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Mr. Bercow: If the Leader of the House was keen to set up the Select Committees as early as possible in the current Parliamentprincipally, if not exclusively, to avoid the charge that he has created, or allowed to continue, a vacuumbut was perfectly open to the idea of a change in their composition, would it not be helpful if he said just that before the end of the debate? Would it not be helpful if he said "Yes, I want us to get on with our work, but I am entirely open to the idea of competitive elections to Select Committees, in which the Whips Office will have no involvement whatever"?
Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend is legendary for his optimism and generosity of spirit. I suspect that I may be almost as legendary for my lack of those characteristics. I cannot share his view. I hope to give the Leader of the House an opportunity to sum up the debate, which I am sure he will do with his usual skill, but not before I have said a few more words about one or two other matters.
Regrettably, I cannot agree with the analysis of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). The other fact of parliamentary life that we all understand all too well is that our Front Benchers and our business managers all share a joint and mutual understanding of the power of patronage, which is so important to them and which is expressed, among many other means, in the ability to appoint members of Select Committees. I believe that the parliamentary Labour party works in a different way. It has told us that it elects its members of Select Committees, so in a funny way the Labour party is perhaps less guilty of that offence than others.
In my party, the system seems to work in the traditional way. Members are asked whether they would like to participate in a Select Committee, but our usual channels arrogate and keep firmly to themselvescertainly, they have done so hithertothe power to give colleagues a place on an appropriate Select Committee. It is worse than that.
The other truth that usually dares not speak its nameI am about to reveal it since we are in revelatory mood, as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West has illustratedis that there is then a disgraceful little carve-up of Select Committee chairmanships by the Front Bencherstalking of which, I give way to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler).
Mr. Tyler: I, too, have been in revelatory mood as an ex-member of the usual channels. The other night, I pointed out to the House that not all Select Committee memberships must be put on the Order Paper by an Officer of the Crown; some Select Committees can be
Mr. Forth: The hon. Gentleman is correctat least technically he is correctand these are motions to which amendments can be made, but the reality lurking behind all that is that, in this Parliament, as in the previous one, the Government have been given a huge majority by the electorate. In the end, the Government will have their way. Indeed, the Front Benchers will have their way because my right hon. and hon. Friends are in the conspiracy right up to their necks, along with the Governmenttalking of which, I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning).
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): Before my right hon. Friend ventures any further down that route, I ask him to refer to the report in Hansard of the debate on a motion for the Adjournment just before the House rose for the election. He will find that, on behalf of the Conservative Front-Bench team, I supported the Liaison Committee's view on changing the system of selection and election for Select Committees. He must have missed that bit.
Mr. Forth: No, I did not miss that bit at all. I am talking about something quite different, before my hon. Friend gets too upset. I am talking about the fact that we do not elect members of Select Committees, as the Labour party does. I am also talking about the fact that, as I understand it, our so-called usual channels, or whatever they call themselves these days, still do a deal with Government Whips and Front Benchers on who will get what chairmanships. I suspect that our Front Benchers allocate the chairmanships to certain privileged colleagues. That is all I am saying.
There is nothing particularly secretive about it, but I say that to illustrate the point and lest we kid ourselves that the Select Committee procedure is a creature of the entire House. It is nothing of the kind. As far as I know, it is, has been and remains a creature of the Front Benchers. Let there be no illusions about that.
Mr. Bercow: My right hon. Friend suggested that I was unduly optimistic, but I certainly do not want to be mistaken for an imitator of Dr. Pangloss. He should not take the Labour party's evident approach to these matters entirely at face value. Has it occurred to his fertile mind that the fact that there is an election process in the Government party on the composition of Select Committees does not mean that there is not a sinister, invisible hand at work in the form of covert intervention, back-slapping, threats and so on from the Patronage Secretary?
Mr. Forth: That may be, but provided that the ballot is secret, most of my hon. Friend's dark suspicions are addressed. As in the up-coming election for the leadership of our party, and for reasons that the House well understands, the secret ballot may well bring about many surprises that will shock some of the candidates.
I want to say a few words about the matter of the quorum, which is one of the other distressing aspects of the debate. It is rather sad that we must wash such linen very publicly, but inevitable, I am afraid. How can Select Committees, grand and important though they are, vital though their work is to our democratic processes, occasionally find it so difficult to muster a quorum? That must be to our collective shame. We must try much harder to find an answer to that problem. It appears that colleagues are all too ready to submit their names to serve on Select Committees, but that if they find it just a tad inconvenient to attend and do their work, they are not present when it matters. We must turn our attention much more urgently to that tendency.
Another argument that has arisen in the debate concerns the size of Committees. In this case, size really does matter. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) gave an acute analysis of the issue, and I am with him on it. I suspect that, if Select Committees are to be as effective as we all hope, the smaller they are the betterand for a number of reasons. With his enormous experience, the hon. Gentleman summed up those reasons much better than I could. Therefore, I resist, certainly for the time being, the blandishments of the Liberal Democrats on the matter. If we increase the size of Committees, we may reduce their effectiveness even further.
Worse, there is a budgetary aspect to the argument. I say to the Leader of the House and to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, as members of the House of Commons Commission, that in increasing the size of Select Committees, we shall increase the size of the travelling caravanserai that they so often become. That will happen unless we cap Select Committees' total travel budget and let them argue among themselves about its allocation. In that case the bigger ones would travel less because there are more people on them. That solution appeals to me, but I should like the reassurance of the Leader of the House that he agrees.
I predict with some confidence that if we increase the size of Committees but do not cap the travel budget, the Liaison Committee would say, "We need more money for travel because there are more of us on Select Committees and we've no intention of curtailing our travel plans." These matters are never as obvious or straightforward as they seem. There are always wheels within wheels, which is a rather good metaphor for travelling Select Committees.
I hope that some good can come from this debate and our deliberations on these matters, so that we can look with much greater honesty at Select Committees, the work that they do, the work that we expect them to do and their membership. Then, we would be able to make some positive and constructive suggestions to improve their workings. On that, I shall attempt to be an optimist.
I entirely endorse the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), that we should not live in a Panglossian world, imagining that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. There are many aspects of Select Committees that are formulaic and could do with being reformed, but that will start only when the ball gets rolling. If this is going to start that ball rolling, it is a tremendous event, but if not, we are missing a tremendous opportunity. I hope that the Government will grasp the opportunity that they have been given.