Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) (Lab): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is an extraordinary anomaly that what is supposed to be a Committee of parliamentarians is chaired by a member of the Government? There is no role for the Government in Select Committees, which are scrutiny Committees of this House. That is not a personal criticism of this Leader of the House or any previous Leader of the House, but there is no role for the Government in scrutinising themselves, and it is absurd that the Modernisation Committee should be chaired by a member of the Government.

Sir George Young: I agree, and the case is even stronger than that. The Leader of the House, as a member of the Cabinet, is responsible for delivering the Government's legislative programme. It is quite wrong that that same person should chair the Modernisation Committee, which indicates how the House should process legislation, and that appointment is a clear short circuit of the system. The Procedure Committee, not the Modernisation Committee, should consider the matter, and it should be chaired by a Back Bencher. The House should decide how it addresses the legislative programme.

Mark Fisher: Although the Government are in some ways culpable, does the right hon. Gentleman recognise
13 Jul 2005 : Column 893
that the remedy is in our hands? If hon. Members had some spine and recognised our role as parliamentarians, we would use our ability to vote off such processes. We do not have to vote for a member of the Government becoming a member of a Committee of this House.

Sir George Young: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I think that he will recognise that the power to change matters rests inevitably more with Government Back Benchers than with Opposition Back Benchers. I hope that he will use his substantial influence among his colleagues to persuade them of his case for reform.

My final point concerns the Administration Committee. I welcome the appointment of an Administration Committee rationalising the domestic Committees that we had before. I used to find it somewhat odd that somebody who wanted to become a Member of Parliament, won an election, came here and wanted to hold the Government to account found themselves appointed to the Catering Committee. Given the pressure on Members' time, it must be right to streamline administration matters and have one Committee doing all those tasks, freeing up Members for more important jobs in holding the Government to account.

I was impressed by what my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said in moving his amendment, and I shall listen to the arguments from Members on the other side of the House, but I am minded to support my right hon. Friend and the Chairman of the Speaker's Panel.

4 pm

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): I must apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the House, because my presence has been required on the Committee that is considering regulations to do with the Water Act 2003. My Whips informed me that it was a three-line Whip, and in case I had difficulty in recognising three lines on a piece of paper they carefully wrote it in words as well. I apologise to the House for my apparent discourtesy in nipping in and out during the speeches.

Select Committees of this House have proved themselves, not only in the last Parliament but in previous Parliaments, to be a tremendous advance because they have the time and opportunity to scrutinise Government Ministers. Competent Ministers have no difficulty in dealing with Select Committees as long as they know their own subject, because they are prepared to engage in the sort of exchange that good scrutiny encompasses by explaining their policies and where they want to go with them and being prepared to take on difficult arguments. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for Transport, who is not only happy to come and talk to us about the things that he wants to do but prepared to defend them. I will not say that he always takes notice of everything that my Committee says—would that he did—but he is extremely careful to engage it in discussing the detailed work of Government. What more can one ask of any Secretary of State? Some Ministers are capable not only of benefiting from the system of Select Committees but of producing positive results.

However, I voted against paying Chairmen for a simple reason. Any Government, offered the opportunity to exercise patronage, in whatever form, will take that
13 Jul 2005 : Column 894
opportunity. It is not particularly surprising that when politicians are offered a weapon they use it, and in my experience they do so consistently.

There are one or two things that the House of Commons should be very clear about. It is not acceptable for a Minister to leave Government and instantly move over to become the Chairman of a Select Committee, because what they are doing, in effect, is giving a verdict on the work that they have just performed, which inevitably means that, whatever their instincts, they will not come up with the degree of perception that is necessary for them to be a good Chairman. It is essential that we in this House insist that the rule—always unwritten but very clear—that chairmanships go to Back-Bench Members is supported in every conceivable way.

Andrew Mackinlay: I can see the Whip, my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth) and I reassure him that I will gladly vote for the anointed Chairmen. However, in view of what has been revealed about casual vacancies and the impact of the rule that will be passed tonight, is not there a case for every one of us, at the Select Committees' inaugural meetings, to ask each Chairman to give an undertaking to take on the obligation for the lifetime of the Parliament and to spurn any offer of advancement from the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition? That is a reasonable proposition. It cannot be written into the rules, but I believe that Chairmen should give that undertaking.

Mrs. Dunwoody: I have no difficulty in giving my hon. Friend a firm commitment that I have no intention of leaving the chairmanship of the Select Committee unless someone offers me the opportunity to be a hereditary duchess. I rather fancy the title Duchess Dunwoody of Crewe, which has an endearing music hall ring. However, I intend to stick with the Select Committee, no matter who tries to dissuade me.

Select Committees operate best when their members and their Chairmen are Back Benchers, when their membership has a balance of all the relevant parties and when they understand that they are there to scrutinise—to ask the awkward questions and make them public. I therefore take issue with some of motions.

The Liaison Committee did much work on the size of Committees, took evidence and worked with the Hansard Society to try to ascertain how Select Committees could be made better—"improved" is the word that I was looking for but nowadays English is out the window. I am therefore sad that Her Majesty's Government have gone for more than 11 members.

I have served on and chaired Committees with more than 11 members. Unless one intends to extend the session to an unwieldy length, all the members cannot get in to question Ministers. That leaves the Chairman in the difficult position of either excluding some members, who have every right to ask questions, or allowing the person who gives evidence to escape proper scrutiny because one is trying hard to get members in, irrespective of the quality of the questioning. It is a recipe for disaster. We have been there and done that. The Liaison Committee produced a report, which carefully set out the reasons why we believed that big
13 Jul 2005 : Column 895
Committees were unworkable. Nevertheless, we appear to be reverting to the status quo ante. I hope that that will not be pushed. It is a retrograde, not a progressive step.

The open manoeuvring on not only the membership but the chairmanship of the Committees does not reflect well on this place, even if it was slightly different from previous occasions. We ought to have had enough common sense last time to vote to retain the selection for Select Committees in the House of Commons. We should have had enough confidence in our judgment to accept that. The Whips Office comprises men and women of such superior intellect, tact, ability and charm that one could not under any circumstances criticise anything that they do. However, there is the odd occasion when the House of Commons would do better to decide for itself in the Chamber not only the membership but the chairmanship of Select Committees.

There used to be an assumption that the Committee chose its Chairman. That was a pretty good system. In my time, before the Labour Government came to office, my Whips Office put me on a Select Committee to take the Chair. The then members had already decided that they wanted someone else and they voted the other person into the Chair. I accepted that with as much dignity as a short, fat Welsh woman can. It is vital that we get ourselves organised in regard to what we want from the scrutiny Committees. At the moment, that is not the case. We see-saw between accepting the usual channels arranging these matters and then saying publicly that we do not like the results.

Many Members give many years of service without ever becoming a junior or middle-ranking Minister, but they are no less talented than those who progress through the Government system—believe me, I have watched this process for 30 years. Having been a junior Minister, I can say that those who frequently go in and out of Government are no more talented than those who are never offered such opportunities. I was even approached to join the Chairmen's Panel, and I served on it very happily for a long time. That, too, involved an arrangement that was difficult to evaluate. Nevertheless, it was an honour to serve on it, and I was glad that I was able to do so. Members of Parliament are no longer prepared to take on these duties. There is no longer the same degree of understanding. That is because we have created the totally artificial and, to my mind, unacceptable theory that a person can fulfil their role as a Member of Parliament only as a junior Minister in a large Department. That is a very short-sighted and limited attitude, and it is one that I do not want to see.

The Select Committees operate best when they are a reasonable size, and when they are made up of Back Benchers who got there because they really have something to contribute, and want to do so. They operate best when the Chairmen are chosen by the members of the Committee, and when they are able to call before them people and papers in a wide and open manner, so that they cannot be told that they may not call special advisers because they are not paid, or that they may not call people who are known to be taking policy decisions but whose influence on the Government it is thought undesirable to demonstrate. Such Select
13 Jul 2005 : Column 896
Committees are an important part of the working of this place. They are something to be proud of, and we should stop trying to dilute them. We should not regard them as a dumping ground for people for whom we have no other occupation.

Next Section IndexHome Page