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12.12 am

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I am glad to contribute briefly to the debate, because I share the view of the Minister and the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) that the Committee potentially has an extremely important role to play. I want to identify some potential weaknesses in that role under the motion.

The motion has been on the Order Paper for quite a long time, and, during that period, we have had an opportunity to examine its significance. However, a measure of its potential effectiveness has not been well established in relation to the other important scrutiny Committees of the House: the Public Accounts Committee and the Select Committee on Environmental Audit. Those Committee are true Select Committees, by which I mean that their membership is from the broad church of the House and their chairmanship is from the Opposition. That has given added significance to reports of the Public Accounts Committee, and that tradition is being faithfully replicated in the Environmental Audit Committee, which is a comparatively new Committee. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I believe that we should follow that pattern in this case.

Our amendment has not been selected, but it is extremely relevant to the effectiveness of the Committee in scrutinising important issues, if that is to be its role. The independence of this Joint Committee is at the heart of our debate.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): I may have misunderstood the hon. Gentleman, but I should be grateful if he would respond to a point about that very issue of independence. Surely the whole function of the Committee is to do the court's work for it: it is to put the court's ruling into parliamentary language. Far from the Committee's being independent, this is the first time we have established a Committee to take orders from a court on what legislation should be put before the House.

Mr. Tyler: I bow to the right hon. Gentleman's constitutional experience and expertise, but I do not think that that is the Committee's proper role. I think that, strictly speaking, it will play a traditional parliamentary role, which is not to take the place of the courts but to scrutinise the preparation of legislation by the Government of the day, and to seek as far as possible to ensure that it is compatible with the law as it stands--law that we have passed in the House. If that is challenged, it will go to the courts. That, surely, is a secondary rather than a primary stage.

I want to concentrate briefly on the way in which the Committee is to be set up. While perfectly proper reservations have already been expressed about the fact

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that this will be a Joint Committee, the terms in which the House of Lords has constituted its membership are clearly relevant. I hope that the Minister will explain why the motion tabled in the other place is significantly different from the motion that we are discussing. For example--unless a change was made, and the motion eventually passed differs from the draft that I saw--the House of Lords passed subsection (5), which proposed

Why does our own motion not contain such a provision? Are the Government afraid to include one on our Order Paper?

The Government seem to have an odd preoccupation. They appear to be determined--in contrast to the well- established and useful convention applying to other scrutiny Committees--to appoint a Chair from their own ranks. Members may feel that I am over-sensitive, but I think that there is good reason to be sensitive.

Waiting to take part in the debate, while others spoke at length on other matters, I read The Parliamentary Monitor's information digest for January 2001, which has just reached us. It is usually an extremely reliable source, and I pay tribute to those who prepare it. The first item, headed "Political News", states:

That is an affront to the House. We have not even appointed the members of the Committee yet. I make no comment about the admirable qualities of the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Jean Corston): I am sure that, should she be appropriate for this task, she will fulfil it with zeal, consistency and commitment. However, the announcement was made before the House of Commons had decided who should be on the Committee, and whether it should be set up at all.

Why has this happened? Let me take the House back to some simple arithmetic. The other place does not have a majority of Government Members; therefore, there will be no automatic Government majority in the appointment of its six Committee members. This House--which, as we all know, contains at least three major parties and some minor parties--has a slightly different arithmetic composition. But if six and six are put together to make 12, it is possible, as things stand, that there will be no Government majority on the Joint Committee, and that the only way in which the Government can secure a majority will be by securing the Chair.

Not only do I believe that that is precisely what the Government are about; I believe it to constitute an affront to the House, and a total misunderstanding of the Committee's role. If the Committee will be as important as the Minister has said, as the hon. Member for Beaconsfield has said, and as the Members who are present in such vast numbers obviously realise, it would be outrageous if the scrutiny of legislation that will come before us were subjected to such petty party political considerations. As has already been pointed out, the Committee cannot take executive action. It will have to come back to the House and, indeed, to the other place in making its recommendations, so the primacy of the Commons is not affected by the Committee Chair, but, if the Committee starts on that party political basis, its independence seems to be doomed from the beginning.

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It is important that the Committee should be given a fair wind. It should do its job effectively in scrutinising the material that will come before it as a result of the remit that it has been given and the House's decisions in the past, but it is not right that the Government should effectively hamper the Committee's work by insisting on appointing the Chair. That seems to be the case. It would be utterly wrong.

12.21 am

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): I warmly endorse the remarks by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) about the manner in which the Government have gone about the appointment of the Committee, particularly its chairmanship. I do not cast any personal aspersions on the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Jean Corston), but I hope that, as a parliamentarian, she will accept that it is not honourable for us to have to read in some lobbyists' journal that the powers that be have nominated her before anyone in the House knows anything about it. Even tonight, we would know nothing about it had it not been published in The Parliamentary Monitor.

Mr. Tipping: I must confess that I am an avid reader of The Parliamentary Monitor. I have not had an opportunity to review it tonight, but the appointment of the Chairman of the Committee will be a matter for the Committee itself. Whatever The Parliamentary Monitor says, that is a fact.

Mr. Forth: Pull the other one.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: As the Minister knows, I have a lot of respect and affection for him. He is an extremely diligent Minister. He always seeks to inform the House, but I say in the kindest possible way I can that one is inclined to take the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).

How come that lobbying organisation--that is what these journals are--has been spun the story? Is it lying? Will the Government press office machinery go into action first thing in the morning to denounce the publication, saying that it has got it completely wrong, that it is a matter for the House and that the Government are deeply offended that the magazine should have thought that they had any intention of pre-empting the decision of Parliament or, in this case, of a parliamentary Committee.

Mr. Tyler rose--

Mr. Forth rose--

Mr. Gerald Howarth: May I give way first to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst?

Mr. Forth: Perhaps the acid test is whether the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Jean Corston) and the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne) did resign as Parliamentary Private Secretaries. If they did, was that the first half of the deal to which the Minister will, unusually dishonourably, not admit but on which the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) has put his finger?

Mr. Howarth: That seems to be the case. The information on the basis of which we on the Conservative

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Benches are acting is based on the reference material to hand, which is "Dod's Parliamentary Companion." The one that I have just been looking at is published for the year 2001. We have only just entered 2001, so the information upon which we are working is the latest available information. It suggests that my right hon. Friend is right and that those hon. Members did resign from those positions knowing full well that the Whips Office had told them, "You resign and you will get a nice little number."

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