Select Committee on Defence First Special Report

General Issues


Advice to Ministers

51. The Secretary of State went to some lengths to involve the Committee publicly in the Strategic Defence Review consultation process, and he and his fellow Ministers have been assiduous in providing us with information and updates on developments within the MoD, albeit on their own terms. However, as in the past, the Committee has had a number of conflicts with the MoD on the provision of information. Ministers declined to allow us to see the draft Corporate Plan for the DERA on the grounds that it constituted 'advice to Ministers'. There was a similar reluctance to give the Committee information on the internal workings of the SDR process. We were also refused sight of the report of the MoD's Chief Scientific Adviser into the appropriate level of longer term research investment. And only after much toing and froing was permission given for Assistant Chiefs of Staff to brief the Committee on issues underlying the SDR. We do not find the use of the 'advice to Ministers' proviso at all satisfactory. It is a catch-all category redolent of the worst excesses of the abuse of the old Official Secrets Act. Its application is arbitrary and unchallengeable. We intend to pursue these issues in our forthcoming inquiry into the provision of defence-related information to Parliament, which we discuss in the next section.


52. In our Third Special Report, we urged the MoD to persuade NATO to publish declassified versions of two reports relating to enlargement costs which had been made available to us on a confidential basis.[55] NATO declined to do so.[56] We regret this, and we shall also pursue the issue of levels of classification and their appropriate application to documents in our forthcoming inquiry into the provision of information to Parliament.

Parliamentary Questions

53. One of the objectives we set ourselves was to monitor refusals by the MoD to answer Parliamentary Questions (PQs). On 9 occasions answers were refused on the basis of exemptions provided for in the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information—Exemption 1 was cited 3 times, and Exemptions 2, 2b, 4, 7, 13 and 14 were each cited once. We will be considering the implications of these refusals in more detail in our inquiry into the provision of defence-related information to Parliament.

54. During the session 91 answers failed to provide some of the information requested on grounds that it was not centrally held. On a further 29 occasions, no information could be given on these grounds. Such information included details of the number of secure bicycle parking spaces at MoD establishments and the number of foxes killed (and where) on the MoD estate. For the most part no issues of concern to us were noted, but we will be monitoring these answer more systematically as part of our forthcoming inquiry.


55. We raised privately with the MoD the quality of its replies to our Reports on a number of occasions. On one, we sought and received an expanded and improved response. We consider it essential that replies should address seriously the arguments of our reports and respond substantively to each of our recommendations. We were pleased to note that the government's response to our Report on the SDR[57] represented a step change in quality, and we hope that this improvement will be sustained into the future. Annex F records government responses to our recommendations and indicates where there are gaps. We will use this as a basis for pursuing the Department in the future, since many of our recommendations require continuing action. We invite the MoD to comment on this record and propose any additions they consider appropriate.


56. The Committee held one joint evidence session with the Foreign Affairs Committee.[58] We conducted a joint inquiry with the Trade and Industry Committee.[59] We hope to build further on these initiatives in the current session by conducting an inquiry jointly with the Foreign Affairs Committee, the International Development Committee and the Trade and Industry Committee on the government's promised annual report on Strategic Export Licences. We noted the need for a cross-departmental approach to security policy at paragraph 40 above. We shall continue to urge and offer greater cooperation between departmental committees along these lines. We believe the provisions in standing orders for such joint working are under-utilised at present. We also consider that the provision for concurrent inquiries are somewhat unwieldy, and could usefully be revisited by the Liaison Committee and/or the Procedure Committee. We also hope to develop a fruitful relationship with the Committee of Public Accounts, particularly in relation to our mutual interest in major defence procurement projects.


57. All but one of the Committee's reports have been cited on the Order Paper of the House as relevant to debate in one way or another, some more than once.

58. There has been some discussion of the allocation of time available to debate defence and security issues in the House. The rarity of legislation in this area means that (unlike say education, social security, criminal justice and public order and to a lesser extent health and social services) the only occasions that present themselves for debate on defence matters are normally one day of the debate on the Loyal Address, two days on the Statement on the Defence Estimates and one day for each of the Services on adjournment motions. These last three days (which are a residue of Supply Days, in other words, which are a sort of 'opposition time') have been the subject of criticism. They are certainly less relevant than they once were in a period where the distinctions between the three Services are of less importance, and where joint operations, multinational operations and peace support operations are increasingly the core tasks of the Armed Forces. The Secretary of State has proposed that they be replaced by a day each devoted to personnel issues: equipment and procurement issues; and 'defence in the world'. We welcome and support this change.

59. We pressed hard for a debate in the House on the enlargement of NATO in the last Session. Eventually a day was provided, though only a Friday.[60] We hope that time will be found for a debate on the future of NATO between the publication of our report on the future of NATO and the Washington Summit on 23/24 April 1999.


60. The Committee provided written evidence to the Procedure Committee's inquiry into financial procedure, and the Chairman gave oral evidence and supplementary written evidence to that Committee.[61] We urged a better integration of the work of departmental select committees with the financial procedures of the House, and we await the Committee's Report with interest.

61. The Chairman also submitted evidence on behalf of the Committee to the Procedure Committee on the Ponsonby Rule.[62] This inquiry arose from a reference by us to the Leader of the House of the comments we made in our Report on NATO Enlargement.[63] We make no further comment in advance of the Procedure Committee's own report.


62. For the most part, the resources available to the Committee have proved adequate to the tasks we have set ourself. The Committee has five full-time staff members, one of whom is seconded from the National Audit Office, thus enabling the Committee to more expertly tackle financial matters. We recommended to the Procedure Committee the establishment of a Central Resource Accounting and Budgeting unit within the Committee Office. We also make full use of our phalanx of Specialist Advisers[64] as well as the staff of the Library of the House of Commons. We are indebted to the Royal United Services Institute, at which we have held several press conferences to coincide with the publication of our Reports. This innovation, linking Reports with seminars or talks at the RUSI, has brought our work to the attention to a wider audience.

63. We believe the overall costs of the Committee represent a very low price to pay for seeking to hold the MoD accountable to Parliament, at an annual cost, including staff costs, transcription costs, travel and publication costs of around £300,000. This represents around 0.000014% of the annual defence budget.

55  Third Report, Session 1997-98, NATO Enlargement, HC 469, paras 53-88 Back

56  Ev p 17 Back

57  Sixth Special Report, Session 1997-98, HC 1198 Back

58  See para 8 Back

59  See paras 36-37 Back

60  17 July 1998 Back

61  HC 848-i Back

62  This is the rule relating to the provision of an opportunity to Parliament to take note of Treaties proposed to be ratified by the government, see Erskine May's Treatise on the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament, 22nd Edition, p 226 Back

63  Third Report, Session 1997-98, HC 469, NATO Enlargement, paras 105-106 Back

64  cf para 11 Back

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