1.The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee published its Second Report of Session 2015–16, Appointment of the UK’s delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, as HC 658 on 14 January 2016. The Government’s response was received on 24 March 2016 and is appended to this report.
2.The Committee wishes to place on record its dissatisfaction with the Government’s response. It does not address the issues raised in our report, and in addition, it seeks to use irrelevant facts to cast doubt on the validity of our recommendations. We ask the Government to think again and to give a considered response to our report.
3.The Government’s response draws attention to the fact that this Committee received the letter from Mr Owen Paterson MP, which triggered our inquiry, before the meeting of the Assembly’s Committee on the Rules of Procedure, Immunities and Institutional Affairs (the “Rules Committee”) at which it was recommended that the credentials of the UK’s Delegation be ratified. This is correct, but not relevant. We were aware of the decision of the Rules Committee when we took oral evidence and when we agreed our report. The Rules Committee decision is irrelevant to our main conclusion that there should be a democratic process in our own Parliament for the appointment of members of the delegation, rather than the present system relying on patronage. We do not accept that the Government’s response should attempt to minimise the importance of our report in this way.
4.Although the UK Delegation’s credentials were ratified by the Parliamentary Assembly on 25 January 2016 following a recommendation by the Rules Committee, it is not acceptable that the UK’s delegation is appointed and announced by the Prime Minister. We do not think it is right that the House has practically no opportunity to debate and vote on it, nor to amend the list of members presented. Furthermore, the fact that the UK’s delegation to an organisation whose central purpose is to uphold and strengthen democracy in Europe is appointed in an undemocratic way is completely inappropriate and embarrassing. This situation is democracy denied.
5.The Government response notes that the Assembly’s own rules allow for a member state’s delegation to be “elected [ … ] or appointed”. Again, while correct as a matter of procedure, this is irrelevant to the case made in our report for a democratic process of appointment. The same kind of arguments were used against the election of Select Committees before the Wright Report. The House of Commons was right to ignore them then and they should carry no weight now. In our view, the United Kingdom’s Delegation should be appointed in a way which is as democratic as possible, as befits a nation which was among the founder members of the Council of Europe. It is not enough to say that a less democratic method is acceptable under the rules of the Assembly. It is not acceptable to this Committee and we do not think it should be acceptable to the House.
6.The response draws attention to the ways in which Members were able to express their dissatisfaction with the decision which had been taken to exclude several members from the delegation. This was done through an urgent question, a debate in Backbench Business time, and through our inquiry. We agree that these methods were well used in drawing attention to the decision and in airing Members’ views. However, this does not do away with the need for a formal mechanism of approval, built in to the usual process for deciding the membership of the delegation.
7.We do not accept this Government Response, which fails to address the importance of democracy in appointing the UK’s Delegation to the Council of Europe. This is democracy denied. We call upon the Government to amend its process from Prime Ministerial announcement of a list of names decided in concert with party leaders, to free, fair and open election of the Commons element of a delegation by the whole House of Commons. If the House agrees to the principle of the change we propose, the Procedure Committee could consider how this reform should be implemented. At the same time, we suggest that the Procedure Committee should consider whether the other delegations sent by Parliament to international assemblies, namely the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Parliamentary Assembly and the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, should also be appointed by free, fair and open elections. We ask that the Government reconsider its response to our Report and produce a further response.
12 May 2016