Examination of Witnesses (Questions 133
WEDNESDAY 25 APRIL 2001
133. Lord Scott, Ms Baxendale, a very special
welcome. It has been a long time coming but we have got a draft
Bill before us. We are grateful to you for the opportunity to
have your views and thoughts on it. I might just ask a general
question and colleagues will really go into the details. How far
do you think the draft Bill as presented to us in the consultation
document, as it were, honours the recommendations of your report?
(Lord Scott of Foscote) I think most
of themparticularly as to the substantive provisionsare
dealt with in a satisfactory way. It sounds rather arrogant to
say satisfactory, it is not for me to be satisfied but they are
dealt with in a way which seems to me to follow the line of what
I had in mind in writing the report.
134. One part that strikes me of what will be
left of the 1939 Act, your report was justifiably dismissive about
this ancient legislation, created in a completely different environment,
still being used but in fact part of it will remain. I know it
was not specifically
(Lord Scott of Foscote) The imports part.
135. The import part will remain.
(Lord Scott of Foscote) Yes.
136. Do you think that is untidy and unsatisfactory?
Is that satisfactory?
(Lord Scott of Foscote) I did not look at the import
procedures, the import law at all in the course of my inquiry
because it was not within my terms of reference and I do not know
how well or otherwise those have been working. I do find it odd
that there should be any legislation at all left over from the
emergency legislation required for the last war but what particular
problems there are with the import legislation, I do not know,
although, of course, the defect that there is no provision or
no requirement for laying before Parliament and for parliamentary
approbation applies to import controls as much as it does to export
137. We have to thank you. I think you have
done more for parliamentary reform than four generations at least
of Members of Parliament, and our Committee is really a direct
result of the work that you did. We have been arguing the case
for some time with only limited positive response from the Government
on the prior parliamentary scrutiny of licence applications. The
Government really has not been excessively enthusiastic about
this Committee or a Parliamentary Committee sticking its nose
into prior scrutiny. Do you have any views on the merits of that
argument for prior scrutiny based on your own experience of the
Arms to Iraq business, and might prior parliamentary scrutiny
have been of help during that unfolding saga?
(Lord Scott of Foscote) I saw the references to prior
parliamentary scrutiny in the papers which I was very kindly sent.
I have really two comments on the proposal which was plainly a
very interesting proposal and it was not one which it had occurred
to me to think about before. First, I doubt its practicality.
The way in which export licence applications proceed is that the
application goes in and in a number of cases is then followed
by a request from the Departments concerned for more information
on particular topics. I would hope that one of the consequences
of the scrutiny of the procedures that were involved in the inquiry
would be that the Departments would be particularly scrupulous
in asking questions and insisting on answers where they thought
they were needed. Now parliamentary scrutiny does not really fit
into that sort of procedure. At what point would the scrutiny
take place? It would really only be sensible, if it was going
to take place, if it took place after all questions had been asked
and answered but that would be a point at which some time would
already have elapsed. The decision makers would be in a position
quite quickly, one would hope, to make up their mind and I think
that the delay involved would be regrettable to that point. That
is the practical objection, I doubt the practicality of it. From
a more theoretical point of view, I have always regarded the point
of entry of a Committee such as this, and of Parliament, whether
the House of Commons or the House of Lords as well, as being in
connection with ministerial accountability. Ministers are accountable,
Government is accountable to Parliament for the decisions it takes.
If you are speaking about prior parliamentary scrutiny you are
looking at a stage before any decision has been taken, before
any obligation of accountability has arisen. Therefore I slightly
doubt the constitutional propriety of it as well as the practicality
of it although I do agree it is a very interesting suggestion.
Mr George: I wish I had not asked the
question. I think you may have single handedly been responsible
for destroying any prospect of prior parliamentary scrutiny.
Chairman: Lord Scott is not infallible!
138. If I could regroup after that nuclear attack
on my question. There is prior parliamentary scrutiny in the US
Congress and there are mechanisms by which they can expedite the
process. They do not look at every single application for a licence
and they do have a system by which they can choose which ones
that they would look at and they have a timescale. It seems to
me that the timescale for approving licences in the UK can be
so protracted that an extra two weeks in passing a decision over
to us for a quick turn around would not in all cases prove to
be fatal. All I would say is if we could send you even more papers,
that maybe you might wish to refineit is rather impertinent
of meyour answer.
(Lord Scott of Foscote) I did not know about the US
system. I did not mean to detonate a nuclear device. If there
was a practical proposal formulated I would be very interested
indeed in seeing it and considering the proposal in that context.
139. I am sure our Chairman will send you one.
(Lord Scott of Foscote) I have to say I had not thought
of it at all until I received the papers prior to this occasion.
Mr George: I think I had better cease
asking any more questions. I have done enough damage now.