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Mark Fisher: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way in the dying moments of her speech. In her interesting, admirable and entirely correct list of characteristics of a good Select Committee, she mentioned the role of a Select Committee in choosing its own Chair. Am I missing something? Has that changed? We are selecting the members of a Committee; we are not selecting any Chairs. Surely there is nothing to stop a Committee nominating anyone among its number to be its Chair, the moment that it meets. Another arrangement might have been suggested to members of a Committee by other people, perhaps in the Whips Offices or on the Front Benches, but such suggestions are not binding. If the members of the Committee are of independent mind, it is up to them to select from among their number the Chairman who is most suited to the job.

Mrs. Dunwoody: My dear, well educated and hon. Friend does occasionally display a degree of naiveté that I would hardly think possible in one so intelligent. Would that events took place as he describes. One thing that I deeply regret is the real erosion by both major parties of the rights of Back Benchers. When I first came here, it was possible on Fridays to vote on private Members' Bills—which could involve very controversial legislation—not because one party wanted that to happen but because the House wanted it to happen. When I came here, it was possible to accept that Select Committees chose their own Chairmen, although that has worked against me. It was also possible for Back Benchers to influence Government policy in a number of ways.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) told the truth: surely the answer to the membership and the selection of the Chair of these Committees lies in the membership of those Committees. The reflection is on us as representative Members of Parliament. That is what is being lost. Surely that was the substance of the hon. Lady's comments.

Mrs. Dunwoody: Absolutely. If in any way I implied, even as a joke, that I thought that that was not the case, I was totally wrong.

Andrew Mackinlay: In view of the intervention of our hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher), it is important to note that my hon. Friend and I can say that we have been there. We were part of the electorate for the late Robert Adley, who was not nominated by the Conservatives in 1992 to chair the   Transport Committee—I will not embarrass the distinguished Member who had been so anointed. The fact is, however, that we did revolt, and we still have that option. On this occasion, I indicated to the deputy Chief Whip, who is sitting close to your Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I would support the person who
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was anointed. That is my choice, as I am pleased that he has been so anointed. Each and every one of us, however, has an obligation to decide how we vote in Select Committees, and we should say to the Members concerned, "Will you give an undertaking that you will not take Government office from Mr. Blair or Mr. Brown during the lifetime of this Parliament?"

Mrs. Dunwoody: I assure the House that my hon. Friend and I are indeed very revolting. The reality is that it was true—we supported the choice of a Conservative Chairman, because we thought that he was, as he proved to be, an excellent Chairman. Indeed, his report on the privatisation of British Rail still stands as one of the best criticisms. If only his Government had followed such recommendations we might not be in the current mess.

The matter is in the House's hands. Why did Members, at the last opportunity, vote down taking the power back where it belongs? It is no use talking about the rights of Back Benchers if, when people are offered the opportunity, they either vote with their feet by going home, which is always a difficult political decision for many Members, or they vote to keep their chains. That is indescribably sad. A lot of Back-Bench powers have been lost. We have quietly allowed those in control to take away from us, with the acquiescence of those who should know better, several powers that meant that independent Members of Parliament could have an impact. We will regret that, and some of us regret it already. Some of us tend to stick on because we think that when the oral memory of the House is lost, new Members will not know what it is possible to do. Until we reach the point at which Members themselves restore the powers, we shall be in continuing difficulty.

4.18 pm

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): As far as I am concerned, this is not a personal matter. I have nothing against the Government Whips, and relatively little against my own. I strongly object, however, to the time that it has taken to reconstitute the Select Committees, and to the manner in which it is proposed this afternoon to do so.

My starting point has been articulated by several right hon. and hon. Members throughout the House—the significance of the Committees. The Committees have an absolutely invaluable role, if only we dared to recognise and demonstrate the fact. That role is scrutiny of the Executive, of the quality of their policies, of the effectiveness of their administration and of their expenditure of taxpayer's money. When the context for the debate is set out in those simple and unmistakeable terms, it seems to me to underline the House's criminal neglect of its responsibility to get the Committees up and running earlier than we have done.

It is, I think, 69 days since the general election, and tomorrow it will be 10 weeks since polling day. It is 57 days since the Loyal Address and the opening of the debate on the Queen's Speech. To those who say, "Well, we haven't done too badly this time; the process could have been more protracted than it has proved. We did a bit better on this occasion than we did on the last", I say that that is unduly complacent. Frankly, we could have done a lot better, and I make no bones about the fact that in apportioning blame, I attribute the bulk to the
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system and to those charged with its administration—apparently, they are only too happy to be so charged—the Whips.

It is wrong that the composition of Committees whose purpose is to scrutinise the Executive should be determined by representatives of that Executive. Members who know me know that I try to be dispassionate and fair-minded. I am not interested in making a purely party political point, any more than the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) is; frankly, the issues are far too salient and pressing for that. Fundamentally, this is a clash between Front Benchers and Back Benchers in all parts of the House.

I hope that Government Back Benchers will not cavil or object when I say that the inappropriateness of Executive control is particularly acute where the Government are concerned. The reason why is simple. Government Whips choose who scrutinises other representatives of the Government. The Government run the country and introduce policies, and they have a range of powers that, frankly, do not apply to the Opposition, so it is particularly serious when Government Whips decide who scrutinises their ministerial friends and colleagues.

That said, I do not in any sense think that the representatives of Opposition Front Benchers can be exonerated from responsibility. Members know perfectly well that many of these matters are determined on a consensual basis behind the scenes, between what we call "the usual channels". So that we do not talk in terms that mean absolutely nothing to people outside this place—who think when we refer to the usual channels, "What on earth are they talking about?—we ought to make it explicitly clear that we are talking about the Government Whips Office and the Opposition Whips Office.

It is quite wrong for Opposition Whips to determine who participates in Select Committees. I have to tell you, Madam Deputy Speaker—despite your vast and varied experience in this place, I feel certain that you will be shocked by the revelation that I am about to vouchsafe—that one Opposition Whip said recently to me that he personally was keen that a particular Member, who had previously been, surprise, surprise, in the Whips Office, should be appointed to a given Select Committee with a view, perhaps, if all went well, to that individual's becoming the Chairman of said Committee. He gave the following reason. "We think it important"—I am not quite sure whom he meant by "we", but presumably he was speaking for Front Benchers—"to strengthen co-operation between that Select Committee and the relevant shadow Secretary of State and his team." That strikes me as absolutely wrong. Just as it is wrong for the Government to seek to "nobble" a Select Committee in order to defuse criticism of the Executive, so it is wrong for Opposition Front Benchers to seek to steer membership or chairmanship of the Committees in a greater, lesser or different way than would otherwise have been the case, in order to oppose the Government.

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