FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE
Report by the Rt Hon
David Howell, Chairman of the Committee.
The work of the Committee
1. The Committee has reported
on a wide range of topics. Details of all reports and Government
responses are set out in the separate statistical summary of the
Committee's work. Further details are available in successive
Sessional Returns. Besides the formal activities listed, the
Committee holds a large number of informal meetings with eminent
visitors. A list of these is given annually in a Special Report
made to the House for that purpose. Such meetings play a very
valuable part in helping the Committee keep abreast of a wide
range of contemporary foreign policy issues.
2. The Committee has been adequately
resourced during the present Parliament and it has used its power
to appoint specialist advisers where appropriate. Inevitably,
though, judgements, rather than analysis of factual material,
loom particularly large in foreign affairs and these can only
be made by the Members themselves. In practice, therefore, the
extent of the Committee's activity is to a large extent conditioned
by the time that the Members can devote to its work.
Relations with the Public
Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office
3. The Clerk maintains an ongoing
informal link with the National Audit Office (NAO) through which
he is kept informed of relevant aspects of the NAO future programme.
The Committee has on occasions made recommendations that NAO
conduct particular studies.
4. Likewise, the Clerk maintains
informal links with the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and, through
this, receives details of that Committee's future programme.
Where it is appropriate to do so, this Committee draws on PAC's
reports and evidence. Thus, the Committee's report on the issues
raised by the Pergau hydro-electric project,
followed, and drew extensively on, the relevant PAC report and
the NAO report which preceded it. In its report on the spending
plans of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Overseas Development
Administration 1996-97 to 1998-99, the Committee drew on PAC evidence
on the effect of competition on British Council operations.
The concept of Parliamentary
5. In its Second Report of Session
the Trade and Industry Committee recommended that the matter of
parliamentary investigations and the procedure for establishing
and conducting them be referred to the Procedure Committee. It
also put forward a proposal for the creation of parliamentary
commissions for the purpose of establishing factual information
on complex subjects which would otherwise occupy too much of a
select committee's time. The Trade and Industry Committee recognised
that select committees were capable of conducting substantial
and thorough investigations (and cited this Committee's Pergau
report as an example), but was concerned that such long investigations
into past activities carry a risk that important aspects of a
Department's current work are in consequence neglected.
6. The concept is an interesting
one, and considerable further work will be needed to refine it
into a workable proposal, as the Trade and Industry Committee
itself recognised. The experience of the Foreign Affairs committee
in the case of the Pergau inquiry was that it was able to absorb
the extra work involved on that occasion without adverse impact
on its other activities.
Summoning of witnesses and
access to documents
7. The Committee has encountered
no general difficulty in the present Parliament over summoning
of witnesses and access to documents. Even in the case of the
Pergau inquiry, where the Committee sought evidence in two sensitive
categories: communications between Governments and communications
between Ministers and advice to Ministers from officials, it was
able to report to the House that it had "had adequate responses
to most, but not all, of our requests to the Foreign Secretary
and other Ministers for written material".
8. In the same inquiry,
though, the Committee was unable to persuade Lady Thatcher to
give evidence. She cited "the convention, established since
1945, that Prime Ministers and former Prime Ministers do not give
evidence to Select Committees on specific issues".
That apart, the Committee has encountered only one serious difficulty
in the current Parliament over securing the attendance of appropriate
9. The one major difficulty
with the Government arose from the Committee's inquiry into United
Kingdom policy on weapons proliferation and arms control in the
post-Cold War era. the Government refused to allow the Intelligence
Services either to give formal evidence or informal briefing on
their work in combatting proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
In its response
to the Committee's report, the Government sought to justify this
on the grounds that its refusal was "in accordance with the
long-standing policy that the work of the intelligence agencies
falls outside the remit of select committees". The Committee
maintains its view, set out in the report, that "it is essential
that departmental select committees should be able to have access
to relevant intelligence briefing where .... it has direct and
central bearing on a particular inquiry". For this reason,
the Committee supports the use of the "crown jewels"
procedure (which was used in 1984-85 to enable this Committee's
predecessors to consult intelligence material related to the sinking
of the `General Belgrano') in appropriate cases.
Scrutiny of European Legislation
10. The present scrutiny
arrangements, which are principally the responsibility of the
Select Committee on European Legislation, provide an effective
oversight of the legislative and other proposals put forward by
the Commission in the Community pillar. There is, at present,
no formal oversight mechanism for either of the intergovernmental
pillars (common foreign and security policy and justice and home
affairs). The Committee has put forward proposals to the Procedure
Committee under which it would take on responsibility for systematic
scrutiny of proposed common positions and joint actions under
the second pillar (common foreign and security policy). There
are a number of important practical issues that would need to
be resolved before effective arrangements could be established.
In particular, the Government would have to agree suitable arrangements
for giving the Committee access to the relevant proposals, which
are at present normally regarded as confidential.
Hearings on individuals taking
up senior public appointments
11. The Committee has arrangements
in place whereby it holds private informal meetings as appropriate
with individuals such as the Governor of Hong Kong and also with
British Ambassadors, usually at the beginning or the end of their
postings, or during mid-term leave. In addition, it meets many
such Ambassadors in the course of its visits abroad. These flexible
arrangements provide valuable opportunities for the Committee
to receive first-hand briefing on important foreign policy issues
from senior diplomats and holders of other senior public appointments.
Appointment of the Committee
in the next Parliament
12. The Committee attaches
considerable importance to the early appointment of its successor
in the next Parliament. Besides the general arguments in favour
of minimising the period for which there is no systematic select
committee oversight of Government Departments, there is, in the
case of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the important issue of
the outcome of the IGC. The relevant negotiations are expected
to come to a decisive point at the Amsterdam European Council
of June this year. It is vital that there is a Foreign Affairs
Committee at that time, able to carry on the work, which this
Committee continues to carry out, of holding Ministers to account
on IGC matters and keeping the House informed of developments.
72 See, for example, First Report, Session 1996-97, HC 73, paragraph 37 and Second Report, Session 1995-96, HC 370-I, paragraph 99. Back
73 Third Report, Session 1993-94, HC 271-I. Back
74 Second Report, Session 1995-96, HC 370-I, paragraph 75. Back
75 HC 87-I, paragraphs 171-174. Back
76 HC 271-I, paragraphs 9-11. Back
77 HC 271-I, paragraph 8. Back
78 See Second Report, Session 1994-95, HC 34-I, paragraphs 108 to 113. Back
79 Cm 2895, paragraph 26. Back