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Select Committee

Mr. Speaker: Before I call the Minister to move motion 4, relating to the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, I must tell the House that I have selected the manuscript amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George). Copies of the amendment are available in the Vote Office.

Mr. Forth: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Following that helpful information, I should be grateful if you clarified what the voting procedure will be and whether or not the matter will be subject to a deferred Division. If that is so, how will the House deal with an amendment to a matter that may be subject to a deferred Division? It would be very helpful if you were to guide the House on the conduct of this business in the light of your having selected a manuscript amendment.

Mr. Speaker: There will be a vote if the House wishes to divide on either the amendment or the motion. That Division will take place this evening, or this morning--or whatever.

11.45 pm

Mr. Spellar: As I recall, it is always today.

I beg to move,

That three be the quorum of the Committee.
That the Committee have power to send for persons, papers and records.
That the Committee have power to adjourn from place to place.

The Select Committee examining the Bill will have a vital role to fulfil on behalf of the House. It will subject to careful scrutiny proposed legislation which, because it is important to the armed forces, is important to us all. The hon. Members listed in the motion appear to me to be fully capable of discharging that function, and I extend that generous characterisation not only to my hon. Friends, but to Opposition Members. The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) served with distinction on the Select Committee that considered the previous Armed Forces Bill, and I am sure that the Committee will benefit from his experience.

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I also advise the House that we are pleased to accept the manuscript amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George). Accordingly, I commend the motion to the House.

11.46 pm

Mr. Key: We realise that it is an unusual Committee and we accept the tradition that three be its quorum. It is extremely important that the Committee have the power to send for persons, papers and records and to adjourn from place to place to allow it to take evidence in places other than London. In principle, the motion is an attractive proposition.

However, one or two points need to be made. It is unfortunate that it has been the tradition that this Select Committee does not have the powers to appoint other specialist advisers so that it can obtain information. We therefore very much welcome the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George). It represents sensible progress and it will assist the Committee. It will provide discomfort for the Government, because the Committee will be better informed.

I also have absolutely no difficulty with the individuals whom the House seeks to appoint to the Committee, but I have a good deal of difficulty with its composition compared with the one that considered the previous quinquennial Bill. It is worth reminding the House that, in 1996, the Committee's business was conducted with just one Minister, who turned up only for those sessions at which he was strictly required. The Committee felt no constraint about whom it asked for evidence and what it asked from a Government breathing down its neck. It had one parliamentary private secretary, no Whips on either side, one shadow Minister and four Conservative and four Labour Back Benchers. Eight of a Committee of 11 were Back Benchers. That made it an effective and model Committee.

That is in stark contrast to the composition and balance of the Committee this time. As several right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, it will be dominated by the Executive and the Opposition have had to fulfil their role and shadow that structure. We suggested that it would be appropriate to have a bigger Committee, but the Government were not willing to concede that point.

Mr. Gummer: Before my hon. Friend castigates the Government alone, has he noticed that the Opposition Members of the Committee are all trusties? Because the Government members are all trusties, the Opposition members are all trusties. The Liberal Democrats have a trusty too, so is it not time that we recognised that the purpose of a Select Committee is have a few "untrusties" on it? It is the duty of the Government to make space for "untrusties". [Hon. Members: "Name them."] I had hoped that Labour Members would not say that, because I am trying to make the Government think in the depths of their heart that a bit of friendly fire from Labour Members might result in a better Select Committee.

Mr. Key: We must bear it in mind that, as far as the Government are concerned, all Opposition Members are untrusties, and we will of course play that role in the delightful, mischievous terms in which my right

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hon. Friend puts it. Given that only three Opposition Members are being suggested for membership of the Committee, I am sorry that my right hon. Friend feels that we will all do the Government's bidding; I assure him that we will not. I think that I shall be the only member of the Committee who went through the process last time round, so I will know where the bodies are buried and where the elephant traps lie.

When we get into Committee, we will consider whether we are to meet only on Tuesday mornings or on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. I want to make it clear now, as I will do in Committee, that Opposition Members will sit for as many hours as it takes. We will be happy to sit not only on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, but on Tuesday afternoons and evenings, until midnight or whatever hour is necessary to get the work done.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): I am delighted to hear my hon. Friend's assurance about how hard Opposition Members will work. Does he agree, however, that it is extraordinary to suggest that we might work hard when Government Front Benchers have not told us what the Committee is to do, or where and when it is to do it? Is not that information lacking?

Mr. Key: It has always been the case that until we get into Committee we do not know exactly what the programme will be or how long it will take. That is in the nature of a Select Committee. Any Select Committee starts by saying, "Let's investigate something." It then has business sittings at which it decides exactly what it will do. The difference on this occasion is that we have been told when the end date must be, which limits our powers of investigation on behalf of the House.

I find it extraordinary that the Government have known for four years that the Bill was coming, exactly what would be involved and what they wanted to include in it; they have listened to representations from previous Select Committees and had the opportunity to talk to the Chairmen of the Committees; yet it took them until nearly midnight tonight to concede that the Committee can have specialists for whom Parliament is prepared to pay. That represents mismanagement, and I hope that the Government will say why they have been bounced into that action by the Chairman of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for Walsall, South. I am grateful to him for persuading the Government to take that action, which will be of great benefit, but we will greatly miss him and his colleagues from the Committee in our deliberations on the Bill.

Mr. Wilshire: I am reassured to hear that my hon. Friend supports the amendment in principle. Is he aware, however, that while some of his colleagues might agree with him on the principle of the amendment, we find the detail unacceptable? He says that the amendment will be accepted, but that is not necessarily true as regards all the Members on the Benches behind him.

Mr. Key: That is my hon. Friend's prerogative; no doubt he will do his own thing.

It is to the credit of the right hon. Member for Walsall, South that the motion is on the Order Paper. However, I find it extraordinary that while the previous Committee

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scrutinised a longer, more complicated Bill with one Minister and no Whips, the Government side of this Committee will be packed with trusties, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) calls them.

We will support the amendment in the name of the right hon. Member for Walsall, South, and we will therefore be able to support the motion on the Armed Forces Bill.

Mr. Leigh: Before my hon. Friend sits down, will he reflect on the reasons why the amendment has been accepted? Does he think that the Government have accepted it because of its intrinsic merits or because, above all else, following yesterday's debacle, when they were unable to get their business through because only a handful of Government Members were still here, they fear a vote in the early hours of the morning?

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