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Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): Does my hon. Friend find it surprising that the one Select Committee that actually legislates--the Deregulation Committee--given its powers under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1998, has a difficulty finding Members to serve on it? We must recognise that some Select Committees are extremely popular, but hon. Members must have their arms twisted to serve on others so that they have sufficient members to function.
Mr. Efford: I agree with my hon. Friend. Perhaps that reflects the fact that Back Benchers did not set up the Committee structure. If Select Committees were thought to be more relevant, more Back Benchers would want to become members of them. When I was first elected in 1997, I did not even know that the Select Committee on Procedure existed, but I found myself member of it. I have been a member of that Select Committee for three and a half years. I now find myself being dragged forward, blinking into the spotlight, to sort out the mess about the election of the Speaker. I am being forced to do that in double-quick time when we should also be considering other, wider issues, such as whether our Front-Bench Members should be involved in electing the Speaker or whether Back Benchers only should do so, as in other Parliaments. That matter needs more consideration and consultation than the suggested time scale that will allow, but I shall not go any further down that path.
I should like to stress one point in my short contribution to the debate: the Whips' influence on the membership of Select Committees. That is the one matter in which the report, if it achieves nothing else, should achieve some success. It is open to Members to achieve that success within our own party structures. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that, within the formal structures of the House, we do not recognise the
Under the current system, involving the House of Commons Commission, we could nominate Back Benchers for Select Committees through a body that is independent of the Whips within our own party structures. That body could determine the membership of Select Committees without such matters having to go to the Whips. We could achieve that without making major changes to the structure of the House if we genuinely want to ensure the separation of legislative scrutiny from the Executive.
The Hansard Society recommends further powers for Select Committees. We could consider certain issues--for example, the requisitioning of items perhaps even from the House of Lords, which has a backlog of work. It might be to the benefit of the House if Select Committees could take on the scrutiny of measures, perhaps co-opting Members of the other place. We could make progress without the in-built and undemocratic Conservative majority that exists in the Lords dictating the progress of Bills, which are often held up there. We would have greater influence if we could determine the timetabling of such Bills. That would stop any party political influence being exerted on their progress. That influence has nothing to do with scrutiny and brings the House into disrepute.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): Would it not be better if legislation were better thought out in this House before it went to the House of Lords so that the Government tabled fewer amendments in the House of Lords?
Mr. Efford: Yes, we can all make several points along those lines and some of us may agree with the hon. Gentleman, but it is undeniable that legislation is being held up because it contains measures that the Conservative party does not like. That is why there is a legislative backlog. We must find ways in which the House can become more effective so that we can deliver the policies that the people elected us to deliver without falling foul of the party political system that is so easily corrupted.
Mrs. Browning: I must put on record the fact that Lord Carter, the Labour party's Chief Whip in the other place, has said on record that the Conservative party was not unnecessarily delaying legislation.
Mr. Efford: I shall not debate that issue further--[Interruption]--because we all know the facts. We can all select various statements from different individuals to try to make our case, but the facts are before us.
Mrs. Dunwoody: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way because he is making an interesting speech and I do not want to break his flow. I hope that he will give some weight to the reality that, nowadays, legislation--even Government legislation--can return to the Floor of the House as late as Third Reading with several hundred amendments. Frankly, that is an example not only of extremely bad drafting but of extremely bad management. That has a direct effect on progress of legislation.
Before I finish, I should like to repeat that, if the report achieves nothing else, it should end the unwarranted influence of the Whips over the selection of members of Select Committees and Standing Committees. Even if the report does not result in a change in the way in which the House deals with such matters, our own party political structures should ensure that Back Benchers have greater influence in scrutinising the Executive.
Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): It is very good news indeed for the House that time has been set aside to debate such issues today. The report of the Liaison Committee should be commended in principle and accepted to a large extent. I had thought that much of the report was non-controversial and very much formed common ground among Members of Parliament. Indeed, in some places I thought it lapsed into a self- congratulatory tone about how well the system had been developed over the years. Then I listened to the speech of the Leader of the House, who was kind enough to inform me that she would not be able to be present for my speech. She was very combative in what she said. She not only underlined but entrenched some of the more negative parts of the Government's response to the report. I found that rather disturbing. I hope that we will look at that.
It was all too clear from what the Leader of the House said that she does not accept the report's fundamental premise that some change is necessary. The Government's response and her response today were all about how we are in the best of possible worlds--we should think ourselves lucky to have what we have and, if we make too much fuss, we might lose it; indeed, she explicitly said that in relation to Select Committee reports. Commenting on the suggestion that they might regularly intrude into the House's business, she said that we already have in the House more than the wildest wishes of Select Committee Chairmen and that we might have to look at that again. It seemed to be a case of, "Shut up at the back or you will lose your play time." The whole tone of her contribution failed to engage with the mood of the House and with the intentions of Members.
Maria Eagle: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, although there may be a mood for some changes, that does not mean that every Liaison Committee recommendation would be equally welcomed? Does he accept that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House welcomed large parts of the Liaison Committee report, but had strong words to say about other parts?
The report says that there are some issues about the membership of the Committees. Quite a lot of the discussion so far has focused on that. There are the big structural issues, but there are also some shorter, tactical issues about how long it takes to set up Committees at the beginning of a Parliament, and the delays that there can be in replacing members when vacancies occur. Clearly, all those matters can be addressed if the House's procedures are tightened and developed.
There may be something to be said for the criticism of the three wise men, or the three wise senior Chairs, as it may be. They may be legitimate points to make in developing proposals, but what I want to hear from the Government is an acceptance that something different is needed to ensure that we can establish Committees rapidly at the start of any new Parliament.
There are some longer-term issues about the power of the Whips and of the Government to dictate who serves on Committees. Perhaps that shows up in two ways, only one of which has been talked about. We have talked about the possibility--the reality even--of people being kept off Committees if they might embarrass the Government, create waves, or do various things. A particular illustration has been given--my near neighbour, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), and his experience as Chairman of the Select Committee on Health, but we all know that that is probably not the most pernicious part of it. The most pernicious part of it is that the Whips use the possibility of attaining Committee membership to subdue the behaviour of Members in wholly unrelated areas of their parliamentary activities. It is the fettering of the discretion of Members by the use of patronage that we should put our finger on.
The Select Committee has come up with a particular solution: to have a Committee of Chairmen; a Committee of the great and the good. To have three people who have senior experience in this place and who are Chairmen or Chairwomen taking the decisions in the open, with open nominations, is clearly an advance on a system that is completely opaque. Names emerge. They are never even seen by the rest of us when they go to the Committee of Selection, which incidentally is pretty well entirely bunged up with Whips of one sort and another. The nominations come to the House in a pro forma manner, which it is exceptional to challenge.
Therefore, that solution is an improvement. It is more transparent, but I would want to hear from the Committee, as it refines its proposals, exactly what criteria those people will use when they select the people whom they nominate to come before us and to serve on the Select Committees. How will they ensure that fairness and equity is achieved? How will they ensure that balance
I say that not because I think that those people will deliberately get it wrong, but because that is complex and difficult to achieve. If the rules are not established properly when a new system is introduced, it might rapidly fall into disrepute and be perceived to be as bad as the thing that it replaced. A recipe is given to us by the Select Committee, but it is indicative and we do not know precisely what might follow.
That is a good reason for us to have this debate. It is a good reason to hear from the Government what they think sensible improvements might be of the existing system, or, if we moved to a new system, what they see as the essential elements of it. I will not use the time of the debate to set out my views on that. I am sure that, if we set about establishing a new, more objective procedure, we could all get round--I hesitate to say, the table; I suppose that we would have to sit in the Chamber and shout at each other. However, there must be opportunities for some working papers to define a system that could meet widespread consent. Perhaps we need the Select Committee to do it, as Select Committees often can.
The issue of the power of the Executive against the restraining hand of the House is one of perpetual balance and negotiation; it changes all the time. Had she been here, I would have said to the Leader of the House that part of the balance was adjusted on Tuesday. I was happy to support the changes that were introduced on Tuesday. I have argued on their behalf in the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons and elsewhere because I believe that their benefits outweigh their disadvantages.
The Government did not lose in the balance or negotiation as it was struck on Tuesday. I was hoping that, in today's debate, the Leader of the House might have been prepared to acknowledge that, even if only subconsciously, and say, "Yes, we got a lot of things that were important to us on Tuesday"--and that were important to the House, too--"and we now think that on Thursday we can go a little further and take another step forward in liberating Select Committees, so that they are more independent of the power of the Whips and of the Government." It would have been good to have some acceptance from her of the problems that are identified by the Select Committee, and some acknowledgment that the Government can play a part in solving the difficulties that have been identified, and in setting a timetable for action to put in place the changes that we need.
I shall take only a few minutes more. There are two or three points, which have been alluded to, that are important and where we need to have some clear moves forward. One is the support and resources that are available to Select Committees.
We have the least well equipped Select Committee system of any Parliament in western Europe, north America or the old Commonwealth. It does not matter with which group we are compared or whatever one's political complexion, the fact is that our Select Committees are less well serviced than any of those. Therefore, it is not a great surprise to find that our Select Committee system has the weakest impact on the
I am not particularly committed to the model in the Select Committee's report, but I would have hoped--it would have been helpful--to have received some acknowledgement from the Government that they would at least not obstruct that being developed.
Another issue that has been mentioned is the career structure that might be developed as an alternative to getting into Downing street. Most people imagine that when we enter the House, we are provided with our knapsack and the key to No. 10, and that some of us might be lucky enough to use it. [Interruption.] In reality, there are about 655 hon. Members who will not achieve that, but we do not know who the remaining four might be. In all probability, they do not include the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) or me.