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Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): I do not want to prolong the right hon. Gentleman's remarks, but I must point out that there is a difference between an agreement between the Whips on the principle that certain Committees will have a Chairman from an Opposition party and an agreement between the Whips on a named person. It is the latter that is wrong and objectionable, and the Whips have increasingly been pushing for such agreements in the last two Sessions.
Mr. Forth: I am grateful to the hon. Lady. That may well be a solution, or at least a partial solution, that we should all consider. It would make a lot of sense to me if Committees were given, perhaps not total choice, but at least a degree of choice. The system could allow the chairmanship of certain Committees to be at the disposal of Opposition Members.
Mr. Forth: I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I will say no more about chairmanships per se. I simply believed that the subject flowed naturally from the substance of the membership of the Committees that we are being asked to consider.
I sense that other Members want to speakI hope that they doand I do not want to prevent that, although hon. Members know that I am capable of speaking at length, if I want to. I trust, however, that others want to make a contribution, and this is the opportunity to do so.
I want to say a few words about the membership of the International Development Committee. We will have to return to the issue on another occasion and at greater length. I suspect that some rather disgraceful things have taken place, and I am sad to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) is to be discharged from the Committee, to be replaced by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry). I suspect that the reasons for that discharge are pretty seedy and will not bear close examination because I do not think that they will reflect any credit on the Whips, the party managers or, I regret to say, the members of that Committee.
Many issues arise from the motions. I had intended to ask about the to-ings and fro-ings on the Modernisation, Procedure and Public Accounts Committees, but I will leave it to others to do that, if they believe that important issues are involved. Suffice it to say, this is the opportunity for Members to make their points about the membership of Committees. This is the opportunity for the House to express and reinforce its view, not only to the Leader of the House but to my hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench, because it affects all of them equally. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will take that opportunity because it may not arise again for quite some time.
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): I am in full agreement with the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) on at least one thinghe can continue to enjoy being in opposition. I assure him that all Labour Members will work to ensure that that continues for as long as possible.
The right hon. Gentleman's observations as a tribune of the people, standing up to the forces of authority and the Whips, would have more moral force if there were evidence that he had done that when he sat on the Government Benches. He may wave his hand dismissively, but that is absolutely the case. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) referred to the vote in July 1992 when the Government removed the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) from the chairmanship of the Select Committee on Health. At that time, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst was certainly not sleepwalking because he walked through the Division Lobby to vote him off the Committee.
The right hon. Gentleman has made a clear and commendably frank admission that the Conservative Government did not allow a genuinely free vote on a House of Commons matter. We allowed a free vote on Monday and are here again today because we have acted to put into place the will of the House, which they tried to frustrate when in office.
David Winnick: Is there not another aspect to consider? Not only have the Government rightly accepted Monday's decision, but the Modernisation Committee, as my right hon. Friend confirmed in business questions, is rightly examining the way in which we appoint hon. Members to Select Committees. The current system is unsatisfactory. The Tory Government refused to budge on the issue, as they did on so many others while they were in office.
Mr. Cook: I am happy to agree that the Modernisation Committee has met and considered the matter. I shall return to that topic before I conclude because it is right that the House knows what we intend the timetable to be.
We have also taken the opportunity to bring before the House the members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee so that that last departmental Select Committee will be approved before we rise. If the House approves the names, there are contingency plans for all three Committees to meet shortly after the debate to choose a Chairman and work out a programme. We have set up the Select Committees within four weeks of the Queen's Speech, which is in record time. That beats even our previous record of doing it within two months in 1997 and is way ahead of the five months that the Conservative Government took in 1987.
Over the past week, things have been said about the Whips Office which have not been unmingled pleasure and flattery. I want to balance that. People worked very hard to ensure that the names were brought before the House on Monday and, as a consequence of the vote then, presented today. We should recognise the effort that went into that. The Whips have ensured that 350 places have been filled from a possible 500 candidates. That is not a bad achievement within a space of a week and a half.
On the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North, the Modernisation Committee is one of the Committees that has met since Monday. It may help the House if I outline how we intend to proceed. We decided at our meeting on Wednesday that our first priority would be to produce a report on the working of the Select Committees. I would expect that report to be comprehensive and to consider the many recommendations made in the previous Parliament by the Liaison Committee, as well as those that we have received from bodies outside the House.
There are several issues to considerfor example, the proposal that the Liaison Committee repeatedly made in the previous Parliament to hold a half-hour debate on matters of topical interest suggested by the Select Committees immediately after Question Time once a week. Another contentious suggestionI heard voices against it on Monday and since thenis the Liaison Committee's proposal to introduce a salary structure for the Chairmen of Select Committees. The Modernisation Committee should examine that matter and report back to the House.
Another matter, which is recognised universally on both sides of the House, is the presentation and style of Select Committee reports. Leaving aside the excellence and the exciting nature of the contents of those reports, their presentation does not necessarily convey that excitement in an attractive style and format. The reports appear to predate the invention of graphics and colour printing. We should address those issues if we want to ensure that the House exercises its powers of scrutiny in a way that connects with the public and that they find attractive and inviting.
We have resolved that, to take forward that study, we will take evidence from the members of the Liaison Committee in the previous Parliament; from those who served on the Norton commission, set up by the Opposition; and from those involved in the Hansard Society's recent report. Any report in which all those issues are considered in the round will necessarily take rather longer than is desirable to address the process of appointing Members to Select Committees. That is why it is important that we respond urgently to the need for a report on the nomination process to Select Committees. That is urgent because, in the autumn, we shall be faced with the need to fill vacancies as they arise on Select Committees.
I understand that it must be the will of the House to try to have in place a new system before such vacancies arise and before the House is asked to fill them. That is why the Modernisation Committee has already resolved to meet in September to discuss the issue. This depends on the agreement of the Committee, but I hope that it will be possible to bring a report on nominating Members to vacancies on Select Committees before the House shortly after we return from the recess.
Last month, we were faced with a choicewhether we sought to set up the Select Committees by the recess, or whether we first sought to lever into place a new nominations system for Select Committees. If we had done the latter, we should have been unable to proceed with the nominations for the Select Committees until well into the autumn and, possibly, not until November.