Select Committee on Liaison First Report



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.[72]

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,[73] 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.[74]

The concept of Parliamentary Commissions

5. In its Second Report of Session 1995-96,[75] 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".[76]

  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".[77] That apart, the Committee has encountered only one serious difficulty in the current Parliament over securing the attendance of appropriate witnesses.

  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.[78] In its response[79] 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

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Prepared 13 March 1997