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Michael Connarty: I hear that heartfelt plea from the Back Benches and I am sympathetic to it. Having come from a position of prominence on the Scottish executive of my party and also having been the leader of a council for 10 years, coming to the House was a lesson in personal confidence destruction. As the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) said, new Members come to the House, beg for a room or any
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sort of facilities, fumble around and, if they have a few friends, get some advice about how to survive in this place.

I remember someone saying—jokingly, I think—that when he asked one of the most senior Members on the Conservative Back Benches for the best piece of advice about how to survive as a Member of Parliament at the time, the reply was, “Get a big car, my boy”, on the basis that he could claim 76p per mile for driving around in it. That was probably good advice, but not necessarily the most relevant information for a new Member.

I hope that serious consideration will be given to a programme of induction. We should set aside time to give new Members the kind of training that is given in the Congress. It is not right that parties should worry about whether that would make their Members less useful. They would just be better at their job.

Mr. Shepherd: That is why the Modernisation Committee argued for a greater gap between an election and the convening of Parliament, to allow that process. In the United States there is a period of two months in which to organise such a programme, whereas we can be sworn in and sitting as Members of Parliament 12 days after an election.

Michael Connarty: I have every confidence that the Leader of the House, whom I have known for a long time, will have listened to that and will, hopefully, think about it in the run-up to an election, whenever it is called.

Sir Peter Soulsby: Does my hon. Friend accept that a powerful case was made in Committee that it is not just a matter of the initial induction? Those of us who are comparatively new Members experienced quite a lot in a very short time. Some of us remarked, “Too much, too soon.” There should be continuing development and continuing opportunities for Members to understand the business of the House and the ways in which they can usefully contribute to it, and to develop their skills, not just during that initial, very busy period.

Michael Connarty: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I know that he came from a distinguished career in local government in a much bigger authority than I was ever involved in, and he will have experienced the sudden vacuum of support and, at times, confusion that was described earlier.

All the interventions are relevant, but I shall return to my own topic. The European Scrutiny Committee received a letter from the Deputy Leader of the House about our request. It will be noted by Members that on 8 October I raised the matter, after the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) raised the topic of the European Standing Committees not being collapsed once again. We then wrote to the Leader of the House. I know that she has been slightly indisposed, and I am glad that she is looking hale and hearty today on the Front Bench. I hope that her good health continues.

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We received a letter from the Deputy Leader of the House, which stated that

That is entirely wrong. What would happen is that we would revert to Standing Order No. 119, which is quite clear. It states that there will be three Standing Committees, each having 13 permanent members, and that any Member of the House may attend and speak at a European Standing Committee, which is still the case.

With regard to openness, although we might not meet in public, it is the right of any Member of the House to request to attend our Select Committee as an observer, and the Deputy Leader of the House took advantage of that provision this week. Any Member can come and watch the business that we are transacting. It is not a secret from the House, but the information given by the officials is privileged and that should not be breached by its being given to the public. That is why when we print the chapters of our report each week, we put in the explanatory memorandum in full, but we do not put in the advice given by the officials to our Committee. That is right and proper and allows us to do our business correctly.

To stress what we have lost over the past two years, I point out that we had three Committees. European Standing Committee A dealt with Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Transport, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Forestry Commission, and analogous responsibilities of the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland Offices. European Standing Committee B dealt with the Treasury, including Customs and Excise, Work and Pensions, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, International Development, Home Office, Department for Constitutional Affairs, including those responsibilities of the Scotland and Wales Offices that fall to European Standing Committee A, together with any matters not otherwise allocated. European Standing Committee C dealt with Trade and Industry, Employment and Skills, Culture, Media and Sport, and Health.

I have been out speaking to voluntary organisations throughout the country, who say, “Who do we speak to if some matter is coming through your Committee?” They cannot speak to members of the European Scrutiny Committee because we are not charged with the responsibility of discussing the merits of any proposal coming from Europe. We are charged with the responsibility of deciding whether something is politically and economically important. If it is considered important enough, after correspondence and evidence taking with Ministers, and we wish the House to be given the right to debate it, we request that it be considered on the Floor of the House or in a Standing Committee. We spoke earlier about the difficulties in getting Select Committee reports debated on the Floor of the House, and we respect the fact that this is a crowded period and a crowded agenda; indeed, the agenda will be even more crowded when we make room for topical issues. The Standing Committees are therefore vital. If they have a permanent membership, they will be the place where business, the voluntary sector or civic society can find a membership that is available to write to and can give information and try
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to influence their perspective, after which it is to be hoped that the merits of the issue would be discussed in the Standing Committees.

Mr. Redwood: Is not the big problem with scrutiny of European matters in this House the fact that the emphasis is on scrutinising measures after they have been agreed in Brussels, when one can deal only with minor details of the transposition from Brussels directive to British law? What the House really wants is a proper debate prior to the making of the agreement, with a view to influencing the Minister, who may be able to influence partners in Brussels.

Michael Connarty: I am amazed. I have great respect for the right hon. Gentleman, but he is entirely wrong. A Minister cannot go to a Council and agree a proposal until it is out of scrutiny, and it will not be out of scrutiny until it has been debated. The reality is that the more effective we are in persuading our Ministers to respect that scrutiny, the more we will have a substantive debate in the Standing Committees.

Mrs. May rose—

Michael Connarty: I think that I can anticipate what the shadow Leader of the House will say.

Mrs. May: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is being generous in taking interventions.

The hon. Gentleman will know as well as I do that there are numerous occasions on which Ministers do not observe that scrutiny reserve, but go to Brussels and take decisions before coming to the Scrutiny Committee with excuses as to why they were unable to meet it before they went to Brussels. My proposal to put the scrutiny reserve on a statutory basis would mean that they were unable to do that.

Michael Connarty: There have been many occasions in the past on which such things have happened. I can think of one Home Office Minister who behaved in such a way nine times in succession, but they were out of office very quickly. I do not know whether they left office for other reasons in their profile, or because they were taken to task and could not defend themselves before the Committee when we called for evidence from the Minister involved. The situation is improving, and it has improved year on year. I do not think that there are now many cases in which a Minister breaks the scrutiny reserve, apart from on a technical problem in respect of which there is an advantage to the UK in agreeing to a proposal, because holding it up would mean that it could not succeed in advancing its position correctly. I do not think that many people give anything away in the European Councils. One of my colleagues approached me recently to say that we needed to discuss many emerging issues on which it has been necessary to say again and again, “We cannot agree this because there is a scrutiny reserve on this matter in our House.”

I think that we have a good system. People often plead in favour of the Danish system. That system is so rigid that the Danish have found many strategies to get around it. Again and again, we have found that the Danish will persuade others to move on a matter requiring a qualified majority vote so that they can get the proposal through and then say, “It wasn’t us who
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did it; it was someone else. We held our line, but it went through.” Such a process can become a transparent sham, and we must not adopt such a rigid system. We have a persuasive process, and it can be beneficial as long as the people in the Ministries and the Cabinet Office enforce it strongly.

I was trying to say how we collapsed the Committees because we could not report on the Modernisation Committee report. That was the wrong thing to do, because we have had two years of vacuum in which Members have been put on to the Committee on a random basis. I am told by a former Whip that it was called sharing the pain, instead of doing what they should have been doing, putting people on to the Committee to learn their trade—to learn how to do the job properly in relation to Europe and to understand how Europe works and what are regulations, directives and framework decisions. The issue is more imperative than ever, given that it looks as if the reform treaty will go through. It will shift the balance immensely, so we need to be much more aware—particularly of how to deal with the subsidiarity question, the yellow card and the orange card. People may be dragooned by the Whips, but if they do not understand, they will not be acting as parliamentarians on behalf of this Chamber.

John Bercow: On the principle that membership of the hon. Gentleman’s Committee and others should be an opportunity not a punishment, does he agree that it is high time that we elected members of Select Committees?

Michael Connarty: I shall leave that hanging on the vine; it is of another vintage altogether.

On the process that we are going through, we made some great suggestions and the Modernisation Committee responded well to some of them. I thank the Leader of the House and all her predecessors who have tried to deal with the issue; we have had many behind-the-scenes discussions in which there has been good will in respect of advancing and getting things right. We could do that if we had the will of the House to carry it forward. Three months is not such a short time, given that we are so near a conclusion. I would have been more radical; in fact, our Committee made a more radical suggestion to the Modernisation Committee than the one being progressed.

Given the proliferation of other Select Committees mentioned in the report, it might be time to reduce the number of their members; that might make them much more focused and specific. We have always asked for five Standing Committees, to give a much more focused agenda; with five, there would be fewer sittings for each member and therefore less of a time burden on them, and there would be a more specific interest and knowledge base than at the moment.

However, we are almost there. I thank the Leader of the House for accepting our amendment and hope that by the time the issue comes back to the House in three months’ time, there will be something that we can all support.

2.41 pm

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I shall start by dealing with the matters mentioned by the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty). I thank him for his work and that of his Committee. I support his and his
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colleagues’ amendment, which the Leader of the House has accepted. I hope that we shall be able to accommodate the changes in the suggested period; I share his view that that should be possible.

I also agree that now might be the time to look again at how we formulate our Select Committees. I absolutely take the view that they should be elected by this place in a democratic process, but that they should probably be smaller. There should be fewer Members on them, but those Members should view their role as a key function of their work. The corollary is that Select Committee reports should have a prompt and automatic slot for consideration.

I understand the Leader of the House’s response—there is a debate to be had on how to maximise the usefulness of Select Committee work. To me, it seems better that the report should be discussed more widely among parliamentarians before the Government formulate their final view; to put it bluntly, once the Government have a view, it is more difficult to shift it, for reasons that we all know about. The Leader of the House said that it might be better for the Government to formulate their view so that it could then be debated. I am fairly neutral on that; it is a discussion that we need to have.

I am clear, however, that we need smaller Select Committees, although they should still be representative. One reason they have been big has been party political representation; clearly, they should still be representative of the House and political opinion. If they were elected by the House, we would take a much more effective step from the Norman St. John-Stevas proposals of the late 70s; we would really have a Parliament in which Select Committees played their full part.

John Bercow: Is the hon. Gentleman similarly agnostic on whether debates on Select Committee reports should always be held in Westminster Hall? Might not some provision be made for those debates to be held on the Floor of the House? I have said to the right hon. Members for Neath (Mr. Hain), for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon) and for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) that it is most unsatisfactory that year after year we have Adjournment debates on defence in the UK, defence in the world or Wales, simply because the Government have no other business to debate in the Chamber. Why not debate an important Select Committee report on the Floor of the House?

Simon Hughes: I am not agnostic on that question; I share the hon. Gentleman’s view. When Select Committee reports are concluded there should be a review, probably monthly, whereby one sorts the sheep from the goats—the big issues from the smaller issues—and ensures that they are all debated. The debates on the large, important issues should be brought here, and the others should go to Westminster Hall. Sometimes, two or three reports could be debated on the same day, where appropriate. However, it was nonsensical that the other day we debated eight or nine Public Accounts Committee reports on subjects ranging from the financing of the Olympic games to NHS IT contracts. All the issues were debated, but rather hidden away in terms of the agenda.

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I would not argue against having a calendar so that people here and outside know when the key debates on certain issues are to be held. It was absurd that we had the statement on the pre-Budget report and the comprehensive spending review proposals but no debate afterwards, as happens with the Queen’s Speech and the Budget. There were questions to the Chancellor, and that was it, yet we were discussing the Government’s spending plans for the next three years. That should be debated and approved—there should be a vote at the end, as there is on the Budget, with the ability to amend it.

We rightly have annual debates on the armed services divided between the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force and the Army, but there are other matters that we should debate annually. There should be an annual debate on Welsh affairs, Scottish affairs and Northern Irish affairs, but that does not mean that there should not also be much more specific debates. I share the implied criticism of the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) that we have a nonsensical system whereby the Government are sometimes scrabbling around for business when there are so many important, substantive and hard-edged subjects that should come before the House.

That is not meant to be a blast across the bows of the incoming Leader of the House, because she knows, I hope—I have already said it on many occasions since she has been in post and repeat it publicly—that I welcome her modernising tendencies and instincts in these areas. I am new in this post, as she is in hers, so this is my first opportunity to tackle this broad subject and pick up the matters that are on the agenda. I shall do so briefly, because people are keen that we do not overindulge ourselves.

Let me, like the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), put the principles on the table, because they must govern our response. For me, we need a stronger Parliament. I have heard many Ministers, including the Leader of the House, say that. The balance between the Executive and the legislature has gone wrong, and we have ended up with Parliament that has far too little say. The implication is that we have to reorder what we do and the balance between Government and Parliament. We will never get that right, or as right as we are able to, unless we have a representative Parliament. Parliament is not yet representative in two fundamental ways: it is not representative in terms of gender balance, as the Lord Chancellor said today, or in terms of ethnic mix. That diminishes our opportunity to be a forum for the nation. Moreover, it is not politically representative because of our electoral system. I am confident that that will change. That does not mean that I am an unqualified supporter of going straight to a multi-member-seat solution—that would not get through this place, in my view—but we could have a representative Parliament without endorsing a system that loses the important link with constituencies. Roy Jenkins came up with such a proposal.

Today, we have discussed—the Leader of the House and the Lord Chancellor referred to it—how we ensure, as we must, that people participate more in democracy by being on the electoral roll and wanting to engage by voting; and their vote must not be discounted, as far too many were in Scotland.

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We also need a much more participative Parliament. The fact that on so many occasions so few Members are here is not a tribute to a good system. There are some good points in the modernisation proposals that will address that. With shorter debates of 90 minutes on topical subjects, with shorter speeches, and with Members knowing that they are likely to be called, more Members will attend. Topical debates and questions will bring more Members into the Chamber. I commend many of the Committee’s proposals. I am referred to on the Order Paper today as someone who has been nominated as a member of the Committee, on which I have not served before. I will be very happy to take part in its work— [ Laughter. ] I will be happy to do so if that is the will of the House.

I pay tribute to ideas for which I can take no responsibility or claim no credit. There are some very good ones, and I am sure that they will increase activity in the Chamber and Westminster Hall. Therefore, I and my colleagues accept the proposals; they are a positive way forward.

Mr. Redwood: Why does the hon. Gentleman think that, in the last election, more than twice as many people did not vote as voted Labour, and more than three times as many people did not vote as voted Liberal Democrat? Given that we know that PR elections lower turnout, what would he do about voters who do not like any political party?

Simon Hughes: I will be careful not to go off piste, as it were, into a debate about electoral reform, because I was trying to put my remarks in the context of what happens in this place. One of the things that lead people not to vote is that we often hold elections for different things on the same day.

Ms Harman: That increases turnout.

Simon Hughes: But in the end it means that people do not know the difference between different tiers of government and what they do. They become less well informed and vote for the wrong reasons.

We are in a country where people think that voting does not change anything because they feel that Government, once in office, do not listen, that Parliament rarely defeats the Government and that people are too subject to the Whips once here. As a Front Bencher, I say that it should be perfectly acceptable for the Government to be defeated on something. Unless it is a major issue of the Budget or a key proposal in the Queen’s Speech, that should be a normal part of the course of events.

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