The Government notes the report published on 14 January 2016, relating to the UK’s delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. We note that the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (hereafter referred to as the Committee) has confined itself to considering the issue of principle, and the Government response takes a similar approach.
Given that all of the Committee’s recommendations are connected closely to each other, the Government response addresses all of the recommendations together.
Recommendation 3. The House should note the criticism made by the Rules Committee and consider that Committee’s recommendation. We recommend extending the same principles of direct election which have now been introduced to the choice of the membership of most House of Commons select committees. (Paragraph 25)
Recommendation 5. As the Leader of the majority party is also the Leader of the entire UK Delegation of all parties represented, and is automatically a member of the Council of Europe’s controlling Bureau, the House of Commons should elect the Delegation Leader in the same way it elects most chairs of select committees. (Paragraph 26)
Recommendation 7. As the Delegation represents the whole of the United Kingdom, we recommend that the membership of future delegations should be open to formal approval or rejection by both Houses of Parliament and that Parliament should be free to object to the inclusion of individual members, in the same manner in which the House of Commons approves the appointment of select committee members. (Paragraph 27)
Recommendation 8. We recommend that there should be free, fair and open elections of the House of Commons membership of the Delegation by each party from among its House of Commons membership at the beginning of each new Parliament. These elections should be conducted on the same lines as the election of members to Select Committees, which have been such a success. There is no reason why the special requirements for gender representation cannot be included, as they have been already in respect of the election of the Deputy Speakers of the House. A reform of this nature is long overdue. Representation from the House of Lords is of course a matter for that House but we hope it will also consider a similar reform. (Paragraph 28)
Recommendation 9. We recommend that, if the House agrees to the principle of the change we propose, the Procedure Committee 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 Assemblies and the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, should also be appointed by free, fair and open elections. (Paragraph 29)
The Government is grateful for the work undertaken by the Committee, and notes the Committee’s own comments on the limitations of its remit to consider only the issue of principle, recognising the implementation of Standing Order changes is for consideration by the Procedure Committee.
The Government notes that letter which triggered this inquiry, was received by the Committee on 30 November 2015. This was before the Assembly’s Committee on the Rules of Procedure, Immunities and Institutional Affairs, unanimously agreed to ratify the credentials of the UK delegation at a meeting on 10 December 2015.
The Government also notes the evidence of Sir Roger Gale to the Committee that he thought the decision of the Assembly to refer the credentials of the UK delegation to the Rules Committee had, in part, come about because not all Assembly members were in possession of the full facts. Sir Roger also notes in his evidence that the device of a Written Ministerial Statement to place information on the record has been “misconstrued.”
It is recognised by the Committee that the Assembly does not specify how delegations from each member state should be appointed, saying only that they shall be ‘elected [...] or appointed from among the members of [each] Parliament in such manner as it shall decide.’ In its report of 11 December 2015, the Assembly Committee on the Rules of Procedure, Immunities and Institutional Affairs stated that the Statute “offers member States a degree of flexibility regarding the procedure to be followed”.
This flexibility is highlighted in the range of procedures used, as shown in Section 3 of the Briefing Paper of the House of Commons Library (Number 7378 of 11 November 2015), which sets out the procedure for selecting delegations for inter-parliamentary assemblies in countries across Europe. The report also states that “it is clear that neither the Statute of the Council of Europe (Article 25) nor the Assembly’s Rules of Procedure (Rule 6) oblige member States to appoint their delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly by election.”
In the UK, the practice has been that each party selects those of its representatives who will be appointed to the Delegation, following discussions between the parties as to the split between both Houses, and the split between the political parties, considering any representation for minor parties and between the nations, as well as other requirements such as gender balance. The process of selection is then for the political parties but can include internal elections. This is a matter for the political parties, not for the government.
It is clear that the political parties reserve the right to refresh their membership of the Delegation from time to time. In this matter, the Assembly Committee on the Rules of Procedure, Immunities and Institutional Affairs said in its report that “it is not for the Committee on Rules of Procedure to become involved in party politics when verifying the credentials of delegations. This is why it is not the Committee’s role to take a position on the merits of the decision not to reappoint three members of the outgoing delegation, insofar as such a decision has no effect on the balance of political representation in the new delegation.”
In 1992, the Houses of Parliament agreed twin motions “that this House confirms the existing procedures for the nomination of the United Kingdom delegations to the parliamentary assemblies of the Council of Europe and the Western European Union.” In essence, Parliament ratified the process used to appoint members of both Houses to the Assembly, which has remained largely unchanged for many years.
As the Committee notes in its report, the House of Commons was able to express its view on 16 November 2015 when it considered a motion, and an amendment to that motion, both of which would have meant the House adopting a system reflecting that for nomination of departmental select committees. This arose following a request to the Backbench Business Committee. The House voted against the amendment by 171 votes to 34 and the main question was defeated without division.
The Assembly Committee on Rules of Procedure commented on the debate in its report, saying that “the question of the procedure for appointing the parliamentary delegation to the Assembly has been duly debated in the House of Commons, publicly and in total transparency, and it cannot but welcome the opportunity given to the Members of Parliament who so wished to speak freely on this issue. Clearly, the vote on 16 November 2015 in the House of Commons, which led to the rejection of the motion to amend the current procedure, can be seen as the expression of the majority of the House to maintain the existing procedure.”
The Government also notes that the House has come to a decisive view on the process of appointment to the UK delegation to the Assembly less than three months ago, and is not convinced that there is anything of substantial difference to suggest that the House would come to a different decision if asked again, given that only 34 Members supported a change.
The Government observes that the membership is notified to the House by Written Ministerial Statement ahead of the Speaker communicating the credentials to the President of the Parliamentary Assembly. In instances where either House wishes to question either the process of appointment or individual members, there are many avenues open to them.
On this occasion, Members of the House of Commons were able to ask an urgent question on 3 November 2015, contribute to the debate on a substantive motion in a debate requested through the Backbench Business Committee on 16 November 2015 and contribute to the inquiry organised by the Committee. This was in addition to the opportunities afforded by Parliamentary Questions and the weekly business question to the Leader of the House of Commons.
12 May 2016