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Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway): My right hon. Friend referred to the Liaison Committee report and said quite rightly that these welcome reforms will have wide support within the House. Will he also reflect on the fact that many hon. Members representing all parties have subscribed to early-day motion 50and many more willwhich calls on the Government to reconsider the Liaison Committee report, particularly those parts of it that deal with the selection of Select Committees? Will he use this opportunity to give the House an undertaking that those matters will be seriously considered and brought back to the House for debate as a matter of urgency?
Mr. Cook: I am pleased to reassure my hon. Friend that I look at the Order Paper first thing every day and have noted with interest the number of names attached to the early-day motion. I have said to my hon. and learned Friend privately and on the record at business questions that I am willing to look again at some of the issues and some of the recommendations made by the Liaison Committee in the previous Parliament and will want to return to that in the autumn, perhaps through the Modernisation Committee and through other channels. However, as I have always stressed, the important and urgent business is to get the Select Committees started and to get them under way. Therefore, I have to do so under the existing process of selection and approval. I hope that my hon. Friend will be patient on further changes until we resume after the summer recess.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I am grateful to the Leader of the House. He has just talked about Joint Committees and greater flexibility. Will he share with the House whether he has in mind a Joint Committee of the Procedure Committee, which I had the honour to chair in the previous Parliament, and the Modernisation Committee, which he will chair in this Parliament and of
Mr. Cook: As I understand the motion, there is nothing to prevent those two Select Committees, should they choose to do so, from examining some work together. I look forward very much to working with the hon. Gentleman on some of these issues. I hope that he will return to the Modernisation Committee in which he played a distinguished and very creative role in the previous Parliament[Interruption.] I hope that I have not done the hon. Gentleman any damage by that comment. If it is helpful, I will now attack him in order to restore his standing with his party.
I should refer to one other consequence of the motion before I turn to the amendments. The opening passage of the motion addresses in some detail the quorums of Select Committees. The broad effect of that passage is to place the quorums of all Select Committees on a consistent basis, set, broadly speaking, at a quarter of the membership. That will be helpful in a number of Select Committees that have had to struggle with a rather larger quorum, which sometimes has not been realistic in terms of the attendance. In particular, the proposed changes on quorums will be of great value to the Joint Committees, which under the present rules have to produce the full quorum of each of the Select Committees from which they are drawn. The proposed provision creates a new quorum for a Joint Committee in its own right, which will enable it to get on with its work with confidence.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I am most grateful to the Leader of the House. If Select Committees are as important as Members like to claim, how is it that the Leader of the House can find himself using the phrase that Select Committees struggle to get a quorum? Does he not find it strange that these very important Committees of the House that do very important work, often in far-flung parts of the world, struggle to make a quorum? Would people not be entitled to be slightly suspicious that if we cannot even make a quorum in those Committees, Members themselves do not value their work very much?
Mr. Cook: I do not think that the problem of making a quorum arises very much for departmental Select Committees, but the House appoints a large number of Select Committees, not every meeting of which is fascinating to every Member and most of which are not held in far-flung places. However, I would not disagree with the right hon. Gentleman's central point, if I can refashion it in a slightly more diplomatic way, that right hon. and hon. Members also have to accept their responsibility for ensuring the status and the good work of Select Committees. In its report last year, the Liaison Committee had some strong words to say about the importance of attendance at Select Committees.
The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) has tabled two amendments, the second of which proposes that every Sub-Committee should contain a member of the Liberal Democrat party or another minority party. I submit that the trend of the motion that I have put before the House is to give Select Committees more discretion, more flexibility and more freedom. It is for them to decide whom to put on a Sub-Committee. As a generality, I hope and expect that they would include a representative of the
The hon. Gentleman's other amendment calls for an increase in the membership of Select Committees, typically from 11 to 13. I understand the broad, general case for an increase in the membership of Select Committees, which was argued with vigour by the Hansard Society in its recent report. As I said, I shall want to return to and consult on a number of such issues in the autumn through the work of the Modernisation Committee. In considering further reforms, I shall be happy to examine whether there is a case for larger numbers on Select Committees, as was advocated by the Hansard Society, although we must bear in mind the point made by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and ensure that we appoint willing members who will attend the Committees.
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): If it is the right hon. Gentleman's intention to reconsider the membership of Select Committees with a view to increasing the numbers, is it proper now to reduce the quorum?
Mr. Cook: I am happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman on that point. The quorum is typically set at a quarter of the membership, so if we increased the numbers, the quorum would automatically rise. The hon. Gentleman can set his mind at rest on that difficulty.
If we are to return to some of these matters and to consult on and discuss them, I hope that we can reserve the larger question of the size of Select Committees until then. I am keen to get the Select Committees started in the next two weeks, so I am anxious that there is no unnecessary controversy in the way.
Mr. Cook: We have gone at a fairly cracking pace on some of these issues in the past three weeks, especially on how to proceed with Select Committees. If no progress is made, it will not be for want of trying or for lack of intention on our part, but I cannot offer a major change in Select Committees without consultation and without broad consensus.
The size of a Select Committee could be contentious. I do not want to reduce what I hope will be a pleasant House of Commons debate to a partisan affair, but I cannot resist pointing out that a membership of 13 is the figure that most benefits the Liberal Democrats. Under the present distribution of seats in the House, 13 is the first point at which the Liberal Democrats become entitled to two seats, not one. That figure applies until we reach Select Committees with a membership of 21. Some hon. Members may think that if we are going to go for 13, we might as well go for 15 or 17, which would provide added
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I take the right hon. Gentleman's point, and there may be strong pressure for that from Labour Members. The trigger of 13 enables us to include a Liberal Democrat as well as a member of one of the minority parties. Up to that point, it is impossible for both groups to be represented, and that is a real difficulty.
Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but I think he may share my view that if we are to have a membership of 13 to accommodate that problem, the view in other quarters may be that we should have up to 15 or 17 members to resolve other under-representations. I ask that we reserve this surprisingly contentious question until we can consider Select Committees in the round. In the meantime, I hope that the House will approve the motions that I have submitted to it.
Mr. William Cash (Stone): Would the right hon. Gentleman be good enough to look at an essay by Sir Edward Fellowes? It appears in a book to which Bernard Crick and others have contributed, entitled "The Commons in Transition", and was written in about 1970. I will not go into the details, but Sir Edward said that in 1886that may seem a long time ago, but the consequences are still with usthe power of the Whips, in other words the handing over of control of Standing Orders to the Executive rather than the Speaker, had left the House of Commons in a parlous condition. I paraphrase Sir Edward, but that is what he said.
Would the right hon. Gentleman consider this possibility? Might it not be highly desirable, in the interest of the independence of Back Benchers, to reach a decision enabling themin consultation with the Governmentto ensure the provision of more of that independence? That would be in line with the general principles of the Liaison Committee, but would apply to all Select Committee matters.