I beg to move,
That Mr David Drew, Linda Gilroy, Kerry McCarthy, Dr Doug Naysmith and Alison Seabeck be members of the South West Regional Select Committee.
With this, we will take the following:
Motion 6—Regional Select Committee (East of England)—
That Mr Charles Clarke, Dr Ian Gibson, Patrick Hall, Margaret Moran and Mr Anthony Wright be members of the East of England Regional Select Committee.
Motion 7—Regional Select Committee (West Midlands)—
That Mr Adrian Bailey, Richard Burden, Mr David Kidney, Mr James Plaskitt and Joan Walley be members of the West Midlands Regional Select Committee.
Motion 8—Regional Select Committee (South East)—
That Ms Celia Barlow, Dr Stephen Ladyman, David Lepper, Gwyn Prosser and Mr Andrew Smith be members of the South East Regional Select Committee.
Motion 9—Regional Select Committee (North East)—
That Mr David Anderson, Mr David Clelland, Mrs Sharon Hodgson, Ms Dari Taylor and Phil Wilson be members of the North East Regional Select Committee.
Motion 10—Regional Select Committee (North West)—
That Rosie Cooper, Mr David Crausby, Tony Lloyd, Mr Eric Martlew and Geraldine Smith be members of the North West Regional Select Committee.
Motion 11—Regional Select Committee (Yorkshire and the Humber)—
That Mr Clive Betts, Mr Ian Cawsey, Mary Creagh, Mr Eric Illsley and Shona McIsaac be members of the Yorkshire and the Humber Regional Select Committee.
Motion 12—Regional Select Committee (East Midlands)—
That Mr John Heppell, Mr Bob Laxton, Judy Mallaber, Sir Peter Soulsby and Paddy Tipping be members of the East Midlands Regional Select Committee.
On 12 November last year, the House decided three things in relation to regional Committees: first, that there should be eight new regional Committees of the House, charged with examining regional strategies and the work of regional bodies; secondly, that each Committee should have nine members; and, thirdly, that the composition of regional Committees should be the same as that of every other Select Committee, namely in proportion to the political balance of the whole House. That means that the respective numbers for each party should be five Labour members, three Conservative members and one Liberal or minority party member of each Committee.
The regional Committees were set up under a temporary Standing Order that expires at the end of this Parliament, so it is for the Government rather than the Committee of Selection to put forward names for the Committees. That is in consequence of Standing Order 121(2). I hope that that is helpful to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who raised the matter in the previous debate.
As the Deputy Leader of the House has had the opportunity to reflect since the House passed those motions, has it not occurred to him how absurd it would be to draft in Conservative Members from the south of England to fill places on the Committee that is responsible for the north of England region, or, as the motions before us would, draft in Labour Members including Parliamentary Private Secretaries to fill places in regions where Labour has very few Members?
No Labour Members are being put on the Committees tonight who are not from the relevant region. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) asked the Leader of the House about that in the debate on 12 November, and it is not for me to second-guess what the House decided then or produce another version of it. The House came to a view on the three matters that I mentioned, and it is therefore only right for the Leader of the House to introduce the appropriate motions to meet what we decided.
The Deputy Leader of the House said that the regional Committees will hold regional government agencies to account. Does he believe that there will be a conflict of interest if Parliamentary Private Secretaries sit on those Committees?
Having both been a Parliamentary Private Secretary and served on a Select Committee, I can tell the hon. Lady that there is no reason for a PPS’s being unable to scrutinise regional policies fully and thoroughly. I think that she accepts that the point of the Select Committee structure is to have those who are not necessarily party spokespeople for an issue sitting on the Committees. I merely note that significant Front Benchers from the Liberal Democrat party and the main Opposition party serve on Select Committees. Consequently, I believe that it would be inappropriate for the hon. Lady to push her argument.
The motions are nothing to do with regional government. Regional development agencies and other regional bodies spend a large amount of money on behalf of the taxpayer and it is inappropriate, especially at such a time, for that money not to receive proper scrutiny and consideration by the whole House, not only individual Members in a region. We are considering parliamentary scrutiny of the work that goes on in the regions.
I am told that the Clerk of the House has already written to those whose names appear on the Order Paper, summoning them to an inaugural meeting. It surprises me that the letter has gone out before we have made the resolutions, but I do not want to labour that point. When is it intended that the Committees should meet initially? What does my hon. Friend see in his mind’s eye as the location and timing of the meetings? Will they take place on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays—or, as I have been told, on Mondays or Fridays?
I have no idea about letters that the Clerk of the House may or may not have written—he has certainly not sent a copy of any such letter to me. However, it is for the Committees to decide when they meet. As I am sure that my hon. Friend knows—he has been here a long time—when a new Committee is proposed, the Member with the longest unbroken service in the House determines the date and time of the first meeting and takes the Chair until a Chairman is chosen. My hon. Friend asked when the Committees should sit—
If my hon. Friend has a little patience, I will deal with each point in turn. He asked when the Committees should sit. That decision is entirely up to the Committees. That is the convention of every Select Committee and it would be wrong of me to tell any Committee how to conduct its business.
I will in a moment, but my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock will get impatient if I do not answer his second question about where the Committees will meet. When the matter was discussed in November, many hon. Members suggested that it would make sense for regional Committees occasionally to meet in the relevant region. I hope that they will choose to do that, but it is up to them.
I sat on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee for four years and there were many matters on which we tried to proceed by consensus. However, occasionally, there was a complete divergence of view, for example, about the BBC licence fee. I fundamentally disagreed with the Committee Chairman, although he was in the same party. Select Committees should proceed on the basis not always of consensus but of independence of mind and thought, and on the ability of individual members to listen to the evidence and reach a conclusion based on it.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome claims from a sedentary position that I do not understand the concept of Select Committees. I fully understand and support it. Select Committees are one of the great innovations in the House in the past 20 years. One has only to consider the work of the Treasury Committee in the past few weeks. It was able to do a job of scrutiny that could not be done in the Chamber. That is because Select Committees proceed with independence of mind. Individual members serve in their own right, can pursue the evidence to its logical conclusion and produce a report based on it. [Interruption.] I see another Select Committee Chair huffing and panting and waiting to intervene.
I am attracted by the thought of dragging a few bankers to the Bar of the House, but that is another matter. One of the many reasons for my opposition to motion 7 on the west midlands Committee is that it includes no Worcestershire or Herefordshire Members because the Labour party has no Members in those counties except for the two who are Ministers and therefore cannot serve on the Committee. I am a reasonable man—I may yet be persuaded of the case for the Committees, although I doubt it—so will the Deputy Leader of the House tell me when Worcestershire and Herefordshire Members can contribute to regional scrutiny through the regional Grand Committee route, which the Government are also establishing?
The hon. Gentleman, for whom I have great respect as Chair of his Select Committee, said that he may yet be persuaded of the merits of the motions. I suggest that he is being somewhat disingenuous—he nods. I remember his evidence to the Modernisation Committee, in which he said:
“The practical considerations of the Select Committee model are not inconsequential, they are very serious indeed, and the pressure on MPs’ time here at Westminster is also a factor we have to bear in mind.”
I have known the tenor of the hon. Gentleman’s views on regional Select Committees for some time. However, let me deal with his specific point that no one in the Labour ranks represents the two counties that he mentioned. There is a solution: the hon. Gentleman could have tabled an amendment to include Conservative Members on the Committee. We would then have full representation on it. I am grateful for his contribution to my speech.
Order. I am conscious that the Deputy Leader of the House is responding to interventions, but it is not a general debate about regional Committees, Select Committees or Grand Committees. We are discussing the constitution of the Committees, the existence of which has already been decided by the House. I urge the Deputy Leader of the House to restrain himself, if he can, in responding to interventions that are not about the motions.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I can sometimes restrain myself. To reply to the hon. Gentleman’s question briefly, the House took the view that regional Grand Committees should sit in tandem with the Select Committees. Once the Committees are in place, we want to start considering dates for regional Grand Committee meetings.
The Deputy Leader of the House understands that I oppose the principle of Committees that reflect the make-up of the House rather than the democratic will of the region on behalf of which they are meant to act. However, on the specific motions, his response about Parliamentary Private Secretaries was inadequate. Under the proposed system, one PPS in our regional Select Committee will be expected to scrutinise the work of, and possibly cross question, the Secretary of State for Transport, to whom she is PPS. Can that genuinely constitute adequate scrutiny?
The shadow Leader of the House says, “And us” in a slightly pipsqueaky way, but the Conservative party had a different difference with the Government. The Liberal Democrats’ difference is that they believe that each Committee should reflect the political composition of the region. That has not been done historically in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. The Committees are a way of providing parliamentary scrutiny of regional bodies. The majority of the scrutiny will be of the work of the regional development agencies, as many people said when the Modernisation Committee compiled its report. If individual Members feel that they have a conflict of interest, they must address that.
He does. We want to make progress on that, but we have not yet been able to do so. We have consulted the London assembly, the Mayor’s office and local authorities in London because we do not want to proceed in a way that does not work well with those organisations. We hope that a London committee will appear on the Order Paper soon, but that is not before us tonight.
Order. The Deputy Leader of the House has again been tempted to talk about Committees that do not even exist yet.
I cannot say whether I am going to tempt the Deputy Leader of the House. Does he accept that the matters that we are debating are House matters, not party matters? I therefore refer to the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who chairs the Select Committee on Public Accounts with distinction. Historically, procedures of the House and the setting up of Select Committees have been decided in this place on a cross-party and consensual basis. Bearing in mind the fact that there was a whipped vote on the Government side in last year’s vote and the fact that we will clearly have a whipped vote tonight, is it not right that the Government should review what they are doing, which has only their support and not the support of the Opposition parties in the House?
The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that I respect the view that, wherever possible, we should proceed in House business on the basis of consensus. Consensus, however, presumes that everybody will agree, and there are areas where sometimes people disagree. Incidentally, several Opposition Members who are not in the Chamber now have approached me and said that they would dearly love to sit on a regional Select Committee—they cannot do so because their political party has not been prepared to propose names—because they would like to scrutinise some of the policies of regional bodies. It would be wrong of the Leader of the House now to present anything other than what was carried in this House on 12 November. The way to proceed with consensus is for the hon. Gentleman’s party and the other parties in the House to propose their Members for the Committees as well.
Will my hon. Friend also confirm that it would be an unreasonable principle of parliamentary democracy if the search for consensus meant that the minority parties could block the demand from the majority parties for the proper scrutiny of the as yet not properly accountable structures of regional governance, particularly in the north of England? The issue before the House is the need for accountability of regional structures, not the posturing of the Opposition.
If I am honest, the most important thing in this debate—I am being tempted a great deal this evening, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I will try not to stray any further—is the fact that there is a large amount of money and many issues, particularly in relation to the recession, that affect ordinary families in the regions of this country that need proper scrutiny by Parliament. The only way we have found of doing that is by bringing forward regional Select Committees.
Like the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), I, too, pay tribute to the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. He quite often comes up with reports that I profoundly disagree with—he did so when I was on his Committee, albeit briefly. However, he and the other Select Committee Chairmen who are here this evening show the strength of the system. I believe that once regional Select Committees are up and running, they will be effective. They cannot, however, be up and running without members. We have obviously been unable to table names from those on the Opposition Benches this evening, although as I have said, we would be happy to do so. Indeed, we stand ready to do so if a damascene conversion happens in the next few days—I am looking at the shadow Leader of the House to see whether any such conversion is likely.
What a shame. The hon. Gentleman lets us down every time.
We have, none the less, proposed names in order to fulfil the will of the House, as expressed last November, that in order to enhance the parliamentary scrutiny of regional bodies, their policies and expenditure should be accountable to regional Committees of the House. I will not go through each of the names that we have tabled. I merely note that there is considerable experience embodied in each Committee. There are two former Cabinet members, several prominent former local councillors and the admirable former Chairman of the Select Committee on Health, who I am sure knows, even if the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) thinks that I do not, how the Select Committee process works. I am sure that they will do an admirable job.
Will the Deputy Leader of the House explain how the following conundrum in the south-west will work in practice? If all the parties propose Members, it seems entirely reasonable that Cornwall should be represented on the Committee for the south-west. However, all the MPs in Cornwall are Liberal Democrats. Under his structure, therefore, only one member of the south-west Committee would be a Liberal Democrat, despite the fact that the Liberal Democrats are the second biggest party in the region. Does that not strike him as a strange state of affairs?
The hon. Gentleman is simply going back to the point that I have already made to two of his hon. Friends, namely that he disagrees with the decision of 12 November. That decision was that we would have Committees that were composed in proportion to the political composition of the whole House, because we believe that the process is not about regional scrutiny, but about parliamentary scrutiny of the regions. We should follow the convention that the House has adopted heretofore in relation to Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, and have Committees in proportion to the whole House. That means that it would be enormously helpful—and a good idea for the people of Cornwall—if the Liberal Democrats were prepared to propose a member of that Committee. [Interruption.] I can assure the hon. Gentleman that two Liberal Democrats will never provide more interest and excitement than one.
The Select Committee system has been an immense success. We have seen the fruits of the system in recent weeks, through the work of the Select Committee on Treasury. [Interruption.] Now that I have started on the Liberal Democrat theme, the other point is that we would have two completely different views on the same issue if we had two Liberal Democrats—and probably two different views in the same hour from the same hon. Member.
On having two views, the Deputy Leader of the House mentioned that he sometimes disagreed with the unanimous all-party reports of the Public Accounts Committee. However, I was quite surprised a while ago to see his name on a list as a Committee member, because in my seven years on the Committee I never saw him turn up once. Can he say how often he was there?
Order. Much as the Minister might want to defend himself from that intervention, I think that he ought now to get down to the motions before us.
I think that I probably ought to be sitting down fairly soon, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I believe that the new Committees will play an important role in improving the scrutiny and democratic accountability of the public agencies and public bodies that operate in the English regions. We have enjoyed that in Wales.
I will try to make it nice. Earlier the Deputy Leader of the House invited me to suggest some names of Conservative Members from Worcestershire and Hereford who might serve on the relevant Committee. The trouble is that one is a Whip, while I am a Chairman of a Select Committee who does not have the time, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) is already on two Select Committees, because of the pressure of spaces. Requiring them to serve on yet another Committee would undermine the Select Committee system of which the Deputy Leader of the House speaks so warmly. He speaks in favour of the Select Committee system, but those nominations would undermine the process that he praises.
All I would say is that the Labour Members who have been prepared to put their names forward—there was competition in the Labour party to serve on the Committees—believe that the process is a priority, and they want to make it a priority. I completely understand—the hon. Gentleman made this point when he appeared before the Modernisation Committee—that there is intense pressure on right hon. and hon. Members’ time. It is sometimes difficult to manage Public Bill Committees and duties in the House and elsewhere. However, it is quite simply wrong that more than £2.3 billion should be spent by, for instance, regional development agencies, without any parliamentary scrutiny. We need to address that. Finally, without members, the Committees cannot exist and cannot do their work. I therefore urge hon. Members to support the motions before us.
I thank the Deputy Leader of the House for talking us through the supposed merits of the motions before us. I somehow feel that he cannot believe in his heart that what he is advocating is a good thing. The truth is that this is a pretty sorry moment for the House, and I am afraid that he will now be required to hear this pip squeak a little further on the matter.
What is before us this evening is a pretty mucky attempt to resuscitate a policy that is on the way out—in fact, I am not really sure that it was ever properly on the way in. This Government’s regional agenda is in complete disarray and chaos. The motions this evening are the fag-end of the fag-end of the fag-end of a policy that will never properly get off the ground.
It has become obvious in the course of this Parliament that the Government’s regional agenda was doomed from the outset. It arose out of the Government’s document, “The Governance of Britain”. I do not particularly admire that document; it contains some pretty simplistic, childish views, and one of its elements was the regional agenda.
Order. I am prepared to allow the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) some introductory remarks, because the Minister did exactly the same, but I hope that he will come back to the precise motion before the House before too long.
I am happy to concentrate exclusively on the motion. I hope that the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) will therefore forgive me if I write to him on the matter that he has raised.
We have before us the culmination of a process that was launched by the Leader of the House, who was initially against the regional Select Committees, but who was somehow, miraculously, persuaded to be in favour of them. Indeed, it was on her casting vote that the whole episode was launched. As many hon. Members have said today, this process has not enjoyed cross-party consensus from the start. The structure is enshrined in the motions before us, which nominate only Labour Members of Parliament to the Select Committees that are being set up.
None the origins of the structure has been accepted by the House in a unified way. In fact, most of the evidence involved was against it. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) has clearly stated that most of the responsibilities to be considered by the Committees are already covered by our existing Select Committee system. Covering the regions with Select Committees is an extension that makes no logical sense. It will involve responsibilities that are cross cutting and messy, and it will place a strain on House resources. Let us take the north as an example. The hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) has now gone, but he was arguing that Ministers needed somehow to be held to account. The north—and the north-east in particular—is crawling with Labour Members, and if they cannot hold their own Ministers to account, they need to examine their own effectiveness as Members.
On the back of this agenda, the Government appointed regional Ministers, but no one really knows who they are, and we know even less about what they do. They were originally to be questioned in the House, but that has never happened. What are they doing anyway? In which Department do they sit? For what are they responsible? The document, “The Governance of Britain”, says that regional Ministers, who are supposedly to be held to account by these Select Committees, do all sorts of important things. It sets out their responsibilities, stating that they “represent”, “facilitate”, “champion” and again “represent” various things in the document. But do they decide anything? No, they do not. These Ministers are fictitious Ministers, supposedly joining up the various tentacles of government and somehow making a Minister in one Department tie his or her decisions in with those of a Minister in another Department. The people who should be held to account, if that is necessary, are the Ministers who take those decisions, not these supposed facilitators who have no executive responsibility whatever. They are faux Ministers—false Ministers—and they do not really exist as Ministers at all.
In addition to the nonsense of regional Ministers, we have seen the collapse of the regional assemblies—another part of the great regional apparatus falling to bits. We are also seeing, as the shadow Leader of the House has said—
I meant the Deputy Leader of the House, although actually—no, my modesty has suddenly overcome me.
There is also disarray in the regional development agencies. Those bodies were originally business-led organisations set up to assist economic development, but they have gradually been seized by the Government and become an apparatus of government. Our proposal is to give a lot of their powers—15,000 houses to be built here and there, for example—back to the county councils as the proper planning authorities. At the moment, however, they are largely answerable to the Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire, the Business and Enterprise Committee. The accountability of these various organisations is therefore already enshrined in the apparatus of the House.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, because it illustrates powerfully the absurdity of the Select Committee structure proposed in the motion.
I should like to seek an assurance from the Deputy Leader of the House. Given that the proposed Select Committees are to be manned—or personed, or whatever the term is—only by Labour Members of Parliament, will he assure us that they are not simply going to go off on regional jaunts to seek regional headlines to assist the incumbency that they enjoy at the moment? We cannot have a Select Committee system like that, enjoying a budget and going off on jollies when its efficacy is being seriously challenged.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Does he accept that, in the south-east—a non-region that evokes no loyalty or sense of regionalism—we want to see the quangos abolished and any sensible powers and money given to elected local government, where an accountability structure is already in existence?
Order. May I say again that these matters have already been decided by the House? This evening, we are simply talking about the membership of the Committees before the House.
We are against supporting the nomination of Members to the Committees because we do not accept the structure to which they are being nominated. Indeed, it would be far better to have regional Grand Committees to which anyone who is elected in a region could go to argue their case. That would provide a far better structure than having five or nine Members holding a region to account.
One of the reasons why I did not put my name forward goes back to the question that I raised earlier: when and where will the Committees meet? Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I invited you to join an organisation, you might say, “Andrew, I’d love to, but when does it meet?” That is the logical question, and unless or until someone knows—
Order. I think that it has already been explained to the hon. Gentleman that those decisions would have to be taken by the members of the Committee. They cannot be taken until the Committee has its members, which is what is being decided tonight.
The creation of Select Committees to hold the Executive to account has been a positive development in the House. However, the original model was designed to ensure that the structure of a Select Committee shadowed, matched, mirrored and scrutinised a particular Department. So, for each Department of State, running through the ranks of Secretary of State and Minister and all the civil servants in that Department, there was a Select Committee to which those people would be accountable through investigations and reports. The structure of the regional Select Committees, however, fires off in all sorts of directions and is a complete administrative mess. To appoint Members of Parliament to the Committees, as is proposed in the motions, would be to enshrine an absolutely chaotic structure. They will not shadow any Departments, and they will fire in all sorts of directions in ways that will never come together.
When there is an imbalance in the House, as there is now—although I hope that it will swing the other way in due course—it is difficult for the Opposition, and particularly for a smaller party such as the Liberal Democrats, to find sufficient numbers of people to cover the ground, alongside all the other Select Committees and responsibilities involved. It is therefore unreasonable to have the number of Select Committees growing like Topsy, yet this measure would add eight to the existing number. It looks like a job creation scheme for Labour Members who seem not to have enough to do. At least the House took the decision not to pay the Chairmen.
I am certainly following the hon. Gentleman’s argument, and I support a great deal of it. However, his point about the Committees not being responsible for a particular Department, bearing in mind the kind words said about the Public Accounts Committee, seems a little wide of the mark. Surely it is proper for a Committee to look at all the areas of responsibility that fall within its domain.
But I do not think it would have the scope or resources to do that. The Public Accounts Committee has a large staff looking at the whole apparatus of Government and it can choose what to focus on, whereas a regional Select Committee has, let us say, 20 or so Government Departments to scrutinise. The idea that it can properly scrutinise all of those Departments in the interests of the region is, I believe, utterly fanciful.
It is not that we Labour Members do not have enough to do; it is more that we do not have second jobs and outside interests that take up so much time, which prevent some MPs from doing their parliamentary duties in this House properly. It is those duties that MPs should be concentrating on—not on their outside interests.
One starting point to deal with that suggestion would be to see more people in this Chamber, doing their job, particularly on the Labour Benches, which are invariably empty. This Chamber is the central focus of central Government scrutiny, not some great structure of regional Committees that are spread so thinly as to be ineffective.
I shall not detain the House much longer. We think that this is a farce and, quite frankly, we do not want anything to do with it. We would be fully justified in voting against all eight motions consecutively this evening; we are sorely tempted to do so, but we are mindful of the business that follows, so we will not go the full distance. However, we certainly intend to test the feeling of the House in a Division.
It is clear that neither we nor the Liberal Democrats will nominate members from our respective parties to those Committees. That leaves them as Committees of Labour MPs alone and that illustrates the fact that the Government’s regional policy is in a state of collapse. Ministers have been created to serve a non-existent regional policy, and regional Select Committees have been created to scrutinise near-fictitious regional Ministers. That lays the farcical on top of the fatuous on top of the fictitious. As a monument to this Government, it is fitting that we say, “Bin the lot.”
There is probably no idea, however sensible at the start and however valuable it may be, that this Government cannot turn into a dog’s dinner with their cloth-eared intransigence, their inability to give up even a scintilla of power from the centre and their inability to grasp the concepts of parliamentary structures and accountability and the will of the electorate in the regions of this country. That is precisely what the Government have done here.
The Government have taken something that could be argued to be a necessary part of our powers of scrutiny—to look at what is happening in these unelected quangos that spend so much of our money—and they have messed it up. We were going to get rid of the quangos. Let us remember the commitment given in 1997 by the previous Deputy Prime Minister to get rid of all these unelected quangos. It never happened; in fact, the quangos increased and spent even more of taxpayers’ money without any scrutiny. The answer would have been to democratise the quangos, provide scrutiny at source and make them accountable to local electorates—but of course that has not happened. Instead, we have a body of governmental decision making and governmental spending that is not, I think, adequately scrutinised by the present departmental Select Committee structure.
There is an argument for having a Select Committee structure for the regions, but what did the Government do with that concept? They decided not to bow to the “will of the House”—a term that the Deputy Leader of the House keeps using when he says that this was a decision of the House. Well, yes, in arithmetic terms, it was a decision of the House, but it was a decision of Labour Members only—not a single Member of any other party supported them. When even the Modernisation Committee looked at this—
Order. The hon. Gentleman has heard the remarks I made to earlier speakers, but he is dealing with the issues before us in a very broad-brush way. The House has decided on the matter in that it has brought us to where we stand this evening. I do not want to curtail the hon. Gentleman’s remarks immediately, but I would be grateful if he would confine his remarks to the motions before the House as soon as possible.
I am most grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I will soon reach the end of my opening and introductory remarks on the subject. I was hoping to point out to the House that the structure before us and the membership that we are appointing have come about as a result of a decision in the Modernisation Committee taken on the basis of the casting vote of the Leader of the House—a Minister of the Crown—because she was unable to secure the support of any other party. We are being asked to consider a structure that has no nominations from these Benches, no nominations from the Conservatives, and no nominations from Plaid Cymru, from the Scottish Nationalists or from independent Members of the House, because only the Labour party believed in the way these Committees were to be set up. We argued that they should be set up on a different basis. We argued—the Deputy Leader of the House was sensible and honest enough to say that this was a difference between us, which we have and will continue to have—that the people nominated to serve on these Select Committees should represent the political will of the regions they serve.
In one sense that is a political argument insofar as we wanted to reflect the political outcome of elections, but it is also an argument in favour of accountability. Without it, we cannot reflect the regions in the appointment of Members of this House to the Committees. Let us look at the most glaring examples. Some aspects disadvantage the Labour party: in some regions, there is an argument for having more Labour Members than are proposed in the motions. That would apply in several regions, but let me start with the south-west, as it is my region and I know it best, but also because it provides the most glaring example of the inadequacy of the Government’s proposals.
The Government propose having five Labour Members in order to give the Labour party a majority in the south-west region and the west country, but does Labour represent the majority of seats in the west country? No. Does it represent the second largest party in the region? No. It is the third party in the south-west with just 13 seats in comparison with the Liberal Democrats’ 16 seats and the Conservatives’ 22. If the composition of the south-west region were properly arrived at, there would be four Conservatives, three Liberal Democrats and two Labour Members, yet we are to have five Labour Members, all serving mainly city constituencies, so they are not even capable of properly representing the different areas in the south-west.
As was mentioned earlier, if we were to appoint a Liberal Democrat on the south-west regional Committee, he or she would have to come from Cornwall—if Cornwall were to be represented at all. Somerset might well not be represented because there are three Liberal Democrats there. What is absolutely certain is that for Cornwall to be represented, there would be no representation for the constituencies of Somerset and Frome, Taunton, Yeovil, Mid-Dorset and North Poole, Bristol, West, Northavon, Cheltenham, Bath, North Devon, Torbay or Teignbridge. None of the Members from those constituencies could possibly serve on the Committee in order for Cornwall to be represented at all because of the five Liberal Democrat Members in that county. This is not a structure that can command any respect or credibility in the south-west.
My hon. Friend has pointed out that the constituencies of the proposed Labour Committee members are predominantly urban. Has he also noted that four of the five represent just two cities in the south-west? The overall population of the region is 5 million, but the suggested membership is not representative of even the urban population, let alone the rural population.
I must say that, as a Conservative Member, I agree with what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but does it not demonstrate the totally inadequate way in which the Modernisation Committee, of which I am certainly the longest-serving member, considered the matter? I should add that the motion that we are debating emerged from that Committee as a result of the casting vote of the Chairman, who is a Labour Cabinet Minister.
Precisely. I think we would be debating very different proposals today had the Modernisation Committee done its job properly and presented sensible proposals to the House.
The Committee for the south-east is another glaring example, but different considerations apply in that instance. Its composition would benefit not the Liberal Democrats but the Conservatives. If properly represented on the Committee, the Conservatives would have six members. They would be in the majority, because the majority of constituencies in the region are represented by Conservative Members of Parliament. The Labour party should have just two representatives, but it is to have five. It is to have the majority in the south-east as well, because that is how the Government have decided to present their proposal.
I know that the hon. Gentleman was not a member of the Modernisation Committee, although other Liberal Democrats were. On 24 occasions the Liberal Democrats voted with the Labour Committee members. As the hon. Gentleman says, the main issue on which they disagreed with the Government was that of the proportion, but he has also made an assumption about the casting vote. Some may understand the casting vote to constitute a second vote for a member of the Committee, and that is the case in the House of Lords. However, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, in the House of Commons it is only when there is equality of voices that the Chair has a vote.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that helpful exposition of what happened in the Modernisation Committee. The casting vote of a Cabinet Minister determined that the Labour party’s view would prevail, and that the views of all the Opposition parties were to be disregarded.
When we debated this matter on an earlier occasion, I expressed a genuine fear that one of the consequences of the composition that the Government were proposing was that Labour members would have to be drafted in from other regions. The Government have avoided that—the names before us do not come from regions other than those that they would be asked to scrutinise—but the only way they could avoid it was by drafting members of the Government on to the Committees. So we are to have members of the Government—parliamentary private secretaries—scrutinising the Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) drew attention to one of the most glaring examples of that, again in the south-west, where some of our biggest issues relate to transport. The second strategic route to the south-west, the improvement of the A303 and the electrification of the Great Western railway line are major issues of infrastructure which the Select Committee would have to consider, but we are to have the Secretary of State for Transport sitting on one side of it and his PPS sitting on the other, no doubt asking him searching questions about what they will have discussed earlier in the departmental office.
Decisions on the big transport issues in the south-west, such as rail and road links, are almost always made by the South West of England regional development agency, and even when it does not make the decisions, huge influence is exerted on the decision-making process by the RDA.
And, it must be said, by the Secretary of State for Transport, who is to be represented on the Committee that is scrutinising him. However, that situation is not unique. I note that the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland), who is present, is named as one of the members of the north-east regional Select Committee, and he is unique: he is the only one who is not a PPS. Four of the five Committee members are part of the Government, while the fifth, the hon. Gentleman, alone represents the independent voice of the north-east. The Deputy Leader of the House accepted that there might be conflicts of interest. Circumstances might arise in which all four PPSs had to leave the room and the hon. Gentleman would be on his own. He would be a splendid scrutineer on his own, but is that any way to set up a Committee of this House?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to that point. Would it not be helpful if the Deputy Leader of the House presented an alternative motion allowing the only non-PPSs—the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland), the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) and me—to do the job? We could save quite a lot of money, and avoid the necessity for motions such as this.
There will be a quorum problem in any case, because there will be only five Labour members. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) made a valid point when he asked when and where the Committees would meet. Will they perambulate around the country? Will they meet at times when Parliament is not sitting? It will be extremely difficult for an assiduous parliamentarian to find time to go out to the regions in order to attend Committee meetings.
Does my hon. Friend consider that putting PPSs on Select Committees represents a change in Government practice? During my first two and a half years or so as a Member of Parliament, I was a member of the Education and Skills Committee and, subsequently, the Children, Schools and Families Committee. On each occasion that a Labour member of the Committee became a PPS, he or she had to withdraw from the Committee.
That is true. We used to have rules about these things. We asked the Government Chief Whip for a list of PPSs, and he was not prepared to provide one. Apparently it is a secret. That may be because there are so many resignations each day that the Government cannot keep up, but the fact remains that they would not provide us with a list of the PPSs who are currently serving in the Government so that we could do our research. We had to deal with each one separately.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the appointment of PPSs may pose a further problem? It is not just a question of holding them to account at the main Committee meetings; all the informal and private meetings at which the Committee prepares itself for those meetings will be prejudiced and put at risk. It will be very difficult for any PPS to keep the necessary Chinese walls in place.
I think it will be very difficult for a PPS to do his duty both to the Committee and to his Minister. He or she will be privy to information that will be relevant to the Minister whom he or she serves; on the other hand, he or she will be privy to information from the Department that the Committee really ought to hear. If PPSs disagree with their Ministers, is that a resigning matter? Will they be forced to resign as a result of reports from their Committees? These are untested waters.
May I recommend to the hon. Gentleman an excellent Library note on the issue of PPSs serving on Select Committees? I came across it by chance recently. Although the hon. Gentleman is making much of the issue, if he reads the Library note he will discover that it is not a new issue but one with which the House has wrestled many times over the years, and that PPSs have sat on Select Committees under all Governments of different colours.
I do not believe that there has ever been a circumstance in which a PPS has been asked to scrutinise the work of the Department in which he or she serves. I honestly believe that that is the case, but if the hon. Gentleman has evidence to the contrary I shall be happy to hear it.
As the Deputy Leader of the House indicated earlier, in the event of such a circumstance arising, it would be easy for the particular PPS to withdraw and not to take part in the business. The overwhelming argument for having regional Select Committees is to scrutinise the work of regional development agencies, where PPSs would not be directly involved, would not have such a conflict of interest and would not need to withdraw.
If all we are doing is trying to provide democratic accountability for regional development agencies, let us do that and not go through this regional Select Committee system, which is supposed to deal with matters on a wider front; according to the Deputy Leader of the House, that is what this is all about. I must not be drawn on the functions of those Committees, because I would go wide of the motion, but I think I have made the point adequately about PPSs. It is a real concern. For that reason, if for no other, I recommend to my right hon. and hon. Friends that they do not support the motions.
It is simply unacceptable that we have these hole-and-corner Committees of Labour Members wandering around the country. They will be stuffed full of Government Members pretending to scrutinise our regional structures, but not doing so effectively—a cabal that will have no credibility, either in the House or outside, and no accountability, because it will not represent the wider region that it is purporting to represent.
It is a meaningless innovation that the Government are pushing ahead with without consensus, because they do not understand consensus, and without any understanding of accountability, because they never give away a scintilla of power. They have to control everything from the centre and from the Whips Office. It will not do for this House or for the regions of this country.
I endorse everything that has been said by the spokesman for the Liberal Democrat party and by the Front-Bench spokesman for my party. In opposing the appointment of the Labour Members to these Select Committees, may I say that the departmental Select Committees do an excellent job? They could well undertake all the functions that will be carried out by the new regional Select Committees. As someone with some experience of Select Committees over many years, going back to the 1970s, I have to say that in recent years the departmental Select Committees and other long-established Select Committees of the House have on occasions found it very difficult to achieve a quorum. If we are going to establish another eight Committees that are manned, if I may use that phrase, only by Members—men and women of the House; the word “manned” covers that—there will be grave difficulty not only in obtaining quorums for the regional Select Committees, but in obtaining quorums for the departmental and other long-established Select Committees of the House.
I want to repeat this point, because I believe it is important that the history of the proposal be fully understood by the House and by those who will read the report of the proceedings of the House, referring not only perhaps to the vote in November but to the vote that will take place here tonight. The Modernisation Committee passed to the House the resolution for the setting up of regional Select Committees on the casting vote of a Government Minister—the Leader of the House. I personally believe, and I have studied the matter since the debate in November, that a majority of the evidence was against the establishment of regional Select Committees.
I have mentioned the difficulty of getting sufficient Members to serve on Committees or to turn up at Select Committee meetings. I must also point out, briefly, that the House is going to have to incur expenditure of more than £2 million at this time of financial difficulty. [Interruption.] Oh yes. It is indeed £2 million. That expenditure will be incurred to staff the Committees, to cover the costs of the Committees, the travel of the Committees and the expenses of the Committees. Even if it is just under £2 million, to my mind it is expenditure that we should not incur when the people of this country are having to face a financial crisis.
As one of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues on the Modernisation Committee, I too heard the evidence that was given to us. Does he recall that the overwhelming majority of that evidence was firmly in favour of the establishment of proper scrutiny at a regional level, and that the amount of money that he is talking about is very small compared with the £2.3 billion spent every year by regional development agencies alone?
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman responds, I ask him to work out just how that point relates to the motion before the House and the membership of the Committees.
I can say very clearly that every member of the regional Select Committee will incur expenditure. They will want to travel to the region that the Committee is supposed to represent and to cover. There will be travelling costs and accommodation costs. I also refer to the extremely heavy cost, much of it justified, of the excellent Clerks department that we have in the House, and to the fact that the Clerks are, rightly, very well remunerated staff of the House. There will therefore be considerable expenditure. I give way to the Deputy Leader of the House, who I am sure is going to try to correct the figures that I have cited.
Because they will come forward in due course, I was of course referring to the regional Grand Committees as well. I can say to the Members of the House, as I say to the Deputy Leader of the House, that I have never known an estimate of this House that has not been exceeded in the reality.
Order. I think that we are having enough difficulty establishing the membership from Members of this Chamber, without having to worry about the Clerks department.
No, I think that we will move on.
I hope that I can be helpful. So that the hon. Gentleman can relate the figure that he has given to the membership that is before us, I can tell him that it works out at £50,000 per Labour Member, or £30,000 if we take the figure from the Deputy Leader of the House.
That is a very helpful intervention, for which I shall be eternally grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It is entirely wrong that that expenditure per head should be incurred. Members have been nominated by some magic circle to regional Select Committees. It has been done by the Government party. It is extraordinary that, as we scrap the regional assemblies, we are setting up here in the House other bodies to supervise the regions. The assemblies originally comprised—this was the hope—people who were very knowledgeable about the given area, and had considerable business or local government experience. All these matters are much more relevant to local government than they are to the House.
Is it not the case that the regional assemblies were abandoned because they were not directly accountable and were seen as too remote from the regions? Can the hon. Gentleman imagine why anyone would think that regional Select Committees were any more directly accountable, or any closer to the regions that they were supposed to scrutinise?
In my long time in this House, I have never known the Liberal Democrats to be so helpful to a Conservative and Unionist Member. The hon. Lady’s point is entirely relevant.
May I also say that I am a huge believer in this Chamber of the House of Commons? To my mind, this is the Chamber where Members of Parliament should be in attendance—I hesitate to use the word “manned” again, as I may upset the Deputy Leader of the House.
This proposal to set up the regional Select Committees will take away more Members—and there are few enough of them now—from the Chamber, which should be the core of the activities of a Member of Parliament. Perhaps, however, the Government want that, to enable them to get their ill-considered and badly debated legislation through the House even faster.
Biblically, our Lord was only twice in two places at the same time, but what is going to be required of Members who serve on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee or the Foreign Affairs Committee and on a regional Select Committee at the same time? It is really a miracle.
It is a miracle, and the hon. Gentleman has stolen my next three or four sentences, so I will not repeat what he has said. He is absolutely right, however: this Parliament will lose out by this proposal. I wish those on our Front Bench would vote against every motion on the Order Paper rather than take them all together, in order to show how much the people who are committed to this House disapprove of what the Government are doing in its name. It is a shame and it is diabolical. It will be bad for the House; I strongly oppose it and will vote against it in the Division at the end of the debate.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), and I would like to add a brief footnote to the excellent points he has just made.
The Deputy Leader of the House put forward an argument in his opening speech about the legitimacy of Parliamentary Private Secretaries serving on these Select Committees. The argument he deployed was that, because Front-Bench Opposition spokesmen sat on Select Committees, it was legitimate for PPSs to do so, but there is a fundamental difference between a PPS and an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, in that a PPS owes his loyalty to the Government, whereas an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman does not. Therefore, in terms of holding the Executive to account, it is simply not the case that a PPS can be equated with a Front-Bench spokesman. It is a fundamental misconception to put the two on a par.
My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield made a point about quorums, and there is at present a real problem with quorums on Select Committees. The Sessional Returns show the pressure that the existing Select Committees are already under, and that will be made worse by the appointment of eight more Select Committees. The Public Accounts Committee is, perhaps, the most prestigious Select Committee, and it had an average attendance of 47.2 per cent. In other words, for most of the time most of its members were not present. The Regulatory Reform Committee had a 42.3 per cent. attendance rate, and the rate for the Environmental Audit Committee was 44.5 per cent. Some Select Committees are at present having real difficulties in meeting their quorum, and that will be aggravated if Members who already sit on Select Committees are put on additional ones.
Two of the Members nominated for the south-east regional Select Committee are already on two Select Committees and their resources will, inevitably, be stretched even further. One Member who is already so heavily committed that he or she was unable to attend one of the 12 meetings of a Select Committee on which he or she already sits is being put on a regional Select Committee. In my Select Committee, a Member was unable to attend for a long time for the perfectly good reason that he was on another Select Committee that met at exactly the same time. There is a real risk that in trying to set up these regional Committees, we will undermine the good work of those Select Committees that are already up and running.
I understand the doctrine of the mandate. A resolution came from a Select Committee, the Government got a majority for that proposition in the House, and therefore they can go on. If we look at the votes on 12 November, however, a slightly different picture emerges. One resolution was carried by two votes—and I have to say to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) that if he had voted the other way on that one, there would have been a tie on the proportion of Members from each party representing constituencies in each region. The hon. Gentleman voted with my party and other parties on the pay of Select Committee Chairmen, but on some of the other ones I am afraid that he voted in the other Lobby.
There is a key difference between resolutions that deal with Select Committees and resolutions that are delivering the Government’s manifesto. It is my experience that when reforms have been made to Select Committees and how they work, we have tried to do that by consensus and taking the other parties with us. There is a risk that, far from advancing the policy of the Government for the regions, having five out of nine Members, at best, going round the country, and all from one party, will do an injury to the vestiges of the regional policy that they still retain.
What the Government should have done was ask themselves, “With 15 months to the next general election, how important is it that we drive this reform through a divided House of Commons, and send Select Committees, with half their members not present, round the country, in the name of regionalism?” Would it not have been more sensible to have said, “Actually, we have other things to do at the moment. There are other ways of employing Members’ time. There are other reforms in the House of Commons that have a greater priority. Therefore, we will just park this one and not proceed with it”? If the Government had done that, we would all have understood: we would have applauded the wisdom, and we would have recognised that they had reflected on the very narrow votes that took place on 12 November and decided not to go ahead.
When these Committees start their work, I wonder how many times they will meet. I also wonder what practical work they will be able to do between now and the next general election, without at the same time undermining—
One and a half hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the Business of the House motion, the Deputy Speaker put the Question (Order, this day).
That Mr David Drew, Linda Gilroy, Kerry McCarthy, Dr Doug Naysmith and Alison Seabeck be members of the South West Regional Select Committee.
The Deputy Speaker then put the remaining Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time.
regional select committee (East of England)
That Mr Charles Clarke, Dr Ian Gibson, Patrick Hall, Margaret Moran and Mr Anthony Wright be members of the East of England Regional Select Committee.—(Chris Bryant.)
regional select committee (West Midlands)
That Mr Adrian Bailey, Richard Burden, Mr David Kidney, Mr James Plaskitt and Joan Walley be members of the West Midlands Regional Select Committee.—(Chris Bryant.)
regional select committee (south East)
That Ms Celia Barlow, Dr Stephen Ladyman, David Lepper, Gwyn Prosser and Mr Andrew Smith be members of the South East Regional Select Committee.—(Chris Bryant.)
regional select committee (north East)
That Mr David Anderson, Mr David Clelland, Mrs Sharon Hodgson, Ms Dari Taylor and Phil Wilson be members of the North East Regional Select Committee.—(Chris Bryant.)
regional select committee (north West)
That Rosie Cooper, Mr David Crausby, Tony Lloyd, Mr Eric Martlew and Geraldine Smith be members of the North West Regional Select Committee.—(Chris Bryant.)
regional select committee (Yorkshire and the humber)
That Mr Clive Betts, Mr Ian Cawsey, Mary Creagh, Mr Eric Illsley and Shona McIsaac be members of the Yorkshire and the Humber Regional Select Committee.—(Chris Bryant.)
regional select committee (East midlands)
That Mr John Heppell, Mr Bob Laxton, Judy Mallaber, Sir Peter Soulsby and Paddy Tipping be members of the East Midlands Regional Select Committee.—(Chris Bryant.)