Select Committee on Liaison First Report



Memorandum to the Liaison Committee

1.  The Defence Committee was appointed by the House on 16 July 2001 and had its first meeting on 18 July.

2.  Our predecessor Committee produced Annual Reports to the House on its activities for each Session of the last Parliament. They agreed an Annual Report for the 2000-01 Session just before the Dissolution.[44] This memorandum therefore refers only to the work of the Defence Committee in this Parliament to the end of 2001.

Inquiries to date

3.  At our first meeting in July we considered a programme of work and agreed to begin with an inquiry into reviews carried out by the Ministry of Defence into Armed Forces' pension and compensation arrangements, on which the MoD had published consultation documents in March. We also discussed the desirability of continuing the practice of our predecessors in tracking the MoD's own annual reporting cycle and in monitoring major procurement projects.

4.  The tragic events of 11 September dictated that we change our plans and turn our attention to examining the threat from terrorism in the UK. We were briefed by the Prime Minister, along with the Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs and Intelligence and Security Committees, on 24 September. The chairmen of the four committees met on the same day and subsequently to discuss how best to ensure their work on the issues raised by the 11 September events was co-ordinated.

5.  We announced on 22 October our intention to conduct a short inquiry into how our understanding of the threat to UK security and interests had changed since 11 September. This followed the Secretary of State for Defence's announcement at the Labour Party conference in early October that the conclusions of the 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR), which provide the basis for the organisation of UK defence, would be reassessed. This proposal was developed over the next weeks into the concept of 'a new chapter' of the SDR, which will take account of defence of the homeland and the UK's capability to counter and deter terrorism abroad. Our inquiry attempted to elicit from the MoD more information about the scope, process, and timetable for this exercise.

6.  Our evidence sessions began with MoD officials on 7 November and the Secretary of State was the final witness, on 28 November. Our report was published on 18 December.[45] We concluded that the threat from terrorism 'is now more pressing and more dangerous' and that the global campaign against it should be pursued relentlessly. We believe that tackling terrorism will require additional military capabilities and that the Government should make a commitment to find the extra money necessary to fund these. We also set out our intention to monitor the work on the new chapter of the SDR as it develops, and report on its conclusions.

7.  As a separate inquiry, but as part of our overall activity on terrorism, we looked at the aspects of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill which related to Ministry of Defence responsibilities. These related primarily to the Bill's proposed extension of the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defence Police force. The accelerated timetable for consideration of the Bill in both Houses meant that we had to move quickly. We took evidence from the Ministry of Police themselves, and from the Association of Chief Police Officers, on 22 November and published our report on 6 December, having agreed it the previous day.[46] We proposed no amendments to the Bill's clauses. We concluded that there had been a strong case for an extension of MDP powers before 11 September but that this had been reinforced by the change in the perceived threat from terrorism. However, we were clear that wider powers needed to be accompanied by 'more robust safeguards' and signalled our intention to monitor the effects of the changes effected by the Bill's provisions.

Visit to Saif Sareea II

8.  One of our first activities as a Committee was a visit to a major military exercise in Oman, Saif Sareea II (Swift Sword), in October. We had agreed at our first meeting in July that it was important for us to observe this combined British-Omani exercise which was Britain's largest for15 years, involving 20,000 personnel from all three Services, including a Royal Navy carrier group of 17 ships, an amphibious landing group and a mine countermeasures group; 30 RAF combat aircraft and 12 support aircraft; and a Mechanised Brigade, including 60 Challenger 2 tanks. The exercise was designed to test one of the two fundamental capability assumptions of the 1998 Strategic Defence Review— the ability to conduct a medium scale operation of limited duration (up to six months).

9.  The events of 11 September, the commencement of the military campaign in Afghanistan, and the sensitive security situation in the Gulf which followed made the relevance of our visit even greater and we were able to talk to individual Service personnel on stand-by to move into action, and their commanding officers. We found it an extremely valuable and informative experience.

10.  We intend to return to this area later in the session when the MoD has distilled the lessons to be learned from the Saif Sareea exercise.

European Security and Defence Policy

11.  We have also this session followed up the previous Committee's monitoring of the development of the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP). We took evidence from the Minister for the Armed Forces on 19 December 2001 on the results of the Laeken European Council four days earlier. Our focus was on the progress achieved in putting together the so-called Helsinki Headline Goal—a European force of Corps dimensions (60,000 troops) that could be deployed for up to a year on peace support operations—and the military capability areas that still need attention before a fully capable force could be deployed. This is an area we will continue to monitor.

Other activities

12.  In common with our predecessors, we believe that visits to defence establishments are an important part of our work. As part of our inquiry into the threat from terrorism, we visited the Chemical Defence Establishment at Porton Down (now officially known as the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), Porton Down) in November to draw on their expertise in chemical, biological and radiological weapons and hazards. We were also keen to continue our predecessor committees' vigorous examination of Defence Medical Services (DMS), and travelled to Birmingham in December to visit to the newly established Centre for Defence Medicine. This is the latest development in a long history of reforms of the DMS. We were impressed with what has been achieved at the Centre since it was opened in April but the challenges facing the DMS which previous Defence Committee have identified are deep-seated, and we intend to turn our attention to them later in this Parliament.

13.  We agreed when we first met in July that it would be helpful to our work to hold a series of informal seminars on a range of issues. Our plans in this respect have inevitably been affected by the increased committee activity arising from the need to address terrorism issues with some urgency. In spite of these time constraints, we organised two such briefings in October. The Ministry of Defence provided an informal briefing for us on ongoing areas of interest such as defence organisation, the defence budget and the single Services, as well as using the opportunity to update us on the campaign against terrorism. The session was introduced by the Secretary of State and the Minister for the Armed Forces was in attendance throughout. We welcome the MoD's co-operative approach to the Committee's work in this respect.

14.  As a high proportion of our membership were new to the Defence Committee, as well as a sizeable subset being new to the House, we agreed it would be helpful for the committee staff and experienced specialist advisers to provide us with a briefing on the work of select committees generally and on Defence Committee practice specifically. This proved to be a useful exercise and one that provided an opportunity for us to discuss the ways in which the Committee might operate most effectively. We hope to find an opportunity later in the Parliament to repeat the exercise.

15.  We have continued our predecessors' practice of meeting ministers and committees from overseas when they visit this country. These included Mr Alesander Kuzmuk, the Ukrainian Defence Minister; and Dr Vojislav Kostunica, President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (in a joint informal meeting with the Foreign Affairs and International Development Committees).

Future programme

16.  Our Report on the threat from terrorism was the first stage in what we hope will be a wide-ranging and comprehensive study of the many implications of the changed security situation following 11 September. Shortly before Christmas we announced the terms of reference for the second part of the inquiry, which will look at defence and security in the UK. This will cover a very broad span of topics, ranging from civil contingency arrangements, to the security of the defence estate, to missile defence. It will take us into new territory in that some of the matters we will be looking at are the prime responsibility of government departments other than the Ministry of Defence. The lead department on civil contingencies, for example, is now the Cabinet Office, and many aspects of UK security are of course a matter for the police and are therefore primarily a Home Office responsibility. Our colleagues on the Home Affairs Committee have indicated that they are content for us to take the lead in examining these issues as part of our overall inquiry and we see this as a clear example of effective co-operation between select committees allowing effective scrutiny of issues which cross departmental boundaries.

44   Seventh Special Report, Session 2000-01, Annual Report of the Committee for Session 2000-01 and Future Work of the Committee, HC 516 Back

45   Second Report, Session 2001-02, The Threat from Terrorism, HC 348-I Back

46   First Report, Session 2001-02, The Ministry of Defence Police: Changes in Jurisdiction Proposed under the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill 2001, HC 382  Back

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Prepared 7 February 2002