HOME AFFAIRS COMMITTEE
Report by Sir Ivan
Lawrence, Chairman of the Committee
1. This note is in response
to the Liaison Committee's decision to prepare an `end of Parliament'
Report based on comments from individual Committees.
2. The work undertaken by
this Committee during the course of the Parliament is set out
in the separate statistical summary. Overall, the Committee is
confident that it has done some good work which has received wide
support, including our Reports on Domestic Violence, Juvenile
Offenders, Racial Attacks and Harrassment, Organised Crime and
the Private Security Industry.
Legal issues and European
3. We would like to make
one or two comments on the scope of the Committee's work. There
are two areas we have covered insufficiently: the work of the
Lord Chancellor's and the Law Officers' Departments and the task
of scrutinising European Union activity.
4. The Lord Chancellor's
and Law Officers' Departments have been inadequately scrutinised.
The coverage of the Home Office is already wide and we have not
been able to give as much attention as we would wish to such matters
as court administration, legal aid and the Crown Prosecution Service.
It would be fully in accordance with the principle of having
a select committee to cover each Department if there were a separate
committee to allow these matters to be more effectively examined;
equally there is a danger that it might create a barrier to inquiries
into the those criminal and legal issues which involve the responsibilities
of both the Home Office and the Law Departments.
5. As for scrutiny of European
Union activity, this is already being examined by the Procedure
Committee. European business within the field of this Committee
has been growing substantially since the Maastricht Treaty, with
the introduction of the `Third Pillar' (Justice and Home Affairs
matters) into the scope of the European Union (although not within
the competence of the European Community institutions). We have
tried to keep regularly abreast of developments in this field,
but we are well aware that we have not been able to do enough.
There is a question as to whether part of the solution to this
problem is to extend the terms of reference of the European Legislation
Committee to include Third Pillar matters or for this Committee
to give them a higher priority. We are apprehensive that, if
the Westminster Parliament through this Committee is unable to
give adequate consideration to European proposals, then not only
will unacceptable measures be more likely to slip through the
net but, in time, power will slip further away from us to Europe
simply because we will be doing too little at Westminster to prevent
6. It seems to us that it
might be necessary either for responsibility for the Law Departments
to be given to a separate new Committee, or for primary responsibility
for scrutiny of European Third Pillar matters to rest elsewhere.
We have indicated to the Procedure Committee that in practice
a final view on what route to take can most satisfactorily be
resolved by whatever new Committee is established after the election.
We would prefer, at this stage in the Parliament, not to attempt
to commit a future Committee to a view of the matter which it
may not in fact support.
Constraints on Members
7. Our central difficulty
in this matter reflects a problem which also faces many other
committees, namely the major constraint on our level of activity
posed by competing pressures on the time of our Members. Although
we have not had problems in reaching quorums or in thin attendances
generally (and our attendance record compares quite well with
other committees) we have nevertheless faced problems when it
has proved necessary to arrange additional meetings to the regular
Wednesday meeting. This has created particular difficulties when
we have needed extra meetings in order to give proper consideration
to draft reports.
8. Of course, a higher level
of output could be sustained if we were content to conduct inquiries
and to agree reports relying more directly on the work of the
staff (particularly if the staff - whether permanent or contract
staff - were larger). But this is not a road many of us would
wish to go down. It is important that select committee reports
are seen very clearly to represent the views of Members, and are
not basically the work of officials with only minor contributions
9. This Committee has no
major observations to make about other aspects of the way the
committee system works, though the following points might be noted:
(i) We welcome the introduction
of the procedure for allowing committees to apply for debates
on their reports on three Wednesday mornings in the session; this
is an improvement on the limitations of the previous system whereby
debates could only take place as longer debates on the Estimates
on less convenient occasions.
(ii) In the middle part
of the Parliament, we found that the Government was slow in replying
to our reports, but this problem had reduced for our more recent
(iii) The Committee
has had major problems on more than one occasion relating to leaks
of the Committee's proceedings. We have not sought to engage
the formal `leak inquiry' mechanism involving the Standards and
Privileges Committee since we felt that little would be gained
from such an inquiry and because such problems must be primarily
a matter for a committee to sort out for itself.
(iv) The requirement
by Whips that in general parties travelling away from Westminster
(whether abroad or overnight in the UK) must be balanced in party
terms can cause problems. Although the reasons for it are understood
it can cause difficulties both for the committee and the hosts
if late changes -or even cancellations - are necessary because
one Member's decision to drop out means that a Member of the other
party has to stay behind as well. A possible solution might be
to accept pairing between a Member who is overseas with a committee
and another Member of the committee who remains at Westminster.
(v) It is also unfortunate
for the effectiveness of the Committee whenever the numbers travelling
abroad have to be limited by the availability of funds.