Select Committee on Procedure Second Special Report


The Procedure Committee has agreed to the following Special Report:—


On 27 July 2000 the Procedure Committee published their Second Report of Session 1999-2000, Parliamentary Scrutiny of Treaties, HC 210. We have now received a response from the Government which is reproduced below:

Government Response

The Government welcomes the Procedure Committee's inquiry as a valuable contribution to the debate on the Parliamentary scrutiny of treaties. The points raised and the recommendations put forward by the Committee in its report are addressed below.

The Way Forward

Paragraph 29:  We are not convinced that there is a strong case for a Commons sifting committee set up specifically to deal with treaties on either technical or political grounds.

This is principally a matter for the House of Commons. The Government does not disagree with the conclusion reached by the Procedure Committee after its extensive inquiry and consultation of Select Committee Chairmen. The Government remains open to considering ways of contributing to efficient and effective Parliamentary scrutiny of treaties and welcomes the Procedure Committee's commendation of action taken by the FCO to do so.

Paragraph 30:  While we reject the idea of a Commons sifting committee, we believe that Lord Wakeham's proposal of such a committee in the reformed House of Lords may have merit.

This is primarily a matter for the House of Lords, but that House will doubtless wish to consider the arrangements for the scrutiny of treaties in the House of Commons when making any decision.

Paragraph 31:  We believe that the appropriate role for the Commons in relation to the scrutiny of treaties is to draw upon the established expertise of the departmental select committees.

The Government agrees that the departmental select committees have demonstrated their expertise in examining treaties falling within their remit and that it makes sense to draw upon this.

Paragraph 32:  We believe that other select committees should be encouraged to develop expertise in this field. We accordingly recommend that the FCO should send every treaty subject to ratification, along with its explanatory memorandum, to what it adjudges to be the relevant select committee. It would then be for that committee to decide whether to take further action on particular treaties, whether by holding informal discussions with the lead Department, consulting with other select committees, or taking formal evidence and reporting to the House.

The Government accepts this recommendation. The FCO will ensure that a copy of each Command Paper and accompanying Explanatory Memorandum (EM) for treaties laid before Parliament under the Ponsonby Rule is sent to what the FCO judges to be the relevant departmental select committee. It would then be for the lead committee to decide whether the Command Paper and EM might be more relevant to another committee or relevant to more than one committee and to pass it on accordingly.

In accordance with the Ponsonby Rule time for consideration of a treaty by a select committee should normally be within 21 sitting days, but in cases where a committee wished to conduct an inquiry that was likely to take more than 21 days, it is open to a committee to ask for an extension. The Government would aim to respond positively to such requests provided circumstances permit and cases are justified.

Paragraph 33:  The process of scrutiny of treaties should not terminate with the production of a select committee report. Adequate opportunity for debate on the floor of the House is an essential part of the process. We therefore recommend that the Government should give the following undertaking: that if a select committee requests that a debate should be held on the floor of the House before ratification of a treaty involving major political, military or diplomatic issues, either on a substantive or a non-substantive motion, and if that request is supported by the Liaison Committee, then that request would normally be acceded to. We believe that such an undertaking would be within the spirit of the original Ponsonby Rule, and would represent a sensible modernisation of the Rule to adapt it to the increased role of select committees in the scrutiny process.

The Government is happy to undertake normally to provide the opportunity for the debate of any treaty involving major political, military and diplomatic issues, if the relevant select committee and the Liaison Committee so request. It agrees that this would be a useful development of the Ponsonby Rule. The form of the debate will remain a matter for the Government, although it will of course take the views of the Committee concerned and of the Liaison Committee into account. As the Committee notes, there are some circumstances in which treaties are already subject to proceedings in Parliament. The Government sees no need to provide extra opportunities for debate on such treaties, although the Government would welcome any Report from a Committee which could help to inform that debate.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office
31 October 2000

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