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4.34 pm

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire): I am aware that a lot of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House wish to take part in the debate, so I do not intend to detain hon. Members as long as the Leader of the House did.

I start by paying tribute to all the hard work undertaken by all Members from all parties who serve on Select Committees. They do an invaluable job, and they have the

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time to explore in detail many of the issues that are too complex to be examined in depth on the Floor of the House. We owe them all our gratitude.

I also pay tribute to the work of the Chairman of the Modernisation Committee, the Leader of the House. It is clear from his energy, involvement and initiative that he not only takes his role seriously but is genuinely interested in bringing about change. For that reason, I must advise him that he needs to watch his back, because it is clear that not all his ministerial colleagues share his enthusiasm for what he is seeking to do. Indeed, the Modernisation Committee is still reflecting on whether all his proposed changes are necessary in the interests either of modernisation or of scrutiny. The right hon. Gentleman has an agenda, however, and some parts of it are clearly desirable.

The first motion on the Order Paper in the right hon. Gentleman's name has our support, and I commend it to the House unamended. It seeks to increase the support staff for our Select Committees, and to strengthen the scrutiny that they give the decisions of the Executive.

The Leader of the House was, I think, incorrect when he said that Select Committees had been with us only for some 20 years. My understanding is that they have been used by the House for centuries. They may have been with us in their present form for only 20 years, but the setting up of a small group of Members constituted to gather information, interview witnesses if appropriate, and produce detailed reports is not new to the House.

In their scrutiny work, Select Committees use a variety of working methods. Their work can vary from the holding of a full inquiry, with the gathering of oral and written evidence leading ultimately to a published report, to taking a single evidence session to focus attention on a particular issue. Sometimes the Committees decide to visit people and places, here in the UK or overseas, to discover how problems can be handled or approached in different ways. At any one time, most Select Committees have several subjects under consideration.

Currently, it is up to each Select Committee to decide how to interpret its terms of reference. The Conservatives want to see that independence maintained. I do not think, however, that it comes amiss for the Modernisation Committee to suggest certain core tasks, such as those listed in the motion. Some right hon. and hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), are concerned that that motion will result in the loss of a Committee's discretion as to how it goes about its business. I want to underline what the Leader of the House said by referring my right hon. Friend to the word "illustrative" in the motion, which I hope will reassure him that although the activities mentioned are core tasks of which each Select Committee should take note, they will in no way inhibit the absolute right of a Select Committee to carry out its work as it sees fit.

Mr. Simon Thomas: I support what the right hon. Gentleman has been saying, but will he take on board the fact that at least one Committee—the Select Committee on Environmental Audit, on which I serve—is not a departmental Select Committee, and therefore does not shadow Ministers or legislation from any particular Department? Those core tasks are not quite so appropriate for that Committee. Will he bear in mind that we need to

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keep the flexibility of such Committees, which consider the work of all Departments and the sustainable development of all the Government's workings, so that they, too, can operate with the additional resources if necessary?

Mr. Knight: I agree. I refer the hon. Gentleman to page 13 of the Modernisation Committee's first report. Paragraph 33 states

that is, departmental Select Committees—

The report makes it clear that the Committee does not seek to take away the current flexibility.

Mr. Pike: Should we not be reminded repeatedly of the many successes that Select Committees have achieved in their present form? Those successes are often underestimated, not just here but in the country as a whole. Is not the report's main purpose to strengthen the Committees, in line with what the Liaison Committee suggested in the last Parliament? Before the general election the Government did not seem prepared to do that, but the Chairman of the Modernisation Committee has gone a long way towards meeting the Liaison Committee's requirements.

Mr. Knight: I agree with the right hon. Member for Swansea, East (Donald Anderson). I think that Select Committee Chairmen should have the right to venture into areas that they consider important within their remit, rather than merely walking in the footprints and the shadow of the Government of the day.

Amendment (d) to the motion on modernisation of the House of Commons, tabled by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), expresses the concerns that exist in some parts of the House about minority representation, and I am a little worried about that.

The representation of minority parties used to be dealt with, quite adequately, through the usual channels. I believe that when my party was in government and I was part of the usual channels, the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) undertook, on behalf of the third largest party, to ensure that all minority parties were represented fairly. The Leader of the House touched on that in his speech. I understand that the system has broken down somewhat, in that the current Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), has decided that he is not able, or willing, to undertake the task, and it has now been given to the Government Whips Office.

I hope that the hon. Member for Foyle will not need to press his amendment, and that further discussion through the usual channels will alleviate the concerns that clearly exist. I must say I am rather surprised that the Modernisation Committee has two Liberal Democrat members; perhaps they will be prepared to give up one of those places to another minority party.

Pete Wishart: It was less a question of the Liberal Democrats' abandoning that task, and more a question of our discharging them from it. We will vote on this issue, because we have grave concerns about the representation

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of minority parties. I think it only fair that we should be able to represent ourselves properly in the Committee structure.

Mr. Knight: I hear that the minority parties have no confidence in the Liberal Democrats. I cannot say that I am at all surprised, but I hoped that they would be able to develop a working relationship with the Patronage Secretary. Perhaps as the debate proceeds, they will be prepared to engage in "behind the curtain" discussions in an attempt to resolve the matter.

Lady Hermon (North Down): Rather than writing us off as a minority party, will the right hon. Gentleman—and, indeed, all Members—address a serious issue? I refer to the representation of the people of Northern Ireland. The Labour party, regrettably in my opinion, does not even operate in Northern Ireland, so no Northern Ireland Labour Member will be returned to the House. Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates regularly lose their deposits at Northern Ireland elections. The Ulster Unionist party is the largest party in Northern Ireland, and represents the majority of people there. Surely to goodness it should be represented on Select Committees, which is a good reason for increasing their size. This should not be a minority party argument; the people of Northern Ireland need to be represented.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The hon. Lady has gone well beyond an intervention.

Mr. Knight: I shall not risk being ruled out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by getting involved in the politics of Northern Ireland, but I do believe that minority parties should be properly represented. Increasing the size of the Committees is one way of doing that, but the point that I was trying to make is that other methods exist. One is to ensure that the Liberal Democrats are not claiming two places on the Committee when the minority parties perhaps ought to have one of them. I hope that the matter can be looked at again.

The Leader of the House has tabled proposals to set up a Committee of Nomination, to allow Select Committees to change their size after having been established, and to introduce term limits on the service of Select Committee Chairmen. The setting up of a Committee of Nomination gives rise to two issues, the first of which is whether we really need to make any changes. If the answer is yes, we then need to decide what form those changes should take. I have always been unconvinced of the need for change, and as the Modernisation Committee is aware, I have remained an agnostic on this issue throughout its deliberations. I take the view contrary to that expressed by some Labour Members, particularly the hon. Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick). The current nomination system works rather well, and it is a gross distortion to say that it is totally discredited.

The Committee of Selection has existed for more than 20 years. In that time it has twice taken decisions that could rightly be criticised, and which it perhaps should not have sought to implement. The first instance involved a member of my party, and the second and more recent one involved two members of the Labour party. However, in my experience the Whips' influence on the Committee of Selection is not malign. The Whips Offices of all major parties have a vested interest in keeping their

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parliamentary colleagues happy. In my experience, if they feel that an injustice has been done, some attempt is usually made in another arena to right the perceived wrong.

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