Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Tony Wright: I do indeed share that view. I have expressed it in the relevant quarters, and I hope that the issue will be resolved. If we get it right, it will do the House of Commons some good.

There is a mismatch between how we do politics in here and how the country expects politics to be done. Unless we can make these arrangements come together, the reputation and status of this House will not only not be restored, but decline further. I have been pessimistic on this front over the past 10 years, and this is the first time that I can say with honesty that we may just have

14 May 2002 : Column 688

turned the corner. Under the leadership of the Leader of the House, the House may have begun to understand that we can no longer go on as we have in the past.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): It is generous of the hon. Gentleman to give way. As I will not be able to speak in the debate, I want to return him to the point made by my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House about the illogicality of his position. The hon. Gentleman is worried about the independence of the Chairman, but he should also be worried about the independence of the entire Committee. It is not only the inquisition of Ministers that goes on in a Committee, but the line-by-line scrutiny of reports. If the Government of the day has a majority on that Committee, it is likely that the end character and content of such reports will be biased towards the Government.

Tony Wright: I think that I dealt with that point. It is simply not my experience that Select Committees work like that. Indeed, one of the joys of Select Committees is that they do not.

This is the kind of modernisation that deserves the name. It is the kind of modernisation that begins to shift the balance and to point the House in the right direction. I just hope—if I can put it this way—that the dark forces that inhabit this place do not want to prevent this package of reforms from continuing. It is a package—all the bits connect. If we put them together we can begin to see a future for this House that connects us to politics as it should be and to what people outside expect of us. If we do not get it right this time, I am afraid that this House may fall further in public affection and repute.

6.15 pm

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): I very much welcome the spirit of the Modernisation Committee's report and largely accept its conclusions. It is particularly important because, over the years, as we must all be aware, scrutiny has migrated from this Chamber, which has become largely theatre. If scrutiny is to exist, it must be conducted elsewhere in the institution.

I welcome the initiative of the Leader of the House. I remember sitting in the Liaison Committee under his predecessor thinking that a fairly Stalinist attitude was being displayed towards us, so I welcome the glasnost that he has brought to the debate. I shall not ask him to react to that, because it would break the solidarity that he would wish to express with his predecessor.

I have reservations on three matters, some of which the Leader of the House has partly dealt with: first, the notion of a separate Back-Bench career path; secondly, the core tasks; and, thirdly, the size of the Committee.

Like most of my colleagues, I cannot say that I get terribly excited about the way in which Members of Parliament are chosen for Select Committees. I served on and chaired the Select Committee on Agriculture and now chair the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I have never had the feeling that my colleagues are being nobbled, and I have spent part of my time trying to tone down Labour Members' hostile comments about their own Government. I cannot get quite as exercised about that issue as many people do.

I do, however, become exercised about the very concept of the separate career path because it gives rise to one or two problems, the first of which is the fact that

14 May 2002 : Column 689

we are trying to graft some of the characteristics of Congress on to a parliamentary system. The United States has powerful congressional committees because of the principle of the separation of powers. Those committees can approve nominations, generate and hone legislation and bargain with the Executive. We can do none of those things, and we should not pretend that we can assimilate them into the concept of Parliament and Government in this House. There may be a case for taking the Executive out of the House. In the context of longer-term evolution, it might be desirable to move more entirely towards a congressional habit of mind in the interests of proper scrutiny—especially given the problems identified by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) as regards the Executive and presidential forms of government that we have now. However, that is not the proposition before us, and I would not wish to overplay its role or the expectations within it.

On paid Chairmen, there is a balance in this place, and its political role could be compromised if Select Committee Chairmen, and they alone, were chosen for receipt of a particular bonus. I hope that my Front Benchers will not take this as a plea for a job, but members of the shadow Cabinet have an infinitely more difficult role than any Select Committee Chairman. Getting the information to hold the Government to account on the basis of the resources available to an Opposition demands an enormous commitment of time and energy. Frankly, it is a much more demanding role than that which I fulfil. If we give Select Committee Chairmen additional money but ask hon. Members to choose between doing the hewing of wood and drawing of water on the Front Bench and becoming a grandee through running a Select Committee—I went from being a Back Bencher to a grandee without an intermediate stage—a serious dilemma will arise.

I also have some reservations about the proposed collegiate nature of Select Committees. I chair a Committee of 17 members, and I look forward to reducing its membership to 15, if the rules permit that. However, the Committee is friendly and largely based on trust—taking people's word and trying to work together. I am worried about what will happen if we introduce gentlemen and players into that system.

If the matter goes before the Review Body on Senior Salaries, I hope that it will be examined in the wider context of hon. Members' motivation. Frankly, an informed, energetic Opposition constitutes the best form of scrutiny that a parliamentary system can provide.

I have some doubts about core tasks. However, in the light of the reassurances that the Leader of the House gave, I shall not press my amendment.

The remit of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee runs from global warming to tuberculosis in cattle, nuclear waste to fisheries management, BSE to bathing beaches and CAP reform to Covent Garden—a heavy remit. We have to deal with five Ministers; six agencies, including the Rural Payments Agency, which pays out billions of pounds in CAP support; 20 executive quangos, including the Environment Agency, English Nature and the Countryside Commission to list only some of the biggest; 31 advisory quangos; two public corporations; five tribunals, and seven other advisory bodies. We can commit ourselves to interrogate them all

14 May 2002 : Column 690

in a Parliament, but if we do that we set ourselves a series of possibly fruitless tasks that will act as a deterrent to many hon. Members who want to serve on the Committee.

In the statement on House of Lords reform yesterday, the Leader of the House said that we had to start by thinking about what hon. Members want the House of Lords to do. What do we want a Select Committee to do? Let us begin with the tasks. There are three basic jobs. First, Select Committees provide a forum for debating issues of immediate importance when Parliament must be capable of responding quickly to events but cannot provide the detailed scrutiny anywhere else. In Select Committees, detailed and, if necessary, prolonged interrogation can take place. They also have the power to summon witnesses. The Chairman of the Select Committee on Education and Skills cited the example of individual learning accounts. I could cite a series of cases from my Committee—for example, flooding. We had to respond to that because of public expectation that Parliament is capable of dealing with something that goes bump in the night.

Secondly, we need to scrutinise policy, including quangos, continually. On the whole, shorter, sharper reports that maintain their relevance are better than long, discursive reports. However, the subject of genetically modified foods continues to be considered in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. The same applies to organic food, nuclear waste and flood defence. We should keep reverting to and niggling at some subjects. That is the key; we must revert to issues time and again, if only for one-day sessions, and ascertain developments since we last met, such as the Government's response and whether anything in the firmament has changed. That takes time, energy and application, including much staff time. The shorter the reports, and the greater their number, the greater the demands on staff time.

Select Committees must provide a forum for ideas. I would have called that blue sky thinking if Lord Birt and the Prime Minister had not given the expression such a bad name. Governments come into office with a litany of new ideas that they have culled from think tanks and universities, and are good at applying them in their first years. Governments' abiding problem is the continuing ability to assimilate new ideas rather than simply sticking to their agendas. Part of the role of Select Committees is to bring ideas together where they can be ventilated and, if necessary, conflict to create a dialectic. That can be used to tackle the way in which the country is governed.

I do not want to make the tasks so prescriptive that that function cannot continue. They must not exclude free-range thinking or lay down methodologies; even seeing all the relevant Ministers in the course of a Parliament is a good idea, but not as a mechanistic obligation. I fear that that will prove a disincentive to Committee members.

We must also bear in mind the capacity to deliver. My Committee does not have permanent Sub-Committees. We have several Sub-Committees of short duration that are chaired by different members so that everyone has an opportunity to chair and share the load. The main Committee is about to embark on an inquiry entitled, "What the blazes is DEFRA for?" Once we have worked that out, we will consider whether it is engineered to do the job. The purpose of the Department is central, by any definition of core tasks. We also currently have two

14 May 2002 : Column 691

Sub-Committees. That is a great burden on members' time and entails an enormous amount of work by the staff. If we want the Committees to be successful, the reports must be published quickly. There is no point in waiting three weeks for the end of a Sub-Committee before examining proposals.

If I may make a special plea, the remuneration that we offer specialist advisers is not always sufficient to get the quality of people that we want. We tend to get academics and those for whom advising a Select Committee will look good on a CV, but not people from the private sector, who want more effective consultancy rates.

The Leader of the House and other colleagues said that Select Committees would sit for longer and have many Sub-Committees. If so, perhaps we should consider the other commitments that Members of Parliament make, which we have recently multiplied. For example, we have invented longer sittings in Westminster Hall. I consistently lose members of my Committee because they have a debate in Westminster Hall or want to take part in one. We want to serve on Standing Committees that consider Bills. I do not want to divorce myself from the normal legislative process at the heart of Parliament. I want to be able to serve on a Bill Committee. However, that means that Select Committees lose Members who are recruited for Bill Committees.

The changed hours that are envisaged for the Chamber will create a greater clash between time in the Chamber and that spent Upstairs. The same core of Members usually do the lion's share of the work on Sub- Committees. If we are to multiply them and their functions, we must review some of the other demands, including those that the Chamber imposes on us.

I am grateful for the fact that the Committees will have a chance to determine their size—within limits. I am not sure about the relevance for a Committee such as mine, which already has 17 members. Some colleagues argue that it is better to have more members and give them all a chance, and that that will mean that the jobs are done better. However, the Committee's essential role is scrutiny. We can scrutinise only if we can pursue lines of argument as they arise—if the ferrets can be sent after the rabbits when they appear, to use a metaphor that will appeal to the Leader of the House.

When matters crop up in questioning, they must be pursued. I do not like the formalistic approach to a Committee, whereby all members have an allocation of questions that they ask in turn. I believe in a more informal arrangement that allows people to butt in. However, that must be effective. A large Committee will not have the power to do the job that it is allowed to do. There is therefore conflict and tension between effective scrutiny and the ability to cover the waterfront or to satisfy everyone's aspirations. In that case, we must decide what matters most; in our case, it is the ability to scrutinise.

I am not especially worried about selection methods. I find that the problem is attendance rather than nobbling. There are always difficulties with attendance. That is apparent if one examines the attendance lists. A Committee of the whole House has the same problems because of the enormous demands on hon. Members' time.

14 May 2002 : Column 692

I make one request to the Leader of the House. It is rare for a Minister to refuse to appear before a Select Committee, but it is common for a Minister to claim that it is difficult to find a suitable date. We do not want to make matters difficult for Ministers, who have commitments in the Council of Ministers or international forums. However, I should like it to be a general rule of ministerial conduct or performance that a summons to a Select Committee, which will always be couched in courteous terms—the Select Committee exists to have a conversation more than anything else to glean information from people—should be tantamount to speaking in a debate in the House. That would save us all a great deal of unnecessary hassle.

The report on which we shall vote tonight is extremely constructive. I agree with the concept that the House is merely reclaiming some of its traditional powers. We still have a long way to go, but I cannot see a better way of doing this than by reinforcing the powers of the scrutiny Select Committees. Let us not, however, be naive and assume that there is a "with one bound Jack was free" solution. We must be careful that, in altering this particular piece of the mechanism, we do not cause a dislocation across the functioning of the House that we would live to regret.

Next Section

IndexHome Page