The committee wakes - to loud debate, we hope

Appointing Chris Mullin as chair of the Home Affairs Committee is a bold and imaginative stroke
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Imagine falling asleep during the many tedious hours of Sir Ivan Lawrence's monologues as chair of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee in the ancien regime. It was easy to do, for Sir Ivan was very full of himself, an orotund barrister with a verbose view on everything under the sun. Florid in complexion, limited in brain, he was an ultra-loyal Tory backbench grandee who agreed with Michael Howard on virtually everything. Zzzzzzzz.

As a fly buzzes round the late-afternoon committee room, you fall into a deep reverie and find yourself in a looking-glass world. Sir Ivan is not only banished from his throne in Committee Room 15, he has lost his seat - gone for ever, along with a host of other grandees, including old Sir Marcus Fox himself. And who now sits in Sir Ivan's old chair? Why, a relentless troublemaker, a man who has been loathed and vilified by the nascent New Labourites struggling to rid their party of its most troublesome priests. Yes, Chris Mullin is now enthroned as chairman of this most influential committee, giving him a unique sniping position from which to train his gunsights upon the head of the Home Secretary, if he so chose. Wake up; this is no dream.

This week saw Jack Straw's first appearance at the first public session of the new committee. In a broad tour d'horizon, the Home Secretary outlined the issues at the top of his agenda, and the heavily Labour-dominated committee questioned him on everything: the overflowing prisons crisis, youth crime, asylum, electoral reform, and the funding of political parties. Lightly dry interjections from the chair and one or two others suggested a new independence of mind. (Replying to a mind-bogglingly silly Tory call for a return to corporal punishment and a good clip round the ear for bad boys, Straw said that he had himself experienced it as a child: David Winnick (Lab) snarled, "That explains a lot!")

Appointing Mullin to this job was one of the boldest and most imaginative gestures of self-confident pluralism of the new government. Mullin turned down offers of shadow posts before the election and shrugged off hints at office afterwards: "I didn't want to be the Junior Minister for Folding Deckchairs" he says. It would mean signing up to all policies, yet having virtually no influence over anything. "You can engage your intelligence as a committee chairman; follow trails wherever they lead."

No one has followed trails with such dogged diligence as he. With very little support, in the face of scathing indifference from many in his own party, he ploughed a lonely furrow in proving the innocence of the Birmingham Six: one Sun front-page lead read "LOONY MP BACKS BOMB GANG". As journalist and then MP, he is a one-man alternative justice system. To every idealistic media student, he is Britain's Woodward and Bernstein. (Alas, most of them end up working for Murdoch or Black, but that's another story.) You couldn't cast Robert Redford in Mullin's role: a shambling academic type, he probably couldn't tell you what he was wearing if you were to ask him to shut his eyes and guess. Ascetic, vegetarian, disgusted by MPs' recent salary rise, he gives away a lot of his pay. A one-man awkward squad, uncorruptible, unclubbable, he's never been a Commons good ol' boy. He's about as likely to heed a Mandelsonian hiss in the ear as John the Baptist.

A Bennite, author of a much- detested pamphlet called "How to Select or Reselect Your MP", Mullin has been a leftist thorn in the side of the party since long before he won his Sunderland seat in 1987. He was no moderniser, or at least not back then. So how did he get this key chairmanship? Did he have to recant secretly before the Grand Inquisitor in the whips' office?

Not at all, Mullin says. Times have changed, but he hasn't. (Every politician swears like Caesar that they have been as constant as the North Star). "If you want the proof," he protests indignantly, "look up the Hansard." He spoke out against Gordon Brown's pledge never to raise income tax, and he still thinks it wrong: "Those who gained most from the Tory years should be the ones to pay to repair the damage caused."

Now there before him, like a prisoner at the bar, was Jack Straw, probably the minister most disliked by the left. It is hard to go anywhere among left and liberal leaners without hearing Straw's name taken in vain. A prominent liberal prison reformer came out of listening to the committee spitting intemperately at Straw and committee members alike: "The sycophancy makes me gag!" Unfair, I thought, and so did Mullin, who is no Straw-hater. "Liberals on crime are those who don't have to suffer it the way my constituents do," he says. "Most Labour MPs represent bombed-out estates, destroyed by crime. They may start out as liberals, but once they see the worst of what their constituents face, they know something has to be done." He talks of Pennywell in his Sunderland seat, where crime has driven many out, leaving rows of vacant homes, inviting yet more crime for the wretched ones who are left behind.

Does this signify that this committee, and indeed all the other committees, will simply revert to being government groupies, in the Sir Ivan mould? Or are we going to see the committee system come into its own for the first time? Will they at last assert the power and independence they have within their grasp, if only they would use it? Chris Mullin's appointment is the best reason for optimism.

It's still springtime for this government, but autumn and winter will come. With such a suffocating majority, and the backbenches stuffed with the obediently ambitious, select committees will be more important than ever before. Some of the new chairs are people waiting for government posts, inclined to keep their noses clean with the whips. But other independent minds (including Chris Mullin himself, Giles Radice at the Treasury Committee, Margaret Hodge at Education, and Archy Kirkwood at Social Security) rightly regard their position on key committees as an equally important alternative political career. And so they should. Scrutiny of the executive has never mattered more.

When it comes to electoral reform, checking the power of the security services, miscarriages of justice or winkling the freemasons out of office, there will be no gagging of this new Home Affairs Committee. Will it blaze the way for the rest, when times get hard and the Government starts to make mistakes?