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21 Nov 2002 : Column 875—continued

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South): Has the hon. Gentleman approached the Modernisation Committee on this matter, or has he simply taken this opportunity to further his career?

Pete Wishart: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his concern about my career. I am touched, but he makes a good point about the Modernisation Committee, which has two Liberal Democrat members. Why does it not have one Liberal, and one member from a minority party?

We are getting there, step by step. The House must recognise that it has obligations and should appear to be as representative as possible. That is why I am seeking this place on the Committee of Selection.

Jim Sheridan: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if the House accepts his amendment, the incentive for minority parties to become majority parties will be removed?

Pete Wishart: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's concern about the possibility that my party could become a majority party in this House. I assure him that it has no ambition in that direction. The House will have to ensure at some point that minority parties with substantial constituencies are properly represented. Minorities should be over-represented, not overlooked.

I realise that the amendment is unlikely to be accepted, and I accept the arithmetic that shows that the minority parties in the House have only 23 Members. However, the SNP is the second party in Scotland, and the official Opposition there. The same is true of Plaid Cymru in Wales, and the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) belongs to a party that, when Stormont sits, effectively forms the Government of Northern Ireland. I hope that that Assembly will sit again before too long.

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Collectively, the minority parties represent 1.5 million people in the UK. For some time, I have wondered why it is not possible for me to be on the Committee of Selection. If I catch Mr. Speaker's eye, I can take part in the business of the House, participate in debates, ask questions and serve on Standing Committees. Why, then, are the minority parties under-represented on Select Committees when their members can play a full part in the House otherwise? We are told that we are too few in number, but why are we unable to gain access only to the departmental Select Committees?

I hope that this campaign will allow the House to understand more fully the position of the minority parties. The House depends on the good will of all parties to function. We believe that, if that good will is not shown to us, we have every right to withdraw our good will in return. Our campaign is to increase our influence in the House, but we are not asking for all that much. It is not unreasonable for each minority party to be given one place on a non-departmental Select Committee beyond their territory.

Anne Picking: Will the hon. Gentleman explain what he means when he says that his party will withdraw good will?

Pete Wishart: We do not want to come to the House time and again to put forward our case for increased representation here. I hope that the House is beginning to understand that we want to play a constructive part in the House's workings and institutions.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): We all hope that members of one of the minority parties will grace the House with their presence at the debate on next year's Finance Bill.

Pete Wishart: In that case, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support us if we put in a bid to serve on the Finance Bill Committee. All too often we put in bids to serve on Standing Committees, only to be knocked back. We put in bids to be involved in Select Committees and are knocked back.

Mr. Salmond: I recall an amendment to the Treasury Committee's membership when I was nominated to replace, admittedly, a Liberal Democrat Member. The hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) voted against me, presumably because he did not want me to scrutinise items such as the Budget and the Finance Bill.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. That was an interesting piece of parliamentary history, but has little to do with the amendment.

Pete Wishart: Even so, it is a point well made.

I shall conclude, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I think that I have tested your patience in trying to stay in order. What we are asking for is not unreasonable—we are asking for one place in a non-territorial departmental Select Committee. Give us a place on the Liaison Committee for goodness' sake—it is 32-strong. Surely a

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place could be found for a member of the minority parties. I do not think that we are asking for much. I ask the House to give us our place.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind the House that I have been generous so far in my interpretation of the motion and the amendment. In the time remaining, however, I appeal to right hon. and hon. Members to stay strictly in order in debating the amendment.

6.11 pm

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): I will adhere strictly to your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Let me say first that I have the highest admiration and respect for the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff), and I congratulate the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) on the way in which he put his case.

I wish to register support for the principle that a place should be found on the Committee of Selection and other Committees so that the voice of a representative of the small minority parties can be heard. The small minority parties have met and are agreed that when given an opportunity to serve, we can, by agreement, put forward a representative. For that reason, I support the hon. Member for North Tayside and agree that he should be appointed to the Committee of Selection. At this time, he is the agreed representative of small minority parties in the House. On the basis of seeking greater inclusivity of Committee membership and in order to give Committee experience to small parties through agreed rotation of their representative, I hope that the House will seek to provide the opportunity to serve on the Committee of Selection and other Committees to the agreed representative of the small minority parties, at the earliest possible opportunity, if not tonight.

The hon. Member for North Tayside has played keyboard with Runrig; he has made music to the delight of many audiences for 15 years and is, I think, the only Member of the House to have appeared on XTop of the Pops". His inclusion on the Committee of Selection or any other Committee would no doubt bring harmony to this House. I believe that it would also increase the sense of worth and equal value of every Member and party represented in the House. I support the amendment.

6.13 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Although the debate seems on the face of it to be about the specific issue of the replacement of one of my hon. Friends with another Member in the routine way that the Chairman of the Committee of Selection has described, it subsumes some bigger issues that have been touched on and to which I hope I will be allowed to refer, however briefly, because they are very important to the House. For that reason, I am very grateful to the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) for allowing us to touch on these issues this evening. I hope that the Government will take this seriously and allow us collectively to consider the issues again. They are, no more and no less, the role of the minority parties at large in the House and its Committees and institutions. When I talk of minority parties, I refer not only to the Scottish National party, Plaid Cymru, the Ulster Unionists, the

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Democratic Unionist party and the Social Democratic and Labour party but also to the Liberal Democrats, who are a minority party in the House.

If we consider the total minority party membership, it is about 80 Members in 659—or about 650 if we exclude you and your colleagues, Mr. Deputy Speaker—so there could be a case for saying that the minority parties generally should have proportionate representation on all Committees, including the Committee of Selection.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that earlier this year the House voted on the Modernisation Committee proposals, which included reform of the operation of the Committee of Selection? Had that been accepted by the House, there would indeed have been a minority representative on the Committee and the problem would have been overcome. May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that he voted against that reform and for the entrenchment of the arrangements that he is criticising?

Mr. Forth: I am more than proud to vote against most of the rubbish that emanates from the Modernisation Committee, and hope to continue to do so.

The issue is wider than the Committee of Selection. My argument is a much more general and, if I may say so, generous one: we should treat the minority parties collectively, as I have described them, in an even-handed way. We could thus properly extend the hand of generosity and recognition to all the minority parties, not least on the Committee of Selection, as is being suggested.

This is a microcosm of the much wider debate that should take place, not, I hope, in the Modernisation Committee but in a much more sensible forum where we could achieve some generosity and common sense. I was interested that tribute was rightly paid to the current custodianship of the Government Whips Office—represented in this debate in such a distinguished way by the Government Deputy Chief Whip—for an abler and much fairer representation of the minority parties than the Liberal Democrats managed. I pay tribute to the Government for that.

The issue goes from the particular to the general. The particular issue is important, but I hope that Members of the minority parties will not press it to a vote, although they have correctly used it as a vehicle for this debate, which I welcome because it is important.

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