The wording that I chose was lifted almost entirely from the normal rules of Select Committees, which were drafted in 1979 under the tutelage of former Conservative Leader of the House Lord St. John of Fawsley. If there is any criticism of the wording, I suggest that hon. Members drag him to the House and ask him to explain. I have simply used the words that are to be found in every Select Committee report.
Without going into the detail of my academic interest in Select Committees or defence committees throughout the world, I can say that the Select Committee set-up was an aberration, and that this process is a further aberration built on top of it. When I think about countries that have committees with such a lack of power, I think of--there is a degree of hyperbole in this--Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. It does not apply to Russia because the Duma is far more powerful than we are. All the mock eastern European regimes have now jumped over our heads as legislatures and have bestowed on their committees the power to legislate and to participate in the budgetary process. They have the power to scrutinise appointments to office. They have real confirmation hearings, not the bogus virtual confirmation hearings that we have. Before we glory in the majesty of this House, I suggest that we use our ability to travel to Europe once a year and see how the Europeans operate a legislature. They put us to shame.
I meet members of the defence committees of many countries from around the world. They say that I am the Chairman of a powerful Committee in the mother of Parliaments, and ask me for advice on how the Committee operates. They ask me what power I have in the budgetary process. I have to be frank, and tell them that I have no such power. I admit to them that the House of Commons does not have much of a role in the budgetary process. That process is controlled by the Ministry of Defence, which presents the budget to the Select Committee throughout the year. We can hold amiable seminars, but we have not the slightest influence on the size or shape of the defence budget.
The Select Committee is unable to do what its counterparts in most countries can. We cannot raise the budget, or allocate money from one account to another. Our role in the budgetary process is slight. We need advice, and a return of the power taken from us in 1979.
My counterparts from around the world ask me what power I have to legislate. I tell them candidly that I have none whatever. Defence legislation is rare, and when it is introduced it does not come before the Defence Committee. We can hold hearings, and pass a report on to the Standing Committee that is to be established,
I am then asked what power over policy I have. I say that the Defence Committee is able to undertake amazing studies that resemble royal commissions, and that we have great advisers. I am not embarrassed to tell the House that at least 20 advisers are attached to the Defence Committee, at an annual cost of £12,000. I consider that to be an amazing investment by the House in gathering heads of policy institutes, former military personnel, excellent academics--all of them people who can add to our limited knowledge of defence matters. I feel not the slightest guilt at the fact that we have such a formidable group of people to give us advice. That is one reason why I believe that the boon enjoyed by the Defence Committee could be transferred--albeit ephemerally--to the hybrid Committee that is being set up. So it is clear that when I describe the Defence Committee to outsiders I have to say that it has no powers of legislation and no real influence in the procurement process.
Eight months ago, the Ministry of Defence made a big procurement decision. It did not ask for the Committee's advice or allow us to play a part. We wrote to the Ministry to ask why a particular company or consortium was chosen over any other, and we were informed that we would be told in good time--when the companies that had lost the bid had been informed of the decision.
The Ministry will not even tell the Committee why it made the decision that it made. I point no finger at current Ministers, who I believe are about the best that I have come across in 20 years' experience in the Select Committee system. Despite what Opposition Members may think, I say that with no trace of deference or grovelling.
There are two dozen Select Committees in the system. I have pointed out the weakness of the Defence Committee, which I consider to be among the best of all the Committees. We try to be innovative, and to push back the boundaries--for example, by holding confirmation hearings. We insist on all pieces of delegated legislation--however boring or trivial--coming before the Committee, because it is incumbent upon us to investigate the minutiae of policy administration and expenditure.
Yes, we travel but--I am sorry to embarrass the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)--I almost insist that we travel in such a way as to make it impossible for carping criticism that we are junketeers. The Falkland Islands is an important place to visit, but the visitor may get a dose of radiation because there is a hole in the ozone layer. I insisted that we went to the Gulf in April; it was hot--damned hot--and hardly conducive to enjoyment. We spent our time working. We went to Russia in December because I believe that we should be seen not to be swanning around the world, but doing a difficult job on behalf of this House.
Eventually, I hope that the House will see a transfer from words to action. The Liaison Committee produced a report a few months ago and had the temerity to say that Select Committees should perhaps be outside the grip of the Whips. Now that we have seen the Committee about which we are talking being selected in this way, the wisdom of the Liaison Committee is more apparent. The day will come when Members on both sides of the House will get together and say that the overwhelming dominance of the Executive must come to an end. A legislature must legislate and share decision making with the Executive. It must do more than hold the Executive to account. There is expertise in this place which needs a bigger role in decision making. However, that talent is totally unharnessed.
Mr. Chope: The right hon. Gentleman is making a powerful and important speech. The Executive have indicated that they are prepared to accept his amendment. Has he any guarantee that they will exercise the power that would be given by the amendment to appoint specialist advisers? Can he advise the House as to the procedure he thinks should be undertaken to enable the best specialist advisers to be appointed? How long does he think that will take? Does he think that that will be consistent with the strict timetable that has been laid down?
Mr. George: The hon. Gentleman makes a practical suggestion--I say that even though I am not on the Committee. Very few academics specialise in the narrow area of law relating to national security. They will be poachers turned gamekeepers: people who have retired from the MOD but who may be prepared to offer their services. One or two excellent academics might participate and I shall make my suggestions to whoever the Chairman is.
One of the great roles that a Select Committee can play is to abandon, as far as is possible in this place--[Interruption.] I pay homage to my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), my regional Whip, regularly, and will do so again. If all Members were as loyal in voting as I am, my hon. Friend would be exceedingly happy. The main purpose of a Select Committee is not to replicate the bear-garden atmosphere of this place. One bear garden is quite enough. The main purpose of a Select Committee is not simply to offer advice and show the Executive that a group of people is watching closely. It has a positive as well as a negative role. I believe that the main purpose is to find an agreement between the parties, if possible.
The parliamentary environment is constructed to create an adversarial atmosphere. Frankly, I am not convinced that opposing for the sake of opposing, and providing loyalty for the sake of loyalty and careers, constitutes the best ways to legislate. In most Select Committees, people have to get along. The Committee of which I am Chairman consists of people of widely differing political views. We strive very hard to find common agreement--and not common agreement based on the smart writing of an intelligent Clerk who could provide a form of words of such inconsequence that everybody could agree with
I have continued in the tradition of not using a majority to trample on the interests of a minority. The last vote in the Defence Committee was in 1981. It could be said that that is a Soviet-style, monolithic approach to policy. It is not. It is our job to give Ministers, whatever their political hue, a difficult time. As one very senior ex-permanent secretary said to me, "The better the Committee is, the better we are."
The Defence Committee has given Ministers a bad time over the Territorial Army and over the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, an issue which has not gone away as far as we are concerned. We produced a report on Kosovo which was difficult to write because it meant criticising NATO, an organisation which I love, and my many friends within it. I am proud that the Committee that I chaired was prepared, with our advisers, to produce a hard-hitting report that swam against the tide and said the unpalatable things that needed to be said.
The Defence Committee has created difficulties both for the previous Government and for the present Government, on all sorts of issues including the annual defence budget. The last report that we produced in the previous Parliament said that defence expenditure had fallen to such a low level under the previous Government that, should it fall any further, it would endanger the defence of the realm. That report was produced mainly by Conservatives, who had the guts to say to the Ministry of Defence that defence expenditure had fallen to dangerous levels. Having been part of that tradition, how could I turn my Committee into a Supreme Soviet-type Committee, eulogising its leaders? What was done was not popular, but it had to be done.
I hope that the Committee that has been formed by the present aberrant process will deliver the goods. If it is to make difficulties for the Executive, it will surely mean an act of masochism and self-abuse. The people who will be critical are those whom the Committee will be criticising, so I am not entirely convinced that the critical faculty that should be exercised on behalf of this House will be exercised.
Finally, I apologise to my colleagues if my intention, which was noble, has been or will be distorted into an attempt to keep them here longer than normal--although one of the few weapons that an Opposition have is time.
I hope that the Committee, of which I am not a member, will do a good job, will do it competently and will fearlessly criticise the Executive--although I doubt it. Above all, I hope that when the next Select Committee on an Armed Forces Bill is constituted, the lessons of this Committee will be learned and the Executive will loosen their grip and allow more Back Benchers to play a part in the scrutiny process. I hope that the lessons will be learned and I commend the amendment with apologies for taking rather too long. I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker.