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Mr. Cash: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman because I was looking for guidance. I think that the principle is right. To put it bluntly, it does not look good for the membership of Committees to be based on party proportionality of the House so that the majority and the chairmanship are automatically with the Government. The status quo does not provide sufficient balance in the interests of democracy and accountability or in the information that comes out of the deliberations of the Committee for the benefit of the electoratewhich is what this is all about.
Andrew Bennett: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is a contradiction in what he says? He wants to reduce the power of the Whips. Surely if we do that we should be conferring power on each individual. Any individual in the House should be entitled to chair one of these Committees, not necessarily an Opposition Member.
Mr. Cash: I am prepared to concede that. I would have agreed with Martin Bell chairing a Committee, for example, had he been provided with the opportunity to do so. I do not think that there is any inconsistency in my argument. By Opposition, I mean non-government. To that extent, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. This is a serious point. It is essential that the Government be seen to have the confidence to deal with effective, serious and reasoned opposition.
The media are often the interviewers of the nation. I think that that is entirely wrong. I have great respect for people such as John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman, but they are not elected and do not have the exclusive right to be the nation's arbiters. They do their job wellI have been at the receiving end of quite a lot of their interviews. However, it is not their prerogative, on behalf of the nationthrough the taxpayers' licence feeto be the only people determining exchanges between Members of Parliament and the Government. It is an enormously important subject which needs to be considered.
Over the past few months, I have corresponded and had several meetings with Greg Dyke, Tony Hallbefore he went to the Royal Opera HouseMark Damazer and their teams on the manner in which such interviews are conducted and the research on the basis of which questions are asked. It gets very political; I do not want to go into it now because it is a separate subject in itself. I think that those people do a great jobI am entirely in favour of the media having the best possible opportunity to take part in national debatebut those in the House of Commons and the House of Lords ought to raise their game to ensure that they perform a function that can be
Mr. Nicholas Winterton: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Does he accept that if the Government gave more serious consideration to the reports of the Liaison Committee in the previous Parliamentnot least "Shifting the Balance", which is well known to the Leader of the Housethe very concerns expressed by my hon. Friend would be dealt with at a stroke? Will he, at an early date, urge the Leader of the House to allow a full day's debate on "Shifting the Balance" and to ensure that the Government are bound by the decisions of the House at the end of that debate?
Mr. Cash: I have great sympathy with that view. Indeed, I pointed out that a free vote on such matters was essential. The Government for the second time have achieved a substantial majority and they should have confidence in the system of democracy and accountability in this House. This is a test of the good faith of the Government and the Leader of the House. I trust in the right hon. Gentleman's perspicacity in these matters and I believe that he will take the matter seriously. He has every reason to do so because if he were to go down as a great reforming Leader of the House, it would be a tremendous tribute to the success that he has achieved over many years. I say that despite some of my differences with him on a number of points.
More generally, would it not also be a good idea to increase through education in schools the amount of information about the manner in which these systems of government operate? It is an important responsibility to afford to young people as they grow up and to students at universities special opportunities to study the workings of Parliament in relation to what is going on elsewhere in the world and in the European Union.
As a member of 15 years' standing who serves on the European Scrutiny Committee I believe that there is something seriously wrong with the way in which we scrutinise the legislation, given that under the European Communities Act 1972 there is much of it that we cannot avoid. Let us not camouflage the issue: whether we like it or not, majority voting is implicit in the workings of the EU. It follows, therefore, that decisions are taken which affect this House. Bills which cannot be amended without infringing the fundamental rules laid down by the acquis communautaire are continually passing through the House. Once the Council of Ministers takes a decision by majority voting and even before it is implemented through our enactment, it is binding on us by virtue of the rules established under section 2 of the European Communities Act.
Mrs. Dunwoody: A lot of this is built on stilts of very thin paper. If the House did its job properly and Members of Parliament turned up to all European Committees and could not only question Ministers openly but table
Mr. Cash: It will be no surprise to the hon. Lady to hear that she has given me an opportunity to say that, only yesterday, for that very good reason, I tabled 240 amendments to the Bill implementing the Nice treaty.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton: That is only a starting point.
Mr. Cash: Indeed it is. Of course debate has been truncated by the programme motion. That in itself raises a question which comes straight to the responsibility of the Leader of the House and the integrity of his arguments. Nice is an important treaty, but I certainly will not go into it now because we will have some opportunity to look into it during a four-day debate that is truncated by a programme motion. It is essential that hon. Members in all quarters of the House table amendments. I am sorry to say, despite all I have said, that the Leader of the House was the progenitor of the programme motion. It was a terrible shame and he has not heard the end of it yet.
That does not alter the fact that we could be in serious trouble with the grouping of the amendments. The Chairman of Ways and Means will decide on Tuesday whether the matters raised are properly discussedcommon foreign security policy, the question of human rights, the movement of the centre of gravity as a result of the enhanced co-operation procedures and so on. I must not and will not go into those matters now, but it is absolutely necessary for people outside the House to understand them, and they will not be able to do so unless there is debate. That is why I tabled 240 amendments on the Maastricht Bill. Whether people liked it or notwhether the former Prime Minister, John Major, liked it or notas a result of the determination and political will of several Members, we put on the record what was going on in that Bill. That would not have happened otherwise. We can look back to those days with some pride.
Will the Leader of the House be good enough to consider holding a serious meeting with some of usI look especially to my constituency neighbour the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) who is the main mover and shaker of the "Parliament First" group motionso that we can have a good and proper discussion about the operating principles?
There is much to be said for referring draft Bills to Select Committees for consideration, so that we can winkle out some of the absurdities that will need to be changed. There were certainly plenty of those during the previous Parliament and no doubt there will be many under this Government. We must sort that out.
If the European Scrutiny Committee, having regard to the ambit of the legislation on which it is involved, puts on a reserve stating that a matter should be debated on the Floor of the House and that a decision should not be taken in the Council of Ministers until this place has come to a resolution, for heaven's sake let us make certain that that principle is adhered to. Over and over again, the decision of the European Scrutiny Committee is frustrated when it insists on debate on the Floor of the House on highly sensitive matters on which the Government do not want to hear opinions with which they do not agree.
The House is where decisions have to be taken. This is about democracy and accountability. I am extremely glad that the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook)
Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central): What a remarkable and interesting debate. So far, every contribution has been thoughtful and based on experience. Speeches have been cross-party and concise. It is hard to imagine a debate of which that could be said of every contribution. Furthermore, to his great credit, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has remained in his place throughout the debateas has his junior Minister, the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office. The debate has been a modela rare occasion. If it is to be typical of debates in this Parliament, perhaps we really are entering a new era under my right hon. Friend's leadership of the House.
I join everyone else who has spoken in congratulating the Leader of the House on the speed with which he has moved in setting up the Select Committees. We may have already forgotten that this Parliament is only two weeks old. My right hon. Friend was pressed on day one of the Parliament to set up the Select Committees. He promised that he would do so and he is well on the way to delivering that promise. That is enormously to his credit.
I support thoroughly the detail of the motion the reconfiguration of the Committees; the wider arrangements; and the changes to quorums. They are right, realistic and reasonable.
The Leader of the House explained why changes to quorums were necessary. Most colleagues on both sides of the House will sympathise and agree with his argument about the attendance figures. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) made an extremely shrewd and experienced speech about the reality of attendance rather than the actual existence of an attendance record. I hope that his subtle remarks were heard by all those Members on both sides of the House who next week will be rushing to put their names forward for membership of Select Committees but who, during the next few months, will not rush to attend the Committees in quite the same way.
I suggest that if the new Select Committees had and were seen to have the importance and effectiveness of scrutiny that they ought to havethe status in the eyes of the House, the media and the publicthere would be no problem with attendance. The problem is that they do not have the powers and thus the status, so they are not always given priority in people's diaries.