July 13, 2005

Select Committees

John Bercow objects to the length of time taken to reconstitute the Select Committees and he also objects to any input from the Executive as to the composition of those Committees – given that the purpose of the Select Committees is to scrutinise the work of that Executive.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): As far as I am concerned, this is not a personal matter. I have nothing against the Government Whips, and relatively little against my own. I strongly object, however, to the time that it has taken to reconstitute the Select Committees, and to the manner in which it is proposed this afternoon to do so.

My starting point has been articulated by several right hon. and hon. Members throughout the House‚Äîthe significance of the Committees. The Committees have an absolutely invaluable role, if only we dared to recognise and demonstrate the fact. That role is scrutiny of the Executive, of the quality of their policies, of the effectiveness of their administration and of their expenditure of taxpayer’s money. When the context for the debate is set out in those simple and unmistakeable terms, it seems to me to underline the House’s criminal neglect of its responsibility to get the Committees up and running earlier than we have done.

It is, I think, 69 days since the general election, and tomorrow it will be 10 weeks since polling day. It is 57 days since the Loyal Address and the opening of the debate on the Queen’s Speech. To those who say, “Well, we haven’t done too badly this time; the process could have been more protracted than it has proved. We did a bit better on this occasion than we did on the last”, I say that that is unduly complacent. Frankly, we could have done a lot better, and I make no bones about the fact that in apportioning blame, I attribute the bulk to the system and to those charged with its administration‚Äîapparently, they are only too happy to be so charged‚Äîthe Whips.

It is wrong that the composition of Committees whose purpose is to scrutinise the Executive should be determined by representatives of that Executive. Members who know me know that I try to be dispassionate and fair-minded. I am not interested in making a purely party political point, any more than the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) is; frankly, the issues are far too salient and pressing for that. Fundamentally, this is a clash between Front Benchers and Back Benchers in all parts of the House.

I hope that Government Back Benchers will not cavil or object when I say that the inappropriateness of Executive control is particularly acute where the Government are concerned. The reason why is simple. Government Whips choose who scrutinises other representatives of the Government. The Government run the country and introduce policies, and they have a range of powers that, frankly, do not apply to the Opposition, so it is particularly serious when Government Whips decide who scrutinises their ministerial friends and colleagues.

That said, I do not in any sense think that the representatives of Opposition Front Benchers can be exonerated from responsibility. Members know perfectly well that many of these matters are determined on a consensual basis behind the scenes, between what we call “the usual channels”. So that we do not talk in terms that mean absolutely nothing to people outside this place‚Äîwho think when we refer to the usual channels, “What on earth are they talking about?‚Äîwe ought to make it explicitly clear that we are talking about the Government Whips Office and the Opposition Whips Office.

It is quite wrong for Opposition Whips to determine who participates in Select Committees. I have to tell you, Madam Deputy Speaker‚Äîdespite your vast and varied experience in this place, I feel certain that you will be shocked by the revelation that I am about to vouchsafe‚Äîthat one Opposition Whip said recently to me that he personally was keen that a particular Member, who had previously been, surprise, surprise, in the Whips Office, should be appointed to a given Select Committee with a view, perhaps, if all went well, to that individual’s becoming the Chairman of said Committee. He gave the following reason. “We think it important”‚ÄîI am not quite sure whom he meant by “we”, but presumably he was speaking for Front Benchers‚Äî”to strengthen co-operation between that Select Committee and the relevant shadow Secretary of State and his team.” That strikes me as absolutely wrong. Just as it is wrong for the Government to seek to “nobble” a Select Committee in order to defuse criticism of the Executive, so it is wrong for Opposition Front Benchers to seek to steer membership or chairmanship of the Committees in a greater, lesser or different way than would otherwise have been the case, in order to oppose the Government.

Mr. Forth: If the system is as invidious and insidious as my hon. Friend suggests, how is it that he has been recommended for membership of the International Development Committee, which I suspect he wanted very much?

John Bercow: I make it absolutely clear to my right hon. Friend that I strongly object to the way in which it is being done. To answer his question, I shall hazard a guess. The answer is probably that representatives of the Opposition Whips Office think that I am marginally less of a nuisance if I am busying myself with the important work involved in membership of the International Development Committee than if they were thoroughly to brass me off by denying me that membership. I must say to my right hon. Friend, who has never been a lackey at any time, that I made it clear all along to my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), the deputy Chief Whip, who is sadly not in his place—if he were, he would be visible—[Interruption.] He is in the Tea Room, I am told. I told him that I did not believe that it should be done in that way. What I think about the operation of the Whips in these matters is well known.

Of course the Whips will not voluntarily relinquish their power. They have the power; they exercise it; they enjoy its exercise; and they go about the House feeling a sense of fulfilment. After all, they are very senior, very respected, very influential, very busy and consequently have very full diaries.

Andrew Mackinlay: And they are paid!

John Bercow: Yes, they are paid as well, as the hon. Gentleman helpfully observes from a sedentary position. In response to the inevitable inquiry, “Grandma or Grandpa, what did you do today?”, the Whips will be able proudly to say to their grandchildren, “Well, I managed to stitch up the membership of a Select Committee, and we had to make a choice between the good boys and good girls on the one hand and the bad boys and the bad girls on the other.” An intelligent grandson or granddaughter will say, “Oh, I understand what you mean, Grandpa‚Äîthat the good boys and good girls are those who ask helpful and intelligent questions and go about their work and responsibilities independently of the respective Front Benchers”. At that point, the senior Whip will say, “No, no, no, you quite misunderstand the purpose of our work in constructing Select Committees. We want people who are, in Sir Humphrey’s terms, ‘sound’‚Äîpeople who will do things in a way that we approve of”.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): My hon. Friend is right, but there is another point to be made. The Whips Office controls the parliamentary party—or, at least, tries to control it—and one of the ways it does so is through the use of patronage. It is one of the least attractive features of parliamentary life today and it is a reason why we should have nothing to do with allowing the Whips Office to choose the composition of Select Committees.

John Bercow: My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. I do not know whether the sensation has afflicted other right hon. and hon. Members this afternoon, but the infuriating thing for me is that we have been here before. This afternoon, I feel as though we are playing a very long-running tape all over again. To put it another way, I have the sensation that I am once again, after a gap of about 15 years, reading that magnificent novel by Kafka‚Äî”The Trial”, in which K is treated appallingly by the bureaucracy and goes round in circles. There is also his other magnificent tome, “The Castle”, in which the hero thinks that he is advancing closer and closer to it, but on every step towards it that he takes, he discovers that he is a step further away than he was before. Well, I have that sensation, Madam Deputy Speaker, in relation to the composition of Select Committees.

We have had these debates before. As long ago as July 2001, the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), who was then the Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning), who was then shadow Leader of the House and the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), who was not then but is now the Father of the House, all argued that the process needed decisive reform, and needed it then. Four years later, that has not happened and there appears to be no enthusiasm among those on the Front Benches for it. What is even more depressing is that there is insufficient enthusiasm for reform on the Back Benches on both sides of the House. That is what is urgently needed.

Mrs. Dunwoody: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman picked on the wrong author. Is there not a stronger resemblance to what happens in “Alice Through the Looking Glass”?

John Bercow: I must say that the literary reference that the hon. Lady has invoked is probably better than mine. I had a recollection of the Kafka novels, but the hon. Lady is right that this is an absurd way in which to operate. The truth is that we can have many nuances on a theme, but in the end the real argument is about whether we opt for appointment or for election.

I accept that there the scourge of Whip domination is objectionable. In the nicest possible spirit, however, I say to the House—and to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), who spoke about this earlier—that I do not think that the other proposals for reform are satisfactory either.

The House will recall that the Liaison Committee report “Shifting the Balance” of March 2000 said that the system was wrong and needed to be changed so that it was independent of the Executive. It proposed that a trinity of very senior and distinguished hon. Members should make up a panel to which aspirant members of Select Committees could appeal. That might be marginally better than allowing the Whips to dictate membership, but it is still a poor and unsatisfactory way to proceed. That would amount to a system of patronage in itself, and hon. Members desperately keen to get on a Committee would feel that they had to ingratiate themselves with the panel.

Subsequently, in February 2002, the Modernisation Committee recommended that a committee of nine hon. Members should act as a filter for applications for Select Committee membership. I do not approve of that either. The systems that I have described are alternative and only marginally less objectionable forms of patronage. Sherlock Holmes said that, when all other possibilities have been eliminated, the remaining possibility, however improbable, must be the truth. In this case, the remaining possibility is that the House will decide to take the composition of Select Committees into its own hands—that is, it will determine that composition by election.

We can go about that in various ways. One possibility, which I do not necessarily advocate, is that the process should be a complete free for all, in which all hon. Members have the right to vote for all the members of all Select Committees, with no reserved rights for Opposition or other minority parties. I accept that there would be a danger that hon. Members would vote in a very partisan way and that Select Committee membership would be skewed as a result.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) has proposed that the conduct of these matters should be vested in the hands of Mr. Speaker, but I believe that it would quickly become evident that that was not entirely satisfactory or fair. Speedy amendments and revisions of that process would probably be made, but that option is what might be called the pure democratic model.

A second, alternative method would be to protect the respective strengths of the parties in the House, in terms of the numbers of Select Committee members‚Äîor Chairmen, or both‚Äîthat are allocated to the parties. However, all hon. Members would still be allowed to vote for all members of the Select Committees, subject to the understanding that, depending on the strength of the parties’ representation in the House, the Government party will have, say, seven members of a Committee, the main Opposition three and a minority party one.

If we are committed to the principle of democratic engagement, the seam is pretty rich. A third possibility is that we say that members of the Conservative party will vote only for Conservative members of a Select Committee, that Labour Members will vote only for Labour members, and so on.

I confess that I prefer the second of those options. I believe that all hon. Members should elect Select Committee members, subject to some protections for the minority parties. The system is not perfect, and it could be amended subsequently. Yes, there is a danger—possibly even a likelihood—that the first set of elections would not achieve the necessary balance between geography, gender, youth and experience, and so on. Nevertheless, under that system, the House would decide who should be on the Select Committees that scrutinise the Executive.

It baffles me constantly that in an age in which the pervasive principle of democratic legitimacy applies we seem always to find an excuse for not applying it in the context of composing the Committees that we so value.

Mr. Shepherd: I hope that my hon. Friend will take my comment in the spirit in which it is intended, but his elegant ruminations could have found expression on the Order Paper and we would have had an opportunity to vote on them.

John Bercow: Well, my answer is that I was happy to go along with the credible proposal made by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North, which allows for a degree of flexibility, under the auspices of Mr. Speaker, as to how the method of election would operate. Insofar as my hon. Friend has, gently or otherwise, rebuked me, I do not think that the rebuke is actually fair, because the hon. Gentleman has provided for a system of election.

In essence, we have to ask ourselves whether we want to will the means of change. I do. If Members want to be respected, we have to show respect for ourselves. If we want our Select Committees to be credible, we have to give them credibility. If we want them to be effective overseers of Government policy and to hold Ministers to account, we have to recognise that they will be far more effective and respected in fulfilment of that role if they enjoy the support of the House. It would not work perfectly, but it would work a lot better than the present arrangements.

If we wait for Government Whips or Opposition Whips to say, “We will give up our power”, we will wait for eternity. Even waiting for the Leader of the House or shadow Leader of the House to make the change will not work.

Andrew Mackinlay: I say in all seriousness to the hon. Gentleman that in the past two weeks, we have seen a seismic shift in the way the procedure happens in the Labour party, and I am proud of that. It is not the end, but probably only the beginning of the end, but‚Äîand my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House mentioned Labour’s selection process earlier‚Äîwe can say that a shift has happened. That should be written up by political journalists. It means that I and many others are being recommended to the House for the membership of Select Committees on the initiative of our peers, our Back Bench representatives, our shop stewards. That is a healthy development and should be put on the record, because we can all be justifiably proud of that advance.

John Bercow: The hon. Gentleman is right. He may think, and others may agree, that I am being slightly uncharitable. I did not mean to be, but if I have been, I am prepared to acknowledge it.

I recall that in July 2001 the right hon. Member for Swansea, West, who is now of course our esteemed Father of the House, objected to the idea that ex-Ministers should be parachuted in as members and, immediately, Chairmen of Select Committees. He said, in a telling phrase, that a Select Committee chairmanship should not be regarded as “palliatives for injured pride”. He made the point that being a Minister involved all sorts of great advantages and privileges and, once someone ceased being a Minister‚Äîin the full knowledge that that was bound to happen sooner or later in the slippery slope business that is politics‚Äîhe or she should be pleased to have served and should not expect any particular preferment.

I would go further and say, as the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) did, that precisely because an immediate past Minister would lack a perception of what is required—I would go further and say that they would lack the dispassionate interest that is necessary for effective Committee membership and, especially, chairmanship—such people should be ruled out. From looking at the Order Paper and hearing about the subterranean and private methods of the Labour party, I welcome the fact that a decision appears to have been made along those lines. No ex-Ministers have been so parachuted, and that is a good thing. I still feel, however, that we have not had the culture shift that we need.

I say that because of a good-natured and illuminating exchange that I had with the Leader of the House much earlier in the debate. He was talking about how the Labour party was being pretty democratic, transparent and fair, as the hon. Member for Thurrock just said. The right hon. Gentleman said that Labour had a pretty open process. There was just one problem: I asked the Leader of the House to divulge the secret. I wanted to know exactly how the Labour party goes about the process. The right hon. Gentleman laughed and seemed genuinely quite amused by my question, and said that if he told me how Labour did it I might be prepared to tell him how the Opposition did it. Actually, it was a deadly serious question. I was in no sense casting aspersions; I was not even being cynical. All I wanted to know was how the parliamentary Labour party goes about the process.

I have not been invited to a meeting of the parliamentary Labour party—[Interruption.] and I am making no application to attend such a meeting now or at any time—but I suspect that the PLP probably goes about things in a more transparent and democratic way than my party. All I wanted to know was what the procedure was. The interesting point was that the Leader of the House immediately took refuge in the notion that how Labour does it is purely a matter for Labour—in essence, a private question. I would put the point differently. I believe that the way the Labour party does it is important business for Labour, but it is important to the House as well. How the Tory party does it is important business for the Tory party, but it is important for the House as well. I readily tell the Deputy Leader of the House that how we do it is his business. He is perfectly entitled to probe and scrutinise and, if he thinks our procedure is less democratic, to chide. I believe that our process needs vastly to be improved.

The Conservative Chief Whip sends a note to all Members with a list of Committees and asks us to specify upon which Committee or Committees we wish to serve. It is possible to lobby. I admit that I said two things to my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire: first, that I strongly disapproved of the whole method and, secondly, that in the event that I was kicked off the Select Committee on International Development, he would inevitably find that I had a vastly greater amount of time to devote to all the other political interests on which I might conceivably have independent-minded views that I was inclined to express. My right hon. Friend, for reasons unknown to me, decided that my application for continuing membership of the Committee was acceptable, but the notion that he should determine whether I serve on the Committee is quite wrong.

I should be perfectly happy to subject myself to the will of the House, as other right hon. and hon. Members should be prepared to do. If the House took the view that I did not have much to contribute and that it was not much interested in my views, expertise or background in the subject of international development and that other people were to be preferred for membership of the Committee, I should accept that without complaint. What I dislike is the notion that a small coterie of people in whom excessive power is vested should, for all sorts of reasons that they have neither a responsibility nor frequently an inclination to explain, be able to decide that Bloggs will serve and Smith will not, or the other way round. That is a hopelessly antiquated, fossilised, old-fashioned and undemocratic way to operate.

The House of Commons must decide whether it wants to be a serious, modern, forward-looking, transparent and accountable democracy. I believe that it should be. We should not have this debate again in four years’ time. We must change the system and we must trust Members. Some decisions will be good and some will be bad, but it will be a better system. Let us dip our toes in the sea and discover where that leads us. If we are too frightened to free ourselves from the chains of Government domination, we have no right to complain.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) pointed out that strictly speaking the determination of the chairmanship of a Committee is a matter for its individual members. He is right. We should assert ourselves, but would not it be better if there were a recognition throughout the House that the process should be open, transparent and democratic, and that no hint of Government whipping, cajolement, enticement, bullying or threat should enter it at all?

4.44 pm

| Hansard