Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Marshall-Andrews: I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) about the Nomination Committee. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a misconception that the Committee needs to be concerned about the identity of individual Select Committee members? Its task is not to replace one Select Committee member with another, but to guard against the abuse of process and the corruption that has been evident for far too long in its predecessor.

Mr. Kirkwood: I agree.

We should try the Committee of Nomination process for the rest of this Parliament. If there are difficulties and it does not work, we can revisit the matter, but it is important to try it. I agree with those who say that it may be a long time before the opportunity arises again.

7.10 pm

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): A very senior member of the civil service recently gave a lecture at which he was asked for his opinion of the role of Parliament as a scrutinising organ. He replied that Parliament did not scrutinise, as the press fulfilled that function. Parliament would have to find another role, he said.

We should take that observation on board. The Chamber has lost many powers to demand answers from Members of Parliament, and many other aspects have been eroded. Much of what we assumed was accepted practice is no longer so. People do not think that it matters that statements are made not to the House of Commons first, but to fit in with press deadlines. They do not think that it matters that, when asked to appear as witnesses before a Select Committee, people can respond that they are Members of the other place or that they have a problem and cannot attend.

For the first time, my Select Committee produced a report about the need for Treasury Ministers to appear before it. Those Ministers have a political role now, over and above the involvement in negotiations about cash that they have always had. We have not even had a reply from the Government.

The House tonight is debating the urgent need for reforms to the system, and what those reforms should be. We must learn the fundamental lesson that every hon. Member is responsible for holding the Executive to account. We must be able to demonstrate to our voters that, in a democratic system, we are serious about asking difficult and often uncomfortable questions. We are not here to be always popular.

I speak as someone who has made a career out of not being popular. When I first came here, the House was fiercely sexist, and now it is ageist. Neither quality has done me much good, so it appears that my political timing has been wrong on all counts.

Select Committees are vital when it comes to finding out what the Government are doing, and why, and what they intend for the future. The system must have proper

14 May 2002 : Column 704

staffing. The House may not appreciate how much work is done by the Clerks and the specialist advisers. Select Committees are not even able to ask for economic models from the Government such as were produced by the Treasury for public-private partnership proposals. We do not have access to vital bits of information. Select Committees need to have much bigger staff, with much better pay and resources.

I oppose the proposal to pay Chairmen, however. Select Committees work because all members are equal and must work together. I am determined that all members should be able to comment on any report that my Select Committee produces, because they have all contributed to it. It has been said that the only way to get good-quality people to work on Select Committees is to establish an alternative career structure and pay Chairmen, but I believe that that undermines the role of Select Committees.

It is sad that Labour Members are prepared to say that the worth of people can be judged only by what they earn. We should remember how paramedics have had to crawl into damaged train carriages in the past few days. We should ask ourselves whether we as a nation have our priorities right, given the vast sums of money earned by people in the media or other careers. Their work may be useful and entertaining, but they are not vital services. I do not agree that we will get the quality that we deserve only if we pay Select Committee chairmen extra.

That is nonsensical, and it plays into the hands of those who say that Members of Parliament fulfil their true worth only when they disappear into the junior ranks of Government. Many hon. Members become invisible once they do that. They do not take serious decisions or change anything, yet they seem to think that that is the only way they can progress.

All Members of Parliament are here to use their judgment and abilities. We earn a very reasonable salary, and the need to give ourselves extra carrots on top of that raises questions about our political and moral judgment.

Select Committees work because members hear evidence and reach an agreed report. They listen to witnesses and ask questions. That is the basis of the conclusions that they reach. It has been proposed that increasing the membership of Select Committees so that smaller groups can be formed and sent off here and there will improve the quality of scrutiny. That is nonsense. I assure the House that when half the membership of a Select Committee produces a report, the other half—who have not read the evidence, or listened to it—are often full of the confidence of ignorance. They are very happy to tell those who have been active in producing a report that their conclusions are wrong and should be rewritten.

That is not a constructive way to produce useful reports for Parliament. The task of Select Committees is to reply to Parliament, not to Government. We will be in considerable danger if we lose that function.

Modern government is complex and covers many different roles. Many unaccountable methods are employed to get decisions through the system. I am not talking about a Cabinet Office with three different sections and innumerable committees chaired by people who are not elected. I am talking about the business of government, and about the numbers of Departments that have their own quangos, sub-committees and arrangements.

14 May 2002 : Column 705

The House has still not grasped the extent of the problem. We have lost the ability to demand that the Government remember that they are answerable to hon. Members because we are elected. Until we take back that power, progress will remain limited.

The report is important. It was produced mainly by men, so it is not perfect, but it has a great deal to offer. However, I remind the House that Select Committees are an opportunity and a responsibility. More than that, they are our hope for the future. If we mess up the chance to make them really effective, what hon. Members do elsewhere will not matter. Everything will be a matter of presentation, and the general public will rapidly cotton on to how unimportant that renders us.

7.18 pm

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): I add the congratulations of the Scottish National party to those already extended to the Modernisation Committee, which has produced a thorough and robust report under the stewardship of the Leader of the House.

We very much welcome the broad thrust of the report and support the Committee in its efforts to strengthen and extend the role of Select Committees. We also agree with the Leader of the House that the measures would improve the scrutiny provided by Select Committees and would add to their ability to hold the Executive to account.

I also welcome the remarks about pre-legislative scrutiny. That has been a positive experience in the past, and I know that the Leader of the House was impressed when he visited the Scottish Parliament last year and saw how the committee structure there was focused on delivering pre-legislative scrutiny.

We contend that Select Committees should reflect, as far as possible, all shades of opinion in the House. The Government should go the extra mile and ensure that all the political parties here are represented properly in the House's institutions. We therefore support the increase in the number of members of Select Committees. I hope that the House will support our amendment this evening and that the minority parties will gain extra places.

Under the current situation, the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru have no membership of a non-regional departmental Committee. That is unacceptable—we are effectively barred from further scrutiny of important Departments that still have a major remit in relation to some of the constituents whom we are here to represent.

We support the Prime Minister's announcement that he will appear in front of the Liaison Committee. However, it means that once again, we in the minority parties are effectively shut out, as we have no membership of the Liaison Committee. The arithmetic of the House traditionally works against minority parties because of the thresholds required to obtain a place. A body that is 34-strong means that we should be entitled to a place, but the Liaison Committee is composed solely of Chairs of Committees, and we have difficulty in securing a place on a Committee, far less one of the chairmanships. The three main parties will have the opportunity further to scrutinise the work of the Prime Minister while the minority parties will not. That is one more example of how the House can be seen as unrepresentative and not including all shades of opinion.

I am disappointed that the Liaison Committee has come out against increasing the number of members on Select Committees. What would it do to try to increase the

14 May 2002 : Column 706

number of members of minority parties on Select Committees? I looked carefully at its response to the Modernisation Committee report and found no mention of the minority parties. I found its objection to increasing the size of Select Committees pretty unconvincing and, in parts, feeble.

The Liaison Committee doubts whether there will be enough Members to fill the increased number of places on Select Committees. Only some 40 per cent. of Members serve on Select Committees, whereas 100 per cent. of Bundestag Members serve on Select Committees of that Parliament. Members of the Scottish Parliament serve on at least two Committees. It is argued that Members might not be found to serve on Select Committees. What do right hon. and hon. Members think we are in this place for if not to provide effective scrutiny of the Government?

I think that the real reason why the Liaison Committee has come out so strongly against the increase in numbers is that its members are in real danger of becoming a self-preserving Select Committee élite. I caution it against pursuing that route; it should become a Committee of the whole House.

Right hon. and hon. Members have said, mainly from sedentary positions, that minority parties do not have places on Select Committee because our numbers are so small. We are indeed minority parties, in terms of the basic arithmetic of the House.

Next Section

IndexHome Page