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If the system is as invidious and insidious as my hon. Friend suggests, how is it that he has been
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recommended for membership of the International Development Committee, which I suspect he wanted very much?
John Bercow: I make it absolutely clear to my right hon. Friend that I strongly object to the way in which it is being done. To answer his question, I shall hazard a guess. The answer is probably that representatives of the Opposition Whips Office think that I am marginally less of a nuisance if I am busying myself with the important work involved in membership of the International Development Committee than if they were thoroughly to brass me off by denying me that membership. I must say to my right hon. Friend, who has never been a lackey at any time, that I made it clear all along to my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), the deputy Chief Whip, who is sadly not in his placeif he were, he would be visible[Interruption.] He is in the Tea Room, I am told. I told him that I did not believe that it should be done in that way. What I think about the operation of the Whips in these matters is well known.
Of course the Whips will not voluntarily relinquish their power. They have the power; they exercise it; they enjoy its exercise; and they go about the House feeling a sense of fulfilment. After all, they are very senior, very respected, very influential, very busy and consequently have very full diaries.
John Bercow: Yes, they are paid as well, as the hon. Gentleman helpfully observes from a sedentary position. In response to the inevitable inquiry, "Grandma or Grandpa, what did you do today?", the Whips will be able proudly to say to their grandchildren, "Well, I managed to stitch up the membership of a Select Committee, and we had to make a choice between the good boys and good girls on the one hand and the bad boys and the bad girls on the other." An intelligent grandson or granddaughter will say, "Oh, I understand what you mean, Grandpathat the good boys and good girls are those who ask helpful and intelligent questions and go about their work and responsibilities independently of the respective Front Benchers". At that point, the senior Whip will say, "No, no, no, you quite misunderstand the purpose of our work in constructing Select Committees. We want people who are, in Sir Humphrey's terms, 'sound'people who will do things in a way that we approve of".
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): My hon. Friend is right, but there is another point to be made. The Whips Office controls the parliamentary partyor, at least, tries to control itand one of the ways it does so is through the use of patronage. It is one of the least attractive features of parliamentary life today and it is a reason why we should have nothing to do with allowing the Whips Office to choose the composition of Select Committees.
My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. I do not know whether the sensation has afflicted other right hon. and hon. Members this
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afternoon, but the infuriating thing for me is that we have been here before. This afternoon, I feel as though we are playing a very long-running tape all over again. To put it another way, I have the sensation that I am once again, after a gap of about 15 years, reading that magnificent novel by Kafka"The Trial", in which K is treated appallingly by the bureaucracy and goes round in circles. There is also his other magnificent tome, "The Castle", in which the hero thinks that he is advancing closer and closer to it, but on every step towards it that he takes, he discovers that he is a step further away than he was before. Well, I have that sensation, Madam Deputy Speaker, in relation to the composition of Select Committees.
We have had these debates before. As long ago as July 2001, the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), who was then the Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning), who was then shadow Leader of the House and the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), who was not then but is now the Father of the House, all argued that the process needed decisive reform, and needed it then. Four years later, that has not happened and there appears to be no enthusiasm among those on the Front Benches for it. What is even more depressing is that there is insufficient enthusiasm for reform on the Back Benches on both sides of the House. That is what is urgently needed.
John Bercow: I must say that the literary reference that the hon. Lady has invoked is probably better than mine. I had a recollection of the Kafka novels, but the hon. Lady is right that this is an absurd way in which to operate. The truth is that we can have many nuances on a theme, but in the end the real argument is about whether we opt for appointment or for election.
I accept that there the scourge of Whip domination is objectionable. In the nicest possible spirit, however, I say to the Houseand to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), who spoke about this earlierthat I do not think that the other proposals for reform are satisfactory either.
The House will recall that the Liaison Committee report "Shifting the Balance" of March 2000 said that the system was wrong and needed to be changed so that it was independent of the Executive. It proposed that a trinity of very senior and distinguished hon. Members should make up a panel to which aspirant members of Select Committees could appeal. That might be marginally better than allowing the Whips to dictate membership, but it is still a poor and unsatisfactory way to proceed. That would amount to a system of patronage in itself, and hon. Members desperately keen to get on a Committee would feel that they had to ingratiate themselves with the panel.
Subsequently, in February 2002, the Modernisation Committee recommended that a committee of nine hon. Members should act as a filter for applications for Select Committee membership. I do not approve of that either. The systems that I have described are alternative and
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only marginally less objectionable forms of patronage. Sherlock Holmes said that, when all other possibilities have been eliminated, the remaining possibility, however improbable, must be the truth. In this case, the remaining possibility is that the House will decide to take the composition of Select Committees into its own handsthat is, it will determine that composition by election.
We can go about that in various ways. One possibility, which I do not necessarily advocate, is that the process should be a complete free for all, in which all hon. Members have the right to vote for all the members of all Select Committees, with no reserved rights for Opposition or other minority parties. I accept that there would be a danger that hon. Members would vote in a very partisan way and that Select Committee membership would be skewed as a result.
The hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) has proposed that the conduct of these matters should be vested in the hands of Mr. Speaker, but I believe that it would quickly become evident that that was not entirely satisfactory or fair. Speedy amendments and revisions of that process would probably be made, but that option is what might be called the pure democratic model.
A second, alternative method would be to protect the respective strengths of the parties in the House, in terms of the numbers of Select Committee membersor Chairmen, or boththat are allocated to the parties. However, all hon. Members would still be allowed to vote for all members of the Select Committees, subject to the understanding that, depending on the strength of the parties' representation in the House, the Government party will have, say, seven members of a Committee, the main Opposition three and a minority party one.
If we are committed to the principle of democratic engagement, the seam is pretty rich. A third possibility is that we say that members of the Conservative party will vote only for Conservative members of a Select Committee, that Labour Members will vote only for Labour members, and so on.
I confess that I prefer the second of those options. I believe that all hon. Members should elect Select Committee members, subject to some protections for the minority parties. The system is not perfect, and it could be amended subsequently. Yes, there is a dangerpossibly even a likelihoodthat the first set of elections would not achieve the necessary balance between geography, gender, youth and experience, and so on. Nevertheless, under that system, the House would decide who should be on the Select Committees that scrutinise the Executive.
It baffles me constantly that in an age in which the pervasive principle of democratic legitimacy applies we seem always to find an excuse for not applying it in the context of composing the Committees that we so value.
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