Select Committees are committees set up by either House of Parliament, usually for a whole Parliament, to look at particular subjects. Some deal with internal House matters (e.g. catering) but the best known are the departmentally related committees in the House of Commons. The departmentally related Committees examine the expenditure, administration and policy of each of the main Government Departments and associated public bodies. The committees do not routinely look at Bills but sometimes examine bills in draft. Select Committees have the power to take oral and written evidence and issue reports. They include representatives of the three main political parties, but the Government always has a majority.
The Foreign Affairs Committee’s (FAC) terms of reference are ‘to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and associated public bodies’. There is no time limit on membership.
The Committee consists of 11 members. It has a quorum of three. The membership of the Committee is as follows:
Donald Anderson, Chairman (Lab)
Sir Patrick Cormack (Con)
David Chidgey (LibDem)
John Maples (Con)
Fabian Hamilton (Lab)
Eric Illsey (Lab)
Andrew MacKinlay (Lab)
Gisela Stuart (Lab)
Sir John Stanley (Con)
Greg Pope (Lab)
Bill Olner (Lab)
Committee Clerks — Steve Priestley and Steven Mark
The FAC is made up of backbenchers from Government and opposition parties appointed by the House for the duration of a parliament. The membership of the Committee is calculated to reflect the membership of the House as a whole (as far as is possible given a membership of eleven). As a result of the ‘first past the post' system of election the House of Commons is dominated by two major parties with a relatively small number of Members representing ‘third parties'.
Appointments to select committees are formally the responsibility of a committee called the Committee of Selection. In practice nominations for select committee seats originate within the relevant parliamentary party managers (‘whips'). These nominations have to be agreed by the House.
The FAC has a permanent staff of 6 (employed by the House of Commons). The committee also has the power to appoint specialist advisers (usually for the duration of a particular inquiry) to elucidate matters of technical complexity or to supply information not readily available.
In practice there are no budgetary constraints on publication by the FAC of its reports and evidence (the cost of transcription, specialist advice, printing and publishing for the FAC was about £132,000 in financial year 2000/01). The Committee also has access to resources for foreign travel (spending £84,000 in 2000/01), normally in connection with an inquiry upon which the committee has already embarked. Budget allocations are made by the Liaison Committee (which includes all Select Committee chairmen). The FAC has limited access to funding for entertainment (spending £360 in 2000/01).
The FAC's remit is the expenditure, administration and policy of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) which includes the diplomatic service. Other bodies associated with the Foreign Office (i.e. in receipt of public funds from the FCO budget) and thereby within the Committee's remit include the British Council and the BBC World Service. The FCO is also responsible for UK participation in international and regional multilateral organisations such as the United Nations, the OECD, NATO, and the European Union.
The Committee's primary function is to report to the House on matters within its remit. The selection of subjects for inquiry is a matter for the Committee's discretion. Unlike some of its counterparts abroad the Committee has no formal powers to vet public appointments (such as ministers or ambassadors), or scrutinize draft legislation or treaties. Nor does the Committee have any formal role or powers in respect of the Government's negotiations in international forums such as the European Union or the UN. The Committee's formal powers are fairly wide with respect to non-governmental witnesses but government conventions - acknowledged by select committees but without any formal Parliamentary status - circumscribe the Committee’s powers to call named government witnesses or ask for specific government records. In practice select committees enjoy a fair degree of cooperation from government departments and formal procedures for enforcing its powers are rarely invoked.
Formal powers of the Committee
The Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons is appointed by Standing Order to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and of associated public bodies.
The Committee has power to:
(a) send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, to adjourn from place to place, and to report from time to time;
(b) appoint specialist advisers either to supply information which is not readily available or to elucidate matters of complexity within the Committee's order of reference;
(c) communicate to any other such committee and to the Committee of Public Accounts, the Deregulation Committee and to the Environmental Audit Committee, its evidence and any other documents relating to matters of common interest; and
(d) meet concurrently with any such other committee, and the Environmental Audit Committee, for the purpose of deliberating, taking evidence, or considering draft reports.
The Committee has power to appoint one sub-committee.
Select committees have a quorum of three and do not use rapporteurs. The FAC has the power to appoint a sub-committee and last did so in 1998 to conduct an inquiry into entry clearance. The Committee proceeds with an inquiry by calling for written memoranda, taking oral evidence (usually in formal public sessions at Westminster, which are sometimes televised or sound-recorded), and by holding private informal meetings in the UK and abroad (Committees occasionally take formal public evidence overseas). Witnesses in a typical inquiry would normally include ministers and officials from the FCO and, where relevant, representatives from other publicly-funded bodies. The FAC, typically, also hears evidence from a range of other witnesses depending on the nature of the inquiry. These include representatives from academic and research institutions, lobby groups and international organisations. Witnesses for oral evidence are usually selected on the basis of their written submissions. The FAC has also sought elucidation on a particular subject (i.e. international law) from an expert panel.
The usual culmination of a committee inquiry is a report made to the House and published (including on the Internet). A Committee will often make overseas visits as part of its inquiries. The FCO and posts overseas will help with the arrangements for such visits. The Committee draws conclusions and makes recommendations to the Government (and occasionally other bodies such as the British Council). Evidence not already in the public domain is published (also on the Internet) with the report.
By convention the Government should reply to a report by a select committee within two months, specifically addressing the committee’s conclusions and recommendations. There is nothing to stop a committee from responding to the Government's reply in a further report and the FAC has recently done so on a number of occasions.
Committee reports are sometimes debated on the floor of the House or in Westminster Hall, usually in one of three circumstances:
Order Paper Tags
If a select committee report is relevant to a debate it is possible to secure a notice to this effect being published on the day's Order Paper. This alerts the House to the report.
Estimates Day Debates
Three days (which may be taken either as whole days or in half days) in each Parliamentary Session are set aside by Standing Order for debates on specific estimates. A select committee report is ‘tagged' to each estimate selected for debate, and this forms the main subject of debate. The reports to be debated are chosen by the Liaison Committee.
Select Committee Wednesdays and Thursdays
On three Wednesdays and six Thursdays in each session, appointed by the Speaker, the subjects of debate in Westminster Hall are select committee reports chosen by the Liaison Committee.
Enquiries about the work of the Committee may be addressed to:
Foreign Affairs Committee
House of Commons
London SW1A 0AA
Telephone: 020 7219 6106
Fax: 020 7219 5365
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