Westminster Scrutiny of British Foreign Policy

British Foreign Policy – Not in Our Name?

This “Parliamentary Oversight Project” was a project jointly undertaken by the Federal Trust together with its partner organisations, One World Trust and Democratic Audit, and was funded by the Josph Rowntree Charitable Trust. It ran from 2005 to 2007, examining the role that the British Parliament plays in oversight of international affairs under three sections: bilateral foreign policy, including specific case studies on the Special Relationship with the US, the war against Iraq and British expert policy; international treaty-making and the British role in multilateral organisations; and Parliamentary oversight of European legislation.

The initial results of this study were published by Politico’s as Not in Our Name: Democracy and Foreign Policy in the UK in January 2006. In a second phase of the project the follow-up report A World of Difference was published in autumn 2007, with several shorter briefings and articles produced throughout 2007. Please find details of all publications below, the follow-up report and briefings are available for download as pdf-files.

Not in Our Name: Democracy and Foreign image_1298903252Policy in the UK
January 2006

Published by Politico’s – Paperback – ISBN 1 84275 150 6 – £14.99
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Not in Our Name is an innovatory work which considers the current processes and procedures for parliamentary oversight of foreign policy and exposes the full extent of the democratic shortfall in foreign policy, proposing a series of reforms to remedy it. Taking a broad definition of foreign policy to include international development, trade negotiations, European policy, activities at the UN, as well as traditional bilateral relations, the study finds that the current parliamentary institutions are not fit for 21st century international relations. The study is the result of extensive research and interviews with high-profile protagonists, including MPs, Peers, civil servants, journalists and NGOs. Analysing the failure in accountability through numerous case-studies of actual events and relationships (e.g., the Special Relationship; scrutiny of EU legislation; relations in the G8, WTO, Nato, etc), it finds that the balance of power between government and Parliament is so unequal that Parliament does not have the powers, resources or purchase on media attention to hold ministers accountable for their policies or actions, let alone play a part in shaping them. Most external policy, including making war, signing treaties, reaching international agreements and conducting trade negotiations, is carried out under the royal prerogative. This ancient custom enables ministers to elude formal parliamentary accountability. The formal mechanisms of accountability, or ministerial responsibility, seek only to hold ministers to account on a post-hoc basis. Yet external policy-making, free as it is of the checks and balances inherent in the domestic legislative process, demands a similar democratic and parliamentary input in its formative stages. Even under the Freedom of Information Act, government is able to act largely in secret; exemptions under the Act apply disproportionately to external policy-related information. There are also problems of political culture in Parliament which inhibit even the desire to achieve effective oversight, especially in external affairs. Too few MPs are involved in the committee work that is the mark of a modern parliament, and allows for the division of labour for effective oversight, whilst there is a lack of resources to support the committee work that does occur. In the past, the lack of a democratic element in “foreign policy”; was held to be acceptable on the grounds that it did not affect the everyday lives of the domestic population. However, increased global interdependence, migration, global warming, epidemics, terrorism and other phenomena render that argument increasingly redundant. Foreign or “external” policy impacts upon all of us whilst there is also an increased expectation amongst the electorate that ethical considerations should form a prominent part of external policy; yet the parliamentary means of ensuring that this is the case do not exist.

The study recommends five broad areas for reform:

  1. Reform of the Royal Prerogative to give Parliament a role in decisions on war, treaties and international negotiations;
  2. Mainstreaming of international and European policy so that artificial distinction between domestic and foreign policy is removed;
  3. Increasing the resources for oversight;
  4. Change in the culture of Parliament to emphasis the scrutiny function; and
  5. Increase in transparency, openness and the provision of information.

Follow-up report, autumn 2007:

A World of Difference – Parliamentary Oversight of British Foreign Policy

Briefings and Articles