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5.41 pm

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): In the last Parliament, the Select Committee on Liaison, which consists of the Chairmen of the various Select Committees, was so concerned about how modernisation of the House was avoiding the need to develop and improve the powers of Select Committees that it produced a very balanced report in which it suggested to Parliament a way of bringing back to this place the power of scrutiny, which is what we are here for. That way was not only

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to improve the information and evidence-gathering techniques offered to Select Committees and the support for those who carry out the work, but to ensure that the members of the Committees were truly representative of all corners of the House of Commons.

I do not intend to detain the House long tonight, but I have to say that I am astonished by what has happened. I do not believe that I am irreplaceable on the Transport Sub-Committee: my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) and for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) have great knowledge of transport matters and either would make an excellent Chairman. The fact is that outside, the House, the current Parliament is perceived as not doing its job properly, and the Select Committees are regarded as a means of carefully examining not only what Whitehall and the Government are doing but what all the arms of government and their myriad agencies are doing. There is no other comparable form of machinery in the House of Commons. There is no other way of doing the job.

Although people do not always understand the intricacies of what we do here, they ask that the Members of Parliament who are sent here fulfil the role that voters expect them to fulfil, and that is not simply to go along with everything that the Executive propose. My commitment to the Labour party is total. My commitment to what is done in the name of the Labour party is sometimes less than total. I believe that the difference is essential. I do not undermine my Government by suggesting that they are not like the pope—infallible. I do not undermine the role of independent Secretaries of State if I dare, as a Committee member with other Committee members, to produce a report that examines their actions in detail.

What the Select Committees do matters. It matters because the House of Commons must never become a great morass of people doing what they are told not by the electorate but by the Executive. That is why it is important that we vote tonight on who serves on which Committee. That is why it is important to say to the electorate as a whole that we do a vital job. Give us more powers. Give us more support. Do not give us more money. As Chairman of a Committee, I do not want money: what I need is the right to question, to examine and to produce reports on what Her Majesty's Government are doing in the name of government.

It is because I have faith in the ability of the Labour party and a Labour Government to take just decisions that I know that they will not be frightened of the role of Select Committees in checking what they have done, what they are doing and what they intend to do. That is why I was elected. It is why we were all elected. If we forget that, the electorate will not.

5.45 pm

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling): I address my remarks to the composition of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, with special reference to the Government side. In this Parliament, as in the previous one, seven Members were nominated from the Government side. Of those Members who sat on the Committee during the last Parliament, three were proposed for renomination. Of the remaining four, two have retired from the House, and one—the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott)—

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did not want to serve on the Committee because of her commitments. Thus, of the previous Members of the Committee on the Government side who were willing and able to serve, only one—the right hon. Member for Swansea, East (Donald Anderson)—was sacked from the Committee.

I certainly acknowledge that there could well be occasions when it is right to dispense with the services of the Chairman of a Select Committee. It would be legitimate to do so, for example, if the Chairman did not have an adequate grasp of the subject matter before the Committee. However, as the House knows, that is most certainly not so in the case of the right hon. Gentleman. He was, of course, a professional diplomat before he entered the House. He has spent years on foreign affairs in the House, including service as a Front-Bench spokesman for his party. He is a member of the North Atlantic Assembly. He has given years of service to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and, throughout most of the last Parliament, he was the chairman of its UK branch. I can tell the House firmly that, of all the members of the Committee during the last Parliament, no one had a greater or deeper knowledge of foreign affairs than he did. The breadth and depth of his knowledge certainly exceeded that of most of us.

It would be right to dispense with the services of a Chairman if the Chairman was indolent. I share with the House the fact that the right hon. Gentleman was extremely diligent. If we consider the many, many informal meetings of the Committee as well as the hours spent in formal meetings, his attendance record was superior to that of any other member of the Foreign Affairs Committee during the last Parliament.

It would be legitimate to dispense with the services of a Committee Chairman if the Committee failed to deliver the goods, in terms of reports to the House. On that count, the facts speak for themselves. After a helpful tip given to me in the cafeteria by the then Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), the Foreign Affairs Committee adopted the practice followed by the Home Affairs Committee of printing on the inside of each of its reports the full list of reports published by the Committee thus far in the Parliament. If the House looks at the final report, which we produced days before the Dissolution, it will see that the Foreign Affairs Committee under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Swansea, East produced in four years flat a total of 37 reports to the House, including major reports on human rights, weapons of mass destruction, the Kosovo war, European Union enlargement and several other equally important subjects. So the Committee, under his chairmanship, most certainly delivered the goods.

Finally, it might be legitimate to sack the Chairman of a Select Committee if his chairmanship skills were seriously deficient. The right hon. Gentleman will forgive me for saying that there may have been one or two occasions when his natural Welsh loquacity got the better of him and landed him in hot water, but essentially his chairmanship of the Committee was eminently satisfactory. He chaired the Committee in a way that was fair minded, consensual and patient, and that delivered the goods. The facts speak for themselves.

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Regrettably, the only conclusion that one can draw as to why the right hon. Gentleman has been sacked from the Committee—a matter on which, as the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) rightly pointed out, the Leader of the House was entirely silent in his opening remarks—is that the Foreign Affairs Committee produced a number of criticisms of the Government's foreign policy in the last Parliament.

I wish to make it clear to the House that those criticisms were not from one party on the Select Committee. They were not overwhelmingly from just part of the Select Committee. Such criticisms as there were in those 37 reports were overwhelmingly criticisms made by every member of the Select Committee and by every party on the Select Committee in reports that were unanimously agreed.

Therefore it is necessary to ask whether the House is prepared to tolerate a situation in which the Chairman of a Select Committee can be sacked for the supposed sin of having chaired a Select Committee that made criticisms of the Government. In posing that question, I say straight away that this is not an issue on which the official Opposition can make political capital. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), the shadow Leader of the House, was wholly right not to do so. I, like most members of the official Opposition, remember with dismay and embarrassment the events that occurred at the opening of Parliament in 1992 when, in almost mirror circumstances, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) was not re-appointed to the Health Committee of which he had been Chairman, because that Committee had criticised the health policy of the Government of the day.

This is not an issue for party points. It is, however, an issue for House of Commons points. I state such a point, as I see it, in simple terms. If the Government are allowed to get away with the sacking of the right hon. Member for Swansea, East and the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), the message that will be sent not only to every Chairman of a Select Committee in this Parliament but to every member of a Select Committee in this Parliament is that, if they have the temerity to criticise the Government in the course of their Select Committee's work in this Parliament, they run the risk that they will be sacked at the beginning of the next Parliament.

That is not an acceptable proposition. It is not an acceptable system of duress of this legislature by the Executive. At the end of this debate, above all debates in this Parliament, I ask that we as a House put party last and the House of Commons first. We must make it clear to the Government that the right hon. Member for Swansea, East and the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich should be reinstated to their respective Select Committees, from which they should never have been sacked.

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