Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman explain how such a Committee would interact with the all-party Olympics group, which already exists in the House?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. It is perfectly in order for the hon. Gentleman to refer to a Committee that might have been set up in relation to a motion that deals with setting up particular Select Committees, but we do not want to go down that particular avenue.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
13 Jul 2005 : Column 874

I shall move on to motion 34, which deals with the Liaison Committee. That Committee has, to some extent, grown like topsy in both size and responsibilities. It has moved a long way from what it did previously—largely sorting out matters at issue between departmental Select Committees and making common representations on behalf of Select Committees. It now has a regular opportunity to scrutinise the work of the Prime Minister and to ask questions. For that reason, it has become an extremely popular Committee.

It worries me slightly that that has happened, as the Liaison Committee is not necessarily the best vehicle for scrutinising the work of what is effectively, as we move towards a more presidential system, the Prime Minister's Department. I leave it to the House to determine whether that development should be welcomed. Nevertheless, we need a more formal and better way of scrutinising the Prime Minister and holding him to account beyond the opportunities that arise from Prime Minister's questions. As I said, I am not convinced that the Liaison Committee is the best body for doing so, but it is the best that we have at present.

I shall listen carefully to the arguments for adding Members of the Chairman's Panel to the Liaison Committee, but I have to say that I will need some persuasion that that is appropriate. It is not that I oppose further expansion of the Liaison Committee or that I want to deprive the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), if he were the person suggested, of taking on that role for the Committee. The difficulty lies with whether the Chairman's Panel—we should remember that it comprises the Chairmen of Standing Committees of the House—should take on a political role in the sense of questioning the Prime Minister and taking up political matters with the Executive.

We must expect impartiality from Members in their role as Chairmen. Of course they have a separate political role as Members of Parliament when they sit in the Chamber and act in their capacity as Back Benchers, but that is different from how they should act as Chairmen selected by the Chairman of Ways of Means to perform a particular function. In that context, they require a degree of impartiality that should be exercised habitually, but might be prejudiced by membership of the Liaison Committee. We need only think of Mr. Speaker or Mr. Deputy Speaker being asked to sit on that Committee and put questions to the Prime Minister to realise that the development should not necessarily be welcomed. Given that Chairmen are, in effect, vicariously representing Mr. Speaker or Mr. Deputy Speaker in their roles, I am not sure that it is appropriate for a person in that capacity to be put in that position—and I am not even sure that the scrutiny role should be given to the Liaison Committee in any case. There are better ways of providing proper scrutiny.

Finally, I want to deal with the payment of Standing Committee Chairmen. I have been agnostic, at best, on the question of the payment of Chairmen of either Select or Standing Committees. I personally remain to be convinced, though many of my colleagues feel otherwise. I understand the need for a process of career
13 Jul 2005 : Column 875
development within the House for those who are neither invited to, nor likely to, take on a governmental role. That applies to members of the Opposition parties as much as to the Government party. If the House takes the view that Select Committee Chairmen should be paid, I understand the argument that there should be payment for the Chairmen of Standing Committees.

I would like to say how much I value the role of hon. Members who are prepared to take on the chairmanship of Standing Committees of the House. In my role as shadow spokesman on Home Office and Department for Constitutional Affairs matters, I have sat on an inordinate number of delegated legislation Committees over the last few years. I have also represented my party from the Front Bench on many substantial Bills, which have required many hours of Standing Committee time, and I have nothing but admiration for those who sit in the Chair—without the capacity to express their own opinions—keep order and uphold the machinery of parliamentary work.

I looked carefully at the Senior Salaries Review Board report, but I do not believe that it has got it right. There is a question mark about the two-tier system, which I am not convinced is workable. Having a one-tier system, despite the superficial attraction, does not take into account the difficulties of choosing new Members to sit on the Chairman's Panel and giving them an opportunity to dip their toes in the water to see whether they are suited to that role in respect of their personal aspirations or their performance.

There is merit in the proposal, which I understand originated from you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as Chairman of Ways and Means, for a gradated system. I can see the advantage of allowing people in the initial stages to leave the Chairman's Panel in order to take on a Front-Bench role within the party. We can fairly establish that once a Member has been on the Chairman's Panel for a few years, it is unlikely that they would be invited to take on such a role, but there is merit in allowing a certain amount of flow in the initial changes. With the best will in the world, paying a substantial amount of extra money from day one may make it much more difficult to allow that flexibility.

I am attracted to the proposal put forward by the Leader of the House. It is a matter for a free vote and I have no idea how colleagues feel on what is essentially a House matter. I shall listen to the arguments, but I am not attracted to a two-tier system because I do not like the idea of having one category of "super Chairmen" and another category of less able Chairmen. That is not the right way to do our business.

The hon. Member for Thurrock alluded to an important matter: we shall quickly reach the stage at which the only people who do not have some sort of supplement to their pay are troublesome Back Benchers on the Government side and Opposition Front Benchers, who will have to undertake their arduous duties with no consideration of extra emoluments. I say that without any expectation of sympathy, but it seems slightly anomalous that the people who most regularly intervene and question the Executive from both sides of the House are the least well paid for the privilege of doing so. Perhaps we should take pride in that position and accept that our reward lies in heaven.
13 Jul 2005 : Column 876

2.49 pm

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) (Lab): I had not intended to make a speech today, just to make the odd intervention, but I want to follow on from what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) has just said about the evolution of the Liaison Committee.

When I first joined it, the Liaison Committee was essentially a management committee for the Select Committees, dealing with budgetary and other in-house matters. We managed to evolve a new system for dealing with the administrative side, and that gave the Committee Chairman time to deal with issues relating to Parliament more generally. The Liaison Committee's evolution over the past four years has affected its collective thinking about the workings of the House, as well as allowing it to deal directly with the Prime Minister.

As far as the Prime Minister's visits are concerned, I do not pretend that they are the perfect way to conduct interviews with him. However, what we have is vastly better than anything that we ever had before, because no other Prime Minister has ever submitted himself to regular scrutiny by a Select Committee. We have had to adapt to ensure that we get best value from the meetings.

Fortuitously, the involvement of so many Committee Chairmen in the Liaison Committee means that, collectively, we are able to bring informed opinion to bear on all aspects of Government policy. For the time being, the Committee is the best vehicle that we have for that, but I have no objection to trying to find more effective ways to carry out our work. Even so, I expect that we will carry on as we are in the near term.

We are trying to arrange a meeting of the Liaison Committee for Thursday morning, so that it can be established formally. We hope to get a meeting with the Prime Minister as early as possible in the autumn, and informal contacts to that end are already in hand. After the autumn, we will revert to the normal timetable of holding meetings in January-February and June-July. That will mean that we will not have lost a hearing with the Prime Minister, and that we will have held our full quota of meetings over the life of this Parliament.

I want to touch on a couple of points in passing. First, I agree with those colleagues who think that a single-tier system of payment is to be preferred. Any other system would be too complicated and would lead to inequity.

Another question has to do with the size of Select Committees. The Liaison Committee was unanimous in its opinion the last time that question arose. Indeed, the then Leader of the House has admitted that he was astonished by the strength of feeling that he encountered when the Liaison Committee insisted that a membership of 11 seemed to be the optimum. The Committee made it clear that it believed that a larger membership caused repetitiveness and lacked cohesion. If the House agrees to the proposition before it today, the Liaison Committee will probably conduct a review of its members as to whether larger Committees work, and report to the House accordingly.

Finally, the Osmotherly rules have been referred to. We live in a time of political disenchantment and disconnection, when people have rumbled that they are not very involved in the democratic process. People who live to be 80 have perhaps 18 opportunities to vote in general elections, but that is their total democratic
13 Jul 2005 : Column 877
input. As I have said before—and I apologise for repeating it—democracy exists meaningfully only if the Government are held to account every day in the House of Commons.

We are talking today about establishing Select Committees, but that means setting up the process and machinery of interrogation. We must remember that that is the prime objective of the Select Committees. It is a matter not of sharing the spoils between us, but of getting our Committees to work as effectively as possible.

I am worried that the role of scrutiny will slip from Parliament unless the Select Committees are able to assert themselves positively. In the previous Parliament, a gulf emerged between the Hutton and Butler inquiries and the Select Committees. The quality and quantity of information and witnesses available to Hutton and Butler were much greater than any to which the Select Committees had ever had access.

A challenge now faces the House, and the Government. What part do the Government want to play, and where do they want to go with Select Committees? Unless there is greater co-operation with the Committees in the provision of information, the demands for inquiries to be conducted outside the House will grow louder, and that will happen because such inquiries cannot be conducted efficiently inside it. That is why the Liaison Committee told the previous Leader of the House that we needed greater access to witnesses and better provision of information.

An undertaking was given that, in future, there would be a presumption that information and witnesses would be provided when the Committees asked for them. It is now up to the Government to fulfil that undertaking. If they do not do so, they will suffer too: the Select Committees will lose credibility as the centre for Government accountability, and the Government will find that ad hoc, non-representative committees are increasingly doing Parliament's job.

Although hon. Members have been laughing and joking in the debate, the truth is that we have a very short time in which to ensure that our system of accountability works effectively. If we do not achieve that, the role of holding the Government to account will slip away from Parliament.

2.57 pm

Next Section IndexHome Page