Sir George speaks in Debate on Modernising Parliament
25 May 1999
Speaking in a Debate on May 24th on whether the House of Commons should establish a parallel debating Chamber, Sir George – Shadow Leader of the House – gave the proposal for an experiment cautious support. Extract from Hansard follows.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): The motion is certainly an
issue on which Conservative Members have a free vote. It is a House of
Commons matter, on which there will be a wide variety of views. On
balance, I will support the proposition that is before us, but I will be neither
dismayed nor surprised if some of my right hon. and hon. Friends come to a
different view.

I begin with two general points. First, I am not an uncritical supporter of the
recommendations of the Select Committee on Modernisation. I objected to
the previous recommendations on Thursday sittings -- to which the hon.
Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) referred -- with their
compression of the working week at Westminster. They emanated not from
the Committee, but from the Government, and have made it more difficult
for us to hold them to account. Of course, I understand that it may be
popular with some Members of Parliament, but that does not make it right
for the Commons. I look forward to returning to that issue when the
evaluation of the experiment is carried out and completed.

Secondly, as the Leader of the House said, we are being asked tonight to
decide not whether the Westminster Hall Committee is the right way
forward, but whether to proceed with the trial and, in the light of that,
whether it is a sensible reform for the House.

Initially, I was suspicious of the proposals for a Main Committee, as it was
called at the time, because of the centrifugal impact it might have on the
Chamber. I will explain why those fears are not soundly based, but, as we
took evidence from those who have tried a similar solution and as we
analysed the strategic problems that confront Parliament as a whole, I was
persuaded that we should give the proposal a go. It offers the opportunity
better to hold the Executive to account. That is possibly the biggest
challenge that Parliament faces at the moment.

One can divide proposals for reform of the House into two main groups:
first, those that facilitate or expedite the legislative process -- Special
Standing Committees, carry-over motions and guillotines; secondly, those,
such as Opposition days, which facilitate the "holding to account" process.
There is an element of overlap in some reforms, but that distinction is
helpful. The House has focused too much recently on the first type of
reform.

The way that the proposal for the Westminster Hall Committee is structured
is to focus on the second objective and to give the House a greater ability to
hold the Executive to account, rather than to enable the Executive to push
through more inadequately considered legislation. Paragraph 33 of the
report makes that clear. Business can be referred to the Westminster Hall
Committee only by agreement. If any orders of the day are referred to the
Westminster Hall Committee, one objection can block the reference, as is
explained in paragraph 41.

The type of business to be referred to the Westminster Hall Committee is
essentially for holding the Government to account, principally by giving
Back Benchers more time. If one wanted one paragraph that encapsulated
the flavour of the report, it would be paragraph 23, which gives the impact
very well.

The House is simply unable to patrol all the frontier between it and the
Executive. The Westminster Hall Committee will give us opportunity to do
that better, with more of the general debates that are held on Wednesday
mornings, more Adjournment-type debates, and more debates on Select
Committee reports.

It is worth quoting from the evidence of the Chairman of Ways and Means,
on page 4 of the minutes of evidence, who said:

"However, there is, I believe a prima facie case for a carefully
prepared experiment".

He goes on to deal with the balance that he believes that we should have.

The Westminster Hall Committee will be part of tilting back the terms of
trade, which have swung too much the other way -- a process that has
accelerated under the current Government, who have consistently bypassed
and undermined the House of Commons. Indeed, one has only to consider
the events of last Wednesday -- on the U-turn on trial by jury, and the
Speaker's rebuke that went with it -- for evidence of that proposition.
Today, there was further evidence of it with the news that the Secretary of
State for Trade and Industry planned a statement outside the House on
sub-post offices, earning yet another rebuke.

The Westminster Hall Committee will not put things right on its own, but I
think that -- if read in conjunction with paragraphs 60 to 62, which are at
the end of the report, but vital to it -- it may be part of a solution. There is a
need to look again at the Chamber in the light of the recommendation and
the work of the Procedure Committee on the consequences of devolution.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): The right hon. Gentleman
will know that the proposed Committee will be an experiment. I wonder
what action he intends to take -- or whether he intends to offer advice to
some of his hon. Friends, such as "Awkward Eric" -- if Conservative
Members were to decide simply to object, thereby preventing the entire
arrangement from having an experimental period?

Sir George Young: If the hon. Gentleman looks at paragraphs 23 to 26,
he will see that some references may be made without the matter coming to
the House as a whole. I am quite sure that my right hon. Friend the Member
for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) needs no lessons from Labour
Members on how to use the procedures of the House. However, paragraph
41 makes it quite clear that one objection will be sufficient to block certain
references to the Westminster Hall Committee. The hon. Gentleman makes
a valid point, and I am sure that Opposition Members will already have
noticed it.

It is significant that, without dissent, the Select Committee accepted the
proposition, in paragraphs 60 to 62, that the terms of trade between
Government and the House should be shifted back to the House. That
brings me to the argument about the impact of the proposed reform on the
Chamber, which featured both in the evidence and in our discussions. Of
course I understand the anxieties about that impact.

I regard the proposal before us as an evolution of other reforms, such as the
introduction of Standing Committees after the second world war, and the
expansion of Select Committees after the 1979 general election. Before
those developments, the work was done either not at all, or on the Floor of
the House. The House recognised that, if it were to do its job effectively, it
would need forums other than the Chamber from which to operate. The
same arguments that can be made against Westminster Hall were,
doubtless, made against Standing Committees and Select Committees --
that they would divert hon. Members from the Chamber, and thereby
devalue the Chamber.

On both occasions, however, the House decided that its primary task was
the holding of Government to account and the proper scrutiny of legislation.
The House decided on those two reforms, ensuring that, so far as possible,
the new Committees did not always sit at the same time as the Chamber --
as we have sought to do with our proposal of avoiding sitting during
Question Time and statements.

I know of no one who now wants to reverse the introduction of Select
Committee or Standing Committees. The debate has moved on, to how we
can make them more effective. Those forums are able to cause Ministers as
much discomfort as the Chamber, as the report on Sierra Leone, to mention
only one example, has shown.

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): I am glad to hear my right
hon. Friend mention the importance of Select Committees, which --
certainly in the past couple of years -- have been one of the better
mechanisms in holding the Government to account. However, a Select
Committee's primary weapon is publicity and embarrassment, by airing the
facts of real events. One of the most important mechanisms in performing
that task is bringing Select Committee reports to the Chamber on
Wednesday mornings.

My right hon. Friend says that the Committee will be an experiment. How
will he measure the effectiveness of that experiment? Specifically, will he
compare the effectiveness of a chamber at the other end of this building in
debating problems aired in Select Committees reports --

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Interventions must be brief.

Sir George Young: My right hon. Friend has raised the key issue of how
we shall monitor the experiment's effectiveness. Although it is difficult to say
in advance whether the experiment will be a success, I tell him that the
publicity that Select Committees receive is derived not from the location of
their sitting, but from the nature and persistence of their questioning and,
quite often, the Minister's inability to respond to it.

Mrs. Dunwoody: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir George Young: I should like first to finish the point, which may
address one of the concerns of my right hon. Friend the Member for
Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis).

If such an exchange were to take place in the Westminster Hall Committee,
I believe that it would receive every bit as much publicity as some of the
exchanges that we have had in Select Committee. The important matter is
not so much a Committee's location as the nature of its questioning and the
effectiveness of the ministerial reply to that questioning. If such an exchange
takes place in the Westminster Hall Committee, I believe that it will receive
every bit as much coverage as if it occurred anywhere else in the building.

Mrs. Dunwoody: I should be interested to know on what the right hon.
Gentleman bases that assumption. As the reporting of Parliament is
consistently going down -- including the reporting of this Chamber -- why
does he think that, if the press is not reporting one Chamber, it will
effectively report two?

Sir George Young: I was making the point that devaluation of the
Chamber was caused not by introduction of Select Committees or Standing
Committees, but by other, extraneous factors for which Labour Members
bear much responsibility.

It is certainly not the case that introduction of Select Committees after the
1979 general election led to any devaluation of the Chamber's reputation. I
regard the establishment of the Westminster Hall Committee in the same
way as I regard the establishment of Standing Committees and Select
Committees: as other forums in which Ministers may be held to account. I
do not believe that either Standing Committees or Select Committees led to
undermining of the Chamber's reputation -- that was due to other causes.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): Is it not important to remember that, if the
report is approved, and as it very clearly states, Select Committee reports
that are debated in the Chamber of the House will continue to be debated
there, not on Wednesdays, but at a different time? The additional venue will
also allow for debate on 36 Select Committee reports that are not debated.

Sir George Young: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we are
proposing additional time for Select Committees reports.

I was making the point that Standing Committees and Select Committees
are excellent institutions, but that they are constrained both by membership
and by subject. They are not as flexible as the proposed Westminster Hall
Committee -- which all hon. Members will be able to attend, and which
may deal with any subject.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish): Will the right hon.
Gentleman give way?

Sir George Young: I shall give way -- perhaps for the last time, as we are
constrained and other hon. Members may wish to speak.

Mr. Bennett: When the right hon. Gentleman pays tribute to the Select
Committee system, is he confident that the proposals will not undermine that
system? What will be the priorities? Will a Minister be required to reply to
an Adjournment debate or to attend a Select Committee? Often, Select
Committees are pursuing with a Minister a particular line of interest, and
attendances are fixed several weeks in advance. Adjournment debates tend
to be fixed at much shorter notice.

Sir George Young: It is not unusual for one Department to be confronted
with demands on the time of more than one Minister to attend Standing
Committees and Select Committees. Adjournment debates will continue to
be held at the end of the day in this Chamber, whereas the Westminster
Hall Committee will be meeting earlier in the day, in Westminster Hall.
Therefore, there will be no conflict of the specific nature described by the
hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): Will my right hon. Friend give
way?

Sir George Young: I shall, out of respect for my hon. Friend -- but this
must be the last time.

Mr. Winterton: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way to an
Opposition Member. He has stressed the importance of Select
Committees. If Select Committees are so important -- I believe that they
are -- and their reports are very helpful to the House, does he accept that
Government, Opposition and the usual channels should respect the integrity
of Select Committees and not seek to undermine them?

Sir George Young: My hon. Friend takes me way beyond my negotiating
remit by referring to how Select Committees are handled. When I was a
Secretary of State and was regularly interrogated, my Government paid
special attention to Select Committee reports. Every Minister would be
wise to do so. One or two have tried to ignore the findings of Select
Committees in this Parliament and have come unstuck.

The decline of the Chamber is not primarily due to the establishment of rival
forums in the Houses of Parliament in which matters are debated. The
reasons are deeper and the Government have much to answer for. If I am
right to say that the establishment of Standing and Select Committees was
not responsible for the decline in influence, the establishment of a
Westminster Hall Committee need not injure the Chamber either. On the
contrary, like the Select and Standing Committees, it might enable
Parliament to do its job better.

I was keen that paragraph 55 of the report should specify that the
experiment would not increase planned expenditure on the House this year.
The House should observe the same discipline that it imposes on other
public bodies. I was reassured to hear what the Leader of the House said
about expenditure. I understand the sensitivities of members of the
Accommodation and Works Committee. In retrospect, I think that we
should have contacted them earlier in our deliberations.

To sum up my views, I think that it is worth giving this a go. It has the
potential to enable us to do our job more effectively, but it should not be
seen as a total solution. That will come only with an Administration
committed to restoring the influence of the House in the nation's affairs. This
is not such an Administration.





 
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