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Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Many Members are seeking to catch my eye. I appeal for shorter speeches so that as many of them as possible can contribute.

6.30 pm

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): I have been in the House for 15 years and I regret to say that, during that time, apart from the ending of all-night sittings, there have been very few serious attempts at modernisation. I contrast that with the jobs that I have had outside the House, which never lasted more than seven years, and usually only about three. During that time, when I ran whole departments or organisations, there was always massive change. We always wanted to develop and move on. My frustration in this place, having been here for 15 years and seen so little change, has, therefore, been acute.

That has changed only since my joining my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on the Modernisation Committee. I pay tribute to him and to his enormous vision, energy and commitment in pursuing the modernisation of this institution. We are expecting to embark on a huge agenda, as was made clear in the memorandum that he provided on a previous occasion. Today, we are tackling only a very small part of that agenda.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) on his excellent speech today, in which he demonstrated clearly just how modest these proposals are. Despite that, the weight of tradition in this place, and some vested interests, have already led to the watering down of some of the proposals in our report, resulting in the proposals that we shall vote on tonight.

The first message that I have for my colleagues is: "If you are a moderniser, and if you want this process to continue, vote for the whole package that has been

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presented by my right hon. Friend. It has been constructed with considerable difficulty, it hangs together and it paves the way for greater modernisation."

What is wrong with the present system? We have heard from many others tonight, but I want to quote Lord Sheldon when he appeared before our Select Committee. He said:

He is right. The present system is not only wrong in principle; the process has lacked transparency and denied disappointed Members any right of appeal. The events of last summer served to highlight grievances, and Parliament put things right and challenged the Executive. In doing so, however, we did not provide a mechanism for a permanent solution to the underlying problems.

The proposals of the Modernisation Committee provide a court of appeal and enhance transparency, while leaving the process of producing the party lists for the Select Committees in the hands of the parties themselves. In the Labour party, as my right hon. Friend has pointed out, we have already chosen a better method, which is designed to provide greater transparency and fairness in the internal party process. Nothing that comes before the House tonight will change that, except that everyone will know that there is a court of appeal and another scrutiny system, and that, in extremis, a Member could appeal to the Committee of Nomination. I believe that the very existence of the Committee of Nomination means that it will probably never be used, because of the great influence that it will have simply by being there and by affecting the way in which the parties behave. Even if Labour Members think that we have got everything right, surely we ought to care about Opposition Members.

The composition of the Committee of Nomination, as proposed by the Modernisation Committee, has drawn many unfavourable comments: not many have been clearly voiced in the Chamber, but I can assure hon. Members that, out in the corridors, they certainly have been. They always begin with the words, "Those old . . . " I shall say no more. We now have some new, younger—we presume—people being added to the Modernisation Committee, and we all accept the proposals that are now before us, because we have accepted the amendments. We will, therefore, have 12 Members on the Committee, and they will reflect the different ages and the diversity in the House.

My only regret is that, when the amendment was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), it was not made clear that, of the two Government additions, one should be a woman and the other a man. There is a gender imbalance on the Chairmen's Panel, and it could be addressed by the new amendments. I hope that, if the proposals are passed tonight, the spirit of that will be understood by those who make the appointments. People should look not at personalities, however, but at the independence that will be brought to the Committee of Nomination under the leadership of the Chairman of Ways and Means. This is an extremely modest proposal, but it returns to Parliament what is rightly Parliament's: the power of decision over matters of parliamentary scrutiny.

Our report seeks to address several other problems with the present system, including the size of the Committees. I frequently go to meetings at which I meet colleagues

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from other European Parliaments and institutions. They always ask me at the outset, "Which Committee are you on?" There is an assumption in many Parliaments—this is now also true of the Scottish Parliament—that every Member will be on a Committee and be part of the scrutiny process, and that they will all have a place. By comparison, our scrutiny system is grossly underdeveloped, and our report seeks to address some of those problems.

In defending the present means of selection and appointment, some new Members have told me that they think it works extremely well and that it is the most interesting part of their job. I am sure that it is, but, by defending the status quo, they deny other new Members coming to the House the opportunity to serve. There should be an increase in the numbers, although I do not agree that that should be achieved in the way that our amendment now suggests. It should have been mandatory. The report recommended that there should be 15 members, and that is what we should have had. At least we should go some way towards that tonight, however, by giving discretion to Committees.

The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) talked about his Committee of 17 members. While saying that he would like it to be somewhat smaller, however, he also complained about the work load, and the complexities arising from not having full attendance. Any of us should be able to chair a Committee of 15. The Modernisation Committee—a completely cross-party Committee—has had 15 members and has been brilliantly chaired and, if I may say so, has worked extremely well. I agree with what the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) said about that tonight.

Mr. Curry: This is not a question of the ability to chair a Committee. It is a question of the ability to ensure that the Committee spends its time doing the job that it is supposed to do, in effectively pursuing its witnesses. There is a difference between a management problem and a parliamentary political problem.

Joan Ruddock: I chair the New Deal for Communities board, which is far more diverse than any parliamentary Committee, and has 21 members. I believe that there is a skill involved in enabling people in such circumstances. As the right hon. Gentleman suggested, it does not always have to be Buggins's turn. Sometimes the member who is pursuing a point is the one who should be called more often. I accept that, but the fundamental principle here involves the opportunity for many more Members to serve on Select Committees. Because we have absences and conflicts of interest, and because people have to be in other places, having 15 members is a way of making a good Committee and enabling it to work.

There has been talk of costs, but, frankly, this is about scrutiny, which is what we are here to do, and that has to be paid for. It has been suggested that if membership of the Foreign Affairs Committee were larger, it would have people travelling all over the world on freebies. All those things can be sorted out. People have distinct interests, even within a Select Committee, and not everyone has to do everything or go everywhere at the same time.

Mrs. Dunwoody: It is terribly important to understand that, if a Select Committee is divided into a number of small Sub-Committees—or even quite large ones—the

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other members of that Committee are excluded from considering not only the evidence but the conclusions. I hope that my hon. Friend will not go down the road of assuming that constantly fragmenting a bigger Committee gets a better result. That is not the case, and it actually defeats their purpose.

Joan Ruddock: I bow to my hon. Friend's experience, but I think that these matters can be worked out. I think that, because Sub-Committees concentrate more on specific issues, they sometimes add more to the whole. I do not think there is a complete choice and we are not offering a complete prescription, but I do think the numbers need to be increased.

Donald Anderson rose

Joan Ruddock: I am trying to observe your strictures, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I cannot do so if I give way again.

The report says that the parties—in effect, the Government—will still determine which party chairs which Committee. I believe that chairmanships should rotate, although the Modernisation Committee has not considered that.

Last year, as events demonstrated, the usual channels sought to determine who would chair Committees. Even according to new proposals, and with improved methods of party selection, chairmanship could still be predetermined simply on the grounds of previous tenure and the fact that someone had done a good job. Experience shows that people can remain Chairs for three, four or even five Parliaments. They may continue to produce exemplary work, but I strongly believe that there are others with equal talents who must be given an opportunity to offer those talents. I think that one term, or five years, of a Parliament is sufficient for anyone to occupy the Chair, and it is certainly fairest if payment is involved.

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