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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I must tell the Chief Secretary that no new clause has yet been withdrawn, because the House has not been asked to approve a withdrawal.

Mr. Darling: I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was anticipating what would happen if the shadow Treasury spokesman stuck to what he said and withdrew new clause 1. In case he does not, I shall continue to deal with what he said about it.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): Can we get the record straight? I understand that the reason why the new clause may be withdrawn is that the Opposition cannot guarantee that even their own Members will support it.

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend may be right, but, in the spirit of what has been quite a useful debate, and one remarkably, although not entirely, unpartisan, I shall address the merits of the points raised. Many hon. Members have thought a great deal about the procedures, and I should like to give the Government's response.

None the less, I shall start by making a slightly partisan point, in the light of what the shadow Chief Secretary said. I welcome the Opposition's conversion to open government. However, I am bound to say that in the 10 years that I spent on the Opposition Benches, I do not remember even one occasion when the Conservative Government ever offered to consult anyone about open procedures for appointing any person to any quango or body for which they had responsibility.

I know that the Tories are changing, and that last September at their conference they said they were terribly sorry and wanted to be a softer and caring party--and now they even want open government. Clearly they are touching and feeling their way to a new Conservatism, and it is all most welcome.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Darling: No, not at the moment, although I shall certainly give way later to the hon. Gentleman, who may not be fully at ease with that change of mood in the Conservative party. First, I should like to make some progress.

My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) raised several points about the new clauses, one of which was about the balance of the court. I do not want to accept his amendment, because appointments to the court are Crown appointments, but I agree with everything that he said about the need to have a balance on the court, from the regions, from finance and from business, so that there is a broad representation.

My hon. Friend will understand that I cannot say anything further tonight, other than that I hope that when he sees the appointments that will shortly be made to the court, he will not be disappointed. The Chancellor has

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made it abundantly clear that he intends to ensure that the restructured court has a far broader base than it has ever had in the past, and, as my hon. Friend will see, we shall make the first moves in that direction in the not too distant future.

Let me set out the Government's approach in general, and then turn to the proposals by the Select Committee in particular. But first I shall make one important preliminary point that should not be overlooked. Tonight's debate has essentially been not about the principle or the constitution of the Monetary Policy Committee, but about whether there should be confirmatory hearings, which are ancillary to those--designed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) said, to enhance the procedures.

We should not lose sight of the fact that the test of the Monetary Policy Committee will be whether it achieves the Government's inflation target of 2½ per cent. That will be the test in which most people will be interested.

I set out the Government's view when I appeared before the Treasury Select Committee last November. I repeat that the Government continue to have an open mind on whether the House should move towards instituting confirmatory hearings, but that we see some practical difficulties that need to be given much thought.

Of course, it is necessary to approach the proposition from the point of view not only of making appointments to the Monetary Policy Committee but of making a whole range of important public appointments.

I accept that the Monetary Policy Committee is clearly of great importance. Its job is to deliver the inflation target, so the calibre and quality of its members clearly matter. Indeed, clause 13(4) acknowledges that, because it provides that the Chancellor is bound to appoint only those people who have sufficient expertise and knowledge to discharge that duty.

I must start with an important matter of principle, a House of Commons matter about which each and every one of us ought to be concerned. At the moment, the constitutional position is that Ministers are responsible to the House for what they do. The Chancellor is accountable for his conduct of the economy and for appointing members to the MPC. If Select Committees are to be given the power of confirmatory hearings and, almost by definition, to choose who might be on the MPC--a number of hon. Members have made it abundantly clear that they would want to exercise some degree of choice, depending on their views on Europe, monetarism or whatever--the MPC appointed might be the appointee not of the Chancellor but of the Select Committee or, perhaps, the House. That is not merely a nice debating point, as an issue of principle is involved.

6 pm

Mr. Charles Clarke: Does my right hon. Friend accept that some members of the Select Committee did not want to influence the appointment or the ideological position--pro or anti-European, anti-monetarist or whatever--but were concerned purely about professional competence and personal independence? Although there may be hon. Members, as he says, who think that the Treasury Select Committee should directly influence the appointments, that is not the view that informed new clause 3.

Mr. Darling: I entirely accept what my hon. Friend says--that those members of the Select Committee who

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support the proposition want to confine their attentions to a very narrow range. However, it has been made abundantly clear in the debate and, bearing in mind the differing views and nature of the 650 Members of the House it is entirely possible--we have heard it tonight--that many hon. Members might want to go well beyond those two narrow steps and to look further.

Mr. Gibb rose--

Mr. Darling: I should like to make some progress; then I will give way.

I was pointing out that we might have a situation in which an appointee to the MPC or, for example, the Director General of the Prison Service, was not the appointment of the Minister, who might say, "That's not my appointment. I'm not willing to take responsibility for what the appointee or the body does."

Mr. Fallon: We cannot let the Chief Secretary get away with that. No one is suggesting that the Select Committee would choose who was to be appointed under the statute. Indeed, no one is proposing an amendment to that effect. Both new clauses simply deal with confirmation of appointments made by the Chancellor.

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman is right as far as new clause 3 is concerned. It makes it clear that, at the end of the day, the Chancellor can have his way.

Mr. Fallon: He does so at the beginning of the day.

Mr. Darling: The appointments would be subject to confirmatory hearing and, were the Select Committee to say that the person was not suitable, the new clause is phrased to allow the Chancellor to write explaining his reasons and go ahead with the appointment. The new clause would avoid the precise problems to which I referred, although it would still be the case that the individual might have been so crippled in the process of confirmation that he or she would be put in a difficult position. Were the House to decide to have confirmatory hearings in total--that is to decide that the relevant Select Committee could decide whether someone was to be confirmed--the appointee could become that of the House and not of the Minister.

I raise that matter because we must consider the issues of principle raised by the new clause. That is why the Government's position is that it is a matter that the House as a whole must consider across the board, not simply as an amendment to the Bill.

Sir Michael Spicer: The right hon. Gentleman bases his case, as I understand it, on the fact that the House is making excessive demands of the Government in this matter. The whole issue must be seen, must it not, in the context of the fact that the Government have stripped away the House's ability to render the Government accountable on the Floor of the House on monetary policy as a whole.

Mr. Darling: As I said, the Chancellor of the Exchequer can be held to account by the House at any

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time for the conduct of the Government's economic policy. The Government have given the Monetary Policy Committee operational responsibility for fixing interest rates in such a way as to achieve the Government's inflation target.

Mr. Quentin Davies: It is fatuous to raise as an objection to a new clause a danger that is explicitly excluded by the wording of that new clause. That is the position here, as the right hon. Gentleman has just acknowledged. Does he not realise that if he pursues an argument on that basis, he is sending the House a clear message that he does not have a case against the new clause at all?


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