Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 133 - 139)




  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 them—particularly as to the substantive provisions—are 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 controls.

Mr George

  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!

Mr George

  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 refine—it is rather impertinent of me—your 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.

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