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As the hon. Gentleman said there is an element of déjà vu about the debate. Looking around the Chamber, I see in attendance hon. Members who have debated the issues that lie behind the debate time and again over the years. Those issues are the quality of scrutiny and the independence of Members of Parliament. The only thing that is rather sad is that, throughout most of the debate, only one or two new Members have been in attendancethat is to their creditbut in a Parliament where I have been surprised that the new Members on both sides of the House have been assiduous in their attendance in other debates, it is very sad that they are not attending this debate because it is about the quality
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of scrutiny and their role as Members of Parliament throughout their time in the House. Anyone listening to the debate or who reads the report of it will learn quite a bit about those issues from the enormous amount of experience that Members, such as the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), have had in trying to tease out such issues.
Mr. Hogg: In a sense, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will agree that what the debate illustrates is that the political parties have been captured by their Front Benchers. Until political parties recover power from their Front Benchers, in truth, this Parliament is but a rubber stamp.
Mark Fisher: I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that I wholly agree with him on that. That will be burden of my remarks, which I hope will be brief to give other hon. Members the opportunity to speak. I had not realised that the debate was time limited, and I will endeavour to be very brief.
The hon. Member for Buckingham had an interesting exchange with my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) about the relative relevance to the debate of Lewis Carroll and Franz Kafka. Although it was amusing and enjoyable to hear their literary expertise displayed, both of them were right to suggest that both those authors' books show a nightmare vision of a world turned upside down. That is what we are seeing in the House at the moment.
As the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham said, we are fast becoming a House that rubber-stamps political parties. It is hardly surprising that the public have less and less respect for the House and, indeed, for politics generally when the idea of independent parliamentarians is in such decline. That is what the debate is about, and it is why analogies to the bleak and serious vision of the world of both Lewis Carroll and Franz Kafka are very good to draw.
Given the shortage of time, I will not go into the details of the debatethe method of selection for membership, the pay of Chairmen and so onimportant though they are. They are emblematic of a number of issues, and it has been a good, interesting and experienced debate on them. The Father of the House put the whole issue in a wider context in his contribution about the importance of Select Committees; their role in scrutiny, as the hon. Member for Buckingham has said; and, crucially, their independence. That is what we should be debating, and we have been doing so this afternoon.
The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said in a characteristic, intelligent, very gentle and courteous speech that his criteria for determining whether this dispensation of Select Committees has achieved greater independence was that there are no ex-Ministers, where it has succeeded; that minor parties should be well represented, where it has also succeeded, and that the awkward squad on both sides of the House should be represented. He cited my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who is certainly a fully paid-up member of the awkward squad, but he did not mention my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson),
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who has made a particular and professional contribution to our debates on science and technology, as most hon. Members realise, yet amazingly is not among those selected. It might be said that this dispensation is a marginal improvement on previous dispensations of Select Committees members, but the fact of the matter is that the thumbprints of those on the Front Benches are as evident as they have ever been, albeit in a marginally different way.
Much as I respect the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, he should have set tougher criteria to judge whether the way in which the Select Committees were chosen was truly independent. We should not judge the independence of individual hon. Members, but whether this generation of Select Committees will be fearlessly independent of the Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich rightly said that one way in way such independence could be indicated would be if Committees were able to choose their own Chairs. She chided me for what I suggest was calculated naiveté, but Committee members do have such a power in their grasp. On the first day that the Committees meet, their members can choose their own Chairs. I doubt whether they will do that, but they should. If they do not, they must recognise that they are simply being directed by their Front Benches.
Why should the Chairman of the Modernisation Committee be a member of the Government? It is outrageous for any Committee that is set up to scrutinise the Government independently to have any Government Ministers on it, let alone the Committee that discusses the whole future of the Chamber and the House. That has nothing to do with the Government because this is our House. The Executive have their own role and function in our constitution, but it is not running the business of the House.
We should have more Joint Committees with the other place, although only one is being selected today. Both the other place and this House are set up to scrutinise the Government. We have complementary roles and interests, so Joint Committees are an important part of the process. Too often Members of our House and the other place see themselves as being in competition, but that is wholly in the interest of the Executive because it gives them an easy time. Scrutiny of the Government should be parliamentary scrutinynot scrutiny by the Commons or the Lords, but by Parliament. When we scrutinise the actions of the Executive, it is in the interests of rigour and the good name of Parliament to work together.
The most crucial criterion that should be used to judge the independence of Select Committees is the fundamental question of who runs the business of the House. That will not be determined by the Select Committees, so we should have a business Committee, as the Scottish Parliament does. The Government should of course be represented on such a Committee because they have an absolute right to the time that they need to get through the programme for which they have a mandate, but the idea that they should dictate when the House sits, what it debates and when we debate it is absolute nonsense. That is not the business of the Government. The Government's business is to run the country and to suggest taxation and action programmes, but it is not to run either of the Houses of Parliament. Until we have a business Committee
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through which we take responsibility for our own business, we will always be ciphers. We understandably lost that ability in the late 19th century due to the astute parliamentary work of Mr. Charles Parnell, but we must regain it if we are to regain our independence.
Mr. Hogg: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on one matter. He says that the Government have an absolute right to get through their mandated business, but they do not. The fact that something is in a manifesto does not give a Government an overwhelming right, and in any event, they must allow sufficient time for discussion.
Mark Fisher: Of course, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall just correct myself. I meant to say that Government have the right to the time to try to get their business through. I accept your admonition and I shall draw my remarks to a close so that other hon. Members can contribute.
It is very sad that there are so few new Members in the House, but it is to the credit of the new Member who is here that he is listening to this debate. We have to decide whether we are parliamentarians or just simply representatives of our political parties. Obviously, we are both. That interesting paradox is inherent in our roles, and it leads to many good conclusions. However, we must remember that we are parliamentarians as well as representatives of our parties.
During the last Parliament I took part in an extraordinary radio debate with another member of the parliamentary Labour party. That person, when asked by the interviewer whether they were a parliamentarian, was outraged and said, "I am not a parliamentarian; I am a Labour Member of Parliament. I am sent here to vote for the Government, not to think for myself and be a parliamentarian." That Member was outraged by the idea that they should be considered anything other than a Labour Member of Parliament who voted with the Government 100 per cent. of the time. Therein lies our problem.
Of course Members on both sides of the House want to be loyal to the party of which many of us have been members for 20 or 30 yearsor, in my case, over 40but we are here to scrutinise Government as Members of Parliament as well. If we do not stand up and shake off the shackles of our Front Benches during this Parliament, we will lose yet more years and yet more independence. These are very important issues. This Parliament must assert our distinct identityour role is different from that of the Executiveand we do so particularly through these Select Committees. We will vote these motions through tonight, and I hope that when the Select Committees operate, they bear it in mind that they have a sacred role in the independent, rigorous scrutiny of Government policy.
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