|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
I have mentioned the difficulty of getting sufficient Members to serve on Committees or to turn up at Select Committee meetings. I must also point out, briefly, that
the House is going to have to incur expenditure of more than £2 million at this time of financial difficulty. [Interruption.] Oh yes. It is indeed £2 million. That expenditure will be incurred to staff the Committees, to cover the costs of the Committees, the travel of the Committees and the expenses of the Committees. Even if it is just under £2 million, to my mind it is expenditure that we should not incur when the people of this country are having to face a financial crisis.
Sir Peter Soulsby: As one of the hon. Gentlemans colleagues on the Modernisation Committee, I too heard the evidence that was given to us. Does he recall that the overwhelming majority of that evidence was firmly in favour of the establishment of proper scrutiny at a regional level, and that the amount of money that he is talking about is very small compared with the £2.3 billion spent every year by regional development agencies alone?
Sir Nicholas Winterton: I can say very clearly that every member of the regional Select Committee will incur expenditure. They will want to travel to the region that the Committee is supposed to represent and to cover. There will be travelling costs and accommodation costs. I also refer to the extremely heavy cost, much of it justified, of the excellent Clerks department that we have in the House, and to the fact that the Clerks are, rightly, very well remunerated staff of the House. There will therefore be considerable expenditure. I give way to the Deputy Leader of the House, who I am sure is going to try to correct the figures that I have cited.
Sir Nicholas Winterton: Because they will come forward in due course, I was of course referring to the regional Grand Committees as well. I can say to the Members of the House, as I say to the Deputy Leader of the House, that I have never known an estimate of this House that has not been exceeded in the reality.
Mr. Heath: I hope that I can be helpful. So that the hon. Gentleman can relate the figure that he has given to the membership that is before us, I can tell him that it works out at £50,000 per Labour Member, or £30,000 if we take the figure from the Deputy Leader of the House.
Sir Nicholas Winterton: That is a very helpful intervention, for which I shall be eternally grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It is entirely wrong that that expenditure per head should be incurred. Members have been nominated by some magic circle to regional Select Committees. It has been done by the Government party. It is extraordinary that, as we scrap the regional assemblies, we are setting up here in the House other bodies to supervise the regions. The assemblies originally comprisedthis was the hopepeople who were very knowledgeable about the given area, and had considerable business or local government experience. All these matters are much more relevant to local government than they are to the House.
Julia Goldsworthy: Is it not the case that the regional assemblies were abandoned because they were not directly accountable and were seen as too remote from the regions? Can the hon. Gentleman imagine why anyone would think that regional Select Committees were any more directly accountable, or any closer to the regions that they were supposed to scrutinise?
May I also say that I am a huge believer in this Chamber of the House of Commons? To my mind, this is the Chamber where Members of Parliament should be in attendanceI hesitate to use the word manned again, as I may upset the Deputy Leader of the House.
This proposal to set up the regional Select Committees will take away more Membersand there are few enough of them nowfrom the Chamber, which should be the core of the activities of a Member of Parliament. Perhaps, however, the Government want that, to enable them to get their ill-considered and badly debated legislation through the House even faster.
Andrew Mackinlay: Biblically, our Lord was only twice in two places at the same time, but what is going to be required of Members who serve on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee or the Foreign Affairs Committee and on a regional Select Committee at the same time? It is really a miracle.
Sir Nicholas Winterton:
It is a miracle, and the hon. Gentleman has stolen my next three or four sentences, so I will not repeat what he has said. He is absolutely right, however: this Parliament will lose out by this proposal. I wish those on our Front Bench would vote against every motion on the Order Paper rather than take them all together, in order to show how much the people who are committed to this House disapprove of
what the Government are doing in its name. It is a shame and it is diabolical. It will be bad for the House; I strongly oppose it and will vote against it in the Division at the end of the debate.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), and I would like to add a brief footnote to the excellent points he has just made.
The Deputy Leader of the House put forward an argument in his opening speech about the legitimacy of Parliamentary Private Secretaries serving on these Select Committees. The argument he deployed was that, because Front-Bench Opposition spokesmen sat on Select Committees, it was legitimate for PPSs to do so, but there is a fundamental difference between a PPS and an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, in that a PPS owes his loyalty to the Government, whereas an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman does not. Therefore, in terms of holding the Executive to account, it is simply not the case that a PPS can be equated with a Front-Bench spokesman. It is a fundamental misconception to put the two on a par.
My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield made a point about quorums, and there is at present a real problem with quorums on Select Committees. The Sessional Returns show the pressure that the existing Select Committees are already under, and that will be made worse by the appointment of eight more Select Committees. The Public Accounts Committee is, perhaps, the most prestigious Select Committee, and it had an average attendance of 47.2 per cent. In other words, for most of the time most of its members were not present. The Regulatory Reform Committee had a 42.3 per cent. attendance rate, and the rate for the Environmental Audit Committee was 44.5 per cent. Some Select Committees are at present having real difficulties in meeting their quorum, and that will be aggravated if Members who already sit on Select Committees are put on additional ones.
Two of the Members nominated for the south-east regional Select Committee are already on two Select Committees and their resources will, inevitably, be stretched even further. One Member who is already so heavily committed that he or she was unable to attend one of the 12 meetings of a Select Committee on which he or she already sits is being put on a regional Select Committee. In my Select Committee, a Member was unable to attend for a long time for the perfectly good reason that he was on another Select Committee that met at exactly the same time. There is a real risk that in trying to set up these regional Committees, we will undermine the good work of those Select Committees that are already up and running.
I understand the doctrine of the mandate. A resolution came from a Select Committee, the Government got a majority for that proposition in the House, and therefore they can go on. If we look at the votes on 12 November, however, a slightly different picture emerges. One resolution was carried by two votesand I have to say to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) that if he had voted the other way on that one, there would have been a tie on the proportion of Members from each
party representing constituencies in each region. The hon. Gentleman voted with my party and other parties on the pay of Select Committee Chairmen, but on some of the other ones I am afraid that he voted in the other Lobby.
There is a key difference between resolutions that deal with Select Committees and resolutions that are delivering the Governments manifesto. It is my experience that when reforms have been made to Select Committees and how they work, we have tried to do that by consensus and taking the other parties with us. There is a risk that, far from advancing the policy of the Government for the regions, having five out of nine Members, at best, going round the country, and all from one party, will do an injury to the vestiges of the regional policy that they still retain.
What the Government should have done was ask themselves, With 15 months to the next general election, how important is it that we drive this reform through a divided House of Commons, and send Select Committees, with half their members not present, round the country, in the name of regionalism? Would it not have been more sensible to have said, Actually, we have other things to do at the moment. There are other ways of employing Members time. There are other reforms in the House of Commons that have a greater priority. Therefore, we will just park this one and not proceed with it? If the Government had done that, we would all have understood: we would have applauded the wisdom, and we would have recognised that they had reflected on the very narrow votes that took place on 12 November and decided not to go ahead.
When these Committees start their work, I wonder how many times they will meet. I also wonder what practical work they will be able to do between now and the next general election, without at the same time undermining
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|