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John Bercow: Even were one to have regard to party balance in the allocation of Select Committee chairmanships, does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is absolutely no requirement whatever for there to be effectively a mandated requirement for members of the Committee, on pain of defiance of the Whips Office, to vote for a particular candidate as Chairman?
Mr. Heath: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that observation, and I agree with him entirely. At present, the difficulty is that a decision is taken as to who should be Chairman of a Committee without taking into account the views of that Committee. As I said, I think that there is a need for party allocation, and speaking as a former council leader for too many years, I am afraid that I recognise the practicalities of organising these matters to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion. Ultimately, however, it seems entirely appropriate that members of a Committee, being aware of the political party to which a chairmanship has been allocated, should nevertheless have a free vote on whom they choose in that capacity. That might circumvent some of the unpleasant manifestations of power struggles within the Government party, which seem to have delayed proceedings on this occasion.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that however a Select Committee is composedI have some sympathy with the proposal of loosening the compositionthe most important thing is how it conducts its business? A Select Committee that had a particular majority or a particular view, and that was unable to talk to the Government, would be marginalised and rendered useless by the Government's response to it. Is not the principle that we need to get over to the Government that they should not be afraid of Select Committees or Parliament and that we can make a contribution to better governance in this
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country, rather than trying to control, contain and select the membership of Committees that should be exclusively the gift of the House?
Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Of course a Committee should have complete freedom in terms of its conduct and the way that it organises its business. It is also necessary for the Government to be prepared on all occasions to respond appropriately to the Select Committee. Having sat on the Science and Technology Committee in the previous Parliament when we wished to consider the scientific aspects of terrorism, to be told by the Home Secretary that he would neither provide evidence to the Committee on that matter nor allow any official within his purview to give evidence to it, because in his opinion that was a matter for the Home Affairs Committee, not the Science and Technology Committee, is outrageous. It was an abuse of power by the then Home Secretary. On that occasion, Parliament, through the Select Committee, should have been in a position to express a more robust view in response to the Department.
Mr. Heath: I give way, for the last time, to the hon. Member for Nottingham, North.
Mr. Allen: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. He is leading toward the logical conclusion that unless Parliament's own Standing Orders provide for how soon after a general election Select Committees should be created; unless we take control of issues such as the response that the Government are expected to give to departmental Select Committees; unless we, rather than the Government and Opposition Front Benchers, control this processthe hon. Gentleman's own Front Benchers have not exactly covered themselves with glory in this regard in the past few weeksthe Government will always be able to refuse to reply to a report, or to refuse to create Committees that scrutinise the Government themselves. The anachronism is that the Government are the driving force behind setting up Committees that scrutinise the Government themselves, rather than it being clearly established in our Standing Orders that Parliament is the driving force
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I point out to the House that this subject has been aired very considerably and, in the case of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), repetitively. It is not an item on the Order Paper for decision today, and we have heard enough about it.
Mr. Allen: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Some 65 Members of this House, plus many others, put their name to an amendment that would have enabled us to debate this matter properly, but unfortunately it was not selected for debate.
Mr. Deputy Speaker:
Precisely. I call Mr. David Heath.
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Mr. Heath: I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not intend to prolong the dialogue with the hon. Member for Nottingham, North, other than to say that I do not entirely understand his reference a moment ago to my Front Benchers, about which he might like to speak to me afterwards. So far as I am concerned, on this issue I am the Front Bencher, and I certainly have not entered into any discussions of the sort that he suggested.
The proposition regarding the Administration Committee seems entirely sensible. I hold no brief for the old Catering Committee's independence of spirit, so this is a sensible step forward. My only question concerns the Administration Committee's ability to establish sub-committees. I hope that, having established a single Administration Committee, we are not then going to re-create the old House Committees as sub-committees, in their own right, of that Administration Committee. Doing so would involve simply spawning an extra Committee, with no benefit to the business of the House, so I hope that that is not the intention.
On motion 6 and term limits, through a process of interrogation the House has come to understand precisely what the Leader of the House's proposition means. It seems a little perverse, as the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) said, for an early resignation from the Chair of a Committee to result in someone's being able to serve anything up to just short of 15 years in the Chair, given that others are limited to eight years. That does not seem entirely logical, but of course, there will always be exceptions to any rule. I should also point out that we are already getting desperately near to mid-term, and one wonders whether those who are finally elected as Committee Chairmen after the long recess will be deemed to be serving for a full Parliament, or for a part-Parliament that can be disregarded for accountancy purposes.
There is another illogicality in respect of motion 6. As the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) has pointed out, changes in the machinery of government apparently create a new entity for the purpose of the relevant Standing Order. As the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) said, we very nearly had a new "Department of Productivity, Energy and Industry". Who knows whether the same Select Committee that serves the Department of Trade and Industry would have served that Department? It was to have a different name, so presumably there was some difference in emphasis. It would have been absurd to have turned back the milometer, simply because of a minor change in nomenclature. Given most Members' parliamentary careers, it would surely make more sense to say that eight years, or two Parliaments, spent chairing Select Committees was the determining factor, rather than the time spent chairing a particular Select Committee. It is relatively rare for someone who has chaired a particular Select Committee for two Parliaments to seek election as Chair of another Select Committee.
On motion 7 and the size of Select Committees, I have no quarrel with the broad principle of the proposal. However, the change in the size of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and the removal of its capacity to have two sub-committees means that we are finally airbrushing agriculture out of parliamentary
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history. Agriculture has already disappeared, practically, from Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions. It has been overtaken by questionsvery important ones, I am sureabout the environment, and it is almost impossible for those of us who serve rural constituencies, in which agriculture remains a significant industry, to raise relevant issues. As a result of this change, there will be no parliamentary entity devoted to agricultural policy. This is a very long way from just a few years ago, when we seemed to talk about nothing else. As a Member representing Somerset, I consider that a retrograde step. How we produce our food, who produces it and what happens in rural Britain are still important issues, and because of this change, we will lose the opportunity to debate them.
In setting up this array of Select Committees todayassuming that the House agrees to the motions before itI remind the Leader of the House of two issues that are not dealt with on the Order Paper, the first of which is the setting up, hopefully, of a Joint Committee on House of Lords reform. It is eagerly anticipated in some quarters that we make progress on what is a half-finished job. Such a Committee is the starting point, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will give the matter his close attention.
Secondly, I want to renew the suggestion that I made to the Leader of the House at last week's business questions. Following the successful bid for the 2012 OlympicsI have spoken to other Members about this issue since, and I know that a number of them agree with my viewthere is substantial merit in setting up a special Select Committee to deal with the Olympic preparations. The Australian Parliament did so in preparation for the Sydney Olympics[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) says from a sedentary position that it involves lots of travel. I should make it absolutely clear that I hope that such a Committee will not be created for the purpose of arranging visits to cities that have staged the Olympics, nor in anticipation of the provision of tickets for Olympic events. Rather, it should scrutinise the very large expenditure of public money, cross-departmental in nature, and examine how the benefits associated with the successful Olympic bid will spread beyond London to other parts of the country which we are constantly reassured will benefit, even though we have yet to be entirely convinced. Such a Committee should also provide continuity across the two or three Parliaments during which there may, or may not, be changes of Administration. There will certainly be changes in ministerial responsibility, so we should seek continuity in respect of the House.
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