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11.50 am

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): I shall approach the matter from the other end of the experience scale from the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon). I first entered the House in 1997. Since then, Select Committees have taken up a great deal of my time. I have been a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs and, more recently, I have been the Chairman of the Select Committee on Information, one of the domestic Committees. As a new Member, in common with many of my colleagues, I have found that the Select Committees are one of the great joys of the House. They are far better than most of us anticipated. They have an extraordinarily significant role in terms of holding the Executive to account. They are particularly relevant in a Parliament such as this where the Government have a large majority. That is a simple fact of life that I am not willing to dispute, and in that context, the role of the Select Committees takes on even greater stature than in a more marginal Parliament.

My experience on a departmental Committee has shown that there is an intellectual and factual rigor. There are debates around the facts rather than around partisan positions. That occurs far more often in Select Committees than in the Chamber. The experience of grilling a Minister for two hours far exceeds anything that happens in the Chamber during Question Time, which is really a matter of political points scoring.

One of the great ironies is that the bipartisan approach--perhaps in my position I should say tripartisan approach--that one takes in a Select Committee is made easier by the fact that it is not in the public eye or before the cameras. The public eye tends to encourage a political points-scoring atmosphere. By being out of the way, one is able to be more co-operative and tripartisan. The public do not see us behaving in that way because they only get to see us in the Chamber. I often have to tell constituents that we do constructive work in many other areas that is just not seen.

I have great sympathy with the point made by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) about the way in which members and Chairmen of Select Committees are chosen. At my first meeting of the Information

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Committee, I was amused to receive a message saying, "Do not allow yourself to be elected Chairman." There were still wranglings and negotiations about the allocation of the chairmanship and who should get what. In the end, a Government Whip manfully held the position of Chairman until we sorted things out, particularly between Opposition parties. I was then elected to the Chair and I hope that it has worked out appropriately. I believe that it was for the best. That incident opened up to me the Machiavellian world of negotiations that take place behind the scenes about positions, places and Chairs.

Hon. Members have talked about Select Committee places being handed out as some sort of reward or cherry-picking exercise. I was interested to see that the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs is regarded as being in the premier league. In that context, the Home Affairs Committee must be somewhere in the Vauxhall Conference league. At my first meeting of the Home Affairs Committee, I remember the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) saying, quite properly, "As this is the Home Affairs Committee, I hope that we will not be gallivanting around the world because we can find out what we need to find out here." My subsequent experience has shown that he was correct. I have had some interesting trips to Newcastle and Middlesbrough to look at young offenders, but I have not set foot outside the shores of this country on behalf of that Committee.

The right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne talked about the publication of information. I can testify to his assiduousness in that, having seen him advancing his point of view in the all-party internet group. I suspect that anoraks' corner, which meets in certain quarters of the Palace to discuss arcane matters of internet usage, is not his natural territory. From the Information Committee's point of view, I can see no technical bar to the publication of the information if it can be put on in the correct format. If Hansard, which is a tremendous resource, can be produced the next day, there is no reason why Select Committee testimony could not be put out in a similar way. I sympathise with the right hon. Gentleman's comment about the fact that after three or four weeks, the testimony may no longer be relevant. It is nonsensical for the newspapers and television to be able to broadcast and print the information immediately while we have no authorised version of the uncorrected testimony. It diminishes the impact of those sessions and devalues them tremendously.

In terms of the evolution of Committees, I would be keen to look at how the Select Committees and Standing Committees could be brought together. It is ironic that members of Select Committees often cannot sit on Standing Committees because of a conflict of time when they are the people who have developed expertise. As a new Member, I learned more about home affairs, which is relevant to my work, than ever before during my time on that Committee and it would have been useful to be able to apply that knowledge. Having tried to sit on a Standing Committee and a Select Committee at the same time, I found that the two were incompatible.

In other countries, there are much closer links between Select Committees and Standing Committees, and they are able to hold special committees where Select Committee members do the evidence taking in respect of a particular Bill. I should like to see us evolve far more in that direction and perhaps look at some other models so that the expertise of Select Committee members is applied

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directly to Government legislation. It may be that the bipartisan atmosphere could also be applied to legislation. That is not always the case in a Standing Committee where Government Back Benchers are encouraged to keep quiet rather than to participate, whoever is in government. That would not happen in a Select Committee. The Government Back Benchers on a Select Committee would get a much better crack at the legislation than they do under the current Standing Committee procedures.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Thurrock on initiating the debate and I look forward to hearing the other contributions.

11.56 am

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan). He has learnt a great deal in a short time, and we look forward to hearing his contributions as he grows in experience and maturity--I hope that he does not mind me saying that. By contrast, I have been here for almost 20 years, 18 of which I spent on the Front Bench. I was a member of the shadow Cabinet from 1985, I was a member of the national executive committee of the Labour party and, as Chief Whip, I was one of the four officers of the parliamentary Labour party. I have been at the centre of my party's affairs for a substantial time.

I was one of those Machiavellian creatures who fixed all the appointments. As I came towards the end of my career, I saw the light and began to think that perhaps the Whips should not be involved in those appointments. Fortunately, I did not see the light sufficiently quickly to do anything about it. However, it is right to say that it would be better if the Whips were not involved. I can say that now that I have no responsibility. It would be very much more difficult to take that view as Chief Whip. That point is worth listening to and I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) has raised this subject.

I had my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock with me in the Whips Office for only one year. He was absolutely outstanding. That man is a Chief Whip's nightmare and the only way to deal with him is to put him in the Whips Office. He was fine when he was with me, but he decided that he wanted to leave.

Mr. David Davis: He went native.

Mr. Foster: Yes. All the best people in this place are a Chief Whip's nightmare. They are the really valuable people, not those on the Front Bench. We can get Front Benchers ten a penny--I hope that they do not mind me saying so. In fact, a tenth of a penny is all that some of them are worth. The awkward squad are the really valuable people in this place.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) gave me untold trouble. At one time, he was intending to get himself thrown out of the Chamber every Tuesday and Thursday at Prime Minister's Question Time. I had him in my office every Tuesday and Thursday and, fortunately, I managed to dissuade him from using that nuclear weapon that he was intending to let off. When I failed to persuade him on one occasion, I had to send him to then leader of the Labour party, Neil Kinnock, who is now a European Commissioner, and he succeeded in persuading him.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow felt passionately that what was going on was wrong and that he was not able to draw attention to the truth. He believed that there was no parliamentary device that allowed him to do so. Of course, being my hon. Friend, he had notified the press that he was to be thrown out of the Chamber, so the press were anticipating that. He was going to hold a press conference and reveal all. However, it never quite happened. It was all to do with the Falklands war, of course, and the sinking of the Belgrano.

I remember on one occasion saying to my hon. Friend, "I want you in the Chamber, Tam." Some very important debate was going on. I said, "You of all people would not miss the sinking of your Belgrano." I think that it was the day when we forced a motion of no confidence and when Mrs. Thatcher resigned. My hon. Friend wanted to be away somewhere. I said, "No, Tam, everyone must be here on this day and you must be there to sink your Belgrano." Of course, we did not sink her. She--

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