Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 25 - 39)




  25. Lord Norton, would you care to join us? First of all, is it acceptable to you if I address you as Philip, I am talking to everybody else in first-name terms, it would be invidious not to do the same here, if I may?
  (Lord Norton) Yes.

  26. My apologies to you for keeping you waiting, but you heard the previous discussion, and I think that that will be broadly helpful, obviously, in your evidence, in that, to a large extent, your report tracked the recommendations of the Liaison Committee. I was quite struck, looking at the summary of your recommendations, at the end, that in the summary of your recommendations on the committee structure you say that the appointment of committee members should be taken out of the hands of the Whips, but you did not actually, in your summary, offer a solution to the alternative. In the body of the report, you indicated some sympathy for the Liaison Committee's report. As you will have gathered, I think that there is a broad recognition of the problems of the present system, we do not need to rehearse, though I am open to any advice you wish to give us, the reason why the present system is defective, but I am intrigued as to why in your summary you did not specifically endorse the proposal by the Liaison Committee as an alternative; do you see problems there, or are you personally attracted to it?

  (Lord Norton) No, the summary was meant to include essentially our own recommendations in the body of the report; it went far further than indicating sympathy with the Liaison Committee, we actually strongly endorsed the report of the Committee, we felt it had got it right, and said so. So I think we saw our task as just saying we think the Liaison Committee is right; what we were looking at was then, if you like, supplementing its recommendations, because the Liaison Committee had a very precise remit. Our work, of course, went much broader, and what we were trying to do was to bring in other reforms that needed to be linked with the appointments process to strengthen the House as a whole, so that was the context. But, no, we were very much strongly in support of the Liaison Committee report, and, indeed, as far as I am concerned, remain so. The more arguments I actually hear against the report the more convinced I am, I think, they are actually moving in the right direction, because I do not really find most of the arguments against really that, the kindest thing I can say, I do not find them persuasive.

  27. I fully recognise the force of the argument that a case for preserving the status quo might not necessarily be persuasive, but do you have any sympathy with the points that have been made by a number of colleagues in these exchanges that there is a risk that the Liaison Committee, consisting as it does of chairs of the select committees, may not be the appropriate body to choose the members of select committees?
  (Lord Norton) I can see a problem, and I think this picks up on Mr Stunell's point, if it operates in such a way that Members do not feel they have got ownership of the process; and I think one of the fundamental things one has to look at is, if you like, in terms of creating a particular culture, I think that is where the system has gone wrong. The original intention, in 1979, was that the Committee of Selection would have some autonomy in the selection of the members; that went very quickly wrong, and the culture developed that the Whips had the same sort of input they have in standing committees, so a certain culture has built up. And I think that is why one needs to start afresh, in order to separate out from the old culture that you were referring to earlier in terms of the impact of the Whips. I think you have got to move away from that, you have got to set up a system where it develops a culture where members feel they are involved, they are being taken into account, so that one would have a process whereby those doing the appointing were listening to others, where there is input, not just from the Whips but from others as well, where Members can make, and I think this is rather important, their own case individually, rather than have necessarily to channel it through the Whips. And I think that would give them a feeling they were far more involved in the process if they were able to put their case before the relevant appointees, because, otherwise, they may feel, "Well, the Whips have got a clear view and we are being not involved." I think that is part of it. So, the involvement, and then, of course, the selection itself would be transparent, in the sense that the lists are published, they are put before the House, the House can see who is being chosen. I am not sure if you can be much more transparent than that in an appointing process, and I do think appointment is preferable to elections, for reasons I will be happy to come on to. So I think one can create a culture that meets those points. And I think it does need to be, and I see no reason why it should not be, of the sort that was put forward by the Liaison Committee. I am not persuaded by the alternative arguments that somehow you have three "wise persons" who do not have the sort of knowledge that is necessary, and I do not quite follow the logic of that. Mr Speaker, when he is elected, and the Deputies, are expected to be wise persons immediately, in terms of their knowledge of the Members; they have patronage, one of the arguments used against this particular proposal. So I cannot see why there are not senior Members who have the sort of knowledge that is sufficient for the purpose of appointment, particularly if they are guided by the material that comes in, including from new Members. I think the information would be there. I do not think you need the sort of intricate knowledge that the Whips are claiming for themselves for appointment. I have to say, in the House of Lords, that Whips are involved in the process of appointing committees, but they have nothing like the knowledge of Members that Whips in the Commons have. I was a Member of the Lords for a year before I even found out who my Whip was. So the knowledge is not comparable to that of the—

  28. You are a fortunate man.
  (Lord Norton) Indeed. So it is very different there, the Whips know something, but not comparable, and yet we made quite a good fist, I think, of forming committees. So I would not place too much emphasis on that knowledge aspect. I think the knowledge would be sufficient for senior Members, having input from Members themselves and from the Whips, and any other body that wishes to make representation to them. I think the foundation is reasonably solid. If it is the three people approved initially, similar to the Speaker and Deputies, initially, there would not be a conflict of interest, because they themselves would not be serving as members of select committees, and it would be up to the members of the select committees to choose their own chairs. And I see no particular problem about filling casual vacancies, it is done quite well in the Lords through the Chairman of Committees and it creates no particular problems. So I think the basis of what the Liaison Committee was putting forward is actually reasonably sound, and I think would be the basis for moving forward.

  29. You made a very interesting point that it is not just a question of the structure but also the process, and that individual Members should, as it were, have a right of appeal to whatever body is set up in a way that they do not, at present, have to the Committee of Selection, nor indeed might it be a worthwhile exercise of that right. So you would see this body not simply meeting to put forward the list before the House but also to hear representations from Members who may feel they have a grievance?
  (Lord Norton) I think I would leave that to the Committee. I see no reason why not; because if Members put in a case I see no reason why they should not say, "Well, I've not been selected, could you give me a reason why?" some element of feedback; you get that in the employment process, why not in a process like that. I think that would be extremely valuable, if Members knew at least they could use the Committee, if you like, as a safety valve to go and express their feeling that they were not able to be appointed, and perhaps get some feedback as to why. And if the Committee is operating, or those appointing are operating in a fairly rational process they will be able to explain, "Well, look, it was in terms of particular expertise, these particular Members have greater expertise," or in terms of balance, or whatever. At least to actually provide some feedback, I think, would be helpful to the Members and I think it would meet Mr Stunell's point as well, about some element of ownership of the process, the feeling that they were actually being listened to in that particular process.

  30. You trailed your coat a moment ago about preferring appointment to election; can I jump on your coat and invite you to expand on it?
  (Lord Norton) Yes. The reason I think that, there are clearly circumstances where I think election is important, but election is, if you like, based on your capacity to influence your fellow Members, and reflects to some extent your capacity to lobby your fellow Members, and I do not think that should be the prime consideration. I think you need some individuals who can stand back and look at it on the basis of the qualifications, in terms of knowledge and expertise of those who are going to form the committees, and can actually look at it in terms of therefore creating a balanced committee for the specific purpose of fulfilling the task of scrutinising government. So if you are going to put together a committee that is an informed committee, a balanced one, in terms of background and expertise, I think it has to be appointment, because I do not think you can do it by a process of election, which would not necessarily produce that form of balance. My view, therefore, is that appointment is necessary for this type of body. I am not saying, obviously, in other contexts that election and the capacity to lobby one's fellow Members is not important, it is, but I think, in this particular context, when you look at what is the purpose of select committees then I think that does tend to favour appointment, in order to construct the committees to undertake the work that one gives them to do.

Mr Stunell

  31. I wanted to pick up the same point about election and appointment. At the end of whatever process, there will be situations where there are two candidates, of approximately equal merit, to fit into a slot, and somebody takes a decision to do it, or some group of people does, and at that point there is a vote, or there is a process of consensus building, or whatever. Therefore, there is going to be election, in one sense, at one level or another, and I just wondered if you would like to comment on that, particularly in the light of your suggestion that there might be some sort of subsequent appeals or explanation system, which seems to me to impose a tremendous burden on the people taking that decision; if it were a wise team of three, presumably there would be a minority report and two in favour. I can see various complications. I actually want this process to work, and although I am currently the Chief Whip for the Liberal Democrats and have responsibility for the minority parties, I am more than happy to relinquish that in favour of a more successful system, believe me I am; but I have not quite understood how this would be more successful?
  (Lord Norton) I cannot see why it is such a problem, if you have got two or three people. The Speaker and the Deputies have tremendous responsibilities already, they are in a similar position; I do not keep hearing reports of them being at one another's throats when they meet each day to decide matters, necessarily, and even if they are it does not become public, which I think is perhaps not a bad thing. If you go along the process of head counting, of actually having elections, it is in the public domain, there is the danger then of it becoming a little too adversarial, and elections do not necessarily allow for the sort of consensual discussion that I would have thought you would prefer, in terms of looking at the relative merits of individuals and reaching an informed view, rather than going to the slightly more adversarial format of some sort of election. I do not think it necessarily lends itself to that, I am not sure it would actually be helpful to the process of instilling confidence in the operation of committees themselves. And, just as an aside, it is picking up on a question that Joan Ruddock asked Lord Sheldon earlier, in our recommendations, we do allow for some flexibility in the size of committees, to take account of not only the points that she was raising but also the fact you might have expertise, where the House is rich in expertise and you actually feel there might be a case for slightly enlarging the size of a committee, to take that on board, so you are not actually working within a rigid straightjacket.

Ann Coffey

  32. It is just actually a point of clarification. Are you proposing that the House elects three people, who then form the Committee of Selection and then go on to appoint members of select committees; is that what you are proposing?
  (Lord Norton) I would have no objection to the formality, if you like. I would envisage a very similar process that operates with the choice of Deputy Speakers, something of that nature, in terms of an internal process, to find senior figures who were generally acceptable, I would have no objection, clearly, to the names then being put forward.

  33. You are not saying there should be an election for a Committee of Selection?
  (Lord Norton) I am saying I would not find objectionable the proposal that those names would have to be approved by the House, and I see no reason about that, because then it would be the ownership of the House.

  34. So you would still have some kind of not very clear process by which these people emerged, whose names would then go to the House?
  (Lord Norton) There may be some internal process, and I would not be averse to that. I can see the case for seeking out the opinions of Members, so that those that then came before the House were generally acceptable. Hopefully, and this comes back to my point about establishing a certain culture, as one has got with the Speaker and Deputy Speakers, where the names were largely acceptable to the House as a whole, rather than each nominee being acceptable to a particular party. So, in other words, I would want people who are respected by Members of the House as a whole; and I do not see why you cannot generate that culture, one already has it, I think.

Mr Winterton

  35. I am very pleased that Philip Norton, I think, agrees with the general thrust of the Liaison Committee's recommendations. Would he actually accept that they are not quite as dramatic as some people appear to believe, because, for instance, the composition of a select committee is in part decided by the strength of the individual parties within the House, so the numbers that are sitting on a select committee, party-wise, are not decided by the three individuals, good though they be and senior and establishment, some people think, they may be, because the Whips will agree, through the usual channels, that x number are Labour, x number are Conservative, x number are Liberal, or minority parties; so that the actual role is not quite so dramatic? And would he not also accept that those nominations that are made, those selections that take place, have to be confirmed by the House?
  (Lord Norton) Absolutely.

  36. And, of course, there is the opportunity for the House to put forward an amendment that so-and-so replace so-and-so on a particular select committee. So we are not putting complete control in the hands of three individuals, senior and acceptable I hope that they would be, the House itself continues to have the final word. Is not that the way that this would work, but take away the influence of party Whips in dictating who should serve for a particular party on a committee and put the decision back where it should be, in my view, in the hands of Members of the House of Commons?
  (Lord Norton) I agree with that absolutely, though just as an aside, before anyone points out, in our report we do allow for some variation, in terms of the proportionality rule as it affects committees, but the Government will always have a majority of Members; but otherwise I agree completely with what you have said. In fact, I jotted down earlier three general points I would make about the approach to changing select committees, one of which is that one is not actually setting precedents in doing this. I think there is the danger of the committee feeling, "Oh, we're being very innovative, we're moving away from what's happened before." One is not; and there are precedents for what is being suggested. And you are absolutely right, I think, insofar as you can have transparency, it is through the fact that ultimately it is for the House to decide, these would be motions put before the House; and I think that was my point about those who would make the choice as well as those who were chosen, the House would have the ultimate say. So, if there was dissatisfaction, there would be the means for expressing that in the chamber; it would not be some sort of private process that produced results that nobody could challenge, it would be overt, in that sense. And I agree completely with all that you have said. We are building on precedent here, this is not something that is sparklingly novel. And so my short answer is, yes, absolutely.

Mr Salter

  37. Can I just put it to you, for the sake of argument, that the three wise men approach, to use the shorthand, is actually dead in the water, because a vast majority of Members in this place see it as the establishment rubbing the establishment's back. Given that 656 of us, by definition, simple mathematics say, are not going to qualify as three wise men anyway, in fact 53 per cent of the population certainly will not; secondly, there is enough critical mass of new and newish Members to be deeply suspicious of such an approach; thirdly, and to come back to something you said earlier, Philip, you mentioned the respect in which the office of Speaker and the Deputies are held; would it not be better to try to construct a process actually based on the unique role that the Speaker, or particularly the Deputies, actually have? Because I can think of no group of people who know the strengths of Members better than actually those that serve the Speaker, rather than one of the Whips, who have clearly got their own agenda; and, two, establishment figures, with due respect, also have their own agenda. So can I just put that as an alternative view, possibly seeking to achieve the same ends but perhaps likely to command more support amongst the House of Commons as it is currently constituted?
  (Lord Norton) Can I put a question back to you, in terms of your last point about the role of the Speaker; what were you implying about the Speaker, you almost seemed to be suggesting the Speaker should have the role? And I was not quite sure whether your comments about the Speaker did not seem to contradict your opening observation.

  38. I just wondered whether or not the three wise men, or women, instead of being drawn from the group of people as suggested, could actually be drawn from the Deputies?
  (Lord Norton) I am glad I teased that out. I wanted to be quite clear what the link was between your opening point and then your point about the Speaker, because I wanted to be quite clear that you were suggesting what I thought, by inference, you probably were, in which case I have a lot of sympathy with that. It was just that your opening point seemed to suggest you wanted to move away completely from anything akin to senior figures, such as the Speaker and Deputy Speakers, but then you said, well, actually, could they not be the basis on which one proceeds. And I have a lot of sympathy with the point you are putting forward. It was something I was reflecting on, because I thought, well, you have already got the Speaker, you have got the Deputy Speakers, they are respected, they are wise persons, and yet the House trusts them. And, indeed, in our report, in a different context, we did see the role of the Deputy Speaker - the Chairman of Ways and Means - as one that we might draw on for other purposes, having a more pivotal role. Another general point I was going to make actually picks up on something you were raising with Lord Sheldon, which is that I think this consideration has to be seen in a wider context of other changes as well, it is very difficult to see it in isolation, even though necessarily one's report focuses upon this, it needs to link in with other reforms as well. But I have tremendous sympathy with the point you are putting across, it may not necessarily be the Speaker and the Deputies, but what about the Deputy Speakers, that is the Chairman of Ways and Means and the other two Deputies, actually meeting and fulfilling this role, if the House has confidence in them, and it does. Because I do keep coming back to this point, that there is this precedent, because you have already got the Speaker and Deputies, who would be in a not dissimilar position to what we are suggesting for the wise persons. So I am not altogether averse to exploring why those wise persons should not actually be. I would probably suggest the Chairman of Ways and Means and the Deputies, because the Speaker has tremendous responsibilities already, but, as I say, we explore that in a slightly different context in our report, but I do not see why that should not be explored in this particular context, because all you are talking about is getting the membership right at the beginning of a Parliament. I do not think there is too much of a problem with filling casual vacancies, and it would be constrained. Various of the constraints would be written, as has already been mentioned, in terms of the rough proportionality rule; one could constrain them in other ways, I am not averse to a rotation rule, especially for chairmen, we have got it in the Lords and it works reasonably well, so you could have certain constraints built in. So in choosing the members at the beginning of the Parliament, the Deputy Speakers would have the confidence of the House, they would have the different process of inputs, which they get on other matters anyway, in assessing Members for the House; so that might well be a way to proceed.

  Mr Salter: Thank you; that is most helpful.

  Chairman: I think that that is certainly something we will need to explore; first of all, the Deputy Speakers are people of authority and independence within the House, they are respected in the House. The very phrase `three wise persons' tends to rub the hair of the cat the wrong way, especially if it is three wise men. And there is also the practical advantage that the very first thing the House does is to create that.

Mr Tyler

  39. Just to reinforce that point, the danger of basing it on the Liaison Committee is that, by its very nature, it is a hangover from the previous Parliament, and if you have a major change in that election a lot of the individuals who have been key personnel in the Liaison Committee may no longer have that role. But there is another practical point I just wanted to put to you. Not only, of course, do we have now the three, the Chairman of Ways and Means and the two Deputy Speakers, but we also have the senior members of the Chairmen's Panel, who serve in Westminster Hall as Deputy Speakers; and if the House felt, rather in the terms that Martin was saying, that actually three wise people was too few, you cannot get enough wisdom there and you wanted a broader base, and it might meet my colleague's point about other representation of other interests, you could extend that group to make it slightly larger with the addition of the Deputy Speakers from Westminster Hall?
  (Lord Norton) Yes, that would be an exact parallel to enlarging the Liaison Committee, as the chairmen of select committees are appointed; no, I take that point. The discussion earlier was creating, if you like, three wise people who would be almost parallel to the Deputy Speaker and certainly standing in role. I am completely open to the argument, in fact, those should come together, and, you are quite right, the Chairmen's Panel would, in effect, then fulfil that role of widening the body that would be responsible for making any future decision; so I can see that. So, rather than looking at it as two things operating in parallel, I would not be at all averse to the argument emerging of the Deputy Speakers fulfilling that role and perhaps also the Chairmen's Panel; because it would have all the attributes, the advantages, that one is ascribing to or looking for in the body I was mentioning. And, I think, would probably have the advantage, coming back to my earlier point that you have already got the culture there, in terms of the standing of the figures involved and the respect in which they are held; and it would achieve a point I was making earlier, moving away from the present system and bringing in a new one, so there is not a hangover in terms of the old culture. So, no, I take that point completely and have tremendous sympathy with it.

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