Sir George intervened in the debate on Regional Committees to argue against them. Below is his speech from Hansard
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I rise to speak to amendment (a) to motion 7. I note that because of the guillotine motion, there are only 30 minutes for all Opposition Back Benchers to speak in this debate.
The amendment would abolish the Regional Affairs Committee. Colleagues could be excused for not knowing that there was one. Standing Orders require one to be established, but the Government have not done so in this Parliament. Week after week at meetings of the Committee of Selection, we wait for the Government to propose members of the Committee, yet nothing happens. The Government clearly must feel that the Committee serves no useful purpose, so I hope that they will accept the amendment.
The Regional Affairs Committee, to remind colleagues, was applauded when it was introduced. In 2000, the then Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), said:
“We believe that such a forum will add usefully to the procedures of the House”.—[ Official Report, 11 April 2000; Vol. 367, c. 295.]
The Committee has been so useful that it has not met since April 2003, which indicates that it is a wholly dispensable part of our constitution. The amendment would simply put it out of its misery.
That is relevant to today’s debate, because it shows that the Government have form in coming up with the wrong answer to the regional question. We told the Government eight years ago that it would not work. In a powerful speech, the then shadow Leader of the House—me—said that the Government had come up with the wrong answer. That debate ended in the small hours of the morning of 12 April, which shows how long ago it was. We lost by 60 votes, which was a good result at the time. That proposal came from straight from the Government; it was not even laundered through the Modernisation Committee, as the proposals that we are debating have been.
That brings me to my second point. When the Prime Minister announced the new committees in the “Governance of Britain” Green Paper, he said:
“Consideration of changes to the way the House of Commons operates is ultimately a matter for the House itself”.
However, if we turn to page 42 of the Modernisation Committee report, what do we find? It states:
“Draft Report (Regional Accountability), proposed by the Chairman, brought up and read.”
Who is the Chairman? The Leader of the House is the Chairman. We can see on page 52 that the Committee tied, and that the Chairman declared herself for the Ayes. That does not strike me as leaving the matter to the House to decide. Rather, it strikes me as the Government obliging the House to accept something that it does not want.
We then have the ultimate of absurdities, the Government response, which begins:
“The Government welcomes the report from the Modernisation Committee on Regional Accountability”.
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Who presented this report to Parliament? It was none other than the Leader of the House—it is straight out of Gilbert and Sullivan. Frankly, it is an abuse of the Select Committee procedure. Every other Select Committee is chaired by a Back Bencher and contains no Ministers, because Select Committees are instruments of the House to hold the Government to account. The Modernisation Committee is an instrument that the Government are using. That could weaken our ability to hold them to account because of the impact on existing Select Committees, which brings me to my third and final point.
A little-read document, “Sessional Returns”, shows how the existing pressure on the time of colleagues affects their attendance on Select Committees. The average attendance for the most prestigious Committee—the Public Accounts Committee—for the last year for which figures exist, was 47.2 per cent. So, for most of the meetings, most of the members were not there. I say that not in a spirit of criticism of colleagues, but as a statement of fact. There is a lot of pressure on our time because the Government have packed everything into two days of the week. The Regulatory Reform Committee manages 42.3 per cent. attendance, and five of the 14 members attended no meetings at all in the last Session for which there are records. The figures for the Environmental Audit Committee are 44.5 per cent. and for the Trade and Industry Committee 50.2 per cent. For the Scottish Affairs Committee and the Welsh Affairs Committees—those most like the new regional Select Committees—the figures are 56 per cent. and 52 per cent. Where, then, are the folk sitting on these new Select Committees coming from; and if they turn up, what will happen to the existing ones?
I, too, read in The Guardian that the Government Chief Whip is going punish folk who vote against the Government by refusing to put them on Select Committees. He has got it exactly wrong: the punishment is being put on a regional Select Committee, and for voting against the Government twice, it is being put on a regional Select Committee for a region other than the one the Member represents! Many other arguments cut across existing Select Committees, and regional Ministers do not have responsibility for the all the budgets or all the issues. The propositions before us are a nonsense, and I hope the House throws them out at 4.18.