Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-122)


21 MARCH 2007

  Q120  Sir Nicholas Winterton: It is important to say, if Peter Bone was implying that the election of the chairman of a select committee is a matter for the usual channels, they may express a view but it is actually up to the committee itself to elect its chairman.

  Mr Bone: I did try to phrase that correctly, Sir Nicholas, because I said the "effective" appointment. What happens is that it is a nudge and a wink. You have the committee and there is one obvious person who is going to be the chairman. However, I do think that there are occasions where—for instance, if a select committee chairman has been awkward to the Government there is a tendency for the Government to try and remove that chairman on occasions.

  Sir Nicholas Winterton: They have succeeded on occasions! They also failed to prevent him being appointed in the first place—but we will not go into that.

  Q121  Mr Sanders: We have spoken a great deal on this Committee about scrutiny. Do you have any idea of whether there was ever a golden age when there really was this scrutiny role being exercised by Members of Parliament, who were attending all the time in the Chamber?

  Jo Swinson: I doubt it. We always like to look back and the grass is greener in the past. Let us remember that, very often in the past, Members of Parliament had other full-time jobs. If that was the case, how could they have been as effective at scrutiny as we think they might have been? There may well have been changes in the past 20 years and things are done differently, but change is not always a bad thing. It does not mean that we should not look at the reasons for that and whether we need to address it, but I am not sure that there was a golden age.

  Mr Bone: Can I say this, and I should have said it right at the beginning? It is an extraordinary privilege and honour to be a Member of Parliament. Every time I walk through the gates there is a huge privilege that is given to me, and I think that most Members probably still feel that way. However, in the context of scrutiny, it is very frustrating when an Oral Question is put to a minister, who then blatantly does not even attempt to answer it. Recently in the Chamber, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome put a question. It was a simple question about how many people were being laid off, or something like that. Actually, it was a health question, but the Secretary of State for Health did not even attempt to give the figures and went on to make some speech. That is an abuse of Parliament. Had the Leader of the House been here, I would have said quite the opposite about him because he always attempts to answer the question. There is a great disparity in scrutiny of how some ministers answer at the dispatch box. If the House could do something about that, it would be most welcome.

  Q122  Ms Butler: I have two quick questions, one of which is in regard to websites. We are kind of encouraging most MPs to acquire websites. Your explanation was slightly strange. The second one was timing. Did I hear you right, that you thought it was childish for us to be leaving at 10 p.m.?

  Mr Bone: On the website question, of course it is entirely up to individual Members whether they want websites, and we have allowances to do it. I am not against websites, and I may well have one. Childish to leave at 10 o'clock? I could have said childish to leave at six o'clock, whichever day we happen to be sitting. I do not think that a debate should be reduced by three hours because there have been two statements made at the choosing of the Government. They tend, surprisingly enough, Sir Nicholas, to be on Opposition Days.

  Sir Nicholas Winterton: May I thank both Peter Bone and Jo Swinson very much for the frank responses they have given to a whole range of questions? Every member of the Committee present today except Paul, who sadly arrived late—for good reason, but he has listened very closely—has participated. Your evidence will be fully considered by this Committee and I thank you again for coming.

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