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Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who exhibited some interest in my views on the matter of debate. I agree with what he said. I also agree with the argument of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), but I disagree with that hon. Gentleman's conclusion and agree with that of my right hon. Friendthat the motion represents a useful step in the right direction. I sit on the Committee of Selection and I am the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, which is one of those that would not be affected by the proposed change.
The torch of publicity does not shine very often on the work of the Committee of Selection. As we have heard, when it does meet it makes very good use of its time. We meet under the brisk and efficient chairmanship of the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam). Most of our work is uncontentious and unexciting, and I would be misleading the House if I said that we debated extensively the merits of the various candidates that we are about to place on Select Committees or Standing Committees.
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Occasionally, however, the Committee emerges, blinking, into the public gaze. As the hon. Member for North Cornwall said, that was certainly the case at the beginning of this Parliament. On 16 July 2001, the House quite rightly rejected the recommendations of the Committee of Selection. On that occasion, to answer the point made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall, there was a dialogue between myself and those Labour Members likely to be adversely affected by what the Whips said. I give away no secrets when I say that there was a debate and a vote was taken in the Committee of Selection on the proposition that the two relevant Members should not be included in the respective Select Committee nominations. I felt a little like the man in the Bateman cartoon who had asked for a vote in the Committee of Selection. On that occasion, we had the sort of dialogue that the hon. Member for North Cornwall mentioned between an independent, non-Front Bench member of the Selection Committee and those who wanted to serve on a Select Committee but feared that the usual channels were about to exclude them.
Mr. Tyler: Has there been any similar occasion since that episode or since the House decided to retain that mechanism and to continue to expect from the Selection Committee a discernment on the issues that has not always been there?
Sir George Young: As the hon. Gentleman will know, Select Committees are appointed at the beginning of the Parliament for its duration, so we have not had the opportunity to consider their membership except when changes have to be made, when the same issues do not normally arisebecause the Chairman is in place and the changes are usually at a relatively junior level.
We have had other debates in the Selection Committee. It is giving away no secrets to say that we had a debate after the Second Reading of the Higher Education Bill and the vote on tuition fees. We had a debate about the appropriate number of Labour Members for the Standing Committee, because it needed to reflect accurately the views of the House. Although most of the meetings are quite brisk, on important occasions the Selection Committee discusses the sorts of issues that Members have raised in this debate.
As the hon. Gentleman also said, the Selection Committee also debated the proposals from the Leader of the House two years ago. I supported the changes, but they were narrowly defeated in the House. I have urged the Leader of the House on several occasions to revisit that decision, because it did not appear that evening that everybody knew exactly what was going on. I am not sure that the Whips were as even-handed with information as they might have been.
However, we are not discussing the radical reform that I and other Members supported. What is on offer is a modest improvement that would give the Selection Committee powerscurrently held by the Governmentto nominate to certain Select Committees. The change would filter through a Committee of the House nominations that at present go straight from the Executive to the Order Paper. That would be a step in the right direction, because the Committee would filter and examineand where necessary debate and challengethe nominations.
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The present position is not logical. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) pointed out, we do not make nominations to the Broadcasting Committee, but we do make nominations to the Catering Committee. We nominate to most Select Committees but not, for some reason, to the Public Administration Committee. I welcome the move to refer more nominations to the Selection Committee and allow them to be debated under Standing Order No. 15 (1)(c). I have some sympathy with the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. My negotiating position was that the Selection Committee should nominate to all Select Committees, although I accept that there are reasons why we should not do so to two in particular. It would be somewhat incestuous for the Selection Committee to nominate itself, and the Liaison Committee membership is largely ex officioit is too big a Committee, but that is a separate debate.
I have not discussed with my Committee the issue of the Standards and Privileges Committee, but, speaking personally, I would have no objection to it being nominated by the Selection Committee. Indeed, as a member of the Selection Committee, it would be a vote of no confidence in myself if I were to insist that it were excluded. The Leader of the House is right to say that the Standards and Privileges Committee is a different sort of Committee, and its composition is now different, too. The Government do not have a majority, with five members from the governing party and five members from the Opposition parties. By convention, the Opposition parties provide the Chairman.
Mr. Woolas: The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is a convention, and a valid one, that the Chairman of the Committee is an Opposition Member. Is that a valuable convention and, if so, would the changes proposed by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) jeopardise it?
Sir George Young: The Minister skates on thin ice, because the convention that the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee should be an Opposition Member was a key recommendation of the Wicks committee. It was a recommendation that was accepted by the Government, so if the Government were then to use their majority on the Committee of Selection to prevent that from happeningI am not quite sure how they could do so because the Committee selects its own Chairmanthey would be breaking their acceptance of the recommendation of the Wicks committee.
Mr. Forth: No, no. Following the intervention of the Deputy Leader of the House, I was merely thinking that the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee is by long convention a member of the Opposition and that there has never been any difficulty as a result of that long-established process.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst):
Order. I do not want to disturb the amiability of the evening, but
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I think that the Deputy Leader of the House was perhaps pushing the debate slightly outwith the boundaries of good order on this motion.
Sir George Young: The Public Accounts Committee is not appointed by the Committee of Selection. I think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst was assuming that it was. In answer to the question put by the Deputy Leader of the House and by others, I would have no objection at all, speaking purely personally, if the Government indicated that they were happy with that part of my right hon. Friend's amendment that related to Standards and Privileges. Yes, the Standards and Privileges Committee does not reflect the balance of the House, but the Committee of Selection is perfectly capable of reflecting that in its decisions.
In passing, as the role of the minority parties has been referred to once or twice, although the Standards and Privileges Committee is now one smaller, we have found a place on it for a member from one of the minority parties. That place was found not from the Government's allocation but from that of the Opposition.
In conclusion, I welcome the steps that are being taken. If the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst is pushed to a Division I should be minded to accept it, but this cannot be the final word on a system that is, I agree, crying out for more radical reform.
Pete Wishart (North Tayside) (SNP): I am grateful to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) for shedding some further light on the recesses and cobwebs of the Committee of Selection. The more I learn about the Committee and the activities it undertakes, the more the alarm bells ring in my head about exactly what goes on.
It will not surprise you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or the House to hear that we oppose the motion, for the simple and straightforward reason that we do not want an extension of the powers of the Committee of Selection as long as minority parties remain excluded from it. As long as the Committee remains the preserve of the three main parties, we believe that it neither deserves nor requires further new powers or responsibilities.
I listened carefully to the Deputy Leader of the House and to the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) and I heard what they said about the motion being a tidying-up exercisethat it was a common-sense approach to taking care of a few outstanding issues. That may be what it looks like to them, but it is not what it looks like to us in the minority parties. We are outwith that process. We are excluded from what is going on and as long as the Committee of Selection remains unrepresentative of the whole House, it should have no further new powers.
The motion could exclude the minority parties even further by entrenching the powers of what is an unrepresentative Committee. Given what we have learned about the Committee, it would be worth while to look at what it does. What it doesand it seems to do
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it very wellis what it is told by Government Whips and by the usual channels. There seems to be no independence of thought or strategy. The Committee does not seem to be responsible for determining its own agenda and debating its own issues. It seems to be completely at the behest of Government Whips and the usual channels.
Perhaps we should look at what the Committee of Selection should nominally do. As far as I can see, it has quite substantial powers. It is responsible for nominating positions to the departmental Select Committees. That is an onerous responsibility and an onerous task, which requires the utmost transparency and fairness, yet the Committee is asking for more powers.
Does the Committee discharge its existing powers judiciously, effectively and efficiently in all parts of the House? I have come to the depressing conclusion that the Committee does not discharge its current powers responsibly in a way that meets the requirements of the whole House. We in the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru have been two places short on departmental Committees since 2001 when the House was elected, yet the Committee of Selection has made no real effort to try to correct that wrong. On that basis, I oppose the motion.
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