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Whips are like sewers--they perform an important function, but they should not be idolised. In inviting the right hon. Lady to stand back, just for a moment, from her usual role of democratic centralist, which she performs in exemplary fashion, I ask her to say why members of Select Committees should not be appointed by independent persons rather than by the agents of patronage.
Mrs. Beckett: With deep respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes), I have never heard of anybody idolising the Whips. The hon. Gentleman's intervention is timely, but perhaps marginally premature, as I was about to come to precisely that point. I refer to the fourth area, on which I have the greatest reservations about the effect, as opposed to the intention, of the report's proposals.
Let me first do what the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton did not, and remind the House of what is proposed. Three Members, said to be characterised by their seniority and impartiality, shall, at the outset of a Parliament, be chosen by the House. Those three will then appoint every member of every Select Committee. They will seek self-nomination, as we do in the Labour party. The hon. Lady was silent on the procedures followed in her party. They will have regard to experience and to interest, but they will choose the names that they put to the House.
From those so chosen, each Committee will elect its Chair and they will join the initial three as the Select Committee Panel. A smaller group from among them will form an executive of that Committee. They may seek more detailed day-to-day control of the whole budget for Committees, not just of travel. They will administer discipline, appoint replacements to fill vacancies, and so on. The Chair of the Committee will, after the Queen's Speech, advise the Government what legislation he or she feels the House should see in draft, thereby exercising an influence on the timing and hence the content of the legislative programme.
Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne): On the selection of the members of Committees, the panel would suggest names in a more meaningful way than at present, when the Whips decide. It would be for the House to decide to accept any recommendation. I suggest that that acceptance would be much more meaningful because Members could vote against it. They would be voting not against the Government but the panel, however it was constituted.
Most important, is it not wrong for the Government to decide the members of Committees that are set up to criticise and examine the Government? Should the Government decide the appointments of people who are to scrutinise the work of the Government?
Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Gentleman is right: I was born in my right hon. Friend's constituency, of which he is a distinguished servant. However, I say to him with the greatest respect that, certainly in our party, the Whips do not decide who is appointed. I cannot speak for the Conservative party, and I notice that nobody does on this point.
I take my right hon. Friend's point that it would be wrong for the Government to appoint those who scrutinise them. The Government do not appoint; they do not appoint, for one thing, members from other parties. They do not even appoint members from their own party.
Our procedures are imperfect, of course; they are open to question, of course. However, it is open to members of our party to self-nominate, not least when there are vacancies, but even at the outset of a Parliament. Those names go to the parliamentary Labour party and have to be agreed within that party. Only then are they put forward by the Whips. It is not a matter of the Whips choosing the names that they will put forward--at least, not in our party.
Mr. Grieve: I seek some clarification from the right hon. Lady. She told us a moment ago that this was a serious constitutional change, yet in her answer to the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), it became apparent that it was a minor change of procedure, with no constitutional significance. Will she explain why she said earlier that it was a major constitutional change?
Mrs. Beckett: Indeed. First, I think that the hon. Gentleman might have misunderstood me. The constitutional change to which I referred is twofold, but I accept that the most significant part is that to which I have already referred--substituting the judgment of Select Committees for that of the Government rather than their scrutinising matters. However, I do not regard the changes proposed to the way in which we handle the appointment of membership as a matter of triviality. I notice that, yet again, the hon. Gentleman failed to say how Select Committee members are appointed in the Conservative party. Given that we had this discussion in November, and everybody waxed very eloquent about the virtues of the proposed system, they have had plenty of time to change the system in the Conservative party. I take it from the silence on the Conservative Benches that they have not done so, which casts an interesting light on the sincerity with which the motion has been moved.
Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): I thank my right hon. Friend for reiterating what is in the Liaison Committee report about the way in which the Chairman of Committees and the two Deputy Chairmen
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is an incestuous aspect to the relationship? To be elected as Chairman and Deputy Chairmen, candidates would presumably have to solicit the votes of Back-Bench Members of Parliament who would be likely to ask what they would get in return. Far from independence, there would be a network that would favour Members of Parliament who had been present in the previous Parliament rather than those, of any party, who had only just arrived and were not involved in the highly developed networks among existing Back Benchers.
Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. One aspect of the proposals on which I had not previously focused is the fact that the three who were elected would all chair Select Committees and presumably, at a later point, it would be decided which Select Committee they would chair.
I repeat that I genuinely hold my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne in affection and esteem, and I am sorry that he is retiring from the House. We shall miss him. I know that he will not take it personally when I make two observations on these proposals. First, not even into his hands would I casually give the proposed powers. Secondly, as he is retiring, this may be the last occasion on which, if the original motion were carried today, Members might feel wholly free to challenge the exercise of power by the Chair of the Liaison Committee.
A couple of days after his election, Mr. Speaker, with the kindly smile with which we are all becoming so familiar, assured an hon. Gentleman who raised an issue that he was sure that he intended no offence. "Everybody", he said, "likes the Speaker." With regard to these proposals, everybody will like the Chair of the Liaison Committee and his or her two senior colleagues. They will be beset by friends. They will control membership--choosing, if they wish, a pro or anti-European majority for the Treasury or Foreign Affairs Committees. They will have the capacity to punish non-attendance. They will control travel, they could control funding, they could control staffing, and they could control time in the House as well as in Westminster Hall. As in the United States, seniority would bring with it not only respect but real and lasting power.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) said, such a structure would require information to assist in reaching a judgment on members. There will be channels of information; there will be channels of advice. It is said--my right hon. Friend repeated it--that the system would be more transparent than it is now because the relevant motions would come before the House and could be amended, but those are the procedures in place now. It does not happen often, but amendments can be moved, and have been during the time in which the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton and I have been in the House.
Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): In 1992, I was appointed by patronage to be a member of the Select Committee on Transport. By a revolt against pressure by the Labour Whips, Labour Members supported the late Robert Adley as Chairman of that Committee--and how