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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman because the House is enjoying his remarks, but I have not yet identified the thread that leads to Select Committee reform.

Mr. Foster: If there was not a thread, I will try to invent one now. The thread is that this place is supremely important. It is more important than Governments. We have all fought in this place to establish our freedoms and to bring Governments under control. No Government likes to be brought under control. The only way in which we can do so is to have the courage and confidence to tell the truth to one another. Unfortunately, some of my colleagues on the Labour Benches think that one crawls one's way into office. The best people kick their way into office. They then become very substantial figures in their own right.

I remember one thing that I said in my first speech after I left the Government, after only 36 hours. It was a period of great emotion for me. I said that this place must never be the Prime Minister's poodle. Unfortunately, it has become so. The only people who can reclaim it are my colleagues on the Labour Back Benches. They ought to have the courage to take on the Government, to tell the truth, and to say to Ministers, "You are wrong. All right, I may not get a job, but so what? There is an alternative career as a Back Bencher or a Chairman of a Select Committee. You are wrong and we are going to bring you to account." They should have the courage to say that whether it is to the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister or whoever within the Government.

The Prime Minister, we recall, is the primus inter pares. He is not a president. In other words, I am as good as the Prime Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock is as good as the Prime Minister. Our colleagues on the Opposition Benches are as good as the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is the primus inter pares and Parliament operates only when we make that work. Sadly, we ourselves have presided over the demise of Parliament. We ought not to blame the press or the Government. We ought to blame ourselves and we ought to say from this moment forward, "Let us reclaim the territory that we have lost and bring Governments to account because that is our constitutional right and duty. We cannot represent the people by any other means."

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12.4 pm

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I am pleased to follow the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster). I shall be brief because I know that the Front-Bench spokesmen want to wind up in about four or five minutes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) on initiating this debate. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) has said, it comes at an appropriate time because the Modernisation Committee is considering these matters and how Parliament can best use its time, and the Procedure Committee, which I chair, is similarly engaged in considering how the House, through its procedures, can most effectively operate.

I am sorry that in 1992, the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland did not hold the views that he holds today. Perhaps if he had, I would have remained the Chairman of the Health Select Committee--a job that I very much enjoyed and which I hope that I did effectively on behalf of the House. As the right hon. Gentleman has said, the Select Committees do not operate on behalf of the Labour party, new or old, the Conservative and Unionist party or the Liberal Democrat party. They operate on behalf of the House of Commons. I know that the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) shares my view that the Select Committee system is the only effective way in which the House of Commons can hold the Government of the day to account not only in respect of spending money, but in respect of policy. Therefore, the reform of the system to give the Select Committees more power and authority is absolutely right.

Similarly, it is right, proper and important that the Select Committees should have the resources in terms of staff and specialist advice to enable them to do their job properly. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden said, the work of the Government in relation to the European Union is massive. So it is important that the Select Committees should have the staff, expertise and technical support to enable them to do on behalf of the House what is necessary to hold the Executive to account.

The changes that were made by Norman St. John Stevas, now Lord St. John of Fawsley, in 1979-80 were absolutely right. While there was reservation in the House at the time about those reforms, they have proved extremely important for the House and have enabled Back-Bench Members of Parliament to hold whichever Government are in power to account in a more effective way.

I share the views of the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland and of the hon. Member for Thurrock. The hon. Member for Thurrock has proved himself to be a thoroughly effective, efficient, successful and outstanding Back-Bench Member of Parliament. He has done the job that those who elected him as Member of Parliament for Thurrock intended him to do. He is held in high regard, although he has not had what I would call a lasting Front-Bench appointment. There needs to be in this place an alternative career. Back Benchers can have those alternative careers. They do not have to become Ministers to be effective Members of Parliament. They can become effective Members of the House by becoming specialists, and members and Chairmen of Select Committees. Perhaps in future those roles will be rewarded in a more effective and meaningful way than they are today.

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They are very important. Parliament could not operate without effective Back-Bench Members of Parliament. If it did, we would have a dictatorship.

The hon. Member for Thurrock has done a great service to the House by initiating the debate today. I wish him success and hope that he and I can continue to play, from our different positions in the House, an effective role on behalf of the House of Commons in holding the Government of the day, whether of my party or his, to account. Without our doing that, Parliament would be a mockery.

12.9 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): We have had a most outstanding debate in the past hour and nine minutes. I shall do my best not to lower the tone. It is good to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton). For more than a quarter of a century, we were Back Benchers. I think that I can say without sounding conceited or boastful that neither of us was ever afraid to try to hold the Government to account. I always took the line that I was never prepared to accept the constraints of office in order to achieve office, and it is a pity that more hon. Members do not take that line.

We have heard some outstanding speeches this morning, and we are all grateful to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), who is an exemplary Back-Bench Member, for introducing the debate in the way that he did. He was both provocative and thoughtful in the best tradition of parliamentary democracy. We also heard an unforgettable speech from the former Mr. Fix-it, the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster). As I listened to him, I could not help but think that there is more joy in the House of Commons over one Whip that repenteth--it really was a tour de force. In that brief speech, he encapsulated what the debate is about and what the House should be about.

When the Opposition initiated a debate on 7 July, in the midst of the Sierra Leone episode, we did not debate that matter specifically, but discussed the position and rights of Select Committees, and the hon. Member for Thurrock made a distinguished speech. When I wound up that debate, I quoted, to the hilarity of some Labour Members, Colonel Dunning's famous motion of 1780, which said that the power of the Crown had increased, was increasing and should be diminished. Today, the power of the Executive has increased, is increasing and needs to be diminished, especially in a Parliament where the Government have a steamroller majority and can get their way, regardless of the sense of the argument, or the equity or justice of the cause.

In such a Parliament, it is crucial that the Prime Minister and--I hope, the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, whom we welcome today--will respond to the debate in like spirit. It is essential that the Prime Minister tries to emulate Gladstone, who set up the Public Accounts Committee, two of whose distinguished Chairmen we have heard from today. Gladstone was a man of immense power, great prestige and stature, who knew that those qualities could only be added to, and not detracted from, by allowing the Chamber to have a proper say in calling Government to account. I hope that it was in that spirit--indeed, I believe that it was so--that the departmental Select Committees were set up almost 20 years ago. We must all recognise that Ministers are answerable to Parliament and that Parliament is not answerable to Ministers.

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We must recognise that more of our influence and authority has inevitably passed, in this television age, to those smaller Rooms where Select Committees meet, where arguments can be examined on their merits--as many hon. Members have pointed out--and the narrow partisanship that is sometimes so evident in the Chamber can be put to one side. Select Committees have an especially crucial role to play for the House. They are not the creature of Government, but are answerable to this House; they are appointed by this House. How glad I was to hear repentance from the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland, who said that the manner of appointment of Select Committees was perhaps not correct. How right it is that we should try to ensure that Select Committee chairmanships are not merely regarded as a reward for someone who has missed out on being a Minister, or has been sacked from a ministerial post. It is important that people are selected for their merits.

The hon. Member for Thurrock rightly made the point--which was echoed by other right hon. and hon. Members--that there should be an alternative career ladder in this place. No greater honour can befall any man or woman of this country than to be elected to this House, and it grieves me that Parliament is so sniped at and denigrated by the fourth estate, which sometimes seems hellbent on destroying the other three. When a man or woman is elected to this House with aspirations to office, those aspirations are more properly fixed on the chairmanship of a Select Committee and on serving the House than on anything else. I do not advocate the separation of powers that exists in the United States and other countries, but Congress provides for the aspiring American public servant an opportunity that is not as readily appreciated in this country as it should be.

I totally agree with those who have argued--as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) in a notable speech--for extra resources for Select Committees. It is nonsense that the Chairman of a Select Committee who is going to an important event should have to wait in a taxi queue, but it is far greater nonsense that the resources to match the resources of Ministries are not available, in some degree, to the Chairmen and members of Select Committees. There should be greater devotion of resources to those Committees.

It is also right that we should debate the findings of Select Committees on the Floor of the House. I was so glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden and others talked about the Chamber in the way that they did. It is a great pity that people will not have the chance to read about this debate in the press tomorrow. The way in which Parliament is being sidelined, not only by the Government, but by the media, is scandalous. People's faith in this place would be reinforced somewhat if they had the opportunity to know about the quality and content of debates such as this one.

I believe that, unless we can put this place back as the forum and cockpit of the nation, we shall fail in our duty as parliamentarians. Although I accept that it is entirely right and proper that the Modernisation Committee should consider such innovative ideas as the Main Committee, I remain unconvinced about that issue. However, whether or not that Committee comes into existence, it cannot, must not and should never replace the Chamber.

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Life would be brought back to the Chamber if we had more debates about the findings of our Select Committee colleagues.

In that context, my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden made the extremely good suggestion that, perhaps on a Monday, a half hour or an hour should be set aside for such debates. There is no reason why that should not be done. The parliamentary managers should be able to find that time, and if that means that we sit until 11 o'clock on Monday evenings--so what? Let us have a regular slot when Select Committee findings can be presented to the House, because those Committees and their Chairmen are answerable to the House, and Ministers are then answerable, before the House, to the Select Committees.

I do not make these points to the Parliamentary Secretary in a partisan spirit; I should make precisely the same points from the Government Back Benches, as many hon. Members will be aware. We need a system that more properly and adequately holds Ministers to account. Parliament has two prime functions: one is to scrutinise legislation minutely and properly, but the other--which is more important, because it goes beyond legislation--is to make Ministers properly answerable to Parliament. They should be able to defend their every action and, of course, their estimates.

I end on that point, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Thurrock and by others, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden: Select Committees should have a greater say in the expenditure of the public's money. It is not the Government's money; it is the taxpayer's money, and to say that only those who are in government should have total control over expenditure and priorities is wrong. If we could do something to change matters along the lines that have been suggested, it would be a complete vindication of the excellent service that the hon. Member for Thurrock has performed today by initiating the debate.

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