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12 Feb 2001 : Column 80

"Shifting the Balance"

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal): I inform hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

7.15 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): I beg to move,

The motion has been tabled in the names of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, of me as shadow Leader of the House, of three Select Committee Chairmen and of the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee.

The debate is unusual for two reasons. First, the Conservative party has been concerned that hon. Members on both sides of the House have been denied the opportunity to vote on the substantive motion on the Liaison Committee report, which seeks to shift the balance of power from the Executive, especially from the party Whips, to democratically elected Members who are not part of the Executive.

Secondly, the motion is not party political. Its wording comes from the second Liaison Committee report of 20 July 2000: it appears in the recommendation in paragraph 76. During business questions last Thursday, the Leader of the House said:

I suspect that tonight's debate is not necessarily the subject on which many people outside the House will be focused, but it is of great importance to the democratic rights of the people who represent them: Members of the House.

It is surprising that the Leader of the House should have said that because, in May 1997, when things could only get better, the Government said in their manifesto:

There was no asking. I and other Conservative Members believe that the Committee that was established by the Government undermines the role of the Leader of the House.

A Conservative Government will expect three things. First, we will expect the Leader of the House to reflect the views of hon. Members on both sides of the House in respect of House matters and Standing Orders. Secondly, we will expect a genuinely free vote on such a motion--not just lip service, but an opportunity for hon. Members to exercise a vote on House matters such as the Liaison Committee report.

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At last week's business questions, the Leader of the House pointed out to me the vagaries of the free vote. She said less than a week ago:

Let me say immediately that I not only accept but respect that. That is what the Leader of the House or shadow Leader of the House is expected to recognise.

Thirdly, under a Conservative Government, a Conservative Leader of the House will respect Back Benchers. It was a Conservative Government who introduced Select Committees, and it is a Conservative Opposition who are giving the House the opportunity to vote today. After the next general election, it will be a Conservative Government who will shift the balance.

I do not intend again to go through all of the Liaison Committee report, which we debated on the Adjournment on 9 November 2000. The report is the considered view of no fewer than 33 hon. Members, from all parties, many of whom are eminent Chairmen of Select Committees. Their views are very clearly stated and have already been debated by the House.

Mr. John Healey (Wentworth): The hon. Lady has just told us that 33 very senior Members support the report. Does she accept that, when the Liaison Committee considered the report, only 22 of the 33 Chairmen were present? Is she saying that the report is fully supported--to a man and to a woman--by the 11 Chairmen who were not there and did not vote on it?

Mrs. Browning: I am not aware of a minority report. The usual procedure of Select Committees is that, when there are clear dissenting voices, those whose names are not listed as supporters of the report issue a minority report stating their views. Conservative Members on the Modernisation Committee have done precisely that in this Parliament. Although I realise that the hon. Gentleman is a relatively new Member, I hope that he will recognise that those Members had every opportunity to dissent from the report, had they wished to do so.

On 11 May 2000, the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) drew to the attention of the Leader of the House the fact that he had 203 signatures for his early-day motion 476, which stated:

[That this House warmly welcomes the first report of the Liaison Committee, published on 2nd March, which observes that the membership of select committees is effectively under the control of the Whips and that this has led on occasion to long delays in setting up committees at the start of a parliament and in replacing members thereafter and that members have been kept off committees because of their views; agrees that this is wrong in principle; and believes the implementation of the report's recommendations would strengthen parliamentary scrutiny of the Executive to the positive benefit of both.]

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): I am glad that my hon. Friend has already reached the subject of the Whips. Has she noticed that the Government Whip on duty has twice scoffed at her remarks--when she said that we are debating not a party political matter but a House of Commons matter, and when she said that the House

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would be treated with more courtesy by a different Government? Will she bear it in mind that that is why Whips are not suited to making those appointments?

Mrs. Browning: The very reason that we are having this debate--[Interruption.] Regardless of which party is in office, the system in this place has to change and become more democratic.

Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Browning: Yes, but I want to make it clear that I do not intend to give way many times. As the hon. Lady will know, I usually give way frequently. As today's debate is for Back Benchers, I shall say what I have to say and then give hon. Members an opportunity to catch the eye of the occupant of the Chair.

Mrs. Fitzsimons: In the light of the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Healey), does the hon. Lady appreciate the incredulity of some new Labour Members when listening to her remarks? Although Conservative Members had 18 years in government to make those changes, it is only now that they are in opposition that, suddenly, they allegedly see the light.

Mrs. Browning: The hon. Lady was rather self-effacing by saying that she is a new Member, which she is. I remind her that it was a Conservative Government, under the great Margaret Thatcher, who established Select Committees in 1979.

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): The hon. Lady should be a little more accurate. She might be right about the structure of departmental Select Committees, but they go back much further than that.

Mrs. Browning: I am sorry that the right hon. Lady is still in the same mood as she was in last Thursday. I hope that, by the end of today's debate, she will recognise the importance of Select Committees, and the fact that the previous Conservative Government demonstrated that we wanted to make them more accountable to ensure that hon. Members can use the Select Committee structure to call the Executive to account.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Browning: As it is the hon. Gentleman, who is an assiduous member of various Select Committees, I shall give way just once more.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: The hon. Lady talks about making Select Committees more accountable, but does she remember what happened to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton)? He was Chairman of the Health Committee, but the previous Tory Government removed him because he objected to Government policy. How can she make such a speech when her party is riddled with hypocrisy on these matters?

Mrs. Browning: On the contrary, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) has signed

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today's motion. I have made it very clear that I do not care which party is in office, but I want democratic change to the way in which Whips and the Executive control Committees of the House. [Interruption.] That is the whole purpose of this debate.

The Government have been pressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House, especially by the hon. Members for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) and for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) and my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), to allow the House to have a vote on this very important report.

The Government's response to the Liaison Committee report was very critical. They had clearly not spent much time on it. Indeed, on the Cabinet Office press release, the Liaison Committee itself was prompted to say that

If today's debate is about anything, it is about the relationship between the Executive and Parliament.

The hon. Member for Thurrock has been quite assiduous in raising the issue. One sensed his frustration, however, at his not being given a vote on the report. Earlier, I heard the Government Whip accuse me of duplicity. Perhaps he will listen to the words of the hon. Member for Thurrock. Last year, in a question to the Leader of the House, he said:

Later, when I deal with the matter of a free vote, we shall see where the duplicity lies.

As I said, I do not intend to deal again with all the contents of the Liaison Committee report, which we debated on 9 November 2000. Despite the overwhelming response of hon. Members on both sides of the House to today's debate and vote, we did not receive an assurance that there will be a free vote. Although the wording of our motion is not party political, Labour Members will still not be allowed a free vote on it. The wording has been presented to the House by members of the Liaison Committee, on which all parties are represented.

Today's debate should send warning signals that although the Prime Minister says that there will be a free vote the Government will twist and turn to deny one. Is he not the same Prime Minister who has promised the people of the United Kingdom a free vote on keeping their own currency?

Last July, in an exchange with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister claimed on the Floor of the House--as hon. Members have reminded the Leader of the House on many occasions--that there would be a free vote on the report. However, the Government have taken every opportunity to ensure that hon. Members are denied the opportunity to exercise that right.

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Fortuitously, earlier today, on a ledge in the House, I noticed a bright pink piece of paper showing this week's Labour Whip. I notice that, far from having a free vote tonight, Labour Members are subject to a three-line Whip at 10 o'clock.

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