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Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend is right to say that he and I are friends of long standing. That is why I am sorry to disagree with him. I am genuinely dismayed to hear him echo that easy and, in my view, empty criticism of the role of Parliament, expressed most frequently by Opposition Members and used in a partisan way--
Mrs. Beckett: I know that my hon. Friend is not saying that--he believes that the problems go back many years and I accept that the issues have long been the subject of argument. They are, in a sense, old chestnuts--what happened to the giants of yesteryear, or why are today's politicians so trivial? The debate has been going on for centuries. Perhaps I am too old-fashioned for the taste of my hon. Friend and those who are participating in the debate, but I regard being elected to be a Member of Parliament as one of the greatest honours that the people of this country can confer on one of their fellow citizens and I reject with contempt the assertion recently made by a fellow Member of Parliament that being a Member of Parliament is not work for a grown up. There is plenty of work to be done--certainly, I have never had any difficulty finding work to do, even when I have not held office.
First, let me tell my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) that I do not accept that the House is as diminished, nor that it is as subservient, as it has become fashionable to allege. However, I accept that there is always room for improvement in the way in which we carry out our duties and I am always prepared to consider proposals on how we might do so.
Mrs. Dunwoody: Does my right hon. Friend not know that one of the best tricks in politics is to set up one's own guys and then knock them down? She is being a trifle unkind to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) when she answers a question that he did not put.
Mrs. Beckett: I am aware--the matter is referred to in one of the Committee's reports--that, from time to time, there have been suggestions that individuals have been placed on Select Committees when they did not wish to be on them and when others would have preferred to exercise such a role. I accept that that is highly undesirable. I am also aware--I say this with even greater regret--that it is difficult to find Members who are willing to serve on some Committees. The assumption that the thrust of the difficulties that arise is simply and only that Members are jostling to hold office in different Select Committees is perhaps over-simplification.
That brings me to the next issue that I wish to raise. It is something that Members as a whole should consider. I am not sure that many have done so. It is whether we need or want an alternative career structure. I fear that it might lead to at least two, if not three, kinds of Member.
Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): I apologise for intervening as the right hon. Lady moves to the next issue. I thought that she would take up the point that, in my mind, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) crystallised brilliantly, when he said that there is something wrong when those who are at the forefront of scrutinising government should be chosen by the Government of the day. What is her response to that simple question?
Mrs. Beckett: I shall return to the issue of how nominations are made. My right hon. Friend asked a brilliantly simple question, but the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I do not share my right hon. Friend's view and that of the right hon. Gentleman that it is the Government who choose members of Select Committees.
There is the group of Members who have been fortunate enough--some may say unfortunate enough--to be drawn into Government ranks. If I understand the underlying thrust of the proposals, there is to be a second group of Members for whom the Select Committee work will be the chief focus of their work and careers. Presumably, there will be a third group of Members who are neither in the Government nor on Select Committees, who simply make up the remnant of the House.
Mrs. Beckett: That is a matter that should be clearly aired and clearly put to the bulk of our colleagues, who will presumably be that remnant. It should be made clear to them that we may, in these proposals, be creating a particularly privileged role for Select Committee members.
Mrs. Beckett: When I said that the matter should be put before our colleagues, I was referring initially to this debate. I keep being told of the views of the Members who have contributed to the discussion and put forward the report. They have had, as has my hon. Friend, their opportunity to contribute to all the discussions through which the report was thrashed out. He knows as well as I do that the bulk of Members are perhaps hardly aware of the report, and certainly not of its contents. The first step that should be taken, before we are advised to come to any decision, is to try to ensure that there is awareness of what is being proposed. That is the reference that I made.
Mrs. Browning: The right hon. Lady must know that it is on the record that an early-day motion refers specifically to the Liaison Committee's report. It has been signed by more than 250 Members, most of them Labour Members. I therefore contest her assertion that many Members are not aware of the report. Not only are they aware of it, but they have supported it by putting their names to the early-day motion to which I refer.
In the report, the Liaison Committee highlights as a problem the undervaluing of Select Committees work because some Members, if offered the opportunity, would choose the route to decision-making, even at a junior level in Government, over a senior though advisory role on a Select Committee. The Committee does not suggest that Members must choose, but it seems to postulate a potential choice of future members, not least by deploring the decision of some individual members to move from a Select Committee role to a role in government.
Of the 121 Members who have been appointed to ministerial office since the last general election, only nine have moved to do so from within a Select Committee. Equally, however, of the 33 members of the Liaison Committee, I think that I am right in saying--I do so partly from memory--no fewer than 20 have in the past enjoyed ministerial or shadow ministerial office on their respective Front Benches. The number may be higher. In some instances, they have held senior office at Cabinet or shadow Cabinet level.
The suggestion that it is perhaps a bad thing for Select Committee members to move into government is not a view that in any way I share. I believe that the potential for Members to move into and out of Government and Select Committees, between the one and the other, is one of the strengths of our system. Certainly, it is clear from the membership of the Liaison Committee that if the suggestion is that the route should be only one way or that it should not exist at all, we would see a very different group of Select Committees from the one that we see now.
That brings me to the Government's and my own principal concern about the largest group of recommendations made by the Liaison Committee. The most profound change proposed is the different role for the Chairman of the Liaison Committee and for his or her panel. I shall set out clearly what is proposed. It is the intention, as indicated in the report, that immediately after a general election, three Members, identified as Members of seniority and impartiality, should be appointed to handle Select Committee work. To those three Members would fall the role of nominating every member of every Select Committee now appointed by the Committee of Selection. It is not wholly clear to me whether it is intended also that they should appoint all the members of the Select Committees whose nominations now come directly from the party Whips.
Those three Members would have the additional role of deciding, and in effect implementing the decision, which Select Committees would be chaired by members of which party. Those are considerable powers. For example, the three Members could decide whether, to take an example at random, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs or the Select Committee on the Treasury should have a pro or anti-European bias.
As the Select Committees chosen by the three come to take up their role and as those Committees elect their Chairmen, those individuals would join the original group of three. From among the entire group of Chairmen of different Select Committees gradually returned, a Sub-Committee or an Executive Committee would be drawn. That would exercise in future the general responsibilities that follow the responsibilities initially exercised by the initial three. It is proposed that the Sub-Committee--in itself obviously very much influenced, if not directly chosen, by the original three Committee Chairmen--should handle any future nomination.
The report recommends that the Executive Committee should be charged with handling what I understand to be all the funding of Select Committees themselves; the Chairman of the Liaison Committee should have responsibility for deciding what reports are tagged to, or can be taken in conjunction with, debates, including debates instigated not only by the Government but by the Opposition and individual private Members. Thus it will be up to the Chairman of the Liaison Committee, and to him or her alone--they can consult the Sub-Committee--to decide that the purpose of a particular debate, perhaps chosen by an individual Member or the Opposition, can encompass a particular Select Committee report.
I draw the attention of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) to the proposal--perhaps it is one that she has not been following--that the Liaison Committee Chairman should have a role in advising the Government on which legislation, following the Queen's Speech, should be put forward to the House in draft. Each of those is a substantial and considerable power individually. Collectively, they represent an enormous accumulation of power and influence in the hands of a Member, albeit one initially chosen by the House.
All hon. Members know that I bow to no one in my admiration for my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne, who presently holds that post, but I shall not disguise from the House the fact that one of my main concerns is that, if we set up a structure and positions of that nature, we shall be in danger of