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Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): My right hon. Friend knows that I sit on the Modernisation Select Committee, to which he referred. He also knows that it is considering an alternative or Main Committee, additional to our main Chamber; it would certainly never take over from the Chamber. Does he believe that that forum might allow many more excellent Select Committee reports to be considered? Does he support the proposal?

Mr. Davis: I thank my hon. Friend. No, I do not, for this straightforward reason. I know of the Australian experience; the four-page note from the clerk of the Australian Parliament points out that the Main Committee may have drawn attention away from the Floor of the House. Everything we do to promote the House's effective scrutiny of the Executive should focus on reinforcing the role of the Floor. That is how to make scrutiny most powerful--not using a Main Committee, which will only be looked at from time to time by lazy journalists.

Mr. Winterton: Where are they all?

Mr. Davis: Indeed, where are they?

Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea): I am glad that my right hon. Friend gave that answer. Does he agree that of all the proposals before us, that of relegating business from this Chamber to a Main Committee is the most dangerous and insidious?

Mr. Davis: I agree, but my right hon. and hon. Friends tempt me off my main line of argument.

My last substantive point concerns the parliamentary rights of Select Committees. There is a serious problem with how Select Committees deal with the estimates procedure in particular. Our Standing Orders require that amendments to the estimates can only reduce them; they cannot vary them in any other way. That is understandable for the management of Government business and of the economy. Treasury Ministers must have the last word on the Government's aggregate spending, or government becomes meaningless in this day and age. However, we do not have to break that barrier to change the Standing Orders materially for the better.

After Select Committees have taken evidence on a Department's estimate, it is perfectly possible to allow them to recommend in an amendment for debate on the Floor that there should be virement, or movement between one departmental sub-heading and another. To pick an example completely outside my area of policy skill, in international development we might argue that we want to spend less on crisis management and more on crisis prevention, or less on Africa and more on Asia. Such large arguments about priority are the language of politics and it should be possible to conduct them on the Floor.

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That would be possible and effective only if the Government had to answer the outcome of a Select Committee's evidence-taking on the Floor.

Of course, a Government with a majority will always be able to vote down such amendments, but Ministers would have to defend the explicit financial priorities of their Departments on the Floor, which is the focus of our scrutiny. This tiny change in Standing Orders would fundamentally change not only the relationship between Parliament and Government but that between Ministers and civil servants in Whitehall. From my own experience, I know that few non-Cabinet Ministers--that means those who have the time to think about things--get anywhere near the numbers involved in running their Departments or decisions on spending priorities.

The change would mean that when a Minister of State appears before a Select Committee to explain why his Department is spending so much money on, say, welfare to work and less on something else, it would suddenly be in the interest of the permanent secretary to ensure that the Minister is incredibly well briefed. The permanent secretary would not want what is really the power of the civil service debated across the Floor. It would be a change not only in the House's ability to scrutinise what the Government do but in the ability of Government to deliver on their policy promises, manifesto commitments and beliefs, which is why they are there in the first place.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton: My right hon. Friend has not remarked, as I felt that he would, on whether Select Committees should be given the duty each year of considering the estimates of their Department. It would be not a voluntary but a specific duty to consider them before they are considered and passed by the House.

Mr. Davis: I would turn that round and make it a requirement that each estimate be approved by a Select Committee. The Committee could then decide for itself how much time to spend on the matter. I must press on.

I have one last comment for the Minister. It is difficult for Executives to give power away to Parliament so that it can scrutinise them and make their lives more difficult. But if I may say so, in the same spirit as the hon. Member for Thurrock, some of the greatest things that have happened in this Parliament happened when a Government made such a decision--for example, the small jewel of the Select Committee system today. If I may say so--I say this entirely selfishly--there is the large jewel of the Public Accounts Committee, whose Chairman is a member of the Opposition. That was the result of a decision by Gladstone which, at the time, must have been a difficult decision to make. However, it was a decision of great wisdom, which has lasted one and a half centuries. I see my predecessor, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) nodding. Such a decision would be difficult for the Executive to make, but it would go down in history as a mark of the confidence of such an Executive and its respect for Parliament.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Right hon. and hon. Members may anticipate that, in line with practice, Front-Bench speeches should begin at about 10 minutes past 12, and I hope that, in order that everyone who wishes to speak in the debate may be included, hon. Members will keep an eye on that fact.

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11.40 am

Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne): The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) is right. The decision to which he referred did so much to make 19th century and 20th century political life what we have come to expect. It was taken by a person who had great authority and power, and who realised the limitations of that. Had we seen rather more of that in this century, we might have been better placed. It was a wonderful decision.

I want briefly to refer to the point made by the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden about expenditure. That is important. In the annual debates on the Public Accounts Committee--the right hon. Gentleman will introduce this year's debate tomorrow--I used to reproach all the Select Committees. It was my annual regret that they did not consider the amount that was being spent by Government in their areas. I would say, "For heaven's sake, just say, 'I am happy with the way that the Government are spending money in our area. Carry on.'" When the matter is put in that way, it shows how inadequate the examination really is.

We are moving towards resource accounting and that gives us the opportunity to consider all this afresh. It will show just how much has been spent in a particular area on which a Select Committee may have commented or reported, and how much has been spent in another area. The Select Committees may almost be forced to say whether that expenditure is right or wrong. I look forward to seeing that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) introduced today's debate splendidly. He rightly mentioned the need for a parallel career structure. Not so long ago, an important Select Committee Chairman gave up his post for a lowly position on the Front Bench. That is the kind of priority that the House has come to accept, but it need not always do so.

I understand the advantages of office as a way in which to find out how the whole thing works. But when one thinks of the power, opportunities, interest and tasks ahead, one realises that Select Committee Chairmen have a wonderful opportunity. Given the way in which Parliament has evolved during the past 10 or 20 years, there is no doubt that their role has grown in importance. This Parliament has probably seen the most important ever growth in the role of the Select Committee Chairman. I look forward to seeing that trend continue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock rightly spent time on the suggestion of selection by Back Benchers; but the Select Committees themselves can take action. When the Liaison Committee was set up, there was an attempt to shoe-horn in a favourite of the then Prime Minister. As a senior member of the Liaison Committee, I immediately proposed Terence Higgins. Despite one or two people having some doubts in view of the patronage of a Prime Minister, he was voted in.

We have seen other things too. Robert Adley was a great loss; it was he who said that railway privatisation was a poll tax on wheels. It is a great pity that he has not been here during the past four or five years. Of course, we have here the hon. Member for Macclesfield, for whom we all have enormous admiration and affection. He was the object of a peculiar rule, instituted as the Macclesfield rule, which said that if one has been a

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Select Committee Chairman for two Parliaments, one cannot stand again. It was such nonsense to create that absurd rule just to dispose of the hon. Gentleman, but, of course, he has rebounded, to the pleasure and joy of us all.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock was right--bipartisanship is crucial. Select Committees consist of people who come in opposed to each other; they have to learn to take into account the facts. In order for the facts to overcome their prejudice, they must have respect not only for those facts, but for each other. That is of enormous importance. A good Chairman will ensure that such a relationship exists between Committee members.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice) has done splendidly in the Select Committee on the Treasury. He took his Select Committee away for a weekend to discuss the future. Such bonding situations, where one has respect for the facts, are important. I know, because I was Chairman of the Sub-Committee of the Expenditure Committee nearly 20 years ago, and one of our tasks was to discover how to deal with monetarism in a way that was critical of it and respected the facts. We had confidence in each other and knew that the facts would determine our results, even if the Government of the day were not happy about that. That is of enormous importance and I want to see it continue.

With regard to staffing, my feeling is that one should have the special adviser that one wants. When I was a Select Committee Chairman, I said that anyone who wanted a special adviser should say whom he or she wanted and, as long as another name could be obtained if necessary, he or she could have any adviser whom he or she wanted. No one has ever refused to be a special adviser, so one can have the talent that one wants.

However, I agree that we need something more. We need someone in-house. We do not need long appointments, but appointments of three to five years, so that an area of expertise is developed. I do not fancy someone coming in from outside and being in a controlling position, but a three-to-five-year appointment in certain areas would allow such people to look out for things of which the Committee may not even have thought. That may be one way in which to proceed.

The Treasury and Civil Service Committee did splendidly with regard to confirmatory hearings. The example given by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock was not quite as good as I would have wished, because party politics would come into it; it would be hard to avoid that. But it should be a principle that one cannot appoint someone to public office without having the responsibility--not to consider their private life, because that does not concern us--to ensure that that person is competent, equipped and has the background that fits him for that office.

Finally, I come to the point that I make repeatedly. The hallmark of my present position as Chairman of the Liaison Committee is to get the evidence out quickly. That is enormously important. Uncorrected evidence should be produced the following morning. It is available to members, but not to the House. We have uncorrected evidence in Hansard; it simply goes through. But those who concern themselves with these matters--perhaps over-clever people, in the words of a former Chairman

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of a Select Committee--think that there are questions of privilege. They feel that somebody might bring an action against the Liaison Committee Chairman. I have told them that I am prepared to accept such a challenge, were anyone foolish enough to make it. We are still working on that.

My task now is to get such evidence on the internet. Some of us have the internet and it is almost like having one's own library in one's room. One can see not only the reports but, even more importantly, the evidence. When the evidence comes three or four weeks later, no one bothers with it. If one had the evidence from the Governor of the Bank of England, the Foreign Secretary or whoever the following day, it would become part of the activity of the House. It would become part of questions for the Prime Minister and for others. The evidence as it is announced could be part of the kind of half-hour discussion that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden proposed. That is the sort of thing I want to see and I look forward to seeing it in due course.


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