Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Salmond: Does the hon. Gentleman think it unreasonable in the wholeness of things that, having examined the relative advantages of serving on a departmental Select Committee on the one hand and the Catering Committee on the other, Plaid Cymru decided that perhaps that offer did not give it or the Scottish National party full representation in the House?

Mr. Stunell: The Clerks advised me that, proportionally, two places were to be allocated to the SNP and two to Plaid Cymru. If one aggregates those places, which, I know, the hon. Gentleman is keen to do, the total number is four. It makes no difference at all to the final toll.

In introducing the debate, the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) said that perhaps it was not an occasion to parade private grief. I simply say to my colleagues in the minority parties that, for some Members, places on the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, a Select Committee for departmental affairs in which they are interested and the Select Committees on Environmental

16 Jul 2001 : Column 52

Audit and on European Scrutiny are not to be sneezed at. In fact, they exceed the quota that I was quoted as appropriate for minority parties.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): On how many departmental Select Committees were places secured on behalf of Plaid Cymru and the SNP outwith the Select Committees on Welsh Affairs and on Scottish Affairs?

Mr. Stunell: None; let us be clear about that. The Committees I mentioned—the Select Committees on Standards and Privileges, on Environmental Audit and on European Scrutiny—are not departmental Committees. I would not try to persuade the House otherwise. However, a party that says that it is for Scotland in Europe but refuses to serve on the European Scrutiny Committee has, perhaps, got some questions to answer.

I regret the amendment tabled by the minority parties, as it rather misses the point of the offers made to them. It is also misses the point of the arithmetic. I do not wish to dwell on the matter, but SNP representation on Select Committees went from six members to five, and Plaid Cymru stayed at four. My own party increased its representation by five members—or six, if one goes back to the establishment of Select Committees in 1997. In plain language, the situation and the terms of trade have changed. I know that that is a difficult point for my minority party colleagues to accept.

I could also raise the issue of experience. We have tried to ensure that that experience is reflected in the allocations made in our quota, which covers the Liberal Democrats and the minority parties. I remind hon. Members that I am required to take into account not only Members who are expressing their discontent now but minority party Members from Northern Ireland, and we have done so.

Last week I deployed my case for increasing the size of Select Committees, especially of departmental Select Committees, but, sadly, no Member from any of the minority parties chose to speak in support of that proposition.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): They were not here.

Mr. Stunell: My colleague is being a little unfair; they were here, but they chose to remain silent.

The speed of events is welcome, but it does not justify the cull of senior, experienced critics of the Government. Speed does not lead to quicker and better scrutiny if the critics are cut down. Perhaps we can accept that they are not being explicitly cut down for their own contribution; perhaps they were cut down, as used to be said, pour encourager les autres—in other words, as a warning to others. Will Labour Committee Chairmen be willing to keep their heads as high above the parapet as they should if they know that their reward at the end of their term of office is to be the same as Crewe's or Macclesfield's—victims of yet another purge?

Speed is getting in the way of reform. Whatever the outcome of today's events, it is absolutely essential to ensure that the process of reform gains pace, not loses it, as a result of such debates. We must not just let this become an opportunity to vent steam and reduce the pressure; we must use it as an occasion to stoke the fires and ensure that we get the reform that we need. I want to

16 Jul 2001 : Column 53

make it clear that my colleagues have a free vote tonight and that they and other hon. Members feel a real sense of unfairness. There is deep concern about the control freakery that the Government are now exercising. The worry is that this is yet another setback for Parliament in its long-standing struggle to hold the Executive to account, and our votes will be cast accordingly.

5.22 pm

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West): I shall be very brief, but in the unfortunate absence of the Father of the House—I know that all hon. Members wish him a very speedy recovery—I shall make a contribution that I think he would agree with, speaking as the most senior Privy Councillor in the House. I want to reflect on the current situation, based on 37 years' experience in the House, where I have been poacher and gamekeeper—depending on the role in which I was cast—with 22 years on the Front Bench and 15 years on the Back Benches. I know the pleasures of being a Minister, the miseries of being sacked and the pleasures of serving on Committees.

I want to start with a different point, which colleagues will have heard me make on several occasions in the previous Parliament, when I was fighting for more power for the Public Accounts Committee. None the less, it has to be re-emphasised. Under our system, democracy does not exist if accountability does not exist. Accountability cannot exist with the current scale of business, the scale of Departments and the volume of money unless we have a working, informed and effective Committee system. That is what this debate is all about—scrutiny.

Committees inevitably develop expertise that can match that of the Departments, so one can understand why Ministers regard them as a threat. I can remember the views that we expressed from the Opposition Benches and can compare them with what we hear from those who sit on them now. Opposition Members now understand the anguish of what seems to be the arrogance of Government, irrespective of whoever happens to be in government or in opposition at the time.

The most important role of Select Committees is to be a bulwark against ministerial diktat. I pay tribute to the Conservative party for introducing the departmental Select Committees, which I regard as the best innovation in my years in this place. They have enabled Back Benchers, in a way that the generalist Committees, such as those on the nationalised industries, did not. The old Committees were so general that they were ineffective. The precise remit of departmental Select Committees and their direct target of Ministers and the departmental civil service has made them much more effective. They are not only well directed but are expert in their subject.

The departmental Select Committee system is 20 years old and we have not made many changes to it. Resources are another matter, although perhaps not for today, but I say in passing—it will not endear me to any of the Committee Chairmen—that if money is available for Select Committees, I hope that it goes on advisers and back-up staff and not on salaries for individuals.

Members on both sides of the House must ensure that Select Committees are independent from the patronage of the Whips. It is glaringly inconsistent that the Government can appoint on any Committee the majority of their scrutineers, which can produce all sorts of nonsense. As a result of something that my assistant said, I discovered

16 Jul 2001 : Column 54

only this morning that the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) did not appear on any of the lists. I hope that he will forgive me for mentioning this point, but I phoned him and asked, "What's happened? Didn't you apply?" He told me that he had applied to become a member of several Committees and had entered the open caveat that he was willing to serve on any Committee on which the Government wished to put him.

We are all aware of the experience that my right hon. Friend can bring to the House, but he does not have a place on any Select Committee. One of the Committees on which I sit—the Public Accounts Committee—is short of four members and it might have been one of the Committees in which he expressed an interest. I therefore hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who is very fair minded and shares my regard for the work that right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead has done for Labour Members and for Parliament generally, will take the opportunity to reconsider that oversight.

The method of appointment is not just inconsistent: it will be an insult to those who dedicate much of their time and effort to the Committee structure and to Committee work if Committee chairmanships are seen as compensation for ex-Ministers. It is not very nice to lose a job as a Minister and it is not pleasant to walk into the Tea Room no longer carrying red boxes and with a car no longer waiting outside, but Ministers have had the privilege of being Ministers, and most Members go through the House without ever having that privilege. Ministers should therefore not need compensation for the fact that they have ceased to be Ministers. It is not a job for life. We are not children. We all know that an MP's life is transient enough and that a Minister's life is even more transient. It is nonsense and outrageous that Committee chairmanships should be regarded as palliatives for injured pride.

Next Section

IndexHome Page