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It is clear that neither we nor the Liberal Democrats will nominate members from our respective parties to those Committees. That leaves them as Committees of Labour MPs alone and that illustrates the fact that the
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Government’s regional policy is in a state of collapse. Ministers have been created to serve a non-existent regional policy, and regional Select Committees have been created to scrutinise near-fictitious regional Ministers. That lays the farcical on top of the fatuous on top of the fictitious. As a monument to this Government, it is fitting that we say, “Bin the lot.”

7.12 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): There is probably no idea, however sensible at the start and however valuable it may be, that this Government cannot turn into a dog’s dinner with their cloth-eared intransigence, their inability to give up even a scintilla of power from the centre and their inability to grasp the concepts of parliamentary structures and accountability and the will of the electorate in the regions of this country. That is precisely what the Government have done here.

The Government have taken something that could be argued to be a necessary part of our powers of scrutiny—to look at what is happening in these unelected quangos that spend so much of our money—and they have messed it up. We were going to get rid of the quangos. Let us remember the commitment given in 1997 by the previous Deputy Prime Minister to get rid of all these unelected quangos. It never happened; in fact, the quangos increased and spent even more of taxpayers’ money without any scrutiny. The answer would have been to democratise the quangos, provide scrutiny at source and make them accountable to local electorates—but of course that has not happened. Instead, we have a body of governmental decision making and governmental spending that is not, I think, adequately scrutinised by the present departmental Select Committee structure.

There is an argument for having a Select Committee structure for the regions, but what did the Government do with that concept? They decided not to bow to the “will of the House”—a term that the Deputy Leader of the House keeps using when he says that this was a decision of the House. Well, yes, in arithmetic terms, it was a decision of the House, but it was a decision of Labour Members only—not a single Member of any other party supported them. When even the Modernisation Committee looked at this—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has heard the remarks I made to earlier speakers, but he is dealing with the issues before us in a very broad-brush way. The House has decided on the matter in that it has brought us to where we stand this evening. I do not want to curtail the hon. Gentleman’s remarks immediately, but I would be grateful if he would confine his remarks to the motions before the House as soon as possible.

Mr. Heath: I am most grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I will soon reach the end of my opening and introductory remarks on the subject. I was hoping to point out to the House that the structure before us and the membership that we are appointing have come about as a result of a decision in the Modernisation Committee taken on the basis of the casting vote of the Leader of the House—a Minister of the Crown—because she was unable to secure the support of any other party. We are being asked to consider a structure that has no nominations from these Benches, no nominations from the Conservatives, and no nominations from Plaid Cymru, from the Scottish
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Nationalists or from independent Members of the House, because only the Labour party believed in the way these Committees were to be set up. We argued that they should be set up on a different basis. We argued—the Deputy Leader of the House was sensible and honest enough to say that this was a difference between us, which we have and will continue to have—that the people nominated to serve on these Select Committees should represent the political will of the regions they serve.

In one sense that is a political argument insofar as we wanted to reflect the political outcome of elections, but it is also an argument in favour of accountability. Without it, we cannot reflect the regions in the appointment of Members of this House to the Committees. Let us look at the most glaring examples. Some aspects disadvantage the Labour party: in some regions, there is an argument for having more Labour Members than are proposed in the motions. That would apply in several regions, but let me start with the south-west, as it is my region and I know it best, but also because it provides the most glaring example of the inadequacy of the Government’s proposals.

The Government propose having five Labour Members in order to give the Labour party a majority in the south-west region and the west country, but does Labour represent the majority of seats in the west country? No. Does it represent the second largest party in the region? No. It is the third party in the south-west with just 13 seats in comparison with the Liberal Democrats’ 16 seats and the Conservatives’ 22. If the composition of the south-west region were properly arrived at, there would be four Conservatives, three Liberal Democrats and two Labour Members, yet we are to have five Labour Members, all serving mainly city constituencies, so they are not even capable of properly representing the different areas in the south-west.

As was mentioned earlier, if we were to appoint a Liberal Democrat on the south-west regional Committee, he or she would have to come from Cornwall—if Cornwall were to be represented at all. Somerset might well not be represented because there are three Liberal Democrats there. What is absolutely certain is that for Cornwall to be represented, there would be no representation for the constituencies of Somerset and Frome, Taunton, Yeovil, Mid-Dorset and North Poole, Bristol, West, Northavon, Cheltenham, Bath, North Devon, Torbay or Teignbridge. None of the Members from those constituencies could possibly serve on the Committee in order for Cornwall to be represented at all because of the five Liberal Democrat Members in that county. This is not a structure that can command any respect or credibility in the south-west.

Julia Goldsworthy: My hon. Friend has pointed out that the constituencies of the proposed Labour Committee members are predominantly urban. Has he also noted that four of the five represent just two cities in the south-west? The overall population of the region is 5 million, but the suggested membership is not representative of even the urban population, let alone the rural population.

Mr. Heath: It often seems to me, in my rural Somerset constituency, that the regional development corporation understands also only two cities in the south-west. However, that is no reason for the proposed composition of the Select Committee.

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Sir Nicholas Winterton: I must say that, as a Conservative Member, I agree with what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but does it not demonstrate the totally inadequate way in which the Modernisation Committee, of which I am certainly the longest-serving member, considered the matter? I should add that the motion that we are debating emerged from that Committee as a result of the casting vote of the Chairman, who is a Labour Cabinet Minister.

Mr. Heath: Precisely. I think we would be debating very different proposals today had the Modernisation Committee done its job properly and presented sensible proposals to the House.

The Committee for the south-east is another glaring example, but different considerations apply in that instance. Its composition would benefit not the Liberal Democrats but the Conservatives. If properly represented on the Committee, the Conservatives would have six members. They would be in the majority, because the majority of constituencies in the region are represented by Conservative Members of Parliament. The Labour party should have just two representatives, but it is to have five. It is to have the majority in the south-east as well, because that is how the Government have decided to present their proposal.

Chris Bryant: I know that the hon. Gentleman was not a member of the Modernisation Committee, although other Liberal Democrats were. On 24 occasions the Liberal Democrats voted with the Labour Committee members. As the hon. Gentleman says, the main issue on which they disagreed with the Government was that of the proportion, but he has also made an assumption about the casting vote. Some may understand the casting vote to constitute a second vote for a member of the Committee, and that is the case in the House of Lords. However, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, in the House of Commons it is only when there is equality of voices that the Chair has a vote.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that helpful exposition of what happened in the Modernisation Committee. The casting vote of a Cabinet Minister determined that the Labour party’s view would prevail, and that the views of all the Opposition parties were to be disregarded.

When we debated this matter on an earlier occasion, I expressed a genuine fear that one of the consequences of the composition that the Government were proposing was that Labour members would have to be drafted in from other regions. The Government have avoided that—the names before us do not come from regions other than those that they would be asked to scrutinise—but the only way they could avoid it was by drafting members of the Government on to the Committees. So we are to have members of the Government—parliamentary private secretaries—scrutinising the Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) drew attention to one of the most glaring examples of that, again in the south-west, where some of our biggest issues relate to transport. The second strategic route to the south-west, the improvement of the A303 and the electrification of the Great Western railway line are major issues of infrastructure which the Select Committee would have to consider, but we are to
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have the Secretary of State for Transport sitting on one side of it and his PPS sitting on the other, no doubt asking him searching questions about what they will have discussed earlier in the departmental office.

Mr. Bob Laxton (Derby, North) (Lab): Decisions on the big transport issues in the south-west, such as rail and road links, are almost always made by the South West of England regional development agency, and even when it does not make the decisions, huge influence is exerted on the decision-making process by the RDA.

Mr. Heath: And, it must be said, by the Secretary of State for Transport, who is to be represented on the Committee that is scrutinising him. However, that situation is not unique. I note that the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland), who is present, is named as one of the members of the north-east regional Select Committee, and he is unique: he is the only one who is not a PPS. Four of the five Committee members are part of the Government, while the fifth, the hon. Gentleman, alone represents the independent voice of the north-east. The Deputy Leader of the House accepted that there might be conflicts of interest. Circumstances might arise in which all four PPSs had to leave the room and the hon. Gentleman would be on his own. He would be a splendid scrutineer on his own, but is that any way to set up a Committee of this House?

Sir Alan Beith: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to that point. Would it not be helpful if the Deputy Leader of the House presented an alternative motion allowing the only non-PPSs—the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland), the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) and me—to do the job? We could save quite a lot of money, and avoid the necessity for motions such as this.

Mr. Heath: That is a splendid suggestion, but I do not see any scrawled manuscript amendments being presented. Who knows, though? Perhaps a motion that we have not debated will be put to the vote later. These things happen in the House nowadays.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Is it not the case that when the PPSs withdrew, there would be a quorum problem?

Mr. Heath: There will be a quorum problem in any case, because there will be only five Labour members. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) made a valid point when he asked when and where the Committees would meet. Will they perambulate around the country? Will they meet at times when Parliament is not sitting? It will be extremely difficult for an assiduous parliamentarian to find time to go out to the regions in order to attend Committee meetings.

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD) rose—

Andrew Stunell rose—

Mr. Heath: I have a choice of hon. Friends to whom to give way, but I will give way first to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams).

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Stephen Williams: Does my hon. Friend consider that putting PPSs on Select Committees represents a change in Government practice? During my first two and a half years or so as a Member of Parliament, I was a member of the Education and Skills Committee and, subsequently, the Children, Schools and Families Committee. On each occasion that a Labour member of the Committee became a PPS, he or she had to withdraw from the Committee.

Mr. Heath: That is true. We used to have rules about these things. We asked the Government Chief Whip for a list of PPSs, and he was not prepared to provide one. Apparently it is a secret. That may be because there are so many resignations each day that the Government cannot keep up, but the fact remains that they would not provide us with a list of the PPSs who are currently serving in the Government so that we could do our research. We had to deal with each one separately.

Andrew Stunell: Does my hon. Friend agree that the appointment of PPSs may pose a further problem? It is not just a question of holding them to account at the main Committee meetings; all the informal and private meetings at which the Committee prepares itself for those meetings will be prejudiced and put at risk. It will be very difficult for any PPS to keep the necessary Chinese walls in place.

Mr. Heath: I think it will be very difficult for a PPS to do his duty both to the Committee and to his Minister. He or she will be privy to information that will be relevant to the Minister whom he or she serves; on the other hand, he or she will be privy to information from the Department that the Committee really ought to hear. If PPSs disagree with their Ministers, is that a resigning matter? Will they be forced to resign as a result of reports from their Committees? These are untested waters.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): May I recommend to the hon. Gentleman an excellent Library note on the issue of PPSs serving on Select Committees? I came across it by chance recently. Although the hon. Gentleman is making much of the issue, if he reads the Library note he will discover that it is not a new issue but one with which the House has wrestled many times over the years, and that PPSs have sat on Select Committees under all Governments of different colours.

Mr. Heath: I do not believe that there has ever been a circumstance in which a PPS has been asked to scrutinise the work of the Department in which he or she serves. I honestly believe that that is the case, but if the hon. Gentleman has evidence to the contrary I shall be happy to hear it.

Sir Peter Soulsby: As the Deputy Leader of the House indicated earlier, in the event of such a circumstance arising, it would be easy for the particular PPS to withdraw and not to take part in the business. The overwhelming argument for having regional Select Committees is to scrutinise the work of regional development agencies, where PPSs would not be directly involved, would not have such a conflict of interest and would not need to withdraw.

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Mr. Heath: If all we are doing is trying to provide democratic accountability for regional development agencies, let us do that and not go through this regional Select Committee system, which is supposed to deal with matters on a wider front; according to the Deputy Leader of the House, that is what this is all about. I must not be drawn on the functions of those Committees, because I would go wide of the motion, but I think I have made the point adequately about PPSs. It is a real concern. For that reason, if for no other, I recommend to my right hon. and hon. Friends that they do not support the motions.

It is simply unacceptable that we have these hole-and-corner Committees of Labour Members wandering around the country. They will be stuffed full of Government Members pretending to scrutinise our regional structures, but not doing so effectively—a cabal that will have no credibility, either in the House or outside, and no accountability, because it will not represent the wider region that it is purporting to represent.

It is a meaningless innovation that the Government are pushing ahead with without consensus, because they do not understand consensus, and without any understanding of accountability, because they never give away a scintilla of power. They have to control everything from the centre and from the Whips Office. It will not do for this House or for the regions of this country.

7.31 pm

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I endorse everything that has been said by the spokesman for the Liberal Democrat party and by the Front-Bench spokesman for my party. In opposing the appointment of the Labour Members to these Select Committees, may I say that the departmental Select Committees do an excellent job? They could well undertake all the functions that will be carried out by the new regional Select Committees. As someone with some experience of Select Committees over many years, going back to the 1970s, I have to say that in recent years the departmental Select Committees and other long-established Select Committees of the House have on occasions found it very difficult to achieve a quorum. If we are going to establish another eight Committees that are manned, if I may use that phrase, only by Members—men and women of the House; the word “manned” covers that—there will be grave difficulty not only in obtaining quorums for the regional Select Committees, but in obtaining quorums for the departmental and other long-established Select Committees of the House.

I want to repeat this point, because I believe it is important that the history of the proposal be fully understood by the House and by those who will read the report of the proceedings of the House, referring not only perhaps to the vote in November but to the vote that will take place here tonight. The Modernisation Committee passed to the House the resolution for the setting up of regional Select Committees on the casting vote of a Government Minister—the Leader of the House. I personally believe, and I have studied the matter since the debate in November, that a majority of the evidence was against the establishment of regional Select Committees.

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