Skip to main content

Liaison Committee: First Report

Volume 719: debated on Wednesday 16 June 2010

Motion to Agree

Moved By

My Lords, the report sets out the conclusions of a review we have conducted of the activity of the main policy committees of your Lordships' House. We are committed to such a review at the beginning of every Parliament.

Our report considers the main criteria which we have set out for such committees—in particular, that they should be complementary to the work of other committees in this House and in the House of Commons, and that they should add value to the process of political debate and decision. We also considered whether the overall scale of committee activity was appropriate and whether the balance between ad hoc and longer-term committees was right. Finally, we looked at the specific committees which we established in the previous Parliament and at some suggestions for new activity.

Our overall conclusion was strongly to endorse the principle that policy committees of your Lordships' House should be complementary to the work of other scrutiny bodies. We also thought that the overall scale of our activity was about right—although some of us were attracted in principle to having more and shorter-term ad hoc inquiries, if the right sort of subjects could be identified.

We thought carefully about the suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for a new committee on international affairs, something we have considered on three previous occasions. We also considered a suggestion from the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, for a committee on British identity. We decided to recommend neither to your Lordships, although we will be happy to consider any focused suggestions for ad hoc inquiries on foreign affairs matters.

As a result, we were able to recommend the reappointment of all the policy committees which existed at the end of the previous Parliament, with some minor recommendations intended to clarify their remits and their working methods. I beg to move.

My Lords, before the House agrees the recommendation of the Liaison Committee, perhaps I may detain your Lordships for a few moments and ask the Chairman of Committees a question. As the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, has just said, this request was placed before his committee by me and by a number of other noble Lords from all sides of the House.

One of the great strengths of this House is the expertise and wealth of experience that one finds here: former Chiefs of Staff, former Permanent Secretaries, former ambassadors and members of the diplomatic corps—people with huge experience. Thirteen years ago at the time of my appointment here, I was surprised that there was no Select Committee overseeing foreign affairs. Indeed, in my experience and, I am sure, that of other noble Lords, that fact is often greeted with incredulity when we talk about the work of your Lordships’ House. However, given the wealth of experience and knowledge that exists here, such a committee has been proposed many times to the Liaison Committee, as the noble Lord said, but on every occasion the suggestion has been rejected. Therefore, I sought to raise this issue again, enjoying the support of people such as my noble friends Lord Hannay, Lord Sandwich, Lady Cox and Lord Wright, and the noble Lord, Lord Steel, the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, and the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert—that is, people from all sides of your Lordships’ House.

The noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, is in Romania and gives her apologies but she e-mailed me yesterday to say that she would like to be associated with these remarks. She wrote to the Liaison Committee in these terms:

“I returned to The House from ten years in the European Parliament … where I served for seven and a half years as a Vice-Chairman of the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee and subsequently as a member. This committee is considered the senior committee of that institution, with the considerable range of expertise that it contains. It was therefore with a little surprise that I learnt that we do not make use of the far greater expanse of knowledge and experience that we possess in this House”.

At the end of the letter she said:

“I join with the growing body of highly valuable colleagues across the floor who would very much welcome the opportunity to discuss with your Committee the establishment of a committee on the lines I have set out”.

My understanding was that, before a decision was made about this matter, there would be a chance for the noble Baroness, myself and others who hold this view to have a discussion with the committee, and I am disappointed that that did not occur. One of my questions to the noble Lord is: will there be an opportunity for such a discussion in the future? Also, will he take the wide-ranging views of your Lordships into account, and not simply have a consultation with the chairmen of the existing committees, who I notice at paragraph 16 of the report argue for the status quo? The submissions from the chairmen all argued for the reappointment of their committees in this Parliament in the same form. That came as no great surprise to me and I suspect that it will not have come as a surprise to most of your Lordships as well. There are real questions about, for example, resources, which I fully accept, but I think that this is an area to which we should give further consideration.

I was particularly struck by the force of the representations made by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, who, after all, is a former chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in another place. In a letter written as recently as 1 April to the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said:

“This note is just to express my strong hope that this proposal will indeed be very seriously (and I trust favourably) examined at the outset of the new Parliament. In my view (and that of several peers in all parties and on the crossbenches) such an initiative is long overdue and much needed so as to allow Parliament to cover the very wide issues of international policy concerns which lie, understandably, beyond the reach of the EU Committee structure and beyond the areas which the excellent Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Commons (of which I have some experience) has the time or resources to handle”.

Again, we should not dismiss with disdain the views of the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, who now speaks on foreign affairs issues in your Lordships’ House. These views—I can see the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, who has listened to them carefully—should be taken into account.

I do not want to detain the House at length, but we should not show timidity about these things. At a moment when another place has just reappointed Select Committees and for the first time allowed the election of their chairmen, for us simply to make do with occasional ad hoc committees is not the right way to proceed. This is a significantly missed opportunity.

My Lords, perhaps I may add briefly to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, with which I wholeheartedly agree. We have no committee in either House which looks at international instruments, to which this country becomes party. We look at European instruments because they will become our law, and in the same way, I submit, we should look at international instruments. There is a democratic deficit in the fact that we have no such committee.

My Lords, I wish to speak in support of what the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has said. If the people who decide what committees we have are the people who chair those committees, there is a democratic deficit within this House. Surely that cannot be right. I hope that the Chairman of Committees will agree to give further thought to this very important matter.

My Lords, in contradiction to my noble friend, the people who decide are your Lordships. A recommendation comes from the committee but the final decision rests with your Lordships. I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Alton. He makes a very good case: undoubtedly there is considerable expertise in your Lordships' House on matters of foreign affairs, as there is on the law. If we were to choose subjects on the basis of the expertise that exists in your Lordships' House, we could have a Select Committee on home affairs and a Select Committee on medicine and hospitals. We do not have departmental Select Committees in this House and I think it would be a mistake to move away from that position.

My Lords, I, too, find it strange that in your Lordships' House we do not have a foreign affairs committee, particularly at the moment when the new coalition Government are talking about a major defence review. It would be strange if there were not some firm, strategic foreign and Commonwealth affairs statements on which this defence review could be based. For that reason I feel that your Lordships have a need to take an interest in, to participate in and to debate those very views which, we hope, will come from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The need is urgent and we should consider this very carefully.

My Lords, I speak in support of those who feel that there should be a foreign affairs committee in this House. I add these words because, for three years, I was chairman of Sub-Committee C, which covered foreign affairs and defence in the EU sense. Many times I was extremely irritated to be told that we could not investigate what I wanted to investigate because it was outside our remit in terms of its connection with European Union affairs.

My Lords, I am not surprised that this decision by the Liaison Committee has caused some disappointment, notably to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, but also to others. I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has looked at the membership of the Liaison Committee, which can be seen in the front cover of its report. The decision has nothing to do with the chairmen of other committees. The Liaison Committee is comprised of a number of noble Lords without any vested interests.

This is the fourth time that we have looked at the suggestion and, over that time, the committee has had different members on it. It has always come to the same conclusion that a permanent foreign or international affairs committee would end up duplicating the role of Commons committees, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff. We also noted that there was potential duplication with the sub-committee of the EU Committee on foreign affairs, defence and development policy. Although I noted the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, in that respect, I do not think it alters the decision of the Liaison Committee this time around.

As I said in my opening remarks, and as the report certainly makes clear, if any Member of your Lordships' House has a specific suggestion for an ad hoc inquiry into foreign affairs issues, we would be very happy to consider it. As I said in my opening remarks, and as is stated in the report, we are keen to establish more ad hoc committees—one at a time, I may say—which could, it is to be hoped, produce succinct and interesting reports for your Lordships. Perhaps the subject raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, would be a suitable one for that.

Motion agreed.