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5.56 pm

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): I, too, shall be brief. I shall make two comments, the first to the Leader of the House and the second to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), who I am sure will be back in the Chamber in a moment to hear my comments.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has an ability with words which no other hon. Member can equal. Those who have such a gift know that it is easy for them

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so to wave a wand and paint a picture that we are unaware of the message that we are supposed to receive. I stress that today my right hon. Friend was extremely clear about the directions that he wishes the reform of the House of Commons to take. He was sensibly silent about the membership of a couple of Select Committees. I shall return to that in a moment.

I make a plea to my right hon. Friend. It would help the House if, at some suitable opportunity—obviously not today—he, with his considerable abilities, began to spell out for us what he and the Government see as the functions of the House of Commons. In my 22 years in this place, the Executive seem to have been terrorised by a view of the House of Commons which might have been true in the middle of the 19th century, but is no longer true today. It is not our function to make and unmake Governments, to introduce major Bills or to trip up the progress of Government Bills.

We clearly have a job of scrutiny, but the function that the monarch had in the 19th century is now ours. We have the right to be consulted, to advise and to warn, but if the Government choose to ignore us, they will probably get away with it. However, there are people outside who are attentive and who build up an image of the way in which Administrations behave and perform. One—only one—of the reasons why the Opposition are in such poor health, if I put it as kindly as I can, is that when we were unelectable, they in government thought that they could do anything. The electorate had to put up with it, but the electorate did not forget. Once we were in a position to form a Government, the revenge of the electorate was mighty, and will clearly extend over more than one Parliament—perhaps over two or three.

There is a message to my right hon. Friend. The Government might get away tonight with sacking two hon. Members who should be members of Select Committees, and they might think little of it, but in the last Parliament, and in this Parliament, sadly, they continue to present an image of what they are like which, I am sure, is totally inaccurate. The image suggests that they believe that one can ride roughshod, and grab and take anything. The impression of a belief that we rule, no matter what people say, is being marked down on our card outside. When we are in difficult times, we will find, like the shambles of the Conservative party, that it is too late to reform. The electorate will have marked our card indelibly, and when the moment comes, retribution will be visited upon us.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will help this place by recognising that our main function is a continuous five-year election campaign. As all the parties will be setting out their stalls and trying to create good images of themselves and bad ones of other people, it is within that interplay that our checks and balances operate. For example, if the Government get away with what they want to do, they will be playing out part of that continuous election campaign. We might agree and say that it does not matter and that the Government should have the issue. Of course, we might also say that they are beginning to build an image that will make re-election that much more difficult. We who usually want the Government to have their programme—we have been put here to ensure that it is delivered—might want to say that it is in the best interests of ourselves and Parliament for us not to let that happen. That was the first point that I wanted to make.

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Hon. Members kindly said earlier that I had applied to become a member of any Committee. My first such activity in this House was back in 1979, when the then Opposition thought that Select Committee chairmanships should be used to provide a sort of restart interview for ex-Cabinet members who wished to make their way back in the House of Commons. After a couple of weeks, the Whips gave way. David Ennals was not appointed, but Renee Short gained the position that she should have assumed. Later, I had a chance to serve on a Select Committee only because the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) said that I should be on that Committee when the Whips attempted to keep me away from it.

That Committee behaved in the way that has been described by all hon. Members. It did not try to trip up the Government or to prove silly little points. We tried to begin a new agenda, and because we did so, the Government and the Opposition felt themselves to be free and secure enough to begin to rethink their position on welfare reform. In the long run, I do not believe that there is a conflict between good government and strong Select Committees. Select Committees are not in business to pretend that we are a Government in exile or that we are about 19th—century Members thinking that they can bring down Administrations. Rightly, we do not have the power to introduce Bills. If we had such characteristics, this country would no longer have responsible government. Come the elections, Governments could say, "We did our best, guv'nor, but all those Select Committees that you wanted us to establish kept defeating our programme, time after time." There is a role for Select Committees in terms of independence and setting new agendas. There is also a role for us to say—as I am now—that the Government are wrong and should think again.

I want now to make my plea to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, who has tabled a number of amendments. I should tonight call him my right hon. and learned Friend. By tabling his amendments, he has ignited a debate that has probably surpassed his best expectations. Obviously, he will wish to speak, but I ask him not to press his amendments. Labour Members will be loth to pick on some of our colleagues and execute them while supporting other colleagues, whom we might want to be appointed. We do not want to deal with the matter in public.

In the 1983 election, I rushed up to a house in which seven voters lived, thinking that they must be Labour supporters. I asked the woman who opened the door whether they were voting for us this time. She said, "No way." I asked, "Is your husband voting for us?" The answer was, "No way." I asked whether any of the children were voting Labour. "No way," came the answer. I then said, "Have any of you got jobs?" The woman said, "None of us." I asked whether they were all voting Tory. The woman said, "Yes; that bloody woman got us into this mess, and that woman can get us out of it." Similarly, we do not want to pick on individual Members and put others in their place. If I may say so, the Committee of Selection got us into this bloody mess and it can get us out of it. Even if the amendment that seeks to reject the membership proposals for two Committees and ensure that the Committee of Selection reports back early on Wednesday cannot be accepted, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will note that that is the wish of the Committee.

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6.6 pm

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): A few moments ago, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said that she was not irreplaceable, but I should tell her that many hon. Members on both sides of the House wish that she had not been replaced and hope that something can be done about that in the next few hours.

I want to speak about the sub-plot that has been running in this debate. I refer to the private grief, as the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) called it, between the Liberal Democrat party and the minority parties—or certainly the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru. I want also to make a few remarks about the composition of Select Committees in general.

In speaking to amendments (b) to motions 15 and 19, and to the manuscript amendment to motion 17, I must say that I thought that the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) gave us a touch of candour when he said that he was beset by difficulties as a representative of the Liberal Democrats and the minority parties on the Committee of Selection. He said that he faced difficulties in deciding on certain occasions whether to nominate a Liberal Democrat or an SNP or Plaid Cymru Member in respect of a departmental Select Committee. He must have agonised about that choice. On the three such occasions that arose for him, he plumped for a member of the Liberal party.

I have some sympathy for the hon. Gentleman. I can imagine the difficulty of trying to say to the parliamentary Liberal party, "I had the opportunity of appointing one of you, but I thought that the SNP and Plaid Cymru had a better claim." I do not think that he would have been re-appointed to his current position if he had made such a remark. I do not underrate the difficulty that he faced, but I slightly resent his trying to gild the matter over and to say that it was a question only of numbers or experience. If it was a question of numbers, he has done a superb job. He has managed to get the Liberal party, which has 8 per cent. of Members of Parliament, 9.1 per cent. representation in the Committees—an over- representation of four hon. Members. The SNP and Plaid Cymru have an under-representation of one hon. Member both in the general and departmental Committee lists. Under- representation by one person might seem to be neither here nor there, but when a party has only two places on departmental Select Committees, one of them becomes proportionally very important.

The hon. Gentleman also said that selection was a question of experience. It is true that a large number of my hon. Friends are new Members of Parliament. However, when there was a choice in respect of the Select Committee on the Treasury between a new Member of Parliament from the Liberal party and a rather more experienced one from the SNP, he suddenly decided to give youth a chance, and nominated the Liberal Democrat. I do not mind the fact that he faced some difficulty, but I resent the humbug that is presented to the House. Its effect is such that even the Chairman of the Committee of Selection was not told about any difficulty regarding the Liberal party and others. I do not think that such behaviour does the party any credit. On the contrary, it gives me the impression that, for all the deserved criticisms that the hon. Member for Hazel Grove made of the Labour party, the outcome of the selection process would have been exactly the same if the Liberal

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Democrats had been in charge of it; the only difference would have been the level of sanctimony with which the selections were proposed.

Although it is true that it is generally invidious for hon. Members to consider amendments that propose replacing one Member with another, replacing a Liberal Member with a Scottish National Member or Plaid Cymru Member is justified under the current circumstances.

I have some experience of what the Leader of the House is going through. Two years ago, in the Scottish Parliament, there were three minority parties with one Member each. We had a Green Member, a Scottish Socialist and an independent. In statistical terms, such representation could not have guaranteed them places on the Committees of the Scottish Parliament. Those Committees are much more influential than Select Committees or even Standing Committees at Westminster. There was an agreement, which I helped to broker as Leader of the Opposition, to ensure that those minorities had a place on the Committees despite the statistics. That was the right decision. Instead of under-representing minorities, it would be wiser and fairer to over-represent them when possible to ensure that distinctive views are expressed. That would benefit Select Committees.

I know that the Leader of the House has an open mind on the matters that we are considering. I read his article in The Times last week and I listened carefully to his speech. I reluctantly agreed with much of what he said. He referred to Committee practice in the Scottish Parliament—and in the Welsh Assembly, which can take policy if not legislative initiatives—and I know that he will try to include some of that experience in Select Committees in the House of Commons.

I served on the Select Committee on Energy from 1987 to 1992. I therefore know that the dispatch of independent Committee members is not a new practice. That Select Committee was independent minded when it began its work in 1987. It produced a series of reports that were critical of the Government of the day. As time went on, members were selected who were described by other members as Whips' narks. On one occasion, two Conservative Members came to blows as they discussed who was informing the Whips about the various discussions in the Committee.

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