"to send for persons, papers and records...to adjourn...and to report from time to time; and...to appoint specialist advisers,"
is it not incumbent on us in passing it to be aware that it is essential that such matters should be considered by the Committee before decisions are taken? Otherwise the motion might turn out to be no more than an empty piece of paper.
Then there is the further issue, which my hon. Friend also mentioned, of the West Lothian question, along with the whole question of devolution-I look across the Chamber to the Members from the Democratic Unionist party and other minority parties. These are huge issues; they are not just minor matters, to be rammed through at a moment's notice. They need careful and proper consideration, and the Committee would be able to give them just that.
I should also mention the fact that the coalition agreement contains proposals on the sovereignty issue, which has now been taken out of our manifesto commitments, much to my regret, and put into what I hope will not be the long grass, so that there can be a proper consideration of the necessity of having a sovereignty Act-a gold-standard sovereignty Act, if I may say so, along the lines of that which I have proposed, which has been approved by eminent constitutional authorities. The reason for that necessity is that there are occasions already when measures go through-at least three such measures have gone through the European system-without proper consideration by the European Scrutiny Committee, and they are matters that would normally be subject to scrutiny reserve. The Leader of the House has kindly replied to me this evening regarding my concern on those points. They are huge matters affecting the entire
economy of this country and its stabilisation, not to mention the City of London, regulation and many other things.
Then there is the whole question of human rights. That is another matter that might overlap to some extent with another Select Committee, but it is a matter of enormous importance, because it affects the entire social fabric of the nation. The Lord Chief Justice himself has recently remarked that we must beware of the manner in which the common law is being superseded by the decisions and precedents being taken by our judiciary at the expense of the common law. He mentioned in particular the Strasbourg convention-let alone the Human Rights Act itself. In a recent and very important speech, Lord Hoffmann, a former Law Lord, pointed out that the Strasbourg Court aggrandises itself, and believes that it is no more than a federal system.
In a speech the other day, the Deputy Prime Minister described the Reform Act of 1832 as the basis for the reforms now being proposed. There have been several Reform Acts, but the 1832 Act, in itself, was far less important than the Reform Act of 1867 and the Acts that followed from it, for the simple reason that the Reform Act of 1867 resulted from a massive campaign by the people of this country, in the wake of the repeal of the corn laws, to ensure that there was a proper and democratic system whereby the people's own views would be expressed in general elections on a scale commensurate with the requirements of the time.
I must point out, with respect to the Deputy Prime Minister, that the 1832 Act was necessary to get rid of corrupt rotten boroughs, although it did not prevent rotten boroughs from persisting. The borough of Stafford, which I had the honour to represent for about 14 years, was up for the chop in 1835. The Bill to disfranchise the electors of Stafford was passed in the House of Commons, and they were only saved by the intervention of a general election.
This is an issue of the greatest importance. Parliamentary reform-radical parliamentary reform-is fundamental to the future of this Parliament and of this nation. I believe that the Committee can do the job, but it will not be able to do the job that is being prescribed for it if decisions have already been made, under the coalition Government and agreement or otherwise, which pre-empt its ability to make recommendations about the seminal reforms that are needed to return true democracy to this country.
Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): I should like the Leader of the House to clarify a point. This has been a learning curve for everyone. We are now to have two Committees on constitutional reform, the one proposed by the Leader of the House and the one mentioned by the Deputy Prime Minister earlier today. The Deputy Prime Minister did not seem sure of his position; he did not want to take interventions or to answer questions.
I want clarity on this issue. If we are to have major reforms-radical and far-reaching reforms-surely the best possible debate should take place in the House among Members who are representative of the whole of the United Kingdom. Is it the case that minority parties representing people in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland will not be represented in either of the Committees that have been mentioned in the House
today? Is that what the Deputy Prime Minister was saying? Surely it will not be reaffirmed in the House tonight, for that would be absolutely disgraceful.
Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): This is a very welcome debate, which was promised by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House when I raised the issue on Thursday. It seemed from informal conversations that I held with him afterwards that the debate would take place in prime time on Tuesday week. It has been brought forward, but that does not mean that people should feel they have been detained here and must stay here. Let me say, at the risk of inviting a mass exodus, that neither I nor, I am sure, any of my hon. Friends intend to call a Division this evening; therefore there will not be a vote, and therefore there is no need for anyone to stay here unless they wish to listen to the arguments.
In brief, my argument is that when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House introduced this motion without notice last Thursday, he said it could have gone through on the nod then but that he would be pleased for questions on it to be put to him, and I would like to put some of them to him now.
First, how will this proposed Political and Constitutional Reform Committee interact with the other Select Committees proposed for the new House, for whose Chairmen we will be voting on Wednesday? On the face of it, this does not seem to be a departmental Select Committee. If it were a departmental Select Committee, it would be the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and would deal with all the activities and responsibilities of that Department, including, most importantly, that Department's budget, but it appears instead to be a cross-cutting Committee on political and constitutional reform. Therefore, I hope that this question can be responded to in answering this debate: if the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is not going to be scrutinised by this Select Committee, by which Select Committee will its responsibilities that fall outside political and constitutional reform be monitored and held to account?
Following on from that point is this question: if this is a Political and Constitutional Reform Committee with a remit to consider political and constitutional reform, does that mean that all other Select Committees of this House are precluded from looking at issues of political and constitutional reform when they think those issues are material to the matters falling within their particular remits? If the purpose of tonight's motion is effectively to exclude all other Committees of the House from considering political and constitutional reform, the implications of that should be clearly spelled out.
Finally, how will this new Committee interact specifically with the Justice Committee and the Public Administration Committee? Prima facie, the Public Administration Committee has a remit that would cover a lot of the day-to-day responsibilities of the Cabinet Office. Will they still be within its remit, or will they instead be within the remit of this new Committee? If it will not be the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's Select Committee, why are we not spelling that out in terms?
It is a pity that this motion was put on Thursday's Order Paper without any prior notice. We were invited to let it go through on the nod on Thursday evening, but my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) said that that should not happen so he objected to it. We have now rightly got a debate about it, and I hope that, in the spirit of the new politics, we will have some proper answers, including to the question that if this was such a good idea, why was it not thought of initially when we were setting up all the original Select Committees? Why, in other words, does it appear to be rather an afterthought?
Mr Heath: First, may I say how gratifying it is that we so often seem to have a full House late in the evenings? That is, perhaps, a sign of the new Parliament's commitment. I also must say that I am basking in the approbation of the hon. Members for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and for Christchurch (Mr Chope). That is an unlikely position for a Deputy Leader of the House to find himself or herself in. The hon. Member for Christchurch regretted slightly that this debate was not in prime time, but what could be primer time than 10.49 pm for this House? It is the perfect opportunity to debate this matter.
Let me try to respond to the questions that have been put. One of the key issues for the hon. Members for Wellingborough and for Christchurch was how this Committee relates to other Select Committees of the House, and whether there is any overlap or crossover. Let us first be clear that it could not have been set up last week, because before last Wednesday there had not been the written ministerial statement setting out the new ministerial responsibilities and machinery of government changes that mean that the Deputy Prime Minister has areas of responsibility not covered by other Ministers of the Crown. Until that had happened, we were therefore unable to put the matter before the House in terms of Select Committees. That is an important point to make.
The second point is that as soon as that had happened, those areas of responsibility ceased to be the responsibility of, for instance, the Ministry of Justice, so they were then outwith the responsibility of the Select Committee on Justice. Therefore, if this House is properly to scrutinise those areas, it is absolutely essential that a Select Committee be formed for that purpose.
I turn to the third element. Several references were made, particularly by the hon. Member for Christchurch, to the "Office of the Deputy Prime Minister". Let us be absolutely clear: my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has an office, but it is within the Cabinet Office. It is clear that this Select Committee is being set up to look at the specific political responsibilities of the Deputy Prime Minister, not the rest of the Cabinet Office responsibilities, which remain the province of the Public Administration Committee. I hope that once this Committee is set up and begins its work-provided that the House agrees to it-the Chairs of it, the Justice Committee and the Public Administration Committee will have an early opportunity to ensure that they are clear about their separate roles and that there is no work
overlap, that they seek the advice of the Liaison Committee if there is any difficulty, and that we have a clear differentiation.
Stewart Hosie (Dundee East) (SNP): That would appear to make sense at face value, but if we have enhanced Calman proposals on initial devolution to Scotland and the proposed referendum on parliamentary powers in Wales, would they be scrutinised by this Select Committee, with the Deputy Prime Minister's powers over the constitution, or by the Select Committees on Scottish and Welsh Affairs?
Mr Heath: The position would be no different from that which obtains now in respect of the responsibilities of the Justice Committee-at least until the changes in the machinery of government-where there was that overlap and it was quite proper for the Justice Committee to look at devolution issues. Indeed, having served as a member of the Justice Committee, I know that we did look at devolution matters, but I do not think that at any stage we trod on the toes of the Scottish or Welsh Affairs Committees in the process. It is quite possible to have proper co-ordination that prevents that from happening.
Mention was made of Lords reform. Obviously, this is a key area of the Deputy Prime Minister's responsibilities, so of course, the Committee will have the capacity to look at it if it chooses. I am not going to pre-empt the work programme that the Committee will agree. It would be a huge abuse for a Minister to set out what a Select Committee should choose to do, but I would expect it to be an early priority for the Committee to look at the emerging picture of constitutional reform, which would include Lords reform.
In answer to the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea), there is also a clear commitment in the setting up of the proposals for Lords reform that, first, there would be pre-legislative scrutiny of the proposals that emerge, which would involve any Member of this House who chose to take an interest. As a constitutional Bill, when any legislation is introduced-indeed this applies even to the preliminary motions before the House-it would be taken on the Floor of the House and involve every Member of the House. Therefore, I do not think that he needs to be concerned.
I listened to what the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) had to say about how disappointed she was about today's announcement of the Government Committee-it will not be a Select Committee of the House, and that is an important distinction-to consider and introduce proposals for Lords reform. If she was disappointed at that announcement, she must have been devastated when her own Justice Secretary-her own Lord Chancellor-did exactly the same thing in the previous Parliament. I served on that Government Committee, which did not contain any Members from minority parties; only the three main parties were represented. She must have been devastated to have heard of that arrangement then, so our doing the same thing has simply added, like Pelion on Ossa, to her discomfiture. That is not a concern that we need to dwell on, because it is clear that this Government programme of consideration of Lords reform will result in proposals that will receive more than adequate scrutiny in this House.
Mr Cash: The Deputy Leader of the House has addressed a number of points, but not some of the ones that I raised. Would he be kind enough to consider my point regarding whether this Committee might, to put it in ordinary parlance, be bounced by the fact that decisions have been taken under the coalition agreement, or by other means, to put through proposals such as the alternative vote and other matters of the kind that I mentioned, before the Committee has had a chance to consider the issues? In particular, will he state now that the proposals under the coalition agreement to implement the Wright Committee's recommendations in full mean just that, and that the wording of the Standing Order that will be introduced shortly will be exactly the same as that of the one proposed earlier this year?
Mr Heath: The hon. Gentleman wished me to answer his points before I had dealt with those of other hon. Members, and I am sorry that he had to be a little patient in that respect. He said that decisions have been taken, but Parliament takes decisions on legislation. Perhaps the key difference between this Administration and the previous one is that we want Parliament to take these decisions. It is for the Government to propose and for this House to dispose of those propositions. Therefore, it is not wrong in any way for the Government to be committed to a programme of government that is placed before this House for consideration. Both my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I are absolutely committed to ensuring that this House has the proper opportunities to have its say. That is the difference between how we do business and how the previous Government did it. I am unable to deal with the hon. Gentleman's point about the Wright Committee, because that would be completely outside the terms of this motion. However, he will find that his questions on implementing the Wright Committee recommendations will be answered in the very near future.
Let me deal briefly with the other points raised, one of which related to costs. We know that it costs money to have Select Committees, but it is equally important that this House has the opportunity to scrutinise the decisions of every Minister of this House. Thus, this is a cost that we have to bear, but I must say to the hon. Member for Wellingborough that we have abolished a whole tier of Select Committees in the form of the Regional Select Committees, which were an unnecessary and expensive farce. We have got rid of them, so we have a little money in the bank, as it were, in terms of the cost of scrutiny.
Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster Central) (Lab): The Deputy Leader of the House is totally wrong to say that the abolition of Regional Select Committees will save any money that could be put to this new Committee. That is not true because the Regional Select Committees were served by staff who already worked on the Select Committees that were previously in place. I have inquired about this and he is wrong to say that there is any saving from the abolition of Regional Select Committees.
It is an intriguing argument that however many Select Committees there were, they could operate
and travel around the country at no cost to the House at all. That is an interesting argument, but not one for today, perhaps.
I was asked why the chairmanship of this Committee is to be Labour, and it was suggested that perhaps the wording should be "the official Opposition". This was a decision of the House, and it decided that the Speaker should allocate the Chairs of the various Select Committees according to the proportion of Members in the House elected from each party. It was the Speaker's decision-based, I am sure, on excellent mathematical principles-that this chairmanship should be allocated to the Labour party. Unless the House decides otherwise, it is not the Government's position that the decision that the House has already taken should be changed.
On the time interval for nominations, that is for the convenience of the House. If the House does not like it, it is at liberty to say that it wants the full period for nominations, but I think that most want the Select Committees up and running at the earliest opportunity. They want to make sure that people have the opportunity to vote for the Chairs of all the Select Committees at the same time. They want to make sure that the best people, and not people who have been rejected for other chairmanships, put themselves forward for the Chairs in which they are most interested. I think that is the right way of doing things, but it is for the House to decide.
Mr Chope: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for the way in which he has responded to the debate. One point that I raised that he has not addressed yet is whether this Select Committee will have exclusive control over the consideration of political and constitutional reform, or whether other Select Committees that wish to consider aspects of political and constitutional reform that fall within their ambit will be free so to do.
The hon. Gentleman is right that I did not answer that point other than tangentially in relation to the question about Wales and Scotland that was raised by the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie). Every Select Committee has the right to consider matters that fall within the ambit of the Department or ministerial team that it scrutinises, and nothing will change on that. This Committee is exactly the same as every other Select Committee of the House. I expect Committees to be sensible about this and not to duplicate each other's activities, but there are no artificial barriers and no one is going to say to a Committee that has an issue or a constitutional bearing within its departmental responsibilities, "You are not allowed to scrutinise that because we now have this new Select Committee to do the job." That is not the way that I would expect Select Committees to work. I would expect the Chairs of Committees to discuss these matters with one another,
to use the good offices of the Liaison Committee when it is set up and to make sure that there is not duplication of effort. On that basis, I hope that I have responded to the debate and that the House will accept the motions before us so that we can get the system up and running as quickly as possible and extend the scrutiny of the House to the full range of members of the ministerial team.