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Science and Technology Committee

9.32 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping): I beg to move,

The motion proposes that the Commons Science and Technology Committee should have the power to meet with the Lords Science and Technology Committee. In general, Committees with analogues in the Lords, such as the European Scrutiny Committee, have powers to meet with their counterparts. All Lords Committees have powers to meet with Commons Committees. In its second report last Session, the Science and Technology Committee asked that it be given the power to meet with its Lords counterpart.

I know that the motion has the strong support of the Chairman and members of the Science and Technology Committee, and I am delighted that the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar) has joined us. I am pleased to move the motion to give the Committee the power that it desires.

9.33 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): This interesting motion, which is not without its controversial elements, provides us with an opportunity to pause and consider the merits of the approach that is suggested. I confess to a feeling of unease at what I detect as a trend, which has emerged recently, and of which this is just the latest example, for joint meetings with Committees of the House of Lords.

I want modestly to praise the Minister for doing us the courtesy, as ever he does--I wish his colleagues would do the same--of coming to the House and giving us a succinct and rather elegant exposition of why he thinks the motion necessary. I have a number of questions that I want to ask him which relate directly to this seemingly innocuous motion and to the principle behind it, which is that of a joint approach. I also have a number of practical questions that are relevant at this stage.

Standing Order No. 152, which is the foundation of our Select Committee system, states:

straightforward enough, one would have thought. That applies, of course, to the Commons Select Committees, one of which is the subject of the motion. Item 11 in the table that forms part of the Standing Order shows that the Office of Science and Technology is the relevant Government Department.

We know, therefore, that the Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology is tasked under Standing Order No. 152 with giving its attention to the Office of Science and Technology and with examining its expenditure, administration and policy. We are all familiar with that territory, so it should not give rise to any difficulty.

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However, I am mystified by the form of words used in the motion. Recently, we have dealt with motions referring to Joint Committees of the Commons and the Lords. The motion does not use that form of words. It rather intriguingly uses a different form of words and states that

of the Commons, it is taken for granted--

I do not want to quibble excessively or be too pedantic. That is not in my nature, as the House knows, but I am intrigued as to why the motion is framed in that way. The word "concurrently" can imply a number of different things. It can imply meeting at the same time, or meeting in the same place, or both. I am not sure that the motion is sufficiently clear to give any guidance as to what it might mean. Perhaps the Minister can clarify that when he winds up the debate.

That is the immediate difficulty--the lack of clarity for which one would hope in such a motion. The motion goes on, even more confusingly, to state that our Select Committee will meet concurrently

I confess that I am not sufficiently familiar with the way in which the other place works to know whether--[Interruption.] I am educating myself.

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East): Perhaps I can help the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Forth: I should be delighted.

Dr. Kumar: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He said that he does not want to quibble. That is precisely what he is doing. He is quibbling all the way. He indulges in his song-and-dance tradition of quibbling with everything, and reads into everything far more than is meant.

Perhaps I can help the right hon. Gentleman. The spirit of the motion--[Interruption.] I am trying to be helpful. The right hon. Gentleman is struggling, and I want to educate him. He could benefit from education. [Interruption.] As a member of the Select Committee, may I explain to the right hon. Gentleman that the spirit of the motion was that we would try to make progress in the way that we take evidence. Rather than duplicating effort and wasting the resources of both Houses--the right hon. Gentleman never stops lecturing us about wasting resources, so I am trying to be helpful to him--

Mr. Speaker: Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will be helpful to me. His intervention is too long.

Mr. Forth: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar). I hope that he will feel free to intervene again and again. He anticipated one of the later points that I intended to make. If he is patient, and waits until a little later in the evening, I will come to the point that he was so helpfully trying to make. I am genuinely grateful to him.

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I was trying to probe the reasons for the form of words in the motion, which refers to working,

The flexibility that that allows is over-generous. Although I appreciate the reasons for the motion's focus on our Select Committee on Science and Technology, which we all know, love and greatly respect, the motion's open remit for concurrent meetings,

whatever that means; it could mean literally any Committee--

places us in potentially difficult territory about who decides with whom the concurrent meeting will be held.

To whom will we give the remit and for what purpose? We must be clearer about that. The motion continues helpfully,

the wording is again less clear than I should like. I now wonder to which Committee the phrase refers. I presume that it refers to our Select Committee communicating with "any such committee". But the Committees are already meeting concurrently. In that case, why should our Select Committee seek such communication? The motion includes several confusing elements. I fear that it has been drafted rather sloppily. Indeed, I may suggest later that the Parliamentary Secretary should withdraw it and redraft it to make it much clearer.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Does my right hon. Friend accept that, if the two Committees--and potentially more--met at the same time, in the same place and took evidence before the public, the proceedings would be largely indecipherable to those attending?

Mr. Forth: I am glad that my hon. Friend made that point. Before I go deeper into the helpful points that the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East raised, I want to cover the more mundane considerations that arise from the motion, and to which my hon. Friend referred.

On previous occasions when we have discussed joint or concurrent Committees--and I deal with both in the same way for the purposes of tonight's debate--we have rightly concerned ourselves with who presides over the Committee, the role of advisers and support staff and the procedures--those of the Commons or of the Lords; they are not necessarily the same--that will be followed. The quorum is crucial in tonight's debate. I am anxious to reach motion 7 because I really want to have a go at it. I have tabled an amendment on the quorum, and you will tell us later, Mr. Speaker, whether you have been kind enough to select it. I have become increasingly alarmed of late that the quorum that is set, especially for Select Committees, is inadequate to maintain their credibility.

Mr. Speaker: Order. The right hon. Gentleman knows that the motion does not affect the quorum.

Mr. Forth: Indeed, and I regret that. I am grateful to you for pointing that out, Mr. Speaker, but I wish that the motion covered the quorum. Perhaps I should table a wee

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amendment to it; I accept the blame for not doing so. However, I learn as I go along. It has taken me nearly four years, but I am getting there. I shall try to do better next time.

Let us consider the extent to which the concurrently meeting Committee will be able to commit the House or another place to travel. On whose budget will it draw? It may be assumed that such matters are easily subsumed in the word "concurrently", but one has only to consider the brief list of who presides, the procedures and the quorum--I shall not go into that--and the travel and the budgetary arrangements to perceive the difficulty into which we may fall by accepting the motion in its current ill defined, or undefined, form. None of those matters are, therefore, satisfactorily dealt with, and we need the Minister's guidance on them.

A more fundamental question was raised by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East in his intervention, for which I am grateful, and I shall characterise it in the following way simply to move the debate along. What added value shall we get from joint or concurrent meetings? The assumption seems to be growing, of late, that a joint or concurrent meeting is automatically better than separate meetings of the Committees of the two Houses. I want to challenge that.

I want to challenge the whole basis on which the motion is predicated, because it assumes that the Committees will produce better results by meeting concurrently. I am not sure that we have yet convinced ourselves of that. The two Houses of Parliament have traditionally different roles. The House of Commons has its elected accountability and its Members' responsibility to their constituents, and we are often told that the House of Lords is the repository of expertise that is often not available in this House. One could, therefore, argue that a fusion of those two elements would produce a better result. I am not sure that that would necessarily be the case. Whether it would be the case in the important, focused area of science and technology is another matter.

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