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Mr. Forth: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one possibility is that at the point at which right hon. and hon. Members volunteer for membership of a Select Committee, they should make available an undated letter of resignation to be held by the Chairman and used if their attendance record is less than satisfactory?

Mr. Fisher: I have heard of smoking guns, but the right hon. Gentleman suggests that an about to be smoking gun should be left in someone's hand. That is an interesting suggestion, as was that made by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish, who said that continuing Select Committee membership should be

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linked to attendance in some way. That is true of local authority committee membership, and the principle could be adapted to membership of Select Committees. However, it is not a matter of press-ganging Members to join.

All of us would want to be members of Select Committee, and to be assiduous as members, if we really felt that all the Select Committees at all times not only did the work that they should do, but were listened to by the Government and the world outside. Their status and the effectiveness of their scrutiny will determine the enthusiasm of those who serve on them.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Does the hon. Gentleman believe that a causal link exists between the low esteem in which Select Committees are held and the influence of the respective Whips Offices in determining their composition?

Mr. Fisher: I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but there is no simple causal link, nor does any such link cover all Select Committees. Undoubtedly, there was no problem with the commitment and work rate of many Select Committees in the previous Parliament and earlier ones—or, indeed, with their status in the outside world. Examples are the admirable Public Accounts Committee under the excellent chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) and the Transport Sub-Committee under the valiant leadership of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). It is not a simple thing and the causes are subtle and various, as my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish said, but there is possibly some link, as the hon. Gentleman suggests.

That brings me to the wider agenda that is only implicit—or is perhaps the dog that is not barking—in the motions tabled by the Leader of the House: the wider agenda of the Liaison Committee report of the previous Parliament and the Hansard Society report, with their rather specific recommendations on powers, selection of membership, resources, status and whether the Chairman should be paid. I very much welcome the positive remarks made today by the Leader of the House, who said that we would debate such matters again later, but not too much later, in this Parliament.

The principle behind those reports, which should inform all our thinking on the issue, is that Select Committees are about the power of scrutiny. When the scrutiny powers of our Select Committees are compared with those, for example, of the Senate Committees in the United States, we can see how very gently toothless our Committees are. There is no direct comparison because we have very different democratic systems, but the principle is the same: those elected on behalf of the electorate have a duty to scrutinise, with real rigour and thoroughness, the actions of the Government. That is good for politics in any country and very good for the quality of government. It is quite sobering to compare how Senate Committees work with the detail and effectiveness of scrutiny of our own Committees.

My other point on the wider agenda in our discussion of Select Committees is the only qualification to my praise for the Leader of the House in setting them up. The price that Parliament has paid for setting the Committees up quickly is that we have not been able to change the

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basis on which they are made. While I congratulate the Leader of the House, I am sure that he understands that many hon. Members believe that these are parliamentary Committees—reference has been made to the early day motion relating to Parliament First—not governmental Committees. That being so, Parliament, not the Government, should decide their powers, status, responsibilities and membership.

It is quite wrong—as it would be in any other organisation—for the Government to appoint or have any influence over their own scrutineers. That does not make sense. The public would not understand it if they were to focus on that point, and we must return to this issue. The Government would be the greatest beneficiary—in the widest sense of the word—of those changes if they were to work with Parliament to return to the Committees the idea that they are parliamentary Committees, and that the responsibility to run, appoint and arrange their affairs should rest with Parliament, not with the Government.

The Leader of the House sensibly and wisely volunteered the quotation by Professor Crick to the effect that we had a common interest. I would go further and say that the Government have, in the long term, the greater interest. Let us imagine the way in which the press and the public would respond if the Government gave away some of their powers for the first time in 100 years. The credibility that would be heaped on the Government would be enormous, and it would not be at the cost of any effective power or any ability to get their programme through. They would still be able to do that only too easily. However, their esteem would rise in the eyes of the House, of the public and of the world generally.

My right hon. Friend is right: there is a lot to go on, here. I congratulate him on his encouraging use of that quotation from Professor Crick, and I believe that he recognises what we are saying about the importance of these matters and the credit that would accrue to the Government. This debate, and the way in which the Leader of the House is pushing forward these matters, are enormously encouraging for Parliament.

6.17 pm

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), who is the leading light in the Parliament First campaign, which supplemented the activities of the Liaison Committee in the last 12 months of the previous Parliament. He has spoken with great eloquence and he knows that he has wide support in the House. All Members of the House support the campaign that he is leading, and he also knows that he has my 100 per cent. support for what he is doing.

I am grateful for the positive way in which the Leader of the House and his team have responded to the approaches made by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood)—who cannot be here today—and me. The Leader of the House was very positive when we all met. He suggested that there might be problems in interpreting and implementing the Liaison Committee's report, "Shifting the Balance", before the parliamentary recess. However, on balance, we believe that setting up the Select Committees at a very

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early date was the priority and I am grateful to him for saying today that he will look again at all the recommendations and observations made by the Liaison Committee in the three excellent reports that it produced towards the end of the previous Parliament.

I also endorse the views of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett), who has made a good contribution to Select Committees over many years, jointly chairing—as it were—the large Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Select Committee with the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich in the previous Parliament. I particularly endorse the reference that he made to quorums. I believe that flexibility on that matter is right, and that reducing the quorum is right. The Procedure Committee—which I chaired—had difficulty meeting its quorum on some occasions during the previous Parliament when we had important people coming before us to give evidence, not least because the Committee of Selection, or perhaps the Government Deputy Chief Whip, had not appointed the full complement of members to that Committee.

I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to what I considered to be an abuse. A Government Member who served on that Committee did not attend once in the final three years of the Parliament. He had told the Government Chief Whip that he wanted to be removed from the Committee, but he was prevailed on to remain a member, although he was told that he need not attend. That is, I believe, a reliable explanation of what happened. I do not intend to name the Member involved, as I blame not him, but the system for allowing that to happen.

I warmly support the views expressed by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish in a concise and eloquent speech. What matters is not the number of Members selected to serve on a particular Committee, but their dedication and commitment to serving and to doing the job that the Committee is there to do.

The majority of the Government Members on the Procedure Committee were extremely assiduous and regular in their attendance, which made it much easier for us to do our job. I commend the majority of members for their work and dedication in producing our reports in the previous Parliament. The Leader of the House has been exemplary in tabling amendments to the Standing Orders and trying to set up the Select Committees as quickly as possible.

Nine years ago, I had an experience that exemplifies the remarks of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central about the abuse of the Select Committee system by the Executive of the day. We must take control of Select Committees away from the Executive of the day and put it back in the hands of the House of Commons as a whole.

I used to chair the Health Committee. I pay tribute to that Committee and to a particular member of it who is no longer with us, the former hon. Member for Preston, Mrs. Audrey Wise. I am considered right of centre in the political spectrum and she was considered very much to the left of centre, but I tell you this, Mr. Deputy Speaker: we worked together on that Committee as one. It was a magnificent Committee. Indeed, it achieved so much influence that it embarrassed the Government of the day to such an extent that they indulged in a fraudulent practice with the connivance of the then Chairman of the Committee of Selection. They created a rule that worked

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against me to try to break the Committee's influence and impact, even though it comprised not just me, but all those who were members of it, and they succeeded. That was a tragic abuse of the House that shows how an Executive can manipulate the Select Committee system.

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