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Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): Agreed.

5.25 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): That is all very well. The Minister said 90 minutes. He probably thought that that sounded longer than an hour and a half. Here we are yet again being subjected unnecessarily to an arbitrary limitation on time. After all, we are all in relaxed mood. We are about to be off for almost three months. There is no hurry whatever. It is Thursday evening. Looking around the Chamber, I see colleagues smiling

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and anticipating their buckets and spades. So what is the rush? Why do the Government feel it necessary yet again to impose an arbitrary time limit of 90 minutes on an important debate?

I judge from the number of hon. Members present that there is going to be quite a lot to be said in that 90 minutes, so I have no intention of detaining the House. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] Well, with encouragement, I could detain the House, but on this occasion I judge that colleagues are ready to get on to the substance of the debate, as indeed am I. I have a few observations to make on one or two of the proposed Committee memberships. I am absolutely determined that we will not let these matters slide by and allow the Government to impose arbitrary time limits on debates without some protest.

The Government cannot possibly know whether the House is satisfied that 90 minutes to debate the matters before us is remotely sufficient. We shall have to cover such matters as the proposed membership and probe why some of the changes are being made. I want to say a few words about the changes to Committees and the mechanisms whereby they are agreed, or not agreed as the case may be. I have other queries about the membership of other Committees. There is a lot of substance here. It is not a matter that will be skated over lightly. It is not a matter that we will deal with on the nod. It is something that we want to probe, question and query. Whether the House will want to vote on the memberships of individual Committees is something that we will ponder as the debate unwinds. Ninety minutes will almost certainly not be adequate so I record that fact yet again.

Question put and agreed to.

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Select Committees

Motion made, and Question proposed,

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): With this it will be convenient to debate motions 7 to 17.

5.27 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Well, here we are giving mature consideration to a matter that has caused considerable controversy. This is an opportunity for the House to think again about how we have arrived at this position. We have arrived at it, have we not, because the House woke up rather late in the day to the fact that the way in which proposals were made to us for the membership and chairmanship of Select Committees was less than satisfactory. The reason for that is that, for as long as anyone can remember, and in probably all the political parties, the composition of Select Committees has been dealt with by a process of hon. Members going to the Whips and saying, "Please may I be on this Committee?"

The Whips then deliberate in their mysterious and sinister way on whether hon. Members should be pleased or not. Then, worse than all of that, the usual channels—the Whips and the so-called party managers on each side of the House—come together and divvy up the membership of Committees. That is all bearing in mind, of course, that every Select Committee must have a clear majority of Government Members. That is the absurdity. That of course sets the whole tone and gives the whole flavour, and was all thought to be very satisfactory—was it not? It meant that the Whips and the party managers were able to please certain Members by giving them a Select Committee position and to punish others by withholding such a position. It is from that situation that the discontent that we have seen in the House recently has arisen.

The point that worries me even more than that, and where there may even be a slight departure from integrity, is that we are in danger of accepting that a similar mechanism is at work in the allocation of Committee chairmanships. This whole problem arose in relation to chairmanships, although it has now spilled over into the membership of the Committees. The irony is that we are, I suspect, being asked to sanction the position we would have been in had the whole mechanism not worked to the disadvantage of certain Members: we are about to be asked to sanction, or agree to, the carve-up of Select Committee chairmanships in the same way as we were asked to do for the Committee memberships.

I simply put the question—the next 90 minutes will, I suspect, be the only opportunity for us to do so—are we, as the House of Commons, now satisfied, first, that Select Committee chairmanships should be allocated arbitrarily between Government and Opposition Members and, secondly, that Select Committee members should be expected to accept that as a given? Are they to be told by their respective Whips and the usual channels, "This is the person that we have decided will chair your Committee"?

David Winnick (Walsall, North): When did the right hon. Gentleman become so passionate about this issue?

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On 13 July 1992, when the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) was sacked—when he was not reappointed to the Select Committee on Health—there was a Division on the issue. I know that the right hon. Gentleman was a Minister at the time, but presumably he did not feel so passionately about the issue as to resign and vote with those of us who thought that the then Government's decision was wrong.

Mr. Forth: That is true. When the hon. Gentleman is a member of the Government, as I am sure he will be shortly when his talents are recognised by the Prime Minister, he knows that he will have to face the same dilemma—[Hon. Members: "Ah!"] I plead guilty to the fact that I was not prepared to forsake a modest—indeed, a minuscule—ministerial career for the principle that I now advocate. I plead guilty to that. I further plead guilty to the fact that, yes, my view of the world, of the universe, of the House of Commons and of my role has changed since 1992. That may come as a revelation to the hon. Gentleman—I know that he is a bit slower on the uptake than most of us. However, I remind him that as I have had the privilege and the pleasure of four years in opposition, of which I have enjoyed every minute, and that as I propose to continue enjoying it—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear!"]—for the next four years, under whichever leader we choose, I see the matter differently. I make no secret of that, nor do I make any apology for it.

I point out to the House that this will be the only opportunity, possibly for four or five years, for us as a House to express how we feel about the mechanism for deciding, first, who are the members of Select Committees and secondly, and of equal importance, who will chair those Committees. If hon. Members think that they won a great victory during the past two or three days I shall not burst their balloon, but I suggest that we are still sleepwalking through the system. By and large, we accept the system, although in a moment or two I shall have a word to say about the International Development Select Committee which has, rather bizarrely, been an exception to it. In general, it appears that the House and Members are prepared to accept the proposition that the Whips in each party will decide who shall be the Chairman of each Select Committee.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): The right hon. Gentleman and I have known one another for a long time. He was always passionate about things in the European Parliament and has continued to be passionate in this place. I think that we are in agreement that the chairmanship of Select Committees is a matter for the Committees themselves: it is not for the Whips or for the parties to decide between them who should be the Chair of a Select Committee. The rules on Select Committees state clearly that the Committees themselves should choose the Chairman—not a named Chairman, but a Chairman from among the Committee's members. In the debate earlier in the week, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House made it clear that he wants that to happen. That is one reason why the International Development Committee failed to agree on who should be its Chairman.

Mr. Forth: That may or may not be the case, and I shall come to that Committee in a moment.

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I want to make a challenge to hon. Members, and I speak as someone who is not a member of a Select Committee, so I have no interest in this matter at all. Although the hon. Lady and I would like the Committees to elect their Chairmen, I hesitate on that point, and I suspect that what I am about to say may lie behind the view of the Leader of the House. As long as the Government have a clear majority of members on Select Committees, the hon. Lady might understand a slight reticence on the part of Opposition Members about freeing up the whole system, as she and I would like, and letting a thousand chairmanships bloom, with Committees able to make their selection. Would there be any protection for Opposition Members in those circumstances? That, I predict, will be the reply from Ministers. The Leader of the House will say that the carve-up that occurs gives protection to Opposition Members.

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