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'Freebie machines' find their place in the life of the House: After the coal report, the Commons select committees have earned respect, writes Stephen Castle

MEMBERS of the Commons Trade and Industry Select Committee, which last week reported on the future of coal, not only have the satisfaction of knowing they have influenced public debate, dominated the headlines and possibly shaped the future of the mining industry - they may also reflect that a year is a long time in a select committee's life.

Twelve months ago, the all-party committee was toiling on the Iraqi Supergun report, which took two years and reached rather anodyne conclusions. Before that, the MPs had investigated British exports to Taiwan. As one Tory backbencher put it, it was then renowned for its 'well-developed interest in foreign travel'.

But the coal report is a landmark: ministers are committed to taking its findings into account; and by compromising among themselves, the MPs have opened up a moderate and sensible escape route for Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade. With a majority of only 21, the Government can no longer ride rough-shod over backbench opinion. So, 13 years after it was set up, has the select committee system finally come of age?

When he announced his plans for the system in June 1979, Norman St John Stevas (now Lord St John of Fawsley) argued that 'while the power and effectiveness of Whitehall has grown, that of Westminster has diminished'. Equipped with wide powers to summon ministers, officials or other witnesses, the committees were intended to 'redress the balance of power'.

They were to be made up roughly in proportion to party strengths in the Commons, their composition decided by a selection committee of fellow backbenchers. Since then the brutalities of party politics have intervened. As the committees have grown in prominence, so has the party whips' interest in their composition. The row over the ousting of Nicholas Winterton, the outspoken Conservative, from the chair of the Health committee was just the tip of this iceberg.

Yet, to their credit, committees have regularly uncovered new information, annoyed ministers, and forced them and their civil servants to consider the prospect of being questioned in public. In his memoirs, Lord Tebbit describes them as 'overwhelmingly pretentious, expensive, time-wasting 'freebie' machines'. However, he goes on to describe how, as trade and industry secretary, he had to back down after refusing a demand for corporate information about British Shipbuilders.

Committees are, however, only as effective as their members, and few ministers are cowed by the prospect of giving evidence. When asked by the Treasury committee to detail how his interest- rate policyworked, Nigel (now Lord) Lawson famously replied that when he said rates should go up, they went up; when he said they should come down, they came down. Lord Gowrie, questioned about the minutiae of employment policy, replied: 'What do you think this is, Mastermind?'

One former minister, who now sits on a committee, recalls an hour-long 'grilling' during which the difficult questions he feared were never asked. Often MPs, who lack the research staff enjoyed by their counterparts in the US Congress, are not well enough briefed. Sometimes they compete to ask the same question. The National Heritage committee was guilty of both sins when Kelvin MacKenzie, editor of the Sun, appeared before them recently.

Some blame this on low-calibre committee members. According to one Tory: 'Once you remove those on the government payroll, the drunks, and those with well-rehearsed, extravagant views, it is not easy to make up high-quality committees.'

But the advent of televised Parliament has increased the potential for public scrutiny and ministerial embarrassment: Labour's Giles Radice, for example, in front of the TV cameras, called for the Chancellor, Norman Lamont, to resign after Black Wednesday; the Maxwell brothers' appearance before the Social Security committee was also televised. Some ministers - notably Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary - use committees to explain detailed policy in a calmer atmosphere than the floor of the House.

The best prospect of influencing the Government is to choose a subject before it becomes politically fashionable, as in the championing of the environment by Sir Hugh Rossi, the former Tory MP for Hornsey and Wood Green. Similarly, Frank Field, chairman of the Social Security committee, looks to what can be achieved over a five-year parliamentary term, during which time he hopes to 'have transformed peoples' conceptions about pensions and their chance to own them'.

On more mainstream matters, party political pressures inhibit effectiveness. Unlike in the US, chairing a committee is not usually a path to ministerial office (Michael Mates, former Defence chairman, is a recent exception) or to the Opposition front bench. Committees here simply do not have the powers to extract information enjoyed in Washington.

Most Tory MPs do not like to cause trouble, and those who do, such as Mr Winterton or Robert Adley, chairman of the Transport committee, are frowned upon as mavericks. There was undisguised glee among whips, for example, when three Tory select committee members disowned Mr Adley's highly critical report on rail privatisation.

In committees chaired by these free-thinking members, or by Labour MPs, drafting is subject to lengthy and frustrating negotiation to achieve a unanimous report. When Tories on the rail issue objected to a clause which 'strongly urged' the Government to reconsider one aspect of policy, an exasperated Labour MP suggested that 'strongly' be replaced by 'weakly'. But if the committee can agree, a government with a small majority is in no position to ignore reports that represent backbencher opinion.

Lord St John now believes that the code for civil servants giving evidence should be updated and that a new committee scrutinising the law officers should be set up. But he is impressed with the committees' progress and pleased that they have got away from the dogfight of the Chamber. The coal report, he says, shows that members of rival parties can manage, on an issue of major national interest, to come to agreed views.