Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Howarth: I understand that there will be six peers and six Members of this House.

Mr. Tyler: If the membership of the Committee is approved by the House later, there will be six Opposition members and six Government members; hence the significance of the casting vote of the Chair.

Mr. Howarth: I am grateful for that clarification, but, with a quorum of three, three Government members would be able to force through a decision of the Committee.

I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield says and I hope that he is right. However, I fear that the tide is flowing in a different direction from that which he and I would like.

12.39 am

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): I have been swayed by some of the arguments made so far, and I hope that the Minister will take the proposal back to redraft it so that it has more chance of working sensibly.

We are invited to make a Standing Order to have a Select Committee consisting of six members from this House and six from another place. We have just heard about some of the impracticalities and difficulties that this produces.

Would it not be better if there were seven members from this House--first, so that if they all turned up, this House could outnumber representatives from their lordships House, which would reflect the prime position of this House; and, secondly, to ensure that if the membership of the Committee were in disagreement, there would be a clear way of making a decision? If everyone turned up, there would be an odd number of people present, so there would be a chance of reaching a conclusion.

The debate has revealed a huge gap in the drafting, in that, unlike some of the other measures coming before the House to set up similar Committees, the proposed Standing Order makes no express provision for a Chairman. There is certainly no express provision for a

15 Jan 2001 : Column 159

Chairman's casting vote. The guess made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) is both right and relevant to the provisions before us. It does indeed look as though the Government are minded to make sure that the Chairman is one of their own Members, who has recently stepped down from duties connected with the Front Bench--and to give that Chairman a casting vote. They could then control the Committee, should it become too independent-minded.

It would be much fairer if that were made clear in the wording of the Standing Order. It should be properly drafted, so that if that were the Government's intention, and they had a majority for it--two very possible situations--it would be clear. There would then be no complexities to sort out in the Committee's early meetings if people did not like that implied script, which had not been clearly stated.

My next worry about the drafting arises in paragraph (2)(a), which says that the Committee's remit is

That invites comparison with the Tax Simplification Select Committee, to which the House has just agreed. That Committee will have seven members from the House of Commons, and the Minister who spoke for the Government in that debate told us that it involved very narrow technical work. In this debate, the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office tells us that the work of the Human Rights Committee will be very wide and very important--yet it warrants one fewer member from the House of Commons than the Tax Simplification Committee. That is another argument in favour of reconsidering the numbers.

Perhaps the Minister should also re-examine the drafting. It is so wide that, with the six-six split, the Committee could find it difficult to agree its work load, which might range more widely than the Government would like--and, indeed, more widely than might be appropriate for a Select Committee. It might start to examine issues that would be far better examined by the House as a whole on appropriate debating occasions.

I wonder whether the Minister would like to narrow the remit to areas in which there is an actual or potential conflict between what this House wishes to do, and what judges in a faraway court think we ought to do. That is, I think, meant to be the nub of the proposal, but it is not reflected in the drafting of paragraph (2)(a).

In contrast, I fear that the second part of paragraph (2)(a) may prove too narrow, because it expressly excludes consideration of individual cases. I understand why some draftsman or lawyer might have put that exclusion in--such people would not want a Select Committee of this House to get involved with the detail of the judicial process when an individual case was going through the courts. Obviously, that would not be appropriate, sensible, or even possible under our rules.

However, the Committee, and the House as a whole, may well have to examine the consequences of test cases, other individual cases, or cases that have brought a generic point before the court, when they have come to a conclusion in the court. I wonder whether paragraph (2)(a) is so odd that while the first part of it is far too wide, so that the Committee will not be focused on what I think is the Government's intention, the exclusion in the second

15 Jan 2001 : Column 160

part of it could get in the way of what the Government do want the Committee to do--to react to individual cases after they have been determined or decided, if it emerges that the Committee and the courts think that our law has, deliberately or inadvertently, been incompatible with the European convention on human rights as interpreted in the courts.

Paragraph (2)(b) says that the Committee should consider

I understand why that should be so, yet sub-paragraph (c) says that the Committee must also consider

draft remedial orders and remedial orders

This is where we have seen potential problems about how much the Committee has the power and how much it should be a matter for the House as a whole. I am not sure whether the combined drafting of paragraphs (b) and (c) satisfies my right hon. and hon. Friends who believe that more of this should come back to the House as a whole. That is not necessarily clear or implied from the slightly loose drafting of paragraphs (a) and (b).

The Committee is told that it shall report to the House

That is more promising from the point of view of those of us who would like a guarantee about the supremacy of the House. I wonder how the Minister might distinguish that from the cases under paragraph (2), in which there seems some potential for disagreement. Perhaps he will clarify those issues, should he be able to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Paragraph (5) makes it clear that the Committee's quorum should be only three. We were very moved and pleased that the Paymaster General, talking about a similar proposal for tax simplification, graciously conceded or clarified that that Committee's quorum would be four. It seems a pity that the number required for this Committee's quorum is fewer when, as Ministers seem to have said from the Dispatch Box, it will be dealing with bigger and more important issues.

Mr. Tipping: Perhaps I can clarify the matter for the right hon. Gentleman. The quorum for the Committee will be three from each House, resulting in a quorum of six in total. That is normal practice.

Mr. Redwood: I am very grateful to the Minister for that; it was not clear to me from the drafting. That explanation is now in Hansard, which is a great reassurance. We shall have a quorum of six for a Committee of 12, while the House as a whole--although not all of us--was satisfied with a quorum of four for a Committee of 13. There are some dissimilarities in treatment. At least this one is compatible with the Minister saying that this Committee will deal with weightier and more important matters. We are very

15 Jan 2001 : Column 161

relieved to hear that, and I am sure that it will be an important consideration when we discuss who might be the right person, or group of Members, to sit on the Committee.

The next matter that worries me in the drafting is in paragraph (7)(a). It has the conventional requirement that the Committee shall have the power

I am very happy with those provisions; they are essential to the conduct of the Select Committee's work, as they are to many others. However, I was surprised to learn that the Committee can

That might become an invitation to the Committee to ensure that it goes to such places four times a year and might be an inducement for Members to sit on the Committee. I am not sure whether the Committee's deliberations will require expensive travel outside the United Kingdom. I should have thought that it could do its work, as defined in the earlier paragraphs, by being present in or around this great building at Westminster and calling for persons, papers and records here. After all, these are matters related to the legislation of the United Kingdom; they will not be elucidated by taking a Cook's tour of various places around Europe, and I am not sure why we need that additional expense.

This is another example of a Select Committee being introduced on fairly slender evidence of the need, to fit in, in a rather strange way, with our normal procedures, with no budget or statement from the Government about the cost. We were not told how much the tax simplification Joint Committee could spend on tax advice and special advisers. Here again, we are not told how much can be spent on travel.

Paragraph (7)(b) shows that the Committee can

I understand the need for that, but the Minister could have told us how much that might entail. How many advisers are we talking about? To which areas of specialism will the Committee need access, given that it has access to all the facilities of the House--including the Library? Furthermore, the Government are on tap for cross examination and the Committee can send for Ministers with their papers and records. One needs some control; as the Committee, sensibly, has wide-ranging powers to ask people to give their time and opinions free, do we really need as many specialist advisers as this open-ended measure could propose?

Will the Minister reconsider the measure? Will he work again on the number of members, the provision of the chairmanship, the casting vote and the balance between procedures under paragraphs (2) and (3)? That will reassure those of us who want the House clearly to be sovereign. We feel that it will not be sovereign under the proposal, which is a way of accommodating the wishes of the court without us really being able to say that we disagree. Will the Minister look again at the gyrations around Europe and in Britain? The overall budget for specialist advisers should certainly be considered. The measure would then be in a better shape for us to vote on.

15 Jan 2001 : Column 162

Next Section

IndexHome Page