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The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): The Government are committed to improving the coroner service, building on the work carried out by the Home Office and two distinguished, independent reviews. I am looking at the best way of taking that forward.
Vera Baird: I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend to her new job. Is she aware of the case of the Teesside coroner who, for more than seven years, had a three-figure backlog of cases? When an inquiry was ordered into him in 2003, the Lord Chancellor called the law complex, the inquiry took a year and the coroner, who was severely reprimanded, issued a press release ignoring that finding. Can my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that, in that important service, bereaved people on Teesside will be empowered to get a better public service?
Ms Harman: I can give my hon. and learned Friend the benefit of such an assurance. We have committed ourselves to introducing a draft coroners and death certification Bill, which, as well as providing independent scrutiny of all deaths following the Shipman inquiry, will require a better, more coherent and less fragmented coroner service and, above all, a greater focus on the bereaved.
Since coming to my responsibility in this Department, I have seen the file on the Teesside coroner, and all the work that my hon. and learned Friend has put into ensuring that her constituents who are bereaved get a good, proper response from the coroner has been very much taken on board by the Lord Chancellor. As she
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will know, he has reprimanded the coroner and is monitoring him carefully. Extra training has been required of that coroner and he is still under scrutiny. The point that she made on behalf of her constituents in relation to the individual coroner has been recognised, but we need to go beyond that to ensure that we have a universally good service in all constituencies.
The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I am keen to get the Select Committees established before the summer recess. However, it is important that we respect the proper procedures that are being carried out by the parties represented in the Houseprocesses that are now under waybut I repeat that I am fully committed to establishing the Select Committees as soon as possible, and every effort is being made to do so.
Dr. Wright: My right hon. Friend has rightly said recently that he wants Parliament to have more respect. May I suggest to him that the bit of Parliament that does command respect is our Select Committee system, but what does not command respect is that setting up those Committees is the last thing that we do at the beginning of a new Parliament, rather than the first thing? Instead of saying something general about such things happening before the summer recess, will he tell us by what date we will get the show on the road? [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]
Mr. Hoon: I am sure that my hon. Friend hears the support for his request that he gets from Opposition Members, but it is important, as I have said already, that the appropriate procedures inside the political parties are respected. Of course, I add for the benefit of Members of the official Opposition that there has been a change since the last general election: they may have noticed that our majority is slightly less than it was before. That affects the number of Select Committee chairmanships allocated to the different parties. If Opposition Members are genuinely concerned about the establishment of the Select Committees, they will ensure that their Front Benchers make appropriate representations about which of the Select Committees they wish to chair.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
(Con): I fully support the question put by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and the views so far expressed by the Leader of the House. Does he accept that, if the Select Committee structure is to have the integrity and credibility that the people of this country expect, every Select Committee should be chaired by a Back Bencher? He has been kind enough to agree to meet me, as I was the Chairman of the Procedure Committee in the last two Parliaments, but will he
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discuss the possibility of merging the Modernisation Committee, currently chaired by a Cabinet Minister, and the Procedure Committee, which I had the honour of chairing in the last two Parliaments? If so, and he accepts that argument, I believe that the joint Committee would carry much greater authority, integrity and independence than the current situation.
Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman has appropriately declared his own interests and he declared my interest for me. That is why it is important that we should have a conversation before we reach conclusions on this important question.
Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): My right hon. Friend knows that membership of the Select Committees is one of the joys of membership of the Houseindeed, it is a compensation for our general impotencebut does he accept that Select Committees would be better chosen by Back Benchers, rather than being used by the Whips as a form of patronage for the loyal and dutiful and punishment for the independent-minded?
Mr. Hoon: I do not know whether my hon. Friend has been patronised or punished, but I can tell him that the selection of places on Select Committees is rightly a matter for the political parties. If he has complaints about the way in which right hon. and hon. Members are selected, he should address them to his own political party.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): The Leader of the House will know that, for the past three years, the Prime Minister has been cross-examined by the Liaison Committee in July for three hours. Will he give the House an assurance that the Prime Minister will not depart for his summer holiday until that exercise in accountability has taken place in July?
Mr. Hoon: It is beyond my responsibility to determine the precise date of the Prime Minister's well-deserved summer break, but I assure the right hon. Gentleman that it is my desire to see the Liaison Committee established as soon as possible.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): May I invite the Leader of the House to make a name for himself and be the first Leader of the House to recognise that we need to repatriate to Back Benchers the power to control the business of the House? Would it not be sensible for the horse trading and negotiations about which party fills which chairmanship, and the allocation and size of each Select Committee, to be carried out by the chairman of the parliamentary Labour party, the chairman of the 1922 committee and the chairpersons of the other parties represented in the House, rather than by the Executive and the Tory Front Bench? It is illogical, as well as perverse, that the people who have a vested interest in patronage should distribute the prizes.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)
(LD): It is not only the departmental Select Committees that are not in
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place at the moment, but the in-house Committees and, indeed, the Standards and Privileges Committee, which might be an omission. May I ask the Leader of the House about an important aspect of the scrutiny role of Select Committees: the role of the Foreign Affairs Committee in examining the forthcoming presidency of the European Union? A less than prescient White Paper was issued in February called "Prospects for the EU in 2005", although I suspect that that will have to be somewhat rewritten. When will a new White Paper be issued and what facilities will the right hon. Gentleman put in place for the scrutiny of the Government's intentions during their presidency?
Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman should address his question about the timing of any future White Paper to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. As far as the establishment of Select Committees is concerned, I repeat that I want them established by the summer and the political parties involved in the process to use their best endeavoursI will use mineto achieve that end.
Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Liberals have once again missed the target? The point is that the EU presidency is ongoing and, at the moment, it is in someone else's hands. I make a special plea regarding the European Scrutiny Committee. We are missing the Council meetings and one of that Committee's duties is hearing post-Council report back and taking evidence from Ministers. Can we get some speed on so that at least that Committee can perform its duty, because the EU rolls on regardless of what we do here?
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): Surely one of the reasons for the delay is that, for the second Parliament running, rather to the surprise of many in the House, the Government appear to have embarked on another episode of what might be called the war of Gwyneth's seat. May I invite the Leader of the House to give a well-deserved vote of confidence to the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Transport? I hope that she will return to that position. May I also press him on the Liaison Committee? I and many hon. Members hope that the hon. Lady and her colleagues on that Committee will have the opportunity to interview the Prime Minister before the summer recess, so will the Leader of the House give us a clear commitment that he will ensure that that can happen?
Mr. Hoon: I have already made it clear that part of the problem with establishing the Select Committees is ensuring that appropriate representations are received from Opposition parties. They are entitled to a larger share of chairmanships, but such representations still have to be made, which must necessarily depend on the outcome of negotiations between the two Front Benches. The Conservative party needs to make representations about the Select Committees that it wishes to chair.
As far as my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) is concerned, she is an assiduous, hard-working and distinguished Member of the House, and long may she continue to be so.
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Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): I am very grateful to the Leader of the House for those extremely kind words, which I shall have framed. He is a very clever fella and knows that it has always been the tradition of the House that chairmanships were chosen by Select Committees themselves and that their Chairmen were always Back-Bench representatives. I hope that he will simply say to us that he will not support the idea that ex-Ministers can be parachuted in automatically because, frankly, that would be an abuse of our system.
Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend knows full well that there are no automatic opportunities for anyone to be Chairman of a Select Committee. However, it is important that the processes that have traditionally guided the way in which these selections are made be allowed to continue.
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