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6.1 pm

Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): I should like to be brief. I want to say a word about the Prime Minister and then to use that word to make a larger point.

The word about the Prime Minister is as follows. The Select Committee system in its modern form was developed 20 years ago, and as has rightly been pointed out, that was only the latest instalment—although it was an important one—in the operation of Select Committees. There was a gap in that system, and that gap was the

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Prime Minister—a point that was put to me forcefully on many occasions by the great Professor Peter Hennessy, who was responsible for persuading John Major when he was Prime Minister to publish the ministerial code, as it became. Indeed, I sometimes think that Peter Hennessy is the only thing approximating to a constitution that this country has. He forcefully suggested to me that the gap had to be remedied.

We on the Public Administration Committee began to try to provide that remedy. I began a correspondence with the Prime Minister—it has been published in our reports—in which I tried to persuade him that it would be right for him to account directly to the House just as a departmental Minister would. We tried a number of stratagems and identified certain matters for which only he was responsible, pointing out that if he did not account for them, nobody could. The ministerial code was the obvious example, but as No. 10 began to expand and new Departments began to arrive, many people in government were responsible only to the Prime Minister and could be accountable to the House only through him.

When I made those points in our correspondence, the Prime Minister would reply that all the conventions were against what was proposed. I was told that Prime Ministers did not do that sort of thing and did not come to the House of Commons to appear before Select Committees. Of course, that was wrong, as Prime Ministers used to do so. The subsequent convention has developed only since the war. Indeed, it really began only because when the new Select Committee system started after 1979, Mrs. Thatcher did not want to appear before the Defence Committee in the Westland inquiry. If one scratches a convention, one will always find expediency. On consideration, the great weight of convention seemed to disappear. Ramsay MacDonald appeared before a Select Committee, as did Neville Chamberlain. What this House has forgotten are the powers that it used to have.

When I had exhausted my correspondence with the Prime Minister on one front, I went to the Liaison Committee and asked why we did not invite the Prime Minister to come to the House annually to account for the Government's annual report. Again, the same reply came back, saying that Prime Ministers did not do that sort of thing and that all the conventions were against it. Of course, the little tailspin was the removal of the annual report itself.

Against that background, let us notch up the achievement for this House in the Prime Minister's agreement to come and give an account to Select Committees of what he does in terms of his own responsibilities and those of government as a whole. However, in doing so, let us also be aware of the wider significance of that victory, which is that the House is not going into new territory, but reclaiming territory that it used to occupy.

I put it to the House that that is the fundamental point. This House used to be more powerful than it is now. The story of the past century is of this House losing power to the Executive. Either we as a House of Commons want to reclaim some of that power or we do not. When we talk about modernising Parliament, I get rather uneasy, as modernisation can mean two different things. It can mean allowing the Executive to have an easier life and to get their business through in a more straightforward way, as well as tidying up some of the untidy bits of how this House operates, including things that I like, such as

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ensuring that we get home earlier at night. Those are important matters, but let us not believe for a second that they go to the heart of the constitutional issue, which is that there has been a drift of power away from Parliament and towards the Executive as party discipline has tightened in the past century or so.

We have to decide either that that is how politics now is, play our part in that system, become its slavish adherents in one way or another and find eloquent ways of justifying it, or that that shift has to be reversed. That is the point about the report "Shifting the Balance".

David Winnick: Did not Parliament reclaim the ground because the parliamentary Labour party refused to accept the recommendation that two of our colleagues who had served as Select Committee Chairmen should not be reappointed? Is it not because the parliamentary party made it perfectly clear in the Chamber that we were not willing to put up with that and voted against it that the recommendation is before us today?

Tony Wright: Indeed. I am grateful for that observation, as those events showed that this institution had to reach a certain point before it became clear to everyone that we could go no further down that road. We must be honest with ourselves about that and hope that people outside are not listening. The fact is that we had to decide whether we wanted our instruments of scrutiny, the Select Committees, to be owned by this House or by the Executive. That was the choice that was put to the House by the Liaison Committee in its report. It was a very clear choice as to whether we wanted to continue with a system in which the Chairmen of Select Committees were selected by the Minister whose Department they were supposed to be scrutinise. We had to decide whether those appointments were the prizes of patronage or whether the Chairmen were to act as the instruments of scrutiny and independence on the House's behalf.

Mr. Forth: On that theme, is the hon. Gentleman satisfied that a system in which Select Committees always have a majority of Government Members is necessarily the best way of providing for effective parliamentary scrutiny?

Tony Wright: I am not sure that I am as troubled by that as the right hon. Gentleman would like me to be. Having had the experience of chairing a Select Committee, I find that it is possible, almost like an oasis inside this institution, to work on a different cross-party basis, whereby some of the old antagonisms that exist in this Chamber begin to slide away. That is why many of us give such attention to Select Committees—we know that they offer a way of working and of dealing with issues that differs from the knockabout, custard pie approach that we take in here.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): Is not the hon. Gentleman overlooking the fact that his chairmanship of a Select Committee is by virtue of his membership of the parliamentary Labour party? Moreover, in his admirable efforts to close the gap of prime ministerial accountability through the Liaison Committee, is not he ignoring the fact that of 27 members of minority parties in this House, not a single one chairs a Select Committee, and they will

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therefore have no access to the welcome system of prime ministerial accountability that he has helped to introduce? Does he see that as an anomaly?

Tony Wright: If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I do not want to revisit the question of minority party representation, because I hope that that will be helped by the new arrangements.

On his first point, perhaps one should not confess too much on these occasions, but when I expressed an interest in chairing a Select Committee instead of being a Parliamentary Private Secretary to a Cabinet Minister, I was told—I had better not say by whom—that that would not be tolerated by the Whips, that it would not be acceptable to No. 10, and that I should forget all about it. Change came about only because members of that Select Committee said, not that they particularly wanted me, but that they would not have someone foisted upon them. Unless we build independence into the system, I am afraid that we shall have the continuation of the system that we know exists now. To echo the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick), that system required the turning of the worm. We had reached a point beyond which we could not continue any longer. When one looks back at the history of Select Committees, one sees the way in which they were once able to send for persons and papers and properly to interrogate the Executive through Ministers, and it becomes clear that they have to relearn those techniques. We are not about to go somewhere that we have never been before—we are reclaiming a small bit of territory that we should never have lost.

As Select Committees, we have much more to do. We have not yet begun to get hold of the real centres of power outside this House. If we really want the House and the Committee system to be the apex of accountability, we must get hold of all those regulators who now determine so much about real life in this country. We must get hold of areas that we have hardly begun to get hold of if we want to put this place at the centre of the nation's affairs again.

Mr. Bryant: Some things have changed over the past 100 years, not least the advent of television, which means that when the Prime Minister appears before the Liaison Committee of 34 members the whole country will see exactly what the establishment of the House of Commons looks like. Is my hon. Friend worried that a Committee of 34 will find it difficult to undertake that act of scrutiny, and does he agree that it would be better done by a smaller Committee?

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