Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 240 - 259)




  240.  May I press you on that because to an extent that is the West Lothian Question, is it not? Do you think it is fair that matters relating to England under the new dispensation might well be decided on the votes of members of the UK Parliament elected from areas outside England? I know that you could say that has happened in the past in respect of Scotland, but we have sort of remedied that by devolution to a Scottish Parliament and the Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland. Do you think that we should perpetuate that position in respect of England?
  (Margaret Beckett)  As is so often the case in matters as complex as this, it is a matter of balance and you may wish to see it as a sort of choice of two evils. There are members who feel this is a question which ought to be considered and reflected on and whether changes should be made? If you did seek to change then you would incur the alternative evil which is the notion of having members with a different role, different responsibilities, different rights in this Parliament. To my mind that is even less desirable.

  241.  Acting as Devil's Advocate, is that not one of the problems resulting from the way that devolution has been handled, some people might say from the rush in seeking to implement devolution proposals too quickly? The second question to you from me in this particular area is: do you not think it might be seen to be better for the United Kingdom if the numbers of MPs from Scotland were reduced rather faster than is the current Government's intention, when, I think, current numbers will remain until, is it, 2010?
  (Margaret Beckett)  We are of the opinion that it is a little earlier; the Boundary Commission will report between 2002 and 2006.

  242.  I am open to correction but the fact that the balance of MPs in respect of England, Wales and Scotland is as it is because of the distances from London. Scotland has benefited in having a greater number of MPs than is the case in England. Do you think that might go some way to remedying what some people may perceive to be an injustice?
  (Margaret Beckett)  My understanding is that this change is to take place on what will quite soon be seen as a relatively short period of time — 2003 to 2006 is not so very far away.

  243.  Is it 2002?
  (Margaret Beckett)  Something of that order rather than 2010.[
1] First, I doubt very much whether those members, and of course it is not a universal view, who strongly believe in devolution and in the devolution of power ... I suspect they would quarrel with the description of it as a rush and they would argue that they have been pursuing this for a very long time indeed and throughout that period this balance on the issue you raise has continually been discussed. I think I am right in saying that both when your own party favoured devolution rather more than it has done in recent years and indeed in our party, in the end, no matter how much people have thought about it and chewed over these issues, they have come to the conclusion of leaving it alone.

  244.  Since you sent the memorandum in, for which we are very grateful, have you developed any more views on whether or not there should be select committees in the future or are you leaving it to this Committee to give you advice.
  (Margaret Beckett)  The principal conclusion to which I have come, reading the different evidence you have had, is that I am profoundly thankful that the Government decided that evolution was best and decided not to jump one way or the other since clearly there are such very strong but such very different views among those who have given evidence.

  245.  I know I anticipate your answer as yes, but will you be taking the proposals and recommendations of this Committee seriously when in fact we finally produce our report? As you see, we are very much all-party although sadly at this moment no members of the Liberal Democrat Party are present. Will you deal with the report as quickly as possible?
  (Margaret Beckett)  We shall certainly take it seriously. This is an issue on which the Committee has taken a good deal of evidence and to which you have given a good deal of thought and obviously it depends a bit how sweeping your recommendations are, how fast it would be possible to move. Certainly we will obviously give very serious thought and very great weight to what the Committee says.

Mr Syms

  246.  Is there not a danger with what has happened, certainly with Wales and Scotland, that we are going to be rather "over-politicianed" with various tiers and that if we take an evolutionary approach we allow the grand committees to meet, the select committees to continue, the role of Secretary of State, which I know is a role determined by the Prime Minister, to continue but actually accountability is going to be muddied. Would it not be a more honest view of the Government, the logic of devolution, to chop all these committees and get rid of the Secretaries of State, which are now virtually non-jobs, and give devolution a free run? I think there is going to be a real danger that people are going to be very confused by where responsibility and accountability actually lies.
  (Margaret Beckett)  We are all very conscious — and I know this was reflected in some of the evidence given to you — that most members of the public have better things to do with their time than worry about to whom exactly they should go about any particular problem they wish to have resolved. That is both understandable and indeed probably right. It is a mixture, is it not? I can perfectly well see that for the sake of administrative tidiness, shall we say, one might make proposals to make speedy and abrupt changes to the way in which our committee structure presently works. However, we might be in danger of creating problems rather than resolving them. I thought the evidence you had from Mrs Michie was most interesting. She indicated that she saw, I think I am right in saying, no role for the committees, no role for the Secretary of State, and said en passant that there are 22 pages of powers but so what. I paraphrase, needless to say, since she spoke with much more elegance than that. I found that a somewhat surprising view and I thought that it might well be that if such drastic action were taken speedily it might be regretted and there is nothing worse than having to go back and set something up again because you perceive that you have overlooked one of the implications of making a very speedy change. I think in general terms it has always been my view and my experience in this House that we do work most effectively and members work best with the grain of things when we proceed in a relatively evolutionary fashion, when we proceed by experiment. I suspect that what we may find is that a number of these things will wither on the vine. Every member of parliament has far more to do than any human being can actually do and far more pressures on their time than they can readily accommodate. Everybody is only too pleased to find some things they do not need to do. I think we will find people in effect voting with their feet and then we might be able to make changes which go with the grain of how things are developing.

Mr Efford

  247.  There are many demands on the time of the House and you have indicated that there is no realistic prospect of increasing the amount of time available to discuss select committee reports. Could you indicate the value there is in discussing those reports balanced against the other demands made on the time of the House and also how you envisage using the additional time made available by devolution perhaps?
  (Margaret Beckett)  I would say two things in response to that. First of all, I do not think any of us disputes that there are many useful select committee reports which it would be genuinely beneficial to discuss, but there simply has never, under any Government, been enough time to do all of these things. However, there is one issue which is being discussed presently in the Modernisation Committee which may come forward with a proposal for an experiment to set up a new body analogous to what is in Australia called the "Main Committee" — though nobody likes that title here and the one which I find most attractive is perhaps the "Principal Committee". One of the issues that the Modernisation Committee on a cross-party basis has identified as something we should like to see addressed, irrespective — not everybody wants to address it through this mechanism — but one issue which everybody recognises is a problem and wishes to see addressed is that there is not enough parliamentary time at present for doing some of the things like debating select committee reports and not enough opportunity for members to contribute to such debates to the degree they would wish to do. We are looking at whether or not this is a way of tackling some of those problems. You asked me a second question, not just generally about the value of debating.

  248.  Also the additional time which may be available on the floor of the House because of devolution.
  (Margaret Beckett)  The devolution dividend; indeed. I have some slight scepticism about how speedy the devolution dividend is going to become apparent. When you came in the Chairman and I were exchanging some thoughts about the ingenuity of our colleagues in finding ways of raising issues that they wish to raise. I suspect that certainly while we have members who are used to our existing procedures and roles, we are likely to find that any devolution dividend, and no doubt there could be some, will not be enormous at the outset. It is one of the reasons why the Government is suggesting an evolutionary approach. This will change over time. Initially I suspect it will not be as abrupt as some people think.


  249.  May I just put a question to you on the issues which this House might still tackle although basic responsibility has been handed over to the Scottish Parliament. If a member of the United Kingdom Parliament from Scotland wished to raise the matter of the funding of a local hospital and particular specialties in that hospital, who would decide whether or not that was a relevant debate? Would it be Madam Speaker or would it be the Secretary of State for Scotland?
  (Margaret Beckett)  It would depend on the forum to some degree.

  250.  The forum would be the floor of the House of Commons for an adjournment debate on, say, the availability of heart transplant surgery in a particular leading hospital in Scotland.
  (Margaret Beckett)  We go back directly to the issue of ingenuity of colleagues. It would depend on how the issue were couched. It may very well be that one could find examples which it was simply not possible to couch in such a way that one would readily be able to raise it on the floor of the House. I suspect there will be, as I indicated earlier, a number of grey areas. I am reluctant to get drawn into the precise boundaries of the settlement and the judgements which might be made; indeed that will, happily for me, be a matter for the chair.

  251.  Do you not think that you are placing the chair in some difficulty?
  (Margaret Beckett)  I have every confidence in the capacity of the excellent people who chair our committees in the House.

  252.  What I am saying is that it may well be, for you might take an adjournment debate on a Wednesday morning as the current situation is, or even a late night debate, that the actual subject might just appear to be within order and within the responsibilities of, shall we say, the Secretary of State for the Scottish Office, but when the debate is actually under way it may well become apparent that matters relating to that debate are really entirely out of order and the Secretary of State, or whoever is replying to that debate, no longer has responsibility for it. Whilst asking that question and hopefully giving you time to consider a response, do you feel there are any grounds for reducing the time currently allocated to Scottish Questions? All these matters will have to be considered by this Committee before we actually produce our report.
  (Margaret Beckett)  As with all of these things it is going to be a slightly delicate balance. The Table Office no doubt will have things to say when motions are tabled, the chair will have an eye to these things, ministers will be advised if they stray into such and such a territory they will be outwith their responsibilities, it will be the responsibility of the devolved bodies, and people will just have to adjust and learn to cope with those things. No doubt there will be local relationships where people will be able to see things raised in other ways, the informal meetings that we were talking about earlier on may be ways of clearing some of those boundaries and getting agreement about where the balance of these issues might fall. I do think it is rather a "suck it and see" process on which we are engaged and on which I suspect we shall continue to be engaged. With regard to Question Time as such, we have sought the views of the Committee. I stress again that of course the settlement is somewhat different for the different devolved bodies but, particularly with Scottish Question Time being now 40 minutes and with that particular measure of devolution, the question does arise as to whether or not there will be a proposal for some change. We may well see that reflected in the balance.

  253.  Would you not agree that Wales has half an hour and Northern Ireland only half an hour because both Question Times fall on a Wednesday, if my memory serves me correctly. Of course Westminster actually has more responsibility in respect of both Northern Ireland and Wales than it does for Scotland and Scotland has 40 minutes. While I am not, as it were, trying to force you into a corner or put you into too difficult a spot, you would accept that this may well create some problem and Welsh and Northern Irish MPs might consider that they deserve more time or that Scotland deserves less time.
  (Margaret Beckett)  Indeed we do recognise that this issue is bound to be a feature of a discussion in the aftermath of the devolution settlement and that is why we did specifically seek the views of the Committee as to what you as a Committee feel might be the right balance in the future.

  254.  Your own memorandum made some suggestion on this matter. I think it is 15 minutes or something like that.
  (Margaret Beckett)  I do not think we actually put numbers in my memorandum. I think some of your other witnesses, those who thought Question Time should remain at all and they should not all be swept away along with the Secretary of State and all the committees, made some suggestion of 15 minutes.

  Chairman:  We have received evidence from Members of this Parliament, although coming from those areas to which devolved government is being given, who think that virtually everything should be swept away here and that they should be entirely responsible for their own affairs except of course the granting of the block grant and matters relating to defence and foreign affairs.

Mr Darvill

  255.  The bit concerning me is this question of questions and adjournment debates on particular issues. We have to form a view fairly soon it seems to me as to how far members in this House can raise those issues. You get an example, following the example made by the Chair, that a particular local issue is raised and the answer may come from the Minister or Secretary of State who is replying, that really this is a matter for the Scottish Parliament for example. Surely members will want to know fairly soon how far they can go. I appreciate your point about ingenuity but the executive could use that to oppose Members of Parliament pursuing particular questioning.
  (Margaret Beckett)  It is a difficult area. There will always be implications of the overall health policy pursued by the Government here in Scotland or Wales or Northern Ireland and that is bound to be an area which members here will wish to explore. I think it is hard to draw hard and fast lines in principle as to where that boundary might lie. It will be something which will evolve over time in practice. Members will begin to say actually that is not really a matter for Westminster. That has been debated and thrashed out and this decision has been made in the Scottish Parliament. That will then be reflected here, I suspect.

  256.  I can understand the evolutionary argument because to a certain extent I agree with it. I can see in the early stages certainly a whole series of conflicts.
  (Margaret Beckett)  Hopefully not conflicts but certainly areas where things are not quite clear and that is partly why I am cautious about the early devolution dividend because it is something that may lead to issues continuing to be discussed here more at the outset than they will be later.

  257.  In relation to Welsh affairs, it could be the opposite in the early days because whenever Parliament was discussing matters which relate to Wales there will be the issue of whether further powers should be devolved or what sort of powers the Assembly will have. In certain respects there is a new dimension to Welsh affairs which could create more time, certainly in the early stages, whereas with the Scottish example, the powers have already devolved and there might well be a dividend in the early days.
  (Margaret Beckett)  That also reinforces my other concern that things will develop differently with relation to the different devolved bodies and we have to leave space for that.

Mr Efford

  258.  There seems to be an assumption in the questions about the length of Question Times that they are adequate already. I wonder whether you have ever had a complaint which suggests they are perhaps not adequate. If they were kept as they were, for instance, it might allow adequate time to deal with the issues in relation to Wales and Scotland.
  (Margaret Beckett)  Certainly one of the issues that the Modernisation Committee has discussed to a degree is both whether one might have some kind of question-type exchange in a Principal Committee, but also whether that could be a more sustained exchange, more along the lines of a short adjournment debate rather than the quickfire of our normal Question Time in the Chamber. I think you are right that there are many members who feel that the opportunity for a really sustained exchange on an issue which they wish to question is not as great as they would now wish, but that is an issue which the Modernisation Committee is giving some thought to and on which we may, if we agree, come back with proposals to the House.

Mr Gardiner

  259.  May I pursue something which the Leader of the House said earlier and that was about being reluctant to see any system whereby there were distinctions in status between Members of this Parliament? Pursuing the example we have had of local health care and so on, which fall to the Scottish Parliament and the issue of perhaps taking up specifically a constituent's case, then we are all familiar with scenarios with local government where we have no direct executive authority, but we are written to as MPs about the dreadful way in which the parking regulations are enforced or whatever it happens to be and you will write and make representations on behalf of the constituent to the local authority. Do you not feel that there is a difference in that here is an area of policy for which this House will have UK-wide responsibility and yet on which a Member of this Parliament will no longer have a representative function in the direct effect which the policy which is set here, the UK-wide policy which is set here, affects his or her constituent. Is that not actually to mean that there is a very real difference in the representative function of Members of the House of Commons?
  (Margaret Beckett)  It is not an easy question to address. If I think about the sort of role you are identifying in the direct representation of a constituent, you say quite rightly there is something of an analogy, although I know some people argue not a perfect analogy, with the role vis-a-vis a local authority where we have no direct responsibility. I am sure we all have the same experience of being requested and indeed agreeing to take up matters with all sorts of bodies with which we have no links of accountability whatsoever, people's banks, lawyers, all kinds of things. We have a mixed role, do we not? There is the role for which this place exists of the scrutiny of Government and the scrutiny of legislation and so on and there is also the representative role which increases in what people hope and expect we may take an interest in with every year that goes by. Yes, of course it is a change in degree. I would have to think more fully about it before I am absolutely confident to what extent it is a change in kind.

1  Note by witness: the earliest year in which a UK General Election could involve a reduced number of Scottish MPs at Westminster is 2004. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 19 March 1999