Select Committee on International Development First Special Report



18. Relations with the Department have been good. The Secretary of State has been willing to provide oral evidence on a regular basis and has also found time to discuss matters informally and privately with the Committee when that has been considered necessary. DFID officials have been similarly helpful in the provision of evidence, of supplementary information and of background briefing to Committee staff. There has also been regular information via letters to the Chairman of such developments as the outcome of EU Development Council meetings (provided at the request of the Committee). The Department has also been invaluable in the organisation of Committee visits — these often take place in constrained or difficult circumstances. There is a high degree of cooperation between DFID officials and Committee staff in advance of the visit. This involves planning the programme, detailed briefing in advance of the visit and continued briefing by DFID officials who accompany the Committee during the programme. Appreciation should also be expressed for the work of FCO officials, who again have been repeatedly helpful before and during Committee visits.

19. There was one occasion — the Committee's visit to Albania and FYR Macedonia during the Kosovo crisis — when it was clear that the Department for International Development did not wish the Committee to go, fearing the Committee's presence would impede humanitarian efforts. The Committee considered it important to see at first hand a relief operation which was being heavily criticised. The visit was planned so as to ensure that the Committee at no stage interfered with or hampered the relief effort. This was acknowledged by the Department after the conclusion of the inquiry.

20. Our experience has on the whole been similarly positive in relation to other government departments. One less satisfactory exchange, however, has recently occurred with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We were told by the Minister for Trade and the Chief Executive of ECGD in our inquiry into ECGD, Developmental Issues and the Ilisu Dam that DTI and ECGD had not received any advice from the FCO on the impact of the Dam on human rights in the region.[8] On publication of our Report, where the lack of such advice was criticised, the Chairman received a discourteous letter from Keith Vaz MP, Minister for Europe, disputing our conclusions.[9] This is not the place to go in detail into the ensuing argument. We were, in summary, faced with a contradiction between the evidence of the DTI and ECGD on the one hand, and that of the FCO on the other, which in our view could only be satisfactorily resolved by access to the original advice. This was refused and our offer to examine the documents on a confidential basis ignored. We have therefore complained to the Parliamentary Ombudsman under the Code of Practice on Access to Official Information. The Ombudsman has yet to produce his report but we will inform the Liaison Committee of its contents when it is received.

21. This disagreement raises a couple of points of principle for relations between the Government and select committees. The ill-advised response of Keith Vaz on publication of our Report points to the dangers of the "rapid rebuttal" of committee reports. A more considered and polite response, joined with an offer to provide further evidence, would quite probably have resolved matters. Secondly, this is the first time a select committee has complained to the Parliamentary Ombudsman about the lack of access to government papers. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 introduces a new and statutory right of access to information and a different complaints system. It may well be that future select committee work is affected by such new rights of access and complaint in relation to government information.

8   Sixth Report from the International Development Committee, Session 1999-2000, ECGD, Developmental Issues and the Ilisu Dam, HC 211, Q.10 and Q.19 Back

9   Published as a Special Report: Fourth Special Report from the International Development Committee, Session 1999-2000, Exchange of Letters Concerning the Ilisu Dam, HC 813 Back

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