We are concerned not about how many there will be, or even who they will be, but about how the appointments are to be made. If Select Committees are to maintain their tradition of independence and to provide the alternative career ladder that is so important, we need to reform the manner in which appointments are made.
There was a time when to come to this House was the summit of most men and women's ambitions. To represent a constituency in this kingdom was an honour than which there was no greater. Far too many people now come at a very young age. One remembers the quote about every private having a field marshal's baton in his knapsack. Members behave as if the briefcase in the boot
I would like to see more people coming to this House who merely want to serve here, but of course they want to exercise their talents, develop their gifts and progress. There is no better way of doing that than via the Select Committee system, particularly as the Chairman of a Select Committee.
There is no more important subject for the health of the body politic than the effectiveness of the parliamentary system, and particularly of the place of this House within it. It is extremely important that the Government attach importance to those words.
The Prime Minister may shortly decide that he will not complete the five years that he said he would complete. He may decide to cut and run and hold an election. If he does, he will hope to come back with another majority. We shall to our best to ensure that he does not. However, if he is ever in a position of authority again, he should recognise that the strength of a Government is measured not by the size of their majority but by the quality of their legislation. The quality of their legislation and their actions is largely determined by the effectiveness of scrutiny in this place. It is crucial, therefore, that we give to Select Committees--which are, of all bodies, the best equipped to scrutinise--a new and revived authority.
I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has, for all the inconvenience it may cause him, pledged himself to accept this report. Even at this late stage, I urge the Minister, when he winds up the debate, to say that he will tell the Leader of the House that we have had a debate in which only one Member has supported her line uncritically. The House of Commons demands to be heard and it wants, before the election, free votes on substantive motions in Government time on these issues.
Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack). I had not intended to speak, but it struck me that this is one of the most crucial debates in which someone who loves the House of Commons can take part.
I inhabited the sewers of Westminster for 10 years as Opposition Chief Whip. I had to do many of the shabby things that have been referred to, although much of what I did was entirely honourable, such as the defence of Back Benchers against the undue influence of certain members
One thing that I learned--very painfully--during 18 years in opposition was that most of the cards are stacked on the side of the Executive, no matter which party is in power. Perhaps under the previous Government, that was not quite so: their majority was 22 and fell to just one. At that time, the House of Commons began to take some powers.
Our dilemma is that the country often wants strong government, which means a strong Executive who can have their way most of the time. Sometimes, however, the country falls out of love with a strong Government, deciding, for example, that although it wanted Lady Thatcher to do some things, it did not want the poll tax and she had had far too much power. Indeed, many say the latter of the present Prime Minister. They ask why the House of Commons does not use its powers to bring the Government more to account. It is a good question, to which we have no very good answer at present.
The Liaison Committee report, of which I am proud to be a signatory, was an attempt to shift the balance, only marginally, from the Executive and towards all the Members of the House of Commons. It is a little strange for people to argue superficially--perhaps in the hope of congratulations from the Whip on the Front Bench--that the Committee was arguing not for Back Benchers, but from some other motive. Our motive was to enhance the position of Parliament vis-a-vis the Executive, and it is important that we should achieve that.
Our solutions may not be the best possible. I strongly favoured taking the power of appointments from the Whips. I reached that conclusion after exercising that very influence for 10 years. I did not reach that conclusion before I stopped being Chief Whip, I admit, but towards the end of my tenure of that job, I concluded that one of the best ways to enhance the powers of Select Committees would be to remove appointments from the power of the Whips. That is because we want those appointments to be independent. It could well be that the Whips Office exercises its control over the appointments extremely responsibly, but there must be a perception that the people who scrutinise the Government are appointed by people who are independent of the Government. That perception is important both for the country and for Members of this place.
We may not have come up with the best solution, but the motivation is right. We want to achieve that end, and with the good will of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office we could play a historic part in enhancing the power of the legislature against the Executive. With a majority of 180, the Executive have nothing to fear. That is why it is so important to take such steps during this Parliament. The Executive have nothing to fear from the enhancement of the power of Parliament.
Mr. William Cash (Stone): I shall speak only briefly, as I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office will make important contributions. I have little to add to the remarks that I made on the Whip system in a debate last July.
The quality of this debate has increased dramatically towards its end. I was disappointed that the Leader of the House engaged in no more than some rather unnecessary party politics. She made some good points--from her point of view--but the debate is of immense importance, as is the report of the Liaison Committee.
I was very taken with the speech of the former Labour Chief Whip, the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster). He understands that the Government will have problems in accepting the recommendations of the report, but that, if there is good will on all sides, many constructive results could emerge from it.
However much we examine the issue, it is ultimately about accountability, scrutiny and questions. The House depends entirely on the ability of its Members to call the Government to account. We can do that only by asking questions. There is a difference between debate and questioning. A debate can take the form of a question, but questions are the bottom line. If we are to ask questions of people with enormous power and influence, who know things that we do not know, and if we have to scramble about to get the answers to those questions, we need people who know what they are talking about. We need people who are prepared to dedicate their time and their lives--some call it a career, but I prefer not to do so--to ensuring that the Government are properly held to account.
The appointment of Select Committees by Government Whips, by agreement between the usual channels or by the Whips on both sides of the House is not the best way to proceed. That point is the jewel in the crown of the report. It is vital that such an important report was produced. It is an enormous pity that the House as a whole could not have had a free vote on the subject.
I have been a member of a particular Select Committee since 1985. As someone who has been excluded from its chairmanship--perhaps by virtue of my long tenure but perhaps also because of the long-standing knowledge of my views on its subject--I believe none the less that it is vital that the essence and reasoning behind the report of the Liaison Committee should be accepted by the whole House.
Lastly, as I have previously proposed, Standing Orders should exist to deal with any undue influence exerted on Members of Parliament, by Whips or anyone else inside or outside the House, so that the people who exercise that undue and unfair influence could be brought to book. I emphasise the fact that that no real distinction should be made between external and internal influences on matters that could affect the effectiveness of the House in bringing people to account. This is a debate about scrutiny, and it should not be determined by the Whips. The most