This is the text of a speech Sir George made in the House of Commons on the Government’s proposals for Regional Committees. As the debate was time-tabled, Sir George was unable to complete his remarks.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), and I would like to add a brief footnote to the excellent points he has just made.
The Deputy Leader of the House put forward an argument in his opening speech about the legitimacy of Parliamentary Private Secretaries serving on these Select Committees. The argument he deployed was that, because Front-Bench Opposition spokesmen sat on Select Committees, it was legitimate for PPSs to do so, but there is a fundamental difference between a PPS and an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, in that a PPS owes his loyalty to the Government, whereas an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman does not. Therefore, in terms of holding the Executive to account, it is simply not the case that a PPS can be equated with a Front-Bench spokesman. It is a fundamental misconception to put the two on a par.
My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield made a point about quorums, and there is at present a real problem with quorums on Select Committees. The Sessional Returns show the pressure that the existing Select Committees are already under, and that will be made worse by the appointment of eight more Select Committees. The Public Accounts Committee is, perhaps, the most prestigious Select Committee, and it had an average attendance of 47.2 per cent. In other words, for most of the time most of its members were not present. The Regulatory Reform Committee had a 42.3 per cent. attendance rate, and the rate for the Environmental Audit Committee was 44.5 per cent. Some Select Committees are at present having real difficulties in meeting their quorum, and that will be aggravated if Members who already sit on Select Committees are put on additional ones.
Two of the Members nominated for the south-east regional Select Committee are already on two Select Committees and their resources will, inevitably, be stretched even further. One Member who is already so heavily committed that he or she was unable to attend one of the 12 meetings of a Select Committee on which he or she already sits is being put on a regional Select Committee. In my Select Committee, a Member was unable to attend for a long time for the perfectly good reason that he was on another Select Committee that met at exactly the same time. There is a real risk that in trying to set up these regional Committees, we will undermine the good work of those Select Committees that are already up and running.
I understand the doctrine of the mandate. A resolution came from a Select Committee, the Government got a majority for that proposition in the House, and therefore they can go on. If we look at the votes on 12 November, however, a slightly different picture emerges. One resolution was carried by two votes—and I have to say to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) that if he had voted the other way on that one, there would have been a tie on the proportion of Members from each party representing constituencies in each region. The hon. Gentleman voted with my party and other parties on the pay of Select Committee Chairmen, but on some of the other ones I am afraid that he voted in the other Lobby.
There is a key difference between resolutions that deal with Select Committees and resolutions that are delivering the Government’s manifesto. It is my experience that when reforms have been made to Select Committees and how they work, we have tried to do that by consensus and taking the other parties with us. There is a risk that, far from advancing the policy of the Government for the regions, having five out of nine Members, at best, going round the country, and all from one party, will do an injury to the vestiges of the regional policy that they still retain.
What the Government should have done was ask themselves, “With 15 months to the next general election, how important is it that we drive this reform through a divided House of Commons, and send Select Committees, with half their members not present, round the country, in the name of regionalism?” Would it not have been more sensible to have said, “Actually, we have other things to do at the moment. There are other ways of employing Members’ time. There are other reforms in the House of Commons that have a greater priority. Therefore, we will just park this one and not proceed with it”? If the Government had done that, we would all have understood: we would have applauded the wisdom, and we would have recognised that they had reflected on the very narrow votes that took place on 12 November and decided not to go ahead.
When these Committees start their work, I wonder how many times they will meet. I also wonder what practical work they will be able to do between now and the next general election, without at the same time undermining—