Power to travel
17. Some of the most valuable
work done by select committees takes place away from Westminster
on informal visits and meetings both in the UK and overseas.
While visits within the United Kingdom meet with little criticism
and indeed generally with approval, overseas visits are often
regarded by the public at large, relying on partial and misconceived
reports in the less responsible sections of the media, as a cloak
for "an expenses paid, no expense spared jaunt". Nothing
could be further from the truth, as anyone who is actually concerned
with the visit in the countries concerned would readily confirm.
The power to travel, within the UK or overseas, is an essential
weapon in the armoury of all committees, not just those with an
obvious overseas remit such as Defence and Foreign Affairs. For
example, the Home Affairs Committee benefitted from discussions
overseas when carrying out inquiries into drug trafficking and
international police co-operation, obtaining evidence not available
in the United Kingdom. Moreover, regular liaison between the
committees of Parliaments round the world has become increasingly
important in holding Executives everywhere to account. In the
case of the European Union this "networking" between
the various committees of the legislatures of Member States has
taken on a semi-formal pattern and looks set to develop much further
as part of the process for involving national Parliaments in the
democratic processes of the Union and holding Union institutions
to account. Links between Commonwealth parliaments are also on
the increase. Here, too, it is very much in the interests of
the UK and its Parliament that these are developed.
18. The total amount of
money available for travel overseas is determined each year not
by the Liaison Committee but by the House of Commons Commission.
It has been increased from a sum of £250,000 allocated in
1980-81 to £691,000 in the current financial year but in
almost every year the increase has been simply to take account
of inflation. On three occasions there has been a real increase
to enable committees to meet the growing need for gathering information
on European Union related matters. While growth in the budget
has been limited, since 1980-81 the number of committees with
power to travel has increased from eighteen to twenty-five. Furthermore
there has been an increase in the size of select committees and
thus the number of Members eligible to travel. As a result we
have found it increasingly difficult to fit the genuine need of
committees to travel within the budget allocated. The upshot
has been in many cases that visits have had to be curtailed and
the number of Members taking part severely restricted. Difficult
choices have to be made if funds are not available for all the
Members of a committee to go on a particular visit (a practice
which has often been necessary but which can create problems when
a report has to be agreed in the light of evidence obtained by
some of the Members). This is clearly unsatisfactory and can
detract from the authority of the final Report.
19. In the autumn of last
year the Liaison Committee decided to approach the Commission
with a request for a substantial increase in the overseas travel
budget, not for ourselves, but for our successors in the new Parliament.
Our request was not accepted, largely on grounds of timing.
The Commission felt that any increase should more properly be
considered in the next Parliament. We understand their reasoning,
even though we do not agree with it. We consider that our successors
should return to this issue as a matter of urgency in the new
Parliament with a view to obtaining sufficient funds to enable
committees to carry out their duties effectively. The next Liaison
Committee will of course continue to have the task of ensuring
that all overseas visits are justified and properly costed in
conformity with the guidelines agreed with the Commission.