Reforms required if parliamentary scrutiny of trade agreements is to be effective, says Lords Committee


While improvements have been made to the system for parliamentary scrutiny of treaties over the last twelve months, much more needs to be done to ensure the system for scrutiny is robust and effective, according to the House of Lords International Agreements Committee.

In the Committee’s second report on Working Practices, published today, it asks the Government to sign up to a Concordat to consolidate commitments made so far in relation to the parliamentary scrutiny of free trade agreements. The commitments made to date are welcome, but have been subject to frequent and iterative change. A Concordat would demonstrate that these are minimum requirements, that they are fixed and certain, and that they should be respected by this Government and any future administrations.

The Committee says that for scrutiny of trade agreements to be meaningful, it must not be a rubber stamp at the end of the process to convey simple approval. Instead, the Committee should be consulted on a draft negotiating mandate, so that the process can be informed by Parliament, with dialogue continuing throughout the negotiations.

The Committee regrets that progress on the scrutiny of non-trade agreements has been more limited. In too many instances over the last year, the Committee was not made aware when such agreements were being finalised, and was only notified when they were formally laid in Parliament. This reduced its ability to seek expert input and report within the 21-day scrutiny window set by Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 (CRAG). It is therefore asking for a formal Ministerial undertaking that, in future, the Committee will receive advance notice of all treaties.

It has also put forward a series of further recommendations to help improve the scrutiny system, including on when amendments to treaties ought to be referred to the Committee. Ultimately, however, it concludes that, even with the improvements called for in the report, CRAG 2010 is insufficient to facilitate real and meaningful scrutiny. It has therefore put forward three improvements that should be prioritised: (i) ensuring that Parliament has a formal role earlier in the process; (ii) that Parliament is provided with treaty text in advance of signature; (iii) that Parliament’s consent be required for all significant treaties, including trade agreements, which the Committee has drawn to the special attention of the House.

Lord Goldsmith, Chair of the International Agreements Committee said:

“We welcome the steps the Government has taken towards greater transparency of new trade agreements, including commitments to publish objectives ahead of the start of negotiations and to parliamentary debates. But more needs to be done to make scrutiny robust.

“As a first step, the Government should consolidate the commitments it has made on trade agreements in an iterative fashion over the last nine months in a Concordat to signal their importance.

“A key issue of concern is that the formal points for committee engagement are always in response to a fait accompli: we may have parliamentary debates on negotiating objectives of trade agreements, but by then the mandate will already have been set; we can have advance sight of the text, but only after it has been signed and agreed.

“Parliamentary scrutiny should not be a rubber stamp at the end of the process that conveys simple approval. For the system to function effectively, there must be meaningful consultation between the Government and Parliament. In particular, for agreements that have significant implications for the UK’s domestic policy and regulatory framework, such as trade agreements, it is important that this consultation and dialogue takes place before a mandate is established, so the final mandate can be informed by Parliament, and continues throughout the negotiation process. This engagement with Parliament is a key part of engaging also with civil society and taking into account citizens’ rights and interests.

“The International Agreements Committee will continue to work hard to emphasise the importance and benefits of parliamentary scrutiny to Government.”