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3.3 pm

Jean Corston (Bristol, East): I apologise for not being in the Chamber at the start of the debate. You will no doubt be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, that there was a meeting of the Liaison Committee, and I had expected this business to be taken a little later.

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I take full responsibility for the motion, which is in my name as I have the privilege of chairing the Joint Committee on Human Rights. As its name implies, it is a Joint Committee of both Houses. It is rather unusual in that it has an equal number of members from the Government and the Opposition—six of each—and an equal number from each of the two Houses, six MPs and six Lords. No doubt my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) is, like me, delighted that at long last we will be joined by a Conservative Member of the Commons. The absence of such a Member has been noted.

The Committee is unusual also in that its quorum is 50 per cent. of the membership.

Mr. Forth: Good.

Jean Corston: I have never yet heard the right hon. Gentleman or any other Conservative Member complain about the fact that the normal quorum for a Select Committee is three out of 11 members, which is far lower than what I am proposing on behalf of the Committee.

There is another reason why the quorum is appropriate. Members of the House of Commons should be here to attend a Select Committee meeting whenever the House is sitting or during the recess. However, many of our colleagues on the Joint Committee who are from the other place have outside jobs and interests. We have a civil service commissioner, the deputy chairman of the Independent Television Commission, a lawyer and a university lecturer.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye): Is that not also a problem with Conservative Members of this House who do not always turn up because they are somewhere else doing something else?

Jean Corston: That may well be the case. Attempts were made through the usual channels to ensure that Conservatives were represented on the Committee. They had the opportunity from June onwards to contribute to the Committee when, as the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said, we dealt with legislation of the most fundamental importance in terms of human rights and the emergency situation. It has been a great failing on the part of the Conservatives that not one of their Members from this place was present.

Mr. Garnier: Having criticised the hon. Lady, I of course, fully accept her apology and explanation for not being present at the outset of the debate.

The hon. Lady is confusing me slightly. I was under the impression—it may be my fault for being obtuse—that we were discussing the quorum of Members from this House, not of the overall Committee. The fact that we are reducing the quorum to two is a reference to membership from this House alone. She may well be misleading herself and not doing her case justice by making such wide-ranging attacks when dealing with this narrow issue.

Jean Corston: I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for that comment. It is true that I am proposing two members out of six for the Commons quorum, which is a third.

Mr. Garnier: On that basis, the hon. Lady's remarks about noble Lords being members of other bodies—civil service commissioners or whatever—are beside the point. It is interesting, but not relevant.

Jean Corston: It is entirely relevant because a Joint Committee by its very name and nature must have an

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equal number of members from each House. If two Lords members are to serve as a quorum, there should be two Commons members, and vice versa. That has been the basis of the reasoning. For understandable reasons, such as academic or court commitments, Lords members have found it difficult to be present at the beginning of a meeting or during the deliberations. That makes it difficult for the Committee to function if it is examining a Minister in an evidence-taking session—that has happened.

I am not suggesting that members from the other place do not do their best to be diligent in their attendance. There are two Conservative members from the other place, one of whom, as the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst may know, is the head of an Oxford college who finds it difficult to attend a meeting if it is held at an extraordinary time. A quorum of a third of each House is reasonable and, indeed, higher than in Select Committees in the House of Commons, which require a quorum of three members out of 11. I am proposing two out of six.

Mr. Forth: The hon. Lady may not know—there is no reason why she should—that I raised the issue of inadequate quorums regularly in the context of these very debates in a previous incarnation on the Floor of the House. It has concerned me for some time, so I am being reasonably consistent.

For the hon. Lady to say that Members of another place are very busy people with important outside work to do and that we must understand why they cannot make it to meetings of an important Committee is simply not good enough. Committee members—whether Lords or not—should not accept the commitment of being on the Committee if they are regularly too busy to attend. That is not an acceptable excuse. Lords or not, Committee members should take responsibility for reviewing their commitments and making appropriate adjustments rather than asking us to reduce quorums to accommodate people with other priorities.

Jean Corston: I always find that trying to debate with the right hon. Gentleman is like trying to stir a bucket of treacle with a matchstick. It is entirely pointless. I merely make the sensible point that to insist on a quorum of 50 per cent. of the membership of this Committee—which is unlike any other Committee in this House or the other place—would be to place too great a burden on the Committee. For example, if one or two people were unwell, it would be difficult to hold an evidence-taking session with a Minister or with anyone else from whom we might want to hear evidence in public.

All the members of the Committee—Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour—are of the same mind. Our Committee has functioned well. In the short time that we have existed, we have published reports on legislation, such as the Bill that became the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, and we are in the course of producing a report in what might be record time on the emergency legislation that the House will consider next week. We are proud of our record. However, we do not want to be placed in a position where, not for reasons of sloth or lack of interest, we cannot function.

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3.11 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I have great respect for the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Jean Corston), who is the Chairman of the Committee. However, I am now more confused than I was at the beginning of the debate.

As the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) pointed out, the number of Lords necessary to form a quorum on their side is irrelevant to this debate. As far as I know, nothing is written down to suggest that the quorum from the two Houses in a Joint Committee has to be identical. That point is taken care of at the outset.

The original proposal was to reduce the quorum for all the Committee's sittings, and not just the evidence-taking sessions. That would have been even worse, but we could try to reach a sensible conclusion that means that the quorum for all sittings is the same. All Select Committees often move straight from taking evidence into a deliberative session because that is a good way of ensuring that the points raised by the witnesses are immediately addressed. One would assume that the same quorum would be appropriate for both types of session.

The Joint Committee is very important. In the previous Parliament, I spent much time trying to persuade the then Leader of the House to appoint the Committee. The Government had committed themselves to doing that, but its appointment was long delayed. Given the fact that the Committee represents both Houses, I also argued that its numbers should not be restricted to 12. That would have sorted the problem out. If my suggestion of 18 members had been accepted, it would have ensured a reasonable spread of representation from both Houses, and the problem of small quorums would not have arisen.

Another problem has been mentioned in the debate. It was felt necessary that a Government Back Bencher should chair the Committee, so that the Government would have a majority if a decision came to a casting vote. That is true when the Committee has 12 members, but it would not follow if my suggestion had been accepted. The hon. Lady does not seem to agree, but I assure her that the negotiations that I had with the then Chief Whip took place on that basis.

Jean Corston: I inform the hon. Gentleman that there is no casting vote in the Committee.

Mr. Tyler: If that is the case, the then Chief Whip's argument that it was necessary for a Government Back Bencher to chair the Committee is blown out of the water. As has been pointed out, a membership of 12 means that the Government and Opposition parties are evenly split. I have argued—I maintain this argument—that a significant scrutiny Committee such as the Public Accounts Committee can do its job well only if its Chairman is completely free from Government influence.

The hon. Lady is a distinguished chair of the Committee. However, when she was appointed, she did not have any other responsibilities. She is now chair of the parliamentary Labour party and that puts her in an awkward position not just in relation to this Committee but in relation to the Liaison Committee. An extraordinary anomaly exists.

As the hon. Lady said, the Committee is examining on our behalf the most controversial issues before the House. I welcome that; I am sure that it is doing so conscientiously. It took evidence from the Home

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Secretary yesterday, and I understand from the hon. Lady's comments that before our debates in the Chamber on Monday, it will produce a report on the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill and the derogation from the Human Rights Act 1998. Such matters could not be more important. This is therefore an extraordinary moment effectively to propose that we diminish participation in the Committee's deliberations.

I think that the answer—if we are allowed to reopen the issue so soon after the appointment of members of the Committee—is to increase the membership from 12 to 18. As I understand the arithmetic in the two Houses, that would ensure that the Government retained their majority and it would no longer be necessary for a Government Member to chair the Committee. That would deal with the hon. Lady's dilemma over where her loyalties should lie and at the same time mean that more Members from both Houses were available for the deliberative and evidence- taking sessions. That seems a sensible solution. If the Minister's argument is, "Oh well, we do not want to disturb what is after all a fairly new Committee," why is the motion before us?

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