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House of Commons Hansard
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Liaison (Membership)
20 May 2020
Volume 676

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We now come to the motion on the membership of the Liaison Committee. Mr Speaker has selected amendment (a) in the name of the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman). The provisional determination is that a remote Division will take place on the amendment if it is moved. The provisional determination is that a remote Division will not take place on the main motion, as amended or not, as the case may be. I call the Leader of the House, Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg, to move the motion, and I ask that he speak for no more than four minutes.

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I beg to move,

That –

(1) With effect for the current Parliament, notwithstanding Standing Order No. 121 (Nomination of select committees), the Members elected by the House or otherwise chosen to be chairs of each of the select committees listed in paragraph (2) shall be a member of the Liaison Committee;

(2) The committees to which paragraph (1) applies are:

Administration;

Backbench Business;

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy;

Defence;

Digital, Culture, Media and Sport;

Education;

Environmental Audit;

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs;

European Scrutiny;

European Statutory Instruments;

Finance;

Foreign Affairs;

Future Relationship with the European Union;

Health and Social Care;

Home Affairs;

Housing, Communities and Local Government;

Joint Committee on Human Rights (the chair being a Member of this House);

International Development;

International Trade;

Justice;

Northern Ireland Affairs;

Petitions;

Procedure;

Privileges (the chair not being the chair of the Committee on Standards);

Public Accounts;

Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs;

Regulatory Reform;

Science and Technology;

Scottish Affairs;

Selection;

Standards;

Statutory Instruments;

Transport;

Treasury;

Welsh Affairs;

Women and Equalities, and

Work and Pensions;

(3) Sir Bernard Jenkin shall also be a member, and the chair, of the Liaison Committee.

I thought you were going to say, “Without hesitation, deviation or repetition,” in honour of the late and much- lamented Nicholas Parsons, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sure that the whole House will welcome this debate. There has been an unfortunate delay in setting up the Liaison Committee, a situation that I seek to resolve so that the Committee can start its work this Session.

The House will be aware that this motion was objected to, and that we have since needed to delay bringing the motion back until such time as we could consider it properly, including having the ability to divide on the matter if needed. This motion establishes the Liaison Committee, a long-standing Committee of this House. The Committee brings together the Chairmen of Select Committees to an important forum, which takes evidence from the Prime Minister on matters of public policy and supports the House to scrutinise legislation and other policy proposals. The Government look forward to continuing their constructive working relationship with the Committee, particularly on issues such as pre-legislative scrutiny of Government Bills.

The motion specifies the membership of the Liaison Committee, and that my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) should chair the Committee. As he is an experienced and respected former Select Committee Chairman, I would hope that he carries the support of the whole House to take on this role. It is my opinion that my hon. Friend has significant relevant experience in this area, in view of his previous experience chairing the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee and his long career as a Member of this House. Since his election in 1992, he has never viewed himself as a vassal of the Whips, and I am sure that Ministers who appeared before my hon. Friend in his previous role as a Committee Chairman can attest to his independence and thoroughness in robustly holding the Government to account.

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Why not have an election for the job?

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We are having an election; there may be a Division—

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Order. The right hon. Gentleman will not interrupt.

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Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I turn to the amendment in the name of the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and others. It seeks to limit the eligibility of those who can chair the Committee to existing Select Committee Chairs. The Government have chosen to put forward a distinguished Member to chair the Liaison Committee. It is for the House to decide—extending the degree of democracy—whether it agrees the Government’s motion and thereby approves my hon. Friend’s appointment. In this way, the motion is the most democratic way of providing a mandate for the Chairman of the Liaison Committee.

It is worth noting that it has not always been the case that the Committee has elected its own Chairman from among the ranks of Select Committee Chairs. In fact, as recently as 2010, when the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham was Leader of the House, a Member who was not a pre-existing Select Committee Chairman was the Liaison Committee Chairman, in accordance with an earlier, similar motion agreed by the House.

The Government respect the work of the Select Committees of this House and their independence in holding the Government to account. Today’s motion will allow the Liaison Committee to begin its work. As is right, the House can now decide whether the motion is agreeable, including whether the chairmanship be taken up by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex. I hope we can achieve a resolution today and allow the Liaison Committee to begin its important work in scrutinising the Government and supporting other Committees in this House. I commend this motion to the House.

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Thank you. We have a very short time left for this debate, so I must ask that every speaker now takes no more than three minutes. I call Valerie Vaz, who is asked to speak for no more than three minutes.

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I thank the Leader of the House for putting forward the motion. We support the setting up of the Select Committee but we do not support paragraph (3), and I will speak in favour of amendment (a) standing in the name of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and others. There are three reasons. First, on composition, “Erskine May” says:

“The Liaison Committee…comprises the Chairs of all the principal select committees.”

In their helpful book, “How Parliament Works”, Rogers and Walters confirm that on various pages. There are references to the Liaison Committee being made up of the Chairs of all the Select Committees. Page 216 of our Standing Orders, on rules and procedures of the House, states what is in order in the membership of the Select Committee, and it does not mention a spare person. Does the Leader of the House really think that we should abide by all the other rules but not that one?

That brings me to my second point, which is Standing Order No. 145 on the work of the Liaison Committee, which says that it considers general matters in relation to the work of the Select Committees, chooses the reports on estimates days, and considers other work of Select Committees and how they function. Can the Leader of the House say how a person who is not currently a Chair of a Select Committee can carry out that work?

Most importantly, being the Chair of a Select Committee carries great responsibilities. There are duties, responsibilities, and most of all, accountability to other members of the Committee. The proposed nominee has none of that. This also says to Chairs of Select Committees: “You were elected by the House but you are not good enough, so the Government will appoint a Chair. Your say does not matter, and, by the way, we will tell you who it is. No one else need apply—the Government have picked their man.” Previously, there has been cross-party support for Chairs of Select Committees. I think that the £16,000, approximately, that is going to be paid to this Chair could be put to better use: perhaps it could go towards hiring an apprentice.

The Leader of the House talked about democracy. This is not democracy; it is autocracy. It offends against precedent, it offends against what is the right thing to do, and it offends against everything this House stands for. I support the amendment.

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The Liaison Committee is the only Committee that directly holds the Prime Minister to account, and accountability is all the more critical during the current crisis. If the House appoints me as Chair this evening, my first priority will be securing a date to take evidence from the Prime Minister as soon as possible—and Parliament is entitled to insist on this.

The Liaison Committee exists only to support and strengthen the other Committees, particularly when they are the only means of full scrutiny of the Government at this time. Individual Committees can only scrutinise their Departments, but in this crisis I have been giving thought to how the Liaison Committee can strengthen whole-of-Government scrutiny. It is in areas requiring cross-departmental co-operation where failures have been causing most public concern. Policy on care homes spans Health and Local Government. The reopening of schools is Education-led but it must work with the Treasury, Health and Local Government. Quarantining of international travellers is a Transport lead, but working alongside Home Office, Health, Business and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Health is relying on other Departments for the recruiting of trackers and tracers. Most importantly, the strategy for leaving the lockdown covers every Department. Scrutinising cross-cutting programmes is now vital, and the Liaison Committee could take a pivotal and unique role in this.

I appreciate others’ concerns in this debate, but if the House so decides I will serve as Chair independently and impartially. I am grateful to many in all parts of the House, including my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, for not doubting me in that. I have no wish except to serve this House and the Committee. Committees require Ministers and officials to be open, to bring out truth and to increase understanding within Government, as well as more widely. This is the only way to promote learning and improvement, and this principle will be my guide.

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I also wish to support the amendment. It is a fundamental tenet of democratic systems that the legislature should be separate from the Executive. Our role as an elected Chamber should be to make laws and scrutinise how the Government implement them. Our ability to do that depends upon having people who will speak out with independent mind and be prepared to criticise the Government, even when they might be in the same party.

Our Select Committee system is not perfect, but time and again, Committee reports have held the Government to account and even led to a change in policy. To their credit, these reports have often been fronted by Chairs who belong to the same party as the Government. This process is built upon Committees and their Chairs being appointed by Parliament—by elected Members— rather than by the Government. Put bluntly, if someone owes their position to an appointment by the Government of the day, they will be unlikely to be as forthright in their criticism of that Government. Few people bite the hand that feeds them.

The Leader of the House’s proposal will fundamentally change the relationship between Parliament and Government. This has nothing to do with the individual concerned, but everything to do with how he is appointed. If this goes through and the Committee is led by a Government placement, it effectively means that they will be marking their own homework.

Many Parliaments have an Executive—in mainland Europe, it is commonly called a bureau—that can act when Parliament is in recess or otherwise unable to meet. We do not, and I wonder whether our experience of the current emergency should lead us to conclude that we might have been better prepared if we had. Some will feel that the Liaison Committee might fulfil that role, but if anyone hopes that the Committee might act as some sort of interlocutor between Parliament and Government, this proposal will fatally compromise that ambition. A body led by a Government appointee who relies upon not distressing the Government in order to keep that job cannot and will not speak up for a critical or inquisitive Parliament.

Earlier today, we considered the Government’s proposals to abandon any facility for Members to take part in parliamentary proceedings remotely during the current health emergency. Agreeing to that was a mistake that we will come to regret. Preventing MPs from working from home will reduce, not enhance, their ability to scrutinise the Government. It will effectively disbar and discriminate against those who are sick or vulnerable, and it will force others to choose between representing their constituents or putting their health and the health of others at risk.

There is a pattern emerging here. It shows a Government trying to mute criticism by procedural means, a Government running scared of accountability, and it is not a good look. This proposal should be rejected and the Liaison Committee should be allowed to get to work and elect a Chair from among its members, all of whom have been elected by and are accountable to this Chamber. To do otherwise—

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Thank you.

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I am afraid that I cannot agree with the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard). I think he has missed the point. What the Leader of the House has done has created a very powerful figure, who will scrutinise the Government. He will be on the “Today” programme, Adam Boulton, and he will be listed as Chairman of the Liaison Committee.

I would have preferred the Chairman to have been elected by the whole House, but the idea that my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) is some patsy—well, as the Leader of the House said in his opening remarks, he is no vassal of the Whips, so that sold it to me immediately. I doubt there is anyone in this Chamber who does not think that my hon. Friend should be in the Cabinet, and that the reason he has not been in this or any other Cabinet is that he has stood up for Parliament. We can go back to him being a Maastricht rebel, House of Lords reform or him trying to do something with the civil service, and, of course, he was one of the very first MPs to support Vote Leave.

I absolutely think he is the right man for the job—[Interruption.] They scoff on the Opposition Benches—[Interruption.] You cannot believe that. Anyone knows that he will do a great job and I am looking forward to him developing the position. I will not support the amendment because it would maintain the status quo, and of course the Leader of the House is trying to increase scrutiny. As we have started to talk about this, the Chief Whip has wandered into the Chamber. He may be saying to the Leader of the House, “What on earth have you let loose?” Well, I think that he has let loose parliamentary democracy.

This Leader of the House is a very good one, but he has all the problems of a Leader of the House; he sits in the Government and has to support the Government line, even when it is nonsense—that is obviously very rare, Chief Whip, but on occasion. My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex, as Chair of the Liaison Committee, will be able to put Parliament first. As he develops the role, I hope that he will start to support the Back Benchers. [Interruption.] The shadow Leader of the House says from a sedentary position, “What about an election?” We are having the election. Nobody on the Opposition Benches proposed a different name, which they could have done; and they did not do so because they knew that they would have lost.

I really hope that this motion is carried tonight, and I congratulate the Leader of the House on stepping up scrutiny in the House.

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I beg to move amendment (a), leave out paragraph (3) and insert—

“(3) The chair of the Liaison Committee shall be a current chair of a Select Committee.”.

This amendment stands in my name and the names of many other Members of this House.

It would have been best if today we could have been agreeing to set up the Liaison Committee to take scrutiny into the heart of Government. As the Government make thousands of decisions that are literally a matter of life and death, the challenge and transparency afforded by scrutiny is important as never before. Better scrutiny means better decisions, and we all need the Government to be the best they can be right now. But instead of agreeing, we have the Government undermining the Liaison Committee at the very time they are setting it up, by imposing the Chair.

It should not be for the Government to decide the terms by which they are accountable; that should be for Parliament. Why are the Government doing this? A confident Government would have nothing to fear from robust, independent scrutiny. This move will weaken Parliament, but, even more, it is a sign of weakness from the Government. When Labour was in government and I was Leader of the House, we brought in secret ballots for Select Committee Chairs precisely in order to liberate them from control by the Whips and the dead hand of patronage. This Government imposition turns the clock back to the bad old days.

The Leader of the House is supposed to be the Leader of the House as a whole, but he can spare us the pretence that this is somehow the will of the House—that this is somehow extending democracy. There is only one name to vote for today, chosen by the Government, and there is no secret ballot. For the first time, we could end up having a Chair of the Liaison Committee who has the support of only one party in the House—the governing party. Although it is House business, Government Whips have been at work to such an extent that many on their own Back Benchers do not even realise that it is actually a free vote. I hope that Members will vote for my amendment. If the Government succeed in defeating it, it will be a bad day for the House for sure, but it will be a shameful day for the Government.

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The right hon. and learned Lady has moved her amendment, so the question is that the amendment be made, and because of the shortage of time, I have to ask the Leader of the House to conclude the debate.

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Within this House, one always knows that it is a weak argument when it is overstated, and I have to say that I have never heard a more overstated argument than that which we have received from the Opposition Benches.

The idea that my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) is not one of most independent-minded Members of this House is patently absurd. He has stood up for this House, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) has pointed out, throughout his parliamentary career. One of the threads running through the career of my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex is that he has stood up for the interests of the House of Commons, be that in ensuring that the sovereignty of the House of Commons and of Parliament generally is maintained, or ensuring that the House of Commons was not overwhelmed by a shift of power to the House of Lords. He has held Ministers to account, and I am glad that the Chief Whip has come into the Chamber because my hon. Friend has been the bane of the life of Chief Whips since he was elected in 1992. It is therefore well known that he will be independent minded.

I also think it is peculiar to suggest that a vote of the whole House is less democratic than a vote of the clique within the House. That obviously cannot be true. Allowing the whole House to vote is the most democratic form we have. In this House, we boldly express our opinion publicly so that our voters know precisely what we think. We do not need to hide away in the shadows. We are happy to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex is the right person for this job and that is why he has support.

I would say to the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) that constitutionally he does not fully appreciate how the system works. The Executive and the legislature have a symbiotic relationship. The Executive is drawn from the legislature. We are not like the United States, where there is no interconnection. Therefore, we always have in this House, and always have done going back into the mists of time, a relationship between the Executive and legislature, but that does not mean that the votes of the legislature are not democratic votes. They clearly and self-evidently are.

Moving on to the amendment and why I oppose it on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government, it is very straightforward. We are widening democracy, widening scrutiny and allowing the whole House to come to a decision on who should chair the Liaison Committee. We are taking away that decision, admittedly, from a smaller group to give it to a larger group, which is the proper thing to be doing.

Nobody, not one person who has spoken today, has suggested that my hon. Friend is anything other than impartial—[Interruption.] I hear various chunterings from the Opposition Benches. The principle of the House deciding is the most ancient principle of the House of Commons. That is the right way for us to do it. We decide by our vote. That is the art of democracy and this is the right procedure to be using to ensure that happens. [Interruption.] Oh, we have a chunter, “There’s only one candidate.” Did anybody else decide to amend the motion to suggest another candidate? Perhaps Opposition Members do not know how the procedures of Parliament work. May I give them a little bit of advice? If they are ever in any doubt as to how the procedures of the House work, there are many able, hard-working and thoughtful Clerks who will give them advice and they can work out how to put down amendments, but no other name came forward. Nobody else had any confidence in any other Member to do this job, which I know will be done extraordinarily well by my hon. Friend.

I happen to know that actually the Government have appointed someone who will be so independent-minded that if anyone thinks that he will be an easy ride, that person is mistaken. I commend the motion unamended to the House.

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I must now conclude the debate and put the question in accordance with the Order of today. Before I put the question, I confirm that Mr Speaker’s final determination is that the question on the amendment should be decided by remote Division. There is therefore no need for me to collect the voices, or for Members present in the Chamber to shout aye or no. The question is that the amendment be made. The question falls to be decided by a remote Division and the Clerk will know initiate the Division on MemberHub.

The House proceeded to a remote Division.

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The remote voting period has now finished. I will announce the result of the Division shortly. I will suspend the House for five minutes until the result can be announced.

Sitting suspended.

On resuming—

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I can now announce the result of the remote Division.

Question, That the amendment be made.

Division 50

20 May 2020

The House divided:

Ayes: 262
Noes: 323

Question accordingly negatived.

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Before I put the question on the motion on Liaison Committee membership, as on the Order Paper, I remind Members that Mr Speaker’s provisional determination was that the question will not be decided by a remote Division. That is also the final determination.

Main Question put and agreed to.