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Mr. Wilshire: My right hon. Friend, who has done his research on various members of the Committee, referred to the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch). Did my right hon. Friend carry out research similar to that which I undertook and discover that the hon. Gentleman is eminently qualified--more so than Conservative Members--because listed among his interests in the paperwork that I have is building model warships?
Mr. Gummer: I am not sure that it is necessary to be able to build model warships to be a member of the Committee, but that hobby represents an interest in the subject greater than that of any Back-Bench Labour member of that Committee, save one. Is not it scandalous that listing building model warships among their interests would have shown those members of the Committee, save one, to be much more suitable members? That is the level at which the matter is pitched.
I would not have been the one to say how that state of affairs arose, but the right hon. Member for Walsall, South, who chairs the Defence Committee, told us that the Select Committee is abominable because its membership was decided by the Whips--perhaps by the very Whip who tried, by his presence, to prevent the right hon. Gentleman from continuing his speech, or perhaps by the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland), the Whip who, until a moment ago, was sitting on the Treasury Bench, laughing. I have always thought that that particular subfusc giggle betrays embarrassment and knowing that the point being made is right as well as the fact that the person giggling does not have an answer. That Whip has left the Chamber, but he will play a part in the Committee--not that the matter is an interest of his.
This is a serious matter, but, at almost 1.15 am, I see no one who is likely to report how serious it is. No newspaper or television service and no one from radio will report that, for the first time in history, the House will allow the Armed Forces Bill to be considered by a Committee with a majority of members who have been chosen because they know nothing about the subject. What is more, until the right hon. Member for Walsall, South tabled his manuscript amendment, those members were not to be helped by someone who might know something about the subject.
The Government hoped to establish a complacent, ignorant Committee majority who would have no help in asking questions of the Ministry of Defence, which we all know to be a Ministry adept at meeting questions with answers more opaque than translucent. May I point to an example? For some months, I have been trying to discover on what basis the United Kingdom supported the American bombing of an aspirin factory in Sudan. That is a matter of great importance to me because I believe it to have been an unprovoked and unacceptable invasion of other nations' airspace and quite wrong. I have received no answer from the Ministry of Defence or the Prime Minister. I am told that it is a matter of--
In the long discussions that the Committee will have in dealing with its wide remit, I hope that it will discover, at least for me, why the Government can say that that is a matter of national security--the bombing by the Americans of the Sudan is a matter of British national security--and that they therefore need not give me an answer.
Will the Government give an answer to the Select Committee? No, because the Committee is not capable of insisting that it gets the answer, for it is composed of people who have taken no interest in the matter up to now, and until the right hon. Member for Walsall, South insisted on it would not even have had someone to guide them.
I am not speaking on the subject because I am an expert on the armed forces, and it would be wrong for me to do so if I were. I am speaking on the subject because I care about the House of Commons and whether we will regain for ourselves the job that we were sent here to do. I could speak about the environment, about which I do know something, or about agriculture, about which I care a great deal, but neither of those were the original reasons for the existence of the House. The House was established to ensure proper control of the Executive on defence. That is what we were created for, historically, and in that sense the right hon. Gentleman has a role of considerable importance.
I shall deal finally with that role, because it relates to the so-called Select Committee. The right hon. Gentleman pointed to the fact that no other country in the European Union would accept the subsidiary role that his Committee has had forced upon it by our current system. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) has just arrived, no doubt again from Geneva, which is not in a member state of the European Union. He should take the matter seriously if he is a democrat and if he is interested in the European Union, as I believe him to be.
I shall say something that probably will not be popular with my colleagues, but I want to say it because it is true. The European Union member states were often criticised in the past by Conservative Members--
Mr. Gummer: Of course I accept your ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker, but the issue concerns a Select Committee that we are setting up. It is perfectly proper for me to refer to the fact that you rightly allowed the right hon. Member for Walsall, South to mention that his Committee did not have the same powers as comparable committees in any other country in the EU, and that that was one of the reasons why he was concerned about what the House was setting up today.
I am following the right hon. Gentleman precisely in those terms and merely saying that the reason why it did not happen in the past was because the House had those powers. We took those powers to ourselves. Now, we have neither given them to the Select Committee nor kept them for ourselves. The House as a whole neither exercises those powers, as was once true, nor has it done what our colleagues in the EU did--given those powers to a Select Committee. Oddly enough, we are in a worse position than any other member of the EU, because we have neither kept what we had nor gained what those countries have chosen to have.
Tonight, we are making that situation worse because we are allowing the Government to insist that we discuss this at 1.20 am and we are only allowed a vote this evening because of the beneficial accident of the manuscript amendment of the right hon. Member for Walsall, South. In addition, we seem to be endorsing a proposal which will not be satisfactory when it comes to the control of the Executive because the people whom we are choosing are none of them capable, by their past experience or published interests, to carry through the kind of investigation which would be proper.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it showed a great deal of contempt for the Select Committee and the Chairman that the Minister's only response to a long speech during a debate on an important constitutional issue was to rebuke the Select Committee Chairman for speaking so late at night and keeping his colleagues up?
Mr. Gummer: You, Madam Deputy Speaker, would not want me to follow my hon. Friend too far down that line, but I was surprised at that. I can only assume that it was because the Minister did not list defence among his interests. Had we been talking about the motor industry, he might have been prepared for us to go on all night.
The Select Committee will not be able to do its job properly because of its membership. It will also not be able to do its job properly because of those who are not among its members. I suppose that I was among those being accused of a certain light-heartedness, but my point was a serious one.
One of the important aspects of a Select Committee is that it has on it a number of people who are mavericks, who do not think in terms of the established position of the Government or the Opposition but look at things in a slightly different way. I often disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), but he is an important Member of the House because he thinks differently from others and puts his point. The hon. Member for Rotherham, whom I tease from time to time about his connections with the Swiss republic, is in many ways a maverick himself, and the House would be the poorer without him.
I am a generous man and it is important to have a wide range of people in the House, but we also need such people on Select Committees. I suspect, although the right hon. Member for Walsall, South did not mention it, that one of the things that he does not like about the Select Committee is that no one from either side on it is likely to give anybody a run for their money. The thing about consensus, which is what the Select Committee should seek, is that it should not be consensus between the experts who have similar ways of looking at things--it should be able to bring into the structure people who will ask tough and difficult questions. That is another reason why we will not get the answer that I would like from the Committee.
There is a further reason, which is just as important. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst was a little unfair in talking about the quorum of three in the Committee, as previous Bill Committees have had a similar quorum. Perhaps it would have been better if my right hon. Friend had begun by saying that he would not have minded a quorum of three if other circumstances were as they previously had been. The problem with the quorum is that those outside might say that it is odd, as it could be filled just with Opposition Front-Benchers, let alone Government Front-Benchers. What an odd quorum, if it could be filled by Ministers and Whips alone. Because the Government do not care about that, the issue is serious. I want to end with that--