Previous SectionIndexHome Page

8.39 pm

Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale): I congratulate my fellow north-west MP, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), the Chairman of the Liaison Committee, on his work and on restoring to the debate the tone that is needed for the discussion of the Committee's report. I agree with him that if Opposition Members wanted Labour Members to enter into the debate, they should not have tabled it as an Opposition Supply day debate, with all the connotations that a Member of his lineage has identified.

Mrs. Browning: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Fitzsimons: No, I shall make some progress first.

My right hon. Friend has been prayed in aid as someone who has given many years of service to the House. He has noted that if more genuine comments were wanted rather than partisan politics, the issue should not have been handled as it has.

Mrs. Browning: Perhaps the hon. Lady will tell me how I might have tabled a substantive motion. We tabled

12 Feb 2001 : Column 103

a motion on the Adjournment of the House. What else is open to the Opposition if we are to have a debate that is not in Opposition time?

Mrs. Fitzsimons: Opposition--I hope that the hon. Lady gets used to being in opposition.

I have listened to many Members who have been in this place much longer than I have. I speak from the experiences that I have had so far in the House. I concur with the idea of an alternative career route. It would provide an alternative way of dedicating ourselves to the service that we are elected to undertake in this place. There are great merits in increasing the resourcing of Select Committee Chairs and Select Committees themselves.

The Government should be given some credit for increasing the access that Select Committees have to parliamentary time through Westminster Hall and other means since 1997. It is now possible to refer to many more Select Committee reports than hitherto. The reports were obscure and there were few references. It is cynical of the Opposition suddenly to jump, as though on a life raft, on the Liaison Committee's report. In 18 years of government, they did not advance the agenda. Some Opposition Members are slightly cynical.

It is incumbent upon us to be honest. The motion suggests that we swap one form of patronage for another. Three wise men would preside over the selection process--those Members would probably be men because men constitute the majority in this place. The majority of Chairs of Select Committees are men. There is no more democracy in that process than in the present system.

The bottom line currently is that the House decides. The usual channels, based on the numbers proportionately of Government Members and Opposition Members decide on the allocation. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, the matter goes first to the parliamentary Labour party for reference, and it is then put to the House. The Conservative party nominates Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats and Unionists, for example, decide who they will nominate. Thereafter, the Labour party decides who it will nominate through our democratic processes. There can be objections. There have been many debates about who should serve on Committees and who should be selected as Chairmen. Some Back-Bench Members will be aware of that. I hope that the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats have had similarly vigorous debates. Some of my hon. Friends will have memories of the PLP and vigorous debate.

Mr. Brady: Are not Select Committees supposed to decide for themselves who will be their Chairmen? The hon. Lady has given a revealing insight into the extent to which the parliamentary Labour party tries to control the appointments of Chairmen.

Mrs. Fitzsimons: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is agreement on both sides of the House through the usual channels. Why do you think that we have

12 Feb 2001 : Column 104

Opposition Chairs? The Select Committee on Social Security is one example. There is agreement and you know that and I know that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Lady keeps using "you". She must try to use correct parliamentary language.

Mrs. Fitzsimons: I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Chair--I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The Opposition are trying to suggest that the Government have sought to manipulate and belittle Select Committees and have given Back-Bench Members fewer rights on them. That belittles the truth since 1997. Any member of a Select Committee will be aware that, with pre-legislative scrutiny and extra sittings in Westminster Hall, there is, rightly, far more ability to publicise a Select Committee's work than there ever has been before. I come back to my point about patronage. The bottom line is that it is disingenuous in the extreme to suggest that nominations by the Chairman and two Deputy Chairmen, as proposed in the Liaison Committee report, would be more democratic or more fair.

Mr. Grieve: Is there not the following distinction? When patronage comes from Back-Bench Members, I accept that there will be some patronage in all cases. However, it would be much more open to the House than it is at present to challenge decisions collectively if it was not satisfied with the way in which the system was being conducted. Effectively, the buck currently stops with the Executive, who control the whole decision-making process.

Mrs. Fitzsimons: That is simply not true. If the House wishes to object, it can do so. In talking about the usual channels abusing the position, we could refer to the debate in which my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) objected to the recent appointment of a Parliamentary Commissioner. Members who objected to the usual channels' nominations decided to debate them. The rules as they stand therefore allow Parliament and Back Benchers to object. The fact that we choose not to do so, for most of the time, is down to Members. Within the parliamentary Labour party, there have been debates about the way in which Members are selected and the balance on Select Committees.

To suggest that three wise people, as proposed in the report, would be more democratic and have less patronage is wrong, misleading and cynical. People outside who are watching our debate and are not familiar with the strange proceedings of the House of Commons may think that the proposal includes more democracy than the current arrangement. I contend otherwise. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne agreed that the proposal needed to be developed; he said that it contained flaws, but was a suggestion or start. I am worried that the report does not make provision, as there currently is, to hold Members to account for nominations and the process of membership of Select Committees.

Mr. Bercow: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Fitzsimons: No, I have been generous and other Members wish to speak. I have given way to several Conservative Members.

12 Feb 2001 : Column 105

Because of the cynical way in which the subject has been introduced in an Opposition day debate--

Mr. Bercow: How else?

Mrs. Fitzsimons: None the less, it was done that way.

I agree with the worthy intent at the heart of the Liaison Committee report to increase the expertise on Select Committees by inducing Members to stay with a Select Committee, rather than take the only way out currently available to Members seen to be doing a good job--the ministerial route. There is great merit in that. However, the matter has been introduced in a partisan way, with scant consideration for the past 18 years and the previous Government's blatant disregard for Select Committees. As has already been suggested, the Opposition changed the rules on how long one could be a Chairman because they disagreed with the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), who is Chairman of the Select Committee on Procedure, on which I serve. It is therefore extremely cynical to use the matter in a partisan manner.

Only a few other things need to be put on the record concerning my disagreement with the motion and decision to vote against it.

Mr. Bercow: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Fitzsimons: No, I will not.

At the end of the day, it is worrying that the administering of discipline was slipped into the report. I find it worrying that there is suddenly reference to other bodies apart from Parliamentary Commissioners having responsibility for discipline. Perhaps there is more than meets the eye in the intention of some to pursue the report. Perhaps they are seeking to set up a patronage substructure that would undemocratically suggest the membership of Committees and seek to discipline members. No reference is made to how that would happen and by what criteria.

I cannot support the motion because, as I said, it is an Opposition motion, and also because we would be adopting a form of patronage that would be less representative than the system that we have.

8.50 pm

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): When I first learned that the matter was to be debated this evening, I was tremendously encouraged. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will appreciate my commitment and dedication to the House of Commons. I felt that this would be a cross-party House of Commons debate--not a debate with the Opposition seeking to score points off the Government, not an occasion for the Government to score points off the Opposition, but an occasion when hon. Members could debate restoring to the House power, authority and integrity, to enable the House to hold to account the Government of the day, of whatever party, and to monitor the Government and their policies.

The right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), who chairs the Liaison Committee with great distinction, will recall that following a Liaison Committee meeting last week, before the business of the House had been announced, I advised him that it was my understanding that the debate on the Select Committee reports, entitled "Independence or Control?" and "Shifting

12 Feb 2001 : Column 106

the Balance", would be the second debate on the Opposition Supply day today. I said that I hoped that the right hon. Gentleman might be able to support the motion and be a signatory to it.

I also approached the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who chairs the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee. She, too, was tremendously encouraged that the debate was to take place. I approached the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), who chairs the Select Committee on Social Security, so that there would be cross-party support for a debate in the House on a matter that is of considerable importance to the House.

I did not want to score political points. I wanted to put to the House ways of restoring its power and authority so that it would be meaningful, acting as we are on behalf of the people, in holding the Government of the day to account and monitoring their progress and policies.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne for indicating that he will not vote against the motion. I believe that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, likewise, will not be in the Lobby tonight. These right hon. and hon. Members who chair Select Committees have been leading members of the Liaison Committee and appreciate what they put their name to. It would be utterly wrong and dishonest if they voted down a motion to which they had agreed in the report that was sent to the Government and presented to the House.

The hon. Member for Rochdale (Mrs. Fitzsimons) is a hard-working, assiduous member of the Select Committee on Procedure, which I have the honour to chair. May I tell her that there are very few ways in which the Opposition can table subjects for debate, other than on Supply days? That is the only opportunity that Her Majesty's Opposition and other Opposition parties have to raise issues. The Leader of the House has frequently said from the Dispatch Box that the Opposition have an opportunity to bring before the House matters that they consider to be important, and that they should use their Supply day debates to do so. That is precisely what we are doing today.

I have the greatest regard for the Leader of the House, but I do not think that in the future she will be proud of the speech that she made in this debate. She added little to the debate. Many of her arguments were disingenuous and, I believe, inaccurate as they referred to matters that were not even discussed in the Liaison Committee reports, and she sought to misrepresent some proposals.

As one or two Members have said already, the motion asks the Government to work with the Liaison Committee to introduce new structures to the House along the lines that we suggest. We do not expect every recommendation to be accepted, but we believe that the House, rather than the Government exercising their influence through a three-line Whip, should have an opportunity to decide whether the report "Shifting the Balance" provides a case on which the Government and the House should negotiate. I believe that it does and hope, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) said, that we can still have a full debate on a substantive motion before the end of this Parliament so that the whole House, on a free vote, can decide whether the decision of the Liaison Committee is acceptable not to the Government, but to the House of Commons.

12 Feb 2001 : Column 107

One or two Members have referred to my experience. I say to the hon. Member for Rochdale in particular that I became a member of the Health Committee when it was established in 1990, following the splitting of the Social Services Committee between social security and health. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) took the Chair of the Social Security Committee; I took the Chair of the Health Committee. I did that against the votes of my party, but with the support of the Labour and Ulster Unionist parties and through my own vote.

My party would have preferred a good friend of mine, Sir David Price, who was a member of the Social Services Committee and in his last Parliament, to chair the Health Committee, but the Committee decided that it wanted me. I enjoyed the job and my work on Select Committees has been the most rewarding work that I have done in the House.

Of course, in 1992, when the Select Committees were reappointed, the Whips Office--the usual channels of my party--in collusion with the Labour Whips decided not to reappoint me for the reason, right or wrong, that it did not like me doing the job that the House of Commons wanted me to do. A Select Committee Chairman who undertakes an inquiry must base his report on the written or oral evidence that he is given and must not allow personal prejudice to prevail. That did not suit my party, which was in power. I think that it was wrong and that that decision brought it a great deal of unpopularity.

Next Section

IndexHome Page