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Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): It is an Opposition day.

Mrs. Browning: Interestingly, the Whip on duty says more from a sedentary position to defend the Whips Office and the Executive than I have heard a Whip say in many previous debates.

Conservative Members expect the Prime Minister's word to be his bond. As the Whip has pointed out, this is an Opposition day debate, so the Prime Minister's promise to hon. Members does not count any more. When the Prime Minister said that there would be a free vote, he did not mean on an Opposition day. That was not pointed out last summer. That promise does not count today, even though the motion is not an Opposition motion but one from the Liaison Committee. The Prime Minister's word does not hold good.

That begs the question, when does this man's word ever hold good? I hope that not only hon. Members but people outside will learn the lesson. We have seen how the Government have twisted and turned to deny their Back Benchers a free vote. How much easier will it be to twist and turn to deny the people of this country a free vote when it matters?

Is not this the Government who, under the chairmanship of a Cabinet Minister, forced changes to the Standing Orders of the House under the guise of modernisation? Is not this the Government who espouse the philosophy of the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) and Mr. Alastair Campbell--that the days of democratic representation are coming to an end? Is not this the Government who hold their own Back Benchers in contempt, including those who hold office as Select Committee Chairmen? Is it not time for a Conservative Government to restore democracy to the Benches of this House?

7.32 pm

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

The Opposition motion invites the House to agree that the Liaison Committee report should form the basis of changes in the way in which the House approaches its

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Select Committee work. As the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) said, this is the second opportunity the House has had to discuss these issues: the first was a debate on the Adjournment held last November to give the House a preliminary opportunity to examine the report and consider its implications. Unfortunately, by the time that debate took place, the Leader of the Opposition had already committed his party, as a party, to accepting the report. He seemed to do so on the grounds--here I paraphrase--that the Government exercise unprecedentedly large power and so must face unprecedented restrictions on that power: restrictions never placed on any Conservative Government.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Tonight I have a free vote, as printed on the Whip issued by the shadow Chief Whip, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot). I do not believe that that is true of Labour Members. Given that the terms of the motion are precisely those issued by the Liaison Committee, should that not be the case if the Prime Minister's word is to be his bond?

Mrs. Beckett: I think that the hon. Gentleman was in his place at business questions on Thursday, and he will have heard that question put to me repeatedly. He will also have heard my answer: this is Opposition business, not House business, and Opposition business is whipped.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Beckett: If it is on the same point, I will not. I can come back to it later if the hon. Gentleman wishes, but I want to make a little progress.

I shall come in a moment to the substance of the report and its proposals, but first I want to dispose of the canard that in some way the Government are unprecedentedly abusing power and so must be unprecedentedly restrained. There are some things that are unprecedented about this Parliament; one is that, sadly, so few Members on the Conservative Benches have any experience whatsoever of Opposition.

When that is coupled with a collective bout of total amnesia about the record of past Conservative Governments, it leads to the repetition of a series of claims levelled without reference to the facts--claims about the size of the Government's programme, the length of recesses and the number of guillotines. Claims are made about all manner of House business, which are all claimed to be unprecedented when, in fact, none of them are.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Is.

Mrs. Beckett: All right, "is"--if the hon. Gentleman wants to be picky about the grammar.

One of the interesting aspects of recent genuinely thought-provoking debates on these issues has been the assertion by Opposition Members that we should return to a time when the Government did not set the agenda for the House. When challenged, most admit that such a time has never existed and that what they demand today are fetters on us that were never placed on them. To be fair, in November, the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford

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(Mr. Wells) did identify a golden age when, he claimed, Parliament was truly sovereign. It was apparently during the Cromwellian period, some 350 or so years ago. I am no historian but I presume that that was before Cromwell just dismissed a Parliament. It was certainly before any of us would even have had the vote, which rather dampens my enthusiasm for the parallel.

Let us be perfectly clear: the proposals contained in the Liaison Committee report are certainly interesting, but they are not modest, they are not simple and they do not return us to anything at all. They are profound, they are complex and they carry the potential for a substantial change to our constitution; and, far from taking us back to a lost idyll, they take us forward into completely uncharted waters.

The proposals seem to me to fall into four broad categories. There are those that are already within the power of the Committees themselves or of the Liaison Committee. Many relate to best practice and, although the Government are sympathetic to them, they do not require us to act. Where they impact on Government, such as in the review of Select Committee recommendations, we have issued guidance to ensure that Government Departments co-operate.

There are uncontroversial suggestions that the Government are happy to agree for better practice on our part--suggestions for more effective dialogue between Government and Committees, for how we carry out pre-legislative scrutiny, for joint working or for secondments. Again, here we have common ground.

There are then two other sets of proposals where there are differing views: first on how members of Select Committees are appointed and, secondly, on expanding in a number of ways the roles the Committees exercise. It is in these two areas that we see some proposals that are without precedent.

The acceptance has always been hitherto that the role of Select Committees is to scrutinise the work of the Government, yet in the report we begin to see proposals to substitute their judgment for that of the Government. In this Parliament, members of the Executive must be Members of Parliament. Their accountability for what they do as Ministers is direct and personal, in their capacity as members of this body. They are not apart, or separate.

However, the report proposes, for example, that by statute we set up confirmation hearings for public appointments. Where such appointments are made by Ministers, accountability to the House is through the Minister, not the individual; the appointee is responsible to the Minister and the Minister to the House. It is not clear, at least to me, what the line of responsibility will be if a Committee has a statutory role.

The report suggests a substantial expansion of control over the agenda of the House; for example, extra days on the Floor for Select Committee debates, a takeover of the Tuesday slot for ten-minute Bills now available to Back-Bench Members--thus relegating Back Benchers to Mondays--debates on Select Committee reports to be on substantive motions; and the ability to change the context for other debates by deciding to tag to them specific Select Committee reports. That includes debates initiated by the Opposition or by Back Benchers in Westminster Hall. All that is in the context of the call for a more specific career

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structure and role for members of Select Committees--a role intended to carry with it greater powers and interest than that of an ordinary Back Bencher.

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