Sir George speaks in Select Committee Debate
16 Jul 2001
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams). The House listened with respect to his balanced contribution. I shall seek to beat him for brevity if I cannot match him for wisdom.

I have three points to make. The first relates to the method of choosing the names for Select Committees. I speak as a new member of the Committee of Selection. I have attended only two meetings, but that has been enough to persuade me that it does not serve the House well. It has been captured by the usual channels, and I welcome the beam of light that is being shone on that obscure body this afternoon.

The Committee has nine members appointed by the House in the correct proportions of six, two and one. It is chaired with dispatch by the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam). Of the eight remaining members, five are Whips. Had my party not generously acceded to my request to have one of our two places, six of the eight would have been Whips. There is a convention among Whips that they do not challenge the nominations of other parties. If the other side wants to put someone on a Committee or to keep someone off whose interests may be relevant but unhelpful, that is not challenged. It is no secret that I recently proposed an amendment in the Committee. Like the man in the Bateman cartoon, I was shot down in flames.

Unlike other Committees, the substance of the discussion is not circulated beforehand. We know what Committees we are going to appoint, but we do not know the nominations. They are produced like rabbits out of a hat at the meeting and agreed, usually without discussion or division. The meetings last a matter of minutes. That may be all right for the appointment of some Committees, and I am not against the involvement of the Whips. They know Members' interests, their work load on other Committees and can get a regional balance. However, it cannot be right at the beginning of a Parliament for people to be appointed to Committees for the whole of the Parliament in that way.

There needs to be a more rigorous and transparent process, leading to an output that commands greater confidence. The Committees should be better balanced, without being over-dominated by the Whips. The names of those nominated should be available in advance and there should be an expectation that they will be discussed and defended before they are put to the House. The House can certainly go over the course again, as we are doing this afternoon, but the Committee of Selection should be doing a proper job in the first place. I welcome the announcement by the Leader of the House of a thorough review of how the selection process operates.

My second point is that the nominations matter; they are vital. All the recent reports on reform of the House focus on the role of independent Select Committees. They should not be selected by the Government whom they are holding to account. Let us consider the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions, which we are appointing tonight. One of the key political issues in coming months will be the tube--the private finance initiative, Bob Kiley, the Greater London assembly and so on. That requires no legislation. It will be covered briefly at Question Time and we can have an Opposition day on it, but that does not provide the opportunity to scrutinise the Executive. The Select Committee will be the only way in which the House can get behind the PFI for the tube.
Without being discourteous to whoever takes over from the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), if she is not successfully reinstated, I doubt whether her successor will give the Government as hard a time. One of the weapons of the House is not quite being put beyond use, but being wheeled away from the front line. Using the alibi of mobility of membership, several independent-minded Members have been fingered and removed from Select Committees.

My final point relates to the membership of the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons. In my view, what is needed is not so much a modernising Select Committee, but a strengthening Select Committee. Parliament's prime task is to be effective and to hold the Government to account. Yes, we should also work sensible hours, use modern technology and review antiquated procedures, all of which may well strengthen the House, but strengthening, not modernising, should be the prime purpose of the Committee.

The Select Committee that modernises or strengthens the House of Commons should not be chaired by the Cabinet Minister whose job it is to deliver the Government's often overloaded legislative programme. There could not be a clearer conflict of interest, nor an appointment more likely to short-circuit the whole machinery of accountability. The Leader of the House must be pulled two ways: between his duty to his ministerial colleagues through collective responsibility to secure the passage of their Bills, and his duty to the House to make sure that we do our job properly and have time to scrutinise the legislation.

The Leader of the House may well have radical ideas about reform of the House. I am sure that he would be a first-class witness before the Modernisation Committee. However, I say to him what I said to his predecessor: there is no role for the Leader of the House on a Select Committee of the House in charge of modernisation. It is like the Chancellor chairing the Public Accounts Committee.

Attempts to sort all these matters out at the end of the last Parliament were sadly unsuccessful. There can be no excuse for the House not getting it right now.
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Copyright Sir George Young Bt. 2015