The Treaties Sub-Committee will be vital in ensuring trade deals and international agreements are scrutinised
It will be essential that the UK Parliament is well informed about all new international agreements, writes Lord Kinnoull. | PA Images
Over the next year, the Government will negotiate important trade agreements with major economies around the world. These agreements need scrutiny as they have a direct effect on peoples lives in the UK.
Earlier this month while much of the country’s attention was understandably focused on the threat of coronavirus, and the prospects for huge changes to our way of life, a less dramatic but significantly more positive change was quietly agreed by the House of Lords. On the 17 March, the House of Lords agreed to establish a new committee – the Treaties Sub-Committee – that will be tasked with scrutinising international agreements being negotiated and signed by the UK.
Treaty scrutiny is a crucial and developing area for Parliament as competencies are returned to the UK post-Brexit. Previously, much of the work negotiating international agreements was done on our behalf. The agreements were scrutinised in detail by the European Parliament, including UK MEPs. On the domestic front, the European committees of both Houses scrutinised the decisions made by UK Ministers at the main EU decision making body – the Council of Ministers. These mechanisms have now come to an end, in the UK, following our exit from the European Union on 31 January 2020.
At present – and in reliance of the scrutiny outlined above – under UK law, treaty scrutiny at Westminster only takes place once agreements have already been negotiated and signed. The Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 (“CRAG”) provides the House of Commons with a very restricted power to delay the ratification of treaties, but this is too late to influence the outcome. The House of Lords can pass a resolution that a treaty should not be ratified under CRAG but, in the absence of agreement from the Commons, this only requires the Government to lay a statement before Parliament indicating that it is of the view that the treaty should nevertheless be ratified and explaining why. And there is no mechanism by which Parliament can refuse to consent to an agreement that it thinks is not in the country’s best interest.
Parliamentary scrutiny is important because treaties increasingly have a direct effect on daily life in the UK. Over the next year, we expect the Government to negotiate important trade agreements with the United States, Japan and other major economies. These agreements may affect jobs, and the price and availability of goods in the shops.
New agreements can also affect the role of Parliament by requiring it to pass legislation – or preventing it from passing legislation which would place the UK in breach of its international law obligations.
The Department for International Trade (DIT) has already acknowledged the importance of engaging with Parliament at an earlier stage as new treaties and agreements begin to take shape. Proposals for close engagement have featured in a series of papers published in February and July 2019 and most recently in March 2020. In the most recent iterations DIT has helpfully suggested that it would ensure that specialist committees of Parliament would have access to “sensitive information” and “private briefings from negotiating teams” to ensure that parliamentarians can follow negotiations and take a comprehensive and informed position on any final agreement.
But treaty scrutiny is not only about trade. Agreements can encompass security, the environment and other issues of public interest. Going forward, it will be essential that the UK Parliament is well informed about all new international agreements and that it has an opportunity to consult and engage with stakeholders who will be affected by those agreements. It is also important that the Government engages with the devolved administrations and legislatures, which will have a legitimate interest in the agreements that are struck on their behalf – particularly where they engage with competencies that have been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The difficult precedent of agreeing a Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union demonstrates that we should not underestimate the challenges ahead. But the new Lords Committee, which will work under the umbrella of the House of Lords EU Committee in 2020, will have a vital role in ensuring that these new agreements get the scrutiny they deserve.
Lord Kinnoull is a non-affiliated peer and Chair of the Lords EU Committee.