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It is very important we plug the gap in a way that does not actually undermine the role of mainstream departmental select committees. Their policy oversight role must not be compromised by new committees, whatever form they take.
My fear is that their policy oversight role will be compromised. When the Father of the House, the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), was Chairman of the Liaison Committee, he added to that point by saying that,
what we are worried about is the problem of overlap, conflict for resources and priority of access to witnesses.
Experienced Members expressed serious doubts about the ability of regional Select Committees to operate in a way that would not damage work that the House is already doing. The Government and the Leader of the House should heed the warnings of those with experience in such matters.
Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): The right hon. Lady refers to some of the evidence that the Select Committee heard, but does she recall the considerable volume of evidence that called for the establishment of regional Select Committees, not least from the regional development agencies? They felt that they were not being held adequately to account and that regional Committees were needed for their good governance as much as for our scrutiny of their work.
Mrs. May: Evidence from the regional development agencies was not universally in one direction about the sort of body that should be established. They identified a problem of regional accountability, but not all said that regional Committees were the answer. The hon. Gentleman, who sat on the Modernisation Committee and heard the evidence, may cite the regional development agencies, but Members with experience of the operation of Select Committees cast genuine doubt on the ability of regional Select Committees, albeit meeting only a few times a year, to conduct their business in a way that did the job that the Government claim they could do.
Mrs. May: I should like to make a little more progress because I am conscious of the time, and I do not want to sit down before I have made a point about the strain that regional Select Committees will put on the House. That is important. There is already difficulty in finding people to fill existing Committee posts, yet we propose the creation of 72 new posts. Problems with filling vacancies will not be helped by the proposal. Indeed, there is a danger that the Committees could find themselves in the farcical position of not having enough members or being inquorate, and that would have an impact on witnesses and perceptions of the House.
We also need to consider the Houses resources. The Management Board has made it clear that there would need to be new staff. Existing Clerks could take up some of the work load, but many new staff would need to be recruited, hired, trained and so on.
That brings me to cost. We are told that the annual running costs of the Committees could amount to just
over £1 million. I suspect that it would be considerably higher. Together with the outlay on regional Grand Committees, which the Government also propose, the bill will fast approach £1.5 million if not £2 million a year. That money could be rather better spent.
To plug the regional accountability gap, we need go no further than setting up regional Grand Committees, which would give every Member in a region the opportunity to make their views known about what was being done by bodies in their region. Every part of a region would be represented, and we would avoid the position that could arise with the regional Select Committees, whereby people from outside the region may be included to maintain the Governments majority. The Grand Committees would not need to meet so often, and their running costs would be significantly lower than those of the regional Select Committees.
Let me consider the amendments that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) tabled. Select Committees should comprise Members, not members of local authorities co-opted on to them. If the hon. Gentleman pressed that, I would support him. I also support amendment (a) about Chairmens pay. It is proposed to pay them in the same way as the Chairmen of other Select Committees, which would meet much more frequently and have a far greater work load. The House should reject that.
Mr. Curry: Is it not slightly curious that Members of the European Parliament, who have, by definition, a regional mandate and deal with many issues that are relevant to the regions, are not among those who could be co-opted on to a regional Select Committee?
Regional Select Committees would duplicate the work of existing Committees and risk disrupting the work of departmental Select Committees. They would duplicate the scrutiny work that already takes place in the regions, significantly increase the demands on House resources and place a greater burden on Members time, taking more Members away from the Chamber. They are not the collective wish of the Modernisation Committee. The Government are introducing them for their own ends, not in the Houses interest, and the House should reject them.
Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab): I greatly welcome the proposal to introduce regional Select Committees for two simple reasons: they will plug a clear gap in accountability and oversight, and they will help Members of Parliament in the regions to serve our constituents more effectively.
Many issues come to us as regional Members of Parliament that we cannot easily tackle at a regional level. If issues that are unique to our constituencies arise, that is finewe have easy access to the public authorities that deal with them. If national issues arise in our constituencies, we can raise them here. However, many issues are regional, and we do not have the means through Parliament, or our role as Members of Parliament, to hold regional organisations to account.
Members of Parliament are not the only ones to want access to regional organisations; many regional organisations want the opportunity to meet regional Members of Parliament and would welcome the introduction of regional Select Committees. They cannot bring together Members of Parliament from the regions, but a forum such as that the one the proposal envisages would provide an opportunity to do that.
Cross-departmental co-ordination is essential. The Government are therefore right to appoint regional Ministers, but, to complete the circle of accountability, those Ministers should also appear before regional Select Committees.
A considerable gap exists. The regional authorities in the west midlands spend tens of billions of pounds. Parliament could spend a small amount of money to help secure proper accountability for a vast amount of public spending. The structure of who does what in the regions can be difficult for Members of Parliament to navigate. Parliamentary oversight might help achieve greater co-ordination between the different organisations that work in the regions, and even some rationalisation.
Mr. Harper: If the organisations in a region are keen to be scrutinised in the way in which the proposal suggests, perhaps we should consider whether asking poachers what sort of gamekeeper they would like to monitor them is a good idea. If regional organisations are so keen on regional Select Committees, its is perhaps because they do not believe that those committees will scrutinise them and hold them to account effectively.
Mr. Plaskitt: The hon. Gentleman underestimates the ability of parliamentary Select Committees to get to grips with an issue. Experience shows that they are adept at getting to the heart of issues, and he should not underestimate their abilities.
If we take the main players in the west midlands as a case in point, we will see the scale of the gap that this proposal seeks to plug. Advantage West Midlands has a £300 million pound budget, and is running 2,500 projects. It recently launched the west midlands economic strategy, which will run until 2011 and is designed to plug a £10 billion output gap in the region. Why should not the regions MPs be involved in the oversight and delivery of that strategy, which is critically important to our constituents? It involves skills, enterprise, innovation, transport and economic inclusion issues, which are not easy to grasp in a group, other than through the creation of these Committees.
There are six sub-regional regeneration zones, with 19 different organisations involved. We need a regional Select Committee to give us, the regions MPs, the chance to get to grips with that array of bodies. The Government office for the west midlands joins 10 different Departments in the region and grapples with major issues of planning and transport, and the regions MPs
need better oversight of it. The learning and skills council for the west midlands has a large budget and a strategy involving employers, young people, adults, colleges and providers. The council also addresses 12 sector skills areas that are also of critical importance to the businesses in the region and another reason why we need the ability to scrutinise it. Incidentally, the learning and skills council has six local offices, each with an economic development team.
All other aspects of regional structure are in place. Local government has its regional assembly. The MEPs, as has been mentioned, have a regional role defined by their constituencies. The Departments have the Government office for the west midlands, and Ministers have an oversight within the region. Parliament is the missing bit of the jigsaw, but it should be holding all the others to account. That is what we must put right, in the interests of ensuring proper parliamentary accountability of the Executive in all their manifestations. We must do that in the interests of better helping us to represent our constituents and, in the interests of making our region and all those working in it, operate for the benefit of the people whom we represent in this Parliament.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): This is an important debate, which is why it is a disgrace that we have only an hour and a half for it. Many Members will not have the say that they want to have, and should have. I ask the House to accept amendments (b) and (c) to motion 4, and amendment (c) to motion 7, tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends.
The Government are in their present difficulties because they have never properly grasped the need to address devolution in England. They honourably and rightlyif eventually and under pressurerealised that devolution was necessary for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. I note that devolution to those places gave them proportional representation for their Parliaments and Assemblies, so that they are representative of the people whom they represent. London also has a degree of devolution, introduced by this Government, that is representative of the people of London and provides an element of accountability. But this Government have never understood the need for devolution in England. Until they understand that, they will not command the necessary support in this House for their proposals.
There are different views about how to achieve that devolution for England. Some of my colleagues would prefer a form of regional government, but that was triedand clearly did not succeedin the north-east. Some of us believe in an English Parliament, but that suggestion requires constitutional deliberation on how to complete devolution across the United Kingdom. In the absence of such structures, it is right to have a way of holding to account regional bodies, including the quangos and strategic bodies that are not held to account at present. The Government have further failed to grasp the central obligation that follows from thatthat those bodies should be held to account by representatives from each region who are chosen by the people of that region.
My party would argue that those representatives should reflect the votes in those regions, but in three regions the Government came second or third in share of the vote at the last general election. Even if we do not
win that argument, the Government should at least propose Select Committees that reflect the balance of political representation in each region, which differ hugely from each other. The Committees should also reflect the differences between the regions, but the Leader of the Houseas she confirmed earlier in an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath)has failed to accept that.
We propose that the same principle should apply thatit could be arguedcurrently applies to the Scottish and Welsh Committees. Scotland and Wales have a majority of Labour Members, and so do the Committees. Northern Ireland has never had the benefit of a fair system: there are nine MPs from the Democratic Unionist party and nine others, but that balance is not reflected on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.
It is now proposed that the Government should have a majority on the regional Committee for every one of the eight regions of England. At the last general election, the Government did not win the largest share of the vote in the east, south-east or south-west of England. Indeed, they came third in the south-east and the south-westregions with millions of people. The Government are trying to impose their majority in all of England, when they do not have a majority in every region. Worse, they are trying to fiddle the system so that they can bus in colleagues from other regions to make up their majority. They are insisting that the Grand Committees, made up of all the Members from every party, should have up to five other nominated members. Not content with corrupting the balance on the Select Committees, the Government also want to pervert the balance of the Grand Committees. The Leader of the House must understand that that is causing the greatest offence and suggests great disrespect to the people in many of the regions, some of whom already think that their region is an artificial creation or difficult to accept. They are being told that not only do they have to accept those artificially created regions, but that they will have imposed on them a Government majority, no matter how they have voted in the past.
Mr. Gummer: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Leader of the House is wrong to make a direct comparison with other Select Committees? They are subject-based and therefore properly represent the whole of the House of Commons. The new Committees would be regionally based and, therefore, should represent those who have an interest in that region.
Simon Hughes: The right hon. Gentleman is right. That is why we have also argued that the Chairmen of the new Committees should not be paid the same as the Chairmen of a UK-wide subject-based Committee. Eight new Committees are proposed, so we suggested that the Chairmen should be paid an eighth of what the other Chairmen are paid. If that is not accepted, we share the view of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) that, at least to start with, those posts should not be remunerated. Otherwise, we will just be accused of creating more jobs at public expense.
May I make a point to endorse what was said by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May)? We have 41 Select Committees. If we agree to this proposal, there will be 49. There will then be a Speakers Conference, with the same powers as a Select Committee, which
makes 50. There will be 72 more members of Select Committees as a result of such a decision being taken today, and more as a result of there being a Speakers Conference, which we are to appoint later.
At the moment, 159 colleagues serve on more than one Select Committee, eight serve on as many as four and I have to tell you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if you are not aware of it, that many Committees struggle to achieve an adequate attendance. It does the credibility of the House no good to have a small and sometimes inquorate number of colleagues on Committees sitting to take evidence from whomever we call. That is not good for our reputation and it is why we ask the Leader of the House, before adding another range of Select Committees to our armoury, to defer all these debates until we can review the workings of Select Committees generally.
Julia Goldsworthy: I remind my hon. Friend that we are looking at establishing regional Select Committees to replace the regional assemblies, which many people in my constituency considered far too remote, indirectly elected and unaccountable to the needs of their local area. Does he share my consternation in relation to how a regional Select Committee, which might contain Members who do not even represent part of the region concerned and which will have no direct democratic accountability, might be considered preferable by any of my constituents? I sincerely doubt that they will consider it satisfactory.
Simon Hughes: My hon. Friend and my hon. Friends from the south-west have the strongest reasons for objecting to the way this is going to work out. The south-west stretches from Tewkesbury in the north and Swindon in the east down to the Isles of Scilly. At the last election, Labour won 13 seats, we won 16 and Conservatives won 22, so Labour has the least number of seats, but it is now being proposed that, instead of the regional assembly, Labour colleagues will dominate a Committee representing an area of that size. By definition, that means that Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members cannot be chosen to represent Somerset, Cornwall, Devon, Gloucestershire and the other areasit cannot happen. The people of those regions and the organisations of those counties will look to a Select Committee to look after their interests, but that cannot be done because, as anyone in the House knows, the interests of Cornwall might be different from those of Gloucestershire.
Friends often make the point to me, which I think is correct, that the population of that region is bigger than that of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I believe that the area is bigger geographically than two of those three countries, and the distanceI am often remindedfrom Scilly to Bristol is greater than that from Bristol to Scotland. I hope that I am indicating that a common, one-size-fits-all answer is entirely inappropriate.
The regions are hugely different too. The north-east, which has 30 MPs, has fewer than half as many as the south-east, yet we are saying that the Committee must have the same structure, the same number of MPs involved and, yes, the same blessed Labour majority.
Sir Peter Soulsby: I thank my fellow member of the Modernisation Committee for giving way. Does he not accept that the strength and credibility of Select Committees are enormously enhanced by the fact that when they are critical of the Government, as they often are, either directly or indirectly, that happens despite them having a Government majority? [ Interruption. ] I am making a serious point. Does he not accept that if they are seen as being merely partisan, which they will be if they have majorities of the sort that he suggests, they will easily be dismissed by the Government in a most unfortunate way?
Simon Hughes: I have heard disingenuous arguments, but that is about the most disingenuous I have ever heard. No, I do not accept that for a moment. The worst thing is that, having set up this structure, which we support in principle, we will end up losing all credibility, because it will distort political representation. I will tell the hon. Gentleman what makes things worse. He will have read the reports; I have one here, written by Patrick Wintour in The Guardian of Tuesday this week. The headline is, Chief whip plans to punish rebellious Labour backbenchers, and the report states:
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