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Mr. Robin Cook: As my hon. Friend demonstrates, there are different views on whether it is I or the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) who is being nonsensical on this matter. It is a matter of fact that the Standing Orders refer to Chairmen, and that is why the motion before the House uses that term. If the right hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will use a gender-neutral term that I have been using for several years, on the whole without causing the offence that it has caused the right hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Cook: Given the choice between offending some of my hon. Friends who are members of another gender and causing offence to the right hon. Gentleman, there is no contest; it has to be the right hon. Gentleman whom I offend.
To return to the matter of substance, the motion takes a different form in the sense that it lists the Chairs, rather than the names of individuals. Had I tabled a motion that listed those eligible by name, there would have been further delay because two Select Committee do not yet exist, so I do not yet have the names of their Chairs. Had we proceeded differently, we would have had to find time to amend the motion as the Chairs changed. We had to amend the 1997 motion four times during the Session because of changes in personnel. The particular format that we have tonight does not require any such change. If there are changes in the Chairs of Select Committees, there will automatically be changes in the Liaison Committee without our having to trouble the House further.
The motion proposes to include in the membership of the Liaison Committee my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams). There is a precedent for appointing a senior Member to the Liaison Committee. In 1992, the previous Administration appointed Sir Terence Higgins to the Liaison Committee. So successful was that precedent that, at the end of the Parliament, and before the 1997 general election, the Liaison Committee recommended that, in future, it should include a senior Member.
I do not think that there is any dispute on either side of the House that my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West is a senior Member. He has given distinguished service to the House and to its senior Committees. He is a longstanding member of the Public Accounts Committee and the Committee on Standards and Privileges, and he also served on the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege. He has a wealth of experience of the proceedings of the House and the work of its Committees. It is right that that experience should be available to the Liaison Committee to be drawn on in whatever way it wishes.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, you have indicated that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment to the motion. I have had no overtures about the amendment, which is perfectly respectable; there is no reason why any overtures should be made to me on the completion of the tabling of an amendment. However, in the circumstances, I will want to hear the case for the amendment before I respond to it.
I hope that the House will not be sidetracked from the central issue. We need this motion to set up the Liaison Committee. We moved quickly after the general election to set up the Select Committees; indeed, they were set up in record time. Tonight's motion maintains that momentum.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): The Leader of the House said that he was listing the Committees by name because two had yet to be set up. Given that he has just described the welcome momentum towards setting up the Committees, can he explain why the Committee on Science and Technology has yet to be appointed?
Mr. Cook: The sole reason is that we have been looking for nominations to make sure that we have full membership. I hope that, in the course of this week, we may be able to take that forward. I can assure the House and the hon. Gentleman that we will make progress as soon as we can because I want a full slate of Select Committees.
As I said, the motion is necessary if we are to have the Liaison Committee. We are all agreed that we need the Liaison Committee and we all want the Committee to be set up. I hope that the House will agree to the motion tonight.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I very much welcome the motion and join the Leader of the House in recognising the vital role that the Liaison Committee plays in the proceedings of the House. I accept completely the pointan important one for the smooth running of our affairsthat the motion should be worded as it is, referring to Chairmen of Select Committees, both departmental and domestic, rather than named individuals, because that eases our procedures in an acceptable way.
There is a paradox in the motion, but it emphasises that the Liaison Committee traditionally has been composed of the Chairmen of the Select Committees, departmental and domestic. That is well understood by members of the House, and those who wish to envisage a greater role for the Liaison Committee are content with that. That much is common ground.
Having said that, neither my colleagues nor I have any difficulty with the suggestion that the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) be made a member of the Liaison Committee, for the reasons that the Leader of the House has given. The right hon. Gentleman, whom I know well and respect greatly, brings to the House, and will bring to the Committee, experience and wisdom that are well appreciated. However, were the right hon. Gentleman to be thought eligible to be the Chairman of the Liaison CommitteeI should have thought that that was a distinct possibilityit would raise the question whether such a position should be filled by a Government or an Opposition Back Bencher.
It may be that, in the wider consideration of the role of the Liaison Committee and of Select Committees generally, that sort of issue may be pondered in the future. I am not saying that it will necessarily affect immediate decisions, and I am not in any way seeking to interfere with or influence the decisions of the Liaison Committee. However, something that has bothered me for some time about the role of Select Committees is that they have tended historically to be dominated by Government Members. That is something to which the House may wish to return at some stage.
Having said that, I must confess that I am less happy with the idea contained within the amendment; that we start appointing other additional members to the Liaison Committee, apparently on an ad hominem basis. Whatever the virtues of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan)I have no doubt that they are manyI cannot avoid stating a fact into which I hope hon. Members will not read too much. The extent to which the right hon. Member for Swansea, West has enormous experience and knowledge of this House is clear; he has been a Government Minister and has served with great distinction on Select Committees. The same can hardly be said of the hon. Gentleman referred to in the amendment. Like the Leader of the House, I am waiting with bated breath to hear from Liberal Democrat Members the reasons for the amendment and why they believe that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam would add lustre to the Liaison Committee. I remain to be convinced about that.
I may take some convincing. We have been on solid ground until now in acknowledging that the Liaison Committee will consist of Select Committee Chairmen and, for the reasons given, the right hon. Member for Swansea, West. However, if we create a precedent by adding other members willy nilly, we could be at the top of the legendary slippery slope or at the thin end of the legendary wedge. That could lead us in directions that none of us can foresee. I fear that the influence and standing of the Liaison Committee could thus be diluted. I put it no more strongly than that.
I welcome the motion and its reference to Chairmen rather than named hon. Members. I am content with the suggested addition of the right hon. Member for Swansea, West, but I have yet to be convinced about any other changes to the traditional shape and structure of the Committee.
I welcome the flexibility that is implicit in the nomination of the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams). I endorse the words of the Leader of the House and the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) about the capacity and skills that he will bring to the Committee. He has considerable experience; I have served with him on Select Committees and I respect his judgment.
However, the precedent to which the Leader of the House referred is not precise. Sir Terence Higgins had previously been a Chairman; he returned to the Liaison Committee because of the need for continuity. A good case was made at the time and his appointment was worth while. However, that precedent does not apply in the case that we are considering. Although I greatly admire the right hon. Member for Swansea, West, I have heard the suspicion expressed in Labour circles that his appointment is a consolation prize for not getting something else. That is unfortunate, and I hope that the Leader of the House will dispel that rumour.