Select Committee on Defence First Special Report


OTHER ISSUES AND ACTIVITIES

Procedural Reform and Modernisation

51. The major event of the year in relation to select committee procedure was the publication in March of the Liaison Committee's Report Shifting the Balance: Select Committee's and the Executive.[33] That Report made a number of recommendations about the structure of the Liaison Committee and its role in ensuring the independence of the system by which the members of other select committees were nominated, and about the opportunities for debates on select committee reports. The Liaison Committee also had a number of recommendations to make about the resourcing of select committees. The government's response[34] was described by the Committee as 'disappointing'. We can only concur in that assessment. The Report and reply were debated in the House on 9 November 2000. The debate continues.

Treaties

52. The Defence Committee was also closely involved in the Procedure Committee's inquiry into parliamentary scrutiny of treaties. The Procedure Committee's Report was published on 27 July.[35] It was modest in its ambitions, but commended this Committee for its 'ingenious and assiduous' approach to the examination of treaties.[36] We intend to seek to maintain our reputation in this area. As we have recorded above, we examined and reported on two treaties in Session 1999-2000,[37] and we have already commenced a further investigation into the Six-Nation Framework Agreement on the restructuring and operation of the European defence manufacturing industry.[38] We expect to report on this in the near future.

53. So far, we regard our work in this area as an entirely positive contribution to enhanced parliamentary scrutiny, and we have encountered an entirely positive response from the MoD and FCO to our inquiries. We welcome the government's undertaking, in its response to the Procedure Committee,[39] to provide an opportunity for debate on a treaty if a select committee so requests.

Legislation

54. The Liaison Committee recommended in its report greater use by the government of draft legislation which could be referred to select committees.[40] In Session 1999-2000 we examined and reported on the Armed Forces Bill [Lords] before its second reading.[41] In our report, we expressed the hope that—

... on future occasions the MoD will see the benefits of introducing legislation in draft form so that we can take up the opportunity to comment on proposals before they are formally introduced to the House ...[42]

In the Queen's Speech on 6 December, the intention of introducing the quinquennial Armed Forces Bill was announced, and the Bill was introduced on 11 December. By tradition this Bill is referred to an ad hoc select committee. This tradition pre-dates the establishment of the departmentally-related select committees. Now that more than twenty years has passed since the establishment of the Defence Committee on a permanent basis, and five Armed Forces Bills have passed under the bridge in that time. It is perhaps time to look afresh at this tradition.We would see merit in the use of the draft bill procedure for future Armed Forces bills.

Provision of Information

55. We noted above[43] the curious tale of the classified evidence relating to the work of the Defence Geographic Imagery and Intelligence Agency. After we had specifically encouraged the MoD to review its classification of the evidence in our own Report,[44] and the MoD had responded negatively,[45] it then went on to declassify some of the evidence in response to an application under the Code of Practice in Open Government from Mr Richard Norton Taylor of The Guardian.[46] The sequence of events was disappointing — the requirements of the Code of Practice should be the minimum standard applied by the MoD when considering whether evidence to this Committee should be published.

56. More generally, there have not been any particular examples of disputes between us and the MoD over the provision of classified information. However, the MoD remains in our view unnecessarily obdurate in its sweeping application of the convention against releasing 'advice to Ministers'. It has used this cover to deny us access to its departmental plan and short term plan (formerly the long term costings), and to the report of its defence research committee. We will continue to press for greater openness. We have some further comments on the form and content of published information in our comments below on our continuing work on the MoD's annual reporting cycle documents.


33  First Report from the Liaison Committee, Session 1999-2000, HC 300 Back

34  See Second Report from the Liaison Committee, Session 1999-2000, Independence or Control?, HC 748 Back

35  Second Report from the Procedure Committee, Session 1999-2000, Parliamentary Scrutiny of Treaties, HC 210 Back

36  ibid, para 31 Back

37  See paras 16 and 17 and 43 and 44 above Back

38  Cm 4895 Back

39  Second Special Report from the Procedure Committee, Session 1999-2000, HC 990 Back

40  Liaison Committee, op cit, paras 61 and 62 Back

41  See paras x and y above Back

42  Fourth Report, Session 1999-2000, op cit, para 32 Back

43  See para 29 above Back

44  Fifth Report, Session 1999-2000, op cit, para 5 Back

45  Eighth Special Report, Session 1999-2000, HC 629 Back

46  See Fourteenth Special Report, Session 1999-2000, HC 928 Back


 
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