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21 Nov 2002 : Column 868—continued

Committee of Selection

Motion made, and Question proposed,

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Mr. Speaker has chosen the amendment in the name of Pete Wishart.

5.36 pm

Chairman of the Committee of Selection (Mr. John McWilliam): The Committee of Selection exists under the private business Standing Orders and not the public business Standing Orders. The principal function of the Committee was originally, and still is, to appoint members of private Committees. That is because, in previous times, private interests promoted much of the legislation that passed through the House. The canals and railways were built using private Bills, as were toll roads. I know of a bridge in Oxfordshire where one has to pay a toll of one old penny—I think that it is now 5p—to cross. That has been our principal role and it remains so today.

The motion seeks to discharge the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) from the Committee of Selection and appoint in his place the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff). The change is consequent on a recent shadow Cabinet reshuffle in which the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings was made shadow Agriculture Minister. If anybody was in any doubt about that, they should have been present for the winding-up speeches in the previous debate. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire then took his place as the Conservative party's pairing Whip.

I take this opportunity to thank the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings for the service that he gave the Committee and his good-natured contributions. I wish him well in his future role. To judge by his performance earlier, he needs no encouragement from me.

For many years, the Opposition pairing Whip had a seat on the Committee of Selection. His role is to propose the names of official Opposition Members to serve on Standing and Select Committees and, of course, private Bill Committees. The membership change is therefore essential to enable the Committee of Selection to carry out the work delegated to it by the House. Such changes in membership are not unusual. A similar change was made on 17 October 2001 when the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings replaced the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Cran). On 5 November 2001, my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) replaced my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck).

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): The hon. Gentleman has described the duties and background of the Committee of Selection. Could it discharge its duties effectively if a member of the minority parties sat on it?

Mr. McWilliam: I shall deal with that later in my peroration. I intend to cover that specific point in the context of the amendment.

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I thank hon. Members who served the Committee so well. Their service was greatly appreciated by my colleagues who remain members of the Committee. I congratulate the new members on their role. I look forward to the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire joining us in due course.

The motion first appeared on the Order Paper on 15 October during unopposed private business immediately after Prayers. Hon. Members objected to it then and subsequently, resulting in today's debate. Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru Members were among those who objected. The debate may therefore provide a good opportunity to inform hon. Members about how the Committee of Selection deals with smaller parties.

As required by private business Standing Order No. 109, the Committee has only nine members, of whom six are Labour, two Conservative and one Liberal Democrat. The composition is in proportion to that of the House. There are currently 410 Labour Members, 163 Conservative Members, 53 Liberal Democrats, nine SNP or Plaid Cymru Members, six Ulster Unionists, five Democratic Unionist party Members, four Sinn Fein Members, three Social Democratic and Labour party Members and two independent Members, as well as the Speaker and the Deputy Speakers.

We take great care to ensure that we adhere to the proportions that I outlined. If we take 651 Members of the House as a base, 0.630 are Labour, 0.250 are Conservative and 0.120 are others. Hon. Members who care to work out how nine Members can represent 651 in those proportions will realise that it is difficult. We take the matter seriously: we work out the figures and round them up, which is when matters become interesting.

Enabling minority parties such as the SNP and Plaid Cymru to qualify for a seat would make for a large and unwieldy Committee, which would benefit neither its members nor the House. On a Committee of nine, such as the Committee of Selection, the composition is six Labour Members, two Conservative Members and a member of the largest minority party, the Liberal Democrats.

Until recently, the Liberal Democrats represented the smaller parties on the Committee of Selection. A problem arose last year, and the matter was raised through the usual channels. An agreement was made whereby Government Whips now represent the smaller parties. The new arrangement appears to have worked satisfactorily. At least, I have heard no complaints, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), who has known me for many years, would not feel diffident about picking up the telephone or dropping me a note. I encourage that. If any hon. Members have difficulties about the Committee of Selection, I would be happy to discuss its work with them.

The arrangement worked but it broke down and the replacement is satisfactory. Anxieties have been expressed about the representation of the smaller parties on the Liaison Committee. That Committee is not nominated by the Committee of Selection. Almost all the Committees appointed by the Committee of Selection are proposed using the formula that I have

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described to ensure that their composition reflects as accurately as possible the balance of the parties in the House.

The few exceptions are special cases, such as the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, on which the smaller parties are over-represented—and correctly so. I often chair the Northern Ireland Grand Committee, and I take great pains to ensure that the parties whose members are based in Northern Ireland have some precendence for speaking, because they could otherwise be swamped. It is not only the Committee of Selection that does that; the Chairmen's Panel is also aware of such issues and we try our best to ensure that that happens.

I mentioned that the Committee of Selection was based on the private business Standing Orders. We still have an important role in selecting private Committees. We have had a change since the Committee of Selection was first set up. Obviously, the decision to add the setting up of Standing Committees and Select Committees to the Committee of Selection's tasks was a sensible one for the House to make. It saved setting up a totally different Committee and meant that the Committee's role continued.

Mr. Salmond: I know from previous experience that the hon. Gentleman is a very fair-minded man, but he is being less than fair to his Committee. There are 25 Members from minority parties in the House, and the membership of a number of Committees—including the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—has been expanded to allow a minority party to be represented. With his long experience of fairness, does he consider it an unreasonable objective that each minority party should sit on one departmental Select Committee, over and above the territorial Committees on which they obviously have to be represented?

Mr. McWilliam: The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. In the case of the SNP, there is a Parliament in Edinburgh to which much of the work that the departmental Select Committees do down here has been devolved. Only the retained functions continue to be dealt with here. I would think it silly to have a member of the SNP on any Committee whose functions, as they affect Scotland, have been totally devolved.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): Following that logic, may I presume that the hon. Gentleman would have no problem if a minority party managed to secure membership of a non-territorial departmental Select Committee that examines the reserved powers?

Mr. McWilliam: I recall a period when the official Unionist party had a place on the Select Committee on Defence, which it lost because all its Members stood for re-election. I cannot remember the reason for that, although I am sure that it was a good one. When they resigned their seats, however, the place had to be reallocated, and it was allocated to the official Opposition. I think that I might have been one of the beneficiaries of that. Anyway, that is what happened.

To increase the representation of the SNP and Plaid Cymru, we would, as I have said, have to shove the membership of the Committee of Selection up to an

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unwieldy number. On the principle that the hon. Gentleman raised, however, the Scottish Parliament has powers to enact private legislation. Indeed, it would be difficult to envisage an instance in which it would be appropriate for the Scottish promoter of a private Bill to promote it in this House rather than in the Scottish Parliament. I shall try to drag up an example instantly. If someone were proposing to do something on Ministry of Defence land, that would probably fall within the remit of this House, but I cannot think of anything else that would.

The Government of Wales Act 1998 provides for a different position. I had the privilege of chairing part of the deliberations on that legislation on the Floor of the House. I remind hon. Members that, although the Welsh Assembly does not deal with private legislation as such, it may promote it in this House. Although there are controls over that, somebody could petition the Welsh Assembly to promote a private Bill here, but the Assembly must vote to promote such a measure, with two thirds of Members in favour. Two thirds of Members do not need to be present, however.

I understand that discussions are taking place between the Wales Office and the Assembly on whether to amend that provision to provide more flexibility for the Assembly. I do not know how those discussions are proceeding—I am in no position to know—but I understand why Plaid Cymru Members and Welsh Members of other parties may want to make such a change.

Before I sit down, I must thank personally the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) for so ably stepping into the breach, which he did not have to fill, to look after the interests of the official Opposition while the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) was away doing other duties such as preparing for the debate earlier this evening. The right hon. Gentleman stepped in with his usual wit and charm—he is always a welcome and useful member of my Committee.

Having said that, I have probably banged on long enough. The basis of my objection to the amendment is simple and straightforward: if there were to be a member of the Committee of Selection from a minority party, I would argue that the Scottish National party is the least appropriate minority party to have one; were the Committee of Selection to be expanded to such a size as to enable the minority parties to be represented, I would argue that it was of such a size as to be unwieldy.

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