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Transparency is essential when Select Committees are tasked with scrutinising controversial issues, warns Julian Lewis

The House Magazine (Conference Edition) – 30 September 2016

The Defence Committee has recently published our major study of UK Military Operations in Syria and Iraq. UK involvement in the vicious quagmire of Middle Eastern conflict, from Suez to the present day via the toppling of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, never fails to polarise the British political scene – so the handling of this Report gives a good example of how Select Committees usually deal with controversial topics.

The process involves five essential steps. The first is to agree Terms of Reference setting out the scope of the study. Secondly, expert witnesses who collectively cover the full range of credible points of view are invited to give evidence. The third stage is especially important if the final Report is to achieve consensus: the Committee draws up, and discusses in detail, provisional conclusions arising from the evidence hearings and from written submissions and considers how the study should be structured – the so-called Heads of Report. Only then, fourthly, should a Draft Report be prepared for confidential circulation. This, finally, is the template on which the entire committee will build the agreed Report after a process of informal alteration, where possible, and formal amendment otherwise.

In the recent row over arms sales to Saudi Arabia, a Draft Report was produced without the vital third stage – and then leaked to the media, so that massive lobbying pressure could be placed on the remaining members of the Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC) to sign up to it. Two of the four committees making up the CAEC supported the leaked version, whilst one of the remaining two committee delegations opposed it. Quite rightly, in my view, the Defence Committee decided that the whole process had been so fatally compromised that we should decline to consider the leaked version, given the way in which it had been produced and mishandled.

There is little point in having cross-party scrutiny committees at all, if attempts are made to short-circuit the tried and tested processes to resolve conflicting views. Naturally, one cannot always achieve consensus, but then the points of difference should democratically be resolved by formally voting on amendments. Thus, in the case of the Syria and Iraq Inquiry, we heard from about two dozen witnesses, including the Secretary of State, as well as receiving written contributions. A large number of amendments were accepted informally in discussion, with just 10 requiring a formal vote – and anyone can see, at the back of the published Report, exactly what those differences were and what paragraphs were added, altered or excluded.

Transparency, in short, means that Committee members with strongly-held but diverging views can be sure that they will be recorded, even if they do not find their way into the final Report. In Syria, for example, the numbers of armed rebel fighters who can genuinely be described as "moderates", rather than Islamists, remains hotly disputed, as does the validity of the Government's argument that publicly identifying the groups to which they belong would aid the Assad regime. Similar controversy surrounds the fact that the number of UK airstrikes in Syria is but a small fraction of those in Iraq, as well as the claim that it is not practical to identify how many – or how few – of these sorties in Syria were in close support of forces fighting on the ground, other than the Kurds.

Anyone taking the trouble to read the full Report, together with the record of amendments made, will find a mass of material enabling sensible conclusions to be drawn. And it should be remembered that this is just one of (usually) four Defence Committee Inquiries underway at any given time. In recent months, we have made significant progress in exposing the scandal of the anti-malarial drug Lariam having been issued to troops en masse, despite the requirement for face-to-face interviews before it is prescribed to anyone. We have set the 2 percent of GDP defence expenditure commitment into the historical context of the 4–5 percent commitment during the Cold War years of the 1980s. Our Sub-Committee continues to examine Service welfare and safety issues, and a major Report on Russia attracted considerable attention in Moscow – albeit overshadowed at home by the sudden change of Prime Ministers.

In that connection, we look forward to continuing our dealings with the Defence Secretary – newly knighted – and we salute the pluck of Harriett Baldwin in facing a public DefCom session, on the new generation of Royal Navy frigates, almost within hours of appointment as Defence Procurement Minister. One thing is clear: there will be no shortage of contentious defence issues for us all to examine in the months and years ahead.

Rt Hon Dr Julian Lewis is Chairman of the Defence Committee.