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Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I almost entirely follow the reasoning of the Leader of the House, but will he say whether there is any length of time that might expire during the deliberations of the Committee that he might eventually regard as unacceptable? Would he be prepared to keep an eye on its deliberations and perhaps come back to the House at some point if he feels that it is dragging on for too long?
Mr. Cook: I am happy to assure the right hon. Gentleman that I will keep both eyes firmly on the Committee's proceedings. I have no doubt that if hon. Members felt that the process was continuing for an unreasonable period of time, they would bring the matter before the House even if I did not.
Mr. Cook: I very much apologise if I understated the expedition with which my hon. Friend's Committee tackled its task. I am glad that we got on the record the speed with which it is possible to reach a consensus.
On whether a report could be produced by the end of the summer, I do not resile from anything that I said at that time. It certainly remains possible. However, my hon. Friend's deadline would make it mandatory, which is a different kettle of fish altogether. I am aware that a number of the hon. Members who will serve on the Joint Committee are present in the Chamber and I welcome the fact that they will understand from our proceedings the urgency with which hon. Members wish them to approach
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Does the Leader of the House accept that if the Joint Committee is to have any chance of carrying the House with it, which is necessary if we are to move forward, it is important that it is not operating under too many time constraints? Does he also accept that just as the Public Administration Committee, chaired by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), thought it proper to take evidence, we hope that the Joint Committee will feel that it has the time to take evidence and to consider it.
Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman expresses the view that I have put to the Chamberthat it would not be right for us to impose an external deadline. However, we are entitled to invite members of the Joint Committee to have regard to the House's view that we should proceed with all expedition. The Committee will, of course, have the power to take evidencethat is provided for in the motion. Whether it does so and how much it wishes to call is a matter for the Committee.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Does my right hon. Friend accept that the expedition with which the Public Administration Committee delivered its verdict may not necessarily be a virtue, given that some of us think that it came to the wrong conclusion?
Mr. Cook: The report was never put to the House and my hon. Friend is right to point out that it would not necessarily have commanded the unanimity in the House that it commanded in the Committee. Having said that, I remind him that the first task of the Select Committee is not to recommend a preferred option but to put before the House the options on which the House can vote. Certainly, in the first stage, that will be a simpler task than that undertaken by the Select Committee.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): My right hon. Friend anticipated the point that I was about to make, but I will say it again. Had I been appointed to the Joint Committee[Interruption.] I would have been prepared to sit throughout August and September. Does he expect this important Committee, full of distinguished Members of Parliament, to sit during the summer so that we can have the options as soon as we come back?
Mr. Cook: We did not require a signed undertaking from those named in the motion that they would sit during August, but we have provided them with the option that they can meet during the recess. I anticipate that they will want to have a break and a holiday. Indeed, I am sure that their deliberations will gain from any holiday or time for reflection that they have. However, it is open to them to meet during the recess; they do not need to wait until the House returns.
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): My right hon. Friend has been extremely generous in giving way. Given his remarks, will he say whether he still stands by his statement on 13 May, in which he made two comments? The first was that he agreed that he could have had the options ready by about 7 pm that evening if he had been
Mr. Cook: I was not inviting the House to lock me in a room and throw away the key. Any one of us could probably write down what those options might be. I am not sure whether it is possible for 24 people to reach agreement with the same speed as I could achieve in an empty room. It is worth putting one matter on the record, however. The Joint Committee will, of course, have the immense advantage, in making good speed, that it is not starting with a blank sheet of paper. On the contrary, as the motion spells out, it is starting out with a small library of previous publications: the report of the Wakeham commission, the recent White Paper and the report of the Public Administration Committee.
Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): The Leader of the House has just answered my question, which was whether he would ensure that the Committee did not reinvent the wheels of the evidence of that commission and the Public Administration Committee.
Mr. Cook: I apologise if have already taken the lines of hon. Members, but I am glad that there is so much agreement among us. Honourable Members who have been appointed to the Committee will be aware of the need for a business-like approach. It is worth putting on the record that we will be able to legislate in the next Session only if we receive a final report by the turn of the year. The longer into spring that the Joint Committee deliberates, the more difficult it will be for us to produce a Bill in the next Session. I am sure that that will help concentrate the minds of the Joint Committee on the need to approach the task with care and deliberation, but also with expedition.
Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester): The Leader of the House said that if the Joint Committee does not reach agreement by the end of the year, we will not get legislation in the next Session. Is not that a huge sting in the tail and an opportunity for delay and prevarication by those on the Committee who would prefer not to have any legislation? Does not that argue strongly in favour of establishing a timetable?
Mr. Cook: I said that the longer it takes to produce a report, the more difficult it will be to introduce a Bill. That is self-evident. We can all work that out for ourselves, so it will not come as a blindingly new piece of information to anyone who has contemplated the matter. I am not in favour of an external limit. We propose to trust the 24 members of the Committee, from this House and the other place, to apply themselves with expedition and commitment. As I said earlier, members of the Committee are very distinguished, and I have full confidence that they will wish to apply themselves diligently and, having heard these exchanges, with expedition.
It is right that the Joint Committee should be invited by the motion to consider the powers of the second Chamber, but it would be surprising and contentious if it came up with an answer different from all its predecessors. Its first task will be to define the options for the composition of the new second Chamber, particularly the balance between elected and appointed Members. It will be difficult to make progress on other questions of reform of the second Chamber until the issue of composition is resolved. It is for that reason that the remit will not require the Joint Committee to present one comprehensive report, but to report from time to time. That will enable the Joint Committee to present an interim report on the options for composition in advance of its considered report on other aspects of reform. It would assist with the debate on reform if the Joint Committee could establish a consensus on composition, but it will not be required to do so by the terms of the remit. It is required to recommend the options on which both Houses can decide on a free vote. It is set out in the remit that these options should include a fully nominated House, a fully elected House and at least one intermediate option.
Thereafter, there are a number of further issues on which there is no established consensus and on which the advice of the Joint Committee would be of value in the light of the decisions of both Houses on composition. For example, what will be the precise electoral system used for any elected element? How do we ensure that it is clear that those elected have no specific constituency role that would compete with the representative function of this Chamber? Should any such elections take place on the same day as the general election or any other established polling day?
Most of those who expressed a view in the consultation period on the size of the new second Chamber were concerned that it would be too large. We would welcome the views of the Joint Committee on what might be the optimum size of a reformed second Chamber. We would be grateful if it could also explore the transitional arrangements that would take us to a reformed, smaller membership of the second Chamber.
There have also been some new developments since the White Paper. For example, the recent White Paper on regional government has proposed elected assemblies in those regions of England that want them. It is open to the Joint Committee to revisit the regional dimension to a reformed second Chamber in the light of that development.