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Regional Select Committees (Membership)

6.36 pm

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Chris Bryant): I beg to move,

Mr. Deputy Speaker(Sir Michael Lord): With this, we will take the following:

Motion 6— Regional Select Committee (East of England)—

Motion 7— Regional Select Committee (West Midlands)—

Motion 8— Regional Select Committee (South East)—

Motion 9— Regional Select Committee (North East)—

Motion 10— Regional Select Committee (North West)—

Motion 11— Regional Select Committee (Yorkshire and the Humber)—

Motion 12— Regional Select Committee (East Midlands)—

Chris Bryant: On 12 November last year, the House decided three things in relation to regional Committees: first, that there should be eight new regional Committees of the House, charged with examining regional strategies and the work of regional bodies; secondly, that each Committee should have nine members; and, thirdly, that the composition of regional Committees should be the same as that of every other Select Committee, namely in proportion to the political balance of the whole House. That means that the respective numbers for each party should be five Labour members, three Conservative members and one Liberal or minority party member of each Committee.

The regional Committees were set up under a temporary Standing Order that expires at the end of this Parliament, so it is for the Government rather than the Committee of Selection to put forward names for the Committees. That is in consequence of Standing Order 121(2). I hope that that is helpful to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who raised the matter in the previous debate.

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Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Not particularly.

Chris Bryant: It is as helpful as it is going to get.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): As the Deputy Leader of the House has had the opportunity to reflect since the House passed those motions, has it not occurred to him how absurd it would be to draft in Conservative Members from the south of England to fill places on the Committee that is responsible for the north of England region, or, as the motions before us would, draft in Labour Members including Parliamentary Private Secretaries to fill places in regions where Labour has very few Members?

Chris Bryant: No Labour Members are being put on the Committees tonight who are not from the relevant region. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) asked the Leader of the House about that in the debate on 12 November, and it is not for me to second-guess what the House decided then or produce another version of it. The House came to a view on the three matters that I mentioned, and it is therefore only right for the Leader of the House to introduce the appropriate motions to meet what we decided.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): The Deputy Leader of the House said that the regional Committees will hold regional government agencies to account. Does he believe that there will be a conflict of interest if Parliamentary Private Secretaries sit on those Committees?

Chris Bryant: Having both been a Parliamentary Private Secretary and served on a Select Committee, I can tell the hon. Lady that there is no reason for a PPS’s being unable to scrutinise regional policies fully and thoroughly. I think that she accepts that the point of the Select Committee structure is to have those who are not necessarily party spokespeople for an issue sitting on the Committees. I merely note that significant Front Benchers from the Liberal Democrat party and the main Opposition party serve on Select Committees. Consequently, I believe that it would be inappropriate for the hon. Lady to push her argument.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): The north-east is the only part of the country that was allowed a vote on regional government, which was voted down resoundingly. What part of “no” does the Deputy Leader of the House not understand?

Chris Bryant: The motions are nothing to do with regional government. Regional development agencies and other regional bodies spend a large amount of money on behalf of the taxpayer and it is inappropriate, especially at such a time, for that money not to receive proper scrutiny and consideration by the whole House, not only individual Members in a region. We are considering parliamentary scrutiny of the work that goes on in the regions.

Andrew Mackinlay: I am told that the Clerk of the House has already written to those whose names appear on the Order Paper, summoning them to an inaugural meeting. It surprises me that the letter has gone out before we have made the resolutions, but I do not want
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to labour that point. When is it intended that the Committees should meet initially? What does my hon. Friend see in his mind’s eye as the location and timing of the meetings? Will they take place on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays—or, as I have been told, on Mondays or Fridays?

Chris Bryant: I have no idea about letters that the Clerk of the House may or may not have written—he has certainly not sent a copy of any such letter to me. However, it is for the Committees to decide when they meet. As I am sure that my hon. Friend knows—he has been here a long time—when a new Committee is proposed, the Member with the longest unbroken service in the House determines the date and time of the first meeting and takes the Chair until a Chairman is chosen. My hon. Friend asked when the Committees should sit—

Andrew Mackinlay: And where.

Chris Bryant: If my hon. Friend has a little patience, I will deal with each point in turn. He asked when the Committees should sit. That decision is entirely up to the Committees. That is the convention of every Select Committee and it would be wrong of me to tell any Committee how to conduct its business.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Will the Deputy Leader of the House give way?

Chris Bryant: I will in a moment, but my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock will get impatient if I do not answer his second question about where the Committees will meet. When the matter was discussed in November, many hon. Members suggested that it would make sense for regional Committees occasionally to meet in the relevant region. I hope that they will choose to do that, but it is up to them.

Mr. Leigh: I have spent my entire career in this place on Select Committees, and I am a committed supporter of them. Does the Deputy Leader of the House agree that their structure depends on consensus between the parties?

Chris Bryant: I sat on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee for four years and there were many matters on which we tried to proceed by consensus. However, occasionally, there was a complete divergence of view, for example, about the BBC licence fee. I fundamentally disagreed with the Committee Chairman, although he was in the same party. Select Committees should proceed on the basis not always of consensus but of independence of mind and thought, and on the ability of individual members to listen to the evidence and reach a conclusion based on it.

Mr. Leigh: I am talking about the structure, not the issues. Committees such as the Public Accounts Committee work because the parties agree about the structure. That is why the effort that we are considering is doomed from the start. [Interruption.]

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Chris Bryant: The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome claims from a sedentary position that I do not understand the concept of Select Committees. I fully understand and support it. Select Committees are one of the great innovations in the House in the past 20 years. One has only to consider the work of the Treasury Committee in the past few weeks. It was able to do a job of scrutiny that could not be done in the Chamber. That is because Select Committees proceed with independence of mind. Individual members serve in their own right, can pursue the evidence to its logical conclusion and produce a report based on it. [Interruption.] I see another Select Committee Chair huffing and panting and waiting to intervene.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): I am attracted by the thought of dragging a few bankers to the Bar of the House, but that is another matter. One of the many reasons for my opposition to motion 7 on the west midlands Committee is that it includes no Worcestershire or Herefordshire Members because the Labour party has no Members in those counties except for the two who are Ministers and therefore cannot serve on the Committee. I am a reasonable man—I may yet be persuaded of the case for the Committees, although I doubt it—so will the Deputy Leader of the House tell me when Worcestershire and Herefordshire Members can contribute to regional scrutiny through the regional Grand Committee route, which the Government are also establishing?

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman, for whom I have great respect as Chair of his Select Committee, said that he may yet be persuaded of the merits of the motions. I suggest that he is being somewhat disingenuous—he nods. I remember his evidence to the Modernisation Committee, in which he said:

I have known the tenor of the hon. Gentleman’s views on regional Select Committees for some time. However, let me deal with his specific point that no one in the Labour ranks represents the two counties that he mentioned. There is a solution: the hon. Gentleman could have tabled an amendment to include Conservative Members on the Committee. We would then have full representation on it. I am grateful for his contribution to my speech.

Peter Luff: My intervention was probably too long, but its point was to ask when regional Grand Committees would meet. That could help tackle the problem.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am conscious that the Deputy Leader of the House is responding to interventions, but it is not a general debate about regional Committees, Select Committees or Grand Committees. We are discussing the constitution of the Committees, the existence of which has already been decided by the House. I urge the Deputy Leader of the House to restrain himself, if he can, in responding to interventions that are not about the motions.

Chris Bryant: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I can sometimes restrain myself. To reply to the hon. Gentleman’s question briefly, the House took the view that regional
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Grand Committees should sit in tandem with the Select Committees. Once the Committees are in place, we want to start considering dates for regional Grand Committee meetings.

Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell) (LD): The Deputy Leader of the House understands that I oppose the principle of Committees that reflect the make-up of the House rather than the democratic will of the region on behalf of which they are meant to act. However, on the specific motions, his response about Parliamentary Private Secretaries was inadequate. Under the proposed system, one PPS in our regional Select Committee will be expected to scrutinise the work of, and possibly cross question, the Secretary of State for Transport, to whom she is PPS. Can that genuinely constitute adequate scrutiny?

Chris Bryant: I know that the Liberal Democrats have a difference of view—I accept that it is an honourable difference—about the composition of the Committees.

Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): And us.

Chris Bryant: The shadow Leader of the House says, “And us” in a slightly pipsqueaky way, but the Conservative party had a different difference with the Government. The Liberal Democrats’ difference is that they believe that each Committee should reflect the political composition of the region. That has not been done historically in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. The Committees are a way of providing parliamentary scrutiny of regional bodies. The majority of the scrutiny will be of the work of the regional development agencies, as many people said when the Modernisation Committee compiled its report. If individual Members feel that they have a conflict of interest, they must address that.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): Why, as a London Member, should I vote for the motions when a delay persists in establishing a Select Committee for Greater London?

Chris Bryant: I cannot remember whether the hon. Gentleman wanted a regional Committee for London—

Mr. Pelling indicated assent.

Chris Bryant: He does. We want to make progress on that, but we have not yet been able to do so. We have consulted the London assembly, the Mayor’s office and local authorities in London because we do not want to proceed in a way that does not work well with those organisations. We hope that a London committee will appear on the Order Paper soon, but that is not before us tonight.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The Deputy Leader of the House has again been tempted to talk about Committees that do not even exist yet.

Chris Bryant rose—

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Will the Deputy Leader of the House give way?

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Chris Bryant: I will give way as long as the hon. Gentleman is not going to tempt me.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I cannot say whether I am going to tempt the Deputy Leader of the House. Does he accept that the matters that we are debating are House matters, not party matters? I therefore refer to the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who chairs the Select Committee on Public Accounts with distinction. Historically, procedures of the House and the setting up of Select Committees have been decided in this place on a cross-party and consensual basis. Bearing in mind the fact that there was a whipped vote on the Government side in last year’s vote and the fact that we will clearly have a whipped vote tonight, is it not right that the Government should review what they are doing, which has only their support and not the support of the Opposition parties in the House?

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that I respect the view that, wherever possible, we should proceed in House business on the basis of consensus. Consensus, however, presumes that everybody will agree, and there are areas where sometimes people disagree. Incidentally, several Opposition Members who are not in the Chamber now have approached me and said that they would dearly love to sit on a regional Select Committee—they cannot do so because their political party has not been prepared to propose names—because they would like to scrutinise some of the policies of regional bodies. It would be wrong of the Leader of the House now to present anything other than what was carried in this House on 12 November. The way to proceed with consensus is for the hon. Gentleman’s party and the other parties in the House to propose their Members for the Committees as well.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend also confirm that it would be an unreasonable principle of parliamentary democracy if the search for consensus meant that the minority parties could block the demand from the majority parties for the proper scrutiny of the as yet not properly accountable structures of regional governance, particularly in the north of England? The issue before the House is the need for accountability of regional structures, not the posturing of the Opposition.

Chris Bryant: If I am honest, the most important thing in this debate—I am being tempted a great deal this evening, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I will try not to stray any further—is the fact that there is a large amount of money and many issues, particularly in relation to the recession, that affect ordinary families in the regions of this country that need proper scrutiny by Parliament. The only way we have found of doing that is by bringing forward regional Select Committees.

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