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Mr. Maclennan: I simply make two points in response to that somewhat lengthy riposte; its very length suggests that the right hon. Lady is a little sensitive on the point. First, the words that she quotes refer to the Labour party's Front-Bench spokesmen. That suggests an oppositionist attitude, which does not reflect the reality of the Labour party in government. No doubt, the person who decides who sits on the respective Select Committee is the very Cabinet Minister whose work will be examined after the event. She makes precisely the argument for not following the procedure.
Mrs. Beckett: I simply say that it is perhaps time that the right hon. Gentleman ceased to make suggestions about the way in which the Labour party's structures work. What he says is totally incorrect. There is no question whatever of the Cabinet Minister of the day suggesting who should sit on Committees. Does he think that my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) would be on a Select Committee if that were the case?
Mr. Maclennan: I am more interested in examining the constitutional procedures of the House than the internal affairs of the Labour party, but I was merely referring to what the right hon. Lady had said. She referred to the Labour party's Front-Bench spokesmen. If their selection does not involve Cabinet responsibility, perhaps we might invite her to tell us who is involved; we should be delighted to hear. Is the Whip answerable to the Cabinet Minister involved? Is she suggesting that that interposition in some way distances the appointee from the control of the Executive? The answer is fairly
Mr. Campbell-Savours: If the hon. Gentleman is so sure of what he says are facts, why has there been a string of reports from Committees with Labour majorities, attacking Government policy during recent months? Last week, the Treasury Committee produced a critical report. A couple of weeks ago, the Home Affairs Committee report on asylum seekers was also critical of the Government. Labour-dominated Committees have repeatedly criticised the Government, so what is the problem?
Mr. Maclennan: Members of the Committee, when appointed, exercise a certain healthy, robust independence. Perhaps, in some cases, the Government are simply making assurance doubly sure by seeking to appoint their friends, or those whom they want to satisfy.
One of the most attractive arguments in the Liaison Committee report is the notion that there should be a separate career for Members, which would be distinct from the route to high Executive office. That is what the report is most likely to result in if it is implemented, and the House ought to grasp that.
I very much regret that the Government have not yet given us the opportunity to vote on such matters in the normal way. It is unsatisfactory that such matters have been debated on an Opposition day, but I do not blame the Conservative party for that; it is the Leader of the House who has failed to take earlier opportunities to table substantive motions to reflect the wishes of the Liaison Committee. Indeed, in evidence to that Committee she said that those opportunities were likely to be provided in last year's spill-over period. That undertaking has not been met, which is why we are debating the matter tonight. Whatever the outcome of tonight's vote-- I profoundly hope that the House does not simply split along party lines--these issues test the sincerity of the Government in seeking to modernise Parliament and make it more effective in its scrutiny and control of the Executive.
The House will have to return to these matters time and again. I hope that, before too long, the recommendations are accepted and that what the Government perceive to be revolutionary will be taken as the natural way for a modern legislature to proceed.
Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne): The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) was right to draw attention to Norman St. John-Stevas and the epoch-making role that he played in bringing about the departmental Select Committees. The idea was put forward by John Mackintosh, who unfortunately died rather young, and David Marquand. Eventually, Norman St. John-Stevas was able to introduce them in the early years after a change of Administration.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House of Commons quite rightly said in The House magazine on 29 May last year that she would like to go down as a reforming Leader of the House. I hope that eventually she will. However, it saddens me to disagree with her, because she has a love and affection for Ashton-under-Lyne that equals mine, and I have admired her work greatly in the various roles that she has played.
I am sorry that the debate is taking place on an Opposition Supply day. By its very nature, it will be a party political debate and it would have been much better if the Government had tabled the substantive motion that we asked for again and again.
We are trying to show that Back Benchers have a role to play when they enter the House. However, many who come here have no role outside the House in the way they did when I first came here many years ago. They therefore try to find a role for themselves, and that is not easy. However, the Select Committee provides such a role; and it is a rewarding task to be able to go into the detail of policies in a way that it is not possible in the Chamber. One can discover all sorts of things that are not easy to discover here.
In particular, members of Select Committees can return to a question again and again until they receive an answer. I remember the best question I ever heard was asked in the Public Accounts Committee by the current Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Back in the mid-1960s, when I was one of the first members of the Committee, serving on it was not a very attractive job. In fact, its members were pressed men and women--and nearly all men--because the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee ran the show.
I became the Committee's Chairman because I wanted to ensure that the National Audit Office got off to a good start, and I limited my role. However, the NAO's existence enabled us to generate greater interest in the Committee's work and as, the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross knows, I limited the speeches of members of the Committee to 15 minutes. They were shown a card to let them know when their time was up.
The present Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was pursuing a question under that system and was repeatedly being blocked by an astute civil servant. Finally, my right hon. Friend--the House knows his character so it will appreciate this point--banged the table and said, "I've only got one minute; I am going to get an answer. Yes or no?" "Yes", came the reply--my right hon. Friend had got his answer. The Select Committee system can provide answers. Committee members can become knowledgeable on the detail, and the House does not normally give one the chance to do that. We want to improve the system so that Members can obtain the answers and become much more knowledgeable.
All of the more than 600 reports produced by the Public Accounts Committee were unanimous. They were genuinely unanimous--not fudged. It is the task of a Select Committee to face the facts. Its members start off bound by their own political dogma, or whatever it may be. However, as time goes on, the Committee's Chairman must make sure that its members begin to respect each
As soon as a Select Committee report is published, there should be an input. That is why the idea of a half-hour debate is one good way--if not the only way--of providing such input. The Chairman would be able to present the report--five minutes is all he needs--and the Minister could take five minutes to give the Government's official reaction. That reaction very often appears in the press, but there is no reason why it cannot be given in the House. A few comments would be made and, although no decisions would be taken, the issues would be given an airing at a time of maximum interest.
The detail is what counts. The eighth report of the Public Accounts Committee considered a decline in the standards of probity in relation to regional health authorities in the west midlands and the Welsh Development Agency. We drew attention to that decline, but the then Prime Minister was not very enthusiastic about the report that we produced. However, he later became enthusiastic, because he realised the value of a Select Committee considering detail outside the Government machine. Civil servants are mired in Whitehall, but ordinary Members of the House, with their knowledge of their constituencies and their understanding of ordinary people, are able to examine the detail. As a result of their greater understanding, they are able to produce a valuable report that is different from the type of report that the Government machine would produce.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice) introduced some good changes to the system--for example, confirmation hearings. Although they have no power, they mean that someone who is appointed by the Government has to come before a Select Committee and justify himself. That is a useful weapon in ensuring that minimum standards are maintained. In addition, weekends when the members of a Committee bond together are also enormously important. They mean that its members begin to respect each other. When they have respect for each other, they tend to have respect for the facts and the truth. That is another great advantage of the system.