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Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): May I ask my right hon. Friend to give one simple undertakingthat whatever machinery is proposed to the House, the method by which all Select Committee members are chosen will not only be spelt out in considerable detail, but be absolutely transparent?
A number of texts are available to give us guidance. A good starting point for the Modernisation Committee's review would be the Liaison Committee's report "Unfinished Business", produced during the last Parliament. I am pleased to note that I seem to have anticipated what the hon. Member for Macclesfield was going to say.
Mr. Cook: In that report, the Liaison Committee recognised that at the start of a Parliament it was not possible for it to clear nominations. As it consists of the Chairs of other Select Committees, by definition it cannot exist in advance of those Committees. "Unfinished Business" proposed that, after the new Parliament had sat for eight weeks, the task of nominating replacements should pass to the Liaison Committee. Because the report was published in the spring shortly before Parliament was dissolved for the general election, there was no time for the Government to produce a response. I therefore think it appropriate for the Modernisation Committee to begin its review of the system with that report.
I agree with the Liaison Committee that the success of Select Committees depends on members giving commitment and priority to the work of those Committees. Notwithstanding my hon. Friend's objection, however, there will inevitably be a number of changes to Committee membership during this Parliament, and it is therefore important for us to identify an alternative system of nomination as soon as possible. We should consider whether that new system could provide a specific role for the Liaison Committee to clear nominations for future vacancies, and to be responsible for putting those nominations to the House.
That was, of course, only one of the Liaison Committee's recommendations for reform; there were many others. The Committee mentioned, for instance, the importance of discussing Select Committee reports in the Chamber while their subject matter was still topicalpossibly in a weekly half-hour slot after Question Time.
I am conscious that no proposal for change is without problems or will be short of opponents, but I am willing to look afresh at any proposal for reform of the Select Committees that will support their vital role of scrutiny. "Unfinished Business" calls for constructive co-operation between Government and Select Committees. It is in that spirit that I am willing to work with the Liaison Committee on the shared principle that good scrutiny makes for good government.
Mr. Gordon Prentice: In my experience, the way forward for new Labour is to consult endlessly. I welcome the assurances that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has given today, but how long will his consultation with the Modernisation Committee and others take? Does he have an end date in mind for bringing forward proposalson a Government motion, not on a motion for the Adjournmentthat would enable us to take a collective decision?
Mr. Cook: The proposals would have to be brought forward on a substantive motion, otherwise we would not be able to give effect to the decision of the House. My hon. Friend asks a question that in essence I have already addressed: I would like to make progress as quickly as possible. I certainly intend that the Modernisation Committee, having met on Wednesday, will meet again during the recess, in September, to discuss this and other matters.
I hope that it will be possible for us to make proposals in the autumn, but that depends in part on the extent to which I am able to command consensus for change in the House. I tend to agree with the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton that, in the light of the events of the past few days, it seems that if there has ever been a moment when we are likely to achieve consensus it is now. If the House reaches agreement, it can help me to make proposals more quickly than would otherwise be possible.
The decision on who goes on to a popular Select Committee can never be made easy. Last week, with some Committees, my hon. Friends faced the challenge of choosing a dozen or fewer members from 50 or 60 applications. Whoever makes the choice in those circumstances, and however it is done, there will always be more Members who are disappointed than those who are satisfied. But the difficulty in making the choice increases the importance of ensuring that the process is seen to be transparent, fair and under the control of the House.
The Select Committees carry out a valuable service to this House by conducting effective scrutiny. The priority for the House now is to put above scrutiny the process by which those Select Committees are chosen. We want both press and public to have confidence in those who are nominated to exercise Parliament's role of scrutiny. We will best safeguard that confidence if we ensure that future nominations to Select Committees are seen to be fully in the hands of Members of this House.
Select Committees are a fundamental method of holding the Executive to account, and if they do not work effectively they cannot exercise scrutiny. They can collect and chew over evidence at leisure. They can question Ministers and, importantly, civil servants and outside experts in a way that the House cannot. They can develop an esprit de corps or, put another way, they can hunt like a pack. If they get a scent, they can follow it in a way that parliamentary debate and question times do not allow.
The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) and the Leader of the House mentioned the Liaison Committee and the importance of its report. Much thinking is being done and we need to see some action following from it. The hon. Lady also spoke about the allocation of chairmanships, about which we have strong feelings. Many issues need to be addressed, and I hope that the Modernisation Committee and the House will have an opportunity to deal with them properly.
Whatever criticisms may be made, and there are some sharp ones, I welcome the fact that we are having this debate now and that the proposals are before the House for consideration. That promptness is largely a result of the Leader of the House pressurising his colleagues, as well as the rest of the House, to deliver a package to us. However, we deprecate the purgethe cullof senior critics of the Government through the Committee of Selection's work.
We also regret the fact that the Leader of the House was unable to accept some of the proposals that we made a week ago to relieve the difficulties that the House faces. In particular, our proposal that the minimum size of Select Committees be increased would measurably improve the situation for Liberal Democrat and minority party candidates. It would also allow the Leader of the House to seek relief for those of his Back Benchers who are excluded under the present system.
Although the speed with which these proposals have come before us is welcome, errors may be an inevitable consequence. Some things, however, are not errors. It can hardly have been an accident that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) was excluded from membership of the Transport Sub-Committee. That was not a clerical oversight; it was not a case of rushing into things. It was, surely, deliberate exclusion, just as the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) was deliberately excluded by his party in 1992it was not an accident or a product of haste but a conscious decision.
In both cases, a stern and effective critic of the Government has been dealt a blow by respective Governments. Not only were they stern and effective critics in their own right but they spoke for the Committee. The Select Committee is a representative body of this Parliament. We require it to hold the Government to account; the Chairman is its representative and spokesman. An attack on the Chairman, in this way, is an attack on the House.
I set out the case for enlarged Committees last week. There is no doubt that enlarged departmental Committees would mean that many of the concerns that my colleagues in the minority parties are expressing today, by way of amendment and, later, by way of vote, would have been overcome. I made that point strongly last week. A Select Committee of 11 members has one place for the Liberal Democrats and the minority parties combined. A Select Committee of 13 or more members has two places for those third and minority parties. In making my best assessment of how minority places and Liberal Democrat places might properly be allocated, I have on many occasions been beset by the difficulties of the system. One of the quirks of the House is that, when it sees a pressing need it can often find a solution. Hence, on the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, which has 11 members, two places are allocated to the third party and minority parties. The same applies to the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs.
I do not particularly seek to justify that relationship to the House but, just as a pressing need for special dispensation revealed itself for Scottish and Welsh affairs, so there is a case for larger departmental Select Committees. Two departmental Committees have 17 members each; we shall debate those places today. Two places on each of those Committees are within the gift of the Liberal Democrat party and minority parties. In each case, of course, one place has been given to a member of a minority party. There are serious difficulties with other departmental Committees; Plaid Cymru was offered places on the Select Committees on Welsh Affairs, on Environmental Audit and on Catering. To the best of my knowledge, having submitted names, Plaid Cymru recognised that that was an appropriate allocation.