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16 Jul 2001 : Column 35

Select Committees

Accommodation and Works

4.16 pm

Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon): I beg to move,

Mr. Speaker: I understand that with this it will be convenient to discuss motions 4 to 29.

Mr. McWilliam: Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for the thoughtful way in which you have organised the debate, which might otherwise have become messy. Your wise decision will enable us to reach a conclusion in an orderly, considered and sensible fashion.

I also thank hon. Members of all parties for their co-operation on the Committee of Selection. We were under enormous pressure to recommend the names for membership of the Select Committees before the summer recess so that they can meet to set their programmes, and hon. Members have enabled us to do that. We faced a great challenge simply because this time we had a month less in which to do that. The fact that we are discussing the motions in prime time is a testament to everyone's hard work.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): How many changes did the Committee of Selection make to the recommendations made by the representatives of different political parties?

Mr. McWilliam: None. I reasonably thought that the representatives of the various political parties had sorted the recommendations out with their members before they put them to the Committee. The parties have different systems for doing that.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): The Chairman of the Committee of Selection says that he assumed that the various political parties had sorted out the recommendations before they were given to the Committee, but how does that apply to the minority parties which are not represented on the Committee of Selection?

Mr. McWilliam: The hon. Gentleman asks a reasonable question. Traditionally, the minority parties are represented by the spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats who takes soundings to produce an agreement. That arrangement has always worked effectively. The Government, the official Opposition and the minority parties have their respective systems and they are intended to work.

Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): I am getting a little confused. If the Committee of Selection does not select, what does it do?

Mr. McWilliam: My hon. Friend makes a fair point. The Committee of Selection recommends to the House who the Committee members should be. He might be

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slightly confused because the Committee of Selection comes under the Standing Order for private business, not public business, and was established with a completely different function.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Is there really any point in having the Committee?

Mr. McWilliam: There is a huge point. If the Committee did not exist, another Committee of a similar nature would have to be found to do the job.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. McWilliam: No. I should make some progress—[Hon. Members: "Give way."] Let me make a couple of points first, then my hon. Friend can decide whether to intervene.

I served with the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) on Select Committees for several years after the new system of Select Committees was first implemented. I was a member of one Select Committee or another from 1979, when I entered the House, until it became apparent that my duties as Deputy Speaker in Westminster Hall meant that I was unable to fulfil my duties on the Select Committee on Defence. In short, I have served on Select Committees of the House for more than 20 years and it has been an honour and a privilege to do so.

Select Committees acquit themselves extremely well. I have found all the Members of Parliament with whom I have served, whatever party they represent, to be unfailingly courteous and helpful. The Committees tend to develop an independent existence. They are a huge advantage and are of great benefit to the House in its considerations. I am not saying that they are perfect—they are not; nor do I think that they have all the powers that they should have, but I am not allowed to go further in that vein.

Mr. Fisher: Does my hon. Friend not understand from the tone of the House that our complaint is not about the existence of the Committees, but about the fact that they are dominated by the Government? Select Committees are parliamentary Committees, not Government Committees. He says that it is a difficult task to make all the selections, but how many minutes did the Committee of Selection sit when carrying out its considerations?

Mr. McWilliam: My hon. Friend is missing the point. I sat on Select Committees from the 1979–80 Session onward and I have to tell him that, regardless of the complexion of the Executive, Government Members have been quite happy to go along with Select Committee reports that challenge the Government of the day. That will continue and it is an entirely good thing.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): Does my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) believe that failing to challenge the Government includes the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport asking the Government to prevent the scrapping of HMS Cavalier—the Minister for the Arts at the time neither agreeing not to scrap it nor even going to

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see it; the Committee recommending the saving of HMS Cavalier against the policy of the Government, and the Committee succeeding?

Mr. McWilliam: My right hon. Friend is right. I remember when the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts, on which the hon. Member for South Staffordshire and I had the privilege to serve, said that student fees should not be introduced. Select Committees have a long and honourable history of challenging the Executive. It is the job of Members of Parliament to scrutinise the Executive; Select Committees are merely a system for doing that.

We have 26 Select Committees to appoint this evening. There are six amendments, which fall into two groups.

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire): The hon. Gentleman says that there are 26 Select Committees to appoint. I might have misread the Order Paper, but there does not appear to be a Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. Will he explain why not?

Hon. Members: It is there.

Mr. McWilliam: The right hon. Gentleman has missed it—it should be on the Order Paper.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): It is not there.

Mr. McWilliam: The right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) is quite right—it is not there. He has asked a very sensible question and I shall find out the answer. [Hon. Members: "It is motion 30."] I am sorry—it is motion 30, which is not in the group that we are considering.

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend. It is my understanding that it has not so far been possible to draw up a list of nominations to go before the Committee of Selection. I hope that we shall be successful in time for this Wednesday.

Sir Brian Mawhinney rose

Mr. McWilliam: May I say a few words before I give way to the right hon. Gentleman? My understanding of Standing Orders is that it is not in order to intervene on an intervention—such as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was making. I give way to the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire.

Sir Brian Mawhinney: Having established that we shall not be appointing a Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs tonight, may we have an assurance at some point from those on the Front Bench that such a Committee will be appointed?

Mr. McWilliam: I can deal only with the items that have been before the Committee of Selection. That is what I am attempting to do.

As I was saying, the six amendments fall into two groups. Amendment (c) to motion 9, amendment (c) to motion 16 and amendment (b) to motion 17 were tabled by members of the official Opposition in an attempt to

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make changes in the Labour membership of Select Committees. Amendment (b) to motion 15, amendment (b) to motion 19 and the manuscript amendment to motion No. 17 seem to relate to disagreements between the Scottish National party and the Liberal Democrat party as to how many SNP or Liberal Members should appear on Select Committees.

My granny told me that it was a bad idea to intrude on private grief. That seems to be what is being attempted this evening in respect of various parties. I return to my original point: the question of how individual parties make their selections and whom they select is surely a matter for them.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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