Skip to main content

Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee calls for all treaties to be approved by a vote in the House of Commons

29 January 2024

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee today (Monday 29 January) publishes its report on the scrutiny of international agreements. The report emphasises that scrutiny of international agreements is a core constitutional function of Parliament, but finds that current arrangements ‘do not deliver a constitutionally sufficient level of scrutiny’.   

The Committee argues that recent years have seen a great increase in the volume of international agreements, and their scope, with many now reaching into the domestic sphere and into people’s everyday lives far more than before. Moreover, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU means that EU-level scrutiny mechanisms have fallen away, with the UK’s scrutiny arrangements for this increased number of agreements reverting to those developed nearly a century ago. The Committee says that these points, combined with the currently unsatisfactory legislative framework, highlight the urgent need for increased parliamentary scrutiny.  

The Committee found that the current system, providing only a passive role for Parliament and what is in practice a limited power of delay, is in dire need of an overhaul. It calls for all treaties to be explicitly approved by Parliament through an approval vote in the House of Commons, saying that it is ‘untenable that there is no requirement for Parliament to approve treaties’. The Committee further finds that Parliament’s role in passing implementing legislation is not a substitute for proper parliamentary scrutiny of a treaty.  

The Committee also proposes the establishment of two new committees to sift and to scrutinise international agreements: a sifting committee, which would have 21 days to assess and set what level of scrutiny any proposed international agreement should receive prior to a debate and vote on whether to approve it in the House of Commons; and a committee to act as the focal point for and to lead on the scrutiny of international agreements in the House of Commons, similar in nature to the International Agreements Committee in the House of Lords. 

The report calls for a whole new approach to international negotiations, which would see Parliament involved throughout the entire ‘lifecycle’ of an international agreement, from early considerations and opening negotiations, through negotiation rounds, agreement and ratification, then onwards to implementation and review. Parliament should, for example, be consulted on the setting of negotiating mandates and remain informed of progress throughout negotiations. This new approach would require the Government and Parliament to establish new mechanisms for timely and meaningful cooperation.  

The Report also calls for the Government to establish a central repository of all Non-Legally Binding Instruments (NLBIs; also known as a Memorandum of Understanding) reached by the UK, stating that this should be made public on GOV.UK. Given that the political obligations that NLBIs can contain will have the moral weight of legal obligations in the UK, given its reputation as an internationally trusted nation, the Committee recommends that every new addition to the repository should at the very least be notified to Parliament.  

The report calls for the existing arrangements to discuss international agreements with the devolved nations, the Concordat on International Relations, to be updated or replaced with a new document to lay down procedures for ‘timely and meaningful consultations’ on international agreements, and calls for this new document to be prioritised and published within six months. It also proposes a convention whereby the Government does not ask Parliament to approve a treaty that would apply to the Crown Dependencies or Overseas Territories without the consent of the relevant jurisdiction.  

The report further recommends that all House of Commons select committees include the scrutiny of international agreements in their core tasks, and that Parliament’s Procedure Committee investigate any additional functions that might be required of the proposed sifting committee, and what resources the House of Commons may need to effectively carry out effective scrutiny of international agreements through the departmental committee structure.   

PACAC notes that the Government has refused the Home Affairs Committee’s request for a Commons debate and vote on the UK– Rwanda treaty on an Asylum Partnership under Section 20 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. This refusal clearly demonstrates why the reforms outlined in the Committee’s report are necessary. 

Chair's comment

Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee Chair, William Wragg MP, said:  

“We have seen an expansion in the volume and scope of international agreements in recent years, with a corresponding increase in their impact on people’s lives. The scrutiny of international agreements should be understood as a fundamental constitutional function vested in Parliament, but we have concluded that current arrangements for scrutiny do not reflect this.  

“We call on Government to change the system in place to reflect the constitutional reality that the democratic authority for the agreement of treaties flows from the House of Commons. To this end, we urge that all treaties, separate to their implementing legislation, should be explicitly approved by a vote in the House of Commons. 

“To aid parliamentary scrutiny of international agreements, we propose the introduction of a sifting committee, which would set the level of scrutiny any treaty should receive prior to ratification of it by a vote in the House of Commons, and a scrutiny committee to act as the focal point for and to lead on the scrutiny of international agreements in the House of Commons. We also call on the Government to establish and publish a central repository for all legally and non-legally binding agreements reached by the UK.  

“Our recommendations seek to change the way of thinking about international agreements in our post-EU world, and better reflect the underlying constitutional and legal basis on which the UK reaches international agreements. By doing so, we hope to usher in an era of greater transparency through enhanced scrutiny, and ultimately place the UK in a stronger position to carry out negotiations and reach agreements that are in the best interest of the whole of the UK.”

Further information

Image: Parliamentary Copyright