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Mr. Shepherd : I hope that my hon. Friend will take my comment in the spirit in which it is intended, but his elegant ruminations could have found expression on the Order Paper and we would have had an opportunity to vote on them.

John Bercow: Well, my answer is that I was happy to go along with the credible proposal made by the hon.
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Member for Nottingham, North, which allows for a degree of flexibility, under the auspices of Mr. Speaker, as to how the method of election would operate. Insofar as my hon. Friend has, gently or otherwise, rebuked me, I do not think that the rebuke is actually fair, because the hon. Gentleman has provided for a system of election.

In essence, we have to ask ourselves whether we want to will the means of change. I do. If Members want to be respected, we have to show respect for ourselves. If we want our Select Committees to be credible, we have to give them credibility. If we want them to be effective overseers of Government policy and to hold Ministers to account, we have to recognise that they will be far more effective and respected in fulfilment of that role if they enjoy the support of the House. It would not work perfectly, but it would work a lot better than the present arrangements.

If we wait for Government Whips or Opposition Whips to say, "We will give up our power", we will wait for eternity. Even waiting for the Leader of the House or shadow Leader of the House to make the change will not work.

Andrew Mackinlay: I say in all seriousness to the hon. Gentleman that in the past two weeks, we have seen a seismic shift in the way the procedure happens in the Labour party, and I am proud of that. It is not the end, but probably only the beginning of the end, but—and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House mentioned Labour's selection process earlier—we can say that a shift has happened. That should be written up by political journalists. It means that I and many others are being recommended to the House for the membership of Select Committees on the initiative of our peers, our Back Bench representatives, our shop stewards. That is a healthy development and should be put on the record, because we can all be justifiably proud of that advance.

John Bercow: The hon. Gentleman is right. He may think, and others may agree, that I am being slightly uncharitable. I did not mean to be, but if I have been, I am prepared to acknowledge it.

I recall that in July 2001 the right hon. Member for Swansea, West, who is now of course our esteemed Father of the House, objected to the idea that ex-Ministers should be parachuted in as members and, immediately, Chairmen of Select Committees. He said, in a telling phrase, that a Select Committee chairmanship should not be regarded as "palliatives for injured pride". He made the point that being a Minister involved all sorts of great advantages and privileges and, once someone ceased being a Minister—in the full knowledge that that was bound to happen sooner or later in the slippery slope business that is politics—he or she should be pleased to have served and should not expect any particular preferment.

I would go further and say, as the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) did, that precisely because an immediate past Minister would lack a perception of what is required—I would go further and say that they would lack the dispassionate interest that is necessary for effective Committee membership and, especially, chairmanship—such
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people should be ruled out. From looking at the Order Paper and hearing about the subterranean and private methods of the Labour party, I welcome the fact that a decision appears to have been made along those lines. No ex-Ministers have been so parachuted, and that is a good thing. I still feel, however, that we have not had the culture shift that we need.

I say that because of a good-natured and illuminating exchange that I had with the Leader of the House much earlier in the debate. He was talking about how the Labour party was being pretty democratic, transparent and fair, as the hon. Member for Thurrock just said. The right hon. Gentleman said that Labour had a pretty open process. There was just one problem: I asked the Leader of the House to divulge the secret. I wanted to know exactly how the Labour party goes about the process. The right hon. Gentleman laughed and seemed genuinely quite amused by my question, and said that if he told me how Labour did it I might be prepared to tell him how the Opposition did it. Actually, it was a deadly serious question. I was in no sense casting aspersions; I was not even being cynical. All I wanted to know was how the parliamentary Labour party goes about the process.

I have not been invited to a meeting of the parliamentary Labour party—[Interruption.] and I am making no application to attend such a meeting now or at any time—but I suspect that the PLP probably goes about things in a more transparent and democratic way than my party. All I wanted to know was what the procedure was. The interesting point was that the Leader of the House immediately took refuge in the notion that how Labour does it is purely a matter for Labour—in essence, a private question. I would put the point differently. I believe that the way the Labour party does it is important business for Labour, but it is important to the House as well. How the Tory party does it is important business for the Tory party, but it is important for the House as well. I readily tell the Deputy Leader of the House that how we do it is his business. He is perfectly entitled to probe and scrutinise and, if he thinks our procedure is less democratic, to chide. I believe that our process needs vastly to be improved.

The Conservative Chief Whip sends a note to all Members with a list of Committees and asks us to specify upon which Committee or Committees we wish to serve. It is possible to lobby. I admit that I said two things to my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire: first, that I strongly disapproved of the whole method and, secondly, that in the event that I was kicked off the Select Committee on International Development, he would inevitably find that I had a vastly greater amount of time to devote to all the other political interests on which I might conceivably have independent-minded views that I was inclined to express. My right hon. Friend, for reasons unknown to me, decided that my application for continuing membership of the Committee was acceptable, but the notion that he should determine whether I serve on the Committee is quite wrong.

I should be perfectly happy to subject myself to the will of the House, as other right hon. and hon. Members should be prepared to do. If the House took the view that I did not have much to contribute and that it was
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not much interested in my views, expertise or background in the subject of international development and that other people were to be preferred for membership of the Committee, I should accept that without complaint. What I dislike is the notion that a small coterie of people in whom excessive power is vested should, for all sorts of reasons that they have neither a responsibility nor frequently an inclination to explain, be able to decide that Bloggs will serve and Smith will not, or the other way round. That is a hopelessly antiquated, fossilised, old-fashioned and undemocratic way to operate.

The House of Commons must decide whether it wants to be a serious, modern, forward-looking, transparent and accountable democracy. I believe that it should be. We should not have this debate again in four years' time. We must change the system and we must trust Members. Some decisions will be good and some will be bad, but it will be a better system. Let us dip our toes in the sea and discover where that leads us. If we are too frightened to free ourselves from the chains of Government domination, we have no right to complain.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) pointed out that strictly speaking the determination of the chairmanship of a Committee is a matter for its individual members. He is right. We should assert ourselves, but would not it be better if there were a recognition throughout the House that the process should be open, transparent and democratic, and that no hint of Government whipping, cajolement, enticement, bullying or threat should enter it at all?

4.44 pm

Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who is a truly independent-minded Member. I am not sure whether to rejoice with him in his membership of a Select Committee, which, I hope, we are about to endorse in a few minutes, or to commiserate with him about the fact that he has been gagged by his Whips from displaying his independence on an even wider platform.

John Bercow: I used that line with the deputy Chief Whip to try to persuade him that it was probably in his interest to allow me to continue to serve on the Select Committee, but if it is of any interest to the hon. Gentleman, I will endeavour to find enough time to pontificate on other matters as well.

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