Examination of Witnesses (Questions 49
WEDNESDAY 24 OCTOBER 2001
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 thathow do I best put itthe 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
(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
(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 courseand I do not know whether you
would call it a fundamental question but it is certainly a large
questionthe 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 feltand 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
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.
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
objectionableand 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
(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
(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 recordand
I am not looking for a responseI 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.
56. Can I ask our witnessesand if they
want to answer together fine, or if they have different views
please tell usdo 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
fora 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.
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 dayand I
was usually reasonably discreet myselfquite 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.