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Mr. Blunt: I, like almost every Member of the House, have great respect for the right hon. Gentleman. He is making a decent and courteous case for his Committee's reports. He put to the Leader of the House the words of Peter Riddell, a cheerleader of the Blairite project, who said in response to the first report of the right hon. Gentleman's that it was "arrogant, mendacious and contemptible". In putting this case so decently, is the right hon. Gentleman not frustrated that he is dealing with an "arrogant, mendacious and contemptible" Government?

Mr. Sheldon: I do not know about that, but it is important that Select Committees acquire such information in a different way from the Government machine.

If the Committees are going to act as outside bodies that gather facts and information and put their opinions in a concerted form, with Labour, Conservative and Liberal

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Democrat Members reaching agreement, then their members must be free from Government interference. It is clearly wrong that the Government should choose Committee members whose purpose it is to examine the Government. My right hon. Friend is right; it is possible to deal with such issues in a less direct manner, but perception is important. There needs to be a greater remoteness from the Government machine.

The issue is not without importance. I hope that the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) will contribute to the debate. He was a distinguished Chairman of the Health Committee. As a result of his outspokenness, his party devised a system to debar hon. Members from spending more than two terms in post. I was Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee for four Parliaments and was pleased that the contagion did not spread from the Conservative Benches.

Labour Whips are not bad people, but they have a role that could be carried out by the House as a whole. Perhaps we need to consider the system in a different way. That is just an idea. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) said, the crucial consideration is the objective, which must be that the House should determine the composition of the Committees. There needs to be an alternative career for people who are not going to get into government. That is especially relevant when the Government have a large majority. I understand that hon. Members believe they are most fulfilled when they are invited to join the Government, even at a lowly level. I am sorry about that, because we lose some good people. However, hon. Members who stay as Back Benchers should have a means of influencing the way the country is run.

Select Committees will monitor the work that has been done. Every year the National Audit Office tells the PAC how far it has succeeded in influencing the change in Government procedure. We want Select Committees to participate in similar monitoring. I can see no real objection to the many changes that we are suggesting. They might need to be modified and perhaps different methods of approach should be considered, but they are all possible.

Mrs. Browning: The right hon. Gentleman says that modification might be necessary. Does he recognise that the motion suggests that both the Government and the Liaison Committee introduce proposals for discussion by the House? Even with the reservations that the Leader of the House expressed, that gives them the chance to work in partnership with the Committee to iron out some of the differences.

Mr. Sheldon: I have no objection to the wording of the motion, but the debate is taking place on an Opposition Supply day. Perhaps I have been in the House too long, but such days have a certain connotation for me. Although I shall not be able to vote for the motion, I shall not vote against it either. I hope that early in the next Parliament we will reconsider the issues in a more relaxed manner, so that we can manage to get closer to the Liaison Committee's recommendations.

8.32 pm

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster): Twenty years ago, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) and I went to China

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together. When the general election comes, we will sail into the sunset together. That will be as much a pleasure as it is to follow him in the debate.

I have various interests to declare. I am a signatory of the motion and a member of the Liaison Committee. In light of the observations made by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) about how people become members of the Committee, I should explain that I was a perfectly innocent and ordinary Back-Bench member of the Health Committee, minding my Ps and Qs, when I was put in an armlock by the Front Benches on both sides of the House and frogmarched into the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. Not all of us get on a Committee by the processes that she described.

I was a member of the Norton commission and, once, a Whip. Without idolising me, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) said that I was the best pairing Whip he had ever experienced--[Interruption]--up to that moment. As the Leader of the House alluded to the number of people on the Conservative Benches who have been in opposition before, I should declare another novel interest: I was one of them. As she led with her chin, I recall when I won a place in that antique ballot for speaking on the Consolidated Fund in the middle of the night. She was Under-Secretary of State, Department of Education and Science at the time, and dispatched her private secretary to ask me to withdraw from scrutinising the Executive at that inconvenient hour.

The Leader of the House's speech tonight leads me to recall the episode of Winston Churchill shooting at Blenheim. The gamekeeper said to him, "Mr. Churchill, that hare four fields away, at which you are taking aim, is really outside your range." Churchill replied, "I just wanted that small animal to feel that it had some part to play in our proceedings." A number of the targets that the right hon. Lady selected tonight were the same distance from the agenda of the motion as the hare was.

I spoke in the debate on 9 November, to which allusion has already been made. I shall quote the final sentence of my speech. The House will realise that my speech was foreshortened because it was the last before the wind-ups, and was therefore somewhat elliptical. I said:

I am in the debt of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), because by securing this debate she has enabled me to say what I would have said if I had had slightly more time. The Clerk of the Liaison Committee, on which I serve, implied that he had the sense that I was participating in a serial story in a ladies' magazine, and that it would be necessary to wait for the next instalment.

The next instalment is what I would have said if I had had slightly longer. I want to dwell on the loss of only one member of the Select Committee: the hon. Member for Brent, East, who left to seek the mayoralty of London. I congratulate the Government Whips on having

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appointed him. He added enormously to the Committee, because the nature of his views on Northern Ireland widened the spectrum of views on the Committee and gave much greater authority to the Committee's views. His appointment could be argued as proof that, as paragraph 9 of the Government's response to the Liaison Committee's first report says, the Government are not seeking to ensure

Four Labour Back Benchers have been appointed to the Select Committee since the hon. Gentleman left. I remark neutrally that, individually admirable though they have been, and of course they are ornaments of the Committee, none has replaced the hon. Gentleman and thus restored to the Committee the authority that he conferred on it. That is why I want the Whips' role to be removed.

The late Ward McAllister decreed that since only 400 guests could be accommodated in Mrs. Astor's ballroom, there were only 400 people in New York. Whatever the result of tonight's Division, let no one in the Government Whips Office imagine that, on a free vote, the result would be the same as will be secured tonight by the law of Mrs. Astor's ballroom. On free votes, and the Government's commitment to them, the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister remind me of the man who returned to a car park, where, in his absence, his car had been damaged, to find a note on his windscreen that read, "As I write this, there is a large crowd gathering around me. They imagine that I am writing down my name and address, but you and I know different, don't we?"

I offer the Leader of the House, through her deputy, the advice of Mark Twain:

If we cannot have a free vote tonight, let us have one before the general election while the members of the Liaison Committee that made these proposals still sit in the House.

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