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Call for evidence

written evidence - The Scrutiny of International Treaties and other international agreements in the 21st century

We are conducting an inquiry into how treaties and other international arrangements (such as Memorandums of Understanding) could be effectively scrutinised in the UK, now that the UK has left the EU. Our particular focus is on the House of Commons.

While the UK was a member of the EU, the EU had the power to negotiate and conclude treaties (which were binding on the Member States) across a wide range of sectors. The EU has its own institutional systems to scrutinise the negotiation and implementation of international agreements, and the European Scrutiny Committee provided a forum for scrutiny in the Commons. These scrutiny mechanisms are no longer in place, and Parliament may now have less access to information from the Government than it had while the UK was in the EU.

The UK has returned to arrangements largely based on the situation 100 years ago when treaties were very different. Since then, there has been a huge expansion in the volume and scope of international treaties, affecting almost all areas of everyday life.

In the UK, the Government negotiates, signs, ratifies and withdraws from treaties under the royal prerogative, and Parliament currently has a limited role in overseeing this. The Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 (CRAG) requires that signed treaties and their explanatory memorandums are laid before Parliament for 21 sitting days (usually four to five weeks) before being ratified. It also gives the Commons a theoretical power to delay ratification, but it does not require Parliament’s consent for treaties. If any changes in domestic law are needed, implementing legislation must be passed. Parliament does not have a statutory or formal role in setting the negotiating objectives for an agreement, monitoring the progress of negotiations or overseeing treaty implementation. The House of Lords has established the International Agreements Committee to consider the negotiation, conclusion and implementation of treaties, and to report on treaties laid before Parliament under CRAG, but the House of Commons is currently reliant on existing Committees being able to scrutinise treaties on a case-by-case basis.

The Committee invites evidence that addresses the following questions and would welcome comparative examples that illustrate the issues below.

1) Role and purpose of international treaties/agreements

  • What roles and functions do treaties and international agreements perform in the 21st century?

2) Constitutional relationships

  • Where should the balance lie between Parliament and Government in developing, agreeing and implementing international treaties?
  • To what extent is there a tension between the sovereignty of Parliament and the ability of the Government to sign treaties that require or constrain future legislative changes, and what can be done to resolve any such tension?
  • What role should devolved governments and legislatures, Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories have in relation to international treaties and arrangements? 

3) Effectiveness of current scrutiny mechanisms

  • Does Part 2 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 (CRAG) enable effective parliamentary scrutiny of international treaties and other agreements?
  • How effectively are constitutional conventions, such as remaining aspects of the Ponsonby rule on making time for treaty debates, and informing Parliament of non-treaty international agreements, operating alongside CRAG? Do these conventions need to be formalised?
  • Should scrutiny of treaty making be more integrated with scrutiny of corresponding implementing legislation?
  • How effectively is the implementation of international treaties, including the decisions of new decision-making bodies, being scrutinised?

4) Role of the House of Commons

  • What role should Parliament, and the House of Commons in particular, have at different stages of the treaty making and implementation process?
  • What role should Parliament, and the House of Commons in particular, have in relation to different types of treaties, and on what basis?
  • Given that international agreements affect people’s lives, how can the House of Commons increase the democratic accountability of international agreements?

5) Information and resourcing requirements

  • How, and at what stages of the treaty making process, should the Government share information with Parliament?
  • Should Parliament have access to confidential information and, if so, what mechanisms might assure the continued confidentiality of that information?
  • What treaty information should be publicly available in respect of the UK’s current treaty obligations and to facilitate scrutiny of new treaties?
  • What sort of expertise does Parliament need to scrutinise treaties?

The Committee welcomes evidence on the issues set out above.

The deadline for submissions is Wednesday 30 June 2021 18:00.