Sir George speaks on Commons Reform
14 May 2002
This is the text of Sir George's speech in the Debate on Select Committee Reform

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): I shall observe your injunction, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and try to speak with exceptional brevity.

There has been a transformation in mood and tone since a similar debate during the last Parliament, less than a year ago. Many who are present now have taken part in debates on "Shifting the Balance", and will note that transformation. There are many reasons for it—the pioneering work of the Liaison Committee, the personality of the new Leader of the House, but also, I think, the growing appetite of Back Benchers for the reclaiming of some of the power they have lost. That, I believe, is why this is a much more consensual, constructive debate than its predecessors.

The steam escaped at the beginning of this Parliament, at the end of July, during the debate on the Committee of Selection. What happened in 1992 gave that Committee the yellow card, and what happened in July this year gave it the red card. The system was bust, there was no way the House would accept it, and those outside who take an interest in the House would have been astounded if a discredited system had remained.

My Select Committee was not one of the those for which payments were proposed, and I do not want to be paid, but I think Chairmen of investigative committees should be paid. I take the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) and the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) about the risk of damage to cohesion and integrity if Committee Chairmen were paid, but I do not agree. I think that if the House decided that the hon. Lady and my right hon. Friend should be paid, their Committees would work every bit as effectively as they do now. I do not think integrity or cohesion would be damaged if the House decided it was in the interest of building an alternative career structure for Chairmen to be paid.

I do not, however, buy the argument that that generosity should be extended to the shadow Cabinet. What we are trying to do is offer an alternative career path. The advantage for members of the shadow Cabinet is that one day they will be paid as Ministers. It would confuse the issue to start paying them on the back of the argument for remunerating Select Committee Chairmen.

Nor am I persuaded by the eight-year rule. If we are trying to offer an alternative career, why should we place an eight-year restriction on that career when there is no eight-year restriction on a ministerial term? Are we really saying that, had the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) not taken the Queen's shilling, he should not have been eligible to chair the Home Affairs Select Committee? Should a young man be cut off in his prime? The key question, surely, is this: which member of that Select Committee would best chair it, and best hold the Executive to account? We should ask not how long the Chairman has done his job, but whether he is the best at it.

Mr. Greg Knight: Can my right hon. Friend tell us how many Ministers of the Crown have served for more than eight years since the second world war?

Sir George Young: I plead guilty, and I would have been very distressed if after eight years John Major had said "I am very sorry, George, but you have had your eight years; that's it".

The key question for the Prime Minister is the question I have just posed: who is best able to discharge the portfolio? My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) was a Minister for some 18 years. He would say that he was just warming up at the end of that period, and ready for more challenges.

I want to make two final points, the first of which is about the size of Committees. I understand the argument that every Member should have an opportunity to display his or her talents by serving on a Select Committee, and I understand the argument about representation of minority parties, but I do not think that those are the key questions. The key question, in this context, is this: at what size can a Select Committee operate most effectively? What is the right size to enable it to hold the Executive to account? I think Committees should have about 11 or 13 members. The more members are added, the greater the diminishing returns. Each time the membership is increased from five to seven, from seven to nine and from nine to 11, value is added and the value of the extra member is significant, but as soon as it is increased from 11 or from 13 the diminishing returns begin.

I accept the arguments of nearly all members of the Liaison Committee. They argue that they can do their job more effectively with a smaller Committee. There is another point, which has not been mentioned: if more people are appointed to a Select Committee, they are not doing nothing else. It is not a nil sum game. If more people are asked to spend more time on Select Committees, they will probably spend less time in Westminster Hall and on Standing Committees.

My last point is about Prime Minister's Question Time, which I think is a disaster area. It is the worst possible way of holding the Prime Minister to account. It is most unusual to get any information out of the Prime Minister, but, even worse, Question Time gives people an entirely wrong impression of what politics is about. They assume that the House of Commons is always like that. That is one reason why people are switched off politics: they assume that that is what we are like. I think that there is an appetite for a less adversarial, more constructive, more strategic approach to questioning the Prime Minister.

I do not envy my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) his task of chairing the Liaison Committee, but I am sure he will do it well. Perhaps the House will learn from what the Committee does, and the format of Prime Minister's Question Time on the Floor of the House may change if the House discovers that there is a better way of holding the Government to account.

Yes, the balance is shifting; but the momentum needs to be maintained if the House is to return to what should be its position.
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Copyright Sir George Young Bt. 2015