HL Deb 02 October 2000 vol 616 cc1128-31

2.53 p.m.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they support the creation of a Select Committee to scrutinise international treaties concluded outside the framework of the European Union before they are ratified by the United Kingdom.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, the creation of Select Committees principally is a matter for the relevant House of Parliament. The Government are open to considering ways of contributing to efficient and effective parliamentary scrutiny of treaties, as we made clear in evidence both to the Royal Commission's inquiry on the reform of your Lordships' House and to the inquiry into the parliamentary scrutiny of treaties by the Procedure Committee in another place.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, I thank the Minister a little for that Answer. However, could not the Government give a stronger lead on this issue? Has not the matter been seriously delayed since my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill first raised it in this House? Is this not an ideal matter on which the House of Lords, with its very good reputation for dealing with the consequences of the European treaties, could exercise more widely the parliamentary role of scrutiny as regards treaties? Will the noble Baroness remember that, in these days of old Labour and new Labour, one of the oldest of the Labour Party's commitments in international affairs is to have parliamentary scrutiny of treaty-making?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reminder but I hope that he will take it well when I say that in fact no such reminder was needed for Her Majesty's Government. The Government are aware of the recommendation in the report of the Royal Commission that the Liaison Committee should consider the establishment of a Select Committee to scrutinise treaties and of the recommendations in the report by the Procedure Committee in another place. Both reports are still being considered and the Government will respond in due course. If requested to do so, the Government will, of course, make a contribution to any inquiry by the Liaison Committee. This is very much a matter for the Liaison Committee and I believe that everyone in this House knows that the issue will be in safe hands.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, in the course of the evidence given jointly and in agreement by the German and French ambassadors before your Lordships' House Select Committee on European matters, it was announced that, if necessary and acting jointly, France and Germany would proceed to draft treaties at the second level without bothering governments at all? Does not the noble Baroness consider that we need to be exceptionally vigilant that matters which affect our own status within the European Union are discussed and agreed at the proper level rather than below the top level?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I can reassure my noble friend that Her Majesty's Government are being very vigilant in relation to those matters. My noble friend will be aware that there are special procedures for EU treaties which provide for scrutiny through the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Union and its sub-committees and the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee as well. I suggest respectfully that it is an achievement of this Government that instruments in the inter-governmental field of common, foreign and security policy and justice and home affairs are now subject to scrutiny through the introduction of the scrutiny reserve.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the chronology or timetable? I introduced the Bill into the House four years ago in February 1996. Ten Members of your Lordships' House gave evidence to the Select Committee of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, in support of there being a treaty scrutiny committee in this House. As the noble Baroness indicated, while saying that it was unnecessary for the other place to have such a committee, in July this year the second report of the Procedure Committee of the House of Commons effectively commended the recommendations of the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham. Those recommendations stated that we, as a House, are capable of scrutinising treaties, with retired Law Lords, retired members of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other Members of the House who are expert in this matter being well suited to the role.

Finally, is the noble Baroness aware of the principle of the unripe time, which teaches that one should not do today something which needs to be done today on the ground that the time is unripe and it should therefore be done tomorrow or next year?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I say straightaway that I am aware of the chronology. Perhaps I may commend the noble Lord for his assiduous efforts since 1996. He has, indeed, pursued the matter with great energy and vigour to good effect. I am aware of the Procedure Committee's recommendations and that the report stated that the idea of a Select Committee in this House may have merit. The noble Lord will know that, when the Liaison Committee comes to consider this issue, it will be a matter for that committee. I hope that since 1997 the Government have demonstrated their total commitment to scrutiny. The explanatory memoranda that now go with the treaties have greatly enhanced the ability to scrutinise. They have been made available and are being used extremely well. Your Lordships should be certain that Her Majesty's Government will continue to look for ways in which they can assist and ensure that open government is a reality.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, as a graduate from old Labour, perhaps I may invite my noble friend to confirm that it is government practice not to defer undertaking treaty obligations in international law until Parliament has indicated its approval of the consequent legislation. Would it not be a way of facilitating and expediting that process if a Select Committee could examine the implications and assure Parliament, in a proper case, that the obligations were appropriate ones to undertake?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, there may be much force in what my noble and learned friend says. It is a matter for the House and its sub-committee. If the Liaison Committee felt it was appropriate, it could invite the House to set up such a committee. It is not appropriate for me to comment on that. It is a matter for the House and I have, as I am sure everyone else in this House has, every confidence that the Liaison Committee will look at this matter with the appropriate degree of concern, energy and erudition, in the way that it has dealt with other matters before.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, is it not the case that the Liaison Committee has been looking at this issue and the matter has been put aside pending the result of Commons discussions as to the possibility of a joint Select Committee between both Houses? Would it not be better if the Commons got back to work and then we could move on with those matters?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, there are many in this House who would endorse the noble Lord's comment about the Commons getting back to work, particularly since everyone in this House is working so hard. But in due course we shall have that advantage. When the House of Commons returns, we shall be able to take forward those matters. I am sure that we all long for that day when we are joined by our colleagues in the other place.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, while the noble Baroness is right to say that this is indeed a matter for the House, will she give the House an assurance that the Government will do nothing to impede a decision by the House to set up such a committee?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord knows better than I, having been in this House for some considerable time, that Her Majesty's Government can do nothing in relation to frustrating the way in which this matter is dealt with. I also commend to the noble Lord's attention the robustness and vigour which goes with the membership of any committee of this House. He will know that everyone here will be vigilant to make sure that the Government do not trespass in an inappropriate way.