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Mr. Spellar: As my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) will imagine, I do not entirely accept the rationale for his amendment, nor the way in which he put it. However, I believe that the terms of the amendment are right and that is why, as I said, we are pleased to accept it and to incorporate it into the motion.
My right hon. Friend slightly overdid his grievance about the composition of the Committee, especially as he said earlier that he had said that he did not want to serve on it. Other members of the Select Committee on Defence also said that they did not want to serve on the special Committee.
Mr. Gerald Howarth: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise for interrupting the Minister, but I am not aware that he sought the leave of the House to speak again in the debate. Is that in order?
Mr. Spellar: My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South also referred to inconveniencing the Executive. In speaking for some half an hour at this time of night, he did not inconvenience the Executive so much as his Back-Bench colleagues.
Having dealt with the family dispute on our Benches, I shall intrude into that on the Opposition Benches, but only briefly. Again, I do not agree with everything that the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) said, but I appreciate his balanced approach and I look forward to working with him on the Committee to the benefit of our armed forces.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I am grateful to have heard the speech by the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), which was a cri de coeur on behalf not only of Select Committees and their Chairmen, but of hon. Members on both sides of the House who feel that an important issue is at stake--the balance of responsibility between the Executive and the legislature. He raised several important issues. Although I hope to follow the right hon. Gentleman in that I take those issues seriously, I shall be more succinct.
Basically, there are two issues, the first of which is the composition of the Committee. The right hon. Gentleman described it as appalling. I hope that he and other hon. Members who share his view will be prepared to vote against the composition.
At a practical level, if so many members of the Committee on both sides of the House have Front-Bench responsibilities, how will they be able to give the amount of time that will clearly be necessary to consider what is a complicated Bill, as I think all of us would confirm, within the time frame that the House has agreed? Even if the composition of the Committee was logical and appropriate before we agreed the programme motion, it certainly is not now that we have done so. Clearly, the commitments on both sides will be such that it will be
First and foremost, my colleagues and I are extremely unhappy about the fact that the Committee has been constituted almost entirely by trusties, to use the expression of the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). Before he seeks to intervene, if it is any consolation to him, I already have the consent of my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), who is the Liberal Democrat trustie, that if the other trusties are all removed, I shall be happy as Chief Whip to replace him with someone from our Back Benches. I hope that that will console the right hon. Gentleman.
The second issue is, of course, the one to which the right hon. Member for Walsall, South referred so eloquently. It is critical that the Committee should have access to other information and sources of advice and expertise outwith the Ministry of Defence. That is surely the most important point about our Select Committee procedures and the composition of such Committees. They should not simply be informed by the Executive. They are not Government informed; they have other sources of information.
It is extremely important to ensure that the amendment is not only passed, but implemented. It will not be good enough for someone to say, halfway through the process, that there is no time to get the necessary expertise or to find the required advisers. It is essential that the Select Committee procedure and principles are observed, even with this specially constituted Committee.
That is all I need to say on the amendment, but I want to say something about how Conservative Members have treated the issue. We all enjoy the speeches of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). My mind is still boggling at the word picture that he painted of a cosy travelling circus, consensually vibrating with excitement. That is not a serious approach. I trust that if the Committee's composition is reviewed, even at this late hour, he will not serve on it so that he cannot be embarrassed by any travelling circus.
Seriously, it is extraordinary that those on the Conservative Front Bench cannot even discipline their own Back Benchers in a debate that is basically about military discipline. There is a complete division of opinion about whether the Select Committee will be a useful adjunct and a useful way to consider the business of the House. I am concerned about the reputation of the House. I believe that Select Committees are an extremely effective tool to ensure that the Executive's legislation and executive actions receive proper scrutiny. I believe that Select Committees have done useful work in the past, but they have done their most useful work when they have been truly representative of the whole House, not just of those on the Front Benches.
In no sense do I seek to limit what the Select Committee does; nor do I wish to complain about the expense to which it puts the taxpayer, especially as its Chairman has said how much he has limited that expense. I do not want this debate to become an argument about cheeseparing in the proper performance of parliamentary activity. This debate ought to be about the way in which the Government are stopping the proper performance of parliamentary activity. We do ourselves a disservice if we suggest that, somehow or other, people will join this Select Committee or any other Select Committee merely for the purpose of junketing. Only the Murdoch newspapers are served by such comments.
Mr. Blunt: I want to reinforce my right hon. Friend's point. The subject of the Bill is the operation of discipline in the armed forces in times of both peace and war. It is an extremely important matter that the members of the Committee, with the exception of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), have no military experience at all. My hon. Friend has gained experience through his membership of the Select Committee on Defence. The Committee's members should be able to go to an operational theatre to see how the Bill is meant to work in practice in the most extreme conditions that can be found today.
Mr. Gummer: My hon. Friend is right in the sense that he asks for a proper investigation and wishes the Committee to do such travel as is necessary for it to carry out its duties. That is the case that my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) presented.
I have gone to the trouble of looking up the interests of the members of the Committee who have been placed on it by the Whips. The hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Crausby) lists industrial relations, pensions and housing as his special interests. The Minister for the Armed Forces lists as his special interests energy, industry, electronics, the motor industry, the construction industry, Australia, Israel and the United States. The hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) lists as her interests economic policy, industry, education, housing, Europe, Africa and the United States. That is about half the world. The hon. Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Watts) says that his special interests are regional policy, education and training.
Apart from one Minister and the representatives of the Opposition, it is difficult to discover anyone on the Committee who has previously evinced any interest in this serious subject. I do not make merely a party political point, but a point about the House of Commons. Such a Committee has never happened before. We can examine the lists of members of previous Select Committees
Tonight, we are arguing about a totally different kind of Committee. I hope that the House will take seriously the speech of the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George). Not realising that I would take part in the debate, I had occasion earlier to compliment him on his performance on television when he answered a tricky question about which he had received no prior knowledge. He answered it in a way that was perfectly proper and that enabled someone like myself from a different political party to know what was a reasonable answer to a particularly difficult issue with which the Ministry of Defence was trying to grapple. I refer to the uranium in some of the armaments used in Britain and elsewhere. The right hon. Gentleman gave every kind of due to the Ministry of Defence. He sought to make it as easy as possible for the Ministry to handle a difficult problem, but he also reserved the right and duty of the House and its Members to insist on a proper, accurate and detailed explanation. He made the balanced statement that one would have expected from a Select Committee Chairman of whatever party and in whatever circumstances.
When that individual comes to the House and says that he finds the membership of a Committee appalling, he does not deserve to have his Whip standing staring at him for 20 minutes, trying to harass and intimidate him. Happily, unlike myself, the right hon. Gentleman is significantly larger than his Whip, and if there is any intimidation I am perfectly sure that he will be able to ensure that it is on his part. However, that was shocking behaviour. I do not want Opposition Members to say so; Government Members should be saying that it was shocking. It is not right that Parliament should be treated as if it were merely a poodle of the governing party, whichever that may be.
Tonight, we are discussing something fundamentally unacceptable, and I ask the Minister, whom I believe to be a decent man, to notice that in this debate and the previous one, serious and sensible members of his party have stood up and complained about the way in which Parliament has been treated. When I look back over my 25 years in the House, I do not remember an occasion on which, in two successive debates, such complaints were made on either side of the House by Members of their standing and loyalty. This ought to be an occasion for the Government to wonder whether they have made a mistake.
Earlier, of course, there was a certain amount of good-natured humour, which is not unreasonable in the House, and certainly not at such a time. However, this debate is not one of good-natured humour; it is about one of the crucial elements in our democracy. We are discussing the Armed Forces Bill, and Parliament was originally set up to deal with exactly such issues, and not those matters that the members of the Committee have said are their closest interests. Those matters are important, but they are subsequent to Parliament's fundamental purpose, which was to deal with the nation's need to have armed forces, to make sure that they were at the service of the nation and not merely the Crown, and to ensure that the nation was properly defended.
We are not talking about an unimportant matter or one that should be prejudged on the basis of the way in which the Government have stuffed the Committee and appear already to have decided who shall chair it. Those are not suitable measures for a Government who claim that they want to represent all the people. This is not a light matter.
I promised to say something about the Liberal Democrat member of the Committee, the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch). I do not agree with him. He has a number of views that I find unacceptable, but no one can claim that he does not follow these matters with care and assiduity. No one can claim that he should not be a member of such a Committee. It would not be in keeping with the tenor of what I have to say to comment on Conservative Members, but I must tell the Minister that he cannot point to more than one Labour Member who can claim any previous interest in the matter. That must be embarrassing for him in trying to ensure that the Committee is a proper vehicle for the House to carry through its prime purpose, which is to keep the Executive properly in bounds.