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Tuesday, 12 February, 2002, 13:35 GMT
Cook turns up the heat
Question Time in the Commons
MPs may get more power over government
Nick Assinder

There can be little doubt that Robin Cook is out to make his mark as leader of the House of Commons.

Tony Blair may have demoted him when he removed him from his post as foreign secretary but, in doing so, he unleashed a terrier into the chicken coop and, with a bit of luck, feathers will fly.

Leader of the Commons Robin Cook
Cook causing a stir
Whether the prime minister really wanted someone to modernise Parliament in quite the way Mr Cook and his committee have gone about it is an open question.

All the initiatives which have so far flowed from the appointment have been aimed at strengthening the role of Parliament and bringing the executive more to account.

And the new plans for select committees, or scrutiny committees as Mr Cook would like them called, are no different.

If they go ahead as Mr Cook and his team hope, they will see the creation of even more muscular committees with chairmen who see their jobs as careers in their own right rather than stepping stones.

Bottle washers

Lib Dem committee member Paul Tyler put it well when he expressed the group's dismay that good chairmen often gave up their jobs to become "junior whip in charge of bottle washing" because it was more likely to boost their chances of ministerial posts.

The members of the committees will be appointed on a more objective basis with less emphasis on party placemen.

And the committees will get more resources and be given greater responsibility to check minister's accounts and scrutinise legislation before it gets to the Commons.

On a different note, there will be universal welcome for the suggestion that reports from the committees should be dressed up using the latest technology to make them more accessible to mere mortals.

There will, inevitably, be a row over whether the chairmen should be given what amounts to a salary over and above their backbench pay.

And there will be a debate over to what extent the committees should be able to examine appointments made by the government and force people to appear before them.

On the defensive

But the intent of the new proposals is clear. And that could send some of the control freaks in all parties scurrying to take up arms against them.

The parties will still have a large degree of control over who they put on the committees, but they have already been forced onto the defensive after last summer's debacle over the government's attempts to dump senior and troublesome chairs like Gwyneth Dunwoody.

And there will probably be attempts to take some of the sting out of the proposals.

Select committee chairman Gwynweth Dunwoody
Dunwoody row meant changes
But it appears that, in Mr Cook and his committee, those control freaks have found a powerful enemy.

He even signalled the next battle he is ready to join - ensuring that select committee reports are acted on by ministers instead of put at the back of a dusty shelf.

His new proposals already suggest that, if the government has failed to respond to a report after two months, MPs should debate it anyway.

And he revealed his next step was to look at how further to ensure ministers take action on reports' findings.

If Tony Blair's aim was genuinely to give power back to MPs after the centralising tendencies of successive governments, not least his own, then the appointment of Robin Cook was inspired.

It now remains to be seen what steps are taken to neuter these proposals.

See also:

12 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Senior MPs poised for extra pay
17 Jul 01 | UK Politics
Reform promise after rebellion
13 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Q&A: What are select committees?
21 Jun 01 | UK Politics
Cook promises MPs more scrutiny
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