Mr Chope: So does my hon. Friend agree that it would be a good idea for the promoters of the Bills, when the appointed time for discussing them today has expired, to seek the indulgence of the Chairman of Ways and Means to ensure that the Bills are not brought back before the House until after the conclusion of the consultation period and until the Government’s position is clearer? That would enable the necessary consequential amendments to be made to the Bills, rather than their being rushed on to the statute book only for the councils

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that promote them to come back with fresh amendments in the future. Surely he would think that good advice for the promoters of the Bills.

Were our consideration delayed beyond the expiry date of the consultation, would the Government come forward with amendments to Lords amendment C9 so that it properly reflected the Government’s view on the impact of the services directive?

Matthew Hancock: As a relatively new Member and Minister, I have much to learn from my hon. Friend about the procedures of this place. His ability to describe as rushed legislation that has so far been six and a bit years in the making, while at the same time speaking at great length to ensure that it is scrutinised properly, is very impressive. What he has said about timing is on the record and these things are always looked at.

Mr Chope: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his generous comments, and for noting, without expressing an opinion, that the point is now on the record for the promoters of the Bill. It is hard to imagine, but if I were a promoter of a private Bill, I would certainly be keen for everything to be dealt with in one Bill, rather than face a situation in which my Bill was amended and put on the statute book in a form that would not comply with legislation brought forward by the Government in due course. One difficulty the Government may have is that to amend private legislation that is different in different parts of the country could either involve hybrid Bills or rely on individual local authorities to bring forward their own private Bills, with all the scope that would offer for people to raise petitions and so on.

There is a serious issue about the status of pedlars, and what was said in the other place and resulted in these Lords amendments is highly pertinent to today’s discussion. The noble Lord Bilston told their lordships that the Bills were disproportionate, and that there was concern to protect the rights of

“genuine pedlars…who play by the rules, who move around when trading and who do not use oversized stores to display their wares.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 3 December 2012; Vol. 741, c. 443.]

That is why he was keen to include in the Bill provisions to restrict the size of stores that can be used by pedlars, but otherwise enable them to carry on as before. His concerns were reflected by other noble Lords, including the noble Baroness Knight of Collingtree who said that, in essence, and as far as she interpreted the Bills, local authorities were

“seeking the total eradication of pedlars from their streets.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 3 December 2012; Vol. 741, c. 445.]

Their lordships were, I think, wise and helpful in responding to the concerns expressed by pedlars on these issues, but I am not sure that they went as far as they could have done in ensuring that the new regime will work well in practice. The principal reason for saying that is reflected in my amendments to C9, which are centred around whether we should have “designated areas” or streets. Everybody understands a street; it has a name and can be found on a Google map—just to show how modern I am—and that name can be seen at the side of the street as someone walks along. A “designated area”, however, is much vaguer and could be large or small. The most difficult concept for us to deal with in clause 9, as amended, is that subsection (7) now states:

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“The council may designate an area for the purposes of this section only if it has reason to believe that it is necessary to do so to ensure road safety or prevent obstruction of the highway.”

I have tabled three amendments to subsection (7). Amendment (e) would leave out “an area” and insert “a street”, and amendment (f) would remove the words

“it has reason to believe”

thereby introducing an objective, rather than subjective, test as to whether the provision is necessary to ensure road safety.

3 pm

My biggest concern is expressed in amendment (g), which seeks to leave out the words

“or to prevent obstruction of the highway”.

Obstruction of the highway is a wide and vague term, and means that any trolley, including one that complies with the sizes in the Bill, could be regarded as capable of creating an obstruction in the highway. The wording of the Lords amendment would enable a council to develop its bad faith towards pedlars. There is a lot of evidence that councils have such bad faith and that they wish to support the interests of their own street traders, who are licensed and pay substantial fees. Councils want to protect that income against competition from pedlars. We know that such ill will exists. The current wording would facilitate its development to the detriment of pedlars.

Mr Nuttall: Does my hon. Friend share my concern that, if the words of the Lords amendment remained and were taken literally, virtually any article in the highway could be construed as an obstruction of it? It would therefore be possible for the authority to name virtually any street as being at risk of falling foul of the provision.

Mr Chope: Exactly—my hon. Friend is right to make that point.

Mr Bone: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way—he is being exceptionally generous. In his desire to rush through his speech so that we can complete the business today, he has not admitted the fact that any obstruction of the highway is a police matter, and that they can deal with it. The measure is therefore superfluous.

Mr Chope: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Such measures are quite often a matter of interpretation. The trained police officer is in a far better position to interpret the law than a council that is prejudiced against the interests of pedlars. To reinforce the point about prejudice, the noble Lord Strasburger said on Third Reading that:

“It was alleged that pedlars create a situation that attracts pickpockets, but…no evidence was offered. It was also said that pedlars cause obstruction of the highway. Little evidence for this allegation was offered apart from a small number of cases where wide and expanding trolleys had been used…The witnesses who spoke for the local authorities were somewhat unconvincing. We heard evidence from pedlars that many council officers and the police are ignorant about the 1871 Act, and we also heard much evidence of a bullying culture on the part of council officials towards honest and hard-working pedlars.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 3 December 2012; Vol. 741, c. 451-52.]

That is why we need to be alert to the precise wording of the Lords amendments. We need to ensure that the intention is to establish a level playing field for pedlars and street traders, and to ensure that pedlars cannot be

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undermined by over-zealous or prejudiced council officials. For those reasons, Lords amendment C9 would be much improved by amendments (a) to (h), which I have tabled.

Amendment (h) would remove subsection (8), which states that:

“The provisions of sub-paragraph…(2)…of Schedule 4 to the 1982 Act shall apply to a resolution under this section as they apply to a resolution under that paragraph but as if…for ‘street’ there were substituted ‘area’”.

That completely undermines the concept of pedlars’ freedom to go from house to house and sell their wares on the public highway by trading from street to street.

The Lords amendments grouped under the heading “Pedlars and street trading” are a significant improvement.

Philip Davies: I was concerned that my hon. Friend seemed to be coming to a close. He does not seem to have mentioned—if he did, he glossed over it very quickly—Lords amendment C8, which relates to leaving out clause 4, something I think he mentioned only in passing. Does he have a view on whether leaving out clause 4 is a requirement of the services directive? It is unclear to me.

Mr Chope: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing that to the attention of the House, because it takes us back to our discussions on clause 4 in the previous Parliament. It was in the context of the provision of services that the issue of the services directive was raised. That was why, as I recall, we were arguing that the provision of services should not be covered under these particular local Acts. There seems to be a recognition that clause 4 is outlawed by the services directive. What I do not understand—I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about this—is why the directive also applies to pedlars who are dealing not in services, but goods. How does the directive apply to the sale of goods by pedlars? That is causing concern among the pedlar fraternity.

There may be as many as 4,000 pedlars in this country, so the implications are significant. They are concerned that if the legislation, which sets out a separate regime for pedlars and has been established for well over 100 years, is torn up and repealed, it may be that the significant status and freedom that pedlars have hitherto enjoyed—of being able to obtain a certificate and, as long as they are of good character, trade from door to door, place to place and town to town—will be removed from them.

As was said in their lordships’ House, pedlary goes back long before the time of Shakespeare to the time of Chaucer, if not before. Therefore, to tear up the 1871 Act, as the Government seem to be proposing in their consultation paper, would be damaging to the interests of pedlars.

Mr Bone: Perhaps my hon. Friend can explain something to me before he concludes his opening remarks on this group of amendments. It is Government policy to encourage micro-businesses, and pedlars are small business men at the very smallest level. Therefore, it appears to me that these councils are going against Government policy.

Mr Chope: That may well be so. If councils are going against Government policy, one would expect the Government to say to their supporters in the Chamber that they wish them to vote on the amendments in a particular way.

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Sadly, my hon. Friend the Minister is temporarily not in his place, but I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands) in his place instead. I am sure he will make a careful note of what I am about to say. Under the heading, “Chapter 1 - Proposal to repeal the Pedlars Acts 1871 and 1881 (Part 2 of the draft Regulations at Annex A)”, the Government’s consultation paper, which is still out for consultation, reads:

“Below we detail our proposals (reflected in the proposed draft Regulations set out at Annex A) to repeal the Pedlars Acts 1871 and 1881 in relation to the whole of the UK.”

That is not a discussion of the possibility of repealing the Acts, but a specific proposal to repeal the Acts in toto. The proposal might still be out to consultation, but the Government have effectively made up their mind to repeal the Acts.

For reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and others explained, the Government have been diffident about declaring their hand in relation to the provisions in the Bills when they have had the opportunity to do so. One of the difficulties when considering Lords amendments is finding out why they were proposed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) just pointed out, removing clause 4 from this Bill and equivalent provisions in the other Bills was not referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey. It was taken as a given, despite its having significant implications.

Neither was there proper explanation of why, if they thought that removing clause 4 would satisfy the services directive, the Government now say that to satisfy it we would effectively have to repeal clause 5 in toto and not replace it with any other provision relating to pedlars.

Philip Davies: During the debate on the first group of amendments, my hon. Friend said, quite rightly, that the Lords had “filleted” the Bill. On the second group, does he contend that the removal of clause 4 and the total rewriting of clause 5 has the same effect of destroying the original arguments for why the Bill was necessary?

Mr Chope: Absolutely. This takes us back to the precursors to these Bills, one of which was the Bournemouth Borough Council Bill. The argument put forward by the promoters was that life was intolerable for retailers in the city centres because of the activities of pedlars, and therefore that pedlars needed to be banned outright from the city centres. Now, as a result of their lordships’ amendment, the promoters have recognised that pedlars are welcome and free to operate in city centres—or is that really what they intend? Does the local authority really want pedlars to be free, or will it seize on the provisions about obstructing the highways to create designated areas where pedlars cannot operate?

Philip Davies: Does that mean that clause 5, as amended by amendment C9, would cause more confusion about what would be allowed, making it difficult for a pedlar to be clear about how each of the four local authorities might interpret the same clause, even though the provisions are the same for each authority?

Mr Chope: Absolutely, because this clause—new clause 5, as I am calling it—effectively gives local authorities the discretion to interpret in their own way what they regard

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as a road safety issue or a potential obstruction of the highway, and what it is necessary to do to ensure road safety or prevent an obstruction of the highway. If local authorities are able to persuade themselves that something is necessary for the purposes of road safety—a wide concept that includes pedestrian safety—and they couple that with the need to prevent obstruction of the highway, that almost drives a coach and horses through the provisions. Local authorities would thereby retain almost absolute discretion to designate areas as they wished, potentially arbitrarily way to the detriment of the pedlar fraternity.

3.15 pm

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend’s amendment (f) would remove the words

“it has reason to believe that”

from subsection (7) of the clause inserted by Lords amendment C9. I apologise for appearing for ever to be picking his legal brains, but does he have any idea what, as far as a court is concerned, would constitute a legitimate “reason to believe”?

Mr Chope: Obviously I cannot give any legal advice, but the short answer is that if we are talking about a subjective test, all the council has to do is to say that it has reason to believe, whereas if we are talking about an objective test, the issue is not what the council believes, but what actually happened and the impact. If something was going to be an obstruction to the highway or have an impact on road safety, that could be objectively verified.

Philip Davies: Is not the key to this the word “reason”? The council must have a reason to believe, as opposed to just believing without reason. Presumably, there must be some tangible reason to justify the belief; I am just concerned about how strenuous that reason would need to be.

Mr Chope: I cannot advise my hon. Friend on that. Obviously the reasonableness of any reason that was put forward could, I suppose, be tested, although that is more an academic or theoretical question, rather than a question about what will happen in practice. My concern is that the provision will be used to perpetuate a campaign of discrimination against pedlars and try to drive them out of particular cities, which was of course the original intent behind the four Bills.

Philip Davies: What I am trying to get at is this: if my hon. Friend’s amendment (f) were accepted and we removed the words “reason to believe”—so that subsection (7) read: “only if it is necessary to do so”—what difference does he think that would make in practice to how the council had to operate?

Mr Chope: If we left out the words “it has reason to believe that”, subsection (7) would read: “The council may designate an area for the purposes of this section only if it is necessary to do so to ensure road safety”. That is something on which evidence could be drawn from all angles. One could argue that designating an area was necessary for road safety or that it was not, but it would not depend on the council. Under subsection (7) as currently worded, as long as the council says that in its view designating an area is necessary for road safety, that is the end of the matter and it cannot be challenged.

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Philip Davies: I understand the thrust of what my hon. Friend is saying and, as he knows, I am sympathetic to it, but if subsection (7) was simply left to read: “The council may designate an area for the purposes of this section only if it is necessary to do so”, would not the people deciding whether it was necessary to designate an area still be the council?

Mr Chope: Yes, obviously they would—I am sorry that it seems to have taken my hon. Friend quite a long time to drill out the answer he was looking for from this particular stone—because the council will be the one determining the matter. I do not know whether my hon. Friend is going to make reference in his own contribution to the circularity of the argument, but I understand the point he is getting at. I think the way to put it is to say “I surrender”.

Looking at the amendments in the context of the revisions to the legislation envisaged by the Government, my own view is that it would be wrong for the House to accept amendment C9 as drafted. Amendment C9 is a lot better than the provisions that were in place before it. If it were simply an amendment to leave out clause 5, that would be fine, but to

“insert the following new Clause”

as set out in C9 risks the danger that the provisions, when enacted, will be totally at odds with legislation brought forward by the Government, whether it be legislation relating to the size of the trolleys or to the circumstances in which those trolleys can be used by pedlars, particularly because C9 seeks to amend the pedlars legislation at a time when the Government are saying that those Acts have to be repealed.

Mr Nuttall: On that very point, is my hon. Friend aware of any reason why such very specific measurements are included in their lordships’ amendment C9? I refer to where a width of 0.75 metres, a depth of 0.5 metres and a height of 1.25 metres are specified. It would have been far better to go with the Government’s originally suggested amendments and measurements of 1 metre and 2 metres.

Mr Chope: The answer to my hon. Friend’s question is that when their lordships drew up these amendments in November 2011, the Government had not declared their hand. They did not do that until November 2012—and nobody can be blamed for not anticipating what the Government would say.

Mr Bone: I may be wrong, but could it possibly be that 0.88 metres is actually equivalent to a yard?

Mr Chope: If that is correct, I am grateful to my hon. Friend; I cannot understand why we do not use yards and feet rather than refer to 0.88 metres. We always say when we come to this place that we always learn something. That is certainly something I have learned today, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for it.

Let me reach a summation on these particular issues. I have seen some movement on the part of my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey, and I hope he will

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ensure that we have time to listen to the Minister’s response, as it is very important for the Minister to send out some clear messages to pedlars, many of whom are very worried by the proposed changes to the legislation and are confused by the attitude of the Government, particularly towards amendment C9 when looked at alongside the Government’s consultation paper.

I fear that an atmosphere is developing in which the Bill’s promoters think, “Well, it has taken us so long, so rather than try to improve it further, we might as well try to drive it home as quickly as we can and curtail debate as much as possible”, which obviously has the effect of creating a reaction. We know that the House’s procedures have resulted in a considerable curtailing of the rights of Members to speak in some debates. Fortunately, in private business, we still have the right to try to insist on getting the promoters of Bills to listen to our arguments.

I think that that is what we are looking for on this occasion. We are asking the promoters to reflect on the arguments that we have presented, and to consider tabling their own amendments to the Lords amendments. One of the virtues of a debate organised in this way is that, in this instance, we have so far discussed and voted on only Lords amendments C3, C4 and C5, which means that the promoters still have an opportunity to table their own amendments to those on which we have not yet voted.

Mr Bone: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s full explanation of the position. As I understand it, the benefit of the procedure that we are using today will result, eventually, in a better Act of Parliament. By allowing the promoters to reflect on the arguments and then come up with amendments that may even improve on those tabled by my hon. Friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) and me, we are likely to end up with a much better Bill. Would it not be great if the Government followed the example set by private business and dropped programme motions? Then this could happen week in, week out when we debated Government business.

Mr Chope: I think that there is a strong case for asking the Procedure Committee to look into the possibility of applying the principles relating to private business to public business. What has happened today demonstrates the virtues of being able to engage in what might be described as an iterative process, during which we discuss the issues, and the promoters have a chance to reflect on the points that have been made—over weeks, months or years—and to respond to them accordingly.

I do not need to speak any longer on this group of amendments—[Hon. Members: “Shame!”] I know that—

3.27 pm

Three hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings, the debate stood adjourned (Order, 22 January).

Debate to be resumed on Wednesday 6 February at Four o’clock.

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Backbench Business

Education Committee Report (GCSE Reform)

3.27 pm

Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of the publication of the Eighth Report of the Education Committee, From GCSEs to EBCs: The Government’s proposals for reform, HC 808.

It is a pleasure to participate in this relatively new way of presenting reports to Parliament.

I have in my hand a copy of the report “From GCSEs to EBCs: The Government’s proposals for reform”, which was published today. Decisions about reforming GCSEs and the way in which they are administered are some of the most important decisions that Ministers will make. Those decisions will have profound and far-reaching consequences that will affect the lives of many children for years to come, and they need to be considered carefully, as part of a coherent review of curriculum, assessment and school accountability for this stage of education.

The Education Committee was not reassured by the Secretary of State’s assertion that

“coherence comes at the end of the process.”

Coherence is achieved not by accident, but by design. No sensible reform of assessment can take place without clarity in regard to what is to be taught and how the qualifications will be used in the school accountability system.

The Education Committee believes that the Government have yet to prove their case that GCSEs in key academic subjects should necessarily be abolished and replaced by the new English baccalaureate certificates. We also fear that they are trying to do too much too quickly. We agree with them that improvements should be made to GCSEs and to the system in which they operate, in order to restore public confidence in our exams.

We welcome the changes that the Government are introducing, such as a return to end of course exams in most subjects and limits on the number of re-sits, but the Government must demonstrate that the GCSE brand is so discredited that it is beyond repair. Ministers want to introduce a new qualification and a step change in standards, and to alter the way in which exams are administered, all at the same time and to a tight timetable.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most important facets of any examination system is the trust that employers have in it?

Mr Stuart: I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. The Government want to restore the currency of 16-year-olds’ qualifications, and restore confidence among employers and universities in the value of those qualifications. That is one of the Government’s aims and they are right to take that approach. Although I am not talking about the main, fundamental changes beneath the surface, it is interesting to note just how few people from the university sector or employers agree with the decision to abolish GCSEs in the core subjects. They worry about what

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that says about the other subjects left behind—I am sure that my hon. Friend will be concerned about what it says about GCSE religious education. How can it be right that those subjects are seen as second tier compared with the reformed EBCs?

We saw last year, with GCSE English, the turbulence and disruption that can happen when changes are made to a high-stakes qualification. The Government are proposing change on a much greater scale and the risks are correspondingly higher. We are concerned that rushing through multiple fundamental changes could jeopardise the quality of the reforms and the stability of the wider exam system. The Committee has particular concerns about how well the Government’s proposals will serve lower-attaining pupils, who are often the most disadvantaged. It is unclear how raising the bar will automatically help those young people, and we call on the Government to rethink their plans for a statement of achievement, specifically for lower-attaining pupils, as it could be less useful to young people than a low-grade GCSE or alternative qualification. It must not be allowed to become a badge of failure. One of the Government’s stated priorities—rightly so—is to narrow the attainment gap between the richest and poorest students. We have not seen evidence to suggest that EBCs will do that any better than GCSEs already do.

The Committee agrees that changes are needed to the way exams are run. We concluded in our report last year that the current system leads to downward pressure on standards. All options for reform, including franchising subjects to exam boards, have benefits and drawbacks. Our concern is that the Government need to give proper consideration to the likely unintended consequences of franchising, as well as to the complexities of the tendering process. Today’s west coast main line news shows how easy it is for Governments to get that wrong, and the profound and expensive consequences that can arise.

Significant concerns about the Government’s proposals have been expressed by curriculum and assessment experts, including the chief regulator at Ofqual, and by employers and key figures in the arts world. The Secretary of State told us that

“if a red light flashes, we will take account of it.”

What we are saying to the Secretary of State today with our report is that we believe a red light is indeed flashing, and we call on the Government to take time for careful consideration, slow the pace of change and ensure that their reforms are built to last.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): I thank the Chair and the rest of the Committee for their report. Does he agree that the problem with the Secretary of State’s EBC proposals is that although there is a consensus that we need reform to exams at 16, this is the wrong reform, being done to the wrong timetable and being done the wrong way round, because we do not yet know what the curriculum is? As a former teacher and educator who went through this kind of change when GCSEs were introduced after O-levels, I cannot, for the life of me, see how this change can actually take place. Even if it does, I cannot see how it can last for long. Without proper piloting and proper consensus across the educational and political worlds, these major high-stake exam reforms just do not last, as we know from experience. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be better if the Secretary of State listened to what the Committee said,

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scrapped this particular proposal and worked together across the piece for a lasting reform that will command a broad consensus and would be proofed against any future political changes?

Mr Stuart: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his invention and I certainly agree with his last point. Let us be clear that the Select Committee’s report says not that the Government should necessarily scrap the reforms but that they should make the case for them. They need to prove that the GCSE brand is so fundamentally broken that it cannot be reformed. It seemed to us to be difficult to see what was so intrinsic to the GCSE in the core subjects that could not be repaired with the right approach.

The hon. Gentleman is also right to highlight the need for consensus. Some 650,000 children a year move through our education system and there are nearly 500,000 teachers in state schools. This is a mammoth enterprise and not something to which we can make quick changes. The repercussions will go on for a long time and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take it well if I chide his party by pointing out what happened with the diploma. Then, we had a Secretary of State who was determined to bring about change and who rightly identified the need to improve vocational education and qualifications in this country, but the assessment and exam experts said that he was going at an unrealistic pace, suggested that he slowed down and said that there was a risk that the tremendous legacy of transforming vocational education in this country could end up withering on the vine. That is exactly what happened. The children who took the diploma will have a certificate that employers will struggle to recognise in a few years’ time, vast amounts of public money were expended and those in the education system who marched to that tune and worked so hard to bring colleges and schools together to deliver the diploma have been left high and dry. We do not want to see that happen to these reforms, which are even more fundamental to the education system. We do not want the reforms brought in by this Secretary of State to go the way of the diploma.

We need only to look back to last year and the English GCSE furore. The judge in the judicial review has not yet pronounced, so I hesitate to talk too much about it, but many of the problems arose from the fact that the previous Government decided to change what was taught, how it was taught, who assessed it and how it was assessed all at once. That caused what happened in 2012 and whenever that many changes are made to a qualification, there is turbulence and volatility. That is why we saw so many schools with a history of doing well suddenly doing badly. The first EBCs will be taught

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in 2015 if the Government proceed according to their current timetable, so the timing will be tight. This will be a much bigger reform than that of the English GCSE last year and the risks and downsides are great.

We are not saying that the Government have necessarily got it wrong and we agree broadly with their critique of the existing situation. We also agree about the need for more rigour, for reform and for world-class qualifications at 16 to be put in place. We are questioning whether these particular reforms and the abolition of GCSEs in the core subjects need necessarily go ahead. We remain to be convinced of that argument.

A major secondary issue, which is probably less likely to be picked up by the press but could prove phenomenally significant, is the move to franchising. In effect, that gives us an insight into why the timetable is so truncated. Awarding bodies have not seen the outcome of the revised curriculum and therefore do not know exactly what they are supposed to teach, but they are having to design the new qualifications now. They will thereby effectively control the curriculum, rather than schools and educators. The awarding bodies are designing the qualifications now and the timetable means that a winner will be chosen for each of the core subjects by this summer. The Secretary of State will pick a winner who will stay in place for five years. What happens at the end of that time? It brings up a lot of questions.

If everybody who has expertise in assessment in English works for one board and if quite a lot of people retire because they are not prepared to move, meaning that we lose expertise, will there be genuine competition at the end of that five years? Or will we simply have created a monopoly in certain subjects for certain awarding bodies? What about flexibility during that time? What if changes need to be introduced? Will the spec that the Secretary of State chooses this summer have to be fixed in place for five years? We do not really know the detail—there is an awful lot that we do not know—and it important that we get this right.

I want this evangelising, driven, passionate and committed Secretary of State to be remembered as a tremendous, successful and reforming Secretary of State—there is every chance of that—but if he makes errors with the examinations that sit at the centre of our system, he will be remembered not in that way, but as having presided over something that did not work out. I do not want that to be the Secretary of State’s legacy and I certainly do not want it to be legacy of this Government, but I know that Education Ministers are champions who will want to ensure that we get this right, as will the Secretary of State himself.

Question put and agreed to.

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Select Committee Effectiveness, Resources and Powers

3.40 pm

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I beg to move,

That this House welcomes the report of the Liaison Committee on Select Committee effectiveness, resources and powers, Second Report of Session 2012-13, HC 697, and the responses to it, Third Report of Session 2012-13, HC 911; welcomes the positive impact of the Wright reforms, particularly the election of committee chairs and members, on the effectiveness and authority of select committees; endorses the Committee’s recommendations for committee best practice and the revised core tasks for departmental select committees; looks forward to agreement on procedures for committee statements on the floor of the House and arrangements for debates on committee reports; agrees that co-operation from Government is crucial to effective scrutiny; and supports the Committee’s call for a new relationship between Parliament and Government, which recognises the public interest in greater accountability.

It is a pleasure to move the motion, which stands in my name and that of many Committee Chairs. It is fortuitous—it is about the only bit of good luck we have had this afternoon—that this debate follows a statement by a Committee Chair about a report that his Committee has produced. That relatively recent innovation tends to work rather better when the statement is made closer to the ministerial statements of the day, but it is welcome and something that we simply did not have in previous Parliaments.

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee, the Chair of which is in the Chamber, for allowing the debate to be held. The motion is based on a report that the Liaison Committee produced in November and the responses to it from the Government and the House authorities, which we have published.

There are various aspects of the role of Parliament: we make laws; we create and oppose Governments, with this House being the forum in which the political contest between parties takes place; and we raise the grievances of our constituents as individuals or communities. However, there is a fourth function, which was sometimes neglected in earlier years: holding all Governments and the public service to account on how public money is spent, the effectiveness of administration and the development of policy.

Over the years, the Select Committee system has developed as the main means of addressing that fourth objective. The creation of a comprehensive structure of departmental Committees moved the process a long way forward at the time of the late Norman St John-Stevas. The previous Parliament left us a valuable legacy of further strengthening with the report of the Wright Committee which, in particular, put in place the election of Select Committee Chairs by the House as a whole, as well as the election of Committee members within parties. That has given Committees a new authority and mandate, and the influx of new Members, as well as the return of several experienced and senior Members to Select Committee work, has built on that authority.

Many new and more senior Members find their involvement in Select Committees just about the most rewarding part of their work in Parliament. They spend many a Wednesday listening to, or attempting to take part in, Prime Minister’s questions and they troop through

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the Lobby to support their party’s view in particular votes, but they can really get their teeth into things through the Select Committee process, in which they have the opportunity to question and challenge how things are being done, and to influence the shape of things in the future.

Our Committees have very small teams of staff, but the quality of their work and the way in which they cope with the demanding timetables of the Committee process are essential elements of Committees’ success. Our staff include people drawn from the Clerks Department of the House. Some appointments are made from outside, and we have indicated that there are circumstances in which it might be appropriate for such appointments to be made not only at the more specialist levels but even for the Clerk of a Committee. The Scrutiny Unit is a valuable resource for Select Committees, and we also draw on the Library—indirectly and directly, as Library staff are seconded to Select Committee service—and the National Audit Office, which I have found ready to co-operate not only with the Public Accounts Committee, as it does primarily, but with individual Committees when its expertise is valuable to their work.

Select Committees have proved to be one of the most effective ways of promoting public engagement with the House of Commons. We are always being urged to increase public engagement, and if we look at the wide range of people waiting on the Committee corridors in this building and Portcullis House to give evidence to Committees or to listen to their proceedings, and then think of all the people who watch the sittings at home on the Parliament channel or through the web system, we realise that Committees probably engage many more people than much else that goes on in the Commons. People are engaged because they are closely interested in the Committees’ work.

Today the Hansard Society published some survey results which showed a 9% increase in the past year in the public belief that Parliament holds Government to account. The survey showed that figure rising to 47%, which is just short of half, but it is a nine percentage point increase on the same question the previous year.

Select Committee inquiries have had a very high public profile. Most striking was the global coverage achieved by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s inquiry into News International and phone hacking, but others, too, have attracted a high level of interest. The Science and Technology Committee’s report on the Government’s alcohol guidelines stimulated widespread discussion about safe drinking limits. The Treasury Committee’s work on retail banking has attracted close interest not only in the financial world but among the wider public, and the Banking Commission, which is now conducting its inquiries, is a partner of the Treasury Committee—a Joint Committee drawn partly from the Treasury Committee and led by its Chairman. The Foreign Affairs Committee’s current inquiry into the UK’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain is attracting international interest.

Some Committees are less often in the national media but have a very high profile in the professional press and the stakeholder community. The International Development Committee is one example. Another is the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, whose Chairman is at a funeral today, or she would have been here pointing to much of the work that it does. There are many

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examples of the work of my own Committee, the Justice Committee, changing the way things are done. As a direct result of a report that we produced, new guidelines have been introduced by the Director of Public Prosecutions on charging on a joint enterprise basis, which had proved to be quite a difficult and controversial issue. I had a letter only the other day from a Minister setting out precisely how the Government would implement the Committee’s recommendations—not challenging them, but setting out how the Government was going to implement them. That is a record of which Select Committees can be proud.

Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that we have so far barely scratched the surface of using social media to engage people with the workings of Parliament? The Select Committees are particularly well placed to do that, and he will know that before a session with the Secretary of State for Education, the Select Committee went on Twitter with #askGove to ask people to come up with questions. We were inundated—there were more than 5,000 tweets. We sorted through them, grouped them by theme and went through them with the Secretary of State who, in typical style, was able to give rapid-fire answers and people felt they were genuinely able to engage with Parliament through the Select Committee and hold the powerful to account.

Sir Alan Beith: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. My own Committee has held online consultations with people in the public service who cannot come out openly to express their views, but whose views are important to us. We did an online consultation with prison officers which gave us a much better understanding of their working environment and problems. We did the same with probation officers. We had difficulty with the Ministry of Justice when we tried to do the same with court staff who were affected by the court interpretation and translation service changes, on which we will report in a few days. We were rather surprised to find the Department much less co-operative in that instance than it had been on previous occasions.

The social media are extremely important to the work of Select Committees, as are Parliament’s website facilities. The web and intranet service is working on some new designs for Select Committee homepages that will allow for more individual branding, giving Committees more control over the appearance of their online presence and greater flexibility in respect of what individual Committees can promote on their homepage. We would like to see this implemented as soon as possible. I do not claim to be the House’s expert on social media—I am the last person to make such a claim—but they clearly offer tremendous opportunities for engaging with the people who are affected by what is agreed and passed in the House. That is one of the things at the forefront of Committees’ work.

Our report honestly assesses where Select Committees can do better. It makes a range of best practice recommendations. We encourage Committees to be forward-looking in their scrutiny of departmental performance, not confining themselves to raking over the coals of past events unless there are important lessons to be learned from them. We urge Committees to give more attention to the financial implications of

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departmental policy and how Departments assess the effectiveness of their spending. We encourage them to experiment with different approaches to evidence taking; to broaden the range of witnesses and make more use of commissioned research; to produce shorter reports, making it clear which are the most important recommendations and who is supposed to be carrying them out; to follow up recommendations to ensure that reports have impact; and to report to the House at least once each Session on what their Committee has been doing.

Moreover, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) said, Committees need to be more effective at communicating. That involves the social media, but it also involves traditional print and broadcast media. We get a lot of coverage and a lot of interest from the broadcasters. Occasionally they annoy us by failing to distinguish between Select Committees of this House, elected by the House, and all-party groups, which have a role and a usefulness but are not the same thing. A Select Committee of this House is a Committee of people who have a degree of expertise developed over a period but are not united by a common cause in their membership of the Committee, as is so often the case with an all-party group. There is a big difference between the nature of a report produced by a Select Committee and one produced by an all-party group. The use of the term “a group of MPs” to describe either body, which we find in the broadcasts even of the BBC, is something we deplore.

The motion before the House invites us to endorse these best practice recommendations. They are not a straitjacket; it is for each Committee to determine its own priorities in how it goes about its business. However, Committees have core tasks, and we hope that they will see the good sense of the recommendations that we are making; indeed, many are already doing so.

One of the areas where we want to develop the work of Committees is in our scrutiny of policy development at the European level. We have had a lot of discussions about this with the European Scrutiny Committee and with the Minister for Europe. Far too often, this House is confronted with draft European legislation long after the important decisions and negotiations have taken place. Committees can much more usefully engage at the early stages, as long as they can be clear which work programme issues of the Commission are attracting real interest and are likely to get somewhere; otherwise they can get submerged in a vast amount of material that is not really going anywhere.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that another way to ensure that we scrutinise much better what is happening in Europe is to have better liaison relationships with Chairs of Committees in other national Parliaments? That will help us to understand what is happening in those countries and develop these relationships even further.

Sir Alan Beith: Yes, I agree. I have tried to do that, as has the right hon. Gentleman, conspicuously so, in the home affairs field. We should also communicate more effectively with British Members of the European Parliament so that they are aware when Committees have done some work on a subject and do not go blind into discussions completely unaware that this Parliament has already examined that subject in detail and expressed

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views on it. We have also been arguing for some time that we want the very good assistance that we get from UK representatives in Brussels and their staff to be used on a more active and less passive basis so that Committees are alerted when issues that they could usefully consider are coming up, such as those that may be of concern to the Government or are likely to excite controversy.

We talk about the powers and privileges of Committees. Sometimes an impression is given in public discussion that Committees are lacking the powers to do their job. By and large, I do not believe that to be the case. There are improvements that we could make, and the report deals with some of them. There are also some things that it is rather difficult to do—for example, in relation to privilege and the compelling of witnesses. The Liaison Committee is not convinced that statute is necessarily the right way to go, but the issue is shortly to be examined in a Joint Committee.

Mr John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con): My right hon. Friend will be aware that my Committee—the Culture, Media and Sport Committee—has perhaps tested the boundaries of Select Committee powers more than most. The situation seems unsatisfactory in two areas. First, when we served warrants on Rupert and James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks to appear before the Committee, it was not at all clear what the consequences would be had they failed to respond to that summons. Secondly, when we reported to this House that we believed we had been lied to by people who had given evidence to the Committee, it was, and remains, extremely unclear what the consequences of that are.

Sir Alan Beith: That is certainly true and I think it is one of the issues that will have to be examined by the Joint Committee, which is about to embark on this work. The problems are difficult to solve and affect only a few inquiries. They certainly affected the work of my hon. Friend’s Committee, which was notably successful in getting some potentially unwilling witnesses to appear before it. I congratulate him on what the Committee achieved.

It should be stressed that, for the vast majority of the time, Committees deal with willing witnesses who are very happy to come and be examined by us, even if, sometimes, they are critically examined. Most of the time, we are gaining information from willing witnesses. I will come in a moment to what happens when we deal with Government. So far as all other bodies and persons are concerned, the instances in which a draconian power might be required are very few. My hon. Friend is right that such powers as the House has in this area are not very easy to use, and we will have to further consider that issue.

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): What was the Liaison Committee’s thinking behind paragraph 133 of the report? It states that the Committee was

“persuaded that the disadvantages of enshrining parliamentary privilege in statute would outweigh the benefits”,

but that conclusion was reached ahead of all the work that is being done. It seems to pre-empt a lot of work that is ongoing.

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Sir Alan Beith: It was an honest statement of the view of Committee members that the possibility of the activities of the House being questioned in the courts as a consequence of the exercise of powers would be more damaging to the House than the current situation. Were the Joint Committee to come to a different conclusion after careful examination, we would, obviously, look at the issue again, but it was an honest statement of the Liaison Committee’s opinion at the time. My opinion has not changed so far, but I am clear that the matter will have to be looked at very carefully indeed.

Mr Graham Stuart: I must back my right hon. Friend and say how much I agree with him. I was one of those on the Liaison Committee who felt that very strongly. We have had people who were not keen to appear before the Education Committee, but they were told that they were expected to turn up, that it would be seen as a failure on their part not to do so and that powers could be exercised against them if they did not do so. They came. That is the test. If we move to something more legalistic, people will hire lawyers to find out exactly how many days’ delay they can use, based on precedent, so that they can put it off as long as they can and, in effect, thwart the will of Parliament, which is for them to appear. Whatever the current situation’s shortcomings, in my opinion, subject to what the Joint Committee finds out, it is the right one: it works for Parliament and does so in a speedy and effective way.

Sir Alan Beith: My hon. Friend puts the point extremely well.

The appearances of members of the Government and civil service officials are governed by the Osmotherly rules. The Committee is stringent about those rules in paragraph 113:

“We do not accept that the Osmotherly rules should have any bearing on whom a select committee should choose to summon as a witness. The Osmotherly rules are merely internal for Government. They have never been accepted by Parliament. Where the inquiry relates to departmental delivery rather than ministerial decision-making, it is vital that committees should be able to question the responsible official directly—even if they have moved on to another job. It does of course remain the case that an official can decline to answer for matters of policy, on the basis that it is for the minister to answer for the policy, but officials owe a direct obligation to Parliament to report on matters of fact and implementation. This does not alter the doctrine of ministerial accountability in any way. Ministers should never require an official to withhold information from a select committee. It cannot be a breach of the principle of ministerial responsibility for an official to give a truthful answer to a select committee question.”

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity to debate this report briefly. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this is not just about officials appearing before Committees? The Environmental Audit Committee had hoped that the Deputy Prime Minister could meet our long-standing request for him to appear before us and report back on his work on the Rio+20 agenda, but it was impossible for him to do so in his capacity as the Deputy Prime Minister. We have, therefore, had to arrange for him to appear before the Liaison Committee. That throws up the problem of a lack of accountability not just from officials, but from Ministers as well.

Sir Alan Beith: The hon. Lady raises an—

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Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. May I just remind the right hon. Gentleman that we said that speeches should last between 10 and 15 minutes? He has now had 19 minutes, and other Members wish to speak. We also do not have as much time as usual.

Sir Alan Beith: Mr Deputy Speaker, I hope that you will bear it in mind that several hon. Members, having looked at the clock, have decided to get their point across by intervening on me.

I should like to answer the hon. Lady’s question. She makes an important point. The Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have both taken the view that once they started going to Select Committees, they would end up being asked to go to all of them. Our response to both of them was that if that was their position, we would bring them to the Liaison Committee so that they could be questioned on matters in which they had played an important part.

I referred to the Osmotherly rules at some length because they are an important point of contention between the Committee and Ministers. We deal more fully with that in our report. We are saying to the Government that they need to engage with us on the way in which the Government relate to Parliament, rather than simply talking about consulting us on revising the rules.

The world has changed significantly. The election of Committees, and the way in which Members now see them as the main means of holding the Government to account, means that the Government must recognise that things are clearly different. Many Departments co-operate very well with the Committees, and quite a few Ministers find it helpful to have Committees looking at issues over which they—the Ministers—are involved in internal battles, either within their Department or with the Government. Many a Minister has had cause to thank a Select Committee for its support on such issues. There must be a recognition right across Government that Select Committees have a role to play in one of the most important functions of Parliament. There must be a clear understanding that Select Committees are entitled to information and that they should have the full co-operation of the Government.

4.1 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): It is a real pleasure to follow the Chairman of the Liaison Committee, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith). He covered so much ground with his description of how the Select Committees began that I am tempted just to say, “I agree” and sit down. But this would not be Parliament without everyone adding a little extra to what he has said.

I should like to acknowledge the presence in the Chamber of many of the Select Committee Chairs. This could almost be the Liaison Committee meeting for the first time in the Chamber of the House of Commons. The Chairmen of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Environmental Audit Committee, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the Education Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Justice Committee are all here this afternoon, as is my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee.

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I would not want this debate to consist only of us talking about ourselves and about how well we have all done. The reason that we are in this place, and the reason that so much has changed in the past five years, is that Parliament has changed. The occupant of the Chair, in the person of Mr Speaker, has decided that the procedures of Parliament should make the Government much more accountable than I can remember them being in all the 25 years I have been in the House. I know that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed has been here even longer than that. The fact that Mr Speaker has decided to use those processes to a much greater extent than they have ever been used before, and the fact that we have put in place the right reforms and that those on both Front Benches decided to implement them, mean that the Select Committee system is almost there, as far as scrutiny of the Government is concerned. I say “almost there” because, although the Chairman of the Liaison Committee rightly mentioned all the positive aspects of the system, there are a couple of things that I think could make it even better.

I also want to pay tribute to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, in the persona of the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), for going where no Committee, or Committee Chair, has dared to go before. He rightly mentioned phone hacking and the Rupert Murdoch affair, because those events represented a line in the sand for the powers of Select Committees. I can tell him that frequently when witnesses refuse to appear before the Home Affairs Committee, I do not have to come here and seek an order; all I have to do is remind them of what happened to Mr Rupert Murdoch when he decided he would not appear before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee—which conducted a very good inquiry, of course.

In a sense, however, we are making these rules up as we go along. As has been said, we do not know what powers we have at our disposal if somebody refuses to appear before a Committee. When witnesses say they are sick, I now ask for a sick note sent via a doctor with initials after their name, so I can be certain that that is why the witness cannot attend. We must clarify what these powers are. In one sense, I am reluctant to do so because it is always useful to have the mystique of Parliament—to have the fear of the unknown, so that people do not know what will happen. In that respect, therefore, it is better not to write things down, but to keep them vague and use that as a way to cajole people to appear. At some stage, somebody will refuse to attend and will not answer to a warrant, however, and that is when we will have to decide how to proceed.

I want to pay tribute to my Committee secretariat staff: Tom Healey, Richard Benwell, Elizabeth Flood and all the other staff who work extremely hard. The Chair of the Liaison Committee said that we had good staff, but he did not point out that we do not have sufficient resources. We need more resources if we are to be able to do our job effectively.

We need to put a stop to the practice of Clerks being moved around too regularly, and often just when they are about to really get into their job. In the past they have moved rather too swiftly. One of my former Clerks has ended up clerking three Committees and is currently clerking the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. She is so good that, like Ronaldo, she gets passed on to all the big teams. We should allow Committee staff to

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develop their specialisms. I am grateful to the powers that be for the fact that over the past year my Clerks have not changed, and I hope very much that we can stick to the unwritten rule that we have them for the whole of the Parliament, as that enables them to develop fields of expertise.

We look across the Atlantic in awe at the number of staff the chairs of congressional and senate committees have. Only a few months ago, I was in Washington and I met the chair of the homeland security committee, the equivalent of our Home Affairs Committee. I was told he had a staff of 32 and that was just for the majority side in Congress. I am not suggesting for one moment that we should increase the staffing of the HAC from nine to 32, because I know I would never get away with that. If we are to do our job, however, we need staff with expertise.

We also need to make sure our Committee staff are, indeed, Committee staff; far too often, they have to go off and do other House duties because that is part of the deal. I want them to be able to concentrate fully on the work we do.

Despite that little whinge, the HAC has thus far in this Session produced 11 reports, seen 118 witnesses in 49 sittings, and addressed 20 subjects. The House may therefore think that nine staff members is sufficient, and that the HAC should not be given any more staff as that would only mean we would go on for even longer. We are able to do so much work, however, only because of the expertise of the people who work for us.

The HAC has tried to travel around the country, although we do not do so often enough. We should engage with the public by getting them to come here, although they are very willing to do so because of the new regime that now runs the visitors’ facilities. We should also use social media, as the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) said that he did in the Education Committee. We stole his idea and used it the last time the Home Secretary appeared before the HAC.

Not all of the questions that were suggested by members of the public were constructive, but it is always nice to hear their thoughts not just about the Home Secretary, but about members of the Home Affairs Committee. That is all about public engagement, and I am willing to try anything new.

I welcome what has been done by the House authorities to change the websites over the past few years. We should embrace the new technology and develop it in the best way that we can.

Another way in which we could help the public to understand the distinctive contribution that Select Committees make would be to end the great ballot to find out in which room Select Committees will sit on any given day. In America, Select Committees have confirmed office space and rooms. Under that system, one would know that the Home Affairs Committee would always sit in Committee Room 19. I know that there is a problem in that the broadcasters choose which is the best session to cover.

I think that the House’s facilities should be used more imaginatively so that not only do we have a degree of permanence in where we sit, but Select Committee

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Chairs are close to their staff. I have an office in Norman Shaw North, but my Select Committee staff are in Millbank. I do not know about other Select Committee Chairs, but I would think that at least 60% to 70% of my work in this House is Select Committee related. It is not difficult to ring up Select Committee staff, but it would be much more helpful if they were in close proximity to the Chairs of their Committees.

We have reached a stage that some of us would not have thought possible even a few years ago. However, it is not enough to stand still. We need to move forward, because I still believe that the most effective way to scrutinise the operation of any Government is not at the Dispatch Box, where Members have the opportunity to ask just one question, apart from the Leader of the Opposition who gets several bites of the cherry, but in a Select Committee system, where one can probe, ask and sometimes even argue. At the end of the day, I believe that that sort of scrutiny gets a better result.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. Three Members want to take part in this debate. We also need to get both Front Benchers in and leave a couple of minutes at the end for Sir Alan to wind up. I therefore ask Members to be mindful of the length of their contributions.

4.12 pm

Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): I will try to be mindful of your suggestion, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I am delighted that the Backbench Business Committee has allocated time for us to debate the report of the Liaison Committee following the 2010 Wright reforms. It is fair to say that Select Committees are stronger and have more influence on Government than ever before. This is the first Parliament in which the members of Select Committees have been voted for in secret ballots by their own parties, and in which the Chairs of Select Committees have been elected by the whole House. That has given additional independence to Select Committees. It is no wonder that there are grimaces from the faces of Government Whips, and it is right that there should be. If there are not grimaces on the faces of Government Whips, we do not have a strong and assertive enough legislature. We do have an assertive legislature, but we can go further.

In the Leader of the House, we have such a fine parliamentarian, such a tremendous Minister and a man of such self-confidence, personality and breadth of philosophy that he will not think that he can hold the line and make no concessions. He understands the need for the whole House to improve the way in which it holds the Government to account and to recognise the powerful role that Select Committees play.

Select Committees not only have a role in scrutiny; they inform the character of this place. In this Chamber, we sit opposite each other and make tribal noises. I like making tribal, partisan noises as much the next man— in fact, probably rather more than most—but Select Committees bring us together and form us in teams across party lines. They build deep friendships and relationships. They help us to understand where other people are coming from. That has a civilising impact on

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the way in which this place works, which I hope permeates through to the way in which we make law. It makes Ministers more confident about conceding ground at times, and means we are more effective in representing the overall interests of the people who send us to this place. If it does that, a Select Committee is a very fine thing indeed.

Mindful of what you have said, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will drop the rest of my remarks because we have already touched on many good points. I will simply say that Select Committees are stronger now than they were in the past and a positive influence on Parliament. They are an excellent check on the Executive, and I know that the Leader of the House and Ministers will listen to calls from the Liaison Committee to strengthen those powers going forward.

4.15 pm

Dr Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), the Chair of the Liaison Committee. I apologise for missing the first minute or so of the right hon. Gentleman’s excellent and cogent contribution. I was speaking in Westminster Hall on a matter of great interest and concern to him: the Welsh language and the Welsh language channel.

I welcome the report and wish to identify three recommendations that the Joint Committee on Human Rights has already begun to implement to the benefit, I hope, of both Houses. The first concerns best practice and a recommendation on away-days. We have implemented that recommendation in order to discuss which inquiries we should choose and review our work. In doing so, we have engaged with civil society and outside organisations, and it has been a worthwhile exercise.

Secondly, there was a recommendation on leading questioners. Our Committee may be a little unusual, because its members come from two Houses and have a wide range of experience. Decisions on certain inquiries are often led by the recommendation of a particular member. For example, the inquiry on independent living came from a strong proposal from an eminent and experienced member at the time—Baroness Campbell of Surbiton. Although it was implicit, we all recognised that she was the expert, and she basically led that inquiry. Equally, the Committee’s well-known inquiry on extradition was proposed by the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab), and for most of the time we deferred to him. I was delighted that both inquiries resulted in unanimous reports.

One intriguing recommendation that I warmly recognise and embrace concerns the importance of principles of diversity and of engaging as fully as possible with civil society and small but well-known groups at national level. For example, yesterday we met Praxis community projects. It has helped a small group, Better Futures, which related to our inquiry into young unaccompanied migrant children. I am certain that the inquiry and report will benefit enormously from the first-hand experiences—often very traumatic experiences—that we heard about from those young unaccompanied migrant children, some of whom were from war-torn countries such as Afghanistan and Sierra Leone.

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On principles of diversity, we are all familiar with the fact that Chairs of Select Committees are invited to conferences, and whether it is a large international conference or a small one, I always benefit from it. I am sure the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed will recall the conference that we both attended and addressed last year on 18 April here in Westminster on Parliaments and human rights. It marked the end of the UK’s chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers. It was a sobering experience to have such a wide range of voices and experiences from this country and throughout the world looking specifically at the work of my Committee, and it made me reflect on my work as a Chair and on the work of the Committee as a whole.

There have been other conferences, including one in November in Geneva on strengthening the role of parliamentarians in establishing human rights, which was organised by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Commonwealth secretariat. Human rights are being struggled for, and people from some countries say, “We are freedom fighters and have fought to achieve what you have in your country.” It was sobering to hear them talking about their experiences and to reflect on the benefits of the Human Rights Act and the Joint Committee.

I recently had the privilege of speaking to the new commissioners on the Equality and Human Rights Commission. They scrutinised me and my Committee on our work, as we will do shortly when they come to meet us in the next few months.

On behalf of my Committee, I warmly welcome the report and look forward to implementing more and more of it. I look forward to Ministers doing the same. I am sure they will take the report seriously and ensure that officials see Committees as and when they are expected to do so. I endorse other Select Committee Chairs in thanking their Clerks—I thank my Clerks, Mike Hennessy and Mark Davies—and all their staff, for all their hard work. I look forward to them having more resources as a consequence of the implementation of the report.

4.21 pm

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Lab): In the brief amount of time I have available to me I want to welcome the manner in which the Chairman of the Liaison Committee has introduced the report. We should do anything we can to get away from the widespread perception that Parliament is all about what happens at Prime Minister’s Question Time on Wednesday at 12 o’clock—that is simply not the case. A great deal of detailed scrutiny work is done not just by the Liaison Committee and Committee Chairs, but by members of Select Committees. It is important that people out there who follow what Parliament does understand that MPs can make a difference in our day-to-day work in holding the Government to account. The report shows how we have taken that forward.

I would like the time to thank my Committee Clerks—the second Clerk has just become a proud father for the second time; I am sure he would like a mention in Hansard for that—but it is important in the short amount of time I have to concentrate on what will make a difference. Select Committees work not just to hold an inquiry, get a Government response and put

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out a press release, but to follow up their detailed recommendations. We tenaciously follow up Select Committee recommendations so that we get Ministers to come to Parliament to respond. That is important.

Select Committee Chairs also have the opportunity to request that Committee reports are tagged. That shows that we are contributing to the work that goes on in government and holding the Government to account, which is important.

The Environmental Audit Committee is a cross-cutting Committee. Therefore, it is important that we have a working relationship with all Secretaries of State in their strategic work through the Cabinet and in their business plans. The Liaison Committee report sets out how we can take that forward.

I echo previous comments on resources, which is a big issue for my Committee. When the Government got rid of the Sustainable Development Commission, there was an in-built assumption that the Committee would take over that work. I want to leave the House with a plea. The resources available to my Committee in no way compensate for those that the Government took away and cut from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs budget and the budgets of other Departments.

My Committee was told that the National Audit Office was at our disposal, but the Government cannot dictate what the NAO does. I simply make the point that the NAO needs to look at its resources. Although we have one officer seconded to our Committee, and for whom we are grateful, that is nowhere near sufficient. We need to ensure that the NAO recognises that environmental and sustainability issues matter.

In an attempt to try to compensate for our current lack of resources, we have sought advice from other sources—something very much in keeping with the thrust of the Liaison Committee report. One of our specialist advisers, Professor Tim O’Riordan, has taken the lead in organising a network of academics with research interests in sustainability, pulling together researchers from many universities and think-tanks. I am pleased to say that the network convened at Keele university in north Staffordshire for the first time in October 2011 with members of the Committee. It is producing a database of sustainable development research to inform the Committee’s sustainable development-related inquiries, once they are under way. As we take the work of the Liaison Committee forward, I hope we are mindful of the way that others are contributing to the work of Parliament.

4.25 pm

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): I welcome the report from the Liaison Committee. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) and all right hon. and hon. Members of his Committee on their work. We have heard from some of them this afternoon: my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), and my hon. Friends the Members for Aberavon (Dr Francis) and for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley). All do excellent work in their Select Committees to hold Government and other organisations to account.

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As the report says, looking back over the last year of activity, Select Committees have done an important and successful job. The role of Select Committees has been continually evolving ever since their creation by Norman St John Stevas, who sadly passed away last year. The election of Chairs and of Committee members has strengthened the independence of Committees. It is two years since that was implemented following the recommendation of the Wright report, and it has worked well.

As the report states, despite the many demands on Members’ time, attendance is high—approximately 75%—and very few Members have a low attendance rate. The Committee noted that there are often good reasons for low attendance, not least the need to be in several places at once—something Members know only too well. That rate reflects the importance the House attaches to the role of Committees, and, I suspect, the impact that membership of a Committee can have on job satisfaction.

Sir Alan Beith: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. She made reference to the difficulties that Committees face. Many Members are placed on Bill Committees and Statutory Instrument Committees, and many are lost to the increasing size of the Executive, including Parliamentary Private Secretaries, and the shadow Executive.

Ms Eagle: The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I do not know what the answer is, given that Members of Parliament often have ambitions to be in the shadow Government or the Government and like to get promoted. We have made progress in the past few years in setting up a career path for those who wish to specialise in Select Committees, particularly in the area of scrutiny.

The report rightly says that holding the Government to account is the main purpose of Committee work. However, our constituents expect more than that. Parliament is here to hold the powerful to account, as well as the Government. Major multinationals are one example of powerful organisations that our constituents expect us to hold to account.

In that context, I congratulate the Public Accounts Committee, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), and the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, chaired by the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), who is in his place, on their work. The PAC has exposed the shocking conduct of companies such as Starbucks, Amazon and Google in minimising the taxes they pay in this country. The work of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, in its relentless pursuit and questioning of News International over phone hacking, often when the issue was ignored by many others, has already been commented on. I would like to add my congratulations to its members on playing such a major role in uncovering the scandal. It is only right that we use this debate to highlight the important work that our Select Committee system has done and to congratulate those involved on the work they do. The Liaison Committee’s report rightly praises the Transport Committee, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), for its inquiry into motor insurance, which brought to light a major scandal.

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It is not only major companies, however, that Select Committees need to scrutinise. The Government’s programme of increasing the involvement of the private sector in public services and the breaking up of the health service means that lines of accountability are becoming more and more blurred. The House and Select Committees have the opportunity to scrutinise what these new organisations are up to with public money, and we have to ensure that the Select Committees maintain their ability to follow public money, even if that involves the accounts of private companies. That is an area to which we have to pay particular attention given some of the changes being made.

I agree with the Liaison Committee report that the primary function of Select Committees is to scrutinise the Government, but I do not want to minimise the important role they perform in holding others to account. We share the Committee’s disappointment that the Government have not published more Bills in draft. They only published 18 Bills in draft in the 2010-12 parliamentary Session. Pre-legislative scrutiny is beneficial to the legislative process and is an area where Committees made up of members with in-depth policy knowledge can add real value. Will the Leader of the House commit, therefore, to increasing the proportion of Bills that the Government publish in draft? Even when the Government have published bills in draft, however, they have allowed insufficient time in some cases for effective pre-legislative scrutiny.

Mr Graham Stuart: I want to take this opportunity to congratulate the Department for Education on conducting pre-legislative scrutiny of the special educational needs clauses of a forthcoming Bill. It was a tight timetable, but it gave us the chance to do the job. Ministers have been very open to meetings and to following up and taking onboard the advice of the Committee. It really can work.

Ms Eagle: As someone who gave evidence before entering the House to what were then known as Special Standing Committees, which evolved into pre-legislative scrutiny Committees, I think it is important to highlight best practice and carry on evolving positively the concept of pre-legislative scrutiny.

The Energy Bill and the Civil Aviation Bill are cited in the Committee’s report as examples of where the Government have not allowed enough time for Select Committees to do their work. The Committee is also right to highlight the shambles of the draft Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill: the Select Committee members reorganised their work to enable scrutiny of the Bill at very short notice, only for the Government to pull the Bill and re-introduce it this Session. In retrospect, Committee Members could have spent many hours scrutinising it without the time constraint, which turned out not to be a time constraint. I hope that the Leader of the House will take note of the need for better organisation.

We note the Liaison Committee’s suggestion that Commons Select Committees should have first choice on whether to carry out pre-legislative scrutiny, rather than it being a decision of the Government. A Joint Committee could make a valuable contribution, but it is this House that is democratically elected and, as the Liaison Committee rights says in its report, it would

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make sense for a Committee of this House to consider whether a Bill should be referred to a Joint Committee. Will the Leader of the House comment on that suggestion?

Sir Alan Beith: There is a further strong argument, which is that once there is a Joint Committee, election will no longer be the process by which this House elects Committees. Instead, the Whips will perform the kind of function that they normally perform for Bill Committees, and that is not what we want.

Ms Eagle: I note that that is precisely the point the right hon. Gentleman and his Committee members made in their report. By highlighting that section, I am agreeing with him.

It is also worth considering whether we should go one step further. At the moment, it is for the Government to decide whether to use pre-legislative scrutiny at all. The Government are currently rushing ill-thought-out welfare legislation through the House that will hit people in work on low incomes the hardest. This is a piece of legislation that would have benefited from pre-legislative scrutiny, particularly evidence sessions. That was not allowed to happen, so could the Leader of the House consider whether, allowing for the Government to legislate immediately when there is an obvious need, we could have a Committee of this House deciding whether a Bill should receive pre-legislative scrutiny? These are not suggestions on which I have a settled view, but I am interested in hearing the views of right hon. and hon. Members about possible changes in that direction.

The Liaison Committee is right to comment on the role of Select Committees in scrutinising ministerial appointments. As it says in its report, the Committee previously commented on this in its 2011 report, “Select Committees and Public Appointments”, which made recommendations for reforming the process. The Government’s response prompted a further report from the Liaison Committee last September, which highlighted the

“inadequacy of the Government’s response to our proposals”.

There has been no response from the Government to date, which is clearly unsatisfactory. This has been left hanging in the air for far too long, so will the Leader of the House say when the Government will be responding?

Mr Graham Stuart: Governments tend to grow more and more grudging about ceding powers, whereas parties in opposition make free—they return to philosophical first principles and they tend to make promises. Let me push the hon. Lady on this point. What is the Labour party’s position on a few of these points? She should put it on the record. If there is ever a Labour Government in future, it may or may not be her that takes that position forward, but it would be useful to have on the record some promises that we can hold someone to account for in future.

Ms Eagle: The hon. Gentleman is tempting me in all sorts of areas. I hope he realises from the tone of what I am saying that I am particularly interested in seeing what we can do to strengthen the role of the legislature in some of these areas. It is important to have a debate about the practicalities before we formulate an approach to this in the run-up to the next election. I am sure that he will be an avid reader of what comes out of that.

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The Liaison Committee describes the main role of Select Committees as “influencing” Government. I understand the point the Committee is seeking to make. In outlining the role of Select Committees, the functions it describes are scrutinising and holding the Government to account. For me, however, the language of “scrutiny” is preferable to “influencing”. The measure of a Select Committee’s success should not be the sum total of its recommendations that the Government adopt. The core objectives of Select Committees, as first set out by the Modernisation Committee in 2002, have worked well, with an emphasis on their role in scrutinising the Government. However, the Liaison Committee was right to consider whether more streamlined objectives would be suitable. The proposed new guidance for Select Committees is sensible, although I note that it places a lot of weight on Select Committees in terms of their duties.

I agree with what the Liaison Committee says about how Select Committees can act as a public forum for ideas to be debated. I agree that this is an element of Select Committee work, but there are many routes for debates to take place in Parliament. It is not the primary purpose of Select Committee work to set off debates. I regret the fact that it has had to propose a compact between the Government and parliamentary Committees —again, a feature of the report we are debating—but sadly this appears necessary. The Government’s guidelines to Departments—the Osmotherly rules—state that

“departments should aim to respond to reports within two months”,

but as the Liaison Committee notes, responses frequently appear much later.

It says something about this Government that the Cabinet Office, which is supposed to be taking the lead on making government more efficient, took nine months to respond to the Liaison Committee’s report on “Select Committees and Public Appointments”, when we would have wanted it to lead a little more by example. When Government Departments finally get round to responding to Select Committee reports, the responses are often inadequate. In its evidence to the Liaison Committee, the Regulatory Policy Institute’s better government programme described the Government’s responses as “models of evasion”. Will the Leader of the House say something about what Ministers could do to respond to these criticisms from the Liaison Committee and perhaps to improve performance in the areas of timeliness and clarity of response?

There are many sensible recommendations in this report, and I do not intend to go through them all. I think that members of Select Committees will want to consider for themselves the many recommendations on how Committees can have a greater impact. I support the recommendation for Committees to experiment with different approaches, such as appointing rapporteurs to lead inquiries, commissioning external research and, perhaps more controversially, using special advisers to question witnesses on technical subjects. That can be seen in other Parliaments, and I certainly think that Committees could trial ideas in and around these areas.

I welcome the suggestion that Committees could make better use of the parliamentary website. Although, as right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned, this has improved, it is still difficult for members of the

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public to navigate and its existence is poorly communicated. As we place more and more emphasis on the work of Committees, we should work harder to communicate their activities and ensure our constituents can readily access information about them. I welcome, too, the suggestion for substantive motions for debates on Committee reports. In its report, the Liaison Committee said that, subject to further discussion, it would explore ways to implement that.

On privilege, I note what the Committee has said. As it says in its report, a Joint Committee is considering this currently—or will be. I said earlier that there were occasions when a Joint Committee might bring benefits, and I look forward to the recommendations. I am not as certain as the Liaison Committee appears to be that there is no argument for changes in the area of privilege.

As I said at the start of my remarks, I welcome this report and many of its recommendations. Select Committees are an important part of the work of this House. I conclude by paying tribute to the work of all right hon. and hon. Members who serve on them and to the sterling work of House staff and all those who help make our Committee system effective.

4.42 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr Andrew Lansley): I join the shadow Leader of the House in congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) on securing this debate, and I thank our colleagues, the Chairs of a number of Select Committees, for attending and contributing to the debate. It is good to see them here.

I shall, of course, want to respond to the Liaison Committee. The House will recall and members of the Liaison Committee will be aware that I did so on behalf of the Government in my letter of 14 January, which was published on 24 January. I will not attempt to rehearse or reiterate all the points that were made there. One recommendation was specifically aimed at the Government, and I shall refer to it later, but there are other important issues in the report that I want to touch on.

The hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) raised a number of other issues that were not necessarily the subject of the Liaison Committee’s report. I shall seek to respond to some of them, perhaps in next week’s business questions. It may be useful for me to recall precisely what proportion of Bills in this Session have been published in draft and subjected to scrutiny. I believe that the number would considerably exceed that in Parliaments under the previous Government.

The hon. Lady is quite right to say that we are looking for more pre-legislative scrutiny. I recently gave evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, and specifically touched on the mechanisms available for formal scrutiny, public reading stages, and evidence taking in Select Committees and Public Bill Committees. I think we should be flexible rather than being rigid and adopting a one-size-fits-all approach. The hon. Lady is only too aware—as, I know, are other Members—of the exigencies of government, and the requirement for legislation sometimes to be introduced without all those mechanisms necessarily being appropriate or available.

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The background to this debate is the fact that the House now has far more power to hold the Executive to account than it has had in the past. In the last Parliament, it would not have been possible for the Liaison Committee to table a substantive motion for debate unless the Government had agreed to it and allocated time for it to be debated. The establishment of the Backbench Business Committee—it is good to see its Chair, the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), in her place—gave Back Benchers the power to table substantive motions. That is a significant departure from the Executive control of the agenda that we saw in the last Parliament, and one that is greatly to be welcomed.

The motion welcomes the positive impact of recent reforms, particularly the election of Committee Chairs and members, on the effectiveness and authority of Select Committees. I agree with that. I think that the changes we have seen during this Parliament are some of the most significant since the introduction of the departmental Select Committee system in 1979. I pay tribute not least to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young)—who is now the Patronage Secretary—for his work in implementing reforms in the House, and for much else besides.

The motion also deals with two specific issues to which I wish to refer, but before I do so, let me comment on the Liaison Committee’s observation that it considers the Government’s response to be positive in tone. I am glad of that: it was intended to be positive in tone, and I hope that our further discussions will be as well.

One of those two specific issues is the procedure for Committee report launches on the Floor of the House. I look forward, along with the Committee, to agreement being reached on a procedure that will help to provide a proper structure for Select Committee report launches. I should make it clear that our preference is that the choice of reports to be launched rests with the Backbench Business Committee, rather than with Mr Speaker, as was suggested by the Liaison Committee. That would be in line with the recommendations of the Procedure Committee’s report on the work of the Backbench Business Committee. I know from my own observation of the Backbench Business Committee’s work in just the last few months that it is extremely well placed to interpret and judge, on behalf of the House, the relative priorities that Members—but not necessarily the Government—would attach to opportunities for short debates on substantive motions relating to Select Committee reports.

Natascha Engel (North East Derbyshire) (Lab): One of the main issues involved in the launches of Select Committee reports is timing. As it is the Government who allocate time to the Backbench Business Committee, it is not always possible for Select Committee Chairs to launch their reports on the days that suit them best. It would be very helpful to us if the Leader of the House could commit himself to working more closely with the Backbench Business Committee to ensure that reports were launched on days that were convenient to the Chairs.

Mr Lansley: I hope the hon. Lady knows that we are constantly willing and able, whenever possible, to accommodate the requests of the Backbench Business

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Committee. This is the second time today she has asked me to extend to the Committee opportunities that are not often open even to heads of Departments who try to secure time for statements or debates on specific days. However, we will of course do all that we can.

That brings me to the second issue that I wanted to raise, that of substantive motions for debate in Westminster Hall. The Liaison Committee says that it is

“ready to explore whether the spirit of these proposals could be better approached in other ways”,

and I welcome that. I agree with the Committee that the 20 Thursday sittings allocated to it in Westminster Hall have not always been well attended. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed will know, the debate on the Justice Committee’s report on its post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act finished before its allotted time. I find that surprising, given the extent of the interest in the administration of the Freedom of Information Act.

When I thought about the matter in preparation for this debate, I wondered whether we should at least try to look for a practical way of solving the problem. Noticeably, the Thursday Westminster Hall debates chosen by the Backbench Business Committee are often well attended, and I suspect that that Committee would be willing and able to schedule more debates in Westminster Hall if that time was available. If the Liaison Committee were to think about working with the Backbench Business Committee, perhaps even giving up some of its allocation of time in Westminster Hall, and if Chairs of Select Committees were, in parallel, more frequent bidders to the Backbench Business Committee for debates on Select Committee business on a substantive motion in this Chamber, we might find a solution that benefits both the Backbench Business Committee and the Liaison Committee, and, especially, the House as a whole. Such an approach might allow precious debating time in Westminster Hall to be used and allow the particular characteristics of a substantive motion in this House to be used; things might be optimised both ways.

Natascha Engel: I wish briefly to put it on the record that the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee is a member of the Liaison Committee. That membership facilitates exactly that kind of negotiation between the Chairs of the Select Committees and the Backbench Business Committee to ensure that where it is best to debate and vote on a report on the Floor of the House, we can do that. We are talking about time available to Back Benchers, and we can decide between ourselves how best to allocate it. We work very closely together on this.

Mr Lansley: I entirely understand that that is so, and I knew it to be the case. I would not wish the House to interpret what I am saying to mean that I want to interfere in any way in this matter. Having observed the situation, I simply think that there is an opportunity for that working together to take place. That flexibility is available and the two Committees might do that.

Sir Alan Beith: I entirely endorse what the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee has said; we get on very well, we are able to negotiate and it is quite easy. It would not be ideal to give the Backbench Business Committee the job of judging between reports of Select

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Committees and then placing them in competition with debates that Back Benchers want because there is a big constituency interest. We must have a procedure that ensures that, either in Westminster Hall or in the House, some kind of priority can be attached to those matters where a Select Committee wishes to warn the House that something is going wrong in the system of government.

Mr Lansley: My right hon. Friend makes a perfectly fair point, but I am happy to see that informal work proceed. I do not think that at this moment we are talking about any requirement for a formal change in the procedure of the House. We are simply talking about the exercise of flexibility, which need not be at my behest in any sense; it might entirely be to best meet the needs of the Members of this House, be it as members of Select Committees, as constituency Members or in pursuit of their particular interests.

The recommendation of the Liaison Committee to have substantive motions in Westminster Hall has the potential to impact significantly on the procedures in this House, including possibly by disrupting the business on the Floor to take votes following debates in Westminster Hall. The proposition was made on the basis that debates on e-petitions in Westminster Hall take place on substantive motions. Such debates, which are being conducted on a pilot basis, actually take place on a motion with the formula “That this House has considered”; such a motion is not meant to be amended or divided upon. Should that happen in reality, the potential effects on procedure would be significant, and they have not been tested or evaluated. Changes of the significance suggested deserve far greater consideration of the possible consequences, and it may be that the Procedure Committee could consider those in a more general review of the types of business suitable to be taken in Westminster Hall.

Only one recommendation is specifically aimed at the Government, and it relates to a review of the relationship between Government and Select Committees, with the aim of producing joint guidelines. The Liaison Committee report said:

“We believe that the Government has not yet recognised the changed mood in the House and the strength of our resolve to achieve change.”

I would say in response that the Government have been responsible for the most significant transfer of powers for decades and I believe we can rightly be pleased with what we have achieved together. I understand the mood among Select Committee Chairs and in the House as a whole. and I hope that the Liaison Committee will accept my assurance that all the comments in our response were offered constructively with the aim of securing reform where it is necessary or improves the current situation for Members and in the eyes of the public.

There is a growing public and parliamentary interest in the accountability not only of Ministers but of civil servants. The civil service reform plan, published in June 2012, contained a number of recommendations on that accountability. The Government believe that the existing model of ministerial accountability is well established and should continue to underpin the effective workings of government. We know that we can

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sharpen that accountability for civil servants in a way that enables Select Committees to understand, invigilate and take views on the performance of Departments in relation to delivery, but I would not want that process to undermine the principle that Ministers are accountable for the policy and performance of their Departments.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed will know, the Government are reviewing the document known as the Osmotherly rules, which provides guidance for civil servants. As part of this review the Government will liaise with the Liaison Committee and the Constitution Committee in the other place. I look forward to the productive and constructive discussions between my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General and representatives of the Liaison Committee. I recognise, of course, that plans are in place for former accounting officers to be held to account.

Before I finish, I entirely endorse what my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed said about the description of Select Committees. They carry the authority of Parliament and are distinct from any other cross-party group or group of Members. I noted that the Education Committee was described this morning in the early bulletins as a “cross-party group of MPs” and the Transport Committee was called “a Committee of MPs”. Select Committees engage the authority of Parliament and I urge the media to recognise that as well as the distinctiveness of that authority.

I thoroughly commend the Liaison Committee’s recommendation to other Select Committees that the National Audit Office is available to support them in their scrutiny of the use of resources. Indeed, the NAO told the Public Accounts Commission that it supported that recommendation.

The work that has been done is a thorough and timely consideration of the work of Select Committees. In its follow-up report, the Liaison Committee emphasised the importance of focusing on impact rather than simply publishing reports and letting recommendations lie. That is clearly the right approach. Select Committees have greater authority and a responsibility to be the champions of good scrutiny. They have greater access to time and to debates in the Chamber and in Westminster Hall and we can continue to use those opportunities more effectively. On behalf of the Government, I look forward to working with the Liaison Committee and others to pursue the recommendations.

4.57 pm

Sir Alan Beith: This has been a short but worthwhile debate and I am grateful for the insights offered by my colleagues from the Home Affairs Committee, the Education Committee, the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Environmental Audit Committee as well as the shadow Leader of the House. They have all added something. I particularly appreciated the point made by the Chair of the Education Committee about how Committee work changes people’s perceptions of each other and significantly assists the work of Parliament.

I also welcome the Leader of the House’s clear assertion that the Government are ready to discuss in a co-operative way the revision of the Osmotherly rules. I hope that he will be personally present at the discussions with the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General

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as it would be useful to have the Leader of the House closely and directly involved in carrying those things forward.

My final objective, after thanking all Members who have taken part in the debate, is to seek the support of the House in carrying the motion and asserting that we want to continue the effective reforms that followed on from the Wright Committee’s work, which have so enhanced the effectiveness of the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House welcomes the report of the Liaison Committee on Select Committee effectiveness, resources and powers, Second Report of Session 2012-13, HC 697, and the responses to it, Third Report of Session 2012-13, HC 911; welcomes the positive impact of the Wright reforms, particularly the election of committee chairs and members, on the effectiveness and authority of select committees; endorses the Committee’s recommendations for committee best practice and the revised core tasks for departmental select committees; looks forward to agreement on procedures for committee statements on the floor of the House and arrangements for debates on committee reports; agrees that co-operation from Government is crucial to effective scrutiny; and supports the Committee’s call for a new relationship between Parliament and Government, which recognises the public interest in greater accountability.

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Vehicle Registration Marks

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Syms.)

5 pm

Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to make a case to the Minister about the system for the manufacture and sale of number plates in this country. I declare an interest as secretary of the European secure vehicle alliance, an associate parliamentary group that has long campaigned to improve vehicle security.

The UK, unlike many other countries, relies on a poorly conceived and poorly regulated manufacturing and distribution regime with approximately 40,000 outlets that supply, on average, only two or three pairs of number plates a week. That badly designed approach offers neither quality nor inherent integrity, yet countries such as Sweden have designed and developed a secure system relying on a single supplier, appointed on a five-year basis through a competitive tender process, that starts with the assumption that the number plate should be like a secure document that can assist law enforcement agencies as well as protecting owners’ vehicles. In Sweden, the plate manufacturer receives its instructions electronically from the Swedish equivalent of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. The system is simple and efficient, and it provides for security. It is similar to that adopted by many European countries. It provides enhancements that benefit motorist and state, and it works out cheaper for the motorist than is the case in the United Kingdom.

Such an approach of controlled supply operates in a large number of countries. In some countries, such security value is attached to number plates that they are produced in the same institutions that print bank notes. It would be inconceivable that our Government would allow a free-for-all in passport production.

In 1994, the Home Office vehicle crime reduction team and the Association of Chief Police Officers produced a plan to reduce vehicle crime that recommended adopting the Swedish number plate regime. In November 2010, a further report from ACPO’s vehicle crime intelligence service recommended adopting a system of secure vehicle registration marks with a limited number of approved suppliers. The British Number Plate Manufacturers Association, the Department for Transport and the DVLA have shown little enthusiasm for the 1994 plan and the 2010 report, but perhaps that is not too surprising, given that the DVLA is not generally associated with innovation and the BNMA is heavily influenced by dominant manufacturers and suppliers, not least the multinational group 3M. These vested interests have little incentive to change the system. It suits them to have a relatively unsophisticated model for the supply and assembly of number plates. 3M gains enormously from the supply of the one high-value product used in British number plates—the reflective sheet.

One consequence of the ease with which plates can be obtained in this country is that it facilitates the theft and transfer of cars, which is often known in the trade as ringing or cloning and is usually associated with organised crime. There is also a problem with the theft and counterfeiting of VRM plates.

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Despite considerable advances in automatic number plate recognition since the late 1990s, there has been no corresponding change in our number plate technology, yet we know that the police think that this needs to happen. Indeed Hills, one of the leading UK number plate suppliers, has produced millions of plates that cannot be read by many of our ANPR cameras. It seems likely that other suppliers are producing similarly deficient plates. Far from building on the technological lead that developments in ANPR should give the United Kingdom, we seem to be concentrating on providing comparatively expensive number plates which are of little value in terms of security or assistance to law enforcement.

The style and layout of our plates could be improved. I have here a handy prop—a number plate—which I am willing to gift to the Minister at the end of the debate. It contains a hologram, a concealed Union Jack identifier, small but camera-readable and computer-readable ID marks and the vehicle identification number. That is the kind of thing I have in mind.

I do not know what has happened to the British Standards Institution review of number plates, which I understand was supposed to be published early in the new year. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us. But it seems to me that this review has concentrated on the views of the industry, the BNMA and its members. It is hardly likely, therefore, to come up with any case for change. Indeed, the committee of the BSI which considers number plates is chaired by an executive of 3M.

It is my contention that this cosy, almost collusive, set of relationships is hindering our potential to develop a new generation of number plates for which there is now a strong case to be made. It is exerting undue influence on the DVLA and the Department for Transport and putting the profits of multinationals before the interests of our motorists and the needs of the police.

I hope the Minister can commit to reviewing the existing situation. I hope I can persuade him to review our use of number plates in the context of security and related technology. I hope we can convince him that there are clear advantages in having more security features, and I hope he will re-examine the case for greater control of the supply of number plates. I believe that a single-source supply model warrants consideration, but I recognise that others may judge it to be too great a step, and my interest is in advocating a model that provides for a markedly more secure and sustainable number plate regime. Such an approach need not cost the taxpayer money. It will more likely raise revenue through a better established market that can support the sale of “cherished plates”, and of course any Government seriously considering introducing cost-effective and sustainable road pricing will need an effective number plate regime that gives access to essential data.

Finally, I contacted West Midlands police to advise them of this debate. They said that change is definitely needed and long overdue. They support improved design and marks to aid automatic number plate recognition, a limited number of approved suppliers, and metal VRM plates hot-riveted to the vehicle to prevent theft and tampering.

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5.9 pm

Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood) (Con): I declare an unpaid interest as a vice-chair of the European secure vehicle alliance, an associate parliamentary group. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe). He made use of a prop, which I have not seen in the Chamber before, but it was a very interesting prop. My only objection to it was that the Union Jack identifier was concealed.

One might have thought that I would focus my remarks on the single most important issue within the vehicle registration mark regime, which is the requirement for us to have the European flag on all our licence plates. However, given the Prime Minister’s speech last week and the fact that we can now look forward to an in/out referendum on our membership of the EU by 2017, I no longer feel the need to concentrate my remarks on that area.

I will therefore follow up some of the points made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, particularly regarding the position of the police on these matters. I am grateful to him for sharing with me some of the material that West Midlands police have helpfully provided. The police have highlighted historical issues with the existing VRM regime for many years, and they have recommended a system of secure anti-tamper plates—for example, riveted to the body of the car—that should be available through limited approved suppliers. The problem, though, is that the Department for Transport has responded to the police by rejecting their recommendations on the basis, at least according to West Midlands police, that they are unable to prove that the increase in theft of registration plates is linked to criminality. I find that an extraordinary position, and perhaps the Minister will be able to give an explanation.

I am concerned that the real explanation is that those within the industry who benefit from the current regime have too strong an influence within the Department for Transport and that the concerns of the police, and indeed the wider interests of the consumer, hold insufficient sway. It does not strike me as a sensible way of organising the regime to have, as the hon. Gentleman said, a major manufacturer such as 3M providing the high-value element of the number plate, and I suspect that the value, or cost, is far higher than it needs to be. It is in the interests of that multinational that our market should be dispersed and broken up with very large numbers of suppliers, given that the sum involved is relatively small for each person in the industry, such that competitive pressures do not come to bear to reduce the price at which it can sell the reflective piece of equipment, nor is the market opened up to other competitors to the benefit of our consumers.

If we are not worried about the consumer, as we should be, we can at least look at the position of the police. The suggestion that the increase in the theft of number plates is not linked to criminality is really rather preposterous. In 2007-08, West Midlands police found that their monthly average number of thefts was 250. By 2011, that figure had increased to 425, 20% of which involved thefts from vehicles. It is for the Department for Transport to prove its view that this practice is not associated with criminality. West Midlands police gave a whole list of examples of how it is associated with criminality, such as legitimising the use of a stolen vehicle, disguising a vehicle’s identity to use it in crime,

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false reporting after a speed camera activation, walking away from offences such as road traffic collisions without reporting them, and escaping congestion charges and insurance premiums. Potentially, it could be associated with road-use charging. I am not sure that I approve of the hon. Gentleman’s position on that, but I understand that it is to be used on the Dartford crossing.

One of the obvious ways in which stolen number plates are used is for theft-of-fuel offences. As the Department for Transport supposedly wants evidence on this, I am delighted that in February 2011 West Midlands police commissioned a case study across the whole of Birmingham which found that 153 thefts of number plates were reported, of which 43, or 30%, were subsequently used in theft-of-fuel offences. I think that that is clear evidence that the increase in theft is associated with criminality.

From the police perspective, the argument is that change is long overdue. There is a security-related argument for limited suppliers, which could be a lot cheaper, and, in particular, an argument for riveting plates to vehicles in order to make it much more difficult to steal them and then use them to support a whole other range of criminality.

Before I conclude, I want to raise a wider issue than vehicle registration plates. The current system includes the British Standards Institution and various committees chaired by individuals who have clear vested interests that are different from those of the consumer and the wider community. Is that a sensible way to run things? Should not the system be opened up, where possible, to competition and, where not, to at least a degree of scrutiny from Ministers?

5.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Stephen Hammond): I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) on securing this debate and look forward to responding to it. I also welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless) to his place, and I will also comment on his remarks. I am aware that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak is vice-president of the European secure vehicle alliance, which is dedicated to reducing vehicle-related crime, fraud and disorder. I am pleased to be able to respond on behalf of the Government on the matter, which is clearly an issue to his constituents, to the wider UK public and, of course, to the Government themselves. We are trying to respond on behalf of all motorists.

I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman, particularly to his espousal of the Swedish system. I recognise the merits of that system, but I cannot share his view that the UK’s system is poorly conceived and regulated or that we allow a free-for-all. I will put on the record why I think that.

The register of number plate suppliers scheme was established in 2003 to regulate the supply of number plates in the UK. It has helped to reduce the opportunities for criminals to obtain plates to disguise the identity of stolen vehicles or to use them in criminal activity. As the hon. Gentleman has said, there are almost 40,000 suppliers on the register—38,894, to be absolutely precise. Although I acknowledge, as the hon. Gentleman has said, that

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other countries operate a different regime with regard to supply and format, including a single supplier system, the register scheme represents a system of regulation.

I accept that, prior to the scheme, it was possible to buy number plates in the UK for any vehicle from any supplier without valid checks or controls. That is why it was essential to put the scheme in place. It makes it more difficult for criminals and penalty evaders to abuse the number plate process, as it requires them to prove entitlement to the plate and to provide personal identification. It has closed off the opportunity for criminals to obtain number plates through legal channels and, contrary to some views, it has the support of the police.

All number plate suppliers now have to register by law. They pay a one-off fee to join the scheme, the object of which is to ensure that number plates are sold only to a purchaser who can provide entitlement to them and verification of personal details by producing the necessary documents, such as a vehicle registration certificate or a photocard driving licence. Number plate suppliers are then required to keep a record of sales and make it available for inspection by the police or local authorities. That is an important source of information for the investigation of vehicle theft and other crime related to motor vehicles.

It is an offence to create and supply number plates that do not comply with the relevant regulations and the British standard. In order to comply with the British standard, each plate must be permanently and legibly marked with the British standard number, the name, trademark or other means of identifying the number plate manufacturer or the component supplier, and the name and address of the supplying outlet.

DVLA enforcement officers, in conjunction with trading standards officers and the police, carry out a number of intelligence-led targeted enforcements against registered number plate suppliers and unregistered suppliers such as market traders. Again, that gives a slightly different impression from that given by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak; it goes against his argument. He made a number of valid points, but it would have been helpful if he had acknowledged at the outset that the registration scheme and the action that the DVLA takes were important in maintaining the integrity of the British number plate system.

Steve McCabe: I recognise that there has been a modest attempt at regulation, but I am trying to persuade the Minister to go further. Can he give me the figures for successful prosecutions resulting from the activities of the DVLA enforcement officers in the past few years?

Stephen Hammond: I shall try to answer that question later in my speech. If I cannot do so, I will of course write to the hon. Gentleman with the information.

The hon. Gentleman was right to highlight the concerns expressed a few years ago when a single manufacturer, Hills, developed a system of printing that had the unforeseen side-effect of making the number plate text unreadable by automatic number plate recognition—ANPR—technology. He was also right to point out that concerns still exist. Hills was the only manufacturer using that system, and the manufacture of those plates has now been stopped, but there is still an unknown number of those so-called transparent plates in circulation.

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The Department for Transport estimates that, in the worst-case scenario, up to 5% of all cars could be unreadable. However, we have reasonable evidence that the actual numbers are somewhat smaller. None the less, that development needed to be stopped immediately, and it has been. Most of the transparent plates were fitted to fleet vehicles, which are eventually sold into individual ownership, at which point the plates are routinely swapped for regular, opaque ones. That is one reason that the number might be lower. There were no concrete rules to stop companies employing that process, but that has now been remedied.

Mark Reckless: The manufacturer in question, Hills, was owned by 3M. Is the Minister concerned that there could be a conflict of interest, in that that company, which is well served by the existing registration market, has an executive chairing the relevant British standard that enables the continuation of that market?

Stephen Hammond: My hon. Friend leads me neatly into the next section of my speech, in which I shall address the issue of the British Standards Institution review. My predecessor committed to looking into that, and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak has asked me for an update. I am pleased to be able to tell him that we are seeking to change BSI standard BS AU 145(d), which covers the reflective quality of number plates. Recent advances to ANPR technology mean that the cameras are finding it more difficult to read older number plates. The hon. Gentleman will know, not least because we debated the HGV Road User Levy Bill in the House on Tuesday, that ANPR is now used increasingly for many aspects of managing the road network, including the enforcement of congestion charging and the HGV levy, as well as for detecting and preventing crime.

A committee was set up to improve standards and it was given an 18-month programme of review supported by my Department and by the Home Office. It is rightly using wider industry expertise. I hear clearly the point made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak and by my hon. Friend but, had we not used that expertise, one of their colleagues might have challenged me by asking why we had kept the review to civil servants. Once the committee has made its recommendations—they will be published and consulted on in late spring—I hope both hon. Members will respond to them, and point out any outstanding issues. The committee has done some rigorous work, however, and I hope its findings will offer some reassurance. I think that they will help to maintain confidence in the number plate regime, tackle vehicle excise duty evasion and improve safety.

It was suggested that the introduction of a more secure number plate system would support the sale of cherished plates. To meet the widespread interest in attractive personalised and cherished registration marks the DVLA has since 1989 been operating a sale of marks scheme, a special facility allowing motorists to acquire and retain the use of particular registration marks that have not been previously issued. More than 3.8 million registrations have been sold, which has

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generated over £1.8 billion in revenue. The revenue raised this financial year currently stands at just over £49.5 million, with a total of 166,00 registration marks being sold through the DVLA. The scheme is clearly popular with the motoring public, therefore.

It is recognised that there remains an issue in that some keepers of vehicles will attempt to flout the law by displaying registration marks in an incorrect format. All such formats will have been supplied by an illegal supplier, however, so they would already be on the register. Those suppliers would therefore be acting illegally already.

Steve McCabe: Why is the DVLA allowed to option plates that any normal, rational person would realise are being purchased only because the buyer intends to have them tampered with and altered illegally? They would have no value otherwise.

Stephen Hammond: Not all cherished plates fit into that category; indeed, the vast majority of them do not. Some cherished plates might even have our initials on them—I can envisage “NE 1” being one of the great number plates of our time, Mr Deputy Speaker.

The DVLA and the police take the matter of misrepresented registration marks very seriously. The misrepresentation of registration marks can make vehicles difficult to identify and hamper police efforts. Those who have misrepresented their registration plate have already committed an illegal offence. It is a criminal offence to alter, re-arrange or misrepresent the characters of a vehicle registration mark in a way that makes it difficult to distinguish the registration number. Offenders are liable to a maximum fine of £1,000.

I am surprised and baffled by the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood, because neither I nor my officials recognise the remarks he attributes to us. If he tells me the source of those remarks, I will certainly look into the matter, but while I am prepared to accept that the Department may have made those remarks, we do not at present recognise that.

Mark Reckless: My remarks were a statement of the position of the Department for Transport as characterised by the West Midlands police.

Stephen Hammond: That may have been characterised in all sorts of different ways, of course, but I am happy to discuss the matter with my hon. Friend later.

Over the last century, the number plate has incorporated several security features to reduce the misrepresentation, cloning and fraud that some drivers engage in. My predecessor in the Department instituted the British Standards Institution review. We have some challenging issues to face, but I am aware that the integrity of the number plate regime system is absolutely crucial to road safety, as well as to tackling road crime.

In conclusion, I cannot promise that we will move to a single supplier system, but we will—

5.30 pm

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).