Remit: what do they do?
The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) is the principal parliamentary committee responsible for scrutinising the work of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) of the United Kingdom Government. Its remit, as set down by the House, is 'to examine the expenditure, administration and policy' of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and associated public bodies, most notably the British Council and the BBC World Service. It generally proceeds by inquiry on a range of topics related to the FCO, and then reports its findings to the House. The selection of subjects for inquiry and the general conduct of its business is entirely a matter for the Committee. The FCO has no say.
The Foreign Affairs Commitee enjoys good cooperation with the FCO and other government departments. All select committees have the power to send for 'persons, papers and records' to assist them in their work but, in practice, such formal procedures are very rarely invoked. Witnesses, including ministers and officials, are usually invited to attend and provide oral evidence to the Committee on a particular subject. The Committee can hear oral evidence from any political appointees (such as ministers or ambassadors) but, unlike some of its counterparts abroad, the Committee cannot vet such public appointments.
The Foreign Affairs Committee and the European Scrutiny Committee scrutinise the FCO's work in the European Union, the latter generally concentrating on EU documentation (deciding which are to be debated in the House) and monitoring the activities of UK Ministers in the European Council. The FAC has an on-going inquiry into the wider issues affecting the UK and EU, such as developments in the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP). It also examines the objectives for, and outcomes of, European Council meetings and generally aims to visit each Member State holding the EU Presidency at the beginning of its six-monthly term. The FAC does not have formal powers to influence draft legislation, treaties or Government negotiations in international fora.
The FAC proceeds with an inquiry by first calling – usually through a press notice - for written memoranda. On the basis of these it will decide from which witnesses to hear oral evidence. This is usually taken in formal, public sessions at Westminster and is often broadcast on the parliamentary TV channel and the web. It also holds private informal meetings in the UK and abroad. Witnesses in a typical inquiry include Foreign Office Ministers, officials, representatives from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and 'think tanks', academics and journalists. The Committee will often make overseas visits as part of its inquiries. The FCO and UK Embassies and High Commissions overseas are asked to help with the arrangements for such visits.
The usual culmination of a Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry is a report made to the House of Commons and published in hard copy and on the Foreign Affairs Committee website. Each report includes a list of the Committee's conclusions and recommendations to the Government. Evidence submitted to the Committee not already in the public domain is also published with the report.
Committee membership: who are they?
Select Committees are appointed for the duration of a parliament and need to be re-appointed after a general election. The Committee consists of 14 Members of Parliament from the government and opposition parties and is appointed by the House for the duration of a Parliament (ie until the next general election). The membership of the FAC is calculated to reflect the membership of the Commons as a whole. The FAC has eight Labour Members, four Conservative and two Liberal Democrat. The Committee elects its own Chairman from among the Members appointed and has a quorum of three. There is no time limit on membership, Members being able to serve on the re-constituted Committee in the next Parliament. The Committee is supported by a permanent staff of seven politically impartial officials employed by the House, headed by a House of Commons Clerk. The Committee can also appoint part-time specialist advisers, usually for the duration of a particular inquiry.
Membership of the FAC is as follows:
|Fabian Hamilton||Leeds North East||Labour|
|Eric Illsley||Barnsley Central||Labour|
|Paul Keetch||Liberal Democrat|
|Rt Hon Andrew Mackay||Bracknell||Conservative|
|Sir John Stanley||Tonbridge and Malling||Conservative|
|Gisela Stuart||Birmingham Edgbaston||Labour|
|Richard Younger-Ross||Liberal Democrat|
The Clerks serving this Committee are Robin James (Clerk of the Committee) and Gosia McBride (Second Clerk).
The Liaison Committee (made up of all 33 select committee chairmen) allocates the FAC's travel budget and that of other Committees. In financial year 2001/02, the FAC spent a total of £107,847.92 on overseas visits. The Committee has a (non-cash limited) budget for the publication of its reports and evidence (the cost of transcription, specialist advice, printing and publishing for the Committee was about £11,000 in 2001/02).
The parliamentary scrutiny process in action
By convention, the Government responds to a Foreign Affairs Committee report, specifically addressing each conclusion and recommendation, via command paper published within two months of publication of the FAC's own report. There is nothing to stop the FAC from responding to the Government's reply in further correspondence, as the Committee has recently done on a number of occasions.
Committee reports can be debated on the floor of the House or in Westminster Hall. As an example, the FAC's June 2002 Report on the Foreign Policy Aspects of the War against Terrorism was chosen for debate in Westminster Hall on Thursday 31 October 2002. (For details of the debate, see the Hansard website.)
To read the Reports of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the associated Government Command Paper Responses (as well as to access evidence session transcripts and press releases), click on the links on the left of this document. These divide the documents up by parliamentary session. Enquiries about the work of the Committee may also be addressed to:
Foreign Affairs Committee
House of Commons
London SW1A 0AA
Telephone: 020 7219 6106
Fax: 020 7219 5365
Foreign Affairs Committee Select Committees of the House of Commons