Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 228 - 239)




  228.  The Committee is delighted to welcome the Right Honourable Margaret Beckett, President of the Council and Leader of the House to give evidence to us today on our inquiry into the consequences of devolution on the United Kingdom Parliament. Mrs Beckett, may I warmly welcome you here today. I am sure that the answers which you will give to our questions will be very helpful to all members of the Committee in the important inquiry which we are undertaking. May I first of all apologise for the limited number of members of the Procedure Committee who are here today. I am rather pleased actually that I can say that to you because I hope that through the influence which you can exercise you might help us to get better attendances at our meetings. The demand upon members and the other responsibilities which they have do from time to time make it very difficult for us to achieve a quorum and to show proper courtesy to those people who come to give evidence to this Committee. I am myself concerned and have personally made representations both to the Government's whips' office and to the Opposition's whips' office because of the problems that this is creating for us and also the lack of courtesy as a result which we appear from time to time to show to those valuable witnesses who come before us. Having said that, may I also thank you for the paper which the Government has submitted on the consequences of devolution for the Westminster Parliament and open up from the Chair with the first question. You say you believe that although some procedural change here at Westminster may become necessary, this should evolve — and I use the words which you used in your memorandum — in the light of experience. Nonetheless, do you think that there are any general principles which should guide the House in its dealing with devolved matters?
  (Margaret Beckett)  May I first thank you very much for your kind remarks in introduction. May I just venture to say that although I do understand and respect your concern not to show discourtesy to your witnesses, it may be that perhaps they are relieved at having fewer questioners on occasion. May I take up the point which you make? In so far as I would identify general principles it would merely be that we all seek, in our various ways, in the devolved bodies and here, to observe the courtesies, to respect the devolution settlement, to try to show understanding towards the different roles and to treat each other with the proper degree of respect which one would hope and anticipate will be there from the outset. Other than that, obviously there are, as I have indicated in the memorandum, likely changes which may flow from fairly early on, changes in the pattern of tabling of questions and things of that kind. We have encouraged Ministers, as you know, to begin to reflect that as early as they can. Other than that, I think that most of the concerns which I suspect will appear over the years can be addressed in an evolutionary manner and building on experience.

  229.  Moving on slightly to be a little more specific, given that the new Scottish Parliament and the Assemblies in both Wales and Northern Ireland are to be allowed to debate whatever they wish, will it be possible, in your view as Leader of the House, to restrict debate in the United Kingdom Parliament? I refer of course particularly to debates which may well be wanted by United Kingdom Members of Parliament from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  (Margaret Beckett)  I have the utmost respect for the ingenuity of our colleagues and I strongly suspect that, with all proper regard for courtesy and for understanding and respecting the boundaries of what is properly the responsibility of devolved bodies, one way or another members will find ways to air issues which they wish to air.

  230.  As a member of the Chairmen's Panel, as well as being Chairman of the Procedure Committee to which you are giving evidence this afternoon, how would you advise, as Leader of the House, that is if you feel it appropriate to do so, the Speaker of the House or a chairman of a committee to deal with matters which may well be raised by members which are not any longer the responsibility of this House of Commons as the United Kingdom Parliament?
  (Margaret Beckett)  I would not venture to give advice either to Madam Speaker or indeed to experienced committee chairs. I think we all have experience of chairs who remind colleagues of the conventions, remind them of what is required to be in order but nevertheless people seem to manage on the whole most of the time to stay in order and to find ways. It is not for me to suggest what particular tactics people might adopt but I do very strongly suspect on the basis of my experience in this place that they will find ways of airing the particular concerns they have and staying in order while they are doing it.

  Chairman:  Clearly the amount of time spent on Scottish Questions, whether or not there will be a role for the Scottish Grand Committee or for that matter for the Scottish Affairs Select Committee are all questions on which we shall want to get answers from you this afternoon. They are very relevant and of course members of this House, depending on their political position, but even within the same political party, feel very strongly on these matters that poor old England may well lose out. I merely say that because I am going to give a flavour of the sort of questions that may well come out in the course of this session.

Mr Gardiner

  231.  Your memo talks quite a bit of the cooperation you would like to see developing between the houses. On the whole it is talking about informal links, informal cooperation. Do you see any potential for more formal links, for example a joint committee made up of a committee of this House and a committee from a devolved legislature, something like that?
  (Margaret Beckett)  I was not in any sense suggesting that this might not happen. It was more a feeling that the kind of cooperation and the kind of relationships we would all wish to see develop may be more likely to develop through informal links at the earliest stages. They may then result in a move towards more formalised structure, but I rather suspect that we'll get a better atmosphere and relationship if people are making their own arrangements to meet and to discuss as they feel the need, rather than fitting into some structure which rather requires them to meet and requires them to meet within a particular structure and in some way fetters the nature of the relationship. People tend not to go to meetings or not to want to engage in the same way in things when they are compelled to go to them as opposed to it being something they actually have chosen to do themselves because the right kind of issues come up or for some reason there are concerns they want to raise.

  232.  May I go on to look a bit more closely at the grand committees? You said that there would be a continuing need for the Scottish, the Welsh, the Northern Irish business to be taken in grand committees. Could you perhaps give us some idea of what sort of business you envisage the grand committees might take?
  (Margaret Beckett)  I am assuming that we are adopting the general convention that the grand committee broadly speaking is the place for debate and the select committee is the place for inquiry. On that basis, it seemed to me that it may well be that the grand committee might look, for example, at the generality of the block grant. I have observed that the role and the experience of the different grand committees is not identical as has emerged very clearly from the evidence given to you and indeed there are clearly very strong differences of view among members even in the same party about the usefulness of these structures and how they might continue, which I must admit does somewhat reassure me that perhaps we were wise in not rushing to be prescriptive because clearly there are very strong differences of view.

Mr Darvill

  233.  Still on grand committees and the block grant, you say that block grants made to the devolved administrations might be debated in the grand committees. Do you intend that such debates should consider the expenditure plans of the devolved executives, or merely the size a calculation of the block grant?
  (Margaret Beckett) My expectation would be that any detailed scrutiny would be a matter for the devolved bodies but that it is at this end, so to speak, that we are looking at the release of the block grant. I would have thought it was that kind of balance. I suspect there are bound to be grey areas and those will differ from one grand committee and one devolved body to another.

  234.  If the size of the block grant is to be the subject of debate, surely this is a matter for the UK Parliament as a whole?
  (Margaret Beckett)  Certainly the issue of the overall distribution of resources is obviously and very clearly a matter for the UK Parliament.

  235.  May I go to the proposals concerning select committees on Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish affairs? Should they be amended to confine them to the responsibilities of the Secretary of State and to liaison with the devolved legislatures?
  (Margaret Beckett)  That is obviously something we should consider; it may be something on which this Committee would want to advise. Broadly speaking the remit of the select committee is indeed to shadow the department to which that committee relates. I would imagine there would be a kind of natural development of the way in which the committee works alongside the different departments. There are likely to be differences there because there are differences between the devolved bodies.

  236.  Do you think it would be useful to give the committees power to look at the operation of reserved matters in the country?
  (Margaret Beckett)  It does not seem to me that they necessarily need to be given the power. I know there are differences of view, I think I am right in saying, among those who have given evidence to your Committee too about this matter. It does not seem to me that you are likely to wish to say for example to a continuing Scottish Affairs Select Committee, that they will not discuss some reserved matter because it is a matter for another departmental select committee. I do not think one would necessarily say that. There may be specifically Scottish aspects of policy on which they might wish to focus and which might be properly within their remit. All of these things are a matter of judgement, they are matters where there may be a legitimate interest in more than one body.

  237.  Generally I think your theme is flexibility as we go through this.
  (Margaret Beckett)  Absolutely.

Mr Burgon

  238.  You suggested in a memorandum to the Modernisation Committee that the Regional Affairs Committee should be reconstituted. What advantages does the Government see in a Regional Affairs Committee rather than an English Grand Committee?
  (Margaret Beckett)  It is a mixture of things. One of the advantages which I saw was that the Standing Order exists and there is a precedent and there is some understanding of the role that such a committee might have without it having to be set up from scratch, even though I did propose to the Modernisation Committee some changes from the way in which it worked previously. So it is there. Also, it is partly that even before I saw some of the evidence to this Committee, there is clearly a question at least as to how the grand committees which presently exist will evolve. There is even a question in some people's minds whether they should continue at all. I do not think any Government or indeed the House would wish to set up a new regional grand or standing committee only to find that before you could turn round almost all people were saying that grand committees are no longer a good idea, let's not do it this way, let's do something different. It was a mixture of those concerns and a very real feeling that it is right, it would be right for the House to give careful thought to whether there is a way in which we could give a greater voice to members from the English regions in a variety of ways than we presently do.

  239.  United Kingdom matters should presumably be the responsibility of all members of the United Kingdom Parliament. There will be some matters, including legislation, which will affect England and Wales, or even England alone, for which the Scottish Parliament is responsible in Scotland. There may be primary legislation affecting Wales alone. Do you think there should be some restrictions on the ability of, say, Scottish members to vote on matters solely affecting England or Wales?
  (Margaret Beckett)  I would myself never be attracted to something which gives a different status to different members in this House. We are all members here, we are all elected on the same basis and must have the same roles and freedoms. That would be my view.

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