|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): I am slightly perplexed by the right hon. Gentleman's last point. As recently as 12 February last year, the official Opposition used a Supply day to table a motion in support of the Liaison Committee's report, "Shifting the Balance", on the basis that they were dissatisfied with the way in which such matters operated, and that they wanted an independent mechanism. Perhaps he can explain why his view has changed in the space of a year.
Mr. Knight: My view has remained constant since 1983, when I first became a Member of this House. I have not changed my opinion at all. As the hon. Gentleman knows, Members often support a Committee's report when they agree with more than 50 per cent. of its contents. The fact that they support it does not necessarily mean that they agree with every paragraph and word.
Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): I should point out to the House that, like my right hon. Friend, I have participated in every meeting of the Modernisation Committee, and he made his position clear in at least three such meetings. With regard to change, he is something of an agnostic and is tolerably satisfied with the status quo. Because we are a smallish minority, we have tended to take a consensual view.
Dr. Ladyman: I am trying to understand the advice that the right hon. Gentleman is giving the House, and I think that I agree with him on the point that he is making. I like the current system, and the parliamentary Labour party now has a mechanism, free of the Whips, for deciding whom we put forward. However, the right hon. Gentleman advised us to support the motion on modernisation of the House of Commons, which approves the report hook, line and sinker, including the principle of changing the mechanism for selecting members of Select Committees. The first motion on Select Committees deals with the detail. If the right hon. Gentleman is against the principle, he should surely advise the House to vote against the modernisation motion.
Mr. Knight: No, that is not the case. We have separate motions on the Order Paper and I have dealt with my views on the first of them. I am now addressing the specifics of setting up the Committee of Nomination, from which arise two questions. First, does the House wish to bring about change? I am not convinced that the present system has failed us. I am tolerably satisfied with it, so I do not seek any change. However, as a member of a Select Committee on which the majority of members wished to bring about change, I was faced with a second question. Did I leave the debate and allow the other members to carry on in my absence, or did I play a full and constructive part in the debate about change without advocating it myself? I chose the latter course of action.
Mr. Knight: The Committee made two decisions that were clearly wrong, and which offended many hon. Members. Those were the two matters that I mentioned earlier. I did not say that the Committee made only two errors of judgment. I pointed out those two glaring mistakes, but two in 23 years is not a bad record. I do not accept, either, that the Committee of Selection has always been a Whips' rubber stamp. When I was a member of the Government Whips Office, the Chairman of the Committee, the late Sir Marcus Fox, did not always follow the advice of his party's Whips, and on more than one occasion the Committee made a decision that was not in accordance with the wishes of the Whips. The Committee did show an element of independence, which the hon. and learned Gentleman suggests was lacking.
Mr. Knight: There are many parts of my shadow portfolio that I find less agreeable than others, but I do not wish to start speculating about the relationships of Labour Members with their Whips Office. None the less, my hon. Friend makes his point well.
IfI emphasise that worda majority of Members want a change, the most appropriate way forward is that proposed by the Modernisation Committee. Therefore I do not support the amendments tabled by the hon. Members for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), for South Swindon (Ms Drown) and for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant), and I do not recommend them to my hon. Friends.
In the third motion on Select Committees, the Leader of the House proposes that term limits be introduced for Select Committee Chairmen for the first time, and suggests that each Chairman should serve for a maximum of two Parliaments. I have always regarded term limits for Select Committee Chairmen as desirable, all the more so if we decide to pay Chairmen for their extra work on our behalf. I therefore support the proposal, but as part of a package; I shall urge Opposition Members to support the proposal that Select Committee Chairmen be paid.
Mr. McCabe: I accept the argument about term limits for Select Committee Chairmen, especially if those Chairmen are to be paid. However, is there not also an argument for imposing term limits on members of the Committee of Nomination? The Committee's quorum of seven very powerful people will orchestrate the proceedings of the House. Should there not be a term limit for them?
The Leader of the House was good enough to say that he would be prepared to accept amendment (a) to the third motion on Select Committees, which stands in my name and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). The motion would limit the term of a Select Committee Chairman to two Parliaments, but in our system we do not have fixed-term Parliaments. The period covered by two Parliaments could therefore be anything between one year and 10 years.
Mrs. Dunwoody: Does the right hon. Gentleman not think it slightly illogical to say that we should trust Select Committees to appoint their Chairmen and decide their programmes, but we should not trust them to appoint a Chairman for a third term?
Mr. Knight: In many Parliaments around the world it is accepted that people freely elected to be Chairmen of powerful Committees ought to have some limit to their tenure. The United States of America offers an example that confirms my argument rather the hon. Lady's.
To return to my point about the period covered by two Parliaments, I am sure that the House remembers what happened in 1974, when we had two general elections in the same year. That could easily happen again in the future.
I firmly expect that after the next election, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) will be in No. 10 Downing street, where he will remain for many years. However, what if the massive Conservative revival that everyone expects is not quite enough to get him there? What if the arithmetic after the next general election is such that the two main parties have the same number of seats, with the Liberal Democrats holding the balance of power with perhaps three or four seats in total?
In that scenario, two general elections could take place in quick succession, as the outgoing Prime Minister desperately tried to cling to power before the Conservative party ultimately won through. Most attention would focus on the final result, but what about the poor Select Committee Chairmen? They would be condemned to serve for only a fraction of the time that the House could reasonably have expected. That is why amendment (a) would add
Dr. Ladyman: In view of the right hon. Gentleman's rosy predictions about the Conservative party's fortunes, may I suggest that he remember the writings of Horace, who said that the shortness of life prevents us from entertaining far-off hopes? Do his remarks not suggest that my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) is correct that the judgment should be left to the Select Committees, and that we should not interfere?
Mr. Knight: No, I do not agree. Eight years is a fair crack of the whip for anyone; any Minister who serves for eight years thinks that he has been very lucky. To give a Select Committee Chairman, however good, a term limit
We accept the proposals about the size of Committees. Indeed, the proposition tabled by the Leader of the House is very similar to a suggestion that I made to the Modernisation Committee a few weeks ago.
Our Select Committees have served Parliament and the public well, and I believe that the first motion on Select Committees will make their role even more effective by providing additional resources for specialist support staff. If that enables Parliament to keep the Executive under more effective scrutiny, surely we should all welcome it.