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Liaison Committee

Volume 760: debated on Thursday 12 March 2015

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That the 2nd Report from the Select Committee (Review of select committee activity and proposals for new committee activity) (HL Paper 127) be agreed to.

My Lords, the present Parliament has seen House of Lords Select Committee activity at a higher level than ever before, including two additional units of committee activity. This increase, including in particular the growth of ad hoc committees and the introduction of post-legislative scrutiny committees, has been popular with Members and has added to the work of your Lordships’ House and its standing in the country. So, too, has been the practice of inviting Members of the House to suggest their own proposals for ad hoc committees. This year, we had 42 proposals by the time of the deadline.

As usual, the Liaison Committee discussed the work of this Session’s ad hoc committees with their respective chairmen. We concluded that the three new ad hoc committees and the post-legislative scrutiny committee on extradition law worked well. The committee recommended maintaining the current high level of committee activity in the first Session of the new Parliament.

We have also made provision to support the work of pre-legislative scrutiny committees in the new Parliament, recognising that the production of draft Bills in the first Session after a general election can—shall we say?—be somewhat unpredictable. There has been one such committee this Session—the Joint Committee on the Draft Protection of Charities Bill, which has recently reported.

Turning to our recommendations for ad hoc committees in the next Session, we bore in mind our previous agreement in principle that one of the committees chosen each Session should be on an international relations subject. The noble Baroness, Lady Helic, proposed a Select Committee on sexual violence in conflict: the UK and global response. As she highlighted in her proposal, there is a growing recognition that war-zone sexual violence is a key foreign policy and security issue. There is cross-party consensus on the importance of this issue but there has never been a parliamentary committee of either House exploring it in depth. An ad hoc committee on sexual violence in conflict would therefore be breaking new ground, and we recommend the appointment of such a committee in the new Session.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Andrews and Lady Whitaker, proposed a Select Committee on policy for the built environment—another area where a cross-cutting inquiry is overdue. The noble Baroness, Lady Tyler of Enfield, proposed a Select Committee on social mobility, focusing on the transition from school to work. The Liaison Committee thought that such an inquiry would be timely in the light of increasing recognition of social mobility as a key social policy issue. The Liaison Committee recommended the appointment of an ad hoc committee on each of those subjects.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, proposed a post-legislative scrutiny committee on the disability provisions of the Equality Act 2010. This Act is wide-ranging, and the committee agreed with the noble Baroness that limiting the review to disability would help ensure a focused inquiry, allowing it to examine the issues in greater detail within the one Session.

With 42 proposals, inevitably it is not possible to please all Members of the House. However, I am confident that these new committees will deliver as high a quality of report as those which have just reported. In the present Parliament, the House of Lords Select Committee system has gone from strength to strength. Long may this continue. I beg to move.

My Lords, I take this opportunity to congratulate the Liaison Committee and those who have been involved in the negotiations on ensuring that in future Treasury officials and Ministers will appear in front of the Select Committee of your Lordships’ House. Until now, that has not been the case, with the one exception of an economic committee. It is plainly wrong that Ministers and officials should not have appeared before your Lordships’ committee on matters in which the Treasury is clearly involved. Therefore, ensuring that in future we will have the benefit of evidence from Treasury officials and Ministers is a considerable step forward.

My Lords, I welcome the Liaison Committee’s report, even though the committee did not choose any of the six recommendations that I put forward as topics. However, I shall try again next year.

I ask for an assurance from the Chairman of Committees that these ad hoc committees, and indeed all Select Committees, will be adequately resourced—that they get the staff to service them, that they are able to appoint specialist advisers, and that they are able to go from place to place to take evidence and, if necessary, to travel overseas. I served on the ad hoc committee on soft power, ably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Howell. However, I felt that we were constantly constrained in our ability to carry out our work. In this House, unlimited funds seem to be made available for works around the House. I understand that those works are necessary but somehow the money seems to be found for ceremonies and all those kinds of things. But when it comes to the essential work and the reason we are here—to scrutinise legislation and to look at different topics—the money gets squeezed. We keep getting messages saying, “No, you can’t do this; no, you can’t do that”. There is no point in having these Select Committees unless they are properly and adequately resourced. I hope that the Chairman of Committees will give us that assurance.

My Lords, perhaps I may express some considerable disappointment that yet again the Liaison Committee has rejected proposals in my name and in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Howell of Guildford and Lord Jopling, for a foreign affairs or an international affairs committee. I express even greater disappointment that the Chairman of Committees should not have thought it necessary to explain why this proposal, which has been put forward on rather a large number of occasions, was rejected. He will be well aware, from last week’s debate on soft power, for example, that there is support for it from all corners of the House. Will he please therefore tell the House what consideration was given to the proposals put forward by these three Members of the House? At least we will then hear some explanation of why this rather luddite approach to this policy is still prevailing.

My Lords, I warmly endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, has just said. I think many of your Lordships are aware, and I am sure that the noble Lord is aware, that the global established order is now unravelling. Vast changes are taking place in foreign policy and in the interests and the promotion of the safeguarding of this country. Your Lordships’ House is full of considerable expertise on these matters, both long-term and short-term. I have heard it suggested that we must not duplicate the work of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the other place. I have to say that having been for 10 years the chair of that committee, I have some experience of how it works and I believe that there is no danger of duplication at all. On the contrary, if there was an international affairs committee in your Lordships’ House, it would be able to take up, reinforce and build on the excellent reports that come from that committee. Far from duplicating or getting in the way of it, there would be a very strong case, which I believe is getting stronger by the day, for setting up such a committee. I hope that it will now be considered very carefully.

Regarding correspondence on the establishment of an international affairs committee, perhaps I may add my voice to that of the noble Lords, Lord Howell of Guildford and Lord Jopling, and my noble friend Lord Hannay, in the representations that have been made again. I draw the attention of the Chairman of Committees to the excellent debate in your Lordships’ House two days ago on the ad hoc committee that looked at soft power. It is indicative that the noble Lord has already said to us that the first of the new ad hoc committees will be on an international issue of huge importance. While that is greatly appreciated—I am grateful to the noble Lord for that—does he not agree with the point made by the noble Lord about the unravelling of the international situation and the unique expertise held here in your Lordships’ House? If there is any justification—more than any other—for the existence of your Lordships’ House, it is this collective, unique expertise that is drawn together. In the area of international affairs, we have an important and unique contribution to make. I hope that, if it is not possible today to make progress on this, the Liaison Committee will look again at this in the new Session.

My Lords, my name was kindly mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, who is quite right. Let us look at the history of this. For many years, a number of us have been coming into this Chamber and complaining that we did not have a specific committee on foreign affairs similar to the one in another place. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, said that he was chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee for 10 years and I had the pleasure of being a member of that committee down the Corridor for that same 10 years.

As a consequence of the pressure that we have all put on this, it was decided to have an ad hoc committee, as the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, has said, each year with an element of international attention. If we are to have an ad hoc committee on international affairs every year, why on earth do we not have a permanent committee, with continuous staff, rather than having to appoint an ad hoc committee in each Session?

I am never quite sure who the people who control our affairs are, although I have my suspicions. I have a feeling that the pass has already been sold. We have these annual ad hoc international committees but, for goodness’ sake, let us have a permanent, proper foreign affairs committee in the same way as they have down the Corridor.

My Lords, there has been a chorus for the establishment of a permanent international affairs committee, but does the noble Lord agree that this House adds enormous value to the proceedings and scrutiny of Parliament with the work of its European affairs committee? The House of Lords Select Committee on European affairs is known around the world. It has a wide remit, as witnessed by its recently produced and excellent report on Russia. Can the noble Lord tell the House how many applications the Liaison Committee received for ad hoc committees on international affairs last year? It seems to me that a stand-alone foreign affairs committee would duplicate the work of the House Commons. A permanent committee would perhaps need a wider remit to look at international defence as well as foreign affairs.

My Lords, I served on the Committee on Soft Power, which was so brilliantly chaired by my noble friend, on the understanding that it would be used as a kind of test for whether or not we would go ahead and have a proper committee on foreign affairs, as my noble friend has suggested. In the debate on the committee’s report it was perfectly apparent that our committee was able to range across a whole range of issues to do with international and foreign affairs, and almost everyone in the debate pointed towards the need for an international affairs committee of this kind.

I say to my noble friend that, although it is true that this House has a tremendous reputation for the work done by its European affairs committees, there is a world beyond Europe. One of the points which came out of the report from the Select Committee was how important it was that we engage with that world beyond Europe—not just the Commonwealth but also Asia and the rest. It was clear from listening to the contributions made in that debate that there is fantastic experience in this House which should be put to good use, which will not conflict in any way with the House of Commons.

If the Chairman of Committees is going to say that it is all to do with resources—he is shaking his head. I am glad to see that resources are not a problem. If it is not about resources, what is the point of having a House with this expertise which is not able to look at the issues at a time of huge international tensions and when people around the country are increasingly concerned? I think that the other place would benefit from the expertise and contribution.

I hope the Chairman of Committees will suggest to the Liaison Committee that we should have an early opportunity for this House to decide. My noble friend Lord Jopling asked who is in charge. This House is in charge, and this House should get an opportunity to vote on the issue of whether or not we should have such a committee.

My Lords, what is the procedure for allowing this House the opportunity to elect the members of the Liaison Committee and other committees? It is deemed quite reasonable in most legislatures round Europe.

My Lords, before the noble Lord replies, I hope the House will agree with me that the four reports which have been produced this year are of a uniformly outstanding quality. The post-legislation report on the Mental Capacity Act exposed serious problems about its implementation, and I am pleased to say that the Government have taken that on board. The soft power report has already been mentioned, and I thought that the report on the Arctic was, for someone who knows nothing about the subject, quite outstanding. Lastly, the report on affordable childcare was very instructive and will help the future Government, of any kind, to take those matters forward. We must not lose anything of the quality of these reports, because they reflect very highly on your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, perhaps I may intervene for a moment. I am a member of the Liaison Committee and it may be that noble Lords will be interested to hear what goes through some of our minds. We are not against the idea of a Select Committee on foreign affairs, but it is a question of whether that would be better in the immediate circumstances than the position that we have at the moment whereby, annually, foreign affairs is given an ad hoc placing. The system has worked well. I am in the middle of reading the debate on soft power which took place the other day, and it was an excellent debate. It is the same each year whenever an ad hoc committee dealing with foreign affairs makes its report. We then have a debate on those matters.

However, we cannot confine debates on foreign affairs to a very small number of people. As the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has said, this House has a very large number of people with a vast amount of knowledge about these matters. If they are given the opportunity to become one of the very select few to serve on a committee of that nature, and who I understand would then serve for three years on a rotation basis, only they will have the almost exclusive opportunity to carry out investigations and inquiries into issues of foreign affairs. Under the ad hoc procedural arrangements, far more people have the opportunity to engage in debate on these matters. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, wishes to correct me, but I understand that that is the position. All I would say is that there is another side to this. We are not opposed to the idea, but let us give more people an opportunity to become involved in the inquiries that take place on these very sensitive subjects.

Finally, in the event that we have a foreign affairs committee, who will pick the agenda? It will be the foreign affairs committee. Under the ad hoc procedure, we pick the subject: you pick the subject—the House of Lords picks the subject. If they wish, Members can walk into a Lobby and vote against this report, but if they do not wish to do so—

“We” is the House—the whole House decides. The noble Lord can oppose the Motion on this report and divide the House if he so wishes, but I presume that he is not going to do so.

My Lords, we always listen to the acute wisdom of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, with great attention, and I love the way that he often intervenes with a contrary view. However, on this occasion I have to say that I think he has missed the point. In the very words he has used about foreign relations, he has got it slightly wrong. We are not talking about foreign relations; we are talking about international relations. We are not talking just about the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but about almost every department of state which now has an international interface and is deeply involved in international affairs. That is certainly the case in Europe, where splendid work is done, but increasingly our interests lie outside Europe and in the rising powers of Africa, Asia and Latin America. It is not a question of confining these issues to the narrow experts on foreign affairs. At this moment the House is full of experts covering the huge new relationships that this nation has got to develop with almost every other country on earth, and every other interest, if we are to survive and prosper. I think that we should be playing our part in it properly.

My Lords, may I point out that the European Union Committee has an external affairs sub-committee that deals with international matters—most recently in its report on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership—so ably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat?

My Lords, I defer to no one in my respect for the EU Committee, chaired so well by the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, but it is very distorting to say that the only discussion of international affairs in a committee of this House should be in a committee devoted to looking at the foreign and security policies of the European Union. I am a believer in the European Union, but like the noble Lord, Lord Howell, I believe that it is very important to look outside the European Union.

I should say that my plea for an international affairs committee of this House, a plea made for the seventh successive year, has not even rated a mention in the report of the Liaison Committee—which merely proves, I suppose, that I am neither great nor good.

My Lords, if I may suggest a reason why the Liaison Committee is not the best body to decide what ad hoc issues are discussed relating to international affairs, it is that those of us who have been on the EU Select Committee and its sub-committees for a number of years—I am sure that this applies to other standing committees—spend a great deal of time on those committees considering what subjects we should look at next. The expertise of those committees is what produces the next subject. With great respect to the Liaison Committee, I do not think that it has that same expertise.

My Lords, there is only one answer to this: this House should decide whether we have such a committee.

My Lords, perhaps I may deal with a couple of early points, and then get on to what has taken us so much time.

First of all, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, for his comments. We have worked with the Treasury to make sure that we get a better understanding of the nature of the relationship between the department and our Select Committees. I am more than hopeful that, from now on, we will have a very much more constructive relationship with the Treasury. I think that that will again enhance the quality of our reports.

To the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, I say that we are increasing, year on year, the amount of resource that we allocate to Select Committee work. We obviously have to take into account our responsibility for public expenditure, but that is not cramping the work of our Select Committees; I am sure of that. A usual Select Committee inquiry taking place over about a Session costs about a quarter of a million pounds. I think that that is money well spent, but we have to have a proper, reasonable and responsible attitude to the expenditure of individual committees.

I turn now to the matter of international affairs, foreign affairs, or whatever we wish to call it. I think that the present system is working rather well. Let us look at the topics. The most recent topic was on soft power, on which there was a very high-quality report and a high-quality debate. Today, I hope, we will decide to have a Select Committee on sexual violence in war zones. We will be breaking new ground when we do that. It will be the first parliamentary inquiry covering this area. I believe—and I think the House believes—that it is an important area of policy and one that we should examine. I just wonder, in the back of my mind, had we had a permanent Select Committee on foreign affairs, would it have really looked at soft power or at sexual violence in war zones? I leave that for the House to decide.

The Liaison Committee did consider the establishment of a separate Select Committee on foreign affairs as a sessional committee. I believe that the Liaison Committee has now come to a settled view that it would prefer a different approach to international affairs, whereby all Members of the House have the opportunity to put forward a topic for Select Committee inquiry—that we invite everybody to bring forward what they consider to be an important and relevant area on which this House can bring its expertise to bear. That is now the settled view of the Liaison Committee and I believe that it is the right view.

My noble friend asserts that the Liaison Committee has reached a settled view. Would he be prepared to put that settled view to the test by giving the House an opportunity to vote on it?

My Lords, as far as I am aware, there would be an opportunity for the House to vote on it now if it wished. That is the matter before us.

My Lords, the Chairman of Committees is in a bit of a hole, and I ask him not to go on digging. For example, the point that he made about all Members of the House having the right to put forward subjects could perfectly well be fulfilled within the remit of an international affairs committee. All that you need to do in setting up such a committee is to require it to be open to all Members of the House for suggestions as to what subjects should be chosen. It could be done just as well that way as in this way. I do not oppose the choice that the Chairman of Committees has put forward as the international subject for the next Session, but will he please agree to ask the Liaison Committee to consider putting the matter to the House for decision?

The noble Lord offers us the novel suggestion that a permanent sessional committee would canvass the views of all individual Members of the House. I am not aware of any other sessional committee that makes decisions about its future work programme on that basis. Perhaps others would like to try that novel suggestion out first.

There is another reason why the Liaison Committee has come to this view. It is simply that foreign affairs is a fairly heterogeneous area. It is fairly clear that if you are having an inquiry on Ukraine, say, you are more than likely to want to bring in people with expertise and interests that are slightly different from those of people interested in things like sexual violence in war zones. We are able to bring together the best collection of people with expertise in the whole foreign affairs field to deal with particular topics, rather than having a continuing committee of roughly the same sort of people going on for several years. That gives us a much greater opportunity to have variety and novelty and to bring expertise to bear, and that is why we have such high quality and a high reputation for the work of our ad hoc committees.

Motion agreed.