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Mrs. May: I repeat what I just said to the hon. Gentleman: my point about Parliamentary Private Secretaries concerns their ability to challenge the Government. Unless I am very much mistaken, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) is far from being a member of the Government, and he
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is an assiduous challenger and scrutineer of them in all that they do, particularly when it comes to defence matters.

We are also considering the motion relating to membership of the Modernisation Committee, on which I serve. I should say to the Leader of the House that I do not share the concerns that some of my hon. Friends have about whether that Committee should be chaired by the Leader of the House—that is, by a member of the Government. The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), was wont to say that the Committee’s advantage was that it was chaired by a member of the Government, and its disadvantage was that it was chaired by a member of the Government. It is a difficult one, and, as I say, I do not share the concerns about whether a Government member should chair the Committee. However, as the Leader of the House will know, I am concerned about the fact that she is chairman and deputy leader of the Labour party, as well as a member, and potentially the Chair, of that Select Committee.

On the chairmanship of Select Committees, one reason why we had such a heated debate on the previous motion was that it was implied that the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) was being put on the Home Affairs Committee in order to chair it. In fact, it was more than an implication; the Leader of the House actually said as much in her speech, Indeed, one of her arguments for the introduction of the motion was that without him, there would be no Chairman.

Mr. Jones rose—

Mrs. May: I will be generous and give way to the hon. Gentleman again.

Mr. Jones: In an earlier Parliament, the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) was not on the Defence Committee, but the Conservative party put him on the Committee to become Chair.

Mrs. May: I am not sure that that has any relevance to what I am saying about the Executive bringing a motion before the House and determining—not after the Committee met, but when the motion was before the House—that a certain individual should become a Committee Chairman. The Executive should, rather, leave that to the House. I have a concern about the Leader of the House’s membership of the Modernisation Committee because of the multiplicity of her roles.

Mr. Bone: Does my right hon. Friend agree that a solution to the problem might be for the Lord High Chancellor, who has been given only half a Department to run, to continue to chair the Modernisation Committee?

Mrs. May: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that suggestion. When he was the Chairman of the Committee, the present Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor chaired it with great integrity and brought forward a number of significant proposals that change the relative balance between the Executive and
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the Members of the House. I look forward to the Leader of the House tabling motions that will put into practice the results of the Committee’s inquiry into enhancing the role of the Back Bencher, which will have been of particular interest to my hon. Friends the Members for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) and for Buckingham (John Bercow), who are both assiduous in exercising their role as effective Back Benchers.

The motion also makes changes to the European Standing Committees. Instead of tinkering with those Committees—the motion merely changes their names—why does not the right hon. and learned Lady reform them properly? If she and the Prime Minister are serious about putting Parliament first, they need to improve our system for scrutinising European legislation. That means a proper scrutiny reserve, an end to the failed European Standing Committee system, and measures to hold Ministers to account on the Floor of the House. As it happens, I made a speech setting out a number of proposals in this area last week, and I would be very happy to send it to the right hon. and learned Lady if she wished to know what those were.

The motion is significant not only for what it contains, but for what it does not contain. I have just referred to the latest report of the Modernisation Committee, which dealt with enhancing the role of the Back Bencher. It contained important proposals to make Select Committees more accountable to other hon. Members. Those included questions to Select Committee Chairman and debates on Committee reports. Despite the report being approved, published and promoted by the last Leader of the House, it has still not been put into effect. When she responds to the debate, perhaps the right hon. and learned Lady will say when those proposals are likely to be brought before the House so that they can be put into practice.

What of the Prime Minister’s proposal that Select Committees should have the power to scrutinise public appointments? We had a debate earlier on the nomination for the chairmanship of the Statistics Board—the one public appointment that goes before a Select Committee of the House, the Treasury Committee. I support the concept. It was recommended by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) in his democracy taskforce report, which was recently published. If the Prime Minister is so keen to strengthen Parliament and so keen to give new powers to Select Committees, why has not that innovation been included in today’s motion on the machinery of government?

What of the Prime Minister’s proposal for regional Ministers and regional Select Committees? I have some questions about the role of regional Select Committees. The regional Ministers are in place, but the corresponding regional Select Committees have not been established. There are considerable problems with the concept of regional Ministers. They do nothing to address the fundamental problem of the Prime Minister’s constitutional reforms, notably the West Lothian question. They will create split accountability between the regional Ministers and the departmental Ministers. They risk more frequent conflicts of interest between Members’ ministerial, regional and constituency concerns, and they are based on regions that exist only in bureaucrats’ minds.

For example, I should be interested to know what the Minister for the South East, the hon. Member for
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Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) knows about my constituency, Maidenhead. The problems of his constituency are quite different from those in mine. The regional Ministers do not seem to have any executive powers, in which case what is their purpose? I come back to the point that I made a little earlier. The regional Ministers have been appointed. Why have not the Committees that scrutinise them been established? After all, the Prime Minister promised the two together.

Today’s motion is not as uncontroversial as similar motions usually are. It is right to change the structure of Select Committees to mirror the changes in Government Departments. It is right for the sake of parliamentary accountability for the House to keep up with changes in Whitehall, but that does not mean that I will support the motion with any enthusiasm, because it betrays many things about the Government. It betrays an obsession with structures, not delivery, a disregard for taxpayers’ money, and a Prime Minister who, far from trusting Parliament, is intent on continuing the spin.

6.44 pm

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): I think that, with the exception of my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner), I am the longest-serving current member of the Select Committee on Science and Technology. I have served under three Chairmen—Michael Clark, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), and now the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis).

As right hon. and hon. Members will know, I am, as a chemist, pretty close to the science and technology community. The first inkling of the opposition in the science community to the Government’s proposals was when I attended the parliamentary affairs committee of the Royal Society of Chemistry a few days after the announcements. It is not only chemists who sit round that table but members of most of the other professional organisations. Initially they were not only surprised but somewhat outraged by the proposal to disband the Science and Technology Committee. As the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) said, that Committee was created by the previous Administration to create in the House a greater focus on science and technology. The scientific community out there has recognised that focus and has been very supportive of the work of the members of the Committee throughout its lifetime. We have to try to send out the right signal—that the volume and quality of work will continue under the new structure.

I have no doubt that the Government’s intentions in creating the new Select Committee on Innovation, Universities and Skills were honourable, and I think that it is the right way forward in terms of focusing the House’s responsibilities on those areas. However, I am a little wary about the creation of a science and technology Sub-Committee. The main departmental Committee will consider the research councils—that will be one of its important remits—and science, engineering and technology in the universities, but it will also have to focus on other university-related issues in the arts and humanities, as well as medical schools and so on. Moreover, the Leitch report will demand
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that it focus to a much greater extent than the House has focused before on the skills agenda. We are constantly picking up on the fact that there is a great shortage of skills in the science, technology and engineering world.

I am particularly concerned about the amount of resources that the Sub-Committee will have. My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House has already said that things might not turn out to be as bad as some of us suspect. I remind her, however, of the volume of work that we do at the moment, with seven to nine reports a year. Even taking out the work that the main Committee will do, I doubt whether the Sub-Committee could get through annually two or three major reports such as the space policy report that we have just published, or the marine science report that is due out. It takes at least nine months to collect the evidence, written and oral, and we travel extensively collecting evidence from abroad. We in this country must constantly measure ourselves against the best, which is usually America but also Japan, Germany and France. We have to travel to see what people are doing there. Would adequate resources be available to provide sufficient Clerks and secretarial support for the Committee, and to allow its members to travel?

I recognise that the Government intend to put 14 Members on the main Committee, whereas there are only 11 members of the Science and Technology Committee. Even so, I would guesstimate that there would be only five or six members on the Sub-Committee. Has my right hon. and learned Friend had any thoughts about that? I realise that the decision might be made by the main Committee.

My main point is this. I find serving on a Select Committee, if one is assiduous in turning up to most of the meetings, reading the reports and going on the visits, quite hard work, and I think that most Members would agree, whatever Committee they sit on. A scientist lucky enough to serve on the main Committee covering the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills who is also sitting on the Sub-Committee will find that they have a considerable extra volume of work, and members of the Sub-Committee will probably also want to listen to debates in the main Committee. At the same time, the Government are creating regional Committees. We are asking an awful lot of Members by creating this extra work alongside the other work that they are involved in, which I find increases all the time.

The reports produced by the present Science and Technology Committee have been excellent. It has published cross-cutting reports on many Departments, and considered agencies outside those Departments. We have turned over stones that I do not think people wanted us to turn over; we have looked into nooks and crannies. I ask my right hon. and learned Friend whether the smaller number of members on the Sub-Committee would be given a strong remit to turn over stones that need turning over and to look into nooks and crannies, bearing in mind the fact that those may be areas of other Departments’ work. Unless the role of the Sub-Committee, if it is created, is established very firmly and it is given those powers, its work will not be as effective as that of a main Committee. With those thoughts, I look forward to my right hon. and learned Friend’s response.

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6.51 pm

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): This debate starts from a premise on which we all agree: it is really important that the legislature have effective scrutiny of the Executive. That is what underlies the debate. The Government have said that they are committed to that, and I have no reason—apart from a blip a few minutes ago—to think that that is not true. I look forward to seeing more and more power transferred from Government to Parliament, so that it can hold the Executive to account.

As part of that process, Select Committees were set up; they have now been running for nearly 30 years and have been a valuable addition to the work of the House. As someone who has not sought to pursue a career in that part of Parliament’s work, I say thank you to those colleagues who have, and to those whose service on particular Select Committees will come to an end as a result of the motion, if it is passed later on. The Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs is chaired very ably by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who was its first Chairman. It was set up relatively recently, when the Department for Constitutional Affairs was created, and it has been able to do its job effectively and well. The Select Committee on Education and Skills regularly has to do serious work on behalf of the House. The Select Committee on Trade and Industry self-evidently covers a huge gamut of work, and the Select Committee on Science and Technology, to which I shall come back later, is chaired equally forcefully and effectively by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). I say thank you to them for the very important work that they have done.

We are here because the change of Prime Minister last month meant that there were changes to Departments. There is nothing wrong with that; the Government are entitled to organise themselves in the way that they think efficient. However, we have taken the view that when a new Prime Minister—or an existing one—wishes to change the structure of Government, those changes should be subject to consultation with Parliament before they are implemented. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) made the point that there is a danger that the idea of change is never entirely thought through, and is then undone, or re-done. There have been occasions when a name is invented, then uninvented, because after they had had to write it down for a day or two, people realised the mnemonic for the Department’s name was embarrassing.

Putting aside the cost to the public purse, I want to make the strong case that a process in which Departments and the parliamentary organisation of Select Committees change should be the subject of considered, not rushed, decision. There is no reason why the process that we discussed earlier—the scrutiny of a nomination of a person to an important job—should not be paralleled by the scrutiny of a proposal to change a Department. I will give one example, which is not the main subject of the debate.

The proposal to abolish the Department of Trade and Industry, which my colleagues supported and promoted for a long time, is significant. We believe that it was right to do that, but it should be done in a way
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that has been tested, and when parliamentarians have presented a view, with evidence, to say that we are persuaded by the proposal.

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I can give my hon. Friend an even stronger example to bear out his argument. It is the creation of the Ministry of Justice, about which the Lord Chief Justice read in a Sunday newspaper. Indeed, the Lord Chancellor heard about it only a couple of days beforehand. The failure to sort that out carefully in advance has led to a continuing and unresolved constitutional argument between the judiciary and the Government.

Simon Hughes: Not only is my right hon. Friend correct, as I would expect him to be, but he was the first to know the facts. When the Lord Chief Justice gave evidence before his Committee, he said that he had read about the changes in a Sunday paper. Clearly, that is a disgraceful and appalling way in which to do business. We ended up with a badly constructed new development in Government. Again, Liberal Democrats supported the idea of a Ministry of Justice, so we do not object on principle. We argue that one should decide what exactly is to be included in the remit of such a Department before finalising the change. A debate should be held about it so that we get it right.

The legacy of the decision rumbled on when the Department for Constitutional Affairs changed—not when the Prime Minister changed, but on 8 or 9 May—into the Ministry of Justice. It meant that that Department did all the things that we associate with justice and also dealt with the legacy of constitutional affairs, which are logically not necessarily justice matters. We have now ended up with slight confusion, as well as the great confusion to which my right hon. Friend referred.

The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) rightly said that we expected part of the consequence of the Government changes to be that we would consider today proposals for Select Committees to reflect the roles of the new regional Ministers. We are in favour of such Select Committees. However, I hope that the absence of a proposal on the Order Paper means that the Government are thinking more carefully about exactly what they will introduce. I hope that they have learned the benefit of delaying a bit and getting matters right. Clearly, such Committees should not include Parliamentary Private Secretaries, but should reflect the political balance of the relevant region. One cannot expect a proper discussion of regional issues if the Committees are all biased and take no account of the balance of the political views in those regions. My colleagues and I will continue to have that discussion with the Leader of the House.

The most controversial aspect of the changes, and the preceding changes, is the implication that the Science and Technology Committee should go. A Sub-Committee of another Committee—however good its members—is not an adequate substitute. I am not a scientist—I did maths A-level—but I have always tried in this place to support scientific activities. I have seen the merit of the work of the Office of Science and Technology. I have followed with interest the work of the Science and Technology Committee. I have noted
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its investigations and the effectiveness of its conclusions. I have heard about the results of its cross-party work, whether on our place in the global exploration of space—the subject of the recent report that dealt not only with the east midlands headquarters of our space activity but other aspects too—or the inquiry that was recently launched into the science and technology of the controversial issue of abortion. That work is valuable.

I regret that the implication of the proposal is that we are to lose that cross-cutting, cross-departmental scrutiny, which has been such a good thing. It used to happen in Westminster Hall, but those cross-cutting debates have gone, and that is a pity. I do not make those comments simply because my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough chairs the Committee and might be rude to me later if I did not say nice things about it. He has made no such threats. I objectively believe that this is not the way to go. Had there been consultation, and had the Government listened to the voices, we would not be here. I am sad that they have failed to do that.

In motion 7, the Leader of the House has brought to us a logical motion, which suggests that she will follow the tradition of her predecessors and chair the Modernisation Committee. It is good that we have a Modernisation Committee. I want it to be robust in its proposals. I have no doubt that she intends to be robust in what she contributes to it, again on a cross-party basis. Therefore, we have no objection to the new Leader of the House taking over from the previous Leader of the House in that role, or to the supporting consequential change. We will contribute positively to that.

Our objective, which I began with, remains: to see power transferred from the Government to Parliament, from the Executive to the legislature. We want this place to be increasingly effective, not just in science and technology but everywhere. I hope that there can be an agreement to work towards that end and to do things carefully and correctly in future, rather than just taking the Government’s word that this structure of government works and that we must all buy into it, whatever the implications.

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