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Scottish Affairs Committee

Volume 672: debated on Monday 2 March 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That Mhairi Black, Andrew Bowie, Deidre Brock, Wendy Chamberlain, Alberto Costa, Jon Cruddas, David Duguid, Sally-Ann Hart, John Lamont and Liz Twist be members of the Scottish Affairs Committee.—(Bill Wiggin, on behalf of the Selection Committee.)

May I start by thanking the hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) for moving the motion and congratulate him on his reappointment to the Selection Committee? I had the privilege of serving with him for a couple of years, but that has now fallen to my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson). I wish them all the very best.

There is a little time for a short debate on the appointment of the Scottish Affairs Committee, and we could not let this opportunity pass by without noting the concern and disappointment that many of us on the Opposition Benches share about its proposed composition. Given that the voice of the north has just been heard in such great style in the debate on the revival of the High Speed 2 motion, I would have thought that the Government would want to make northern parts more visible and audible in the House, but that does not seem to be the way of it.

Since 2015, the membership of the Scottish Affairs Committee—like that of its counterparts for Wales and Northern Ireland—has been drawn entirely from Members representing constituents in that relevant nation. Over the years, it has consistently reflected, broadly, the outcome of the general election and political balance in Scotland. But that is not the case with the composition being proposed this evening.

In 2015, there were four SNP Members on the Committee, including the Chair, my hon. Friend—he should be my right hon. Friend—the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), four from the Government Benches and three from the Labour party. The SNP, as we all know, held 56 of 59 Scottish constituencies.

In 2017, there were once again four Members from the Conservative Benches, three from the Labour party, one from the Liberal Democrats, and three from the SNP—again including the Chair. That was fair enough. In the 2017 election, the SNP representation fell, although we were still by far the largest party in Scotland and, indeed, the third largest party in this House, but some of the other parties made up some ground, so fair enough—their representation on the Committee increased.

For the record, in 2010 when the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were in coalition, the SNP, then with six seats in the House—a number that might now be familiar to Conservative Members from seats in Scotland—had one seat on the Committee, the Liberal Democrats also had one seat, and the Labour party, which had 41 seats in Scotland, had five seats on the Committee, including the Chair. Just for completeness, in 2005 the figures were Labour six, Conservatives three, SNP one and the Liberal Democrats one.

Tonight we are being asked to approve two Labour Members, one Liberal Democrat Member, three SNP Members, again including the Chair, and five Conservative Members. That is five Conservative Members on a Committee for a party that only has six members in the country in which the Committee is interested—[Interruption.] No, they are not all from Scotland. That is an increase in the number of places from four to five, even though the Conservatives lost more than half of their Members of Parliament in December’s election. It will be the largest number of seats held by a single party on this Committee since the 2010 Parliament, and the largest number of seats that a governing party has had since the 2005 Parliament. That seems an awful lot like rewarding the failure of the Conservative party in Scotland at the last election.

Meanwhile, the Scottish National party, which has increased our share of the votes and our number of seats—we now have more seats in Scotland than Labour did in 2010—is left with two places on the Committee in addition to the Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire.

I take this opportunity to gently ask the Government to think again. We have for a long time had a very constructive relationship through the usual channels. That means that it is a bit disappointing when these matters end up on the Floor of the House. The Government need to think very seriously about the message they are sending to voters in Scotland. How does the make-up of this Committee reflect the precious Union and the respect agenda? Where is the partnership of equals when the Government are taking more places on the Committee than they have had for the past 10 years?

I want to take the opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire for the role that he has played in the Chair over the past five years, because he has worked to try to find consensus and areas of concern for the Committee to work on.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I thank him for that tribute. I do not think it is to do with the way that the Committee is chaired. Why the Committee has been so effective—it is probably the most effective of all the parliamentary Committees, whether in the Scottish Parliament or the Westminster Parliament—is that we are the most reported Committee anywhere in Scotland, and we are the best attended Committee. That is because it sort of reflects the Scotland that we all represent. To do this job effectively, we have to try to look like the nation that we represent, and feel like the representation in this House so that we can do our important job. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees with this, and I am sure that he is already making representations to the Government through the usual channels to try to have this matter addressed so that we, as a Committee, can do our job properly.

Yes, it is important that the Committee has that opportunity. The composition of the Committee being proposed tonight is completely out of balance with political reality in Scotland—the political geography and the views of the population as a whole. We are not asking for an SNP majority on the Committee, although that is the kind of thing we would experience under the d’Hondt system used in the Scottish Parliament. The Committee will still have a Unionist majority; it will not, alas, produce a report supporting independence for Scotland, unless with his charisma, alacrity, charm and wit my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire is able to persuade it to do so.

I have had the privilege of serving on the Scottish Affairs Committee for the past couple of years. I agree with my hon. Friend’s kind words about our hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) and how good he is at bringing our Committee together. Does it not say something about the Government’s nervousness about his ability that they are preparing to stuff the Committee in this way?

What is surprising is that things have not been like that. We have reached arrangements and worked well together. My hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire has been the acting Chief Whip on a number of occasions for the Scottish National party since 2015, and we were able to come to these arrangements, so it is disappointing that this has ended up coming to the Floor of the House.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) says, it has been a very effective Committee—so effective that my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire has already been on the front page of The National about this precise issue. If Government Front Benchers had read that publication at the weekend, they would have seen this coming and could have avoided this debate on the Floor of the House and the issue of whether we will get to the moment of interruption without a Division.

The SNP won more than 80% of seats in Scotland in the recent general election. The make-up proposed for the Committee does not go even halfway to realising that representation and giving the people of Scotland the voice they should have as a result of that outstanding win.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Scottish National party increased our number of seats in the House—our representation here—by more than a third, yet our representation on the Committee is going to remain static. Meanwhile, the Conservative party’s number of seats in Scotland has gone down by more than 50% and its representation is going to increase. That simply denies and defies democracy and absolutely gives the lie to the notion that Scotland has a valuable role and that its voice is going to be heard.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that on the Government Benches there appears to be almost a wilful denial about what happened during the election in December? The Conservative and Unionist party is trying to airbrush away the tremendous gains made by the SNP at its direct cost. Nowhere is that more the case than in the appointments being made to the Committee. Is it respectful to the electorate in Scotland to do such a thing? As I have picked up during more than one debate here, Government Members have a tendency to talk about the SNP as though we are something that happens to Scotland, rather than being people elected by Scotland.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Indeed, the Conservative and Unionist parties are over-represented. That is the thing: we are not trying to deny the Unionist parties a majority on the Committee. For the time being at least, this remains a Parliament of the Union. But we have to question what the purpose behind all this is.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Perhaps the non-Scottish members proposed for the Committee have a particular interest in the affairs of Scotland. Is he aware of any particular interest that they have expressed over the past few years of Parliament?

Perhaps they have. Looking back at the history of the Committee’s membership, it is not completely unusual for the Conservative party in particular to have to populate its spaces on the Committee with Members from outwith Scotland, and we mean absolutely no disrespect to any of those Members from outwith Scotland who have chosen to put their names forward. We are not objecting in any way to any of the individual Members who are being appointed. We are objecting to the proportions—the way in which the numbers have been divvied up—and the fact that the Conservative Government are helping themselves, in a sense.

I was very pleased to have been able to serve on the Committee in the last Parliament, and I am pleased to be nominated to be a Member in the Committee in this Parliament. The hon. Member has made much of the SNP’s electoral success and cited the proportion of Members you have as a case for why you should have more Members on the Scottish Affairs Committee. Do you apply the same argument for Committees on devolved policy areas—that is, do you think we should be reducing the number of SNP Members on those Committees on the basis that you do not represent those policy areas here at Westminster?

Order. We are in danger of this turning into a private debate. All comments should be directed through the Chair.

If the hon. Member looks very carefully, he will see that there are no Scottish National party Members nominated to either the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee or the Education Committee. But there are other Committees, as we have seen through the EVEL process—and as he would have seen if he was present for the grand meeting of the English Parliament within these four hallowed walls just a couple of weeks ago, as we all were, when we were cut out of being able to express our views in the Lobby—which discuss issues that transcend borders; I thought that was part of the point of Union anyway. I do not think it unreasonable for one Member of the third largest party in this House and the third largest party by membership in the United Kingdom to have a say on Select Committees across the House.

My hon. Friend is making an interesting point about participation in the Committees of the House. I served on the Communities and Local Government Committee between 2015 and 2017, and that was useful because of the contribution that Scotland’s experience could bring to policy in England. The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) is putting forward a strange kind of Unionism if he would deny Scottish MPs of all types, and Members of the third largest party, a place on these Committees.

I just want to reinforce a point. This has nothing to do with or to say about English Members of Parliament being on the Scottish Affairs Committee; I am looking around the Chamber, and I recognise a couple of English Members who served very diligently on the Committee. The point is that we know that Members of Parliament have pressing concerns locally, and in the course of the past few years the Scottish Affairs Committee has tried to ensure that it meets as much as possible in Scotland to make it accessible, and to ensure that people can come along to experience and listen to its hearings. That is difficult if you represent a constituency based in England where there are other constraints and pressures. I am sure my hon. Friend recognises that.

I remind Members that comments should be directed through the Chair, and that they should not be having a personal debate.

Mr Speaker, I would never dream of doing anything other than speaking through the Chair. One of the advantages of sitting in this position in the Chamber is that there is always direct eye contact as well.

My hon. Friend’s comments were exactly right. I pay tribute to him for taking the Scottish Affairs Committee out on the road, and for discussing issues and producing largely consensual reports on important topics of the day—for example, on the post-study work visa, on the oil and gas industry, on agriculture and on digital provision. That is the kind of thing the Scottish Affairs Committee has done over the past five years, since 2015. Compare that to the Scottish Affairs Committee in the 2010-15 Parliament, whose work I have had a look at. I think my favourite report is from 2012 and is entitled, without even a hint of irony, “The Referendum on Separation for Scotland: Do you agree this is a biased question?” That is House of Commons paper No. 1942, published on 8 May 2012. That was what the Scottish Affairs Committee was doing at that time—absolutely demonstrable partisan bashing, politicising the issues of the day and trying to narrow down a proposition that, at the end of the day, 45% of people in Scotland voted for: independence. The Committee could not even bring itself to use that word. What we have had since then is consistent, grown-up, sensible politics under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire.

The Government really do have to consider what they are doing tonight. There are 59 Members from Scotland and 11 members of this Committee. It ought to be possible to compose it in such a way that respects the election result in Scotland and takes into account the make-up of this House, which is what the other Committees for the devolved areas of Wales and Northern Ireland do. Otherwise, as my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire has said previously, the Government will continue to give the impression of doing the SNP’s job for us. They cut out Members from Scotland through their farcical EVEL procedures, they refuse to listen to the Scottish Parliament on matters of legislative consent, and now they seek to hijack the Committee in the House that is supposed to consider matters—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

With the leave of the House, we will take motions 43 to 47 together.

Transport Committee

Ordered,

That Ruth Cadbury, Lilian Greenwood, Simon Jupp, Robert Largan, Chris Loder, Karl MᶜCartney, Grahame Morris, Gavin Newlands, Greg Smith and Sam Tarry be members of the Transport Committee.

Treasury Committee

Ordered,

That Rushanara Ali, Mr Steve Baker, Harriett Baldwin, Anthony Browne, Felicity Buchan, Ms Angela Eagle, Liz Kendall, Julie Marson, Alison McGovern and Alison Thewliss be members of the Treasury Committee.

Welsh Affairs Committee

Ordered,

That Tonia Antoniazzi, Simon Baynes, Virginia Crosbie, Geraint Davies, Ben Lake, Anna McMorrin, Robin Millar, Rob Roberts, Dr Jamie Wallis and Beth Winter be members of the Welsh Affairs Committee.

Women and Equalities Committee

Ordered,

That Nickie Aiken, Sara Britcliffe, Angela Crawley, Virginia Crosbie, Alex Davies-Jones, Rosie Duffield, Peter Gibson, Kim Johnson, Kate Osborne and Nicola Richards be members of the Women and Equalities Committee.

Work and Pensions Committee

Ordered,

That Debbie Abrahams, Shaun Bailey, Siobhan Baillie, Neil Coyle, Steve McCabe, Nigel Mills, Selaine Saxby, Dr Ben Spencer, Chris Stephens and Sir Desmond Swayne be members of the Work and Pensions Committee.—(Bill Wiggin, on behalf of the Selection Committee.)