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Mr. Forth: I do not agree with my hon. Friend. He and I rarely disagree, but on this occasion we must. If we are talking about the consideration of legislative matters, or quasi or pseudo legislative matters, consensus is not appropriate. I believe in confrontation because I believe devoutly that where we have consensus in the House of Commons, we fail properly to scrutinise and we end up with inadequate measures. My worry here is that the nature of the proposed composition of the Committee gives no guarantee that we shall have a sharp-edged critical approach from which we are likely to obtain proper results.
It is undoubtedly true that we will have a payroll-dominated Committee. Whether both Ministers will attend the Committee properly and give it their proper attention is another matter about which we should be concerned. As was pointed out, on a previous occasion Ministers were hardly ever present. On this occasion, that might be a blessing. We might well welcome the fact that Ministers will hardly ever attend the Committee because it might well do better work as a result. But why, we have to ask at this stage, is it being proposed that two Ministers be members of the Committee? Hundreds of Back Benchers would no doubt be eager to serve on the Committee provided that their passports were in order and they were able to enjoy the benefits of Committee membership. But here we have a Committee packed with the Government's payroll, so there is another problem that I have with it.
Then we come to the matter of expertise and qualifications. I do not want to embarrass any of the members of the Committee who have been suggested by seeking to examine in public and in detail their qualifications or lack of them. I will leave that to right hon. and hon. Members to consider themselves. But we must ask what is the relevance of the qualifications and background of the members of the Committee. I shall not mention them individually, I simply raise the question because it is relevant. All in all, the membership of the Committee is wrong on almost every conceivable count, consideration and criterion, and for that reason I cannot accept it.
I come now to the Committee's quorum. A number of measures on today's Order Paper suggest quorums of two or three for various Committees, and I am concerned about that development in the House because it suggests a number of things. The first is that the Government have no confidence that a Committee can expect more than two or three of its members to turn up at any one time and be able properly to conduct its business. More sinisterly, it also suggests the possibility of a Committee being convened and doing its work with as few as two or, on this occasion, three people present, being able effectively to legislate on behalf of Britain's voters and taxpayers. Can we be satisfied that a quorum of three is adequate to give proper scrutiny and consideration to any measure? I suggest that it cannot be. The quorum of any Committee in the House should be much higher than three.
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): Given the composition of the Committee and the fact that three Ministers will sit on it, Ministers alone could form a quorum for it. Is that not an abuse?
Mr. Forth: Yes. I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is right. In fact, it is probably inadequate to describe what could happen on the Committee as sinister. If, tonight, the House of Commons endorses the proposal that the Committee has a quorum of three, my hon. Friend is right that the Committee could discharge its functions with solely three Ministers present and voting on measures. Surely, that is not acceptable.
Mr. Forth: No--[Laughter.] I was on the payroll, which is why I did not oppose it. That is the point that I am trying to make. The Minister, who is now on the payroll, seems to think it highly amusing that a Committee can be proposed in which the quorum consists solely of those on the payroll.
Mr. Gummer: My right hon. Friend may have noticed that the Minister spent a great deal of time guffawing, which usually means that he is embarrassed by what my hon. Friends say--[Laughter.] The fact that he is guffawing again shows that he is clearly embarrassed.
The Committee to which the Minister referred had one Minister on it, but the Committee to which my right hon. Friend refers will have three Ministers on it. If there are three Ministers and a quorum of three, that means that the Ministers can carry out the Committee's business on their own. That is not something that Parliament should accept under any circumstances.
Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend may be right. However, if the Committee is as consensual as has been suggested, no such events would occur. Let me give my hon. Friend another scenario. Suppose that two members of the payroll and only one Opposition Member were present. The Committee could still discharge its duties, based on a quorum of three, and the Government could get their way, with only two Ministers present.
All those possibilities start to arise, unless the prospect of travel is so attractive that all the Committee members are always present. The Committee may have it in mind to travel extensively, because that would give its members an incentive always to attend. In that case, I hope that Ministers would be so busy making a mess of other business that they would not have time to attend the Committee, so it might just have a chance of doing some proper impartial work. The quorum suggestion is therefore unacceptable and, for that reason alone, I shall not support the motion.
When the Committee concludes its work, whether that happens before the general election or not--another interesting consideration, given the suggested timetable--the results may be revealing if an hon. Member tables a parliamentary question to ascertain the Committee's itinerary. We might even ask about the cost so that we can work out for ourselves the value for money that the taxpayer receives from the Committee when it
Mr. Robathan: I should not dream of doing that. However, there is a large deployment to the Falkland Islands, which are further away than the West Indies. Does not my right hon. Friend agree that the Falkland Islands constitute an important destination for the Committee?
Let us consider the manuscript amendment. It is a quaint device, but it has helpfully opened up all sorts of new possibilities in the new procedural world in which we live. The Modernisation Committee has given us a new parliamentary world in which to operate; it can also excite, interest and amuse us. I welcome the new early nights that the House is experiencing, and look forward to more.
However, I am grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, the right hon. Member for Walsall, South, for revealing another procedural quirk. Doubtless the Modernisation Committee anticipated it as it anticipated so much else that now happens in the House. Apparently, if a manuscript amendment is accepted--that has happened to the one that we are considering--it gives the House the opportunity to divide in the traditional way at the end of the debate. That is proper and I welcome it because there will be a Division if I have anything to do the matter. As the Speaker explained usefully a short time ago, the House can also divide on the substantive motion. We can look forward to that when we finish the "until any hour" deliberations that the Order Paper kindly allows us.
I regret that I must differ from my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury, but I cannot accept the manuscript amendment that the Chairman of the Defence Committee has tabled. Although the term "specialists" may have a ring of authenticity and integrity for some people, it may be wiser to limit the number of specialists who could be recruited at taxpayers' expense.