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Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd). Whatever Members on the Government Benches might think of what he has said, historically and by pedigree he has shown himself to be totally committed to this House, to proper debate and to the rights of Back Benchers in all parts of the House. I personally salute him for the work that he has done over all the years that he has been here.
I am delighted, too, that my hon. Friend quoted John Biffen, who was an inspirational and dedicated Leader of the Housea man who led the House without too much party politics not only at business questions, but at other times. I make a plea to the current Leader of the House that the party political content on the Floor of the House be kept to a minimum. While she has a
prime duty to ensure that the Government get their business, her other duty is clearly to represent the best interests of the House as a whole.
The omen for the House of what happened in the earlier debate, on which there was a vote, is not good. Unfortunately, and despite not only my pleadings but those of a Member of the House who is highly respected in all parts of itmy right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young)the Leader of the House, who could have withdrawn that motion, chose not to do so. I regret that. As a result, the omens for fairness and even-handedness do not herald well for Members in all parts of the House, particularly Opposition Members.
I also support the view expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills that at some future stage, the Modernisation Committee should be merged with the Procedure Committee. We are talking now about the appointment of two people, one of whom will, in due course, be elected as Chairman of the Modernisation Committee. It is a very powerful Committee and it seems utterly wrong that it should be dominated by one party. That is why I question the appointment of a PPS as well as the Leader of the House. Unfortunately, a PPS cannot be objective. He or she cannot adopt an independent view separate from that of his or her Minister. Therefore, the two are tied together inextricably. Clearly the Committee will suffer as a result. Members are appointed to a Select Committee not just for their party view, but to take an objective view. The discussion of modernisation should have nothing directly to do with party politics: it should have everything to do with the convenience of this House and its ability to do its job of holding the Government to account and scrutinising legislation.
I have had the pleasure of serving on the Modernisation Committee since it was set up by the new Labour Government in the autumn of 1997 and I have served under several Leaders of the House. One of the most inspirational and exciting to work with was the late Robin Cook. He was committed to the House and to returning independence and integrity to it. He suffered a major setback when the Committees proposals on the appointment procedure for Select Committeesunanimously agreed by that Committee under his chairmanshipwere defeated by the Government. Although it was supposedly a free vote, there were Government Whips outside the Lobbies saying, Vote this way, this is the Labour Lobby. I hugely admired Robin Cook for his principles and almost unlimited ability, but he was disappointed and depressed that a proposal that would have improved the independence and integrity of the House, by getting on to Select Committees those people who had an interest in that Committee, the ability to do the job, and the knowledge and experience to serve itand by extension the Housewell, had been defeated.
I shall not vote against the motion. As I have said, I have spoken with the Leader of the House and I say to her, not in a patronising way, that she will have to show the House and the members of the Committee that she can be entirely impartial in seeking to serve the interests of the House as it holds the Government
Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab) rose
Sir Nicholas Winterton: I shall give way to the hon. Lady, whom I also admire for her courage and, occasionally, her aggression. There will come a time, perhaps in the not too distant future, when she and her colleagues will be on the Opposition side of the House. Then they will have a slightly different perspective on what the Modernisation Committee is doing and the ability of Opposition Members and parties to hold the Government to account.
Ms Abbott: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I personally think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) will make an excellent Chair of the Home Affairs Committee. I also personally believe that my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House and my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) will be adornments of the Modernisation Committee. However, as someone who has served in the House both in opposition and in government, it concerns me that we are losing sight of the fact that the Committees are Committees of the House. I am concerned by the increasingly naked direction by Whips of who should chair them. The point is that the Committees are supposed to choose their own Chairs. The people whom we have put forward are wonderful and brilliant, but some of us remember when the assumption was that Select Committees represented the whole House and were able to appoint their own chairs.
Sir Nicholas Winterton: Of course, Select Committees are able to appoint their own Chairmen. I speak from experience: when the remits for social services and health were divided up between two Select Committees, my previous work on health meant that I was not put up by my party for the post of Chairman of the Health Committee. However, with the support of the Labour and Ulster Unionist parties, and with my own vote, I did manage to achieve that post.
Like other parties, however, mine is inclined to get its way in the long term. After the 1992 election, I applied to be reappointed to the Health Committee, and I am confident that I would have been elected its Chairman, but my party did not nominate me. It invented a new rule that was no rule at all. It was a rule for the Conservative party, but not for the Labour party. That has nothing to do with this House, but the people responsible were made to look very foolish. For my part, as one door closed, another opened, but we need a Select Committee system that genuinely represents the interests of the House.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills said, the previous Chairman of the Modernisation Committee, who remains a nominal member, often said that he could not take a proposal to the Government because the Whips would not accept it. That is an example of a Select Committee Chairman who is a Cabinet Minister and who openly admits that certain proposals that the Committee would like to make to the House cannot be got through the Government Whips and the Cabinet. That means that the Committee in question could not be truly independent.
I hope that similar problems will not arise when the present Leader of the House is Chairman of the Modernisation Committee, as she has a duty to both House and Committee as a whole. The fact that the Whips might not like a proposal is no reason why it should not form part of a report that can be debated by the House and responded to by the Government.
The late Robin Cook was a very distinguished Chairman of the Modernisation Committee, but I repeat that he was ultimately torpedoed by his partys Whips. That tragedy is an example of the sort of thing that my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills is very aware of. We believe that the Modernisation Committee should be led by a Chairman with integrity. He or she must be prepared to take forward proposals that would benefit the House as a whole.
The Leader of the House knows that I support the creation of a business committee that would give Back Benchers more say about how the House of Commons uses its time. We are not just lackeys of the Executive. We are here to do a job using our knowledge and experience and we should represent our country and our constituents, as the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington does so well.
I tell the Leader of the House that my priorities are the interests of my country, the interests of my constituents and, only third, the interests of my party. If more Members of the House had those priorities, in that order, turnout at elections would be much greater, respect for politicians would be much greater and people would have greater respect for Parliament.
As I said, I shall not vote against the motion because I trust the right hon. and learned Lady. We have spoken and she knows my priorities in the House. I hope we can work together to improve Parliament, not only for parliamentarians but for the people we represent.
Ms Harman: The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) was concerned that a Science and Technology Sub-Committee might not have membership of the Liaison Committee and would thus not be able to put questions to the Prime Minister and others who appeared before the Committee. That situation would be addressed if the Chair of the Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee was also the Chair of the Sub-Committee.
Mrs. May: The right hon. and learned Lady slightly misunderstood what I said. My point was not about the Liaison Committee but about the new arrangements that will enable questions to be asked of the Chairmen of Select Committeesone of the issues examined by the Modernisation Committee. It was in that context that I was considering the possibility that the Science and Technology Sub-Committee might not be given the opportunities it would have had if it had continued to be a full Committee.
Ms Harman: I thank the right hon. Lady for her clarification of that point.
I understand the concern of Members about Parliamentary Private Secretaries, but they are not members of the Government. The previous Government did the same as we do. PPSs do not sit on Committees covering the Departments in which they are PPSs.
The right hon. Lady asked about Europe. The system of European Standing Committees is of interest to a number of Members. The Government are still considering their position on how the system of scrutiny for EU matters can best be developed.
John Bercow: The right hon. and learned Lady tells the House that Parliamentary Private Secretaries are not members of the Government. Will she confirm that it is the normal expectation that when Parliamentary Private Secretaries vote, they will vote with the Government?
Ms Harman: The normal expectation is that all Labour Members of Parliament will vote with the Government.
As I said, we shall continue to look at the question of proper scrutiny of European legislation. The question of regional scrutiny was raised.
Simon Hughes: May I make a small point? The right hon. and learned Lady said that the Governments current plan is for Parliamentary Private Secretaries not to sit on the Committee relating to the Department where they are a PPS. The exception to that is of course her hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who is her PPS and is proposed for membership of the Modernisation Committee, which is one of her responsibilities.
Ms Harman: Indeed. That situation is different for a number of reasons that I mentioned in my opening comments and to which I shall return briefly.
We are committed to greater accountability for the regions of England, and the Government are giving further consideration to the proposals for regional scrutiny and will report back to the House.
I pay tribute to the work of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on the Science and Technology Committee. They are absolutely right: the volume and quality of that work must continue. The number of members on the Sub-Committee that is to be constituted is a matter for the Committee. If the Committee wants it to, the Sub-Committee will have a strong remit to turn over stonesas has been saidand to look into nooks and crannies.
The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) mentioned parliamentary scrutiny of machinery of Government changes. Obviously, the machinery of Government is ultimately a matter for the Prime Minister and one would not want Departments to be in abeyance while there were long discussions, but the hon. Gentlemans point is worth considering. Ministers from different Departments, when dealing with science issues, as well as other stakeholders, could be called to give evidence to any Sub-Committee that deals with science and technology.
The hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) raised the issue of the smaller parties. He has discussed that with the usual channels, and I will ensure that I raise the issues that he has raised in the House today.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP):
The right hon. and learned Lady will have to do a little bit better than that. If we lose the place on the new Committee, the Scottish National party will lose 100 per cent. of its places on departmental Select Committees and SNP-Plaid Cymru will lose 50 per cent. Although she cannot determine the membership of Committees, she can say that there will be a Labour majority and that Conservative Members will serve on
the new Committee. However, she has to make a real commitment to say that we will maintain our place on departmental Select Committees.
Ms Harman: That is not for me to say at this point. There will be further discussion about the membership of Select Committees when they are reconstituted.
I am left with responding to the points made by the hon. Members for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton). The hon. Member for Macclesfield is clearly frustrated and feels that more progress should have been made on the Modernisation Committee, but a great deal has been done by that Committee in the past 10 years. If he thinks back to when the Modernisation Committee was formed, he will realise that many innovations have strengthened the role of the House, as a result of that Committees work and his work on it. Clearly, he is frustrated in that he wants it to do more, and I look forward to working with him to ensure that it does so. However, I ask him not to lose sight of the good work that has been undertaken already.
On the points made by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, it is important that we do not lull ourselves into the belief that there was a golden age. I know what it is like to be in opposition. I was in opposition for 15 years, under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and when I sat where the hon. Gentleman sits now, I did not think that that was the golden age of parliamentary democracy. He might remember that his Government often crushed him, as well as the Opposition, even when he was sometimes right and agreed with us. It is important that none of us thinks that there was a golden age then.
Mr. Shepherd: I was not trying to score a point across the House; I was trying to point out what was the role of a Leader of the House and I was citing John Biffen in that example. The right hon. and learned Lady may well have been in the Chamber when he made that speech. That was the traditional view of how the role was conducted. Indeed, I spoke up from the Government Benches, just as Government Members still occasionally speak up for the needs of opposition. The role is particularly important because of the minority parties. Their very argument shows the right hon. and learned Ladys duty. I was merely citing the John Biffen example, and if she can follow that route, I will give a cheer.
Ms Harman: I was a Member when John Biffen was Leader of the House. If the hon. Gentleman cares to look at this weeks issue of The House Magazine, he will see that, when I was asked which Leader of the House I would model myself on, I mentioned John Biffen. So I well remember that time, but I also remember his not succeeding in the face of his Government riding roughshod over his attempts to strengthen the House.
I do not think that the hon. Member for Macclesfield should consider the Modernisation Committee as being packed; it works by consensus. Do the Modernisation Committee members feel that they have not been able to achieve what the Modernisation Committee wants to achieve because the Committee is packed? It has made progressmore progress than, unfortunately, John Biffen, however good his intentions, made in his day.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): The point about the Leader of the House having special responsibilities is surely well made. At various times Select Committee arrangements have, in effect, broken downas when there was an attempt to deprive the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) of the Chair of the Health Committee. Chairs of Committees, as proposed by the usual channels, have been overturned by the House. Usually things come to a crisis because the Leader of the House at the time is not able to reflect the whole balance of the House. The procedures are very open to challengeas the right hon. and learned Lady well knows. Every single change to a Select Committee could be debated on the Floor of the House. We could go on for an interminable time unless the Leader of the House is sensitive to a number of points that are being made.
Ms Harman: Indeed, and I take the right hon. Gentlemans point.
I join hon. Members who have paid tribute to Robin Cook. I was deputy to Robin Cook for many years when we were in opposition. He, too, was a Cabinet member and a Leader of the House. Like me, he was a committed member of the Labour party, who believed, as I do, that the Government should be held to account. It is in that spirit that I hope to serve on the Modernisation Committee and continue my work as Leader of the House.
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