Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Dawn Primarolo: No, I was about to reassure the right hon. Gentleman that my inquiry was genuine. His answer to the House is perfectly acceptable. He might have said that he did not have time to consider the matter because he was a busy Minister or for other reasons. I do not for a moment cast aspersions on the validity of the reason--I was interested to hear it.

Mr. Forth: I am most grateful to the Minister.

The Procedure Committee stated that the matter would set a precedent. It then noted that:

Helpful as ever, the Minister told us that the Committee would consist of seven Members from this place and six from another place. I leave others to judge whether a majority of seven members over six is a "driving force", especially as the Committee pointed out a few paragraphs earlier that the House of Lords members would do what Americans call the "heavy lifting" because the House of Commons members would be too busy. I realise that you would not allow me to do so, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I should love the House to inquire into what Members of the Commons could possibly be doing that made them too busy to attend that important and influential Committee. We shall have to leave that matter on one side at the moment--although I might return to it when we talk about the quorum.

Suffice it to say that the Procedure Committee was clear that the Commons should be the driving force. For the moment, I shall leave hanging the question of whether seven members as opposed to six could be categorised as a driving force. The report continued:

That is all it will be; it will be either a driving force or for formal purposes. Within a few lines of the report, there is, apparently, a contradiction.

15 Jan 2001 : Column 63

The report states:

In one respect, the motion reflects that point. The report continues:

Mr. Bercow: Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the Procedure Committee were genuinely concerned that this House rather than the other place should be the driving force of the Joint Committee, it would have been open to the Procedure Committee to propose that the quorum should comprise more Members of this place than of the other place? It could have specified a larger quorum: say--for the sake of argument--six members rather than the four we have weaseled out of the Government. That would have been a ratio of 4:2, and might possibly have offered some modest succour or reassurance to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Forth: If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I promise that I shall mention the quorum later. It is the subject of a separate part of my argument and for the moment, in my unimaginative way, I am plodding through the motion in sequence. If my hon. Friend rushes me, I might lose my thread, and he would not want that to happen. The quorum is a later heading in my notes and I cannot miss it.

My hon. Friend will recall that the Minister tried to reassure the House that the Chairman of the Joint Committee will be a Member of the House of Commons but, quite properly--as ever--the hon. Lady said that she was unable to predict who the Chairman would be because it was a matter for the Committee. I was pleased to hear her confirm that the Chairman will be a Member of this House, but it is not in the Standing Orders. In addition, we are unable to discuss my amendment because it has not been selected for debate.

The Minister told us that the Committee will select its Chairman. Let us suppose that when the Committee convenes to do that, the majority of its members are from the other place and they decide to elect a Chairman from their own number. That would be only natural because we have been told that they will do most of the work and have most of the expertise. That is the thrust of the Procedure Committee's rationale for the motion. In that case, I do not understand how we or the Minister can guarantee that the Chairman will be from this House. We cannot determine who will be present, and because the quorum is so pitifully small, it could be decided by five people, three from another place and two from this House. That inevitably challenges her reassurance, which was no doubt given in good faith.

How can the Minister reassure us that the Chairman of the Joint Committee will come from the House of Commons rather than another place? We must bear it in mind that the Procedure Committee recommended that the Chairman should be drawn from the House of Commons. The Minister is reflecting that view, but I cannot see

15 Jan 2001 : Column 64

anything in the motion--which will be a Standing Order--to give effect to that, which is why I tabled an amendment.

Mr. Redwood: Before my right hon. Friend moves on, has he thought about the possibility that the Minister herself--or another Minister, were one to serve on the Committee--could become the Chairman? Would not that be unfortunate? Surely a Minister should be separate from the chairmanship of the Committee. Should not the proposal cover that? Does he agree that that has not been clarified?

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that matter. I am sure that the Committee would be honoured if the Minister were prepared to chair it, but the hon Lady would have to make a commitment to do that and, understandably, she might be unable to do so.

If the House--mistakenly, in my view--approves this poorly drafted and poorly thought-out motion, we will discuss the next motion, which deals with the Committee's membership. I am looking forward to that and will have something to say on the matter. I have looked at the proposed members, and the Minister is, indeed, one of them. Perhaps we will be able to return briefly to the issue of the Chairman when we debate that.

Mr. Bercow: Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the Standing Order does not oblige a Minister who chairs the Committee to be present throughout its proceedings, he or she would be expected to be present as a matter of courtesy? On the strength of last week's experience, does he also agree that such an idea and arrangement might not commend itself to a Minister? In the context of an earlier Committee--about which I shall not dilate because you would not allow me, Madam Deputy Speaker--the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), attended a meeting that a mere Whip had told him would last for five minutes. He seemed in a state of considerable perturbation--

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal): Order. We are wandering wide of the motion.

Mr. Forth: I shall not directly follow my hon. Friend's point, but it gives rise to another thought. Let us suppose that the Committee follows the Minister's direction and elects a member from this place. If he or she is sometimes unable to be present, will there be a designated Deputy Chairman, or will the most senior member preside? If so, how will that be defined? Will it be on the basis of length of service? If so, will that start from the period of election to this House and the taking of the oath in the other place?

Those are important matters. We have been told that the Committee will follow the Commons rules for Select Committees. The Chairman will have a specific and important role. Even if the Chairman is from this House, we do not know how the Committee will conduct its business in his or her absence. It is simply not good enough for the Government to come to the House with a motion that is becoming increasingly inadequate and shot full of loopholes, doubts and dubieties. However, I do not want to digress too much. I am anxious to discuss the quorum, which has attracted the attention of the House and was the subject of my modest amendment.

15 Jan 2001 : Column 65

We are talking about a Committee of 13--seven members from the House of Commons and six from another place. The Procedure Committee, which is a Committee of this House, said in its report:

That is in black and white. I hope that I am not giving away too many trade secrets if I say that it is not unknown for Select Committees of the House of Commons to struggle to get a quorum to conduct their meetings. Within the context of what the Procedure Committee said, we should have real anxieties about how the quorum of the Joint Committee will be sustained and how it will do its work.

We know from the motion that the Commons quorum will be two. We are pitching our expectations pretty low. Perhaps that is because the people who framed the motion took account not only of what the Procedure Committee said, but of the recent attendance record of Members of the House of Commons to their own Select Committees. I know not, but it is increasingly clear that this important and influential Committee, as someone else described it, may be scratching around to get a quorum to meet and do its business.

The Minister cleared up an earlier confusion and confirmed that a quorum will require two members from the Commons and two from another place to be present. Therefore, it will be able to deliberate and decide on matters relating to tax even if only four out of 13 members are present. If three members from the other place and two from the Commons--five in all--are present, the members of the other place could decide on tax matters in the United Kingdom.

If the motion on the Committee's membership is accepted, the situation will be even worse. I calculate that three members of the Government payroll--Ministers and their hangers-on, who are usually described as Parliamentary Private Secretaries--are to be proposed as Committee members. It is entirely possible that the three members of the payroll would turn up for the Committee along with the two Members of the House of Lords--

Next Section

IndexHome Page