Select Committee on Foreign Affairs First Special Report



21. The scrutiny of Government demands patience and determination. During this Parliament we have seen it as an important part of our responsibilities to guard against any encroachment upon the rights of select committees, while at the same time adding to the weapons in the select committees' armoury by setting precedents of value to the whole select committee system in its scrutinising of government. We have successfully

  • used Special Reports as a means of ensuring that the House is aware of any attempt to frustrate committee wishes

  • insisted on having access to internal documents of the FCO (including telegrams and classified papers) where these are vital to the conduct of an inquiry

  • refused to have our proper responsibilities postponed or curtailed by the Government's establishment of a non-parliamentary inquiry (namely that established under Sir Thomas Legg and Sir Robin Ibbs to inquire into arms supplies to Sierra Leone[29])

  • demanded that officials understand their constitutional responsibilities to ministers and to Parliament.

As we said in our report on Sierra Leone, where these issues were most to the fore, "tenacity has its rewards".[30] By showing that we would not capitulate under pressure, we forced government to make a number of concessions. In this way, we believe we have done a service to all select committees.

22. To fulfil the remit they have been given by the House, select committees have to be adequately resourced for both staff and, when necessary, travel. To cope with the volume of work facing it, the Foreign Affairs Committee had to increase its staffing early on it this Parliament. A way was found to achieve this despite the very limited flexibility of the staffing resources, within the Clerk's Department. We ask that the funding of adequate staffing for select committees is considered further by the Liaison Committee.

23. Though the Foreign Affairs Committee has not been refused funding for any of its inquiries in this Parliament, it appears that the travel budget for Select Committees as a whole has been under constant pressure. Moreover the ceiling figure for any one overseas visit, which has not been increased for several years, has necessitated some unconventional travel arrangements in order to enable all members of the Committee to take part in visits.

24. We believe that the Liaison Committee should be given the responsibility for setting the overall budget for Select Committee travel and staffing expenditure each year and that the Clerk of the Liaison Committee should be the Accounting Officer for that expenditure.

25. We have also consistently returned to our recommendations to monitor the progress the Government has made in dealing with the issues we have identified. Select committees must not lose sight of recommendations unanswered. It is precisely those issues which are most difficult to resolve that are least likely to be confronted head on by Government. Progress reports are another necessary weapon in our armoury. If necessary, we will update this report with a further progress report before the end of this Parliament.

26. We also consider it as essential that, notwithstanding the establishment of the Intelligence and Security Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee must have access to requisite intelligence and security information and to officials of the intelligence services where this is germane to its own inquiries. This issue arose in relation to our inquiries relating to Sierra Leone and Kosovo, but it is an issue which may arise in the case of any of our inquiries. The Committee attaches great importance to the assurance given by Douglas Hurd, then Foreign Secretary, that the Intelligence and Security Committee would not "truncate in any way the existing responsibilities of existing Committees."[31]

27. For scrutiny to be effective, Committees must be seen to be independent of Government. Our experience of the response that the Government gave to our desire to inquire into and probe the United Kingdom's involvement in Sierra Leone and the Sandline affair, underscores the need for the House to implement the Liaison Committee's Report Shifting the Balance in advance of the next general election. In particular, the selection of members of committees, and of the Chairmen, needs to be removed from the patronage of the executive and/or party whips.

28. We end this special report by restating one of the conclusions of our report on Sierra Leone.[32] We believe that one of the principal justifications for the departmental select committee system is that officials and Ministers are aware that the beam of the select committee searchlight may one day swing in their direction, and that they may have to justify their action—or inaction—when subject to intense scrutiny by a committee such as ours, acting on behalf of Parliament and, beyond that, on behalf of a wider public interest.

29   HC 1016, Session 1997-98. Back

30   HC (1998-99) 116, para. 99. Back

31   HC Deb 22 February 1994, col. 164. Back

32   HC(1998-99)116, para 111. Back

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