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Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Why?

Mr. Twigg: The motion has been tabled in response to representations from the Chairman of the Committee on the basis that it will assist the Committee in its work. It is a new Committee, and I hope that the House will support it and agree to its Chairman's request. On that basis, I move the motion.

2.51 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I am more than a little disappointed at the what the Minister has said. Simply to say that the Committee Chairman wants fewer people to attend its sittings so that it can do its work does not seem remotely satisfactory. In fact, I am rather suspicious about this. In any case, I have suspicions about the concept of a bifurcated quorum. That is probably a bad way to do things, and we should not encourage it.

Generally speaking, any Committee should do its work with the maximum number of its members available. In fact, if we were to divide the House right now to test its opinion on the motion, 40 hon. Members would need to be present. I wonder whether the Government would like that to happen or whether they would feel confident about it.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): My right hon. Friend will correct me if I am wrong, but I cannot see the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Jean Corston), in the Chamber. It might have been polite if she had been available to explain her request to the Government.

Mr. Forth: I agree with my hon. and learned Friend. Not only would it have been a courtesy, but if the Chairman had bothered to turn up to make the case that the Minister has tried valiantly to make, the House might have been convinced. Perhaps understandably, he has failed to be his usual persuasive self. Perhaps he assumed that the Chairman would turn up and explain why she thought that we should agree to this extraordinary motion. As I have said, I am uneasy about the idea of having two quorums for different aspects of the Committee's business. That, in itself, requires some explanation.

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Ah, the Chairman of the Committee is now in the Chamber; I welcome her to the debate. Unfortunately, the rules of procedure do not allow me to resume my seat, listen to what she has to say and then make my speech appropriately, so I will have to deliver the rest of my speech on an entirely speculative basis, wondering what on earth she will say to persuade the House why she thinks not only that the Committee needs a quorum of two, but that it can legitimately conduct its business on that basis.

I clearly recall our being told when the Committee was set up how extraordinarily important it would be, what extraordinarily important work it would do and that hon. Members would very much welcome its deliberations. Some hon. Members—I was not one of them—swallowed that argument hook, line and sinker. Now, according to the Minister, the Chairman thinks that the Committee's work is so vital that, occasionally, only two of its members may be around to conduct its business.

I suspect that that says much about the Committee and, regrettably, about the attitude that is increasingly prevailent among some hon. Members about how seriously they are prepared to take the work of Committees and the House.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): Is not my right hon. Friend puzzled that the Government are seeking to do this at a time when they have had to tear up part of the Human Rights Act 1998, which came into force only last year? It is somewhat of an insult to suggest that on this important matter, when the Government have had to renounce measures implemented as recently as last year, only two people will be able to consider the evidence—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Some of the hon. Gentleman's remarks are outside the terms of the motion.

Mr. Forth: I am cognisant of the points that my hon. Friend makes. I am not entirely sure that the Minister presented his case with his normal oomph and enthusiasm. He may have been technically relaying what he thought the Chairman had thought so that the House could consider the matter. We must now wait with bated breath to hear the Chairman explain how the Committee, allegedly important as it and its work is, cannot muster not only its full membership for the deliberation of its business but even a normal quorum of three.

Mr. Stephen Twigg: I apologise if I was insufficiently enthusiastic in presenting the proposal to the House. Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that it does not mean that we would have a Joint Committee with only two people taking evidence? It would be two Members from the House of Commons, with a similar change being made in the other place. Will the right hon. Gentleman also acknowledge that this is a narrow and focused proposal that does not cover the full range of the Committee's work, but applies simply to the evidence- taking part?

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to the Minister, and of course I accept what he says. He is saying that as many as four out of the membership of 12 might participate in the work of the Committee. I expect that he means me to be impressed by that. Regrettably, it does not impress me at

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all. This rather sums up the attitude of all too many hon. Members. We seem to have arrived at a position that is redolent of what is prevalent on the Labour Benches. You would not allow me, Madam Deputy Speaker, to divert myself into the issue of counselling Members, whether attending Committees or not, and how the delicacy of Labour Members has to be looked after, not least by the Chairman of the Committee. You can be assured, that I will not elaborate on those points.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North) rose

Mr. Forth: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not tempt me to do so.

Mr. McNamara: I would never do that.

Mr. Forth: On that understanding, I give way.

Mr. McNamara: Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that one of the difficulties that we have had is that a Conservative Member is yet to be nominated to the Committee? What is the percentage of Members required for a quorum on other Committees?

Mr. Forth: I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that, happily, there is a motion on the Order Paper this very day nominating my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) for membership of this Committee.

Mr. McNamara: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, but he is not answering my question. We are now in November and the Committee has not had a Conservative representative. The very important legislation to which the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) referred was discussed without any Conservative Member being present.

Mr. Forth: That is a matter for my colleagues to consider. Perhaps it reflects the lack of interest in the Committee, not only on Conservative Benches but, because of the nature of the resolutions before us, more generally. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman's comments accurately reflect the value that the House places on the Committee. If it is expected that we can muster only two out of six Members of this House to do the Committee's allegedly very important work, we can draw our own conclusions.

Mr. McNamara rose

Mr. Forth: If the hon. Gentleman wants to keep worrying away at the point, I will indulge him.

Mr. McNamara: I will worry away at it, because I would not like it to appear that my colleagues on the Committee from this House have been found wanting in any way, when this is really to do with the other place.

Mr. Forth: I will certainly not be drawn into casting aspersions on Members of another place; I will leave that to the hon. Gentleman.

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My point, and I shall stick to it narrowly because it is important, concerns the attitude behind the motion, which is that we must anticipate that fewer and fewer Members of the House will turn up to do the work of Committees.

Mr. Garnier: It may well be that between now and Monday, when a derogation from the European convention on human rights is to be discussed, the Chairman intends to hold a meeting of her Committee so that, with the three other members who will be needed to form the quorum, she can take evidence on that derogation.

Jean Corston (Bristol, East): We did that last night.

Mr. Garnier: The hon. Lady says that she took evidence last night. No doubt she will publish that evidence before we discuss the matter on Monday. My right hon. Friend may find that information helpful in alleviating his concern.

Mr. Forth: That may be the case. I would be even more impressed if the Committee were to deprecate the fact that on Monday evening the matter will be dealt with by the ghastly deferred Division process. I hope that the Committee is prepared to express strong views about that, and I await the moment, but I will believe it when I see it.

I return to the point at issue. Why does it now appear that a very important Joint Committee of this House and another place should have a reduced quorum? I have no doubt that the Chairman will seek to persuade us that she is so lacking in confidence about her very important Committee, which deals with very important matters, that she wants to provide for the possibility that only two people may be available to take evidence.

Worse, we are to have this peculiar bifurcated quorum, which means that although two people may be present to take evidence, three will be needed to make a substantive decision. As with deferred Divisions, the people who sat and listened to the evidence may be rather different from those who will vote on the matter for which the evidence was taken. The whole business is starting to become not only bizarre but rather unsatisfactory. Unless the Chairman comes up with some convincing answers, I doubt that the House will be very happy with the proposal.

I suspect that Government Members thought that the House would give a casual nod and wink to the motion in conspiratorial acceptance of the idea that fewer and fewer of us need turn up to do any of our business. Of course, that is very much the attitude of many Labour Members, as we know from their words and their behaviour, and that is very much to be regretted. However, in this case there may be special considerations that I have been unable to anticipate, so I look forward with more than usual relish to what the Chairman of the Committee now has to say.

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