Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-23)



  Q20  Richard Younger-Ross: In the recent conflict between Israel and Lebanon, Downing street took a very definite view, which was not to criticise Israel in ways that perhaps some Members of this House would have wished it to have done. Sir Jeremy, you said earlier that some of the wiser heads in the Foreign Office were not necessarily listened to in terms of the Iraq conflict. Do you believe that those wiser heads in the Foreign Office were listened to over the recent conflict, or do you believe that a rift opened up between Downing street and the FCO on this particular area?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: I hope that on Iraq I was understood to be saying that the wiser heads were not listened to by the people taking decisions in Washington. The British approach on Iraq was reasonably united, although we could get into questions on that. On this issue, I do not know; I was not in the Foreign Office at the time, so I am not aware of what advice may have been given. I am sure that the analysis across the foreign policy area of Government as to what was happening between Israel and Hezbollah and within Lebanon was very similar, but what Ministers choose to say in public about that is their business.

  Q21  Sandra Osborne: May I ask your opinion of parliamentary scrutiny of the Foreign Office? Do you believe it is adequate or do you feel there is room for improvement in that regard?

  Lord Hannay: I am in a slightly awkward position because I am a member of a scrutiny committee in another place, so I spend quite a lot of my time scrutinising mainly Foreign Office inputs into EU policy. It is the view of our Committee, at any rate, that it is good that the Foreign Office and other Government Departments are responding much better than they did some years ago to the parliamentary requirements of scrutiny, but it still has a good long way to go. There are still too many overrides; there are too many cases in which the explanatory memoranda are not very informative, and—you will forgive me for a commercial—we have just had a debate on the House of Lords' role in European scrutiny and we have drawn quite a lot of conclusions from that to try and strengthen it.

  Q22  Sandra Osborne: Do you think that the Foreign Office takes seriously the deliberations of this Committee, for example, or does it just pay lip service to our recommendations?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: May I offer a comment without any bias or prejudice? That is to say, that as a serving diplomat I have found the involvement of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons and the reports that it produces very useful, on the whole of very high quality, and nearly always introducing new things that we should be thinking about or new advice from elected Members to Government servants that we need to take account of. I am not saying that just to flatter this Committee; in New York, I very much welcomed the close involvement of members of the FAC in the work of the mission there and in observing the United Nations and its various committees and agencies. But we are talking about two things here: one is the effectiveness of a group of people on a Committee such as yours, the other is the power of Parliament, and on that we do not have any real base to comment. However, as a citizen of the United Kingdom, I would like to see greater powers for Parliament to scrutinise and affect the policy of the Executive, because the experience of the elected House is extremely useful in feeding in to the kinds of considerations that we as diplomats have to take on board in representing the United Kingdom in all its aspects.

  Mr Kirk: May I add that I experienced a considerable opening up of the relationship between the diplomatic service and Parliament over my time in the diplomatic service? When I joined, Parliament was very much beyond Ministers and Ministers were what you served. The interaction between members of the diplomatic service and Members of Parliament was quite tightly controlled. A great deal of that has gone in the intervening time, which is a very good thing. It is a good thing partly because it allows the Foreign Office and its diplomatic network to expose Parliament—I do not mean just this Committee, but Parliament more widely, because as I mentioned, most of my work in Helsinki was done with your colleagues in other Select Committees—to different influences, experiences and understandings of how to tackle some of the issues that we confront in this country. I think that that interaction also provides a diplomat serving in a country with a very useful and much broader projection of what Britain is and what it represents than the diplomat can give on his or her own. Having a group of parliamentarians who take an interest in a country—often quite a critical interest, but none the less taking the trouble to go there and understand—and having, in my experience, a profound and deep inquiry into the way in which another country is conducting policy is a useful projection of Britain in itself and of some of the core values of British democracy. Those values should be—indeed, I believe that they are—at the heart of our foreign policy, but it is sometimes difficult to articulate that quite so clearly without elected people there to do so.

  Chairman: May we take just one final question? I am afraid that we shall have run out of time then, gentlemen, because we have another witness coming.

  Q23  Mr Heathcoat-Amory: I want to pick up on the answers about the middle east. There was an extraordinary omission in the 10 strategic priorities, which made no reference to the rise of militant Islam, which is basically what the struggle is at the minute. If we are going to defend western democracy in its most general sense and in anything like its present form, the issue must be faced up to. There is a rather coy section in the White Paper headed "Religion and Identity", which skirts round the issue, but there is no reference in the priorities. Is this not a curious omission? Is it an example of fighting previous wars, rather than the one in which we are engaged at the moment?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: I wonder whether a document like this can get into very sensitive territory of that nature and in any real detail that affects the precise and specific things that diplomacy needs to do in the area that you are describing. I would refer to the problem as militant Muslims rather militant Islam. I do not think that Islam, as we have related to it over the centuries, is really the problem. Something is happening in the world—through globalisation and the polarisation of politics, and cultures and religions—that is producing, at the extremes, people of such anger and such determination to do violence that we have a security problem and a political problem. The issue is very complex. Anything that the Foreign Office or Foreign Secretary might say in a document of this kind could be constraining, as far as the actual process of specific diplomacy is concerned. The issue is obviously an area in which the Foreign Office is highly engaged. To put a general point, it is an example of the fact that diplomacy has to deal with specifics that are in no way listed in any document. We are reacting, and the Foreign Office will always be reacting. The capacity to react wisely and with effect depends on resources being given to the Foreign Office that are not just constrained to a list on a particular piece of paper.

  Lord Hannay: Forgive me for taking issue with it, but I do not think that we are fighting a war against either Islam or Muslims.

  Mr Heathcoat-Amory: I did not use the word war.

  Lord Hannay: No, but it is very important, because we are not talking about something that will be handled mainly through military action. We are talking about something that can be dealt with only with the active co-operation of large secular Muslim countries such as Turkey, Indonesia, Egypt and many others. To some extent, you have to be a little bit careful that what you put in a document like this might give the wrong impression that you are organising what some people on the other side of the Atlantic like to call the third world war. It is very damaging to our objectives to suggest even for one minute that that is how we think. We are dealing with a poisonous outbreak of extremism, but that outbreak of extremism is threatening Muslims just as much as it is threatening us.

  Chairman: Thank you, gentlemen. We could have gone on a lot longer, and there are other areas that we had hoped to ask about, but this has been a very valuable session, and we are grateful to all three of you for coming. We will now break for a few minutes, and then we have another witness coming.

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