HC Deb 04 December 1957 vol 579 cc369-71
26. Mr. A. Henderson

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to what extent Her Majesty's Government consider themselves bound by the constitutional principle announced by His Majesty's Government in 1924 that this House should be informed of all international agreements, commitments and understandings, in addition to treaties requiring ratification.

Mr. Selwyn Lloyd

As I stated on 27th November, the Ponsonby Rule applies only to instruments which require ratification. Mr. Ponsonby made it clear that it did not apply to conventions of a purely technical character which are not subject to ratification.

As regards agreements not requiring ratification but containing matters going beyond the purely technical, Mr. Ponsonby said—and I quote his exact words: During our term of office, we shall inform the House of all agreements, commitments, and understandings which in any way bind the nation to specific action in certain circumstances."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st April, 1924; Vol. 171, c. 2005.] He went on to explain that the then Labour Government could not bind future Governments to do the same.

I am not trying to suggest that Her Majesty's Government want to weaken the 21-day practice, but we have had much discussion of Mr. Ponsonby's statement and I want to establish what it was. In fact I am advised that the only category of instrument in respect of which Mr. Ponsonby's declaration has ever been translated into practice by any subsequent Government are treaties subject to ratification.

This is the policy which the Government have followed and intend to follow.

Mr. Henderson

As the Foreign Secretary informed 80 other Governments of the action that he had taken about the Optional Clause as far back as April and did not inform the House until August, following a newspaper article, and then did it by means of a White Paper at a time when the House was not in Session, is not it quite outrageous that the Government should treat the House in that way?

Mr. Lloyd

I regret that the House was not informed earlier. The procedure followed was precisely similar to that when a reservation was made in 1955. Looking back on it, I think it was regrettable that there should have been this delay until August.