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Mr. Tipping: I am interested in the point that the hon. Gentleman has just made. He is the Chairman of a Select Committee, and he has just pointed out to the Chamber the advantages of having ex-Ministers on his Committee. If that is the case, why has he signed up to the notion of an alternate career structure in the report? The two propositions do not hang together.
Mr. Wells: I do not agree. I was in the House when the departmental Select Committees were introduced and the noble Lord St. John of Fawsley, who was then Leader of the House, occupying the position of the right hon. Lady, said that they would provide a satisfying career and an alternative career to a ministerial one. I see no inconsistency in that. After a Minister has left office, he is available to pursue another career on a Select Committee. Indeed, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich is in that position. I agree with the Parliamentary Secretary that former Ministers add a dimension that should not be denied to Select Committees. I see no contradiction in stating that that is an alternative career path, which can be influential in the House.
Mr. Tipping: If that is the case, an opportunity to serve on a Select Committee, adding value, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, should be good preparation for being a Minister. His argument suggests that he would have to deny that.
Mr. Wells: Select Committees offer opportunities pre-and post-ministerial office. I do not exclude either possibility, but I believe that serving on a Select Committee makes a satisfying alternative career to being a Minister. The hon. Gentleman, who has not been a junior departmental Minister, may think that Select Committee membership is a more influential position than a junior Minister often occupies.
Mr. Wells: It is entirely clear. A career could be mixed; an hon. Member could have a ministerial and a Select Committee career. The latter offers an alternative path for influencing matters that relate to a specific subject that an hon. Member wishes to pursue.
The Liaison Committee report looks forward to the way in which an effective Parliament can be seen to be working by the public. That is important for the prestige and power of Parliament. Select Committees are much more suited than the House to the television camera because the viewer can see what happens, watch the exchanges and identify with the proceedings.
The Select Committee system should be expanded, enhanced and given extra powers. That is the future for seeing Parliament respected again in our country, and enabled to be more powerful than it is at present.
I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) and the Liaison Committee on producing a luminous report. It is terse, short, but in many ways perfectly formed. That also applies to the demolition of the Government's response in the Committee's reply.
When I learned, within days of arriving in this place, that Labour membership of Select Committees was vetted by the Government through the Whips, I thought that it beggared belief. With great respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), that is not a pettifogging matter. If we explained the process to the British people, and said that those who scrutinise the Government are selected by the Government, they would be astounded.
Mr. Marshall-Andrews: I do not agree with that, and I do not want to follow a tributary of the argument; I prefer to stick to the bull point of the report. That point is much more important than the alternative career proposals. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Consolidation of Bills, etc. I should not want that to become an alternative career. It is not one of the Committees that is besieged by hon. Members wishing to join it.
There are two compelling reasons for the House to move as fast as possible and use all the agencies at its command to ensure the implementation of the proposals in the report. The first is the changing nature of the constitution of the House. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House came to this arena rather late in life, having had the good fortune to pursue and enjoy careers in other places. We do not seek preferment or office, and the vast majority of us are delighted to serve on the Back Benches and whatever Back Bench Committees we are invited to sit on. That is pretty fortunate in some cases. It is easy for those of us who are in that happy band of brothers to look at the gross, transparent abuse of power by the Whips Office and treat it with the contempt that it deserves.
The same cannot be said for many other hon. Members because, let us face it, we live in the age of the career politician. There are people who perceive politics not simply as a dedication and calling, but as a vocation and a job which, they hope, will last for life. There is nothing wrong with that, and I do not criticise that position. Politics is a noble calling and we even have our own patron saint--one thanks God nightly that that did not involve the elevation of Cardinal Wolsey. For people who come to this place as career politicians, the Whips wield a deadly, capricious power that affects both the reputation, however transient, that they seek but may never have, and their entire career and raison d'etre. Of course, many Members apply themselves honourably to ignoring that and getting on with the business. However, human nature is such that many will not do that, and there will be growing pressure for conformity, which is the handmaiden of a lack of principle.
By that means and as a result of the changing nature of the House, the Whips power will continue to grow. As it does, the corollary is that the power of the House to curb the Executive will be steadily eroded. I agree that this matter is an old chestnut that has been before Parliament many times, but it is timely because of the change in the nature of the House.
My second point is much simpler and shorter. Quite simply, the use of that power is an exercise in political corruption. This Administration has been free of the taint of economic and commercial corruption, of which we should be justifiably proud. However, that does not apply when we come to look at the question of political corruption. It does not matter whether one calls it nepotism, cronyism or the abuse of patronage, because they are all the same. Unless we root it out, we will not be heard with respect and, indeed, the House will forfeit the right to be heard at all.
I am pleased to have made a short contribution on those two matters. I share the pessimism of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), who made a wonderful speech, but I hope that the measure will, at the very least, be debated and voted on without fear.
I am delighted to follow the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews). In his brief, articulate and succinct speech, he summed up the essence of and the principle that lies behind the Liaison Committee report "Shifting the Balance", which we are debating today.
It was mentioned earlier that I may have a vested interest in the debate because of my experiences in the House. I fervently believe in the House and in the role that it plays in holding the Government of the day to account and scrutinising legislation. As hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, the only effective way in which the House of Commons can properly hold the Government of the day and their Ministers to account is through the Select Committee system. It is quite wrong that the Government, however tenuously, should have any say in the appointment of hon. Members to Select Committees. Of course, the Government can have a say through the usual channels--the Whips Office--on which Committees are to be controlled by the Government party and which by the main Opposition party and other parties. Should the Government have any direct say in the appointments to the Select Committees? The answer is no.
In its report, the Liaison Committee has made propositions that should rightly be voted on in due course. The Government reacted quickly to include motions on the Order Paper to change Standing Orders in response to the Modernisation Committee's report, which was not unanimous. They have a duty and a responsibility to the House to table in this Session of Parliament--and I mean in this Session--substantive motions to enable the House to vote on the proposals contained in this report, which was unanimous. The Minister will recognise that there is substantial support on both sides of the House for the conclusions and recommendations contained in the report.
The Chairman and two Deputy Chairmen of Committees could be appointed as you, Madam Deputy Speaker, the Chairman of Ways and Means and the other Deputy Speakers are appointed. Such appointments can be put to the House to be agreed or otherwise. I liked the speech of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle). I did not agree with her, but she was honest and direct. The House could have a say over who is appointed as Chairman and Deputy Chairmen of Committees. The House could make appointments to all the Select Committees within a short time after a new Parliament came into being. Hon. Members from all parties would then have a vital role in holding the Government of the day to account.
Having gone through a rather sad experience in 1992, I do not believe that the House should tolerate any longer a system of selecting people for Committees that allows such abuse to occur. In a way I am quite proud that the Winterton rule, as it is now known, is part of parliamentary history, is in textbooks and is taught in universities in this country and elsewhere. What went on was condemned by those who value the role of the House of Commons. What the Government of the day did brought them no credit.
The Minister misunderstands the reference to an alternative career. Of course people who serve on Select Committees, and even become Chairmen, could go on to become Ministers of the Crown. Nothing in the report prevents that. Likewise, nothing in the report prevents
My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), who is currently an Opposition Whip, said to me, "Of course that is right, but such people must not be imposed on Committees. There must first be a voluntary decision by the House to appoint them as members; then the Committee must elect a Chairman."
I ask the Minister to understand what is being said in the report, and also in another report. I do not have a copy with me, but I think it was called--perhaps someone can remind me--[Hon. Members: "Independence or Control".] That report was our brief but, again, unanimous response to the Government's very inadequate reply to the Liaison Committee's initial report.
Both new and old Members have served on the Liaison Committee, providing a wealth of Back-Bench experience. Let us be fair: the present Chairman, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), was a very distinguished Treasury Minister in an earlier Labour Government. He does not bring just a Back-Bench perspective to the report; he brings to it the experience of having been a distinguished Minister in a Labour Government.
It is not a matter of Back Benchers versus the Government of the day, or the Executive. A Member of Parliament with many years service, together with his colleagues, has brought to the House a wealth of experience in trying to shift the balance of power back to Parliament in order to give it a meaningful role--and the alternative career structure to which I have briefly referred represents one way of doing that.
The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) has been very honourable about expressing her opposition, even during Committee sittings. She says that we should not start talking about extra salaries or allowances. That may well have to come in due course, but I do not necessarily advocate it in the short term, either.
The hon. and learned Member for Medway, who is a practising lawyer and a man of great distinction, articulated his point--which he was right to make--in an incisive legal way. I listened to him with great respect. While being considered--like me--to be a maverick, the hon. and learned Gentleman is honest and honourable, and it is right for both honesty and honour to be part of this place.
Nowadays, more and more MPs are professional career politicians. We want MPs who do not just want preferment. We want MPs who will serve the House, not only on Select Committees but in other ways--MPs who believe that their role is important to Parliament, and to the role that Parliament itself plays.
We need an alternative career structure. I hope that both the Liaison Committee and the House will consider that. There will, I assume, be limited time before the Government table substantive motions--I suspect that the Minister will not tell us that they will be tabled before the end of the current Session--but let me make a plea. If the Government believe in democracy, and in Parliament's real role of being able to hold the Government of the day to account, will the Minister tell us that before the end of the current Parliament Members will have an opportunity to vote on the issues, principles and recommendations mentioned in today's debate? That will at least show that the Government believe that the House has a meaningful
I have sat on the Back Benches for 29 years, and I am proud of it. This is my 30th year as a Member. Some hon. Members may say that I do not have the ability to be a Minister, but I do not believe that that is the case. I have the ability, but I chose a particular way to fulfil the role of a Member of Parliament. I do not regret that; I do not want to push the water back under the bridges. I fervently love the House of Commons, and I want it to have more control over the Executive so that we produce not only better legislation but a better Government.