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21 Nov 2002 : Column 878—continued

Pete Wishart: We do not want to divide the House this evening. We have made our case as we intended.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his decency and generosity in saying that. As I said, he has properly used the matter as an opportunity for a debate, but he has generously said that he will not press it to a vote. He realises, as the Chairman of the Committee of Selection pointed out, that such changes of membership are routine. They occur from time to time in order to recognise the changes that take place in the ranks of the Government and the official Opposition, so from that point of view they are uncontroversial.

I hope, however, that following this debate, which has been conducted in a good-natured and constructive way, we shall have further opportunities to examine in a

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broader sense the representation of the minority parties throughout the Committee structure, so that we can properly recognise the role played by all the minority parties, including of course the Liberal Democrats.

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish): Should we not also look at their attendance? The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the minority parties took the Liberal place on the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, as the Liberal Member did not turn up for 12 months. Minority party attendance at that Committee is not especially good.

Mr. Forth: I recognise what the hon. Gentleman says, but I do not think that it would be productive or proper to get into that point at this stage, although it may become a consideration in the future. If, for example, we were able to guarantee the minority parties collectively a place on each Committee, which is really what the hon. Member for North Tayside was asking for, we might find that they would respond by taking their attendance a bit more seriously. If the Liberal Democrats' representation were reduced, that might concentrate their minds a bit, which would help to answer the point made by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett).

We now have an opportunity to reconsider the role that all the minority parties play in the House and in Committees, and there is a case to be made for saying that if we took the minority parties together, and allocated the total of their 80 Members to Committees according to proportionality, we could come to a fair and proper conclusion. The debate has allowed us to look ahead. We have seen the generosity of spirit displayed by the hon. Member for North Tayside in saying that he has brought the matter to the attention of the House but he does not propose to divide the House, and I am grateful to him for that.

In closing, I express my gratitude to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) for, in his usual way, so ably helping and representing the official Opposition during this period of hiatus, which I hope will shortly come to an end as we conclude this debate. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond positively to the suggestions made by minority party representatives and myself so that we can look forward to a more even-handed and fair distribution of representation than we have seen hitherto.

6.21 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I echo the comments made by the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), about this being a constructive, positive debate, and I hope that he will find my responses characteristically positive.

The motion before the House is routine and straightforward. It has been outlined by the Chairman of the Committee of Selection, my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam). The change being sought comes as a consequence of the recent shadow Cabinet reshuffle in which the hon. Member for

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South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) was made a shadow Agriculture Minister and the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) took his place as the Conservative pairing Whip. As has already been explained, for many years the official Opposition's pairing Whip has 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. The membership change that we are debating is essential for the Committee to carry out its work as delegated to it by the House.

The Committee of Selection was established under private business Standing Order No. 109. It has, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon has already explained, nine members, of which six currently are Labour, two Conservative and one Liberal Democrat. That breakdown is proportionate to the political composition of the House. It has been pointed out that until recently the smaller parties were represented on the Committee by the Liberal Democrats, but that arrangement broke down last year.

Mr. Forth: Why?

Mr. Bradshaw: It is not for me to go into any grief between two minority parties, but the smaller parties are now represented by the Government. As we have heard, that arrangement seems to have worked satisfactorily, and I believe that the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) said from a sedentary position that it is much better.

The hon. Member for North Tayside, however, was slightly unfair about the Liberal Democrats' relationship with the rest of the minority parties. Far be it from me to come to the defence of the Liberal Democrats , but I understand that there are six examples of seats on Standing Committees being given up by the Liberal Democrats to the smaller minority parties. There also seems to be confusion about what constitutes a minority party, or at least a failure to be strict enough in our terminology.

Mr. Forth : No, no.

Mr. Bradshaw: The right hon. Gentleman may disagree, but in this debate the term Xminority party" has been used by some to include the Liberal Democrats and by others to exclude them.

Mr. Salmond: I am interested in what the Minister means by Xgiving up" places. It has been said that if the minority parties, whose Members add up to almost half the number of Liberal Democrat Members, had half their number of Committee places, we would be more than satisfied. However, we have only a fraction of that at the moment. Does what the Minister said about giving up places mean that other Members in the House are given a place on a Committee only because someone has given it up? Is not there an entitlement?

Mr. Bradshaw: I am simply seeking to point out to the House that on six occasions, at the request of minority parties—largely, I have to say, at the request of the Scottish National party—the Liberal Democrats have given up places on Standing Committees.

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Blocking this change in membership—the effect of the amendment—is helpful to no one, although I appreciate that Opposition Members have concerns about smaller party representation. Indeed, that concern is shared, particularly by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. He shares their desire to ensure that the matter is treated with fairness.

I appreciate the fact that the hon. Member for North Tayside was generous enough to acknowledge that matters had improved not only under this Government but under my right hon. Friend's stewardship. I was slightly sorry to hear the hon. Gentleman express veiled threats about what might happen in relation to co-operating with the business of the House if things did not improve even more quickly. I am sorry about that and hope that he will not feel the need to follow through with any of those threats.

I wish to quote from a letter that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House wrote in response to a letter that he received from the hon. Members for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) and for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) on 14 November. [Interruption.] I am sorry about my pronunciation; my Welsh is not great. My right hon. Friend said:

as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell)—

I hope that the Chairman of the Committee of Selection, my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon, has heard me repeat those words in the Chamber this evening.

Mr. McWilliam: May I reassure my hon. Friend that I was present to hear those words the first time, and they are always in my mind?

Mr. Bradshaw: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention.

I would have gone on to quote from the response by the Leader of the House to the queries from the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru on their grievances about representation on the Liaison Committee. However, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as you ruled out of order the points that were made on that matter earlier in the debate, I would imagine that you would not be too pleased if I did so now.

Mr. Deputy Speaker indicated assent.

Mr. Bradshaw: Very well, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

In an earlier letter to the hon. Member for North Tayside back, I think, in September, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said that he could only address his concerns when opportunities arose in the natural flow of business. That is our desire and intention. He went on to say that he hoped that the minority parties had found the Government helpful in Standing Committees, where we have helped to engineer extra places for the smaller parties. Of course an extra

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Opposition day has been created for the smaller parties as well. My right hon. Friend concluded by saying that he remained alive to the hon. Gentleman's concerns.

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