Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Maria Eagle: How does one become a senior Member, independent of one's party?

Our experiences, whether as Back Benchers or Ministers or in some other arena, enable all Members to bring something to the scrutiny they carry out as a member of a Select Committee. To say that anyone wanting to become a Select Committee Chairman cannot ever go into Government would be a nonsense, because it would deprive the Committees of the valuable experience that Members bring with them. Who better to scrutinise the workings of the Executive than someone who has been through the Whitehall system, seen how government works and tried to make it work better?

It would be a mistake to separate the two roles, not least because it would lead to two classes of Member of Parliament. Apart from Front Benchers, we are all Back Benchers together, whether we sit on the Government or the Opposition Benches. We might serve on the Front Benches for a while, but we shall inevitably end up back on the Back Benches. What would be wrong with then becoming a member of a Select Committee and bringing our experience to bear? Many distinguished Select Committee Chairmen have done that and we should not prevent others from doing the same.

In addition, if the suggested career progression is insufficiently appealing, no one who has any hope of ministerial office will opt for it. That raises questions about whether we would be able to fill the membership of Select Committees.

My main objection to the report centres on the proposals for the Select Committee panel. I understand that they are designed to increase the power of Select Committees--and therefore strengthen parliamentary scrutiny--rather than that of the Executive. However, we have to remember that our constitution provides that the Government can govern only if they have a majority in the House of Commons: Ministers are Members of Parliament. It is therefore not fair to suggest that it is impossible to hold such people to account without entirely separating parliamentary scrutiny in the fashion proposed.

If we implemented all the recommendations, there would be three people--the Chairman and two Deputy Chairmen of the Select Committee panel--who held enormous power. They would almost be a self- perpetuating oligarchy, because they would choose the members of the Select Committees from which Select Committee Chairmen were drawn. They would be able to select those who could have the alternative career; thus members of the Select Committees would owe them a certain obligation.

The panel would be able to select subjects for debate on the Floor of the House and in Westminster Hall. Other hon. Members have mentioned recommendations that its

9 Nov 2000 : Column 521

members should be paid or get an increase in their office costs allowance to reflect their work. The Norton report even set out salary scales and stated which Select Committee Chairmen should be paid the equivalent of a Cabinet Minister's salary.

The panel would have the power to report those who failed to attend Select Committee meetings, to decide the format and presentation of Select Committee reports, and to propose changes in the budgets of Government Departments through the referral of estimates to departmental Committees. That sounds as though elements of the Government are to be supplanted, rather than scrutinised. The panel would be able to control whether or not joint inquiries could be undertaken and it would provide communications support, which sounds as though a spin machine is to be established to enable Select Committees to publish reports that look nicer than such reports do now.

All that does not give the impression of scrutiny; it sounds as though an alternative source of power would be established in the House. We are all politicians in this place, and politics is about power. The members of the Liaison Committee are all senior Members. Many of them are Privy Councillors who have been in the House for many years. They are owed a great deal of respect, but perhaps they think that they should have a little more respect and power than at present. The report proposes that they should get that.

Having read the report, I am not surprised that the Government might think, "Hang on a minute, is this really about scrutiny of the Executive?" It is about establishing a separate power structure within the House that is not necessarily accountable to Back Benchers. I cannot see that the Select Committee panel would be accountable to Back Benchers, and that worries me. It is an alternative source of power that is outside of party.

We must be careful. It is fashionable to suggest that party influences are terrible and represent everything that is wrong with the legislature and its power to scrutinise the Executive. The House could not function without the proper functioning of the party systems. There is too much legislation, too much secondary legislation and too many pressures on individual Members time for us to be able to function without party. We weaken party in this place at our peril. We should consider carefully the implications of what we are doing.

It is for these reasons--

Mr. Edward Davey: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Maria Eagle: I am coming to the end of my remarks. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not give way.

Mr. Davey: The hon. Lady said that she would give way.

Maria Eagle: I did, but I do not want to take up too much time. Other Members wish to speak.

It is easy for us all as Back Benchers to say, "It's terrible. The Executive has too much power and we need more carefully to scrutinise it." We need extremely carefully to examine the proposals for changing the balance and allowing Back Benchers to scrutinise more carefully before we implement them. They could change

9 Nov 2000 : Column 522

many other things in the House, which would be to its detriment. That applies not only to the present Government but to any other Government who are elected in future.

5.42 pm

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford): It is a pleasure to speak while you are in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have not congratulated you before on your appointment.

I never expected to hear such a Conservative speech made by a Labour Member as that of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle). The hon. Lady is right to say that the report is an attempt to create a power structure within Parliament and to grab back the power that the Executive has grabbed from Parliament. The speech of the Leader of the House would have pleased Charles I. It would certainly have pleased any President of the United States. Both the right hon. Lady and the hon. Lady are saying that they disagree with parliamentary supremacy, which the English civil war delivered to Parliament. They want to run an Executive system when they are in office. However, they do not want that when they are not in office. That is true of both the Conservative party and the Labour party. It is a considerable fault and a serious undermining of Parliament.

I would like to see substantive motions come forward from Select Committees to the House. The whole House could discuss them and the motions would change Government policy.

Mrs. Beckett: This is the second time, although not in this debate, that I have heard a Conservative Member talking about taking back power that the Executive has removed from the House. It is my understanding--it may be at fault--that hitherto Select Committees have not been encouraged to substitute their judgment for that of the Executive. I do not quarrel with the hon. Gentleman for making the case that they now should. It is a legitimate case, but I happen to disagree with it. To talk as if we are turning back the clock to a "golden" age is perhaps unfair.

Mr. Wells: There is no golden age within the memory of the House as currently constituted, but one, especially that after the English civil war and during the commonwealth led by Cromwell, is within the House's historical memory. Parliament had supremacy, but has consistently lost that over the years.

Why has Parliament lost its supremacy? The reason is that the civil service does not want Parliament to interfere with its suggestions. Although the Government succeeded a Conservative Government, they have proposed exactly the same propositions, which came from exactly the same civil servants. Civil servants could not persuade Conservative Ministers to introduce proposals, flawed as they were, so they sought to convince Labour Ministers to do so. The civil service does not want an alternative body to be established before which it would have to account for its actions and policies, with the inevitable consequences.

Membership should be taken away from the command of the Whips. My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) explained the

9 Nov 2000 : Column 523

way in which Whips work. I am well aware of that process because I have been a Whip. The Labour party excludes from the Committee that I have the honour to chair Members whom the Whips do not want on that Committee. I can make that assertion because Labour members of the Committee told me so. That is the only evidence that I have, but I believe that it is reliable.

We need a body--I agree that it may not be that proposed in the Liaison Committee report--that is independent of the Whips Office. That wish is unlikely to be fulfilled, because the Whips Office will make certain that its influence is felt, whichever body is established. The Whips Office is well practised in that, and needs no protection from the House in that respect.

As the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said in an intervention, staffing is the great problem with our Committees. Committee staff are expert and extremely hard working, but only three or perhaps four people service the Committees. The International Development Committee could not do more work simply because its staff could not carry out the work that we could generate. Equally, Committee members cannot do much more than they presently do and the idea that Select Committees meet once a week is a joke, at least with regard to the International Development Committee. We meet on average twice a week, and often, when considering reports, much more frequently. We also have to carry out ancillary work, such as meeting those from outside the House--perhaps from international sources--who wish to influence the Committee. We do not conduct our affairs on only one or two days a week.

It is essential that Select Committees consider all Bills that come before the House before they reach Standing Committee. We need a system that carries out pre-legislative scrutiny along the lines on which Select Committees operate. That need not be done by the relevant departmental Select Committee--the heavy legislative loads that would fall on, for example, the Home Affairs Committee would make that impossible. However, a Select Committee process needs to operate before each Bill is considered clause by clause and line by line.

I did not support the right hon. Lady's programming proposals on Tuesday because, before we consider programming every Bill, we should establish a pre-legislative Select Committee process. Indeed, I would not agree to the proposals until we had such a process. There should also be a post-legislative process, which the right hon. Lady proposed, to establish how legislation has been implemented and whether it has produced the result that the House expected. That consideration is more important now that we have such a plethora of judicial review processes. In my view, those processes hold the Government up to scrutiny more effectively than Parliament manages to do, in view of the dominance of the House by the Executive, backed up by the civil service.

My next point concerns the powers of Select Committees, which I believe should be enhanced. Under the current rules, Ministers do not have to attend Select Committees, nor do Members of the House of Lords when called upon by a Committee to attend. Many Ministers--all the Ministers whom I remember--do not resist calls to go before Select Committees. That is established practice.

9 Nov 2000 : Column 524

However, there is one Minister who has refused to attend any Select Committee hearings: the Prime Minister. When Lady Thatcher was Prime Minister she refused to attend a Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, of which I was a member, when she was called upon to do so, and I believe that the present Prime Minister is following the same rules.

A Select Committee should have the power to call Ministers, as well as its present power to call others. Members of the House of Lords should come to our Committees; equally, Ministers in this House should be prepared to go before House of Lords Committees. The powers of Select Committees therefore need to be increased.

The hon. Member for Garston spoke about ex-Ministers. Former Ministers who serve on the International Development Committee have told me that, compared with their role as Ministers or on the Floor of the House, working on that Committee has been their most rewarding and most influential experience in the House or elsewhere. The most satisfying aspect has been the fact that they have been able to argue from strength, information and evidence to persuade Ministers to change policy.

That is the huge value of Select Committees. The International Development Committee has no difficulty in getting members.

Next Section

IndexHome Page