Parliament needs a bigger role in scrutinising international agreements – Lords EU Committee

The House of Lords EU Committee has today published a report on how Parliament scrutinises international treaties and agreements. The Committee concludes that the 2010 Constitutional Reform and Government Act (the CRAG Act) – the legislation that sets out Parliament’s role in scrutinising treaties – is ‘poorly designed to facilitate parliamentary scrutiny’.

The report sets out the lessons learned from the Committee’s work scrutinising Brexit related international agreements and treaties – a task which it took on in January 2019.

The way Parliament scrutinises treaties is likely to be of increasing importance once the UK leaves the EU, as the power to negotiate and conclude international agreements in a range of areas returns to the national government from Brussels.
The Committee identify a number of weaknesses in the provisions of the CRAG Act for parliamentary scrutiny of international agreements made by the Government. These include:

  • The time limit on Parliament of 21 sittings days to scrutinise agreements makes it impossible for Committees to consult widely and take oral evidence on the impact of the agreement on key stakeholders.
  • Parliament is presented with a ‘take it or leave it choice’ at the end of the government’s treaty negotiations rather than being able to play a role in shaping those negotiations.
  • The report says that Committees scrutinising treaties in Parliament and the devolved administrations should see the draft text of treaties once political agreement has been reached, rather than waiting for the final text to be signed by the parties and published under the terms of the CRAG Act.
  • Treaty information, provided to Parliament during negotiations, should normally be made public. Exceptions to that general principle should be specified and justified by the government.

Commenting on the report, Lord Whitty, Chair of the House of Lords EU Internal Market Sub-Committee, said:

“Since January we have analysed 42 Brexit-related international agreements, and drawn nine to the special attention of the House.

“This experience has highlighted some of the problems with the way Parliament’s role in scrutinising international agreements works under the CRAG Act. Those problems will become more acute once the UK leaves the EU and the UK starts to negotiate and agree its own international agreements, rather than have the EU do so on our behalf. The process needs to be more transparent and more accountable: we need to ensure Parliament has the time and information necessary to provide democratic oversight of the Government.

“The CRAG Act is at the heart of the problem. But we could do a lot without amending the legislative framework.  Committees must be involved earlier in the process of scrutinising treaties, so that they have time to consult stakeholders and take evidence. There should also be more openness about treaty negotiations, with a presumption that information provided to Parliament is published.”

 

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