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8.1 pm

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): If the Leader of the House had a case, she seriously overstated it. The suggestion that the Liaison Committee proposal is revolutionary and unprecedented is no more unprecedented than was the initial decision--taken more than 20 years ago--to set up Select Committees.

If the Leader of the Opposition and his colleagues had introduced the motion in a partisan spirit and a contentious manner, one might have had more sympathy for the right hon. Lady's knockabout reply. However, the motion is extremely serious; it relates to recommendations made by some of the most experienced parliamentarians among us--many of whom have held high Government office. Most of them have Front-Bench experience and are not unaware of the needs of the Executive.

In the stand that she has taken today in her attempt to control the House, the right hon. Lady reverts to the worst centralism. That runs right against much of the Government's constitutional programme during this Parliament. It could surely be said that the devolution of power from this place to Scotland and Wales was without precedent; but, in most quarters, it is regarded as a great success. The argument that something is unprecedented is not an argument against its weight.

The right hon. Lady seems to exaggerate when she suggests that the Liaison Committee's recommendations on how Select Committee members should be appointed would tend to substitute the judgment of Parliament for

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that of the Government. That is not a necessary consequence of the recommendations. She overstates the constitutional doctrine when she suggests that the Government propose and that Parliament disposes--or that, inevitably, the Government must always have their way without regard to the views of Parliament.

Normally, the Government command majority support for their point of view. Party loyalties are strong in this place. However, on some occasions, it is helpful to the Executive to hear the voice of the Chamber and to hear the voice of Select Committees that have deliberated carefully on the matters under their scrutiny.

During the 35 years that I have served as a Member of the House, I recall several occasions when the House as a whole has voiced a view that modified that of Executive. For example, the report of the Roskill committee on the treatment of serious fraud cases proposed that certain matters should be decided in court by a judge and assessors instead of being dealt with by a jury trial. The then Government were minded to accept that recommendation and said so publicly. However, during a debate in the Chamber, 10 of the 11 Members who spoke were against the proposal, so the Government dropped it and it never resurfaced. That was not an attempt by Parliament to substitute its judgment for that of the Government; it was an attempt by Parliament to advise the Government as to how to proceed. That is what this place is about.

The difficulty with proffering advice in this place, however, is that so many of our debates are of a generalised nature. They may well conclude with the comments, "We have heard many points of view. Thank you all very much indeed. The Government will do what they intended to do in the first place." The attraction of the Select Committee system is that it contains the possibility of focusing debate sharply on issues of concern to Members of Parliament and to members of the public.

If we took the advice of the Liaison Committee that Select Committees should be allowed to put substantive motions to the House, we could even more effectively target debates and give the House a much clearer opportunity to express its views. Not only is that bound to be of direct assistance to Governments, by helping them to avoid traps that they may not have seen; it would also sustain the reputation of the House, which, as the Government not infrequently remind us, is in some disrepair.

Some of the issues considered in the Liaison Committee report were canvassed earlier in the debate. They are extremely modest proposals. One, which has not figured large in the debate so far, is that a half-hour debate should be held following the publication of a Select Committee report that has urgency and immediacy. Such reports should not be considered long after the event, but as soon as the findings have been published.

The right hon. Lady produces no significant argument of substance against that proposal. She suggests that, by moving ten-minute Bill debates from a Tuesday to a Monday, one is taking a shocking constitutional step. I cannot understand that at all. To downgrade Mondays rather than Tuesdays is a novel constitutional doctrine.

Mrs. Beckett: The right hon. Gentleman may not have been able to be present when we last debated those issues--I do not criticise him for that. On that occasion,

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I said rather more on my views on that aspect of the Liaison Committee's proposals. I do not want to be repetitious, but I make two brief points.

First, as the right hon. Gentleman must be perfectly well aware, half an hour on the Floor of the House in prime time is not at all insignificant. Half an hour of such time each week takes up time that could otherwise be occupied by a whole piece of Government legislation. That is not unimportant for Government business managers.

Secondly, prime time on a Tuesday afternoon is available to Back-Bench Members at present. Given that the report has so many references to strengthening the role of Back Benchers, it is not insignificant that it is they who will lose out if those debates are moved.

Mr. Maclennan: First, I did read what the right hon. Lady said and, even more importantly perhaps, I also read what she said in detailed response to the Liaison Committee's views on the subject, and I am bound to say that it was distinctly unpersuasive. She seemed to take the view, which she is repeating to an extent today, that half an hour of Government business is, ipso facto, of greater importance than the deliberations of a Select Committee. If we were talking about the procedure every day of the week in prime time, frankly, she might have a point, but half an hour on Tuesday? Her objection calls in question the peroration of her speech, in which she suggested that the Government are seriously interested in what Select Committees have to say in their reports.

As a former, long-serving member of the Public Accounts Committee, I believe it very important that such debates are held soon after the completion of the original inquiry. The problem with the annual Public Accounts Committee debate is that it is not so attached in time or immediate and, therefore, it does not receive hon. Members' focused attention; nor can it be so sharply pointed as the departmental Committee reports, because it suffers, too, from the defect of which I have already spoken--the one-day debate involving, to an extent, a tour d'horizon.

Acceptance of the proposals will give real substance to the Liaison Committee's recommendations and show the country that detailed matters of policy are being considered in a detailed and responsible fashion. That does not necessarily mean that the proposals are hostile to the Government's interests or necessarily adversarial in their approach; nor does it mean that the Minister will be required to give an instant response. If the issues raised are complex, it may be necessary to allow some time for proper consideration.

On the nomination of members, I am bound to say that a fair amount of humbug has been spoken by the Leader of the House about how they are chosen and the beauties of the present system. It appears to be quite plain that the Whips and the usual channels play a controlling part in those nominations. To some extent, the beans were spilled by the former Conservative Member of Parliament for Brigg and Cleethorpes, Mr. Michael Brown, who now writes in The Independent. In an article, he said:

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Mrs. Beckett: With respect, that is a disgraceful assertion. I am happy to say that I have no knowledge of how the Conservative party chooses members of Select Committees--although I have a good idea--but such comments cast some light on Conservative Members' honesty in this debate. As the right hon. Gentleman ought to be aware, there is a proper structure of nomination in the Labour party. That structure has to be approved by the parliamentary Labour party. Indeed, the parliamentary Labour party rules state:

the Back-Bench Committee--

Of course, it is in order for that to be referred back or amended. I simply tell the right hon. Gentleman that that procedure may not obtain in Liberal Democrat party or in the Conservative party, but why should we change the rules of the House because those parties' procedures are totally undemocratic?

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