Parliamentary Scrutiny of Treaties Contents

Chapter 1: Introduction

1.Treaty-making is a core function of the UK Government. The UK is party to over 14,000 treaties and a further 35 were negotiated by the Government in 2018.1 Membership of organisations, including the United Nations, the European Union and NATO, is a consequence of the UK signing and ratifying treaties with other countries. Policies, such as the prohibitions of torture and the death penalty, and the rules on possession of nuclear weapons, have been furthered by the UK’s participation in certain treaties. Treaties thus determine many of the UK’s international obligations and are the basis for domestic legislation to comply with those requirements.

2.Despite their importance, Parliament’s scrutiny of treaties has historically been limited, with little attention paid to the treaty-making process. Where Parliament has engaged with treaties it has been through scrutiny of the Government bills required for their implementation.

3.The impending departure of the UK from the European Union has raised questions about the current system of treaty scrutiny, as Brexit will fundamentally change the context for treaty-making in the UK. Many treaties to which the UK is subject have been negotiated and agreed under the auspices of the EU, and so were subject to the European Parliament’s scrutiny mechanisms. After Brexit, for the first time in over 45 years, the UK will have much greater competence to negotiate treaties in a wide range of politically salient areas, particularly through new trade treaties. Indeed, the UK’s ability to operate an “independent trade policy”, making treaties “to sign and implement ambitious free trade agreements”,2 has been a pillar of the Government’s prospectus for Brexit. The UK’s preparations for departure from the EU have already resulted in an increased volume of treaty-making, as the Government seeks to rollover or replicate trade arrangements that will otherwise cease to apply after Brexit.

4.In this report we explore how Parliament currently scrutinises treaties; the use of the Royal Prerogative; the nature and volume of treaties; ideas for reforming treaty-making; and the interaction between treaty-making and devolution.

5.While our inquiry was prompted by Brexit, we have not focused on the atypical negotiation and scrutiny of the Withdrawal Agreement (itself a treaty), but the wider consequences of Brexit for treaty-making. We agree with the former Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) legal adviser, Sir Michael Wood, who said: “If improvements to scrutiny arrangements are to be considered, these should not be unduly influenced by Brexit issues or introduced in accordance with an artificial timetable related to Brexit. Changes need to address the future more generally.”3

6.In this inquiry we heard from 17 witnesses and received 27 written submissions. We are grateful to everyone who submitted written material or gave evidence to us in person.

1 Q 89 (Sir Alan Duncan MP)

2 Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street, PM G20 press statement, (1 December 2018): [accessed 6 March 2019]

3 Written evidence from Sir Michael Wood (PST0012)

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