Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 49 - 59)




  49. Welcome back and welcome to the distinguished audience in the gallery. Tony, you will be very familiar with the proceedings here having sat many times on the other side of this bench. I very much welcome the report you made and we spoke together at a meeting to discuss it afterwards. The focus of this Committee's current work is on the scrutiny committees. We have two separate particular interests. One is reform that will enhance the scrutiny role of select committees and the status of independence and that will take up slightly of the longer time. There is also an immediate focus, in the wake of the issues of last July, on how we resolve a means of nomination to select committees which is independent and authoritative. I would like to begin with that and then we can move out onto some of the wider issues dealt with in your report. I think it would be fair to say in your report that the issue of nominations was almost a dog that did not bark. You broadly endorsed the conclusions of the Liaison Committee but did not go into any detail. Would you like to begin by elaborating the thinking of members of the Commission on this question.

  (Lord Newton of Braintree) Thank you very much indeed. In a purely prefatory way can I make the point that with any report put together by the better part of 20 people of the kind that we had on this Commission, not everybody would have written every recommendation in exactly the way that it appeared, and in talking beforehand we agreed that we would not simply stick to telling you what the recommendations were and defending every last dot and comma, but seek to engage in a dialogue in which we would bring in our personal views, if need be, as well. Secondly, the other point I would like to make is that my colleagues here, Peter and Anna, were on the group that looked particularly at the work of select committees and indeed at this issue of nomination, so I shall very much bring them in in the course of this discussion. You are right, I think, to say that while we were very clear on the view that—how do I best put it—the politicisation of appointments to the select committees needed to be reduced, we did not spend a great deal of time on the detail of how that might be achieved, but put a lot of weight on the proposals which the Liaison Committee had brought forward to seek to deal with that problem. I am aware that some of the evidence that you have taken has sought to build on that, including the evidence you took last week or the week before from Robert Sheldon and Philip Norton, and we, too, will seek to build on and develop the report that we made. If I may, I would like to turn to Peter Riddell and ask him to elaborate further.
  (Mr Riddell) The frank answer is we slightly copped out on the details.

  50. You would never accept that from a Member of Parliament!
  (Mr Riddell) That is why journalists are more candid! On the grounds that, one, there is no perfect world in this respect. There is a clear problem of what Tony describes as the "politicisation" but there are not perfect answers and we regarded the other bits of our report as the bits where we could make a more specific and original contribution. These were very much House of Commons' matters. However, having read the debates and listened to some of the debates in July and also having read the transcript of last week, I myself do not believe that the Liaison Committee proposals are workable. I think some of the ideas which were coming out in your exchanges with Philip Norton strike me, having thought about them and having read the transcript, as more positive. In a sense what you need when the parties are going to pick their own candidates is at one stage a court of appeal to deal with such cases as the case of Nicholas Winterton in 1992 and the two recent ones. You need an intermediary process before too much face is lost and before it goes to the floor of the House. Then there were some of the ideas you were playing around with of having the Chairman of Ways and Means, the two other Deputy Speakers and possibly two from the Chairmen's Panel (because of numbers you would have two Tory and Labour members and you need to broaden that out if you have a court of appeal) that behaved like Lord Denning used to in the old days, when it was regarded as desirable to knock down some judgments from earlier on. It regarded itself in a slightly robust role and I think that a court of appeal would be a useful way of doing it, and it strikes me that at the beginning of a parliament that is a practical way to reach a compromise on what, after all, is a very complicated system where there is no perfect way of doing it. This seems to me to meet the concerns expressed in the summer to quite a large extent.

  51. It is very kind of you to feel that we may be heading in the right direction.
  (Lord Newton of Braintree) Anna, would you like to add anything?
  (Ms Coote) I agree with Peter in that whatever new system is introduced we would all favour some piloting and experimentation. You need to try these things out to see how well they work. That would apply to most of the changes we would recommend.
  (Lord Newton of Braintree) Can I just make one very general point, Chairman. I am not sure whether select committees have moved into a less formal mode. I am happier with that but it was a little bit different —

  52. We were ground breaking last week!
  (Lord Newton of Braintree) I have every sympathy with that. I did a bit of ground-breaking myself in respect of Cabinet committees in somewhat similar ways. If I may say so, Robin, one thing I, at any rate, would want to clearly acknowledge is that lurking here is of course—and I do not know whether you would call it a fundamental question but it is certainly a large question—the question of the role of the Whips in all this, and one thing I would acknowledge is that you are not going to make anything work as some of us would like it to work with the present system. Some of us felt—and it was something I felt even when I had comparable responsibilities to yours as a minister in the parliament before last, that what would be crucial to this is a change in culture including the culture with which the Whips approach select committees. If it continues to be seen as something which is essential for the government of the day to control, then it is very difficult to see any system producing significantly different results. It might be a different mechanism but so long as that wish to make sure that the select committees are if not creatures of government at least extensively controlled by government, in reality it will be very difficult to find mechanisms which change it.

  53. This may be an unfair question since it was not a matter for your Commission, but as somebody with a long experience in this area, would you broadly endorse what Peter has said about a possible role for the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee in this?
  (Lord Newton of Braintree) I would. In thinking about it beyond our report and in some of the detail that it seems likely to get into, I might have wondered whether there was a role for the Speaker or the Commission, but the Chairman of the Ways and Means, or for that matter one of the Deputies, I think would be quite a good halfway house to that. The key thing, it seems to me, is to bring into the equation in quite an important way somebody whose primary perspective will be what is best for Parliament not what is best for this party or that party. That is the key thing. That is what I am seeking to say.

Mr Salter

  54. I very much welcome your report. It is quite rare in this place for a number of bodies to all be moving in the same direction and the conclusion reflects that. I have only served on one select committee prior to this and that was the Northern Ireland Select Committee, which of course has slightly different arrangements in terms of the membership to ensure that all political opinion is represented. What I found particularly objectionable—and I am not going to earn myself any Brownie points in the Whips' Office (which has changed greatly) was that a previous Whips' Office seemed to dangle the prospect of select committee membership as a reward. However appalling somebody's voting record was, and I am particularly thinking of our colleague John MacDonnell from Hayes and Harlington who undoubtedly has an interest and represents a point of view which is far more akin to the Republican position (rather an appropriate day to raise this), and who was consistently denied membership of that committee because of his voting record. I can understand from the Whips' point of view that argument, the value of patronage and so on and so forth, however what we ended up with was a select committee that was not representative of opinion in Northern Ireland and I think that was a great shame and in some ways impinged on the work of the committee. I would be interested in your views on those points.
  (Lord Newton of Braintree) I would be rather hesitant, especially as a former Leader of the House and somebody who carried a different political label, to get involved in the argument about a particular select committee or a particular appointment. From what you have said, I think it is a very good illustration of an approach which would need to be changed. I do not think that can be changed by an external force. It can be changed by a shift of attitudes within Parliament including among the Whips and, if that does not happen, I do not think those of us who are now outside it all are going to be able to suggest mechanisms which substitute.
  (Mr Riddell) Can I make two points on that. One is that under the proposals that were emerging last week, this idea of having a little court of appeal, the MP in this case would be able to raise it. No one is saying that that will automatically overturn it but at least the matter will have been raised before it gets to the stage of the names being put before the House so there will be an appeal process, as the House did last July and did not in 1992 where it overturned the original recommendations. The other thing, which we do suggest, is having larger select committees. That is partly tied into ideas of doing more things. We were very careful and we had a long debate on this on the Commission. Some people wanted all backbenchers to be members of select committees, but we essentially got to the point that you could not do that for obvious reasons but we felt everyone should have the opportunity to become members and that you ought to increase the size of committees, and therefore you would partly meet that point by having larger select committees and also there would be more sub-committees and so on.
  (Ms Coote) You talked about a position on the select committee being dangled as a reward. It obviously depends what the reward is for.


  55. It can also be a punishment!
  (Ms Coote) If the reward is for loyalty to the Whips or to the Party, that is one thing, but one of the things we have said consistently in our report is that we want to increase the status of select committee work and make it so that MPs think it is something that is an enviable thing to do and something that is a reflection of their skills and capacity. So if it is a reward for being a good parliamentarian that is one thing; if it is a reward for being loyal to the party, that is another thing.

  Mr Salter: Robin, just for the record—and I am not looking for a response—I think I phrased the question very clumsily. In my experience it is actually the other way round. It is not so much a reward that you go on a committee but it is a punishment you do not get allocated a place. I think that is probably a more accurate reflection of how the whipping under a previous regime used to work.

Mr Winterton

  56. Can I ask our witnesses—and if they want to answer together fine, or if they have different views please tell us—do they believe that appointments to select committees should be entirely within the control of the House of Commons and completely outside the control or direct influence of the executive? That is question one. Question two: does the Hansard Commission have any concern that by giving this facility, this power, this authority to the Chairman of Ways and Means, the other deputies and perhaps certain senior members of the Panel of Chairmen, that it might undermine the impartiality of the Speakers, the Chairman of Ways and Means and his colleagues? Do our witnesses believe that there could be problems if people seek to ascertain why they were or were not appointed to a select committee? Do they feel there could be any conflict in undermining the respect and impartiality in which all members of this House hold the Chairman of Ways and Means and his colleagues? Do the witnesses believe that everyone who applied to go on a select committee should have their name published in one way or another, perhaps in the Vote, in the Order Paper or whatever, so that people do know who has applied and therefore obviously, in the ultimate event, who has been appointed and who has been unsuccessful?
  (Lord Newton of Braintree) Can I take those first and then see if my colleagues wish to comment. These will be my answers, as it were and I certainly cannot guarantee they would be the answers of every member of the Commission. On the first question, ie should it be the House or the executive, a one-word answer to your question would be yes, but, as I have sought to acknowledge, that yes would not mean very much so long as there was not a change in the wish of the executive to have more influence than I perhaps think they ought to have (because they would find ways in this institution of doing that). A one-word answer would be yes. A one-word answer to the second question on the sort of role that was being sketched in the earlier evidence and in what Peter has said just now about the Chairman of Ways and Means and his colleagues, a one-word answer would be no, I do not see why it should undermine their reputation for impartiality but I think they would have to approach it in a very judicial spirit. And in those circumstances I think not only would it not undermine, I think it could strengthen the perception of the independence and impartiality of the role. Thirdly, I am not going to attempt to give a one-word answer on the publication of names, but if you made me give an off-the-cuff one-word answer I think it would be yes, that it would be sensible to have a more public acknowledgement of who is interested in what. I do not know whether either of my colleagues want to add to or differ from what I have said.
  (Ms Coote) I certainly agree on the last point. Coming back to the first part of your question on who should have power over the appointments, I think another underlying point which is very important is that if parliamentary select committees are doing their job really well, one might envisage a change of attitude whereby the executive saw this as a plus and therefore did not need to have power over appointments because what it would want would be effective, robust scrutiny in order to improve the quality of the work that the executive does. That is what we are aiming for—a change of attitude on the part of government away from paranoia and fear towards some kind of collaborative engagement with select committees that leads to better government.

Mr Tyler

  57. I very much agree with that last point, but I have been mulling it over ever since Tony said that he wanted to depoliticise the process, and I just wonder whether that may be a view from that end of the building rather than one you would have taken five years ago when you were here. To follow that one through, surely the particular circumstances of the Parliament is very critical to this? We now have a large government majority. When you were Leader of the House it was a very small government majority and I suspect therefore that the sensitivities were greater. Just to test this out, what would your view be of the idea that since the purpose of select committees is to scrutinise, not to support or oppose the government, that the party representation on the select committees need not follow the arithmetic in the House? Would it not be helpful if, so long as the government has a majority of one on the select committee, that the membership on the committee need not follow the arithmetic of the House for the reasons that Anna has just given.
  (Lord Newton of Braintree) Taking the first point, Martin has already qualified a phrase he used initially and I think I want to qualify the depoliticisation phrase. You cannot depoliticise anything in this building and I at any rate ought to acknowledge that. I thought I elaborated it a bit better later on about not looking at select committees as though partisan control of them were the primary purpose of the exercise. That is what I would like to see changed. Picking up your second question, yes I did actually feel this when I was Leader of the House and while, of course, the sort of discussions I would have had with my colleagues would not have seen the light of day—and I was usually reasonably discreet myself—quite a lot of the discussions I had in connection with the implementation of the Jopling Report, which some of you may remember, did reflect in what I said in private what I am now saying to you in my slightly freer circumstances these days in public. So if you are asking me have I changed my mind as a result of five years' distance, I am sure my thinking has moved on but not in any fundamental way in that respect. Coming to your last point, and again echoing something I felt at that stage, I would not personally rigidly insist on translating the mathematics of the House into every select committee. I happen to have felt this particularly strongly about the Committee on Standards and Privileges which I felt would work best if it were not necessarily constructed in that way, and that is a point I made to the Neill Committee at some stage. Leaving that particular one aside, I would not myself insist on rigid mathematics although I think you have got to recognise the reality especially in a House with the structure of the present one, that that would almost certainly mean there would not be enough Opposition backbenchers if you wanted them to take half and they would have some difficulty in doing that. I quite like the idea of not insisting on anything more than a government majority of one but reality might impose rather more than that in practice.
  (Ms Coote) I do think having one or two Opposition members in a select committee is a real problem. That is my personal view. I think what counts is not which party the committee members belong to but how good they are at the job, whether they are engaged with it, whether they attend, whether they know how to sift through evidence and cross-examine witnesses. I know this select committee is a very different animal from a lot of other committees in the House. What counts is quality not party affiliation.
  (Mr Riddell) As Tony said, I think it is an enormous practical problem. Whilst I do not think there should be a rigid mathematic formula, I am very struck (wearing my journalist's hat as opposed to my Commission hat) that it is a real problem for the Opposition parties having two parliaments in succession when you have got an enormous imbalance in numbers. The system was not built for such large majorities in any sense or for the second party being relatively small as it has been for two parliaments in a row. It is not built for that. That inevitably in practice limits what you can do. It is no fault of the Tories, it is a fact of life that if you are having a front bench of that size it is very difficult for everybody to be as assiduous as those on the left are. It is very difficult.

  58. It has to be said that the third party has no difficulty in providing people for this. The difficulty has been of course that some former Ministers have not been enthusiastic about it. Can I get back to the practicalities. If there were to be some degree of flexibility, as Tony at least is prepared to accept, who decides on the flexibility? That is the problem. The real advantage is in distinguishing between the scrutiny function and the legislative function of this place, where you have to have the arithmetic perfectly replicated in the standing committees.
  (Lord Newton of Braintree) As far as possible.

  59. The Clerks have an elaborate chart. But where it comes to the scrutiny role, if we are to vary it (where I basically have some sympathy with Peter's point) who then decides on the variation?
  (Lord Newton of Braintree) I have got no neat and tidy off-the-cuff answer to that. I would hope that it might be possible to achieve it by some degree of agreement, taking account of the expressions of interest. Suppose the formula does produce two Opposition MPs and it is clear that there are three or four Opposition MPs who have a strong interest and are widely recognised as adding potentially a significant contribution, I would hope you could achieve that by agreement. I cannot off-the-cuff think of some formula for deciding whether it should be two or four in relation to any particular committee.

  Chairman: Can we move on, I have got four names Joan, David, Lorna and Peter. Joan first.

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