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PACAC launches new inquiry examining parliamentary scrutiny of international treaties and other agreements

23 July 2019

Terms of reference

For centuries, the UK Government has used powers under the royal prerogative to negotiate, sign, ratify and withdraw from international treaties, and enter into other politically binding international agreements. However, if entering into or withdrawing from a treaty involves changes to domestic law or rights, the authority of Parliament is required. Since 1924, it has been a convention, known as the Ponsonby Rule, that every treaty which is subject to ratification be laid before Parliament at least 21 sitting days before ratification. In 2010, this time limit was enshrined in law by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 (CRaG).

Since 1972, many of the treaties to which the UK is subject have been negotiated and agreed at EU level. The European Parliament, whose consent is often required, has conducted much of the scrutiny of these treaties, and the UK Parliament has subsequently ratified them where required. During the period of the UK’s EU membership, the context, scope and content of international treaties has changed considerably. The House of Lords Constitution Committee described the existing UK parliamentary scrutiny mechanisms as being “developed when treaty-making was profoundly different to its current state, and while many treaties were negotiated and concluded at EU-level”. 

The issue of scrutiny of treaties has prompted inquiries by Committees in both Houses. Across the board, these inquiries have called for greater parliamentary scrutiny of treaties and raised concerns about Parliament’s current ability to conduct effective scrutiny. The International Trade Committee said that Parliament’s theoretical ability to block ratification or decline to legislate is, in practice, “difficult and unsatisfactory” and that “there must be a meaningful role for Parliament”. The House of Lords Constitution Committee described the mechanism under CRaG as “limited and flawed”. The House of Lords EU Committee has concluded that CRaG is “poorly designed to facilitate parliamentary scrutiny of treaties”.

Given the growing consensus on the need for a greater parliamentary role in the scrutiny of treaties, this inquiry will examine what the constitutional relationship between the Government and Parliament in relation to treaties and other international agreements should now be, whether new legislation is needed, and what parliamentary mechanisms need to be set up.

Call for submissions

Details of evidence sessions will be announced in due course, and the Committee welcomes inquiry submissions addressing the following questions:

1. To what extent is the negotiation and ratification of international treaties and entering into other international agreements necessarily a function of government alone?

  • (a) What are the implications of the judgement of the Supreme Court in R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union [2017] UKSC 5?

2. What role should Parliament, and the House of Commons in particular, have in relation to international treaties and other arrangements, and what should this role be at different stages, from considering negotiations through to signing, ratification, implementation, amendment and withdrawal?

  • (a) How should Parliament’s role vary in relation to different types, topics and extent of treaties, and for other international agreements?

3. How effective is section 2 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 for enabling parliamentary scrutiny of international treaties and other agreements?

  • (a) What changes, if any, should be made to the legislation?

4. How much information and resources are needed for Parliament to scrutinise treaties and other international agreements effectively?

  • (a) How should this information be communicated to Parliament by the Government?
  • (b) Should Parliament have access to confidential treaty information and, if so, what mechanisms might assure the continued confidentiality of that information?
  • (c) What sort of expertise does Parliament need to scrutinise treaties?

5. What role should devolved governments and legislatures, Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories have in relation to international treaties and arrangements? 

The deadline for submissions is Monday 16 September 2019

Further information

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