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Liaison Committee

Volume 765: debated on Tuesday 10 November 2015

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That the 2nd Report from the Select Committee (An International Relations Committee) (HL Paper 47) be agreed to.

My Lords, I have the pleasure of presenting the report of the Liaison Committee. In recent times, the proposal that the House should establish an international relations committee has received a greater degree of attention. The issue has been raised in the Chamber on a number of occasions and there have been written representations from many Members. Therefore the Liaison Committee has been considering the matter in some detail. We appreciate that there is a range of views across the House on this question. The Motion before the House invites your Lordships to agree with the Liaison Committee’s recommendation to establish an international relations committee from the start of the next Session, together with a number of safeguards relating to membership and financial discipline.

As Members will know, the House has recently established ad hoc committees to consider a particular subject matter for one Session only, with some follow-up by the Liaison Committee. This enables a wide range of colleagues to participate in committee work. However, given the conflicts and tensions in the world and the interest of this House in international affairs, several Members have pressed for your Lordships’ House to have an international relations committee. If the House agrees to the proposition, it will be important to draw on a range of experience, and therefore the report invites the groups to bear this in mind when they make membership recommendations to the Committee of Selection.

We heard concerns, too, about the likely cost of an international relations committee, particularly in relation to travel. In broad terms the average annual cost of a Select Committee is about £225,000. Our report invites the House Committee, in drawing up the House financial plan, to consider whether any additional budget required by the Committee Office for the new committee should be offset by savings in other areas. For clarification, this does not mean that other committees will be affected in the next Session.

In addition, our report recommends a full review of investigative committee activity in the Session 2017-18. This will enable a timely evaluation of whether the new committee is working well, whether the safeguards are effective and how it is interacting with the European Union External Affairs Sub-Committee—Sub-Committee C—as well as of the overall shape of Select Committee activity. Although the Liaison Committee considers committee work at the end of each Session, there has not been a comprehensive review of the committee structure of the House since the Jellicoe committee reported in 1992. Since then there has been a considerable growth in the number of committees. Twenty-five years after the Jellicoe report, the time seems right to look again at our committee structure.

There is never a perfect solution to issues such as this, but the committee agreed that it needed to make a recommendation to the House for a decision. I hope that your Lordships will agree that our recommendation, including the safeguards, strikes an appropriate balance between the views expressed to us. I beg to move.

My Lords, although I welcome the new committee, may I ask the noble Lord to say a little more about why we need it, in addition to the External Affairs Sub-Committee of our European Union Committee? May I also once again ask the noble Lord whether we really need seven European Union sub-committees, especially when Brussels pays so little attention—indeed, virtually no attention—to their deliberations? Would we not do much better to distribute most of the cost of our seven European sub-committees over a number of ad hoc committees, for which your Lordships are so peculiarly knowledgeable and well suited, in the national interest?

My Lords, as a Member of the Liaison Committee at the present time, I endorse the carefully chosen and wise words of the Chairman of Committees and I join him in commending this report. There is, unquestionably, wide knowledge and expertise in the field of international relations in your Lordships’ House. There is of course, too, no shortage of deep knowledge and expertise in other major topics. The Chairman of Committee’s review of all sessional Select Committees in 2017 will give the House the opportunity to consider this wider field and to reach judgments, in the light of available resources, on how best to embrace the expertise available on a variety of topics.

As a previous member of the Liaison Committee during my time as Convenor from 1999 to 2004, I remember similar and protracted pressures on the Liaison Committee then to set up a variety of committees. Voices were raised in favour of sessional committees to consider a variety of topics. In particular, I recall one of those related to the media and creative industries, and this subsequently emerged as the Communications Committee. So the Liaison Committee has in-depth experience of handling such problems. As now, there were many noble Lords with great knowledge and expertise in a variety of other topics, and the Liaison Committee had to reach difficult judgments about both the topics and the resources available for the work.

The then committee had been reluctant to endorse additional Select Committee work on two practical grounds. First, there was no additional funding nor expert staff available to support a full-scale committee. This was ultimately resolved to set up the Communications Committee. Secondly—this is an important point—the number of active Peers who were available to fill the whole range of Select and other committees had to be considered. It was much less than it is now.

Indeed, as Convenor, with fewer available Cross-Benchers than now, and with fewer as active as those who sit following selection by the House of Lords Appointments Commission, I found that it could be quite difficult to find the appropriate numbers and skills to fill the Cross-Bench membership quotas after taking account of rotational requirements. Today, there are more Cross-Benchers ever more fully engaged in the many aspects of the work of the House, and there are many more noble Lords overall from whom to draw committee membership. So I feel that those two practical issues are now properly dealt with.

As an aside, were the membership of your Lordships’ House to be significantly reduced at some future date, this could impact on the number and range of topics that could be dealt with by sessional committees. However, that is a bridge yet to be crossed. I join the Chairman of Committees in commending this report to the House.

My Lords, I add to the good wishes which have already been expressed to the noble Lord for presenting the committee’s report to us. I speak as one who spent many years on Sub-Committee C dealing with foreign affairs and defence. I was chairman of that committee for a number of years and remember very well the frustrations we had in not being able to deal with crucial areas of international affairs around the world, including the issue of the Commonwealth, in which my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford has been involved and enthusiastic about for many years. We were precluded from looking into the problems of the Far East, India, China and South America, and I am enormously pleased that this proposal has been put before the House today.

My Lords, the Chairman of Committees referred to the Jellicoe review of some 25 years ago. I have to ask a question as an opponent. I have been an opponent as a member of the Liaison Committee, which I recently came off along with a few others. I notice that the mood in the committee seems to have changed in favour of this proposal following a lot of pressure and a successful campaign organised by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, I suspect. However, if there is going to be a review again in 2017-18, why could not this proposal be deferred until that review took place? It would have taken place in the context of a redistribution of resources throughout the whole of the Select Committee structure in the House and would have led to a far more rational and reasonable discussion about what is to take place.

Secondly, I refer to paragraph 11 of the report, which recommends,

“an agreement with the EU Committee on the boundaries between the EU Committee’s activities, particularly those of its Sub-Committee on External Affairs, and the International Relations Committee”.

That is not where the conflict is going to be; it will be with the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Commons. Indeed, there will be real conflict, because we have some very distinguished former members of previous Governments in this House, including many members of former Cabinets and former Permanent Secretaries, former experts in foreign affairs, representatives of the United Nations and other great, important and significant people, who will dominate this committee.

When delegations from abroad come to the United Kingdom and are deciding on whom they are going to meet and who they want to treat as more significant in the discussion taking place, it will be the Lords committee that commands the day, because it includes all these formerly very eminent people who, in my view, will make it very difficult for the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee to operate. There will be Members of the House who will say, “Yes, but we are the House and we are entitled to do this”. But I still believe that we are undermining the credibility of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Commons—I am wearing a Commons hat as I served there as a former Member.

We now come to the question of the financing of this arrangement. In paragraph 9, the report states:

“We invite the House Committee, in drawing up the House’s financial plan, to consider whether any additional budget required by the Committee Office for this purpose should be offset by savings in other areas”.

The members of the House Committee know exactly what will happen: of course it will be funded out of the savings in other areas. The House Committee will be under pressure to increase its general budget to ensure that moneys for travel by this committee are expended, and they will be made available. This is a two-stage process. All we are doing today is establishing the principles of the committee. The next stage will be the resources stage, where the money is allocated.

Then there is the question of the co-option of members, referred to in chapter 11.18 of the Companion. When the discussions were taking place about the role of this committee, its powers and its restrictions, the noble Lord used the phrase “constraints on the committee”. Were there any discussions about the possibility of ad hoc appointees to this new international relations committee? It is important that we know exactly what the position is there.

I turn finally to the question of the ad hocs. I was on the Procedure Committee and the Liaison Committee when we were dealing with the whole question of the appointment and the creation of the ad hoc structures. It was a very interesting debate because the view was expressed generally across the committee that the ad hocs would have free range across all subjects and would be able to raise those subjects as and when the time came annually when we were reviewing the list of applications for inquiries. However, now that this decision is being taken, the whole question of ad hoc work is going to be circumscribed by the existence of this new committee. Whenever a controversial subject comes up in the area of foreign affairs—as I said, I have been on the committee and seen how it works—the members will say, “Let’s leave that to the Foreign Affairs Committee”. The effect of that will be that that committee will determine the agenda, and it will fix an agenda that does not necessarily represent the views of the wider membership of the House, as brought forward in the submissions made to the ad hoc committee by the wider membership.

Therefore, in my view, not only are we undermining the credibility of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s structure in the House of Commons, but we are also undermining the work of the ad hoc committee structures that we have created here in the House of Lords. I appeal to the House to refer this matter back. If we come back on another occasion, we can all go silent, but let us refer the matter back on this occasion, either for another report that takes into account some of the issues that I have raised in my contribution today but perhaps even goes as far as suggesting that we defer this decision until the 2017-18 Session, when the matter can be revisited in the context of all committee memberships.

My Lords, I rise solely to deal with the issue of ad hoc committees and the effect of the foreign affairs committee on the operation of ad hoc committees. First of all, I have to say that I totally support a foreign affairs committee in the House of Lords for the same reason as has been stated. We have so much expertise here and foreign affairs are more important now than they have been for many a year. We are in a very unstable situation worldwide and we need to draw on all the expertise that we can. Let us not forget that Members in the other place have a huge number of responsibilities, not least to their constituents. We have the luxury—I say that word—because we have time to consider, and the experience and expertise to draw on. We do that very, very well.

To get back to the ad hoc committees, the noble Lord made the point that they would suffer if a foreign affairs committee were to come in. How would that impact on the Digital Skills Committee, the Affordable Childcare Committee, or the one which I have the honour to chair, which is on the national policy for the built environment in this country? I think this is using the wrong thing in which to scupper a very good idea.

My Lords, as a member of the committee, might I say that a factor of importance to us was the question of timing? It seemed to us that the fact that it was possible to have a review in the following year was critical to the overall decision. There are various factors that would have to be considered but they are better considered after the year of seeing how the committee actually works, so the timing is as good as it could be for that reason.

A further factor of importance which the noble Lord mentioned is the fact that this is being undertaken without prejudice to the existing structure of committees across the House, including the European Union Committee. No doubt that will have to be reviewed later, but that is best done after this year has passed and we have seen how this particular committee operates in practice.

My Lords, may I say how much I believe my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours was right to raise important details about resources? I hope that the future committee will indeed have some restraint on travel.

My noble friend also made points about the ad hoc committees, but his major point related to possible conflict with the Foreign Affairs Committee in the other place. I had the honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, in chairing that committee. I chaired it for eight years—for two Parliaments. When the noble Lord, Lord Howell, asked for my opinions at that time on a point of consistency, I said that it is a big world and as long as there is a degree of good will and working together, I fully supported the creation in this House of the committee which is now proposed. Even then, one recognised that there was an enormous pool of relevant experience in this House. There still is but that did not alter my view that, given the turbulence and importance of matters around the world, and the limited agenda of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the other place, it was important that this reservoir of experience should be tapped.

The noble Lord, Lord Pearson, asked, “Well, why not Sub-Committee C?”. I served on that committee and it does some good work, but the Procrustean distortion of that committee is this: that everything has to be viewed through the prism of the European Union. As the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, said, important areas—be it the Commonwealth, the Far East, or other areas that are not directly relevant to the European Union—are excluded from its remit. Yes, there will have to be a degree of co-ordination, of good will and of working together, but this is appropriate and I personally congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Howell, on what has been a long and rather successful campaign.

My Lords, in warmly supporting this proposal I suggest that an additional reason for it is that we have no formal structure for scrutinising our international obligations. We have an ample structure for scrutinising European legislation proposals—and one which is widely admired—but absolutely nothing to deal with our obligations under international treaties or proposals under them, such as international protocols. That is what this committee could provide. It is very important for Parliament to have a voice in these negotiations.

My Lords, I have a simple factual question. Everybody has been talking as if there is clarity about when the committee will be established and when the review will take place. That seems to be based on a false premise, unless I missed something in an announcement. The reference is that the committee will be established in the next Session and the review will be in the following Session. I do not know when the next Session is going to start. I do not know whether the Chairman of Committees can tell me that. I have a rather nervous disposition, and I remember that in the last Parliament, the one beginning 2010, the first Session—much to the opposition of many of us—lasted for two years. The Leader and the Chief Whip are present, so I would like an instant response on this question: I simply want to know when the next Session will start, because until we get clarity on that a lot of this discussion is based on a false premise.

My Lords, I do not disagree with what my noble friend has said, but I have one point to make. I had the honour of following my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours as a member of this Liaison Committee. When I joined the committee, I found that there had been a very long-running battle between the enthusiasts for setting up an international relations committee and those who had reservations. Since the noble Lord, Lord Laming, took over as Convenor, he has, with tremendous skill and remarkable diplomacy, come up with a compromise which allows the setting up of the committee but puts very strong limits and controls on it. He is to be congratulated. I hope that we do not delay it and that the House passes it and endorses it unanimously.

My Lords, I welcome the decision of the Liaison Committee and the Chairman. I want to disabuse the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, on one point, because I understand many of his concerns. However, like the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, I had nine years as chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Commons and I should explain to him something that I do not think he has quite grasped: that the focus of the FAC in the Commons is on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It scrutinises the budget, expenditure and activities of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This is entirely appropriate: it is a department-focused committee.

In the world that we are living in, the international relations concerns of this nation are engaged in by almost all the departments of state and many government agencies—it goes well beyond the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. There is a need for a body that can begin to focus on these much wider international relations issues, which are now in great turbulence around the world and where the direction and purpose of this country really need as much support and analysis as we can supply. We have the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, which does an excellent job—its latest report on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is strongly recommended—but a wider view is needed, and a wider view is just the sort of thing that this Chamber can provide. This is a good move for the House of Lords, and heaven knows we need a few good moves. I strongly welcome it, and, although I appreciate the worries of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, they are based on a false understanding of the world that we live in.

My Lords, the country has been through immense change in recent decades. We have moved from being a great imperial power to one which is dependent for the survival and well-being of its people on international co-operation. We will be judged by our children and our grandchildren on our success or failure in relation to that demanding challenge. Given the experience at the disposal of this House, it seems to me inconceivable that we should go any further without establishing a committee on international affairs as a priority. A tremendous tribute is due to the noble Lord, Lord Howell, for the consistent leadership he has shown on this issue.

My Lords, I am very grateful indeed to all colleagues who have taken part in this debate. I said earlier, perhaps rather inadequately, that there is never a perfect solution to issues of this kind. This debate has demonstrated that there is no perfect solution. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that I have no idea about the Session. We as a committee were charged with thinking about where we are now and to face the reality of where we are now. We have come up with a recommendation on where we are now which I hope will commend itself to the House.

I am most grateful to members of the committee who spoke in support of this recommendation. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and the Convenor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, have all played a very full part in what has been a serious examination of these important matters. I hope that it will be no surprise to the House that many, if not all, of the points that have been raised this afternoon were raised in the committee.

The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, and the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, made extremely strong points in respect of the fact that the EU Committee and its sub-committees serve this House, this nation and the European community extremely well. It scrutinises all the proposals that come from Europe. I have not served on any of the sub-committees but everything that I have heard indicates that those committees do their job very conscientiously, and sometimes to much greater effect than any of the other member states of the European Union. But the material that they get relates to Europe and European interests. The noble Lords, Lord Judd and Lord Anderson, referred to the turbulence in the world. We are now thinking about the tremendous conflicts and the very serious issues that ought to concern us all—and I know do concern us all—and which are well beyond the boundaries or the immediate interests of Europe. It is those issues that the Liaison Committee recognises are important.

Why do this now? We do it now because grave issues face the world. We have great expertise in this House but we do not want the membership of the committee —if it is approved by the House—to be made up mainly of noble Lords with known expertise that we all recognise, such as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, who has been mentioned. When members are put forward in the usual way, we would like consideration to be given to ensuring that we have a proper balance.

I am sorry to intervene again. Was there any discussion with the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Commons—I know a new chairman has just been elected? Was there any consultation with the Foreign Affairs Committee on the proposal that we are considering?

If the noble Lord will just give me a minute, I will get to how we make sure that the resources of both Houses are used to the greatest effect. In fact, I will deal with it now. We have experience in this House of committees with similar interests working closely with the other end. We have extremely good experience of the two ends of the building working together on science and technology.

One of the reasons why we think it would be helpful to establish a committee of this kind, at this stage, is that—as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, said—when it comes to a major review later on, as I indicated, we would have experience of how it works, not just with the EU sub-committee but how it works with the other end and also with regard to the safeguards we are putting in place. As a direct answer, I have not spoken to the chairman at the other end, but I am very happy to do so. But I imagine that what is much more important is that, whoever becomes the chairman of such a committee, I confidently predict that the chairman of a committee of this House will make it his or her business to have close liaison with the chairman at the other end.

My Lords, can I ask the noble Lord, Lord Laming, if he can give an assurance that if the parliamentary timetable should change—because I note we did not get an answer to the question from my noble friend Lord Grocott—this proposal would come back for reconsideration in the light of changed circumstances?

I hope that the House will agree today to do several things. One is to agree that this House will appoint an international relations committee. Secondly, that this House will undertake—in the time I made reference to; and it is in the report—a thorough review of all committees. We will do that, if the House approves, in a timely way and will go on carrying out our business. I do not think there is any impediment to us doing that.

With regard to some of the other points that were made, it has been said that it would have a bad effect upon ad hoc committees. Actually, with regard to an international relations committee, in the light of what is happening in the world today—and there are grave matters—I do not think that anyone would not want an ad hoc committee to look at the Arctic or women in situations of conflict. We can continue to do these things. The choices of topics for ad hoc committees are made in this House, and they can be influenced by whatever the concerns and interests of the House may be.

I am not very good at all this, but I am doing my best. If I have missed somebody out or some really serious point, please take me to task afterwards. However, I commend the report to the House.

Motion agreed.