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The government was under fire last night after it emerged that the new chief whip, Nick Brown, is proposing that any Labour MP voting against the government in the past year will not be recommended to sit on all-party parliamentary select committees.
There are different views around the House as to whether that is a bribe or a punishment, but the point is that Select Committees should have the independence of mind to have on them the people who will form a view in the interests of those whom they represent. The Government are abusing that, first, by ensuring that there is a Government majority and, secondly, by then saying that they will put on the Select Committees, if they can find them, only people who will support the Government.
This is a very sad day: when we could have been working out togetherin good time and with consensusa way forward to achieve proper regional accountability, we have, in the end, the Government using the steamroller of their majority and the payroll vote.
I have a final postscript. I share the Leader of the Houses view that it is not appropriate to deal with London today, although that is the only issue on which we share common ground. London has some devolved government and the London assembly. It is therefore appropriate that London should be dealt with on a different occasion and in a different way.
Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
As for the rest, I hope that colleagues will vote for many of the amendments on the Order Paper. At least then we can rescue the Government from their mistakes. Otherwise, we will be completely abusing the opportunity that we have to provide decent regional accountability.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I have tabled three amendments. The first draws attention to the fact that there is an injunction, as it were, that the Committees should not meet very often. That is absurd. If I were serving on such a Committee, I would not be constrained by that requestor, rather, hopebut would want to stretch the envelope to the maximum to ensure that the Committee was at least of some value. The proposal is nonsense and shows that the idea has not been fully thought through. I will not divide the House on that amendment, but I mention it to highlight my other amendments. If I am right in my judgment that the envelope will not be stretched, why should we pay the Chairmen of those Committees the same as we pay the Chairmen of departmental Select Committees? The idea is simply bonkers.
In addition, there is the high payroll vote, which has already been referred toI discovered in 2005 that 144 hon. Members were not on the basic MPs pay, and the figure must be a lot higher now. I urge hon. Members to reflect on that, because it is very unhealthy to say the least. There is also the paradox of the Deputy Leader of the House, who is not paid a bean for his ministerial role, advocating that Chairmen should be paid. Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his salary for his friends. The growth of the payroll vote and the patronage that goes with it is very unhealthy.
I hope to divide the House on my amendment dealing with that issue, because, even if I am wrong in my judgment that those Chairmen should not be paid at all, if the House accepts my amendment, there can be a period of reflection. Perhaps they should be paid a per diem, but not on the same rate as the Chairs of the departmental Committees. I hope that I will take the House with me on that.
My second concern of substance is the provision in the proposed Standing Order that would allow a regional Committee to invite
specified elected councillors from the region in respect of which it is appointed...to attend and participate.
Have we no pride? I fought hard to get elected to this place. It was five general elections before I got elected. I am proud to be a Member of Parliament and my duties as a Member of Parliament are indivisible. Councillors jobs are very important, but we should not blur the issues by bringing the two together. I urge hon. Members to stand up for Parliament and be jealous of their rights and privileges.
Mr. Harper: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Privileges are important, because what happens under parliamentary privilege? I can be admonished by the House if I abuse parliamentary privilege. We are self-regulating. How can you deal with someone who is not a Member of this House, but who abuses parliamentary privilege, Mr. Deputy Speaker? Will we have a separate register of interests for these people? The idea has not been thought through, which is why I hope that we will reject it, if for no other reason than that.
When I was a young councillor, I would have been proud to serve on a parliamentary CommitteeI would have given my right hand to do sobut I was very partisan and saw it as my mission to get elected to this place. We can imagine the councillors coming in, taking on the Minister here and the official there, but that will diminish what I hope we try to do, which is to leave our party allegiances at the Committee Room door. I do not know whether there are any Scottish or Welsh Members in the Chamber, but if having elected councillors is good for me in Essex, I shall similarly be proposing that some people from Scottish local authorities and assemblies should serve on the Scottish Affairs Select Committee, too. What is being proposed really is mad, so I ask hon. Members to join me in the Lobby against those two proposals.
My final point is about Members of Parliament who are not from the region concerned serving on, say, the south-west regional Committee. I have asked myself, Could I possibly do this? In my judgment, I would have to be stark staring bonkers to go and serve on a Committee covering a region of which my constituency formed no part. Surely we are all busy. I must say that those who sign up will do so with full knowledge and consent, and will be subject to criticism by their electors. Their electors will ask: What the devil are you doing focusing on that region and not ours?
Earlier, one of the Whips muttered to me, What about Ireland? That is a different situation, because the question of Northern Ireland is demonstrably, because of its history, a United Kingdom matter. However, when people go from one region to another, they will be subject to criticism. They must remember that they have to agree under Standing Orders to serve on a Committee, so they cannot blame the Whips or hide behind them, or excuse themselves. They will have signed up, so they can be subject to criticism.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I now have to announce the result of the Division deferred from a previous day.
On the question relating to dangerous drugs, the Ayes were 430, the Noes were 54, so the Ayes have it.
[The Division List is published at the end of todays debates.]
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I rise to speak to amendment (a) to motion 7. I note that because of the guillotine motion, there are only 30 minutes for all Back Benchers to speak in this debate.
The amendment would abolish the Regional Affairs Committee. Colleagues could be excused for not knowing that there was one. Standing Orders require one to be established, but the Government have not done so in this Parliament. Week after week at meetings of the Committee of Selection, we wait for the Government to propose members of the Committee, yet nothing happens. The Government clearly must feel that the Committee serves no useful purpose, so I hope that they will accept the amendment.
The Regional Affairs Committee, to remind colleagues, was applauded when it was introduced. In 2000, the then Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), said:
We believe that such a forum will add usefully to the procedures of the House.[ Official Report, 11 April 2000; Vol. 367, c. 295.]
The Committee has been so useful that it has not met since April 2003, which indicates that it is a wholly dispensable part of our constitution. The amendment would simply put it out of its misery.
That is relevant to todays debate, because it shows that the Government have form in coming up with the wrong answer to the regional question. We told the Government eight years ago that it would not work. In a powerful speech, the then shadow Leader of the Housemesaid that the Government had come up with the wrong answer. That debate ended in the small hours of the morning of 12 April, which shows how long ago it was. We lost by 60 votes, which was a good result at the time. That proposal came from straight from the Government; it was not even laundered through the Modernisation Committee, as the proposals that we are debating have been.
That brings me to my second point. When the Prime Minister announced the new Committees in the Governance of Britain Green Paper, he said:
Consideration of changes to the way the House of Commons operates is ultimately a matter for the House itself.
However, if we turn to page 42 of the Modernisation Committee report, what do we find? It states:
Draft Report (Regional Accountability), proposed by the Chairman, brought up and read.
Who is the Chairman? The Leader of the House is the Chairman. We can see on page 52 that the Committee tied, and that the Chairman declared herself for the Ayes. That does not strike me as leaving the matter to the House to decide. Rather, it strikes me as the Government obliging the House to accept something that it does not want.
We then have the ultimate of absurdities, the Government response, which begins:
The Government welcomes the report from the Modernisation Committee on Regional Accountability.
Who presented this report to Parliament? It was none other than the Leader of the Houseit is straight out of Gilbert and Sullivan. Frankly, it is an abuse of the Select Committee procedure. Every other Select Committee is chaired by a Back Bencher and contains no Ministers, because Select Committees are instruments of the House to hold the Government to account. The Modernisation Committee is an instrument that the Government are using. That could weaken our ability to hold them to account because of the impact on existing Select Committees, which brings me to my third and final point.
A little-read document, Sessional Returns, shows how the existing pressure on the time of colleagues affects their attendance on Select Committees. The average attendance for the most prestigious Committeethe Public Accounts Committeefor the last year for which figures exist, was 47.2 per cent. So, for most of the meetings, most of the members were not there. I say that not in a spirit of criticism of colleagues, but as a statement of fact. There is a lot of pressure on our time because the Government have packed everything into two days of the week. The Regulatory Reform Committee manages 42.3 per cent. attendance, and five of the 14 members attended no meetings at all in the last Session for which there are records. The figures for the Environmental Audit Committee are 44.5 per cent. and for the Trade and Industry Committee 50.2 per cent. For the Scottish Affairs Committee and the Welsh Affairs Committeesthose most like the new regional Select Committeesthe figures are 56 per cent. and 52 per cent. Where, then, are the folk sitting on these new Select Committees coming from; and if they turn up, what will happen to the existing ones?
I, too, read in The Guardian that the Government Chief Whip is going punish those who vote against the Government by refusing to put them on Select Committees. He has got it exactly wrong: the punishment is being put on a regional Select Committee, and for voting against the Government twice, it is being put on a regional Select Committee for a region other than the one the Member represents! Many other arguments cut across existing Select Committees, and regional Ministers do not have responsibility for the all the budgets or all the issues. The propositions before us are a nonsense, and I hope the House throws them out at 4.18.
Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan) (Lab):
The Leader of the House and my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt) made a very good case for having regional Select Committees on the grounds that they will scrutinise the work of Government regional bodies. The case was well made, but there is another important issue that is too easily forgotten. The agenda of bringing our regions closer togetherfor example, making it possible for the north-west and the west midlands to have the same gross value added as London and the south-eastis very important. To make that regional agenda happen means more than looking into regional bodies, quangos and other Government agencies, as it is also about looking into business, the voluntary sector and the whole community in the regions concerned. I believe that regional Select Committees have an important job to do in bringing all those elements together, ensuring that we have a coherent and
cohesive tale to tell. That would help to bring the GVA of our region, currently below the national average, up to it.
The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) spoke about the £2 million cost. It is easy to look at the costs, but what about the benefits? With an increase of merely 0.1 per cent. in the GVA of the north-west, that £2 million would pale into insignificance. As we scrutinise these various bodies, we need to ensure that they become better and take better decisions. The likelihood is that, as a result of better scrutiny, the regional development agencies, the learning and skills councils and other local bodies that my colleagues have mentioned will actually perform better.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Speaking as a Member who is unlikely to be put on a regional Select Committee, may I ask my friend whether a better job of work might not be done through a regional Grand Committee, which was advocated by the shadow Leader of the House?
Mr. Turner: No, I do not think it would. It would be too large and unwieldy, unable to do the job properly.
We are sometimes seen as being out of touch, which makes it important that regional Select Committees meet in their respective regions. It is essential that we take Parliament out of here and to the people; let us have meetings there, so that people can properly see the work we do and value it that much more.
Another positive factor is that these regional Select Committees are non-departmental. We all know that health problems, economic problems, transport and skills problems impact on each other. It is important to avoid the silos of Departments, which can detract from our ability to look across at the issues and come up with the solutions. The regional Select Committees, in being non-departmental, will have that ability to look across the region and provide solutions that involve all the people of the regionthe quangos, the outside bodies, businesses, the trade unions and so forth. That is an important innovation, and once we have some experience of these regional Select Committees up and running, we can think about extending the concept further. We could look more into scrutinising issues rather than Departments.
Finally, let me say that the regional Select Committees must be proactive. We should not just consider what has been done and the decisions that have been made. The regional agenda is so important that the Committees will need to be involved with the issues at the heart of it. They will need to be proactive and involve people, so that we can put everything together and establish a regional agenda that includes what the region needs for the future.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con):
Let me establish straight away that I intend to vote against regional Select Committees but to support regional Grand Committees, and that I think the Modernisation Committee should have supported them in its report to the House. That might, as the Leader of the House would say, have constituted only a halfway house towards
whatfor whatever purposeshe wishes to achieve, but I believe it would have indicated whether or not Committees of this kind were required.
I can tell the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) that I shall certainly support his amendments. They are sound: he is a House of Commons man, and he has given considerable thought to them. I also supported the speech of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), which I thought extremely balanced; and of course I supported every wordwithout exceptionuttered by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young).
Let me say to the Leader of the House that I only wish some Labour Membersparticularly the right hon. and learned Lady herself and her deputywould take account of some experience. Perhaps I cannot claim much experience myself, but, like my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), I have been in the House for more than 37 years, and I have served on Committees since 1975, so I do have some.
I chaired the Select Committee on Health and suffered as a result of the actions of my own party, but I make no play of that during this debate. I have also been the founder Conservative member on the Modernisation Committee, which the Leader of the House now chairs, and for two Parliaments I chaired the Procedure Committee. I therefore hope the Leader of the House will accept that I have an understanding of the way in which the House operates and also of its procedures.
My position is nothing to do with a party-political position. I have one objective for the remainder of my time in the House, and that is to restore to the Floor of the House and to Back Benchers greater authority over the way in which the House operates and spends its time. I am therefore deeply unhappy about what the Government have proposed.
I have to say, using a rather unfortunate word, that I believe that these proposals are a sheer abortion. I believe that they constitute an abuse of the House. I believe that little thought has been given to the membership of the regional Select Committees and to all the problems raised by the hon. Member for Thurrock, in his excellent speech, relating to the addition of councillors to the Select Committees. And how are the Committees to be comprised, given that political parties have very few Members in particular regions?
Let me say to the right hon. and learned Lady, who holds a number of positions, that I believe that these matters have not been thought through and clearly should have been thought through, not only by her and those who advise her but, to a greater extent, by members of the Modernisation Committee.
Mr. Gummer: Does my hon. Friend agree that in many regions, such as my own in the east of England, almost every Labour Member is already an office-holder? We shall have a whole lot shipped in from the north-east, while others from elsewhere will not be made Committee members because they are not of a suitable kind.
Sir Nicholas Winterton: I am inclined to agree with my right hon. Friend.
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