Committee (and remaining stages)

Part of Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill – in the House of Lords at 12:45 am on 7th April 2010.

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Photo of Lord Norton of Louth Lord Norton of Louth Conservative 12:45 am, 7th April 2010

My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 9 and 10, also in my name, relating to the parts of the Bill dealing with treaties.

On the amendment, I recognise the importance of transferring the power to ratify treaties to Parliament. It is not restoring power to Parliament. It is giving a power to Parliament that it has not had before. I welcome the transfer. However, one of the issues is to give effect to the transfer in meaningful terms. There is no point giving a power to ratify treaties if Parliament lacks the time and resources to examine a treaty in some detail. This is a point that I made to the Lord Chancellor, Jack Straw, when he appeared before the Joint Committee on the Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill.

We need to create the resources, not least through the establishment of a Joint Committee on treaties. If the Commons is not interested in creating such a committee, then we need to set up a Lords committee. That is a matter for us. However, for that committee to do its job requires time. For a substantial treaty, that will normally mean more than 21 days from when the Minister lays the treaty before Parliament. In such cases, the power to extend the period should be employed.

My amendment is designed to ensure that treaties get the extra time, unless the Minister deems the treaty to be minor, technical or incremental adjustments to existing treaties to which the United Kingdom is a signatory. Many treaties will fall into those categories. I believe that some 30 or so treaties are ratified each year. I suspect that most fall into these categories. I do not think that many will cause problems in terms of being classified in the way that I have suggested. This will be clear to the Minister's advisers as well as to the members of a committee on treaties.

This amendment is therefore designed to ensure that treaties receive sufficient time, depending on their significance. I believe that it helps firm up the intention behind this part of the Bill. It is one half of the solution. The other half is in the gift of Parliament in creating a Joint Committee.

Amendment 9 is fairly self-explanatory. Clause 26 provides that Clause 24 does not apply if a Minister of the Crown is of the opinion that, exceptionally, the treaty should be ratified without the requirements of that clause having been met. It stipulates what steps the Minister has to take as soon as is practical after the treaty has been ratified. My amendment is to ensure that before exercising his power, the Minister has to make every reasonable effort to consult the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons and the chairmen of such other committees of either House or Joint Committees that he considers appropriate.

Amendment 9 is drafted in such a way that if a Minister cannot track down the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee or chairmen of other committees that does not prevent him going ahead with ratification. The amendment creates no bar. What it imposes is an obligation on the Minister to make every effort to consult within the limited time available. That is a sensible way to proceed. The amendment enables the Minister to alert the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and other chairmen of the importance of the treaty and the need for ratification under subsection (1), and to get a response. It is up to the Minister as to what account he takes of the response he receives.

I regard this as a common-sense provision which imposes a duty on a Minister without tying his hands when the need to seek ratification is urgent.

On Amendment 10, it is normal practice for an Explanatory Memorandum to accompany a treaty. I would argue that that is best practice. Given that the power to approve ratification is being given to Parliament, it is essential that such a memorandum should accompany each Bill.

I appreciate that Clause 24 provides-as does Clause 26-that a treaty may be ratified if a Minister makes a Statement to Parliament indicating that they are of the opinion that the treaty should nevertheless be ratified, and explaining why. However, the Bill should stipulate that there should be something more than a Statement, which may be little more than a formal explanation. When the Commons rejects one of our amendments, it has to give reasons. Those reasons are not necessarily enlightening. My amendment provides that an Explanatory Memorandum must accompany a treaty, explaining the provisions of the treaty, the reasons for the Government seeking ratification and such other matters as the Minister considers appropriate. It is not an onerous requirement, but if Parliament is to do its job effectively, it is a necessary one. It imposes an important discipline and takes us beyond the wording of Clauses 24 and 26. I beg to move.