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Mrs. Browning: Yes. Not only did I make that commitment when we debated the Liaison Committee report, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) has said at the Dispatch Box that he supports in principle the recommendations of the Committee. There is consensus across the House. If the Leader of the House were minded to make the changes, there would not be such an acrimonious feeling about the way in which this particular tranche of Select Committee appointments is being made.

Mr. William Cash (Stone): Does my hon. Friend accept that there is a logical conclusion to these proposals? I do not want to press her too hard about it, because she sits on the Front Bench and it requires careful consideration. In the past three or four debates on these matters, I have pointed out that, if we want to achieve the objectives that we have set with regard to restrictions on the Executive, new Standing Orders will be required to ensure that any hon. Member or Minister of the Crown who attempts to interfere with a free vote will be in contempt of the House. Such a change would put teeth into the restrictions. I do not want to push her hard on that proposal, as it needs much consideration, but I fear that, without it, the whole thing will become an illusion.

Mrs. Browning: I share my hon. Friend's concern. He will know that I pressed the Leader of the House during last Thursday's business questions to confirm that there would be a free vote in this debate on the Front and Back Benches. He gave his confirmation and I am sure that a free vote will occur.

I should like to make one or two points about the motions. Perhaps it is unusual for a Conservative Member to pick up on the matter, but it is noticeable that, of the names recommended for Select Committees, no women are proposed for the Standards and Privileges Committee, the Public Accounts Committee or the Deregulation and Regulatory Reform Committee. However, seven are proposed for the Modernisation Committee. I flag that up because it would be a great shame if some Committees were deemed to be boys' matters and others girls' matters.

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My name is down for the Modernisation Committee, but, in a spirit of co-operation, I would willingly give up my place to a man if one would like to sit on that Committee.

We heard from the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam), who chairs the Committee of Selection, that it clearly does not have an overview. It does what it is told and simply acts as a rubber-stamp. That is a weakness in the conduct of our proceedings. If the Committee genuinely considered balance, the imbalance in the proposed membership of the Select Committees would not exist. It is appalling that no women have been proposed for the Public Accounts Committee.

Mr. McWilliam: Would the hon. Lady like it if the Committee of Selection decided that it did not like the names that the Opposition had proposed for a specific Committee, and switched them around?

Mrs. Browning: I am trying not to move power from the Whips to the Committee of Selection, but to give it to hon. Members, to those who are democratically elected, not appointees who rubber-stamp what the Whips Office of any party deems to be the right way forward. That is not democratic; it does not help Back-Bench Members, and it keeps power and patronage in the hands of the Executive. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does an honourable and difficult job but he described a rubber-stamping exercise when he outlined the conduct of the Committee of Selection.

Mr. McWilliam: It may help the hon. Lady if I stress that it is not the first time that I have questioned nominations from not only the Government party but the Conservative party and the minority parties because I do not want willing horses flogged to death. I take that duty seriously.

Mrs. Browning: We are hearing confirmation from all parties of unhappiness with the current system, which needs to be changed.

I want to consider the amendments that we shall debate and especially the chairmanship of the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee. Like many other hon. Members, I received an e-mail from the right hon. Member for Swansea, East (Donald Anderson). It states:

I agree. Any Government must accept that Select Committees will scrutinise and sometimes criticise. As the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) pointed out on "Woman's Hour" today, that helps to create the checks and balances in our democratic procedures.

It does not matter from which party a Chairman comes, we all respect the neutrality of Select Committee Chairmen. There is a feeling of great sympathy on both sides of the House for the right hon. Member for Swansea, East and for the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich.

The hon. Lady does not need me as an advocate. She is a doughty fighter. I know that because I fought her in Crewe and Nantwich in the 1987 election. Having come into the House in 1992, like many other Members on both sides of the House, I have great respect for her as a parliamentarian. There are too few people in this place

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whom we can call great parliamentarians, but the hon. Lady is one. I pay tribute to her as a parliamentarian. It would be to the detriment not only of the Transport Sub-Committee but of the reputation of the House if her expertise and dedication to this place as a parliamentarian were denied us in her capacity as Chairman of that Committee.

I urge all Members, old and new—if I may put it that way—to ignore the ways in which the Whips and others go about their business trying to influence them. It is not true that if one does not do as one is told one never gets ministerial office or the job of Parliamentary Private Secretary.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): Yes, it is.

Mrs. Browning: No, it is not at all. I shall conduct counselling sessions for hon. Members later if it would be helpful.

Like many other Members, as a Parliamentary Private Secretary, I voted in a certain way when it was not the wish of my party that I should do so. Ultimately, over the period of years that we all hope to spend as parliamentarians, we cannot afford as individuals simply to buckle down because of one single personal issue, when there are greater issues at stake. I want to say to all Members that this is a free vote and, in deciding how they are going to vote, they should vote for what is right for this place, and not for its history but for its future.

The House needs its reputation to be restored. The only people who can do that are the people who sit here on these green Benches: Back Benchers and Front Benchers. That is why I say to the Leader of the House, for whom I have great respect, that this is his opportunity to hear what is being said by Members behind him and across the Dispatch Box. The way in which we deal with Select Committees now—never mind what went on in the past—could be a watershed in terms of how the House is perceived in future.

4.47 pm

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) for the tone of her speech. She asked whether I would be reviewing the system by which nominations come forward, and perhaps it would be helpful if I were to say at the outset that I will address that matter in my speech. Indeed, it will make up the bulk of my speech.

I am also grateful to the hon. Lady for pointing out that there were seven women on the Modernisation Committee, which confirms how forward-thinking the women in the House are. As a member of that Committee, I will endeavour to make it clear that modernisation is a matter for men, too. However, I hope that the hon. Lady will reconsider her offer to give up her seat on that Committee to a man on her side of the House, because were she to do so, it would leave the Committee without a single Tory woman.

The debate today will ensure that the Select Committees are up and running before the summer recess, which will fulfil the commitment that I gave the House

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on that issue. Assuming that the motions before the House are approved tonight, Select Committees will be able to meet from tomorrow. That will set a new record for the speed with which Select Committees have been created. We will have set up the Select Committees in this Parliament within four weeks of the Queen's Speech. That compares with the five months that it took in 1987, and almost three months in 1992, under the Conservative party.

I was sorry to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) complain earlier of unreasonable haste in bringing forward the nominations. When we returned after the election, at the time of the Queen's Speech, there was broad agreement—indeed, I think I can say that there was enthusiasm—that we should get the Select Committees set up before the recess, so as not to delay the important work of scrutiny. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), who came to discuss this with me, agrees that that was the priority attached to the matter in all quarters of the House at the time.

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish): On that point, may I firmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on getting a move on with this issue? However, will he confirm that if the House were to decide tonight that one or two of the motions should not go through, the Committee of Selection could meet again on Wednesday, and it would be possible to put different names before the House later in the week to ensure that the Select Committees could still be set up before the recess—or at least, that they could meet in the first week of the recess?

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