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7.33 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): It was my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) who touched on the fundamental issue, although it has not been fully articulated for reasons that I well understand: it is the anomaly that has existed since the Select Committee system was set up in its present form more than 20 years ago and attempted, valiantly, to replicate the congressional system in this country while rather conveniently ignoring the fact that a legislature that gives birth to and sustains the Executive also attempts to hold that Executive to account.

That fundamental anomaly underlies the difficulty that we have been skirting around all day. It is reflected in the fact, which my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) has just touched on, that the chairmanships of Select Committees are divvied up, or shared out, on the basis of party in the House; and that memberships of Select Committees, as I pointed out to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), are apportioned on the basis of party representation in the legislature. Perhaps it is no wonder that ever since 1979 we have not only struggled to identify a role for Select Committees vis-à-vis the Executive but have been asking ourselves why the Executive—or the usual channels, or whatever—are constantly seen to interfere and intervene in the working of Select Committees.

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Although the proposals are a valiant attempt to deal with that difficulty, it will only be superficial until we have the courage to address that fundamental paradox and anomaly. We must not skirt over the problems arising from the fact that Select Committees have a majority of Government Members. I do not want to dwell on the matter, but the House will remember a recent episode when key members of the Select Committee on the Treasury were absent and the Committee produced a report that was not convenient to the Government.

The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) let the cat out of the bag when he said, in essence, that it was all very well when Select Committees could operate on the basis of consensus, but that if that was ever threatened—in other words if a Committee got a bit political—the Government majority would ensure that a report was passed that was not critical of the Government. That was the gist of his remarks and it rather gave the lie to the problem and the attitude regrettably held by many Members.

The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), like the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), touched on the odd fact that the problem experienced by the House last year over the treatment of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and the right hon. Member for Swansea, East (Donald Anderson) was, in the end, sorted out by the House. That challenges the whole thrust of the Modernisation Committee's argument and underpins the proposals that the Leader of the House and the Committee are recommending to the House.

The truth is that in many ways, which have been described by many right hon. and hon. Members during the debate, the existing system has served the House pretty well over the years. When that problem arose last year, it was dealt with by the House of Commons; it did not require some elaborate construct of the kind proposed today—with all the peculiarities of gender and intake balance, seniority and new Members with which we have struggled throughout the debate.

Is the game worth the candle? Is the system sufficiently broke that we feel have to fix it? Is the proposed construct the right answer?

Mr. Marshall-Andrews: Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the House of Commons was able to remedy that serious wrong because it was an absolutely gross example of the corruption that we have been talking about today? The measures are attempting to catch the smaller corruptions.

Mr. Forth: I do not think that I share the hon. and learned Gentleman's use of the word "corruption" in any sense at all. The system is as it is; most of us understand it pretty well and we found a way of dealing with the problem. It may not have been pleasant for the powers that be—or the powers of darkness, if we want to describe them thus—but in the end the problem was resolved.

The proposals offer a series of elaborate answers to a problem that does not require the solution that is before the House. As I think the Leader of the House implied when he opened the debate, the motions are not some sort of take or leave it. A series of propositions has been put to the House with which, obviously, some Members will agree and others will disagree. I welcome the fact that the House will be able to form its view on each issue—

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whether it be the size of Committees, the composition of the Committee of Nomination or whatever. We shall vote as we think fit, having—some of us—listened to the debate. We shall then move on from that.

A heartening variety of views were expressed during the debate and I welcome that. Although my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) offered some guidance to my right hon. and hon. Friends, they will all vote as they choose. I am glad to know that Government Members will do the same. I am not convinced that the problem is as it was identified, and I am certainly not convinced that the solution is one that we need follow.

7.39 pm

Mr. Robin Cook: I am disappointed that the amendment of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) calling for parity for the Opposition with the Government on Select Committees was not selected. As the danger in it does not now arise, I must point out that I was almost tempted to accept it if only for the entertainment value of watching the Opposition struggling to fill all the extra places on Select Committees when they cannot even fill the present places that they have without drafting in Front Benchers to replace Back Benchers.

My reply can be brief, because I have heard little in the debate that criticises the Modernisation Committee's report. I am sometimes told that some Members are unhappy with the proposals, but I can only point out that, during the debate, one Back Bencher opposed the proposals and 13 others supported most elements of the Committee's report. In fact, most of them supported all the elements in the report. I am very grateful for the generous words about me and the Modernisation Committee that Members have uttered in the debate, but I must warn them that I am a professional politician. I much prefer their votes in the Lobby to their kind words in the Chamber.

It is a fair summary of the debate to say that the House has welcomed the report. The amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) is regarded as improving the Committee of Nomination and the House will accept the compromise on Committee size that we have put forward today.

Refreshingly, the House has dwelt very little on the question of extra pay for the Chairs of the Select Committees. I do not know how that vote will go, but I hope that tomorrow's press—perhaps even tomorrow's "Today" programme—will not report that the debate was about an increase in remuneration, but was a serious and thoughtful discussion about how the House best discharges its duty of scrutiny through the Select Committees.

The package will greatly strengthen the Select Committees. It will give them more resources, more focus and more transparency. However, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) and my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) were right. It is a package and it risks falling apart if it is picked apart piece by piece. In that context, I wish to say a word about what was said in the debate—not in speeches, but in interventions—about the Committee of Nomination. My

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hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) twice asked why we should replace 410 Labour Members of Parliament with a Committee of seven. That is a fundamental misconception of the role of the Committee of Nomination.

The Committee of Nomination will not replace the party process; it will replace the Committee of Selection, which, as the hon. Member for North Cornwall memorably pointed out, normally meets for 30 seconds to three minutes. That is not adequate time for the free and independent play of thoughts. The Committee of Nomination will not interfere with the party process. I helped to write the new process for the Labour party, and I am proud of that process. I am confident that its democracy and transparency will produce the right outcome.

There is a paradox in the view of some of my colleagues. They are also proud of that process and are confident about its democracy, but they appear worried that anyone else should cast an investigative eye over the outcome. I am not frightened of the Committee of Nomination. It is right that Parliament should have the right to see that fair play is done in the party process. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends not to be frightened either, but welcome the fact that the Committee will reinforce the standing of Select Committees and make it clear that nomination is independent of the control of party or Executive machine. As a result, the Select Committees of the House will carry greater legitimacy, command greater confidence and bring greater authority to their task of scrutiny.

It being four hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Mr. Deputy Speaker put the Questions necessary to dispose of the business to be concluded at that hour, pursuant to Order [13 May.]

Amendment proposed: (d), in line 5, after 'House', insert

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 50, Noes 352.

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