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Select Committees

Volume 24: debated on Monday 17 May 1982

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asked the Lord President of the Council whether Her Majesty's Government have plans to make any further proposals relating to the work of Select Committees.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons
(Mr. John Biffen)

The Government have at present no such proposals. The House has a comprehensive structure of Departmental Select Committees with broad terms of reference and extensive powers of inquiry. How these, and other aspects of the Select Committee system, now develop is primarily in the hands of the Committees themselves.

Does the Leader of the House agree that it is illogical that the work of the Law Officers' Department should not be subject to scrutiny by any of the departmental Select Committees, thereby preventing the consideration of such topics as legal aid, the work of the Public Records Office and general matters dealing with the courts? Will he, therefore, bring proposals before the House that will enable the Home Affairs Select Committee to oversee the work of the Law Officers' Department, excluding such sensitive areas as the appointment of judges?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for telephoning my office this afternoon to give notice of his supplementary question, which would otherwise have bowled me neck and crop. I am now refreshed of the history of these matters. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will reflect that on 25 June 1979 one of my predecessors, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas), spoke on the subject and the House had the chance to debate and to vote on the issue. The House decided against the inclusion of the powers of the Lord Chancellor within the ambit of the Home Affairs Select Committee. However, I shall certainly look at the question and write to the hon. Gentleman with my views on the basis of a more measured reflection than I can give from the Dispatch Box.

I apologise for the fact that I have not given my right hon. Friend notice of my supplementary question. I have no desire to bowl him neck and crop, or even with a slow googly. Will he accept that part of his statement is not entirely accurate, in that only two of the Select Committees have the power to appoint sub-committees? The development of the Committees could be limited by the decision of the House. If Select Committees wish to appoint sub-committees, will my hon. Friend consider that matter in due course?

Of course I shall consider that matter, but there are 33 Select Committees and 14 departmental Committees. That makes a real demand on the resources available to the House. To the extent to which we appoint sub-committees, I have to consider that.

Is the Lord President of the Council aware, to follow the point made by the hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), that the work of the Select Committee on Energy, which has no power to appoint subcommittees—the old Select Committee on Science and Technology had unlimited powers in that respect—is being greatly handicapped?

I have sufficient regard for the membership of the Select Committee to believe that it is able to adapt itself to the current arrangements and still be a powerful influence on the House.

In view of the few Select Committee reports that are meaningfully debated, the amount of time that they consume and their lack of influence, would not this be an opportune time to review the whole system, perhaps with a view to abolishing the Select Committee procedure altogether?

I shall not be drawn that soon by so profound a question. I shall merely comfort myself by saying that inquiries into the Select Committee procedure have vindicated the Government's confidence in Select Committees. In all such matters, Select Committees will strengthen themselves by an evolutionary process. We should be pragmatic and cautious in both what we expect and what we require.