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Mr. Winterton: I thoroughly endorse my hon. Friend's observation, and I know that the Leader of the House is well aware of the important Liaison Committee report on the matter. My hon. Friend is right that the power of the Whips, the usual channels and the establishment in trying to influence, if not dictate, who serves on Select Committees must be ended. That power must be put back in the hands of Back-Bench Members.
The Leader of the House has done a magnificent job and I am delighted to say that from the Conservative Benches. I went to see him with the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich and the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, because at the end of the last Parliamentwe had been mandated by the Liaison Committee to act as a co-ordinating group to get the Select Committees set up and he has honoured in every way the commitments that he gave us. I hope and believe that he is sincere because I have great regard for the right hon. Gentleman. Whichever Department he has been in, he has done a magnificent job, both in opposition and in government. If, along with the House and those Members who value the role of Select Committees, he will look at the recommendations of the Liaison Committee, I believe that he will strengthen Government, because a House of Commons that can properly hold to account the Government and the Executive of the day will produce a better Government and better legislation.
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): I do not intend to detain the House long, although it would not be to the inconvenience of a great many Members were I to choose to do so. I hate to introduce a note of dissent to the debate, but I am afraid that my experience of serving on some three Select Committees during the last Parliament does not fill me with quite the same awe of those Committees as has been expressed today. A real measure of the importance that we actually attach to those Committees can be made from noting the attendance at this debate.
I principally wish to discuss quorums and the measure that we have before us which, for the greater convenience of Select Committee members, proposes reducing those quorums. It certainly would have been for my greater convenience. I can recall on one occasion during the last Parliament rushing from one Select Committee meeting in the Upper Committee Corridor, down the stairs to the floor below to another Select Committee meeting. Of course that was down to the Committee of Selection,
The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) has explained one of the problems that attaches to maintaining a quorum. Of course it might be difficult if a Committee meeting is held when a statement is being given to the House. However, it strikes me that there is a measure of contributory negligence in that, by arranging for a Select Committee to meet when there is likely to be a statement to the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) gave us two examples of how it is difficult to maintain a quorum, given the existing system for appointing members to Select Committees and, without giving names, he cast aspersions on the Members concerned. However, the answer must be to reform the system by which we make appointments to Select Committees, not simply to accommodate that corrupt system by reducing the quorum. It strikes me as absolutely monstrous to table a motion to reduce the quorums when the glaring problem is the very way in which we appoint Members to Select Committees. I believe that Select Committees would indeed achieve the importance that we allegedly attach to them if their members had to seek the approval of the whole House before their appointment. If they had to canvass support among their fellow hon. Members rather than have the privilege conferred on them by the Committee of Selection, greater importance would attach to their appointment and, of course, they would be under much greater pressure actually to attend the meetings.
Mr. Cash: I have great sympathy with the thrust of my hon. Friend's remarks, but as was shown by the number of Members who leapt to their feet, there is a problem with his argument. He is right if the decision taken by the whole House were on a genuinely free votewhich takes me back to the necessity of changing Standing Orders so that the Whips cannot interfere in those votes. However, it would not produce the right result.
Mr. Swayne: I am not sure that I agree with my hon. Friend that it would not produce the right result. I am constantly assured that the importance of Select Committee work is that it is non-partisan, but I am not convinced of the merits of non-partisanship. I think that confrontation does a great deal to increase attendance at Committees. If we accept the often used argument that Select Committee work should be entirely non-partisan, I do not agree that a vote by the whole House would produce the wrong result.
Mr. Swayne: Of course. However, a clever member of a Select Committee can elicit the evidence that he wants by influencing the choice of witnesses to be called and by skilful questioning of those witnesses. I certainly believe that members can have great influence. It is my experiencefrom one Select Committee in particularthat a member can have a great deal of influence on the report that is produced.
Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend's speech is veritably warming the cockles of my heart. However, leaving aside the logistical inconvenience of having speedily to transport himself from one Committee to another, does he agree that Select Committees often suffer from a triple problem? First, there is a tendency in some of them towards a rather formulaic style of questioning, which does not necessarily illuminate the subject matter. Secondly, the Whips are far too influential in determining the composition of those Committees. Thirdly, there is an alarming tendency, which has been exacerbated under this Government, for Ministers, in advance of the publication of the reports of the Committees, to brief against them with all the advantages of the government machine at their disposal. That does nothing to encourage confidence in the system.
My hon. Friend draws attention to an important issue. It has been my experience in one or two Select Committees that members are often busy and have not had time to do all the reading, so when they arrive at the Committee they are presented with a list of questions drawn up by the Clerks. It is, in effect, the Clerks who do the interrogation, even though their questions are put into the mouths of the Committee members. I suspect that the Clerks have a greater role than the public may imagine in writing the reports of the Select Committees.
A great deal of nonsense is talked about Select Committees. We attach huge importance to them and the great work that they do. Undoubtedly, some Select Committees do their jobs effectively, but not all of them are in the same league.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): One of the more intriguing aspects of the debate is that it gives rise to a phenomenon with which some of us are fairly familiar. We all do a balletic dance around the subject at issue. We have an interest in doing that, because most, if not all, of those forgathered here have a deep emotional attachment to the concept of Select Committees and the way in which they work. There are distinguished Select
Let us look back to the genesis of Select Committees. I think that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) mentioned this. We fooled ourselves for the best part of 20 years. As I recall, someone somewhere looked fondly across the Atlantic and said "Our American friends have the most wonderful system of legislative scrutiny and accountability; can we have some of that?" With all good will, that system was imported across the Atlantic.
I am very much in favour of things being imported across the Atlantic. I imported Mrs. Forth from across the Atlantic. What more can I say? Mrs. Forth probably works better than the Select Committees. But on this occasion the problem was glaringly obvious from the start. We chose to ignore the fundamental difference between a legislature that has Congress on the one hand only, and a legislaturethis legislaturein which the Executive is, in fact, part of the legislature and has control over it.
Most of the difficulties that have been described today flow from that fundamental fact. We are perpetually caught by the same problem: we want a system of Select Committees that allows us to scrutinise the Executive effectively, but at the same time we must live with the fact that in our system of parliamentary government the Executive control the House. I fear that, until we find a way of breaking out of that system, we shall be stuck with the problem for a long time.
The Liaison Committee report has rightly been mentioned frequently today. I admit that it will be difficult to solve the problem in one leap, but the report constitutes a considered, moderate and modulated effort to move us in the right direction. Nevertheless, I can see why the Government, and even a parliamentarian of the stature of the Leader of the House, will always be reluctant to take that step: Governments find the existing arrangement all too convenient. My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) illustrated one of the more extreme examples, but there are almost certainly many others.
So here we are, struggling with this motion. The Leader of the HouseI join the many others who have given him credithas responded rapidly to requests made to him, and to his colleagues, to accelerate the process of appointment of Select Committees, and we must all welcome that; but there is a catch. He knows and we know and we know he knows, and so on.
If we had tried to hold up the establishment of Select Committeeswhich, I submit, would have been within our graspwe would have been hoist by our own petard. Had we told the Government and the Leader of the House that we were profoundly dissatisfied with the means by which Select Committees are currently established, we would have delayed the establishment of Select Committees, and found ourselves with exactly the same problem as before.
The motions give us an opportunity to be grateful for the limited progress that we are making, but also to point out that the Leader of the House has neither fooled usalthough I am sure that that was not his intentionnor seduced us into thinking that all is well, and that the accelerated appointment of Select Committees legitimises the process whereby they are already being established. It should be understood that any progress we are making is very limited, and that mutual congratulation is not in order.