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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps this is a subject that is best kept to our respective biographies.

Mr. Mackinlay: I realise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that this is a delicate subject. I shall move on--I get your drift.

We must also protect those on the Front Benches from falling into the temptation of the parliamentary sin of removing Members from Select Committees after a general election because they have not been deemed entirely helpful to the Executive. I hope that that practice will be reconsidered.

All hon. Members who have been members of Select Committees have felt, from time to time, that some witnesses have not been wholly frank. In exceptional cases, some have misled a Committee by not telling the truth. Part of the problem is that some witnesses do not understand the gravity of their attendance before the high court of Parliament. We should consider the automatic administration of the oath, which would emphasise that people have to tell the whole truth and that they are embarking on perjury if they do not. Alternatively, we could remind witnesses of the Sessional Orders that we pass at the beginning of each Parliament, which state:

The language may be arcane and many centuries old, but the message still needs to be brought home: people should not impede witnesses' attendance at House of Commons Select Committees, and those who do attend must be candid with those Committees. We must find a way to underline that message.

One element of the Scotland Act 1998 is interesting. Although we have not included in that legislation the same parliamentary privileges and powers of contempt that exist in this House, the Act provides that recalcitrant witnesses before Committees of the Scottish Parliament can be prosecuted in the High Court. I prefer the ability of the House of Commons to deal with such matters, but it is interesting that a greater sanction to deal with people who are not candid will be available to the Scottish Parliament than in practice is available here at Westminster. Such a provision would also help people

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who genuinely want to be candid with Parliament but who are nervous about the response of their employers, or other factors.

The House has a duty to foster and encourage bipartisanship in Select Committees. I think that most hon. Members approach their Committee duties in that spirit, but although we cannot legislate for it, sometimes we need to be reminded of it. There are some good examples of that bipartisan spirit in action. For instance, in the previous Parliament, the investigation into the Pergau dam affair produced a very critical report of the then Conservative Government. That report would not have emerged had not Conservative Members acted in a bipartisan manner and approached the investigation without fear, favour or partiality. All Governments must understand that it is the duty of Members of Parliament to approach Select Committee work in that spirit.

The value of that spirit came home to me in this Parliament. I have a good friend who is a member of the Government, although I stress that he is not a member of the foreign affairs team and I shall not embarrass him by naming his constituency. However, he said something interesting to me in connection with the investigation of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs into the so-called Sandline affair. His exact words were, "Mackinlay, I can't understand why you are asking all these questions or why you are pursuing this matter. You are a member of the premier parliamentary Committee: why don't you just enjoy it?" [Laughter.] He was not being malicious in any way, he was simply incredulous.

That remark will certainly appear in my memoirs. It shows how high is the mountain that we must climb to change the attitudes of members of the Executive and to persuade them that we have a duty to perform, and demonstrates that our membership of Committees is not exclusively a matter of going on trips abroad--the clear implication of my friend's remark. Government must accept scrutiny.

Other hon. Members who wish to speak on this subject will no doubt deal with ways in which Select Committees' role could be developed in terms of the legislative process, how Committees can better tackle Parliament's ancient duty of providing supply to the Crown, and how they might exert some influence on the details of Government. That was always our particular function, but as the functions of Government and the size of departmental budgets have grown so massive, to a great extent it has been lost.

An exception is the Public Accounts Committee. Its present Chairman is the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) and his predecessor was my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon). That Committee, which conducts its scrutiny retrospectively, has performed an enduringly helpful role in Parliament, and it has contained some other highly distinguished members. It has long been accepted by the Executive, but we must borrow from its experiences and style of resources.

During the Foreign Affairs Committee investigation into the Sandline affair, it became clear to me that we needed someone comparable to the Comptroller and Auditor General--an officer empowered by Parliament to examine the details on behalf of the Committee and to

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oblige people to furnish documents and give evidence. The considered report of such an officer would have made our hearings more relevant and focused and would have advanced the process of our examination.

I therefore believe that Select Committees dealing with difficult matters that consume much time should be able to appoint someone with the authority of Parliament to do the initial spade work on their behalf. That option should be available to all Select Committees. For example, although I have not served on it, I am sure that a Committee investigating the history of the BSE problem would justify the use of such an officer.

I welcome the use by some Committees of confirmatory hearings, which are basically informal and are not covered by Standing Orders. For example, the Select Committee on the Treasury spoke to the people involved with monetary policy, and the Select Committee on Education and Employment has also held comparable hearings. I should like the Foreign Affairs Committee to have the power at least to give confirmatory hearings to ambassadors. Of course, the Committee could not deal with the huge volume of appointments and would not want to, but the right to examine new ambassadors would be a welcome additional power.

Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne): The Foreign Affairs Committee already has that right. There is nothing to prevent it from calling an ambassador to appear before it so that it can ask questions to determine his competence or otherwise.

Mr. Mackinlay: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I should like such a process to be relatively automatic, especially when the ambassador in question is the son-in-law of a Prime Minister. I was not a Member of the House at the time, but that was a glaring instance of an appointment that should have been scrutinised. I raise that example as a matter of history, as I am sure that it could not happen today. Even so, I believe that we should pursue the matter of confirmatory hearings.

Another subject with which the House must deal is the question of treaties, most of which are signed by royal prerogative and are not ratified by Parliament. I want that to change, and believe that it would be suitable for a Select Committee to examine treaties and make recommendations to Parliament.

The final point that I want to bounce off hon. Members is small but needs to be considered. When there has been an important public sitting of a Select Committee, I am not allowed to show anyone the verbatim report that is produced several days later. That is really frustrating, and inevitably the rule has been broken. I have no strong views about whether such a report should be produced by Gurney's or by Hansard--

Mr. Sheldon: Or on the internet.

Mr. Mackinlay: Or on the internet: as I say, I have no strong views on that, but, in a modern Parliament, we need to have the verbatim report the day after the sitting of a Committee. It should be a facility equivalent to that of the daily Hansard report, which in any event is a draft and therefore open to correction. We need that facility fairly immediately.

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I hope that my remarks will be taken on board by my hon. Friend the Minister and by members of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons. I hope that there will be other contributions to this debate both this morning and throughout the Session.

11.20 am

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): I congratulate the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) on his insightful, incisive and dignified speech on a matter that is of considerable importance to the entire House.

On these occasions, it is also a convention to congratulate the hon. Member who has obtained the debate on doing so and, today, that is more than a mere convention because the timeliness of this debate is remarkable. The effectiveness of the way in which the House has carried out its duty of scrutiny has been reduced and not always for reasons that are in the Government's control. Sometimes, it has been reduced for extrinsic reasons, because powers have gone from the House to the European Union or other bodies and we understand that. However, it has also happened for intrinsic reasons.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the sheer volume of legislation, which makes it impossible for us to hear every detail of every Bill on the Floor of the House and forces legislation into Committee where, almost by definition, it is dealt with less effectively than it might be in the House.

There are other paradoxical ways in which scrutiny has been undermined. For example, the televising of the House has had a peculiar effect. In one respect, it has opened up the House for everyone to see. In another, it has introduced a soundbite culture, which has undermined the tradition of reasoned debate on which the House has prided itself for centuries and has thus undermined our ability to scrutinise.

There are other areas. I would not expect the Minister to agree, but pre-emptive referendums take away some of the bite of the argument once they have been carried out. There are also matters that might be the subject of political differences, so I will not stress them when dealing with this quintessentially House subject. However, the size of the Government's majority and the much-argued-about reluctance of some Ministers to come before the House have also undermined that scrutiny.

There are many reasons why this debate is timely but it is not so in only one respect, which is that it is on a Wednesday morning when a number of Chairmen of Select Committees, who are probably the people who would be most interested in the debate, are chairing meetings. I know of at least three Chairmen who would otherwise have been here to debate the issue.

The hon. Member for Thurrock referred kindly and accurately to the St. John-Stevas reforms of the early 1980s. On reflection, even the originators of those reforms and Lord Fawsley himself would accept that they achieved only half what they set out to do and, in some respects, the situation is even worse than that.

The nature of our scrutiny can be divided into two groups: policy and expenditure. The scrutiny of policy is handicapped for a number of reasons and, there, the reformers achieved about half of what they set out to do, for reasons that I shall outline. Given that the provision of supply was the origin of all the powers of the House and its primary function in the first instance, it is shameful

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how we deal with our estimates procedures and exercise our powers over expenditure across Government as a whole, and within Ministries, as a major outcome of policy priorities.

The hon. Gentleman outlined the primary causes of those weaknesses, but I will resummarise them slightly differently, if he will forgive me. First, as he said, is the question of access to information. Of course, Select Committees have the right to summon people and papers and we all do so, but for most Committees--the Public Accounts Committee is a sterling exception--the acquisition of information is to some extent a matter of luck. It is a matter of leak, newspaper report, an indiscreet comment or something that a Minister lets slip; it is not a scientific process and it is not designed to sweep up all the information necessary to the House. The hon. Gentleman made a good point on that subject and I will return to it.

Secondly, on the resources to make use of that information, which is the one area on which I differ with the hon. Gentleman, given that this is the mother of Parliaments it is extraordinary that the resourcing of our Select Committees and the research support that they receive is just about the worst in the world, compared with comparable Houses elsewhere.

Parliamentary time is the third item, and I think that all Select Committee Chairmen are unanimous in saying that we do not give enough parliamentary time to Select Committees. Time on the Floor of the House is fundamental to the exercising of Select Committee powers. They do not have executive powers of their own. Their powers are those of information, exposure and argument and the best place to air those is still, I am glad to say, on the Floor of the House.

The final question is that of parliamentary rights. Select Committees have few rights and I shall propose a small right which will magnify their effectiveness.

On access to information, I agree with the hon. Gentleman's call for a parliamentary investigations officer of some sort--as he said, the equivalent of the Comptroller and Auditor General, who does a wonderful job for my Public Accounts Committee and for Parliament; or something between him and the ombudsman. It should be someone who has the right of access to all information and it is a worthwhile proposal, which I commend to the Government.

The Government have done some good as regards access to information for Select Committees. For example, for the PAC, they removed the idea of "Notfor National Audit Office Eyes"--the Whitehall classification. That was a sensible and effective way to improve our scrutiny, and our suggestion would be a natural development from that.

I would go one step further. We have accounting officers in every Government Department who can be held accountable for the money that the Department spends. They appear before the Public Accounts Committee and the other Select Committees and they are held accountable for all the money spent, its proper use and so forth. There ought also to be an information officer in each Department, with the responsibility of drawing to the attention of a Select Committee information that he or she thinks appropriate. If, at some stage, information was not available--be it on Sandline or some other matter--

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the Committee could ask that officer why it was not told and whether it was a matter of policy not to do so. That would put the onus of responsibility on the civil service.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the change of culture, but the culture of Whitehall is not that of disclosure. As the hon. Gentleman will remember well, when I was Minister with responsibility for Europe I spent a vast quantity of my time trying to ensure that all the other Departments provided the Select Committee on European Legislation with the right documents on time. It is extraordinary that a Minister should have to drive such a process; we could transform in one move the way in which Whitehall approaches that matter.

On resources, I disagree with the hon. Gentleman because there is indeed an argument for radically increasing the resources available to Select Committees. In the scrutiny process, they are up against enormous resources commanded by others. To take an example with which I was familiar, the European Legislation Committee had a few people to support it, but when I was a Minister, my Department, which dealt with the European Union, was probably twice its size. The disparity is clear and should be put right as that would add to the effectiveness and quality of scrutiny and to the quality of recommendations. That is a good thing for a self-confident Government because it will improve the quality of legislation.

In addition to increased resources for individual Committees, there should be a central resource--an extension of the policy and research divisions of our Library, which should be largely staffed by ex-civil servants, seconded civil servants and people who understand Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office issues and so forth and can move around the subjects. A Select Committee that faced a large, sudden demand on its time--be it the Foreign Affairs or the Social Services Committee--could then call down a resource. In particular, the central resource should have a strong financial function, because the involvement of Select Committees in the estimates procedure and the approval of supply is the weakest component of their, and the House's, activity.

The third problem is parliamentary time. A Select Committee that cannot command time on the Floor cannot command the attention of the public, unless it is dealing with something like Sandline and Sierra Leone. Hard cases make bad law; Sandline is not the example that we should be considering. It is the normal operation of Select Committees that should command newspaper interest, not only the exotic and the occasionally scandalous. Such a change would have a major effect. There has already been movement towards it by the allocation of some morning debates by the Liaison Committee, whose Chairman is here, for the debating of Select Committees reports.

A small change would dramatically enhance the effectiveness of Select Committee reports. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays of each parliamentary week, there is a ten-minute rule slot, which, when contested, takes about 35 minutes out of the parliamentary day. It is effective for highlighting the interests of Back Benchers. Why cannot we have about the same time, half an hour, on Monday for a Select Committee to present its report? We could perhaps have 10 minutes for the Chairman, five minutes for two other Members--perhaps also with provision for a minority

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report--and 10 minutes for the Minister to reply. That would be in prime time at the beginning of the week when attention could be drawn to issues of concern to Select Committees and to the Government's response to them. It is a tiny fraction of parliamentary time, but it would change the culture of Select Committees to producing thoughtful, interesting, debatable, perhaps controversial, reports so that attention did not focus only on scandals and breakdowns of Government.

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