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21 Nov 2002 : Column 871—continued

Pete Wishart: According to the hon. Gentleman's logic, that rule applies to SNP Members, but surely it should also apply to Scottish Labour Back Benchers, two of whom chair Select Committees?

Mr. McWilliam: It strikes me that the Department of Trade and Industry has some powers devolved and some not, so I would not worry too much about that.

If expanded to such a size, the Committee would become too unwieldy to work. As members of the Committee know, sometimes we have to meet because someone has got something wrong or some mechanism has got stuck. I must tell the House that I do not believe

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in back-door deals. We do not always meet in a Committee Room, but we always have a quorum and we always have a Clerk present if we have to amend a proposal before it goes on the Order Paper so as to enable the decision to be taken cleanly and properly.

Having said that, I ask hon. Members to vote against the amendment and for the Government motion.

5.53 pm

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): I beg to move, To leave out XMr Peter Luff" and insert XPete Wishart".

We have nothing against the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff), whom I am sure will prove to be a worthy and constructive member of the Committee of Selection. We have moved the amendment to draw attention to the plight of the minority parties. Our dispute has nothing to do with him, as he well knows, but everything to do with the treatment of the minority parties at the hands of the House.

If the House, in its wisdom, agrees to put me on the Committee of Selection, I pledge to be diligent. I will do all that I can to represent the interests not just of minority parties but of the Government and the official Opposition and to ensure that they both get all the Select Committee places that they feel entitled to or require.

Mr. McWilliam: I hope that the hon. Gentleman realises that the role that he has described is one that I take very much to heart—it is the role that I attempt to play and have always attempted to play on the Committee. I try to be as objective, fair, open and honest as I can and I try to make certain that everybody gets a fair deal.

Pete Wishart: I would not dare question the hon. Gentleman's integrity. I am sure he is absolutely right.

We tabled the amendment because we were almost at our wits' end. We wondered what more we had to do to convince the House that we in the minority parties want to be recognised as a significant constituency, and to play a constructive role in the House's business.

The hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) described me as an SNP Member, but I also represent all the minority parties this evening. We work well together, as he was gracious enough to acknowledge, but ours is very much a business arrangement. Little unites us politically. At the end of the day, when a Division is called, we go into different Lobbies, and that is fine and dandy. On one matter, however, we overwhelmingly agree: we in the minority parties deserve better from the House.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire): The hon. Gentleman said that he would act responsibly in representing the House. I find that astounding, given that he and the rest of his party work against the House's best interests, talk it down and indeed seek to get rid of it.

Pete Wishart: The hon. Gentleman is well aware of information collected by POLIS that shows how effectively Scottish Back Benchers contribute to

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debate here. Invariably, SNP Members have topped any contributions by Labour Members. I will not be lectured by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that we shall hear no more of this discussion, as it is well beyond the terms of the amendment.

Pete Wishart: Thank you for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The House must recognise that we in the minority parties are now 23-strong. Our membership is almost half that of the Liberal Democrats, but we have nothing like the same number of Select Committee places and nothing like the same influence in the House. The Liberal Democrats are on every Select Committee, while we are on only seven out of 46. The Liberal Democrats are a fair party that believes in proportionality. Let us see how proportional representation applies to these circumstances.

To be fair to the Liberal Democrats, it must be said that they are only looking after their own, within the rules and confines of the House. I know that it is different in the Committee of Selection, but the average Select Committee has 11 places. According to the rules, seven must be reserved for the Government, three for the official Opposition and one for the other minority parties, including the Liberal Democrats. Who can blame the Liberal Democrats for snaffling all the places for themselves? Why should they care about the other minority parties? Even when they were responsible for looking after the interests of the minority parties, they still took all the seats.

Something is not working here when a constituency of this size can be overlooked. If our membership is about half the size of that of the Liberal Democrats, we should be given about half the number of places that they currently have.

Mr. McWilliam: So who is to be cut in half?

Pete Wishart: I could suggest several candidates. I am looking in front of me, but I will not comment.

I pledge that I would be a diligent member of the Committee of Selection. In some respects, things have improved for the minority parties. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the new arrangement whereby the Government Whips represent the minority parties, and I must say that that has been a very satisfactory solution. We have access to the usual channels.

Anne Picking (East Lothian): You said earlier that minority parties get together to discuss how you want to work, but that your pathways often diverge when it comes to political decisions. How can you possibly effectively—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady should use correct parliamentary language. When she says Xyou", she is addressing the Chair.

Anne Picking: I am sorry Mr. Deputy Speaker—I am not used to being on my feet. I do not get many opportunities to speak, because my party has such a large majority.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. If the hon. Lady makes regular applications to speak, she may find that she is more successful.

Anne Picking: Point taken, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

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How can the hon. Gentleman represent the minority parties when they are not of the same ilk politically?

Pete Wishart: Perhaps the hon. Lady should make better use of her few opportunities to address this House than by asking such an innocuous question. As I tried to explain, our coming together is a business arrangement. We do not hide the fact that we take different political positions on certain issues. Such an arrangement allows us to progress the case of minority parties in this House.

Things have improved for the minority parties under the tutelage of the Government Whips, who look after our interests. We now have access to the usual channels, and we get quicker and improved access to the business of the House. We have managed to secure most of the places that we seek in Standing Committees and other such Committees. The Government have been generous—they have given us an allotted time to debate matters in the House, and for that we are grateful.

I seek this place on the Committee of Selection—I am ensuring that I say that several times—because in some respects things have got worse for the minority parties. Joint Committees of both Houses, which are increasingly used, are 24-strong. Even according to the crude arithmetic of this House, the minority parties should have a place on them. They look after crucial national issues such as Lords reform and communication, which is fundamental and essential to Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. We are overlooked in their membership, and the House should address that.

The hon. Member for Blaydon was generous enough to refer to the Liaison Committee, which has 32 members. Again according to the crude arithmetic of this House, we should have a place—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman used the word Xgenerous", and I was extremely generous in allowing the Chairman of the Committee of Selection to deploy his arguments. However, we have gone rather wide of the amendment to which the hon. Gentleman is speaking.

Pete Wishart: I am grateful for that correction, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I mention the Liaison Committee because I do not want to be just a member of the Committee of Selection but to be its Chairman so that I can qualify for the Liaison Committee. That is a reasonable demand, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because as you and hon. Members know, to be a member of the Liaison Committee one has to be a Chairman of a Select Committee. If that is the only mechanism to get a member of a minority party on to the Liaison Committee, make me the Chairman of the Committee of Selection. I am sure that the hon. Member for Blaydon would have no particular objection to that.

I believe that the Government understand and appreciate the plight of minority parties in this House, and we have heard some sympathetic noises from them. I meet representatives of the Government Whips Office weekly, and those meetings are useful and constructive. Government Whips do not deserve their fearsome reputation—they are a convivial bunch of chaps who are easy to do business with. The Leader of the House appreciates the plight of the minority parties. To judge

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from his correspondence with me, and his responses to points raised in the House, he seems sympathetic to our cause. He says that he is looking for solutions, and I take that at face value. Nor do I want to exclude the Conservatives, who have been more than helpful in their new arrangement. I seek to be on the Committee of Selection so that I can build on such relationships with Front-Bench Members. It has also been useful to be told how we could perhaps create merry havoc in the House by continuing with this campaign.

I wish that I could extend this expression of good will to the Liberal Democrats, but, alas, that would be taking the spirit of generosity a bit too far. There is no truer saying than that you never know where you are with the Liberal Democrats—the pick-and-mix people of politics. They are responsible for looking after the minority parties, yet they took away the only non-territorial departmental Select Committee that SNP-Plaid Cymru had. Their stewardship of minority parties has been about as useful as a chocolate frying pan. I wish that the expressions of good will that we have detected from Government Front Benchers, the Leader of the House's office and Conservative Members could be translated into Select Committee places. We welcome the support, but we would rather have the places.

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