Foreign Affairs (Select Committee)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th April 1977.

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Photo of Mr Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler Mr Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler , North West Norfolk 12:00 am, 7th April 1977

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.