Defence Select Committee; choosing the right chairman

09 Jan 14. Select Committees of both the House of Commons and separately, of the House of Lords do not sit in judgement over senior ministers and peers lightly. And, despite perceptions that select committees are through the work they do to be seen as judge, jury and executioner of government policy, the truth is that they are there to protect the electorate, monitor and assess the decisions and actions of ministers and others in the public sector, but also those in the private sector as well. The point for all of us to remember is that the ‘select committee’ process of Parliament is there to provide necessary transparency and accountability between Government and the electorate.

The Select Committee role is thus vitally important not only in the process of attempting to ensure that taxpayer money is not being wasted but also because of the work they do in terms of accountability. The Chair of a select committee plays perhaps the most pivotal role in the work that they do. Once elected they will most usually, although not always, retain the position until they either choose to retire or find themselves no longer being a member of the House. In the case of the House of Common Defence Select Committee (HCDC) – which since 2005 has been ably led and chaired by the Member of Parliament for North Hampshire, James Arbuthnot – the announcement that he is to stand down as an MP in 2015 brings forward the need to elect and appoint a new chair of HCDC before the next General Election.

It is I believe traditional that when the ‘Chair’ of a select committee decides to stand down as an MP, he or she will most likely opt to leave about one year before the next election might be expected. James Arbuthnot has  done a superb job as chair this past nine years. Through that period he and his eleven fellow committee members have delved hard into a variety of very relevant defence issues and they have done so without fear or favour. HCDC staff have worked hard to ensure that the right people have been brought before members and as each complicated inquiry has been completed they have sought and been shown not just to criticise Government or its predecessors wherever necessary but also to provide sound and reasoned advice to the Government of the day.

Although he is not departing the role just yet, James Arbuthnot is to be praised for the hard work and dedication to matters defence and also in the non confrontational manner in which the HCDC, made up of twelve members of Parliament from all three major parties, has conducted its affairs. We wish him well for when he stands down from Parliament next year and we hope that his successor is at the very least as good as he has been in raising the prominence of this brilliant and hugely valuable committee.

The matter of selecting a new chair of HCDC has already begun, and in the manner of how these things are usually done, we know that the post of Chair HCDC will remain in the Conservative domain. My understanding is that three of the four existing ‘Conservative’ members of HCDC are likely to throw their hats into the ring for the post of chair. These are Col. Bob Stewart (Beckenham), Julian Brazier (Canterbury and Whitstable) and James Gray (North Wiltshire). Other suggestions as potential candidates for chair are the Tory MP Crispin Blunt (Reigate), Douglas Carswell, the visceral right wing member for Clacton and the highly respected former Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) who was a member of the HCDC for a two year period from 2001 before moving on to become a member of the Armed Forces Bill Committee. Others may yet throw their hats into the ring but given the obvious lack of defence experience amongst other Conservative MP’s I rather hope not.

All MP’s will get a final chance to vote on the various candidates who will seek the position of HCDC chair, although in truth not that many will probably bother. At issue for those of us with a vested interest in supporting the military, industry, defence of the realm and in the parliamentary process is to ensure the best man for the job wins.

In my view HCDC needs as its chair someone that already has a great understanding not only of the implications of defence to the nation but of what good defence strategy is. He should in my view already be a serving member of the Committee. Although there are quite a few former members of the Army currently serving as MP’s it is true to say that in terms of maritime, air power and defence industry experience, the House of Commons is extremely weak in terms of having those with an understanding of what good defence means. Interestingly the House of Lords is in a somewhat better position, not only having an excellent Parliamentary Under-secretary of State in the form of Lord Astor of Hever, but also Lord Leven of Portsoken whose work in re-organisation of the Ministry of Defence is hugely respected. On the other side of the coin one should also record that the House of Lords also has as a member the former First Sea Lord, Lord West of Spithead!

The choice of chair of Defence Select Committee should not be someone who has preconceived ideas and notions; and thus transform HCDC into the proverbial political soap box. For instance, one notes that Douglas Carswell, who has once before thrown his hat into the ring for the job back in 2010, persists with a view that the UK defence industry should be allowed to wither on the vine and that all defence equipment should be bought off the shelf. Such preconceived views are not what would be wanted as chair of HCDC.

In Douglas Carswell’s ‘Walter Mitty’ world the fact that the UK defence industry employs over 100,000 people and that our defence exports, of which there would probably be none if he was to have his way, brought in £8.8bn to the economy helping jobs and balance of payments. I note also in a piece on the Member for Clacton’s website in a piece entitled ‘Select Committees Grow Up’ that he suggests “free from the malevolent influence of whips, 2013 saw select committees come of age. No longer full of placemen, they are starting to get better at holding ministers to account. Select committee chairs such as Margaret Hodge, Bernard Jenkin, Keith Vaz and Andrew Tyrie are” he says “in their different ways on a roll”. So, having chosen not to include the chair of HCDC we can guess what the hapless Mr. Carswell thinks about James Arbuthnot can’t we? And while I agree that all the names above have and continue to do a brilliant job, all I can say is Mr. Carswell could not be further from the truth about the excellent work done by the current chair of HCDC.

Looking at the various possibilities of current HCDC, Bob Stewart looks like the best candidate. An ex Army man whose experience out in the Bosnia theatre, amongst others, brought invaluable experience into HCDC; Stewart also has a slightly greater degree of youth on his side. If so I would hope that despite being an Army man that he takes a balanced view of the needs and problems faced by the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy as they struggle to cope in the aftermath of the devastating affects inflicted in SDSR 2010.

Select Committees wield rather a lot of power these days and most often they do it very wisely. They might give Minsters, Secretaries of State and even the Prime Minister a hard time, but just as they should respect all those that provide evidence, they need to conduct whatever Inquiry they are working on with a sense of decorum and professionalism.

The Defence Select Committee along with the Public Accounts Committee, chaired by Labour MP, Margaret Hodge and the Treasury Select Committee have all been quite brilliant in recent years as to how they have conducted the various inquiries in which they have been involved and how they have tested government policy. Long may that continue. Government may loathe the select committee process – senior ministers and others probably dread the thought of being called to appear in front of them – but government is all the better for their existence. There can never be enough accountability in government and the transparency provided by the manner in which the various committees operate works to the great advantage of the electorate.

For the record, my understanding is that currently there is a ‘Select Committee’ for each Government department with a mandate to examine three aspects – spending, policies and administration. Committees have a minimum of eleven members who decide the line of inquiry and then gather written and oral evidence. Committees have power to appoint special advisors who are paid by the day. Current inquiries by HCDC include ‘Toward the Next Defence and Security Review’, ‘MOD Annual Report & Accounts’, ‘Afghanistan Camp Bastion Attack’, ‘Future Army 2020’, ‘UK Armed Forces Personnel and Legal Framework’, ‘Intervention: Why, When and How?’, ‘Remotely Piloted Air Systems – current and future use’, ‘Defence Materiel Strategy’, ‘Deterrence in the 21st Century’ and many more.

Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS,
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd. /
Tel: 07710779785

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