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9.40 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): This has been a worthwhile and, indeed, fascinating debate. I find it particularly so because, looking at the pile papers on which I have noted the comments of the contributors, which I normally separate into two halves--those with whom I agree and those with whom I disagree--it is apparent at the end of this debate that, with the exception of the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mrs. Fitzsimons) and the Leader of the House, I found myself agreeing with the vast majority of speakers.

The hon. Member for Rochdale provided us with the most fascinating insight into the mindset of what appeared to be a cloned member of the parliamentary Labour party. She described a system under which agreements and decisions are taken entirely behind closed doors and how, once those decisions have been taken, the corporatist instinct involves a carve-up between the Whips. She offered us the Panglossian suggestion that this was the best approach to take in the best of all possible worlds. It was a most depressing contribution, but it simply echoed entirely that of Leader of the House, who has treated us--it was sometimes difficult to keep a straight face--to a series of pronouncements on the fact that we were all taking leave of our senses by suggesting that the present system should be changed and, moreover, that what we are proposing represents a huge constitutional change. That seems rather odd, given that it comes from a party that has introduced more huge constitutional change in three years than perhaps any other, especially as, in fact, all that has been suggested are changes in the procedures of the House designed to try to enhance the way in which we work.

As for the contributions that I find it easy to support, even if I disagree with them in part, I hope that I may be excused if I start with that of the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Healey), because I found his speech extremely interesting. He made a thoughtful speech and his proposals, for example, that we should have a further half-hour Question Time on Select Committee reports and the Government responses to them, made a great deal of sense. However, I disagree that the proposals for the appointment of Select Committees are like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. I appreciate, however, that they caused him anxiety.

In response to the hon. Gentleman, first, the Liaison Committee report says that the proposals represent the basis for the future, not the detail of the future. That is what we are being asked to consider this evening. Secondly, I ask him to consider the point made by numerous of my hon. Friends--such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) and my hon. Friends the Members for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and for Stone (Mr. Cash)--that the mischief of the present system is that whenever we disagree with the way in which the Executive ultimately control such appointments, it becomes an issue of confidence in the Executive. We all know the reality; the House operates under a system of party politics. We are constantly asked to temper our views so as not to rock the boat. Indeed, the system of government could not operate

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unless that were the case; it is an important discipline for us. However, when the House considers issues that, frankly, do not relate to any fundamental matter at all, is not it desirable and sensible that we should alter our procedures to remove the Executive's hold and to allow more informed discussion?

Let me give the hon. Gentleman an example. Let us suppose that somebody disagrees fundamentally with the way in which a Select Committee membership has been set up. To question that if one is a Government or Opposition Back Bencher means questioning those in authority in one's own party and the discretion that they have exercised. There would be no need for that to happen if the system that has been proposed by the Liaison Committee's report were to be followed. I suggest that it would then be very much easier for anyone in the House to ask questions precisely because those questions would not touch upon a confidence in either the Government or the Opposition. That is where I see merit in the proposals that have been made.

It has been argued that the proposals will create patronage. Of course, everyone can exercise patronage; anybody who can exercise power can grant patronage. However, I would be much happier for that power to be exercised by someone whom can I question, I can team up with Opposition Members or Government Back Benchers to table a motion and criticise and, ultimately, I could remove without bringing down the whole pack of cards of government. Surely, that is a better way to proceed, and that is what the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) and the members of his Liaison Committee were proposing.

I draw the House's attention to some of the Government's responses to the report. They show an extraordinarily blinkered frame of mind. The principle at the nub of our debate is the question of who does the appointing and paragraph 11 of their response to the Liaison Committee report says:

I shed tears over those remarks. Do the Government seriously think that we will be concerned if the members of an independent panel, who command the trust of the House because of their personal standing, make appointments even when that might mean that, at times, the appointments of the chairmanship do not follow the hallowed processes that the Leader of the House has put forward?

I need think only of the Committee on which I sit, the Environmental Audit Committee. It has a Chairman who is an Opposition Member, but I recollect that, at the time of his appointment, some members of the Committee felt great anxiety about his appointment. However, because of his standing and the way in which he has conducted the Committee, the problem disappeared. We all know the reality: if people get on to Select Committees and do a good job and if the Chairmen are impartial, the truth is that, as numerous Members have said, we start to operate on a cross-party basis. Because the remit of Select Committees is scrutiny, they frequently tend to ask the Executive awkward questions about how they are carrying out what they say they are carrying out. The Committees do not necessarily question wider areas of policy.

As the House approaches the decision that it must take at 10 o'clock, I am mindful of the fact that this is a Supply day and this is an Opposition motion. I recognise that

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some Government Back Benchers might feel embarrassed about going into the Opposition Lobby, but does that not precisely illustrate the point that I have been making in the past few minutes? It is high time that we took this issue away from the realm of party politics. That is feasible.

Mr. Dennis Turner (Wolverhampton, South-East): If the hon. Gentleman wants to take the issue out of the realm of party politics, why has he chosen to debate the matter under an Opposition day motion? Does he not think that that has done great damage to the cause that is being espoused?

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman was not here for the debate, so I have to tell him that we have had no other opportunity to hold this debate on a motion with a Division. Therefore, having asked repeatedly for such a debate, we thought it fit to bring the matter before the House. I am truly sorry that the motion is an imperfect mechanism, but it is the only one at our disposal.

I very much hope that the debate persuades hon. Members on both sides of the House to implement the proposals. I am certain of one thing--I know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has a deep and heart-felt commitment to restoring the ability of the legislature to scrutinise the activities of the Executive. We set that out clearly in our paper on reforming Parliament, and when we get back into office, we will do just that.

9.50 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping): The debate on the Liaison Committee's first report has been lively. In many respects, it parallels the previous debate in November because the arguments rehearsed then have been re-run this evening. Apart from some different shades and emphasis, it is fair to say that little new has been added. However, there is one exception: my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Mrs. Fitzsimons) and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House made clear the way in which the Labour party proposes names for Select Committees. It is a much wider process than many believe.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton rose--

Mr. Tipping: Although I usually give way to the hon. Gentleman, I cannot tonight because time is tight.

Given the challenges of the Opposition parties, it is interesting that darkness and cloudiness surround the way in which they select names for Select Committee membership. It may well be that the role of the Whips is more prevalent and heightened in those parties.

Given the tone of the debate, I wonder why the Opposition have decided to table the motion. The debate has been about process rather than product. It has focused on the way in which we run our business instead of concentrating on the outcomes of our activities. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) said that the issue would not command public interest because it is a House matter. However, I suspect that the Opposition are reluctant to discuss outcomes because we have a stable and growing economy; spending per pupil

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has increased; infant classes are smaller and standards are rising; there is extra capital spending in the national health service and reduced waiting lists; and, since the general election, there has been a fall in crime.

Sensing that there is the possibility of embarrassment, the official Opposition have tabled a motion on a House matter. It will come as no surprise, therefore, that, in the face of mischief-making, the Government are taking a strong line against it. My right hon. Friends the Members for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) and for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) clearly recognised that position.

Let me be unusually combative and tackle two fundamental issues directly. The Government do not agree with the methods that the Committee suggests to increase the independence and influence of Select Committees. We reject the notion that giving power to a small group--however senior--over whom Back Benchers have no hold will increase the status or effectiveness of Committees. I think that the Committee's premise has been distorted by people outside the House who may not understand that there is two-way traffic between Back Benchers and the Whips. To be blunt, any Whips Office that forgets the nature of this relationship is in for a shock.

A sub-theme of the debate is an understanding of how the Whips Office works. The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) referred to the former hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes, who now writes for The Independent as, I should explain, a humorist. The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) said that Whips were not idols. I agree entirely.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland confessed to being a super-sewer. He would say no more on that, but perhaps the book will be written one day. As someone who has experienced his black arts, I look forward to reading it. We consider that although there may be disadvantages to the current method of selection, it has produced Committees that are effective and independent of Government. The Liaison Committee reports are in themselves proof of that.

Although the Liaison Committee believes that greater debate on substantive motions would increase the Committee's profile and effectiveness, we believe that it would bring party politics into the heart of the Committee system. Some may consider that today's debate shows that we are right to be concerned.

More positively, although we disagree about the methods for producing an effective Select Committee system, the Government want Committees that are independent and effective. The Liaison Committee is in danger of selling the existing Committees short. The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross talked about sharpness of focus and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne talked about best practice in Select Committees. The Committees can do much of what he advocated within their present remit.

We agree wholeheartedly with the Liaison Committee's basic premise that the 1979 Committee system has been a success, that it is, and should continue to be, an entrenched part of our constitution and that the Committees perform a valuable role in holding the Executive to account. We can never agree on the present proposal on appointments or on motions on the Floor of the House, but let us set those questions aside. Let us consider matters on which we do agree.

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The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Healey) recognised that the Liaison Committee's report contained areas of agreement. Committees should have greater resources. That is primarily a matter for the Commission, and the Government will certainly not stand in its way. I understand that there are continuing discussions on that matter.

There should be increased scrutiny. The European scrutiny system has been reformed and extended. We have accepted the Procedure Committee's recommendations on the scrutiny of treaties. Departments have been instructed to co-operate in any review of recommendations that a Committee may make. Pre-legislative scrutiny will continue. I hope that we will be able to do more, and I join my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth in desiring that.

Committees should have more influence. The Government have accepted the Procedure Committee's recommendations that if a Committee recommends a debate on a treaty, that will normally be granted. Select Committees will win respect by the force of their arguments--that point was made several times tonight. Westminster Hall ensures that Ministers will not be able to avoid those arguments.

I have already dealt with the substantive motion. I do not believe that transferring a debate from Westminster Hall to the Chamber would increase attendance. The Liaison Committee itself notes:

Thanks to Westminster Hall, more Select Committee reports are being debated than ever before, and that number will increase. Overall in the previous Session, 28 Select Committee reports were debated. So far in this Session, a further five have been debated. That represents debating time beyond reformers' wildest dreams. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) dreams on and asks for more debating time. I hope that in time we will be able to help him.

Committees should have greater powers to work together. We have undertaken that any request from the Liaison Committee for an ad hoc Committee will be seriously considered. Whenever a Committee has requested powers, we have tabled a motion to grant that request. I have been happy to speak to two of those motions. Sadly, as colleagues will have noted, there has been difficulty in getting certain business through the House. I make no complaint about that, but I regret that the difficulty that we have encountered in dealing with minor matters has meant that we have not yet been able to introduce the more radical changes to Standing Orders that I foreshadowed in my earlier speech. Only last week, the Chairman of the Liaison Committee requested a change in Standing Orders to enable a sub-Committee to be established. If he looks at today's Order Paper, he will see that we hope to oblige him.

The last time the Liaison Committee's report was debated, I said that it was important to recognise that the balance had already shifted in favour of the Committees. Indeed, it is likely to shift further in future--

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