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Mr. Salter: Will my hon. Friend clarify one important point? The premise of his argument is the retention of the existing Committee of Selection, which is dominated by Whips, and which in the past has been known to meet for some three minutes, or even, in certain cases, 30 seconds. Does he not realise that that process is discredited? Does he not further realise that the House of Commons as a whole would have the power to overturn the recommendations of the Committee of Nomination, just as it can overturn those of the Committee of Selection? In relation to the powers vested in this House and its individual Members, the proposed process is in no way different.

Mr. Dismore: I hear what my hon. Friend says, but he has overlooked the fact that since the problems arose last year, the parliamentary Labour party has reformed its system—although I cannot speak for the other parties. Of course the right already exists to take such matters to the House of Commons. In effect, my hon. Friend is trying to replace one set of people with another.

As for the configuration of the Committee of Selection, an amendment has been accepted that marginally improves matters. However, in effect, existing members of the Committee owe their membership to the principle of Buggins's turn. If the proposed Committee were established today, most of its male members would have been elected between 1959 and 1983. There might be one

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or two new Members as well, but such a membership would certainly not represent the balance of interests in the House. Nor would they have the knowledge, strengths and special interests of hon. Members as a whole.

A series of complicated amendments has been synthesised into one to deal with that problem, but it has not worked. When I entered Parliament in 1997 I knew a few of my intake, but I knew nothing about the vast majority of the others, and I certainly knew very little about those who had been Members for a long time—excluding what one read in the newspapers, or heard on "Today In Parliament." Moreover, the media give a poor impression of what people are really like. The 1992 intake did not know much about the 1997 intake, and the 1997 intake knew practically nothing about the 2001 intake. We can tinker at the margins by trying to create places for Members from recent intakes, but that will not address the issue of knowing the strengths and weaknesses of Members throughout the House. I am therefore concerned about the concept of the Committee of Nomination and the mechanics of its operation.

Mr. Marshall-Andrews: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Dismore: No, because I am drawing my remarks to a close.

I am concerned by the suggestion that the Chairman should be chosen by the Committee itself. I question whether, when the chairmanship of a Select Committee has been allocated to the Opposition, it is right for the Government members of the Committee to be able to choose the Chairman. According to that principle, the Work and Pensions Committee, of which I am a member, would not have chosen our current Chairman—he is a good Chairman—because he is the only Liberal Democrat member of it. The suggestion is therefore rather nonsensical.

I agree that there should be a time limit on the length of service of Select Committee Chairmen, and what has been offered is a reasonable compromise in that respect. However, I want an assurance that we will not be subjected to musical chairs. Where a given Committee is reconfigured as a Department is restructured, the opportunity could arise for someone who has already served two terms to be parachuted in for a third term on a different Select Committee. The principle should be, "Two strikes and you're out", to make room for other people with an equal right to serve in that capacity.

6.59 pm

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend—if I may call him that—the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who sits on the Work and Pensions Committee with me. I enjoy working with him, and as he says, the Committee operates on the basis of consensus. The idea of consensus on a Select Committee is an important point, which I am picking up from the excellent speech by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright). He was right to say that people's perception of this place is of confrontational, custard-pie politics.

The work of Select Committees, if they are operating properly, follows from the evidence presented to all their members. They draw conclusions based on the evidence

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presented to them. It can be difficult for members from the governing party, but if the evidence is produced they will say, "Yes, there are problems that the Government need to address." That has certainly been my experience. That is the essence of the work of Select Committees, and we need to promote that ethic and change the way in which we work in the House. Otherwise we will continue to fall in the esteem of the public, and that is a matter of great concern for the whole democratic process.

I share the enthusiasm for the tone of the debate and the proposals. I have not seen such an opportunity for change in my time in the House, which began in 1983. Other hon. Members have explained all the elements of the changes earlier in the debate, so I shall not go into those, but I should point out that the Leader of the House has played a key role in the process. The weight of his presence on the Modernisation Committee and on the House of Commons Commission has unlocked doors in a way that I have never seen before. With his authority, he has been able to confront the collective power of the Whips in a way that Leaders of the House in the past—although I say nothing against them—have perhaps not been able to do. The present Leader of the House has used his position to begin a process of change.

The hon. Member for Hendon raised detailed points of concern. He is a thoughtful man, and we would be right to consider his views, but I hope that colleagues will see the proposals as the start of a long journey. A process of evolution could shift the balance, in the way that the Liaison Committee started to identify in the last Parliament.

When we are trying to shift the balance, we should continually remind ourselves of the weight balanced against us. The total sum of money spent by central Government in the fiscal year 2001–02 was £394 billion. The total sum spent by the House on all aspects of scrutiny was £7.7 million. According to my calculations, that is 0.002 per cent. of the total sum spent by the Government. The Public Accounts Committee has control over the National Audit Office, which has 750 staff, and the House has only 150 professionals in its staff complement to support the scrutiny work of Members of Parliament. Moreover, the disproportion has been worsening.

As part of the package of changes, we need to think about how we can shift the balance. I come back to the role that the Leader of the House has played in the process. As a member of the House of Commons Commission, I can confirm that the Commission has signed up to the project. Its members have already started thinking about funding for a central unit. We cannot do anything until the disposition of the House is known after the Divisions tonight, but if it is the will of the House, it would be possible to have in place a central unit, with 18 new members of staff, by autumn 2003. That would mean the expenditure of some £850,000. I have been a Member of Parliament for nearly 20 years and a member of the Commission for six or seven years, but I have never before known it possible to devote such sums to the House of Commons' work of scrutiny.

Not only the core unit would be funded; the Internal Review Service, with the help of the NAO, is already working on plans for additional support for each Committee's office, in addition to the core unit. The right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) has also played a distinguished and important role in that process.

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The Commission has already committed itself to trying to assist the political process that has been started, within reason and subject to the budget for the next three-year expenditure plan. Of course there is not enough money to do everything that we would like to do, but in the past 18 months there has been a sea change in the willingness of the House authorities to assist the process, and we should seize that opportunity with both hands.

Mr. Sheerman: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the resources represent a wonderful opportunity for the Select Committee system, and we must thank many people for that. However, does he agree that the Select Committee system will be on trial? If in the end people still think that Select Committees are a little ghetto into which some hon. Members disappear and never communicate with the rest of the House, we will have failed. We have to ensure that we are worthy to be given the resources, and worthy of the confidence of the House.

Mr. Kirkwood: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I fear that the list of core tasks mentioned in the motion may become prescriptive, but it at least gives us a measure by which, over a Parliament, we can test the effectiveness of the work that we do. We will indeed need to demonstrate that the changes have made a difference to the effectiveness of the Select Committees.

The proposal to provide salaries for the Chairmen of Select Committees is the right approach, because an alternative career structure within the current system is an essential third part of the package, along with a core unit and adequate staff for each Committee. We need professional Chairmen, especially for Committees such as the Work and Pensions Committee, whose work is becoming ever more technical. It needs a specialist, who spends two, three, or even three and a half days a week on the work. We need to provide the career structure and money that will make that work worth while. For the first time ever, we have an opportunity to bring that about.

I enjoy working with my colleagues on the Work and Pensions Committee—there are 11 of us—in a spirit of consensus. However, I fear the difficulty of trying to achieve that consensus with 15 members. On Wednesday we heard from three different groups of witnesses, with two people representing each group. It was difficult even for the number of Committee members who were present—we always have a good turn-out—to cross-examine six people meaningfully, but with 15 members it would have been impossible. People would have been dissatisfied and demotivated.

As the hon. Member for Hendon pointed out, smaller memberships are necessary to produce powerful consensual reports, because people have the opportunity to get to know each other well enough. I am worried by the proposals to increase the size of Select Committees, although—I would say this, because I am member of one of them—I accept the need to try to ensure that the views of minority parties are reflected on Select Committees.

The hon. Member for Hendon thinks deeply about these issues, but I disagree with his point about the Committee of Nomination. It is an essential part of the package. I served for five years, without time off for good behaviour, on the Committee of Selection. It is difficult for the Government to ensure that all the Standing Committees, including those on delegated legislation, are properly put

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together, but that is different from the important work that the Committee does in trying to find people to sit on Select Committees.

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