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5.29 pm

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): In many ways, this is a more important topic than the one on which we spent the earlier part of the day, even though there may be less excitement and Member interest in the question of how the House is to come to terms with an ever stronger Executive—that is not a party political point, and the process has been going on for decades—and a Parliament that finds it more and more difficult to hold them to account. I agree with the Leader of the House that a good Government have nothing to fear, and in fact a great deal to gain, from close examination.

I am not speaking on behalf of a party, as this is a matter for Members at large, but there are issues that directly affect the capacity of certain Members to participate in such holding to account. We warmly welcome the motions and we are delighted at the rapid pace of bringing the Select Committees back into full use, but we think that there is scope to go further. My amendments set out how that might be achieved.

We agree that the reconfiguration of Select Committees to match Departments is right, and that there should be some Committees with a membership of 17. We welcome the capacity for all the Committees to have Sub-Committees and believe that increasing the use of Joint Committees is very worth while. Now, however, I come to the need for the amendments. I apologise for the length of one and the brevity of the other. The complexity of our Standing Orders means that it is hard to express one's intention in plain words.

The intention is that the smaller variety of Select Committee should be increased in size so as to have two representatives from third and minority parties. The purpose is not to seek a benefit for the Liberal Democrats—[Hon. Members: "Of course not."] Hon. Members are clearly sceptical, but we could equally have tabled amendments that directly paralleled the proposals of the Hansard Society or the alternative laid out by the Leader of the House—that all Select Committees should consist of 17. One reason for not doing that was the caution shown by Conservative Front Benchers in discussions about increasing the number of Select Committees in the previous Parliament.

When the Modernisation Committee was considering ways of improving the scrutiny of European legislation, and was minded to propose that there should be five European Scrutiny Committees, to try to get to grips with the great volume of legislation coming from Europe, the Conservative party argued for a lesser growth in Select Committees, and said that it would not be able to provide the additional members.

Perhaps in a new Parliament the Conservatives are more willing, or perhaps more able, to participate in Select Committee proceedings, but one reason for our proposals was to save them the embarrassment of being unable to provide the additional members. I would not be

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concerned should the House decide that a larger size of Select Committee, with a greater representation from the Conservatives, was appropriate.

Mr. Grieve: There was no embarrassment on the part of the official Opposition in making the points that we did. Our points reflected the reality of staffing Select Committees, participating in Standing Committees and ensuring representation in the Chamber. It would have been irresponsible to say that we could do more. My recollection of the Select Committee on which I served is that the attendance of members of the hon. Gentleman's party tended to be rather less regular, and more à la carte, than ours.

Mr. Stunell: The hon. Gentleman has made my point for me, confirming my assertion that Conservative Members in the previous Parliament had difficulty servicing Select Committees and that that was the main reason for their objection to increased European scrutiny and the creation of two additional Committees. I simply pray that in aid of a proposal that would leave Conservative representation on Select Committees at its current level. However, if alternative proposals are introduced that would increase the level of Conservative representation, I shall be happy to hear the arguments.

Mr. Tyler: It is true that for a long time the Conservative party found it difficult to get former Ministers and senior members to serve on these Committees. It is understandable that hon. Members who have held great offices of state might find it difficult to serve in that rather menial capacity, but if they now take a different view, we must welcome it.

Mr. Stunell: The point being debated is not the substantive point of the amendments, but hon. Members seem to consider that this is in some way a self-serving amendment. It is not: we should be very willing to have the representation on Select Committees of Opposition parties increased. I take the point made by the Leader of the House, which was that Labour Back Benchers might be just as effective at providing opposition on occasions. One hopes that they might be more effective than they were in the previous Parliament, but such things change.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) noted, the representation secured for third and minority parties covers nine political parties in this House. It is therefore necessary for consideration to be given to the cause of all those parties, and as result, smaller Committees contain no Liberal Democrat Members.

Mr. Forth: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the House would be more persuaded of the enthusiasm of his party and other Opposition parties if there were more evidence of their attendance at this debate? I find it difficult to believe what the hon. Gentleman says about the enthusiasm of his and other parties when I see the empty Benches surrounding him. Moreover, if he raises once more the alleged differential in attendance between his colleagues and mine, I shall invite him to examine the public record of attendance at all Select Committees. I think that that would leave him very embarrassed.

Mr. Stunell: It is always as well to do the sums before making such an intervention. In fact, a higher proportion

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of Liberal Democrat Members than Conservatives is now present in the Chamber. I am not sure that the argument is won entirely on statistics. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. This argument is getting slightly circular. Perhaps we can get back to the important business before the House.

Mr. Stunell: I accept your rebuke, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and apologise if I have led the House in an inappropriate direction.

Amendment (b) deals with the membership of Sub-Committees. I understand the reluctance of the Leader of the House to give instructions to Select Committees on how to form Sub-Committees. When Sub-Committees are established—I hope they will be—to deal with specific tasks or responsibilities in the Select Committee's overall remit, they will contain a sub-set of members of the Select Committee. However, if the membership of Select Committees is maintained at 11, the difficulty will arise that, if two or more Sub-Committees are established—and hon. Members are not entitled to serve on more than one of those Committees—it is axiomatic that one of them will contain only Labour and Conservative Members. That would weaken the accountability and effectiveness not only of the Select Committee, but of the Government, who must be challenged at every point.

We welcome the speed with which the Government have tabled the motion, and its intention. We shall certainly support it, but there is also legitimate interest in getting improved accountability, and support for our amendments will achieve that.

5.40 pm

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish): I am pleased to have the chance to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on getting the motion before the House so quickly, and I hope that we can have the Committees in being in the last week before the recess.

On the question of the quorum, I welcome the fact that that has been made flexible, but there are two sides to the question. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said that if a Select Committee is usually well attended, the quorum should not be a problem. That is correct, but I can remember two occasions in the last Parliament when there might have been a difficulty with the quorum.

On one occasion, a Wednesday morning, there was the funeral of an ex-Member, and clearly a lot of members of the Select Committee wanted to attend that. On the other hand, witnesses had travelled a considerable distance and it would also have been unfair to cancel the Committee at that point; but there was a chance of not having a quorum in that Select Committee.

The other problem is when a Select Committee meets at the same time in the afternoon as a Government statement takes place on the Floor of the House. On those occasions, it seems to me that having a low quorum may avoid embarrassment. However, if we are to have a low quorum, the other side is that there is a responsibility on Members who put their names forward to serve on a Select Committee that they intend to attend.

There is a spat among Opposition Members to do with looking at the record to see whose people turned up most frequently. Sadly, the record is pretty appalling, because

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all it shows is whether someone was in a Select Committee for a few seconds, just to get the Clerk to recognise that they were there. We have all come across people who nip in, get their mark and disappear. We should spell out to Members who put their names forward to go on a Select Committee that they are committing themselves to doing a piece of work and that they are not just going to get their mark and disappear.

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