|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Cotter: It must be said that it was under the last Conservative Government that the original measure was put forward and a criticism of that measure is that it was rather meek, mousy and whatever else the hon. Gentleman said, because it did not allow the Committee to be proactive. It is incumbent on the new Committee and the new Chairman--we do not know who that will be--to ensure that it is far more proactive. I believe that it will be.
A couple of points with regard to the remit and composition of the Committee must be addressed. I note the amendments that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) has tabled, which seek to increase the quorum of the new Committee from five to seven and the quorum of the sub-committee from two to four, with the stipulation that at least half that number should be from an Opposition party.
The amendments raise several important points with regard to the effective operation of the Committee. Whether one accepts that the quorum of the Committee should be increased or not, a valuable point is being made. The work of the Committee is likely to be plentiful and complex. In a written answer to the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) on 27 November last year, the Minister provided a list of the proposals that the Government planned to bring forward under the new Act. We have talked about those before. The list is extensive and wide-ranging and shows that the Government are striving to make great use of the Act across a number of legislative areas.
That means that the Act is likely to be used to a greater extent than its predecessor, but we must recognise that the Committee will need to have the appropriate resources to deal with an extended work load. The lack of work with which the existing Committee has been provided has meant that the resources available to it have been reduced over time. However, it is likely that orders under the new legislation will come in thick and fast. The Committee needs to be prepared for that to ensure that orders are adequately scrutinised.
The Committee currently has 18 members, yet it is rare for all its members to attend sittings. On Second Reading of the Regulatory Reform Bill, the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) said that he had to write to the Conservative Chief Whip in his capacity as Chairman of the Select Committee on Deregulation stressing the need
The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has tabled an amendment proposing that the sub- committee should include at least one Opposition Member. That highlights the importance of getting the balance on the Committee right and ensuring that Opposition Members make an effective contribution; although that does involve turning up, at least. Some of us hope that the Conservatives will be sufficiently enthused after the expected election to turn up. Of course there may not be many of them to turn up. We are looking for great participation by all parties, including my own.
The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has rightly concentrated our minds on the issues, but I feel that, on balance, the existing quorum and membership are about right. We look forward to the points that the right hon. Gentleman will be making later in the debate.
We must consider the Committee's role in the scrutiny of regulatory reform orders. We must ensure that all elements of the Committee have a valid input into proceedings, especially as the Government will now have the power to introduce new burdens. We must ensure that the composition of the Committee reflects all political opinions and views. I welcome the fact that the stipulation remains that once a Member is selected for the Committee, he will continue to serve on it for the duration of the Parliament--
Mr. Cotter: Indeed. It will probably be impossible to build up any real expertise in the Committee because so many subjects will be brought forward, but it is important that there is consistency of membership.
Mr. Forth: Does the hon. Gentleman think that a stipulation in Standing Orders that a Member, once elected to a Committee by the House, should remain on that Committee for the duration of the Parliament runs somewhat against his criticism--with which I totally agree--of Members who persistently fail to turn up to, show interest in or support the work of the Committee? Would it not be preferable if a mechanism were available that said that if Members did not attend a Committee over a certain period, they could be removed in favour of Members who were more committed to its work? Does he think that there is a danger in giving Members automatic and unchallenged membership of a Committee for the duration of a Parliament?
Mr. Cotter: I bow to the great experience of the right hon. Gentleman in this area. My point is a fair one. If people are not doing their job, they ought to be kicked out. Perhaps that applies generally, but it tends to take elections for that to happen. We shall see at the next election how many will be kicked out.
Mr. Cotter: The hon. Gentleman always talks about people chuntering on, but he is also quite capable of that. I stick by my original proposal, but I am tempted by the suggestion of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst because the attendance of Conservative members of the Committee has been deplorable. It would be very nice if one could say to them, "Get off the Committee if you don't turn up," but that is not the right way forward.
Mr. Pike: I actually wrote to the Conservative Chief Whip on two occasions, but I never received a reply. One of the Conservative members of the Committee later became a Whip, and I was told that the party could not find any replacement who could attend the Committee.
I was also pleased to learn that the Committee will retain its ability to appoint specialist advisers, which is important because of the varied and complex nature of the business we are expected to consider. I know that the Chairman of the present Committee agrees that the new Committee should be appointed soon after the election, because business will be moving along. I would also like an assurance that the Committee will have adequate resources to fulfil its new functions, in terms of legal and administrative support from civil servants and clerks. It is vital that the members of the Committee have access to as much expertise and information as possible, and that is especially important when considering complex issues.
Resources become essential once again when we consider the Committee's intention to produce an annual report. At least, it was the recommendation of the previous Committee that it should produce an annual report and I hope that the new Committee will take that on board. The Government have indicated that they would find an annual report acceptable, although it has not been included in the motion.
Standing Order No. 141 remains the same in that the new Committee will have the power to invite Members of Parliament who are not part of the Committee to attend meetings. With the permission of the Chairman, the Committee will have the power to ask those Members questions. Ministers will be required to produce documents under section 6 of the Act, but as an additional safeguard it might be appropriate to give the Committee the power to summon Ministers and legally require them to answer its questions. That might prove a further deterrent to any supposed rogue Minister seeking to abuse power in the future.
I hope that the Minister will be able to provide me with some assurances on a few of the matters that I have raised regarding the Standing Order changes, which otherwise will--I hope--provide the basis for effective examination of regulation and deregulation in the future.
Mr. Forth: If one tries to rise above the mind- numbing, mutually congratulatory, consensual nonsense that we have heard so far in the debate, the truth is that we are talking about the legislative process. What the Committee does, if its members bother to turn up and if it bothers to do more than one thing a year--which seems to have been the productivity rate hitherto--is legislate: it makes law and affects people's lives. We are therefore entitled to ask whether we are satisfied that the arrangements in place for the working of the Committee are appropriate to that end.
The Minister, who is conservative to his fingertips, said in a very conservative way, "Because it has always been done this way, it must be all right." The Government are happy to accept that what happened under the previous Government is equally all right, and the conservative Minister would not dream of challenging or changing any aspect of it. I welcome the Minister to the ranks of conservatism, but I am a radical and I see need for change if we can demonstrate that the existing arrangements are unsatisfactory.
I confess that I am not encouraged by what I have heard about the Committee's procedures. It seems to operate extraordinarily slowly, and to rely on the Government for its flow of work. That is hardly appropriate. Members of the Committee often do not bother to turn up, and the Chairman told us that he had to write to the Opposition Chief Whip to ask where members were. That gives me little confidence.
I am delighted and honoured that my amendments have been selected for debate. It is time for the House to consider how Select Committees work, and the attitude to their work of those Committees members. The revised Standing Order requires the Committee to examine provisions, to report to the House, to recommend whether draft orders should be laid before the House or amended, and so on. In effect, that is the legislative process. As such, it has a majesty that requires a guarantee that the people of this country be properly represented on those Committees.
The provisions outlining the structure and working of the Committee horrified me, and the debate so far has not lessened that horror. Nothing said by those eminent members of the Committee who are present or its august, senior and respected Chairman has given me confidence or optimism about how the revised Committee will discharge its duties. I am more than ever convinced that my modest amendments are appropriate.
Will all 18 members always turn up, however? If not, how satisfactory are the quorum arrangements? This is where I get into difficulty. Amendment (a) deals with the provision in the Standing Order that states that the Committee's quorum shall be five.
In Committees such as this, we can guarantee that the Chairman will always be present, as--almost certainly--will dragooned members of the governing party. My worry, which the Committee's Chairman has more or less confirmed, is that the Committee could sit, deliberate and, in effect, legislate with as few as five Members present. Moreover, all five of those Members could belong to the party in government at the time.
I accept that the Opposition are under a responsibility to provide members of the Committee. I deprecate it when hon. Members serving on a Committee miss its meetings. I believe that my attendance record for the Committees on which I have the honour to serve bears considerable scrutiny. I have no hesitation in saying that all hon. Members serving on Committees should ideally be present at every meeting--but that is not the point. The point is that hon. Members should ask whether they are comfortable with a provision that allows as few as five hon. Members to make or change the law of the land.
I am not comfortable with that. I should have preferred the quorum to be set at an even higher level, but I accept that practicalities must be taken into account. My amendment proposing that the quorum be raised from five to seven is modest, but it would give at least a degree of assurance to hon. Members who are not on the Committee--and to voters and taxpayers--that at least seven people would be present when proposals to change the law of the land were being considered and enacted. That is not unreasonable. It would make it more likely--although it would not guarantee it--that those present embodied a spectrum of views and political representation.