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5.1 pm

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West): On behalf of the Liaison Committee, may I welcome the undeniable commitment of the Leader of the House in trying to modernise and update the procedures of this House—whether one agrees with every proposal or not? I think my right hon. Friend deserves full credit for that from hon. Members on both sides of the House.

It has been a dramatic few months for those of us who have been involved in scrutiny for many years. For more than 12 years, the Public Accounts Committee saw Chancellor after Chancellor try to get access not just to some but to all the quangos and to open the door that was permanently closed to Government companies. Yet three months ago, after the Sharman committee—which was set up following pressure from the Public Accounts Committee—the Government accepted all those recommendations. The National Audit Office now has full access, as requested by the Public Accounts Committee. The Public Accounts Commission has already invited the Comptroller and Auditor General to submit proposals for examining the quangos and companies regarding extra budget and value for money.

Three weeks ago, as the Leader of the House said, the Liaison Committee had a quite unexpected approach from the Prime Minister; there was a message saying that he would call at 12.30 pm. The Prime Minister asked whether the Liaison Committee would welcome the opportunity to have full and public sessions with him twice a year.

We are still negotiating the details, but I can tell the House that the first session will take place before the summer recess. The Prime Minister will not know the questions in advance. We are looking at times and venues. Because of Prime Minister's Question Time and Members' Monday travel arrangements, it looks as if Tuesday mornings will be an appropriate time. Because of the anticipated extra demand from people to attend and the size of the Liaison Committee, we are looking into the possibility of holding the hearings in the Boothroyd Room in Portcullis House.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): My right hon. Friend has referred to the size of the Liaison Committee. He mentioned to me earlier that he has investigated the number of seats in the Boothroyd Room. I think that there are 27 seats, whereas there are 34 members of the Liaison Committee. Bearing in mind the objections of the Leader of the House to my amendment, will the Liaison Committee consider a self-denying ordinance whereby only departmental Committee Chairs, my right hon.

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Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) and the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee would take evidence?

Mr. Williams: There are 27 chairs in the horseshoe, so only 27 Members would be able to question the witness, but members of the Liaison Committee get on well together. At our meeting on Thursday, we shall consider that point, among other practical, logistical issues. We shall also discuss how to use our time to the best advantage of the Committee, the House and the Prime Minister.

To some extent, the proposals of the Modernisation Committee have to be taken in conjunction with the consultative document issued by the Leader of the House and currently under consideration by the Committee. Throughout its consideration of the proposals, the Liaison Committee has used the same criterion—effectiveness: whether the proposals would add to or diminish the effectiveness of parliamentary scrutiny. All Members work on the premise that without accountability there can be no democracy and that—in the way that the House works—without Committees there is no meaningful accountability.

The Committee especially welcomes pre-legislative scrutiny, which will not only produce a major change in the way in which the House holds the Government to account but will enable it to participate in the evolution of policy before Bills are finally drawn up. That is a dramatic advance and we must take that proposal into account, especially as regards the roll-over of Bills where change is long overdue. It is illogical that a Bill can progress through almost all its stages, but must then be reintroduced in the next Session. The roll-over of Bills will remove the buffers—the time limits that give the business managers the excuse to curtail discussion. Pre-legislative scrutiny and the roll-over facility will considerably enhance the powers of Back Benchers.

As regards back-up resources, I told members of the Liaison Committee that I could not believe that there had never been any pragmatic analysis or assessment of the resources needed to operate a full Committee system. That is why I suggested that we brought in the National Audit Office to make an objective assessment of the structure and resources that were needed. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for accepting that suggestion.

We welcome the review of the powers of Committees to call witnesses, as well as the opportunities offered for Sub-Committees. My right hon. Friend said that Committees would increasingly have to turn their attention to financial scrutiny and many of them may choose to do so by means of Sub-Committees. I have held discussions with almost all the Chairmen and have been most impressed with the open-mindedness of their approach to dealing with the challenges offered by the proposals.

However, a one-size-fits-all formula does not make sense. The estimates requirement envisaged in the core duties is not relevant for Committees dealing with devolved matters—the Scottish Affairs Committee or the Welsh Affairs Committee. In fairness, we must remember that the core duties as listed are illustrative and that the

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Liaison Committee is asked to turn them into practicality. I assure the House that it is the wish of the Committee's Chairman that we do that effectively.

I know that there are doubts about the format of the Committee of Nomination. However, other Members have made the point that it will be more independent than the system that it is replacing. We should give that Committee fair wind to see whether it works effectively. The composition of the Committee will be a matter for the House.

The Liaison Committee's reservations related mainly to the size of Committees. The membership of many Committees will increase by a third, so I wish to make the point that I made to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House when he appeared before us the other day. The Chairmen of the Committees have no vested interest in keeping the Committees small if Committees will be more effective if they have more members. The Chairman of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will, no doubt, describe his experience of trying to run a large Committee and the problems involved with that. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) has expressed her opinions and I hope that she will describe the problems that arise with the size of the Committee that she has to handle.

The Chairmen of the Committees came to an almost unanimous conclusion on the size of the Committees and they did so in pursuit of the fundamental criterion of whether the proposals will enhance or diminish Committees' ability to hold Ministers to account. The Chairmen thought that enforced enlargement would diminish rather than enhance Committees' ability to do that. That is why they took the stand they did.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): Will my right hon. Friend consider the wider view and the effectiveness of our democratic institutions? My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House told us that 286 Back Benchers did not serve on any Select Committee. Is that not a dreadful waste of talent? Even if all those Back Benchers were uninterested—I know that that is not the case; many of them want to serve on a Committee—do they not have a democratic duty to contribute? Is that not more important than the ease of managing 15 Committee members rather than 11?

Mr. Williams: I think that is wrong. Tails on seats is not the basic requirement. The basic requirement of a democratic system is to hold the Executive firmly to account. Nothing should undermine that. The problem has been the House's inability to hold Governments to account. We must not damage a system that is working just to get people involved in Committees or to give them the opportunity to say that they are members of Committees.

Pete Wishart: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Williams: I am coming to the end of my remarks.

I have been a Back Bencher for many years and I have been a Front Bencher for many years. Whether I have or have not been serving on Committees, I have never found it particularly difficult to keep myself gainfully occupied

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as a Member of the House. Perhaps one or two Members should use a little more imagination in their approach to the time they think is wasted at the moment.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for meeting us this week and for the detailed discussions that we had. I also thank him for responding positively to those discussions and for the flexibility that he has shown in the proposals before us.

5.14 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I join the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) and the Chairman of the Liaison Committee in paying tribute to the leadership that the Leader of the House has given to the Modernisation Committee. I have been on the Committee since its inception at the beginning of the previous Parliament. I can honestly say that the momentum that we now have and the consensus that has now been built up between the parties has not been matched at any other moment in the Committee's short life. That is partly down to the Leader of the House, and it is partly down to the demands that the House has placed on the Committee. We have begun this exercise—or indeed our wider exercise of working out how to make Parliament more effective in scrutinising and holding the Government to account—not because we think that it is a nice idea or a good thing to do or because it gives us a warm feeling but because the House has given us that responsibility. That is why the report is very timely.

Of course this is a matter for the House. I should say that my colleagues will have a free vote, but I am interested to find that there is basically consensus among my colleagues on most of the issues before us this evening, with one important exception, to which I shall return later.

The origins of the report were, of course, the events of last summer, as other hon. Members have said.


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