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10.54 pm

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk) (Con): I rise to speak to amendment (a) in my name, but as there seems to be a larger than usual number of hon. Members in the House at 10.54 pm, I wish to make it clear to any who are not here for the purpose of speaking that I have no intention of pressing my amendment to a vote. I am happy to give that guidance. Members who venture outside will apparently encounter snow, which is proof that we are talking not about global warming, but about climate change.

I warmly welcome the establishment of the new Department and I congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff), I am grateful to him for remaining to listen to the debate. The shadow Secretary of State is also in his place.

I understand the logic of responding to the creation of a new Department by the establishment of a new Select Committee. That preserves the symmetry with
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which the House scrutinises departmental work, but the pragmatic response might have been, and there were suggestions that this could have been done, with only 19 months to go before a general election, to ask the Environmental Audit Committee to take on the role of scrutinising the new Department.

However, the Government have decided differently and I wish the new Select Committee well. Once it is up and running, I and my colleagues on the Environmental Audit Committee will, I am sure, co-operate happily with the Chairman and its members when they have been chosen. We have plenty of experience of working with other Committees in our present function, and I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire and my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), with whom I have worked particularly closely in the past three years.

I shall make three brief points. The first is to emphasise what the Minister said in his remarks and the intervention from my colleague, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley). I was going to call her my hon. Friend, as we seem to work so closely together. Climate change issues are, by their nature, cross-cutting issues. Tackling climate change involves tax policy, transport policy, business policy, energy policy—a range of policies. For that reason, the Environmental Audit Committee, with its cross-departmental role, is especially well placed and equipped to consider climate change issues. I am grateful for the tribute that the Deputy Leader of the House paid to the work that my Committee has done over the years. I am well served by members from all sides on the Committee who have considerable expertise.

On certain aspects of climate change, it is clearly true that we are better able to exercise a scrutiny function than a Committee that is confined to a single Department. It was a Labour Government commitment that led to the establishment of the EAC in 1997. Its cross-departmental role is enshrined in Standing Order 152A. The logical interpretation of that role at the start of this Parliament, before I became the Chairman, was to focus on climate change and related issues as the main theme for the current Parliament, and that has been reflected in the expertise of the members, the Clerk and the staff of the Committee.

My second point is that we already have, as a Committee, like any Select Committee, a forward programme of work in hand and already announced, for which the National Audit Office, to which I also pay tribute, has done preparatory work. There is often quite a long lead time—six or nine months or even a year—when the NAO will undertake research at our request, do that study, deliver it to us and publish it before we commence our inquiry. We do not want to be suddenly blown off course in our work because a new Committee has been established.

We already have an inquiry under way into shipping, which will be followed by one on forestry. We will conduct our annual examination of the pre-Budget report and we are committed to an inquiry next year into emissions trading at a time when, I hope, the United States will have a system coming on to the statute book. We want to revisit the work that we did last year on the EU emissions trading scheme. Those are all inquiries that we intend to press on with and they will involve taking evidence from Treasury Ministers, Transport Ministers and Ministers in the Department
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for International Development and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, as well as the Secretary of State for the new Department, I hope.

My third point is a practical concern and reflects the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire, who is right. Haste in setting up the new Committee will not serve its purposes well and will not help the establishment of a co-operative relationship with other Committees. It would be prudent to wait until the start of a new calendar year.

My own amendment addresses my concern about the size of Select Committees, a point already well covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire. I shall not repeat his arguments, but I should say that it is easier to chair a Committee of 11 rather than 16, which is the number of members that my Committee has; it is also easier for members of smaller Committees to make satisfying contributions. I think that the Committee of Selection will struggle at this stage of the Parliament to find 14 keen Members eager to take on the work of a new Select Committee; it will struggle even to find 11 of them. I have no doubt that the Committee of Selection will put forward 11 names, but how regularly some of those Members will attend remains to be seen.

Some months ago, I approached the Leader of the House with a request to reduce the size of the Environmental Audit Committee from 16 to 11. My approach was rebuffed, but I shall be happy to revisit the issue if I am given any encouragement to do so. There are 11 very active members of my Committee and several passengers who would be relieved if they were no longer required to carry out the duties of a Select Committee member.

Let me conclude by simply saying that the Environmental Audit Committee has played a valuable role since its establishment 11 years ago. I believe that it can continue to do so, even with another Committee alongside it that scrutinises the work of the Department of Energy and Climate Change. The members of my Committee feel strongly that they would like to continue doing our work. I am confident that if we are given the opportunity, we will work constructively and positively in co-operation with the members of the new Committee, although it would be easier to do so if the Government accepted the two amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire and me.

11.1 pm

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) said that he would not press amendment (a) to a Division, and I have taken some consolation from that. However, given that a number of arguments have been made, it is important that I should deal with a few points.

I do not speak with experience of being a member of a Select Committee and there are many Members in the same position who would be interested in serving on a number of Select Committees. When a new Department is created, it is right that the House should move reasonably quickly to set up a Select Committee to scrutinise its work—and, at that formative stage, to assist it in its thinking about policy development and its relations within Government and with Parliament at large. A Select Committee formed early has a better chance of having a formative impact on the Department than one formed some time into next year, say, simply for the convenience of existing Select Committees.

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An argument has been made about the possible overlap between the Environmental Audit Committee and the new Committee, but as the hon. Member for South Suffolk said, the Environmental Audit Committee’s work ranges across many Committees, as any audit committee does. Its work ranges across a wide range of Departments and will often intersect with the interests of other Committees. That is why we need a good, sensible parliamentary highway code to make sure that those intersections do not result in serious clashes, accidents or undue stand-offs as to who goes where.

Perhaps we can deal with some of the arguments raised by hon. Members against the motion in the name of the Leader of the House by revisiting the number of members of the Environmental Audit Committee, especially given the existence of the new Committee. There is a case for reducing the size of the Environmental Audit Committee and a number of its members might want to switch to the new Committee, given their experience.

An argument has been made that we should wait until the new year because of the work of existing Committees. Perhaps those Committees should be allowed to continue some of their work and then hand it over in a better, more complete and more definitive state to the new Committee, which might be in a better position to receive it, having been on its own learning curve vis- -vis the new Department and the new Ministers.

This does not need to be a debate about the Department in principle; all parties have expressed a positive view. The Committee should be formed sooner rather than later given the importance of the issues that the new Department is dealing with—the complex and moving issue of fuel poverty at a time of economic challenge, and the serious matter of initiating energy strategy on energy generation for the future, particularly in the context of environmental requirements on climate change and the various international obligations, including the new targets and treaties being negotiated at the end of next year. However, arrangements can surely be made to continue with the good work of other Committees without creating serious difficulties or disruption.

Several Members, including the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) and the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), observed that it is hard for Committees that have been doing good work on a particular issue and have developed it to a particular stage suddenly to lose it because of a change in Government. The same thing happens to Ministers and to Departments—that is the way of Government, and Parliament needs to respond. Whatever issues we might have about how the machinery of government is changed, Parliament needs to be flexible and adept in responding in a practical and straightforward way. If each time a new Department is created there is confusion about whether we have a Select Committee and we then end up with different breeds of Department, some of which have Committees and some of which do not—

Peter Luff: It is a bit different for Parliament than for Departments. When a new Department is set up, the civil servants simply transfer to it. For Parliament, rather different issues are involved in terms of the staffing of Committees. It is much more complex for us, with our smaller and more limited resources, to respond in that flexible way, and much easier for Departments.

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Mark Durkan: I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. However, that is one of the reasons I suggested that if we go ahead and set up this Committee, the existing Committees—not only their members but their expert personnel—can continue to do their good work. That might allow time for parliamentary channels to review what the new Committee needs in the way of support personnel as it begins its work. Setting up the new Committee need not necessarily bring to an abrupt end the existing work of other Committees. That can continue into the new year and sensible handovers can then take place. Surely we can be practical and realistic about that.

This Department has been formed in a new context and is working on several significant challenges right across the policy range—social policy on fuel poverty and economic and enterprise policy in relation to the significance of energy policy to business and to the broader economy. There are also international and diplomatic dimensions to the quest for international standards in respect of environmental regulation and climate change. The new Department has a big task, and it may do no harm to make the Committee a bit bigger rather than a bit smaller. That would allow for a broader spread across the parties and, as suggested by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), for a broader geographic spread. Whether parties are big or small, the issues under discussion present different challenges in different regions. We have to take account not only of the interests of all the various Whitehall Departments but the many and varied Departments at a devolved level, as well as local government interests throughout the UK.

At this stage of the Parliament, it would perhaps be more appropriate to form a Committee of 14 rather than 11. If people say that that would involve an over-commitment of Members to Committees, then there might be a case for looking at the size of the Committee but not its role. It has been set up with a very distinct purpose that should range across environmental practices and targets in relation to all Government responsibilities and Departments. That needs to be respected and protected in the context of this debate and beyond it.

11.9 pm

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): I am delighted to follow the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour party, who made a very convincing case about the impact of amendment (a), which would reduce the size of this important Committee from 14 to 11. I am pleased that it is unlikely to be pressed to a vote, but for the record it would be helpful to make a number of points that have not been made so far.

At the outset, I have to say that I have no doubt that in tabling their amendments the hon. Members for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) and for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) did not intend to exclude parties from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales but, as I will outline, that would be the direct consequence of automatically reducing the number from 14 to 11, and I shall explain why in a moment.

The Deputy Leader of the House was right to remind us all of the “integral and vital part”—to use his words—that these Committees play. They oversee expenditure, the work of Departments and, in the case
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of energy and climate change, matters of supreme importance. The leader of the SDLP raised the point for the first time in this debate that many of the matters considered are devolved. There is shared sovereignty between Administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, and the Ministers who hold portfolio responsibilities for this issue are not from UK-wide parties. In the case of the Welsh Assembly Government, colleagues from Plaid Cymru have responsibility for it; in the Scottish Government, colleagues from the SNP have that responsibility; and in Northern Ireland, a number of colleagues have it, not least the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) who has the environmental responsibility in the Northern Ireland Assembly Government. If a Committee is going to look regularly at areas of policy where there is shared sovereignty, would it not make sense to ensure that there was permanent representation on the Committee that could feed that experience into the deliberations?

I turn now to the issue of guaranteed places. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire rightly praised the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) to the Committee on which he sits, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that that place is not guaranteed. The minority parties do not have guaranteed places on departmental Select Committees because they have a membership of 11; the formula that is used sometimes may—just may—afford minority party Members or independents a place on those Committees. It is worth reminding the House that there is not a single Member of parties from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland on the Committees for Children, Schools and Families, Communities and Local Government, Defence, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs, International Development, Justice, Treasury or Work and Pensions. I wish to see that changed, but that is not a matter for discussion this evening.

We have a proposal before us, which I hope will not be pressed and which I hope the Government will not accept, that the Committee should have only 11 members. The result would then be down to the good will of the usual channels. No doubt colleagues who are part of the usual channels would work hard to include the views of Members of all parties, but I am sure that they would concede in private, if not in public, that as the arrangements currently stand, there is no guarantee of minority party representation on Committees with a membership of 11. For that reason, I am pleased that we have colleagues from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales in high attendance, because we wish colleagues from the UK-wide parties to be aware how strongly we feel about the matter. The House authorities will not find it difficult to find volunteers from our parties to serve on the Committee. Hopefully, the UK-wide parties can do likewise when it sits as a Committee of 14, should the Government’s sensible proposal proceed.

11.14 pm

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): The representatives of the smaller parties have made several valid points and I support the comments that the Chairmen of the two Select Committees made. I especially want to reiterate the argument presented by the Chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee, of which I am a member.

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In his opening remarks, the Deputy Leader of the House recognised the Environmental Audit Committee’s contribution to the scrutiny of climate change in recent years. Indeed, in the current Parliament, we have made it the main focus of our activities. It is generally agreed that the overwhelming majority of Select Committee reports about climate change that the House has produced in recent years came from the Environmental Audit Committee. The Committee has not only a track record but a forward programme of inquiries on the theme of climate change. I therefore believe that there is a strong case for deferring the new arrangements and granting some time to assess how the proposal will work.

The debate has another dimension, which has not yet been mentioned. We have at best an anomaly and at worst a conflict of interest between the role of the Environmental Audit Committee and that of the new Energy and Climate Change Committee. We have so far examined the problem from the perspective of the Environmental Audit Committee’s cross-departmental scrutiny role, but I want to examine the problem from a different perspective.

The new Department will have a new, cross-departmental role, which the Department that has been subsumed did not perform. That is precisely because of the Climate Change Bill, which we passed this evening. The work of the Department of Energy and Climate Change will be cross-departmental in a way that we have not previously experienced. Its impact and reach will affect the Treasury, the Department for Transport, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I therefore believe that there will be an extra complication because the new departmental Select Committee will, if it tracks and scrutinises the work of its Department, take on a cross-departmental role, which will bring it into conflict with the work of the Environmental Audit Committee.

Joan Walley: The Government must pay attention to the need for the new Department to be cross-cutting, if it is truly to take on board all the issues to do with climate change. That should be reflected in not only the make-up of the Department but the scrutiny that Parliament gives it.

Mr. Chaytor: I am grateful for those comments. The conclusion that I draw from the anomaly is that, while the fact that existing Select Committees have a forward programme of work in place supports the case for making no change until 1 January, we also need to review the terms of reference of all the affected Select Committees. The Deputy Leader of the House said that he wanted to review the arrangements. I hope that he will accept that, before any change is made, we need a thorough review of the terms of reference of each of the Committees that will be affected.

11.18 pm

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