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6.50 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Stephen Twigg): We have had an excellent short debate on a set of proposals that has proved largely uncontroversial, which may explain why the debate has ranged rather wide of them.

I begin where the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) began: it is right to place this debate in the context of the need to reconnect people with politics and in particular to try to make Parliament more relevant to the lives of ordinary people, especially in the light of the low turnout at the general election. That is a sensible background for consideration of the proposals.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House made it clear that the various proposals from the Liaison Committee, the Parliament First campaign, the Hansard Society and the Norton commission ranged far wider than what we are discussing today. I repeat his undertaking that we will return to those proposals, as we accept that this is a real debate that is happening both within the House and more widely.

My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) spoke about resourcing and staffing support—a legitimate issue, but not one that is properly a matter for Government: it is a matter for the House of Commons Commission. The Leader of the House sits on the Commission, and that is the right place for the matter to be considered. We will ensure that that happens.

The hon. Member for Stone raised the broader question of education in schools about Parliament and its work. I very much associate myself with his remarks. The issue of citizenship in schools is a live one, and we should all seek to make this place more relevant to both primary and secondary schools.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of draft Bills being referred to Select Committees. The Government certainly favour greater pre-legislative scrutiny. The matter was considered at great length in the previous Parliament in the Modernisation and Procedure Committees. The Government have undertaken that draft Bills that relate to a single Department may be scrutinised by the appropriate Committee. That is clearly a first step, but there is scope for considerable further work if we are to have the broadest and deepest pre-legislative scrutiny that we can achieve.

Several hon. Members spoke about quorums. It is important to emphasise that a quorum is a minimum, not a target. We do not aim to have only a small proportion of a Committee present. We simply want to ensure that its work can continue. The matter should clearly be kept under very close review.

My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish spoke about having joint Chairs. My understanding is that that is a matter for the Committees themselves. As he

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said, that was the practice followed by the then Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee in the previous Parliament. If the new departmental Committees want to continue that practice, it is up to them.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) spoke to his two amendments. In his opening speech, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House set out the Government's response to those amendments, and I urge the hon. Gentleman not to press them to a Division. We have seen that there are various points of view in the House about the appropriateness of increasing the size of Committees. Certainly, I am sympathetic to the point about ensuring representation for the Liberal Democrats—they form the third party in the House—and for other, smaller parties. However, we must also take into account the needs and interests of all hon. Members, including those who belong to the principal Opposition party, as that party will not benefit from the proposed change with regard to Select Committee representation.

Labour Back Benchers must also be kept in mind, and my right hon. Friend undertook to ensure that the question of membership would be reviewed. I hope that that undertaking will enable the hon. Member for Hazel Grove not to press the matter to a vote.

Amendment (b) deals with Sub-Committees. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, the proposals before the House would enable Select Committees to make such decisions for themselves. Like my right hon. Friend, I expect that it would be proper for a Select Committee to include on a Sub-Committee any minor party member who wished to be on it. However, I think that that should not be imposed by a decision of the House today, and therefore hope once again that the hon. Member for Hazel Grove will not press the matter to a vote.

The debate has ranged beyond the specific proposals before the House. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) placed the matter in the broader context of the history of Parliament, and set out some of the factors that make the British Parliament distinctive among other legislatures in the world. All hon. Members will agree that the British constitution is evolving. There has been much change in recent years, starting with the introduction of Select Committees 20 years ago, and this Government introduced important changes in their first term.

The remarks made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House in opening the debate reflected the Government's determination to address the matter of Select Committees, and the relationship between the legislature and the Executive, in a serious manner. There is a determination that hon. Members of all parties should be able to contribute to that debate.

I welcome the tone and content of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who praised the proposals and said that they were sensible. He pointed out that they amounted only to the first building block, and suggested that good will exists among Opposition Members on this matter. As a result, the debate has been good tempered, and several positive contributions have been made, both about the proposals and, perhaps more important, about the need for a broader strengthening of Parliament's scrutiny role. That strengthening would require greater power for the Select Committees.

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I am sure that my right hon. Friend is grateful for the many kind remarks about his appointment and about his record as a very effective parliamentarian. I should like to thank in particular the three hon. Members from the Select Committee on Liaison who are now present in the Chamber. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) made supportive remarks in the debate, which reflects the real good will evident in most contributions to today's proceedings.

I am sure that the House will return to these matters in the weeks and months ahead, but I think that there is cross-party consensus in favour of the proposals. If the House approves them, we will aim to get the Select Committees up and running before the summer recess, so that their very important role in scrutinising the Executive can begin. On that basis, I appeal for support from all hon. Members for these proposals.

Question put and agreed to.


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