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Foreign Affairs (Select Committee)

Volume 929: debated on Thursday 7 April 1977

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Stallard.]

12.1 p.m.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for selecting me for this Adjournment debate and for this opportunity to discuss the motion urging the Government to set up a Standing Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

I am particularly grateful for this opportunity because over successive weeks I have tried at Business Question Time to persuade the Leader of the House that this is a matter that should be discussed in this House and hitherto have failed in that purpose.

I am grateful also for the opportunity that this gives me to thank colleagues on both sides of the House for the considerable support that they have given me on Early-Day Motion No. 222, which was the basis of my request for a debate.

Early-Day Motion No. 222 standing in my name and the names of my colleagues in all parts of the House is a three-part motion which begins by expressing the dissatisfaction of the House at the manner in which we discuss foreign affairs. The second part of the motion expresses the wish to improve the quality and, indeed, the frequency of our discussions of foreign affairs by the establishment of a Select Committee. The third part of the motion, which is, I suppose, the most contentious part, is that as of right the reports of such a Select Committee should be referred back to this Chamber to be debated in the Chamber within 30 days of publication.

What has surprised me is the scale and quality of the support for the motion. There are this morning 358 names on the Order Paper in support of the motion, and I confess that I have another half-dozen names in my pocket, so that I might be able to keep this motion going in the next term to see whether I can do better than I have to date.

I am informed by the Table Office that this is certainly the record for an Early-Day Motion over the past five years, during which the previous largest number in support of any Early-Day Motion was 267—about 90 fewer than I have achieved already for this motion. So far as the Table Office can recollect, there has never before been an Early-Day Motion that has had the support of more than 324 right hon. and hon. Members, so this motion represents a 10 per cent. improvement in the previously known record. That underlines the disappointment felt on both sides of the House at the infrequency of opportunities to debate foreign affairs subjects and does, I believe, indicate the extent to which there is a general will throughout the House for change.

Perhaps I can amplify that assertion by referring to the fact that the signatories to the motion include a considerable number of Privy Councillors and former Ministers. Numbered amongst them is my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon), my right hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, East (Miss Harvie Anderson), who is a former Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means and therefore very skilled and knowledgeable in the procedures of the House, the right hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Prentice), who is, of course, a former Minister for Overseas Development and also a former Cabinet Minister, and the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe), who I am sorry cannot be in his place this afternoon, who is a former Leader of the Liberal Party.

The range of support for this motion extends right across the spectrum of party political views in this House. When one mentions the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) who has a particular view of a particular Wing of the House, and contrasts him with someone like my right hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, East, who might be thought by most to have a view substantially different from that of the hon. Gentleman, one realises the scale of the support for the motion.

To sum up the support, I think that I can assert with some certainty that nearly 80 per cent. of the Conservative Party currently in the House signed it. It has been signed by all the Liberals, except for the Leader of the Liberals, whom I have not yet asked, but he will not escape me after the Easter Recess. It has been signed by all the Ulster Unionists, including the Leader, and by the SNP, including its Leader, who is one of the top six on the motion. The motion has been signed by two-thirds of the Welsh nationalists, and that is a sum that is relatively easy for the House to understand. It has been signed by a large number of Labour Members, including the hon. Members for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. Jackson), and Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor), the Chairman and Vice-Chairman respectively of the Parliamentary Labour Party Foreign Affairs Committee. In addition, I have the private support of a former Prime Minister, and the private support of several former Cabinet Ministers from both the major parties in the House. In short, I think that that shows that there is overwhelming support for the motion.

I suppose that we should ask ourselves why it is that so many right hon. and hon. Members feel so strongly as to sign in such numbers. I think that we must immediately recognise that the principal reason is the infrequency of debates. It is no secret, and indeed I regard it as a scandal, that we have major debates on foreign affairs only annually, if we are lucky, and on occasions the time lag between major debates of this kind has been as much as 15 months. Clearly, the House feels that this is an unsatisfactory way in which to deal with major issues of foreign affairs.

When one adds to that fact the observation that on major occasions of this kind never more than 20 right hon. and hon. Members have the opportunity of taking part in the debate, and when one considers also that the time of such debates is overwhelmingly taken up by opening and closing speeches from the Government and Opposition Front Benches, and also the fact that Privy Councillors claim their droit de seigneur and have a favourable opportunity to catch Mr. Speaker's eye, one realises that at most a dozen Back Benchers have the opportunity of taking part in these debates. It is that reason, as much as anything else, which I believe accounts for the fact that these foreign affairs debates, rare though they are, are so badly attended. Hon. Members judge their chances of taking part to be so limited as to be not worth the bother of attending. Indeed, on foreign affairs evenings when there is no major vote many hon. Members will take the opportunity of having dinner with their wives, or of taking their wives to the cinema, which for most Members nowadays is a rare enough opportunity. That accounts for the poor attendance.

The limited possibilities for consultation on foreign affairs was in the back of the minds of right hon. and hon. Members who supported my Early-Day Motion. There was a lack of consultation, for example, when the Minister of State recently went to the Falkland Islands for a series of talks with the Islanders and came back via Argentina. The House was able to determine what went on only by the unsatisfactory and infrequent process of Question Time. That problem was touched on in the major debate that we had a few weeks ago. There was general dissatisfaction that we were not able to probe the Minister deeply in order to discover the nature of his discussions with the Falkland Islanders and the Argentinian Government. The House would have welcomed an opportunity to debate the matter subsequent to the limited exchanges that we had on that occasion. My hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton (Sir N. Fisher) tabled an Early-Day Motion asking the Government for assurances about that visit to the Falkland Islands by the Minister of State.

Rhodesia is one of the major Foreign Office issues that concerns us today. In recent years we have had annual opportunities for a special debate on that subject as a result of the sanctions order that must be renewed every year. The Government have rightly provided time to debate the sanctions order each autumn. That has happened for the past 10 years and it has proved a major opportunity for hon. Members to talk about Rhodesia and the problems of Southern Africa. Apart from that, there are few opportunities for discussion. We have opportunities to discuss European legislation, and European orders from time to time and, as I mentioned earlier, we have Question Time.

However, Question Time is unsatisfactory for Back-Bench Members. Hon. Members have a chance of putting one supplementary question containing two, or three at the most, parts. If the Minister wishes to avoid answering all or part of that Question it is easy for him to do so. Unless an issue is immediately followed up by other hon. Members in other parts of the House, a chance is lost to discover information. A new opportunity does not present itself until the next Question Time several weeks later. By that time the issue will have resolved itself or the hon. Member who has a particular interest in the issue will not be fortunate in the draw at Question Time and will not have the opportunity of putting an Oral Question on the Floor of the House.

For all those reasons there is a widespread feeling that the opportunities to debate major foreign affairs matters are totally insufficient. It is particularly insufficient in this country because our dependence upon other countries is perhaps greater than that of any other country in the world. After all, we were formerly head of a vast colonial empire which enabled us to have and control commercial, political and cultural interests over a quarter of the world's surface. We are a founder member of the Commonwealth. At last we are a member of the EEC. We are a permanent member of the Security Council at the United Nations and an active member of many international conferences and bodies—probably a member of more such organisations than the majority of other countries.

In this new age of interdependence, when we no longer control as we did in the colonial days, the sources of foodstuffs, raw materials and minerals, we are particularly vulnerable to world movements. It is therefore particularly important that Britain's contact with customers and the sources of raw materials should be as good as possible.

The House seeks, and should have the opportunity, to keep an eye on the performance of successive Governments to ensure that we retain our reputation overseas in the finest working order. We now import over 80 per cent. of our raw materials and, by comparison with many other countries, we are unusually dependent upon the good will of other countries. That is easy to maintain in times of plenty when there are no strains and stresses in the world economy, but it is difficult in times of crisis.

Over recent years crises have had an immense impact on Britain. The oil crisis led us to consider seriously the need to ration petrol. It led to substantial price increases which had their impact on industry and on the consumer. The sugar crisis also directly hit the housewife's pocket. Many hon. Members would have liked to debate issues such as those more frequently than they did. They would have liked the opportunity to discuss at length the system of commodity agreements which must come if the world is to solve its food crisis. Such crises, particularly the oil crisis, led to the world recession from which all countries are now suffering. The world recession is of particular importance to us because it affects the bouyancy of markets abroad and our access to them. In turn that affects employment opportunities at home.

Any increase in the price of world commodities affects the housewife and the cost of living in this country. Major movements in world economic affairs are of special interest to us in Britain because of the high proportion of imports which we bring in from other countries, both to feed ourselves and to provide raw materials for industry. Imports give us the opportunity to manufacture products which we can sell at a profit in world markets. The buoyancy of world markets and our ability to exploit and develop them, not in a pejorative sense but in the interests of other countries as customers and of Britain as salesman, is of increasing importance.

The new situation has been recognised by the Foreign Office in recent years because it now takes a more active interest in commercial affairs. Commerce is now a prime interest—greater than it was when the Diplomatic Corps was preoccupied with politics and issues of war and peace. In the colonial days overseas trade was left to the Board of Trade which specialised in that sphere. Happily, that has changed.

For all those reasons, the time has come for the House to demand, not ask, that the Government seriously consider the need for us to have better opportunities to debate and discuss external affairs, which have such a considerable impact on what we in this country do. The question is whether a specialist committee is the right method. Other countries think so. I was interested to read in the Inter-Parliamentary Union publication "Parliaments of the World" that more than 60 out of 70 members of the IPU have specialist committees which control the discussion of foreign affairs. The major names on the list are Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and the United States. We in Britain are the only major Western modern industrial country engaging in international trade which does not have a specialist committee to discuss foreign affairs.

In the same publication one can read of the way in which committees are organised. Certain countries, such as Australia, have a joint committee on foreign affairs and defence. The Australian Senate also has a committee on foreign affairs and defence. France has a foreign affairs committee of each House. The Assembly, which is France's lower House, has a foreign affairs committee with 62 members, and the upper House, the Senate has a committee of 45 members. Even the Netherlands, a relatively small country, has a foreign affairs committee of the First Chamber, consisting of 12 members, and a foreign affairs committee of the Second Chamber, comprising 24. It is a serious matter that we alone among our EEC partners, our Alliance partners and our OECD partners for some curious reason remain without any formal committee within which we can have a proper, in-depth discussion of foreign affairs subjects.

I think that what I have said makes the case overwhelmingly for coming into line, in view of our particular interests in international affairs, and thinking seriously about establishing a specialist committee or committees.

The next question to which we must address ourselves is whether our specialist committee should be a Select Committee or otherwise. Select Committees are par- ticular in at least two ways. First, they are select—that is, their members are all selected and the committees are not open to all hon. Members. They encourage specialists with a particular interest in the subject to join them. Secondly, their nature and remit encourage them to be largely investigatory committees. We read in Redlich's The Procedure of the House of Commons:
"They are the special part of the mechanism of the House which is set in motion for the study of a subject and the devising of plans for its treatment … select committees are first and foremost committees of investigation, they … have regularly entrusted to them a group of powers which as a rule are retained for exercise by the House itself, namely, the right to require the attendance of witnesses and to examine upon oath, the power of sending for all documents, papers, and records relevant to the matters referred to them, and that of insisting upon the production of any such papers by witnesses."
Select Committees are very powerful. The process of establishing them began as long ago as 1341, when the first Committee, I think on expenditure, was set up. Select Committees have been developed over the centuries in the service of the House. The time has come for us to consider having one for foreign affairs.

Only a relatively short time ago, in 1971, a Green Paper on committees was published. Commenting on the previous record of Select Committees, the Green Paper, Cmnd. 4705, said:
"it must be conceded that when—too rarely—their reports have been debated, the degree of interest shown by other Members has sometimes been disappointingly small."
The Minister may well say that Select Committees sit and reports are produced but that they do not add much to our discussions in this Chamber. Certainly when the Green Paper was being drafted that was so, but it added:
"The influence of the Committees on the formation of new policies is … subtle and in many cases will not be visible for some time to come."
The Green Paper also said:
"it is beyond dispute that they have acquired a growing body of expertise and have brought together in their reports, for the benefit of the House and the public generally, a valuable body of fact and opinion on some important issues."
There was a recommendation that the Select Committees had a part to play, one which should be developed.

I am proud to serve on the Select Committee on Overseas Development, which I know from experience played an important part in bringing to the Executive's attention a subject which urgently needed scrutiny and consideration in depth. I refer to the Crown Agents. I do not wish to say anything in advance of the Fay Committee's report, but I can comment that it was that Select Committee that, as a result of the urging of the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham), took evidence and discussed the Crown Agents. When the right hon. Member for Lanark (Mrs. Hart) left the Committee shortly afterwards to begin her second term as Minister of State for Overseas Development, the top item on her list when she went into her office was the Crown Agents. Within weeks of her return, the inquiry was set up. We await the results with interest.

That example is incontrovertible proof that Select Committees can play an important rôle in foreign affairs by supervising the Executive. In that case the Executive had not exercised the supervision over the Crown Agents that it should have exercised, in the public interest. It was the House—first, in the Chamber, and, secondly, through the Select Committee on Overseas Development—that brought the matter to light discreetly and quietly, so that the confidence of overseas principals in the Crown Agents was not damaged.

More recently the same Select Committee has issued what is generally agreed, certainly by the informed Press, to be a good report, the Second Report this Session. That report criticises the Government severely for their rôle in the international negotiations following UNCTAD in Nairobi last year and leading up to the UNCTAD discussions in Geneva which have just finished. I believe that that report, which was prepared within two or three weeks by a small committee of eight of us, contributed to discussion and understanding within the House and outside of the major issues facing the world in matters of commodity management and so on.

Of course we have a Defence and External Affairs Sub-Committee. That followed the setting up of the Expenditure Committee in 1971 after a debate on the Green Paper to which I have already referred. In that particular Committee they discuss both defence and external affairs matters, but it is a very small Committee—far too small to give the kind of supervision of the running of our external affairs that I and the majority of hon. Members believe is necessary in this day and age.

In the debate on the Green Paper which resulted in Standing Order No. 80, and the establishment of the Expenditure Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and the Border (Mr. Whitelaw) made these important comments about Select Committees. We should never forget them:
"On the one hand, I am absolutely certain that the House of Commons Chamber must remain the centre of Parliament and the main battleground of political controversy. On the other hand, I am equally certain that a sound Select Committee system is vital to the detailed probing and criticism of the executive upon which both successful Parliamentry democracy and good government depend. The Select Committee system can also be valuable to the debates in the House of Commons Chamber."
Later he suggested that following the establishment of the Expenditure Committee there should be various sub-committees, including one for defence and external affairs:
"I suggest that this will provide an opportunity for evolutionary developments within what I hope will be a reasonably stable framework."—[Official Report, 12th November 1970; Vol. 806, c. 619–21.]
A review of procedure and Select Committees is already under way by the Procedure Committee. I was very interested in reading the evidence given to that Committee so far to see the comments of two earlier witnesses. My right hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Atkins), the Opposition Chief Whip, said in evidence that he believed that more use should be made of the Select Committee procedure. In page 84 of the evidence he said:
"Parliament does not exist or should not exist as a simple piece of machinery to translate as speedily as possible into action what a Government wants. It is my view that Parliament was invented for precisely the opposite reasons and therefore its ability to question and probe the Government and improve legislative proposals overrides everything else in importance."
I think that few hon. Members would disagree with that. Perhaps people forget it temporarily when they occupy the Treasury Bench and enjoy the fruits of office, but they soon come back to realising that we are all here because we are elected by constituents who want us to represent their interests and to play a part in ensuring that the rules and regulations that emanate from this House are sensible and contribute to improving their lives.

Another piece of evidence in which I was interested was that of the Leader of the House. I am sorry that he is not here at the moment. When we had an exchange at Business Questions 10 days ago on this subject he said that he hoped he would be here today because he had an open mind on these matters and was anxious that they should be discussed so that he could make up his mind whether time should be found for a debate at a later stage in which more hon. Members could take part. The Leader of the House said in his evidence to the Committee:
"It has always been a fallacy that, in fact, the Cabinet dictates to the House of Commons. The Government have some power over it, and some power to indicate what they want, but the idea that the legislation is not greatly altered by debate in the House of Commons and by individual back-benchers and by backbenchers in other committees influencing the legislation is entirely incorrect."
He went on—and this is important:
"Of course, in matters other than legislation back-benchers have a much bigger part than the modern theory states. I want to see that that part is preserved, and strengthened, and that the back-benchers' possibilities of having a chance of influencing what the Government does are increased."
I am very glad that the Leader of the House put that on the record, because this is the burden of my request today.

Of course I understand that the establishment of a Select Committee on Foreign Affairs is not a decision that can be taken lightly. One must bear in mind that this proposal is rather different from proposals for other kinds of Select Committees, particulary pre-legislative committees which might play a more active part in legislation. The difference between the Foreign Office and other Departments of State is that the Foreign Office has little or no legislation, therefore it operates without the constraints that the House imposes through legislation, and is freer than most Departments to have its own way. For that reason it is important that we have an early decision to bring this part of Government activity under more active review in the House.

I realise that I have taken up a long time with my speech and that other hon. Members want to speak. I wind up by saying that I hope that the Leader of the House, when he reads this debate, or the Under-Secretary who will reply today, will indicate that the Government are not unfavourably disposed to considering the possibility of having a half-day debate before the Whitsun Recess when the House can have a better opportunity to discuss the pros and cons of the establishment of a Select Committee on Foreign Affairs.

In his earlier answers to business questions the Leader of the House said that he was not against such a debate but that finding time might be difficult. In view of the evidence given to the Select Committee on Procedure, and Early-Day Motion No. 222, which has the overwhelming support of all parts of the House, it is incumbent upon the Leader of the House to find time for a serious debate of that kind as soon as possible after the Easter Recess.

12.38 p.m.

I just wish to emphasise that I support my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler) and his motion. I have reservations about the exact procedure, but my real concern is to find some machinery for a study of foreign affairs that will maintain the bipartisan approach that is one of the most important aspects of the handling of foreign affairs in this nation. I hope that on this occasion Oxford and Cambridge will be together.

12.39 p.m.

I have no wish to detain the House or to spread about dying—I hope—'flu germs. I want to support the hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler) and draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Luard), who occupies the position that I once held in the Foreign Office, to the fact that it was my spell at the Foreign Office more than anything that convinced me that the House needed a Select Committee to look at foreign affairs and to keep us informed about what is taking place. I think that the case for it has been made admirably this afternoon.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister is aware that at this stage, just before a parliamentary Recess, the strength of feeling on a motion is not necessarily demonstrated by the number of hon. Members in attendance. Inter-Party political co-operation seems to be the order of the day, and there has been a great deal of party co-operation on this motion. It was not difficult to obtain signatures to it, because hon. Members were anxious to lend their support. There is a general feeling of frustration among hon. Members in all parts of the House about the way in which foreign affairs are dealt with. Therefore, I fully support all that has been said.

12.40 p.m.

I wish to add my strong support to the case for a Select Committee on Foreign Affairs so ably advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler).

The three most important points made by my hon. Friend are as follows. First, he wishes to bring our practices in this House into line with those adapted by our partners in the world who are at the same stage of economic and political development as ourselves. Secondly, he wishes to establish a more knowledgeable public within the House of Commons, at is were, when dealing with these important matters on the Floor of the House. This can be achieved only by means of an ongoing organisation which can follow these matters through and probe them deeply.

Thirdly, my hon. Friend made the point that it could be said that the establishment of such a Committee and the healthy debating of these matters on the Floor were incompatible. However, I believe that they are entirely compatible, and experience demonstrates that, if debates are well prepared by means of an investigatory body, the quality of our debates is improved. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will not advance that argument, because it is a canard.

12.42 p.m.

I wish to congratulate the hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler) on choosing this important subject for debate today. Questions of procedural and parliamentary reform are important to us here, and are also important to the good government of the country. We are all grateful to the hon. Gentleman, not only for making an interesting contribution but for giving us the opportunity to ensure that this important subject, relating to the conduct of business in the House, is fully aired.

The hon. Gentleman claimed, with some justification, that his proposal had wide support within the House. Indeed, he was the main instigator and organiser of the Early-Day Motion on this subject, which has now attracted nearly 360 signatures, which, I believe, is a record and certainly a considerable achievement. That amount of support demonstrates the strong body of opinion in all parts of the House and among all parties in favour of his proposition for the establishment of a Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. Whoever reaches a decision on this matter—and it is not only the Government who are involved—must take careful account of the opinion expressed in favour of this motion.

I must make a brief comment about my own position in case I should be caught out by anybody who may have dug up quotations of what I have said on this subject in the past. I make no secret of the fact that in the past I have been a firm supporter of such committees, and particularly a committee on foreign affairs. It is known, I believe, that that is also true of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who expressed himself in a similar sense in an article in The Guardian about three years ago. Nobody therefore could maintain that there is any undue prejudice among Foreign Office Ministers against such a proposal.

There are a number of good arguments that can be advanced for the establishment of Select Committees on specialised matters, including the subject of foreign affairs. First, such Committees have the advantage of bringing together those hon. Members who have great interest in and knowledge of a subject, and who therefore are able to discuss the matter concerned with a much greater degree of expertise than is normally the case in most discussions in the House. To some extent we pride ourselves in this House on being a body of laymen, and in many cases there may be value when discussing matters in this Chamber in advancing the view of the man in the street. However, there are also occasions when there is great advantage in undertaking a more expert discussion among those who are knowledgeable and informed and who can go into matters with a greater degree of depth than is normal on the Floor of the House.

Secondly, it can be said that such Committees make it possible to subject the Government of the day to a more real and effective scrutiny of their actions and decisions than is normally possible under our traditional procedures. Some of us pride ourselves on our system of Parliamentary Questions, but most of us when we have been here for only a little time soon come to recognise the fact that any Minister—even junior Ministers—have no difficulty whatever in giving as little information as they choose on such occasions. It might be said that a Minister who has not learned the art of talking a great deal while saying almost nothing hardly deserves to remain a Minister. I think we all recognise that fact.

A Select Committee of the kind suggested would be in a much better position to probe matters more deeply and to elicit the views and policies of the Government of the day. It could also call Ministers before it and could examine Ministers about policies in a way that is not normally possible for hon. Members in the House. I appreciate that this is an argument that will appeal much more to the Opposition than to the Government, and to Back Benchers more than Front Benchers, but anybody who is concerned about the rôle played by Parliament in our country's affairs might not be sorry to see a body set up with the power to call the Executive to account, and perhaps even to see the whole balance between the Executive and the Legislature thus tipped a little the other way.

Thirdly, the establishment of such Committees enables any subject, including that of foreign affairs, to be considered in greater depth than is normally possible. When we have occasional debates on foreign affairs today, they cover the entire globe from China to Peru, from East-West relations to North-South dialogue, from the supply of arms to the EEC butter mountain. The effect is that no single subject is adequately treated: each individual speaker deals with an individual subject, but it is impossible to cover any subject adequately. One hopes that a committee of this kind would be able to devote itself more effectively to an individual issue, to subject it to a thoroughgoing inquiry and to come up with a competent report upon it.

Fourthly, Select Committtees—and this was mentioned by the hon. Member for Carshalton (Mr. Forman)—have an important rôle in educating Members of Parliament to acquire a much deeper knowledge of individual subjects. Hon. Members who have served on the Select Committees on Overseas Aid, Race Relations and Science and Technology, for example, have over the years become experts in those areas. That means that they can contribute more effectively to discussions on the Floor of the House. Members of those Committees are able to call before them all the greatest authorities in the land and can travel to other countries to discuss matters on the spot. In that way they can go into a subject with great intensity and can deepen their own level of knowledge. That is valuable not only to the Members concerned but to the House as a whole.

The arguments which I have been using so far relate to any Committee of this kind. Good arguments can be used to support the establishment of such Committees, but in the case of foreign affairs there is an additional, fifth argument which I would mention and to which we must give considerable weight. I refer to the fact, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West, that our debates on foreign affairs are lamentably few and far between. This does not give us adequate opportunity to give the subject the amount of attention which hon. Members who are particularly interested think it deserves.

We have our foreign affairs debates, but they are in many cases general debates of the kind I have just described, in which any issue can be mentioned. That means that no subject is adequately discussed. Each individual hon. Member devotes himself to a particular topic—the Middle East, East-West relations, or whatever it is in which he is passionately interested, and the next hon. Member to speak talks of something totally different, so that there is no coherent or consistent discussion. The unfortunate Front Bench speaker who has to reply seeks to undertake a vast world tour, spending five minutes in the Middle East, 10 minutes in Africa and three minutes in Latin America, finishing up with a quarter of an hour or so in Europe. This is an ineffective way of dealing with the subject of foreign affairs.

Alternatively, debates of this kind may focus on a relatively narrow subject—such as direct elections to the European Parliament, which we shall be discussing when we come back after Easter—and we may have a reasonable debate on that topic. But many other subjects which many of us regard as of considerable importance are not debated at all. If I mention one or two examples of subjects some would regard as important but to which we have not, as a House, directed any attention in several years, there is the question of nuclear proliferation, the law of the sea and the use of the deep sea bed, the United Nations generally, the question of human rights, international economic relations, even the political situation in particular parts of the world, such as Latin America or Eastern Europe, or even Southern Africa. We have not had a whole debate devoted to any of those for a considerable time.

Many of us think that such debates would be desirable. Therefore, if we are to be able to devote concentrated attention to subjects of that kind, no doubt the Committee proposed by the hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West would have a valuable rôle to play.

The central problem here is that the Foreign Office rarely, if ever, promotes legislation. For example, on direct elections, I have no doubt that the first signature on the Bill will be that of the Home Secretary, and we shall discuss it largely in domestic terms, though perhaps with allusions to its foreign affairs or EEC implications.

That was a point made by the hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West: I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Sudbury and Woodbridge (Mr. Stainton) was present at the time. It is true that we do not have much legislation. We have some rather unimportant legislation on foreign affairs, but not very much, and such legislation is rarely discussed in the Chamber. That is an additional argument for providing other opportunities for these important questions to be debated by hon. Members, and sometimes for reports to be made, as the hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West has proposed, which might then be discussed in the House.

I hope that I have assured hon. Members in what I have said that the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary and I are by no means unsympathetic to the idea put forward. Everyone must accept that there are reasonable and sound arguments to be found for establishing Committees of this kind. But I do not imagine that hon. Members will expect me now at the Dispatch Box to announce that the Government have been so convinced by the words of wisdom expressed today that they have decided that such a Committee should immediately be established.

These are important questions, and the hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West is suggesting a radical change in the way in which we have conducted our business for centuries. I do not think that anyone will expect that at the drop of a hat we shall change our procedures in this way. But I can say that we are impressed by the weight of opinion among hon. Members who have given support to the Early-Day Motion and by the arguments advanced in the debate.

Many hon. Members will know that there is a Select Committee of the House which is, at present, considering all our procedures. It is supposed to be conducting a rather radical reform of the way in which the House conducts all its business. I understand that so far the Committee has devoted its discussions entirely to the question of the process of legislation, but I believe that, shortly after Easter, it will be considering the very topic raised today, that is, whether there should be more Select Committees of this type and what are the arguments for and against them.

It may well be that that Committee will eventually come up with a firm recommendation in favour of establishing Committees of this kind, and possibly in favour of one particularly concerned with Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. If that is the case, it will be an additional argument which the Government will have carefully to bear in mind, since the proposal will be supported then not only by the majority of Members of Parliament who signed the motion and by those who have spoken in the debate but by a weighty Committee of the House set up precisely to consider this question.

I ask hon. Members to be prepared to wait for the present until the Committee has considered this matter and reported. We shall carefully consider its report and, as I have said, if it were to come out strongly in favour of such a proposal, that would be an argument that we should have to take seriously.

I thank the Minister for the information he has given us. I think that we are all reassured that there is no ingrained opposition to the proposition that there should be a Select Committee, and I thank him for that. On what sort of time scale does he think the Select Committee on Procedure is likely to work? Further, does he feel that in these circumstances it might be helpful to have a debate at another time, in Government time, before Whitsun—or certainly before the Summer Recess—in which hon. Members on both sides could have a better chance to debate the merits and demerits of such a proposition? It might be helpful to the Select Committee on Procedure in arriving at its conclusions.

I was coming to the hon. Gentleman's suggestion for a debate, but I should first like to finish the point I was making. I do not know the time table for the business of the Select Committee. I do not think that the Committee knows at present. The hon. Gentleman might like to make an inquiry of the Committee or of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warrington (Sir T. Williams), its Chairman, as to what the Committee's intentions are in this respect. The Committee is making a wide-ranging inquiry, and I expect that it will be another year or so before it makes its recommendations. I accept that this is a delaying factor which may be unwelcome to some hon. Members, but it is sensible for us to wait to see what proposals the Committee will produce.

The question of a debate is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. He is already aware of the requests made, and I shall transmit the requests made again today on the subject. I cannot make any commitment myself. I do not think that there is any particular opposition from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. I think that it would be valuable to have a further discussion, other than the brief debate that we have had today, on the subject. But I repeat it must be a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, and there is a lot of other business to be discussed. I hope that it may be dealt with in that way.

I repeat, finally, that the Government have no firm opposition to this idea. They have no firm position either for or against the establishment of such a Committee. We are impressed by the weight of opinion expressed in support of the Early-Day Motion and by the views expressed in the debate. We shall carefully consider any recommendation that may be made by the Select Committee on Procedure, and we shall then reach a decision on this important matter.

With respect, my impression is that this has not been a debate at all. We have had a very polite rehearsal of all the arguments in favour, followed by almost an acquiescence in these arguments, and we are finishing with an undertaking that the Government will give serious consideration to what might emerge. At least, we could have had some indication of the reservations in the Government's mind.

This is supposed to be a discussion of a particular proposal. I have expressed certain views and arguments that are well known on this matter. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman can put words into my mouth or that of the Government. The objection is, as I said earlier, that there could be a radical change in the procedures of the House. If the hon. Member has strong views he could have come to the beginning of the debate and he could then have expressed his views in the debate.