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Mr. Healey: My concern about the proposal is that it would replace, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Mrs. Fitzsimons) said, one form of patronage with another. It is likely to be less transparent and it will not necessarily lead to more effective Select Committee work. I appreciate the concern about the independence of Select Committees, which underlies the recommendations and the hon. Gentleman's intervention. That is important to our Select Committee system, but I am still not convinced that the problem of independence is of a scale that the report's sledgehammer proposal suggests.

Mr. Cash: Having listened to a great deal of the debate--time is getting on--I would like to pose one question. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is only one way to deal with the power of the Whips and patronage? Having been at the rough end of that in the Maastricht debates and on many other occasions, perhaps I have some authority to speak on the matter. If Standing Orders made it a contempt of the House for a Whip, or any other person, to seek to influence an hon. Member in the conduct of, for example, his role on a Select Committee, it would sort the matter out once and for all. Without doing that, venality, patronage and the desire for appointment or otherwise will always prevail.

Mr. Healey: The hon. Gentleman suggests an even larger sledgehammer to crack the problem, which I am not convinced is on the scale that even the Committee's recommendations warrant. I notice that even the hon. Member for Macclesfield winced a little when he made his point. The Select Committee corridor is some distance from the Whips room. In my experience, the knowledge

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and expertise that Select Committee members build in taking and sifting evidence gives strength to the judgments that are reflected in reports. A number of notable all-party reports have criticised Ministers and Government policy. That belies the idea that Select Committees are falling far short in their duty to subject Government to independent scrutiny.

The proposals on the selection of Committee members ignore one of the fundamental realities of our Parliament and its Select Committee work. The Liaison Committee report acknowledges that in paragraph 9, which says that

We cannot escape that reality, to which the Committee directs our attention.

I turn to the opportunities for the House to pick up on the work of Select Committees in reinforcing the scrutiny that they conduct on our behalf. The Committee and the report make some very real points on that matter.

Just before the November 2000 debate, I asked the Library to analyse the number of Select Committee reports that were published and the number of reports that were debated in the House, excluding reports from the Public Accounts Committee, the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and the European Scrutiny Committee. In 1997-98, 157 reports were published, but only 16--about 10 per cent--were debated. In the following year, 182 reports were published, but only 26 were debated. I am not including the reports--comprising about 17 per cent. of the total--that were dealt with by being "tagged" as relevant in other motions.

Westminster Hall has certainly been helpful by allowing a detailed and deliberative airing of some of the issues raised in Select Committee reports, but what counts is not the general link with the House but the specific link with this Chamber. Debate is not the best format to ensure enhanced scrutiny of Government. Paragraph 40 of the report recommends weekly half-hour debates after Question Time. However, not only is half an hour too short for a decent debate, but a debate is the wrong method to use if we are more effectively to hold Ministers to account.

I propose that, instead, we have a half-hour Question Time in which we deal with reports and the Government's response to them on major issues. A Question Time could give priority to Select Committee members, but would also allow other hon. Members to exercise their scrutiny function. It would also rightly raise the profile of the work of Select Committees.

In conclusion, I pray in aid part of paragraph 8 of the report. I agree strongly and fundamentally with the assertion that

I believe that it will be more important in the next Parliament for the Government to grasp the challenge of reinforcing the scrutiny role of Select Committees. I urge my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House not simply to pick out the parts of the report with which they can agree and react to the specifics, but to accept the general challenge

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of maintaining the Government's modernisation initiative and consider their own proposals in the areas in which there is a well-founded case for strengthening the work of our Select Committee system.

9.17 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): The hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Healey) made a very thoughtful speech, and his suggestion to have a half-hour Question Time rather than debate is well worth considering. Indeed, it fits entirely with the motion that we are debating, which states that the report

We are asking the Government to give serious, positive and constructive consideration to a very thoughtful report. I well understand why the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) feels unable to vote today. Although I greatly regret that and know that he will be with us in spirit in voting for the motion, I realise why he feels that it is essential to sit on the Bench while we vote. Nevertheless, I join him in saying that it is a great pity that we have had to use what is still commonly called an Opposition Supply day to debate the report. Although I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) on choosing the subject for today's debate and am delighted that she did, it is a damning indictment of the Government that the Opposition have had to find time for it.

Although I have a personal regard for the Leader of the House, which the Parliamentary Secretary knows to be genuine and true, and I dislike criticising people in their absence, I think that she made a shoddy and shallow speech today that did not do her or her office any credit whatsoever. She did not face up to the issues that the House is addressing. The way in which she dismissed the suggestion for half-hour debates was in marked and shameful contrast to what we have just heard from the hon. Member for Wentworth. On balance, I would still prefer a half-hour debate, but he has made a suggestion that is well worth considering. It is the first time that I have heard it and I would like to reflect on it.

I am absolutely convinced that when colleagues--the 388 who, according to the hon. Member for Wentworth, have served on Select Committees in this Parliament--have worked hard on Select Committees, investigating crucial subjects in depth and reporting thoughtfully to the House, normally on the basis of a unanimous, cross-party report, it is appalling that their reports are pigeonholed.

I accept that that has not happened only under this Government. I have suffered from the malign influence of the Whips Office in the past. My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton)--who, as always, made a very good and rumbustious speech--at least did get to Chair a Select Committee. I served on the first Select Committee on education in 1979, as what was called the ranking Tory Member. When the chairmanship changed--Christopher Price lost his seat in 1983--I had certain expectations. I knew that I was not going to be climbing the ministerial career ladder and I thought that being Chairman of that Committee would be rather agreeable.

I was told by one of the Whips, in no uncertain terms, that I was not reliable enough. We had approved a number of reports that were mildly critical of Government policy. Sir William van Straubenzee, who had not sat on the Committee, was asked whether he would come in. I did

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not challenge that, because I had such a genuine affection for the late Bill van Straubenzee--who served with great distinction in Northern Ireland--that I did not wish to find myself in conflict with him. I withdrew from the Committee.

That illustrates the power and influence of the Whips in a Select Committee. The Leader of the House protested far too much tonight when she brought out her rule book and read chapter and verse what the Labour party does and does not demand. Everybody knows that the Whips have a very real influence and that that is where patronage truly lies.

I disagreed with the first part of the hon. Member for Wentworth's speech, in which he spoke of an alternative patronage. If there is an alternative patronage, I would much rather that it were exercised by independent-minded senior Members on both sides of the House--

Mr. Campbell-Savours: People like you.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Yes, people like me, and people like my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield and the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). The three of us would certainly decide without fear or favour who were the most suitable people. We would take into account the credentials and CVs of those who wanted to serve on Select Committees so that we did not have the absurd situation in which somebody with a detailed knowledge of, say, transport was kept off the Transport Select Committee, as happened in the past.

I have a real regard for the hon. Member for Wentworth, but I say to him that it is far better to have that patronage exercised in House of Commons matters by House of Commons men and women--who are answerable to this House for their every action and their every recommendation--than by the Whips Office. Just as I will rethink my support for debates in favour of questions, I ask him to rethink his support for Whips' patronage in favour of a different sort of patronage.

Much has been made of the three wise men or women making decisions. However, it does not have to be three, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton agrees. If, after consultation, it were decided that this would be far better done by a wholly independent selection committee of six or eight, my hon. Friend would accept it, I would accept it and I strongly suspect that the Chairman of the Liaison Committee would accept it.

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