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Mr. Forth: It occurs to me that one of the problemsI recognise that there are two sides to this matteris that once a colleague is made a member of a Select Committee, he or she is effectively irremovable, and colleagues may trade on that. It might be worth our considering the possibility of attaching the privilege of membership to the responsibility to turn up; that might concentrate some minds effectively.
The second point is that there are people who turn up fairly regularly but then dodge in and out of the Committee, spending more time on the telephone in the Corridor. We should spell it out to Members that if a Committee sits for two hours, they should be there and participating for those two hours.
That brings me to the question of the size of a Select Committee. I can understand the argument that the more members a Committee has, the more useful things there are for Members of Parliament to do. However, the House also needs to think about the way in which a Select Committee works. My experience is that, in a Committee of 11 members, having eight or so present is about right, from the point of view of chairing the Committee and feeling that everyone is participating.
When there is a larger CommitteeI chaired a previous Environment Committee and a Transport Committee that had 17 membersthere can be a lot of people there. If 15 or 16 turn up, there can be very little opportunity to participate and it becomes difficult for the Committee to be spontaneous. One cannot let people just jump in with a question when they want to push the questioning in a particular direction. One has to plan the questions formally, and allocate time or take other measures. We should not rush to make the Committees larger, if we want them to be effective and people to attend most of the time. It is not necessarily a good idea to make the Committees larger if we want them to work more effectively.
The motion proposes the creation of two large Committees, one for environment, food and rural affairs and the other for transport, local government and the regions. If we are to have two such big Committees, a strong case may be made for having joint Chairs of those Committees. In the previous Parliament, the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee was jointly chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and me.
Some unease was felt about whether the joint chairing would work. People asked, for example, from whom the Clerks would take instruction. However, I believe that we managed to make it work, and I plead with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to consider having joint Chairs for those two large Committees. In that way,
The strength of Select Committees' reports is that they are based on the evidence heard and on the reaction of Members who heard it. One of the difficulties for a Sub-Committee is that it hears the evidence but does not have ownership of the report. It reports to the main Committee, which then reports to the House. Members on the main Committee who were not on the Sub-Committee may wish to go back through the evidence and alter the report, without having heard the evidence. It could be argued that the Sub-Committee should be able to report to the House, instead of to the main Committee, and that point should be considered.
If the Select Committees are to work effectively, they must be properly staffed. It is important that when they are set up a little more time is spent on ensuring that they have the right resources. I do not ask for large resources, but there is a shortage of Clerks to cover the Select Committees proposed in the motion. The issue of specialist assistance and secretarial back-up is yet another question.
We must also make much better use of new technology. It is welcome that Select Committee reports now appear on the web, but it is important to examine how we can get the evidence on to the web quickly, so that the Select Committee process can become more of a dialogue. People could read what had been said in evidence to the Select Committee and then send in supplementary evidence.
I welcome the fact that the Government are getting on with making the changes. I look forward to seeing the names down on the Order Paper late next week, and I hope that the Select Committees will be up and running, and effectively scrutinising the Government, when we come back in October.
Mr. William Cash (Stone): I welcome the appointment of the Leader of the House. Over the years I have been in the House, I have developed not only an affection for him, which he may not have understood, but considerable respect for his ability and skill in the conduct of the various positions that he has held, even though I have recently had reason to disagree with him on matters that I need not mention tonight. Having said that, the issue before us is enormously important and I am glad to hear that the Leader of the House intends to review the situation in the autumn.
On the Floor of the House we deal with things in a fairly broad fashion. However, the absolute requirement of a Select Committee is that it operate on the basis of evidence and analysis. There is therefore one essential requirement for any great reformer of the Houseand there is no doubt that we need one. The "Parliament First" early-day motion is supported by some very distinguished Members in all parts of the House, because it is clear that among the fundamental issues that faced us at the general election were apathy, Parliament's failure to connect with people, and the need to restore both faith in politics and an understanding that what we say and do in the House is at the heart of what the voters want.
When we are dealing with matters of great importance, whatever the subject matter investigated by any Select Committee may be, it is essential not only that the evidence be properly evaluated but that the Government take it seriously and do not simply, as a knee-jerk reaction, give a short response that effectively ditches the Select Committee's proposals. The Government should give Select Committee recommendations the kind of weight that will enable the members of Select Committeesand the public as a whole, which is what this is all aboutto have confidence in the Committees and in the parliamentary process.
We have much to learn from those such as Bernard Crick and others who have studied those questions. I have no doubt that, given the seriousness with which the right hon. Gentleman is taking his new role, he could turn out to be a great reforming Leader of the House.
I can skip over several points quite quickly, because I gave evidence to the Norton committee, and the simplest way of dealing with those subjects, rather than going into them all now, is to send the right hon. Gentleman the evidence that I submitted to that committee, and also to put it in the Library.
I also spoke on the constitutional issues in the debate on the Queen's Speech. The first part of my speech dealt with the reform of Parliament, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be good enough to read that, because it contains a lot of the points that I want to make.
There are still a number of issues that I would like to draw attention to now. First, in the interests of freedom of information, we need to think about the difficult subject of the advice given by civil servants to Ministers, and the extent to which Select Committees can have the opportunity to look at what was going on behind the scenes. There has to be a degree of sensitivity, there are parameters, and it is not an easy areaI do understand thatbut there is a serious case, which should be carefully considered.
There is also a case for suggesting that the House should have a free vote on Select Committee reports. That brings me back to a bigger question, to which I am returning, I believe, for the fourth time in a yearthe question of amending Standing Orders to reduce the power of the Whips. I do not say that because I do not like the whipping system; after all, I have lived with it for some time. I am happy with the idea, in so far as it is connected with the need for parties to be able to deliver their policies.
However, we are Members of Parliament, and there is an important feature that distinguishes the United Kingdom Parliament from many others that operate list systems, whereby recalcitrant MembersI shall not mention them by namecan simply be struck off the list by the party leaders. That is not in the interests of democracy, because Members of Parliament who have stood out have often eventually managed to convince not only their own party, but the parliamentary process and the electorate as a whole of the wisdom of their views.
There is also the question of the chairmanship of scrutiny Committees. In a sense all Select Committees are scrutiny Committees, but we know what that phrase really means, and there are, I think, only three such Committees in the Housethe Public Accounts Committee,
Mr. Tyler: Two other Committees fall into that category. The Select Committee on Environmental Audit is very much on a par with the Public Accounts Committee, and the Joint Committee on Human Rights, on which Members of both Houses of Parliament serve, is also very germane to the point that the hon. Gentleman makes.