Mrs. Beckett: With respect to my hon. Friend, who knows that I have genuine respect for him, he has just made a point opposite to that which he intended. As he has just said, it is, within the structures that exist at present, open to the House to overturn any recommendation from any quarter. Given that Robert Adley, a most distinguished and skilled Member of Parliament, was a Conservative, it was presumably the Conservative party--the born-again devotees of democracy sitting opposite me tonight--who wanted Mr. Adley's nomination to be opposed.
Mr. Campbell-Savours: Many of us want reform, as my right hon. Friend knows. We want to strengthen the powers of Select Committees and to give them a greater element of independence. However, who will measure the basis of qualifications and suitability? Who will measure work commitment? Are the three people to take it on themselves to decide such critically important issues? What knowledge would they have? The recommendation is nonsense, and the Select Committee should start over. The objective is excellent, but the route is rubbish.
Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, and he is well known not as a born-again devotee of either democracy or the rights of Back Benchers, but as one who has pursued both assiduously for a long time.
The right hon. Lady said that it would be possible for a person to be chosen to chair a Committee or be a member of a Committee on the basis of pro or anti-European views. Although I make the point with humour, I intend it seriously when I ask how, during the whole time since the European Communities Act 1972 was enacted, chairmanship of the Select Committee on European Scrutiny--previously the European Legislation Committee--was always in the possession of the Opposition until it came into the possession of the present Government? Why and how did that happen? I mean no disrespect to the present Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee by saying that, whether the Government, the Whips or someone else decided that that should happen, it undermined scrutiny by the House.
Mrs. Beckett: As the hon. Gentleman said, no one disputes the way in which the European Committees operate, and no suggestion has been made that scrutiny has diminished. I remind the hon. Gentleman that one change made by my Government is a substantial expansion of the role of the Select Committee on European Scrutiny. There is no longer one Committee, but three. [Interruption.] With respect to Opposition Members, that is the point. Under the previous Government, which the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) supported, many areas of European business were excluded from scrutiny by the House. In particular, the by no means insignificant area of legislation initiated by the Commission and the proposals that came from the pillars of, say, justice and home affairs, were all excluded from scrutiny by our Committees. This Government brought those matters under scrutiny.
Mrs. Beckett: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I must make progress. I have given way a great deal, and, like the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, I do not want to take too much time so that there is time for Back-Bench speeches.
I tell the House bluntly that, whatever claims may be made for the new system, within a short period--perhaps as little as six weeks--of such a structure being set up, no one who has failed to achieve the appointment that he or she sought will believe in its transparency. All the talk will be of who is friendly with whom, and of who has the ear of the Chair. Before anybody claims that those arguments are heard now--I fully accept that that is so--let me remind the House of one simple, and perhaps to some unpalatable, fact. Whips come and go. Chief Whips come and go. Prime Ministers come and go. All of them come and go with much greater frequency than Chairs of the Liaison Committee.
It is only because my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne is retiring that we shall shortly have a third Chairman of the Liaison Committee--if he were staying on, I doubt that anyone would imagine but that he
That brings me back to how the three original wise persons will be chosen. They will be chosen by a motion before the House. It appears in the report to be assumed that three suitable candidates will emerge, and that the motion or motions will be put and can be amended. I surely cannot be the only person who notices a strong resemblance to the method by which we have in the past chosen a Speaker.
No doubt I shall be told that that is just a basis, and that each major party could choose its own candidate and would choose an acceptable person. However, I mean no discourtesy to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)--I am sorry that he is, uncharacteristically, not in his place; I have considerable respect for his skills as a parliamentarian--when I say that it is by no means inconceivable that a majority in his party might regard him as a suitable candidate to be one of the three wise persons; or his party might consider some other senior Member, such as the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg).
I understand and sympathise with the wish--I am at one on this with my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours)--to see the work of Select Committees being esteemed and influential. I remind the House of the improvements that the Government have already made. As I have already said to the hon. Member for Stone, the remit of the Committees charged with scrutiny of EU business has been expanded, so that all business can be covered--no ifs, no buts, but a permanent change.
While the Liaison Committee was discussing the proposals in the report, and before it had had a chance to reflect on them, the Modernisation Committee was proposing extra sittings in Westminster Hall, and those have since been expanded still further. That is an experiment, but it is not the Government side that doubts the worth of the experiment. We believe that experiments have value and provide something on which we can build.
Mr. Page: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. She has spent most of her speech addressing the issues in the Liaison Committee report and making it abundantly clear that she, on the Government's behalf, is opposed to the
Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Gentleman merely reiterates a point that has already been made. In my remarks tonight, I suggest to the House that the right course for us to follow is to continue and build on those experiments; they already give Select Committees greater power and more time.
I urge the House--not least some of my right hon. and hon. Friends, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock--not to fall into the poll tax trap, with which Conservative Members will be painfully familiar: to make the leap from perceived flaws in what we do at present to the assumption that absolutely anything would be better, especially if that anything is described in terms as attractive as "independence" and "transparency".
Our Select Committee system enjoys justified respect. Let us strengthen it where we can by giving much greater time to the debate of its reports. To leave those reports languishing and undebated can only be much less effective. Let us see how we can build on the strengths of the system to contribute to pre or post-legislative scrutiny. Let us see how we can adapt its structures to cross- departmental working--sadly, the Liaison Committee report said little about that. However, let us not rush to bind the House to new processes and procedures whose consequences might be much more far-reaching than Conservative Members are likely to claim today.