Guide to Commons select committee chairmen

Martin O’Neill, Trade and industry committee

Martin O’Neill, the supremely able Labour chairman of the trade and industry committee, reputedly only failed to get a ministerial job after Tony Blair’s landslide 1997 victory because he was seen to be too old.

The 57-year-old MP who regained Ochil from the Scottish National Party, who have harried him locally ever since, was an impressive member of Labour’s front bench team in opposition as a shadow energy, defence and scottish minister.

As spokesman on ‘defence and disarmament’ he helped then leader Neil Kinnock wean Labour off unilateral nuclear disarmament and on to more multilateral lines.

The good-natured and widely-respected MP has since pressed strongly for the Ministry of Defence to clear the two dead pilots which the RAF found guilty of gross negligence over the Mull of Kintyre Chinook helicopter disaster, finding no difficulty in working alongside Tory as well as Liberal Democrat non-aligned campaigners.

O’Neill, proud of his ‘working-class background’, won the taunt of being ‘class traitor of the month’ in the Trotskyist ‘Labour Briefing’. He is a firm supporter of Scottish devolution.

The committee – under his firm leadership – has backed building new nuclear power stations as part of a balanced electricity policy.

A citizen of Edinburgh, O’Neil was educated at Trinity Academy, Heriot-Watt University, where he studied economics, and Moray House teacher training college.

He started work as an insurance clerk at Scottish Widows.

Jimmy Hood, European scrutiny committee
Since his election as MP for Clydesdale in 1987, Jimmy Hood has lived down an early reputation as a parliamentary thug and developed into an effective and subtle Westminster operator. That does not mean the former coalminer and union official has lost an certain air of menace when it comes in handy.

It has done from time to time since he became first chair of the select committee on European legislation which is now the European scrutiny committee.

Born in Clydesdale, he spent 23 years as a miner in Nottinghamshire before becoming first a National Union of Mineworkers official and then an officer of the engineering union. In between he fitted in a degree at Nottingham University.

Built like a nightclub bouncer, he has proved to be far brighter than he looks and has displayed a tenacity which unsettles his opponents – as shown when he campaigned for seat belts on coaches.

Ready to rebel on key issues such as cuts on lone parent benefits, he is considered to be to the left of the Labour party but not particularly disloyal. The 54-year-old married father of two survived a heart attack in 1997. He retains a strong West of Scotland accent and typically sardonic humour.

A strong believer in the role of Commons select committees in scrutinising legislation from both Brussels and Westminster and a fierce opponent of the strict Westminster whipping system, he has proved an effective chief scrutineer of European legislation.

Edward Leigh, Public accounts committee
Edward Leigh suddenly acquired a reputation as a right winger after being unceremoniously sacked by John Major in May 1993.

He was told his opposition to the Maastricht Euro Treaty was the reason but critics at Westminster suggested that he was not quite up to the job as a junior minister at the Department of Trade and Industry.

Since then the 52-year-old MP for Gainsborough in Lincolnshire has emerged as a leading Tory radical and family campaigner.

The Roman Catholic married father of three is a man of many interests – a marathon runner, part-time cox and amateur landscape artist.

He also used to be the parliamentary ‘pair’ to now Mayor of London Ken Livingstone – whom he claims as a friend despite his own support for fox-hunting and opposition for handgun control.

Red-faced and with the stooping demeanour of a minor aristocrat, Leigh has perhaps never made the impact on politics his slightly abstract intellect and ancestry as the son of a former clerk to the privy council deserves.

Till now, that is.

While he may lack the sharpness of Labour’s Robert Sheldon (the former Treasury minister who built the public accounts committee into the formidable financial watchdog it now is) or his Tory predecessor David Davis’ flair for publicity, Leigh is proving a formidable operator.

He has built an impressive consensus on the all-party group and proved an effective leader of its grilling of senior civil servants and ministers.

Those who thought the PAC under Leigh would be a soft-touch have been rapidly disabused and his parliamentary career is on the up.

With his previous ministerial experience and right-wing credentials, he is now a likely candidate for ministerial office if the Tories win power again in the future.

John McFall, Treasury committee
The Dumbarton MP has failed to set the Thames alight since taking over as chairman of the Treasury committee.

The former Northern Ireland minister and government whip is considered to be too much of a New Labour loyalist to do the job properly.

However, he believes – unlike many Commons select committee chairmen – that confrontation is not the best way to investigate and scrutinise ministers and civil servants.

A former deputy head teacher, he also comes under fire for lacking the intellectual firepower of his cerebral predecessor Giles, now Lord Radice.

A Roman Catholic he is married with three sons and a daughter and is a strong opponent of abortion and Sunday trading.

He has also bucked the Labour trend for many years as a supporter of Trident submarines since his election in 1987 – although there was a reason for his independent mindedness in Labour’s left-wing years. The main Trident bases at Coulport and Faslane are in his constituency.

Disappointed by his failure to be made number two in the Scottish Office in 1997, he bit his lip and proved to be an effective and disarming government whip.

Now his gentle charm is beginning to show results on the Treasury committee, partly because of his closeness to chancellor Gordon Brown.

He showed a steely side when he managed to give up smoking after 11 years aged 25. He is now showing a similar quiet tenacity in his job as the Treasury’s main watchdog.

A keen marathon runner and golfer, he knows all about pacing his effort to get the maximum result in the end. His sceptical colleagues at Westminster are now watching to see if he continues to raise his game and that of his all-party committee.

John Horam, Environmental audit committee
John Horam, the Tory chairman of the environmental audit committee, had given firm leadership to the only Commons select committee that lacks a government department to ‘shadow’.

But the 63-year-old former company director has given firm leadership which has prevented the ‘green’ committee, charged with ensuring government departments’ policies achieve overall environmental objectives, becoming mired in the Whitehall machine despite having a remit so broad it could easily have lost its way.

Its first report set the tone praising deputy prime minister John Prescott and environment secretary Michael Meacher but criticising chancellor Gordon Brown.

Horam is best known for earning a ‘dirty double rat’ jibe from left-wing Labour MP Dennis Skinner for having ditched Labour, representing the gritty North-east seat of Gateshead West, for the Social Democratic Party with the ‘Gang of Four’ in 1981, and moving from them to the Tories in 1987.

His move from Labour followed years on the right wing trying to stop the loony left – he rose to become a junior transport minister.

He left the SDP over economic policy and rose to become a junior health and science minister after winning the leafy Kent suburb of Orpington from the Liberals.

In between he was managing director of Commodities Research Unit Limited, a consultancy he helped set up, which at one point employed 175 staff advising companies, governments and agencies on the metals, minerals and chemicals industries.

He was educated at a non-conformist boarding school and Cambridge, where he studied economics.

Recent committee reports have included an attack on the government for failing to switch to renewable sources of timber, warning the government not to drift over developing renewable energy resources and a warning of confusion in government over responsibility for sustainable development.

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