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Select Committees (Election)

Volume 501: debated on Thursday 26 November 2009

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

A wise man once said that

“there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones.”

We need to consider those words of Machiavelli extremely carefully when we are trying to reform this House. Despite the efforts of many colleagues over many years, there are always roadblocks or difficulties, sometimes at a late stage, in trying to move forward and make progress. However, with the help of my hon. Friends on the Front Bench, whichever bit they sit on, I am sure that we can move forward.

To rebuild this House, we will need more than a one-club policy. There has to be something better, particularly if that policy is merely to placate the media with the odd human sacrifice of a Member of Parliament because of expenses or something else. We must have another side—a positive side—to what we are doing in our own reform, and that is to create a Chamber that people can be proud of and an institution that acts as a national forum. Then we will start to recover people’s respect for this institution instead of just piling more bodies on to The Daily Telegraph bonfire.

We therefore need to support the Prime Minister, since it was he who set up the Wright Committee and wanted it to be a success. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us that the Prime Minister intends to will the ends as well as the means—that he wants to make reform something that is not just rhetorical but real and practical as we come towards the end of this Parliament.

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I ask him to be brief because I do not get injury time.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for what he is doing tonight. Is he aware, however, that when the Modernisation Committee put forward proposals to ensure that Select Committees were truly representative of this House, the Government, and the Whips Office of the Government—the Labour party—sought to defeat its then Chairman, and did defeat him, when his inspirational leadership in trying to modernise this House and make it more democratic had provided such an opportunity, through the work of the Modernisation Committee?

I regard the Front-Bench team—certainly on the Government side of the House—and I would say in all parts of the House—as being positive in trying to move this plan forward.

I must take issue with the hon. Gentleman as regards the Whips being this alleged dark force with their own agenda. I can tell him that I was in the Whips Office for five years, and as a Whip, one does not sneeze unless the Prime Minister thinks it appropriate. It is not accurate to say that the Whips have a separate agenda. If they organise informally for some reason, they are doing so at the behest of the Prime Minister, and that will be the test if and when the matter comes before the House—it is not that they have gone off on some sort of maverick effort. Either they have been told by the Prime Minister that he wishes the thing to happen, in which case it will, and they will serve him, or, informally, he does not wish it to happen, and that is when people say, “The Whips are doing their own thing.” That is not true in this House.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister said of the Wright Committee recommendations:

“I believe that there will be a warm welcome for some of the proposals in the report.”—[Official Report, 25 November 2009; Vol. 501, c. 529.]

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that although the election of Select Committee Chairs by the whole House may well get through, the more radical proposals for a Back-Bench business committee could be strangled at birth?

My hon. Friend has been one of the most ardent and capable members of the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, and it is very rare that I disagree with him, but I say to him that the positions that we have all agreed in the report on the election of Select Committees and other things are merely a negotiating base. If we can get some key things in it accepted, I will be absolutely delighted. We must give Front-Bench colleagues who are in favour of them the ammunition to negotiate. No doubt they will make many compromises, but I hope that the House as whole will see the issue move forward, even though some things that my hon. Friend and I want will sadly not go through.

We state at the beginning of the report, and it is repeated later, that the Government must get their business. Wherever one sits in this House, that has to be a truism while we have a unitary system of government in this country. That guarantee is in the report, and if it is not there strongly enough, it needs to be reinforced by Front Benchers, who all aspire to hold power.

The other side of that is that Parliament must get its scrutiny. That is why there is the leverage of people of good will throughout the House to suggest compromises if necessary and negotiate a way forward, and to make into a reality the truism from Gladstone that I have repeated often in this Chamber, that the role of this House is not to run the country but to hold to account those who do. If we can do that, we will all have done a good job here. In very difficult circumstances, we can salvage the heart and the root cause of why we have a Parliament in this country.

I hope that I can share the hon. Gentleman’s optimism, but on the basis of the exchanges earlier with the Leader of the House, does he share my concern that she has not even been able to say categorically that we will have a substantive motion before us on which we can debate these issues, and which we can amend as needs be? That should happen in a short time scale, no later than the end of January.

I would certainly welcome an Opposition day initiated by any party so that we can have a proper debate, but I do not just want a debate: I want a clear decision. For instance, I do not care whether some of our proposals in the report on private Members’ Bills live or die, but they should be brought to a decision rather than be subject to the procedural wrangling and argy-bargy that wastes everybody’s time. Let us be honest about whether we want the changes to go ahead. The House is bad at confronting decisions and often finds ways to avoid doing so, but we certainly should in this case.

A great strength of the point in our report about elected Select Committees is that for the first time, the members of a Select Committee were elected secretly by the individual parties. Its Labour members were properly, privately and secretly elected, as were the Conservative and Liberal members, and special arrangements were made for the minority parties, as they need to be. That precedent did not lead to the collapse of parliamentary civilisation as some people know it, because it was actually one of the best Committees that one could have wished to be on. The rapport, exchanges and interaction led to a really superb report, considering the time that we were given to produce it. I commend it to all hon. Members to read.

We can take into our own hands our suggestion for all Select Committees. Provided that a basic test of democracy put in place by Mr. Speaker is passed, all parties should be able to grow up and elect their Committee members. What a wonderful thing that would be! It would also show that we can have legitimacy in this House, whether we are electing Select Committees or Deputy Speakers or doing anything else. We are capable of looking after our own affairs, behaving reasonably and responsibly and exercising judgment. We do not need a special group of people to do that for us or to select those things for us. That gives the House great strength, and with that strength will come the sense of being able to control our own agenda in tandem with the Government. For those who did not hear me the first time, I repeat that we do not wish to undermine the ability of a Government of any political colour to use the House to pass their legislation.

Our weakness, however, has been exemplified in recent times. Although many hon. Members would like a debate on this issue, or some other issue or motion, it appears that one needs the strength of someone such as Sir Christopher Kelly for that to happen. He took umbrage at the fact that a Bill that he wanted was not in the Queen’s Speech and found the next day that an announcement had been made, “Don’t worry, Sir Christopher, you’ll have a Bill if you really want one.” It appears also that Nick Robinson can raise an eyebrow at something and there is an instant response. The best that Members of Parliament can do is to get a debate within two months. That shows the weakness of the House compared with the Government and the media, between whom, as we know, the real politics take place. Some of the modest measures in the report will help to redress the balance, so that the only directly elected element of our constitution—ourselves—can take some responsibility, have a degree of respect and participate in the exercise of proper democracy. That, too, is important.

It is very important not that the party leaders, who came out individually and said that Parliament should be reformed, specify the detail of that reform—I do not expect my hon. Friend the Minister to respond to the detail of the report, having had it for only two days—but that they respond to the concepts, of which they are all philosophically in favour, of improving how the House works. Those party leaders, including my own, need to repeat publicly, so that everyone—whether they are Back-Bench Members or in the Whips Office—is clear that they meant what they said.

A tiny fraction—an insignificant sliver—of people in the House cynically believe that we can spend two months contemplating our navels, have an inconclusive debate followed perhaps by a motion towards the back end of the Parliament, when few people are here, and that, with a free vote, perhaps with thousands of amendments plaguing the Order Paper, the matter will dribble into the sand. I do not share for one moment that cynical view, which a tiny number of colleagues have proposed as a way to conclude this business.

I am sure that we will hear tonight, not least from the Dispatch Box, that once the report has been digested, there will be a clear timetable backed by the three main party leaders, and that we will bring the House to a conclusion—yes or no—on a large number of the sensible and modest recommendations in the report. I hope that that day comes long enough ahead of a general election for it to make a difference and that, after the general election, regardless of who controls this place, another raft of proposals will come forward, so that the House can move into the 21st century and try to recapture some of the public esteem that it has so thoughtlessly frittered away over the past six months.

I am pleased to respond to this Adjournment debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). It is fair to say that he is one of the strongest advocates of the House reform agenda, and it is appropriate that he secured this debate, although we have also heard from other Members who are strong advocates. As the report of the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons was published only two days ago, there is a limit to the detail into which I can go in my response, and I am sure that my hon. Friend understands that. He is nodding.

As my hon. Friend said, on 10 June, the Prime Minister announced in a statement to the House his support for the proposal made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) to set up a new committee to consider reform of the procedures of the House of Commons. One of the Committee’s terms of reference was to examine the processes for appointing members and Chairmen of Select Committees—the broad subject of our debate tonight.

The House agreed to set up the Committee on 20 July, having first tabled a motion around the start of July. It was unfortunate that it took so long for the Committee to be set up. There were several objections to the original motion, so the Government listened to Members’ representations and amended it, and the House was able to debate a motion that had cross-party support. However, I regret that the members and Chair of the Committee found themselves right on top of the recess when they were trying to get it started. There are some lessons to be learned about communication, and Members objected to the original motion night after night as their way of expressing an opinion. However, we got through that. The Committee reported on Tuesday, and the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House welcomed its report. I will come back to that subject.

The Committee was given four areas to examine: the appointment of members and Chairmen of Select Committees; the appointment of Deputy Speakers; the scheduling of business in the House; and enabling the public to initiate debates and proceedings. The Procedure Committee has reported separately on the principle of electing the Deputy Speakers, so the parliamentary reform Committee did not want to duplicate that work. The Government will respond to the Procedure Committee’s report in due course.

Like the parliamentary reform Committee’s report, I intend to use the gender-neutral term “Chair” in this debate to denote both the individual chairing a Committee and the office held. My personal view is that, like many of the other recommendations around at the moment, that is a practice that the House should adopt now we are in the 21st century.

This morning my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House thanked my hon. Friend and the Committee for their work on the report. She also said that she looked forward to bringing the matter forward for debate.

The report by the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons highlights three areas for reform, and makes many recommendations. They include reducing the size of departmental Select Committees in some cases, setting up a Back-Bench committee to schedule non-Government business, and informing the public of House business relating to their own petitions. As for quaint procedures, a series of petitions have just been presented, and I would be amazed if the public who felt so strongly about the subject of those petitions understood the way in which we handle them.

On Select Committees, the report highlights several matters and makes many recommendations for reform. They range from reducing the size of departmental Select Committees to extending reforms to the Intelligence and Security Committee and making the process more transparent. It also suggests a review of the system after two years of a new Parliament and a review of the Public Bill Committee system to see whether the selection of membership should be subject to increased accountability.

I shall talk first about Select Committees, the main subject of our debate. Select Committees have existed for centuries. In their earlier form, they advised, deliberated and reported. However, they were usually set up on an ad hoc basis to discuss the latest sensitive political issues, and they met informally. Throughout their existence the Select Committee system has evolved, and we should ensure that we enable them to continue evolving. That ties in with the Committee’s work.

Thirty years ago, the House of Commons established the departmental Select Committee system to scrutinise Departments. For many years it had been recommended that Select Committee Chairs should be paid, but that was not agreed by the House until 2003.

Steps have been taken over the years to reform and strengthen the system, and the Committee’s report notes those changes. Reforms have included: the creation of core objectives for Select Committees; the Liaison Committee publishing an annual report on the work of Select Committees, to which the Government respond, and the Prime Minister giving evidence to the Liaison Committee once a year. [Hon. Members: “Twice.”] I misread—I meant twice a year.

The parliamentary reform Committee’s report states:

“The Select Committees are widely respected and seen as generally functioning well. They have won more resources in recent years. Their work on pre-legislative and post-legislative scrutiny, examination of expenditure and pre-appointment hearings is gaining ground.”

It continues:

“There is a strong desire to strengthen yet further these forums for cross-party work and Government scrutiny and indeed extend the way they work to other parts of parliamentary life.”

The report expresses concern about the current method of selecting Committee members and Chairs. It also details the powers of Committees, and their need for access to the agenda of the Chamber, as further areas of concern.

The Liaison Committee’s report, “The Work of the Committees in 2007-08” agreed that Select Committees played an important role, and said that they were

“a central part of Parliament’s vital scrutiny role.”

Select Committee inquiries are often topical and are increasingly becoming newsworthy. The current inquiry into “Press standards, privacy and libel” by the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, and the Transport Committee’s inquiry into “Priorities for investment in the railways” are just a couple of examples.

This morning I was asked in business questions about giving more time to debate Select Committee reports. Although time is provided to debate Select Committee reports in Westminster Hall, I suggested that topical debate requests could also be made to give more time to debate them.

Let me briefly touch on other areas raised in tonight’s Adjournment debate—

Order. I hope that the Minister will do so briefly, as the subject of the debate is clearly the election of Members to Select Committees. Although the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) ranged a little widely, we cannot have a full-scale debate on the Wright Committee report. This debate would not be the appropriate vessel for that.

If the Minister will allow me, I would include the election of members of the proposed business committee within the subject of electing members of Select Committees generally, given that it has been proposed as one of the Committees of the House. I hope that that will allow my hon. Friend to say a little something about the business committee and how it will be composed.

Thank you. I will certainly bear your words in mind, Mr. Deputy Speaker. A number of suggestions have been made over a long period— dating back, I think, even to Lord Tyler, the then Liberal Democrat spokesman—about business committees and how their members might be selected and then go forward. My hon. Friend touched earlier on two particular recommendations about the people serving on such committees. One recommendation is to timetable Government business, and the other is to schedule non-Government business, including topical and general debates. As to who might want to sit on such committees and who might want to be nominated for them, it has been suggested that Back Benchers from all parties should be allowed to exercise their influence on the question of what important subjects should be brought before the House for debate.

The latest proposals are part of a thorough and wide-ranging set of conclusions, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear me say that they need to be considered in detail, along with other recommendations in the report and other recent reports, of which a number have recommended various reforms.

My hon. Friend talked about public engagement—although this subject may be rather beyond the scope of our debate. As I mentioned earlier, whenever we are talking about a subject—whether that be Select Committees or anything else that we discuss—I would like us to do so in language less strange to the public than our language frequently is.

Will the Deputy Leader of the House go a little further, specifically in relation to the appointment of Select Committees in the next Parliament? Is it not critical for members to be properly independently elected rather than being put forward by the Whips? I greatly admired the late Robin Cook, who was inspirational and focused. He knew how to return democracy to this House, but he was denied that opportunity when the Modernisation Committee’s proposals were defeated by a majority of Government Members voting against them.

That brings me back to a point I made earlier. There are some issues that need careful consideration if we are to achieve the change suggested by the report. For instance, we need to think about what will happen when we have a substantial turnover of Members and a lot of new Members come in, which is certainly going to happen, because so many Members are not standing for re-election. In a recent debate about the nomination of members to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) made a strong appeal, saying that he had wanted to be considered for various Committees, but that as a Member from the 2005 intake, he had found it impossible to get nominated.

Things will be difficult when the people making the decisions are themselves new, and we need to take account of that. If we changed the system, it would not be right or appropriate for new Members of the House to have to wait a long time before anyone knew them well enough to nominate them. The hon. Member for Broxbourne made that point to those on his own Front Bench, and I hope that they were listening to him.

Does the Minister appreciate that she has set off alarm bells in my head with the concept that votes are not of equal value on the Floor of the House? If new Members after the next general election have to vote on the Speakership, and on legislation every day of the week, does she not agree that that goes with the territory? Do elections not ask people to exercise judgment? For goodness’ sake, is that not why we are sent here?

Indeed. Members are talking to someone who, when she was a new Member and wanted to be on the Health Committee, was told that there was a six-year queue.

My hon. Friend touched on the question of public participation in such matters. The election of Members of the House to their own Committees would strengthen and rebuild the House. If we do not that, the House is in danger of being bypassed, which is not the intention behind e-petitioning, mass referendums and so on. If we are not fit for purpose—I hold that we are not fit for purpose currently—and if we appear reluctant to change in order to be so, the public will find means of expression other than through their elected representatives. The danger would be that e-petitioning might become mass policy making at the discretion of leading political commentators—the Simon Cowells or Rupert Murdochs of the political world. Rebuilding our internal election system so that it is trustworthy is very important. E-petitioning can then become a useful addition.

I am short of time, and must bring my remarks to a conclusion.

I want to quote some statements that have already made. In her statement to coincide with the publication of the report, the Leader of the House said:

“The Government is grateful to the Committee and its Chair...for producing a thorough and wide-ranging piece of work and welcomes the report.”

She went on to say:

“We are grateful for the proposals to enable such reforms and will look to make early progress whilst needing to allow Government to continue to deliver its legislative programme and deal with emerging challenges. The Government will make time available for a debate.”

Some of the Prime Minister’s comments yesterday have been quoted already, but he too warmly welcomed the report:

“It is right for us to consider how our Select Committee system can be reformed so that it is better in the future. It is also right for us to consider how non-Government business is dealt with, and how we can improve the workings of the House.”—[Official Report, 25 November 2009; Vol. 501, c. 529.]

That is very much the subject of tonight’s debate.

To conclude, the recommendations in the Committee’s report are respected by the Government for their complexity and reach, and we will give them detailed and thorough consideration. As most Members would realise, however, that consideration cannot take place entirely in the first two days after publication of the report. The Leader of the House wrote to the Chairman of the Committee on the day the report was published to inform him that the Government intend to make time for a debate on this important matter. That will enable right hon. and hon. Members who have not taken part in the Committee’s deliberations to offer their views on the report. Those opinions are also valuable to our consideration.

I again congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on his work on the Committee. I thank him for his positive comments about the Whips—I am sure that that is echoed on the Front Bench. Given that I was his Whip until this June, I hope that it was not too bad—

An experience, yes. There is much to discuss in the future, but we have made a good start this evening.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.