader of the House can deliver the promise that he has just given to the nine rebels is to give them a guarantee, which would have to be implemented by one of the members of the Committee of Selection, that any competing bids that were made by the nine Members referred to in the motion will be reported to the Conservative Whips office and that those bids, if they have not been reconciled by discussion, will be reported by somebody to the Committee of Selection so that it knows that some of those nine Members have made an application to be considered. It has no other means of knowing. No machinery exists at the moment for doing that. Therefore, unless procedures change, it is impossible for that fact to be made known to the Committee of Selection.
The Leader of the House will correct me if I am putting words in his mouth, but I understand that he will now make sure that any bids made by any of the nine Members whom we are debating this evening that are turned down and not automatically accepted and recommended by the Conservative members of the Committee of Selection will be separately announced so that the Committee of Selection will know that they have asked to sit on a Standing Committee but have not been included in the Conservative numbers. That procedure would be new, but it is the only way in which the Leader of the House can deliver the undertakings that he gave earlier this evening.
I can tell the Leader of the House why I believe that to be so. There is some confusion about it and I do not want to make too much of it, but it is my clear recollection that when the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason) was absent for the Maastricht vote he was disfranchised in exactly the same way as the nine Members whom we are debating this evening. He had, prima facie, a good case to be considered for the Standing Committee that considered the Intelligence Services Act 1994. At that time he did not have the benefit of being in receipt of the Conservative party Whip, so the matter arrived in my bailiwick in the Committee of Selection. I proposed two names: my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones), who represents GCHQ and so had a proper reason to be considered for that Standing Committee, and the hon. Member for Torbay. The decision was taken in a perfectly competent way by the Committee of Selection.
Perhaps that should not have happened; I may not have had the necessary authority. I did not speak to the hon. Member for Torbay; I was simply told by someone that it would be the proper thing to do. I did not want to take any chance of his not being considered, so as a failsafe fall-back position I decided to make that recommendation. As usual with the minority parties, I put two alternative names forward and one was preferred over the other.
That is my clear recollection of what happened to a Conservative Member who had no Whip. No Conservative members of the Committee of Selection demurred and said that I was not entitled to do that because the hon. Member for Torbay was in some strange way still a member of the Conservative party. That nomination was put forward, it was considered and it was rejected because the claim of my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham was considered to be superior. Therefore, there is a clear precedent, which the Government conveniently seek to gloss over and forget in a way that is neither sensible nor fair.
Column 178The motion is a pretty tawdry little attempt to try to clean up a bit of difficulty into which the Government have got themselves. The House of Commons should have nothing to do with helping them out of the hole into which they have dug themselves.
Mr. John Biffen (Shropshire, North): I do not usually have the immediate presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) on these Benches, but I am delighted that that is the situation this evening because I should like to pay tribute to him as Chairman of the Committee of Selection. The Committee does a tremendous and unsung task for the House. It is a good example of where this place properly has the property of aggressive rhetoric, but behind it there is a great deal of constructive work of consensual politics, without which this place could not operate. Occasionally the Committee is placed in great difficulty and it invites the advice of the House--usually in circumstances where its advice is rather less than wholly detached. I have always assumed that the crucial task of the Committee of Selection is to ensure that the Government's business can be carried through, not wholly on the Government's terms. One of the crucial aspects of the work of the Committee of Selection is its arm's-length relationship with the Government--arm's length, but, none the less, it must still be touching. One accepts that.
If a Government have a whisker majority, as the Government of February 1974 did, the matter is relatively easy for the Committee of Selection: it provides for a Government in a minority. The difficulty arises in the circumstances that we now have and which we had in 1976 when a Government lose their overall majority but effectively, on day-to-day operations, they retain a majority. They can still claim to have the legislative authority to conduct the Queen's Speech, and usually the wisdom not to draft that Queen's Speech so that they cannot obtain a Second Reading for Bills. That is the present situation.
This is a rather grubby, practical problem. I say that because these are good-natured occasions but for a moment we must come back to that one reality. The problem that confronts the Committee of Selection, which it would like resolved by this cathartic experience this evening, is how to secure a Committee structure that will enable the Government, having secured the Second Reading for a Bill, to proceed with it through its subsequent parliamentary stages. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has suggested one formula, and my hon. Friends the Members for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) and for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) have suggested another. They say that they quite understand that if a Bill receives a Second Reading the Committee of Selection must propose a Standing Committee that can reasonably reflect the view that the House took on Second Reading. To my mind, that idea was made in a constructive and thoughtful fashion.
My hon. Friends were attempting to disengage the House from a difficulty that is almost inevitably of a temporary nature. A Parliament in which one party has a majority but not an overall majority cannot be one that will last more than a couple of years or so. We know the terminal date of this Parliament, so we are talking about a period of roughly two years at the very longest. My hon. Friends have suggested a solution that I am sure will be
Column 179studied, although it will to some extent be rejected by the perfectionists, who will feel that the standard formula applying to the construction of Standing Committees is much to be preferred to the pick-and-choose basis suggested by my hon. Friends.
The debate, however, has shown us that this is a great occasion of imperfections. My hon. Friends need not be too distressed about what they have done as a piece of private enterprise; although it is imperfect it is an attempt to meet a central difficulty for the House, on an admittedly temporary basis for this Parliament.
I believe that my hon. Friends have made a helpful suggestion, and I hope that it will not only unite sentiment on the Government side of the House but will appeal to Opposition Members, who will also realise that this is a House of Commons problem. Admittedly, it occurs only once every 20 years or so--thanks be for that--but when it does it requires a more constructive response than an exchange of good-natured but hysterical party political polemic.
The speech that has dominated this evening's proceedings is that delivered by the Leader of the House who, with characteristic courtesy, tried to thread his way through a thicket of difficulties in defining what a Member without a Whip is for the purposes of law making--a crucial element of House of Commons procedure. Like everyone who has had any connection with the usual channels, my right hon. Friend knows that a seamless robe of difficulties flows from certain decisions concerning legislation, which are then applied to accommodation and then to the provision of assistance via the so-called Short money. The whole business is a nightmare, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his courage and stamina in approaching it.
When my right hon. Friend's speech was all over, however, I thought that my ideal reply would have been, "Wouldn't it be easier to restore the Whip?" Presumably we are in a situation of graduated response, but Home Office issues have been batted to and fro in the House over the past few days to such an extent that I still feel quite unable to deal with questions of parliamentary discipline and the remedial consequences of a certain dose of custodial treatment. I am now beguiled by the thought of the Chief Whip hearing a tap on his door and opening it to find my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) in a penitent sheet, waving a sheaf of architectural plans for the renovation of his office. I hope, if not pray, for that deliverance, but somehow I feel that it will not come. Therefore, I look to the Leader of the House, in the light of whatever vote takes place, to bear it in mind as we proceed from here that there cannot be a full restoration of Conservative fortunes and fighting ability until we resolve the miserable business of the whipless nine and the powerful degree of support that they enjoy in the country.
Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow): I shall speak briefly to explode two myths, one about the way in which the Committee of Selection works and the other about what the Leader of the House has said about the way in which the Labour party withdraws the Whip. I hope that the Tory rebels will listen attentively.
Column 180Before I explain, I shall congratulate the Chairman of the Committee of Selection on the good job that he does. We try to work together as cordially as possible, but tonight the minority parties have been spoken about as if they were on the Labour side. I remind Conservative Members that a minority party, the Ulster Unionist party, saved the Government's bacon by voting with them on a European finance Bill and preventing a general election. I put that on the record straight away.
For the benefit of the Tory rebels, I shall explain Labour party standing orders, and how the Whip is withdrawn from a Labour Member. First, the person concerned is interviewed by the Chief Whip and Deputy Chief Whip and asked for an explanation of his or her actions. If the Chief Whip is not satisfied with the explanation given, he then reports to the shadow Cabinet. If the shadow Cabinet is not satisfied and agrees, it submits a motion to a special meeting of the parliamentary Labour party, where there is a full discussion and every Labour Member of Parliament has the opportunity to vote on whether the Whip should be withdrawn.
The Leader of the House seems to want to cite what we do, but the best thing that he could do would be to take our standing orders back to the 1922 Committee. If he did, the Tory party would look a lot better than it does now.
I have pointed out to my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), who made a great case in her speech, that when the Committee of Selection met at a quarter past 4 on the Wednesday, the nominations for the leadership at the 1922 Committee having closed at midday that day, the Government claimed that the rebels who had had the Whip withdrawn were still Conservative Members. I asked whether, if the Committee had met the previous night, before the nominations for the leadership closed, the Government would have claimed that those people were still Conservative Members. If they were, they could have gone to the 1922 Committee and assembled the number of names required for a stalking horse in the leadership election.
Mr. William Cash (Stafford): As we are talking about Labour party politics, will the hon. Gentleman explain what would happen if the Leader of the Opposition took one view on whether the Whip should be withdrawn and the parliamentary party took another? Who would prevail?
Mr. Dixon: The vote would be taken at a special meeting of the parliamentary Labour party and the majority would decide, whatever the leader of the Labour party or anyone else wanted. I think that that is a good system, and I hope that when the Tory rebels have the Whip restored they will go to the 1922 Committee and try to have its standing orders changed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury mentioned official Conservative candidates. May I ask the Leader of the House what would happen if the rebellion by the nine--or the eight--Members led to the Government's being defeated on a confidence motion and a general election followed? Would those nine or eight Members be official Tory candidates in the election caused by their having defied the Tory Whip? That question has been asked and the Leader of the House has not given an explanation.
I shall now explode the other myth that has grown over the years concerning the way in which the Committee of Selection works. Invariably, when we meet on a
Column 181Wednesday a motion is on the Order Paper to set up a Standing Committee to consider a Bill that has received a Second Reading. The Chairman of the Committee of Selection proposes the Conservative names, which are never queried by the Labour or Liberal members of the Committee of Selection. The Labour names are proposed by me or my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) and are never queried by the Government or the Liberal party. When the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) proposes the minority party names, they are left primarily to him. That is how a Standing Committee is selected.
Where the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) gets the Conservative names from, I do not know, but I have a good suspicion. I have no doubt that the Government and Conservative Members know where he gets the names from. I remind hon. Members that we are not talking about Select Committees. A Select Committee is appointed by the House of Commons. When a name is proposed to the Committee of Selection it is then put to the House and hon. Members can object. Indeed, if hon. Members continue to object, there has to be a debate and vote on the Floor of the House.
Standing Committees fall into a different category. Once the Committee of Selection announces the names, no one can object. If a person is taken off a Standing Committee or is not put on it, no one can veto the decision of the Committee of Selection.
Sir Fergus Montgomery: I would much rather have volunteers on Standing Committees. Conservative Members sometimes write to me to say that they would like to be considered to serve on a particular Standing Committee. It is much better for someone who has an interest in the Bill to serve as a volunteer than to drag people on to Committees.
Mr. Dixon: I do not know where the Chairman of the Committee of Selection gets the names from, but they are never queried and Members never object to them.
The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire was right when he said that the Government directed the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason) to him to try for one of the minority party places when the hon. Gentleman had the Whip withdrawn and wanted to become a member of the Committee that considered the Intelligence Services Bill. How on earth can the Government claim that the nine Conservative Members who have lost the Whip should continue to be regarded as Conservative Members? Those nine Members do not have a chance to be selected to serve on a Standing Committee.
I put a question to the Chairman of the Committee of Selection: what would happen if the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) wanted to serve on the Finance Bill Committee? I know that he has an interest in finance. Would he be a Government nominee? I doubt it very much. The Committee of Selection works by selecting Committees to reflect representation on the Floor of the House. It is done on a mathematical basis. The Government claim that they have 330 Members. The Opposition have 270 and the others have 47.
The Labour party will not gain from the nine Conservative Members no longer being treated as members of the Tory party. We will still have the same number of members on a Standing Committee. Those who will gain are those dealt with by the Liberal Chief Whip.
Column 182This is not a case of the Labour party wanting to dominate the Standing Committees. The people who will benefit are not only the nine members of the Conservative party who have lost or resigned the Whip but the 47 others represented by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire.
There has been some argument in the Committee of Selection and on the Floor of the House. The Leader of the House has not answered the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury. When is a Conservative Member of Parliament not a Conservative Member of Parliament? We say that it is when he does not have the Conservative Whip. Those nine Members are now in no man's land. They have no representation on any Committee because they are selected through the usual channels. Those Members cannot go to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, so they have no say. They are doubly penalised by the Government. They have had the Whip taken away from them. They are no longer members of the 1922 Committee. They will not be able to serve on any Standing Committee as a result of today's motion.
Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North): There is a saying that if we legislate or pass a motion in haste, we repent at leisure. I am sympathetic to what the Government are trying to achieve in the motion. It has two aspects--the short term and the long term. As is usual in such cases, the long-term issue is more important than the short-term issue. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has told the House that he will not, through the usual channels, seek to veto the ambitions of my eight colleagues and myself to be selected to serve on Standing Committees. Certain colleagues have said that that means that we will be treated in exactly the same way as any other Conservative Member. I am not sure that that is precisely what my right hon. Friend said.
Let us move on and consider the long-term issues. The motion seeks to perfect the Standing Orders of the House as they apply to the Committee of Selection. If we pass the motion today, it will guide the Committee of Selection for the indefinite future. I accept, and I believe that everyone would accept, that if the House gives a Bill a Second Reading, that is the will of the House. The House and any sensible person would wish and everyone would expect the Standing Committee to have a majority which would support the principles of the Bill so that it could progress through the Standing Committee stage. That is accepted and understood.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) was generous and kind about the amendment that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) have tabled. We have tried to achieve the principle that I have outlined. I accept that the drafting is amateur, but I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House understands the principle behind it. I am sure that my right hon. Friend, with his superior skills and resources, could table an amendment that would give effect to the principle that we seek to achieve.
What worries me is that the motion moved by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on behalf of the Government goes further than necessary. It has long-term implications. My right hon. Friend is an honourable and scrupulous Leader of the House. If he gives an undertaking, we all accept it and expect that he will
Column 183behave honourably. However, with the best will in the world, my right hon. Friend will not be there for ever. There could at some stage be a change. Someone else could take his position. There could be a change in Government. The motion will still be there. The House will have voted for the motion.
The motion means that if an hon. Member leaves the Government party or is forced from the Government party, short of that hon. Member joining another party, he will still count as part of the Government tally when Committee places are allocated. He may become a political untouchable. The usual channels may obstruct his ability to pursue his constituents' interests. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House would not do that, but under different management and leadership it could happen. If it happened, the hon. Member would not have the same ability to pursue his constituents' interests as other Members of Parliament.
Such an hon. Member could be adversely affected, but the Government would not be. Where it mattered, the Government would be safeguarded, but where it mattered to the hon. Member, he could be undermined and less able effectively to pursue his constituents' interests. At the very least, that is unfair and against natural justice. More important, it would enhance the power, prestige and influence available to the friendly gestapo in the Whips Office. That is at the expense of the individual and, more particularly, the individualistic Member of Parliament.
Surely, in this cradle of democracy, if we are to change the balance of power between the authorities, the establishment and the Back Benches, we wish to move that power towards the Back Benches, not towards the establishment.
The motion effectively states that, once elected as a member of the Government party--in this instance the Conservative party--despite any damascene conversion that an hon. Member might undergo, and one's views on policy might change by 180 per cent., as long as one does not join another party, even a one-man independent party, one will be counted as a member of that party for the Government's convenience. In the long term, that cannot be right. It might be right while we are under the jurisdiction of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, but in principle it seems very wrong.
Those of us who were elected as official Conservatives at the last election know that if we had not stood as such candidates we would be most unlikely to be here. Having been elected, we are, as the Prime Minister says, very true blue Conservatives. By and large, we want to support the Government more than many of our colleagues.
The procedure suggested in the motion is tantamount to some of the principles that underlie proportional representation. For House of Commons purposes, the motion implies that a party as a whole is elected, not an accumulation of individual Members of Parliament, representing individual constituencies, with individual consciences, eccentricities and, perhaps, changing policy priorities. I was not aware that the Conservative party had embraced the radical proportional representation position of the Liberal party, but this motion seems to imply just that. I caution my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to look at the motion from that point of view.
Column 184I respect and accept the objectives of the Government motion, but I am concerned about its detail and its long-term implications. I invite all hon. Members to consider carefully those implications because, although they may not visualise them at the moment, there could be times when the motion will affect them and their power to act in their constituents' interests. A short-term solution may be needed but, as ever, there seem to be uncovenanted long-term implications.
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth): The hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) invited us to consider the implications of the motion. I would be grateful if the Leader of the House could consider one aspect of the matter that has not yet been touched upon--the representation by this House in the Council of Europe and the Western European Union. At present, this country has 18 full and 18 alternate members. The Government have 10 full and nine alternate members, the minor parties have one full and one alternate member, and the Labour party has seven full and eight alternate members. The proportion was generous to the Government at the time of the 1992 general election. Since then, they have lost seats and, with the removal of the Whip from nine Conservative Members, they do not command half the membership of the House, which would justify occupancy of 18 of the 36 places, but merely 321 Members. The Government are, therefore, grossly over-represented.
I do not believe that I should challenge the credentials of the British delegation in Strasbourg in January on the ground that the Conservative party is grossly over-represented. I would certainly be prepared to do so, however, and have done so before over another issue, as the Leader of the House will recall. The fact remains that, if this situation continues, we are entitled to challenge the number of seats that the British Conservative party occupies. We would be challenging the largest delegation to that parliamentary assembly and it might well mean that the other Conservative parties that form the Conservative group will wonder why a party that occupies less than half the seats in its national Parliament should have more than half the seats--certainly more than half the full members' seats- -allotted to its delegation. The other Conservative parties might well start to question why the British Conservative party takes seven eighths of the chairmanships and vice-chairmanships that accrue to their political group. There are a lot of implications and it might be wise for the Leader of the House to pay attention to that aspect.
Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East): It would also be in the Government's interests to reduce that gross over-representation for pairing purposes.
Mr. Hardy: That may be the case, although we did not go away quite as often as usual last year, as my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) will recall. He might also like to know that the situation cost some of us a great deal of sleep as well.
Even before the removal of the Whip from nine of its Members, the Conservative party might have been taking an excessive share. If the present situation still applies at the end of January, when the Council of Europe assembly next meets, the Leader of the House must not be surprised to find that the position is challenged in Strasbourg.
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Mr. John MacGregor (Norfolk, South): In view of the time, I shall endeavour to be brief. I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) as Chairman of the Committee of Selection, which is largely unpraised in public, although it is very deserving of praise. I understood him to say that this matter had come to the Floor of the House largely as a result of Opposition pressure. I listened carefully, therefore, to what the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) said when she tried to establish a case for changing our procedures for the composition of Standing Committees. She did not make her case, or deal with the central issue. I notice that she did not reply to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House when he asked her to explain the position that her hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) took in a recent letter to the Chairman of the Committee of Selection. If that was his position and the Labour party is changing its position now, it merely demonstrates the hollowness and the hypocritical nature of the debate that they are trying to have here today. If the hon. Gentleman rejects the position that he put forward a week ago, it demonstrates yet another example of the Labour Front-Bench team changing its position within a week, a day, or sometimes an hour, as was the case with value added tax on school fees.
The hon. Lady made a number of extraneous digs that had nothing to do with the debate and I assumed, therefore, that that was the purpose of this exercise. The only issue is what constitutes the composition of the House when considering nominations to Standing Committees. The precedents seem clear and I do not need to refer to them in detail as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale did so--especially the 1976 precedent. The hon. Member for Dewsbury also mentioned that, but she did not make a case for any change from the 1976 position, which was to establish that, if the majority party loses its majority through by-elections, or the declared departure of sufficient Members, and if they subsequently join or establish other parties, that constitutes the loss of a majority. That has patently not happened in this case, which is why my right hon. Friend's motion, which he tabled to clarify the position, seems right and should be supported. It is not merely a case of apparently leaving an official whipped position. The Member concerned has clearly to indicate that he has crossed the Floor of the House and established another party as Mr. Stonehouse did. It must be clearly established in Parliament and in our constituencies that the Member concerned has ceased to be a member of the party. That is the clear and simple issue that is under consideration.
The party Whip does not enter into it. I believe that, in this context, "Erskine May" does not refer to whipping or to party arrangements of that sort. We are all familiar with the occasions on which Members ignore the Whip and vote against their party on certain issues. That vote and that rejection of the Whip does not constitute a change of party, or a change in the composition of the House. On the argument by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow), I do not think that the position of Members who no longer have the Whip is affected by this issue. I do not think that it affects their
Column 186responsibilities as Members of Parliament, or their ability to pursue Members' interests. I do not really have time to give way, but I shall do so if the hon. Gentleman is brief.
Mr. Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry, North-West): The right hon. Gentleman's argument is tantamount to the point made by the shadow Leader of the House in her opening remarks--that if the Whip were removed from 100 Conservative Members, it would not change anything either. That is the most absurd proposition that I have heard during this debate.
Mr. MacGregor: I am coming to the membership of the party, but I must make it clear that the question of the Whip does not enter into the matter-- [Interruption.] May I pursue my argument about the view expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North? All that we are discussing is the opportunity to serve as a member of a Standing Committee on a particular Bill. It is inevitable that, given the large number of members in a majority party, many hon. Members who wish to serve on a Standing Committee are prevented from doing so because, physically, they simply cannot all be on it.
So my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North is not on as strong a point as he thinks because this matter does not affect his role as a Member of Parliament representing his constituents, nor would it be fair to say that an hon. Member who leaves the party Whip or establishes a separate party of his own should have preference in selecting the Standing Committee of his choice. Indeed, as my hon. Friend will confirm, he would not have that preference if he were part of a small minority party. So that is not the central issue. The central issue is how the composition of the House is established and whether it is right that that should be reflected in Standing Committee membership.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) referred to amendment (d). He would be the first to acknowledge that that is a minefield--he said himself that it is an extraordinarily difficult area. The danger of considering an issue such as the recommendation in amendment (d) is that it represents a radical departure from all precedents. On such an issue, one must be extremely careful before going for a radical departure.
I suggest to former Leaders of the House that a moment's thought reveals real difficulties in the amendment. How do we define "interests and groupings"? While individual hon. Members may be prepared to support a Second Reading, they may feel passionately about individual aspects of a Bill. Do they therefore have an undue position in relation to the selection of the Standing Committee? Does not that give that representative interest an undue ability to change the composition of the Bill in Standing Committee?
I do not have time to go into some of the other aspects.
Mr. Gill: Following what my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) said, does not the right hon. Gentleman recognise that the motion adds to the power of the Executive? Anything that adds to the power of the Executive risks reducing the power of Back Benchers as a consequence.
Mr. MacGregor: The point that I was making was that the amendment contains many difficulties that would not necessarily be in the interests of the House as a whole.
Column 187Many definitions would have to be established, which may give undue influence to particular interests or groupings. On the power of the Executive, the motion follows the established practice of the House and does not, therefore, add to the Executive's power.
Finally, may I answer the point raised by the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson). In accordance with established practice and in so far as it applies in this case, as far as I am aware none of my hon. Friends to whom the Opposition have drawn attention have declared that they no longer support the Conservative party or the broad generality of its legislative programme; nor have they proclaimed that they belong to a wholly different party or severed themselves from their local Conservative associations, and they have made that clear to their association members and electors. On the contrary, they have made it clear that they continue to support the Conservative party.
That is the relevant point in relation to the composition of the House. It is the point which the motion addresses and why I support it.
Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore): I shall be brief, as another hon. Member wishes to speak before the debate is wound up.
It appears that the Government, particularly the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House, have changed their opinions since 29 November last year. When my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Ms Anderson) asked the Prime Minister to
"confirm reports that the President of the Board of Trade is looking again at the privatisation of the Post Office",
the Prime Minister replied:
"The hon. Lady should not be in any doubt that we think that the right decision, when we have a majority in the House, will be to privatise the Post Office."--[ Official Report , 29 November 1994; Vol. 250, c. 1076.]
We recognise that the Government do not have a majority in the House at present.
As a member of the Committee of Selection for a number of years who has served under the excellent chairmanship of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery), I am glad to have a debate of this nature, so that hon. Members realise what work the Committee undertakes, and the number of Committees that it sets up. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) about the functioning of that Committee and the cordial manner in which we conduct our business, although there are often great differences between its members.
I am concerned about the Government's double standards. I have great sympathy with some of the hon. Members who have had the Whip suspended, as I well understand their beliefs and the stance that they have taken. Whether it was a vote of confidence in the Government or not, they were prepared to stand by their principles and standards, and vote against the Government.
I am surprised, however, at the ensuing arrogance by the Government. Immediately those hon. Members voted
Column 188against them on principle, they decided to suspend the Conservative Whip. The next day, they tried to persuade the Committee of Selection that, because of the numerical strength of the Conservative party in the House, they had the right to retain their representation on Committees. I doubt whether the Government expect the House to agree that they should have such double standards.
Only six days later, we debated on the Floor of the House the extension of VAT on fuel. I know what happened in the vote, because, as the pairing Whip, I can look at the vote every night and see who voted for and against. Those Tories who voted to defeat the Government on that issue were not necessarily the hon. Members who had had the Whip suspended. Why, then, do the Government have double standards and take the Whip from some but not from others? The basic principle was the same, yet the Government did not take the Tory Whip away from hon. Members on that occasion.
I admire the way in which my hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House prepared and presented her case, because it covered all the points discussed by the Committee of Selection, but I am still concerned that we have not yet had a reply from the Leader of the House--I do not know whether we shall have one--about how he will place the suspended Members on those Committees. I agree with others who have expressed their concern about whether the precedent which we may be swayed to accept tonight will be extended to all other Governments and procedures in the future, and whether hon. Members who might have the Whip suspended can retain their Committee membership. The list that I have before me shows all Committee members until 16 December 1994. On a Committee of a round figure of nine, which is the same number of members as the Committee of Selection, there would be five Conservatives, four Labour members and one independent or minority party member. Once the Whip has been taken from some Tory Members, on a Committee of nine there would be four Conservatives, four Labour members and one other. In effect, it would mean that the Committee would not be controlled by the Government.
We must understand the Government's motive in ensuring that they retain their numerical strength on Committees. If the Committees were reduced in size, they would become a minority Government, and would have to accept that they could not put all those hon. Members on the Committee. The important issue is the numerical strength of all the Committees. The Leader of the House knows that it is not a question of principles. The principles are involved, however, for those Members who have had the Whip withdrawn, because if they are not careful, as a result of a decision tonight they may be denied any possibility of being retained on Committees, other than Select Committees, which are not the issue tonight.
Those Members would be well advised to join the Labour party in the Lobby in support of the amendment, which would ensure that Parliament does not have to subscribe to a decision forced on it by the Leader of the House.
Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr): This has been a useful debate. I suspect this is not last time that we will have such a debate, if for no other reason than the terms of the Government's motion, which refers to
Column 189"the party which received an overall majority".
Those words do not exist in our Standing Orders.
We have always understood that the Conservative party is a wholly owned subsidiary of its current leader, which publishes no accounts and has no written rules. It now transpires that the same applies to the Conservative parliamentary party. I believe I am correct when I say that its only written rules are those to trigger a leadership election. It does not have any standing orders or written code of conduct, unlike the parliamentary Labour party. That raises the question, what does the Conservative Whip mean? What does membership of the Conservative parliamentary party or membership of the 1922 Committee, although it represents Back Benchers only, mean? Our constituents understand the difference between the Labour and Conservative parties, but how are they to understand that now, according to the Tory party, everything in the House is built on a myth? The Conservative parliamentary party is now in trouble, because it has lost its majority in the House. The fact that some of its members were not prepared to lay down their political lives in a vote of confidence to keep the Prime Minister in power shows that their party no longer commands a majority.
What do our constituents make of it all when it turns out that, at the whim of the Prime Minister--just one member of the Conservative parliamentary party--and probably the Government Chief Whip, it was decided to withdraw the Whip from some colleagues? They made that decision behind closed doors, and did not seek the approval of their party. In that manner, the Whip was withdrawn from eight Conservative Members in one week--perhaps the same will happen to 80 in a following week. All that was done without seeking the approval of the 1922 Committee, let alone the rest of the Conservative parliamentary party.
The same could not happen under a Labour Government, because, under party rules, every Labour Member of Parliament signs a contract--a document. [Interruption.] Oh, yes. On selection as a Labour party candidate, one signs an agreement to abide by the written standing orders of the parliamentary Labour party. Those written rules include a written code of conduct in which certain procedures are laid down. No such written procedures exist for the Conservative parliamentary party. We are entitled to ask where the line is drawn as to how many Conservative Members can have the Whip withdrawn while the Prime Minister of the day still maintains that his party has a mythical majority in the House. We need the answer to that question. Those hon. Members who have lost the Whip clearly want it back-- it would have been so much easier if just that had happened--and they need to know the terms on which they must crawl back into the Conservative party. If they were Labour Members of Parliament, there would be no secrets about those terms. We have a written code of conduct--a public document-- which is part of our standing orders and is available to anyone. It lays down the procedures governing expulsion from the party, suspension of the Whip and the procedures to get it back. It also makes clear the conduct that one is expected to maintain when one has either had the Whip withdrawn or has been expelled from the party.