Parliament’s treaty scrutiny system outdated, says Constitution Committee

By agency reporter
May 1, 2019

The House of Lords Constitution Committee has published a report calling for urgent reform to strengthen Parliament’s scrutiny of treaties. The Committee describes the current parliamentary processes of treaty scrutiny as limited, anachronistic and inadequate, and recommends the establishment of a new treaty scrutiny committee. While recognising that treaty-making is a function of the Government, the Committee says that Parliament needs to be able to hold the Government to account for its treaty actions.

Parliament’s scrutiny of treaties is based on a convention developed nearly 100 years ago. Parliament has no involvement in treaties until they are signed, and then is limited to a period of 21 sitting days in which it can look at a treaty. During this time there is no guarantee of a debate or vote as to whether the treaty should be ratified. While the House of Commons does have the power to delay the ratification of a treaty indefinitely, this is only possible if the Government makes time for a debate.

The UK is party to over 14,000 treaties and normally negotiates around 30 new treaties each year. Preparations for the UK’s departure from the EU have already led to an increase in the number of treaties being laid before Parliament, and the Government has said that it expects to negotiate new, wide-ranging trade agreements after Brexit.

The Committee recommends that:

  • A new treaty scrutiny committee be established.
  • The treaty committee should sift all treaties and either scrutinise the significant ones itself, or refer them to other select committees for scrutiny.
  • The Government should commit to extending the 21 sitting day scrutiny period if the treaty committee requests it.
  • The treaty committee should be able to recommend debates on significant treaties. The Government should commit to providing time for such debates during the 21 sitting day period.
  • Parliament should be informed when negotiations begin and better explanatory information should accompany treaties once they have been agreed. There should be a general principle (although not a legal requirement) of transparency and disclosure of information to Parliament, although the Government should remain in control of the material disclosed during treaty negotiations.
  • The Government must work closely with the devolved institutions throughout the treaty-making process. Where appropriate, representatives from the devolved governments should form part   of the UK Government’s negotiating team.

The Chair of the Constitution Committee, Baroness Taylor of Bolton, said: “The current processes for Parliament to scrutinise treaties are limited and flawed. Parliament needs more power and better structures to hold the Government to account for its treaty actions.

“The creation of a treaty committee would provide Parliament for the first time with an effective mechanism to scrutinise treaties. This reform is required irrespective of Brexit, however there is a pressing need for change as it is likely that the UK’s departure from the European Union will lead to the Government negotiating more and broader treaties than in the past.”

* Read the report Parliamentary Scrutiny of Treaties here

* House of Lords Constitution Committee https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/lords-select/constitution-committee/

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