Changing the law

I mentioned in my earlier post on the parliamentary ‘wash-up’ that I had achieved two changes to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. 

One related to the transfer to Parliament of the power to ratify treaties.  It is a power that Parliament has not had before.  However, there is no point in transferring the power unless Parliament has the resources to examine treaties within the limited time provided (usually 21 days).  To ensure effective scrutiny, I favour the creation of a joint committee on treaties.  That, though, is a matter for the two Houses and not for legislation.   The other element is the provision of information about the treaties.  When a treaty is deposited with Parliament, the practice is for the Government to submit an explanatory memorandum.  Now that Parliament has to ratify treaties, and not simply have the opportunity to comment, it is important that the provision of information about the treaty  is mandatory.  That is what my amendment achieved.  There is now a statutory duty imposed on the Government to provide explanatory memoranda. 

The other amendment is the most important and, in my view, the most significant of the amendments I tabled.  It is to Part I of the Bill which puts the civil service on a statutory footing.  Senior civil servants are not particularly well versed in the role of Parliament.  There are occasions when they are not aware of what material should be deposited with the two Houses and sometimes material, such as EU documents, are deposited late.    The Joint Committee on the Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill toyed with the possibility of placing a duty on civil servants to have some accountability to Parliament.  This was problematic in constitutional terms and difficult to enshrine in legislative form.  I approached the issue from a different perspective.  My amendment provides that:

“In exercising his power to manage the civil service, the Minister for the Civil Service shall have regard to the need to ensure that civil servants who advise Ministers are aware of the constitutional significance of Parliament and of the conventions governing the relationship between Parliament and Her Majesty’s Government.”

This is now a statutory provision.  It is up to the Minister for the Civil Service (a post held by the Prime Minister) to ensure that senior civil servants are well versed in the role of Parliament.  It has the potential to improve significantly the relationship between the civil service and Parliament.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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7 Responses to Changing the law

  1. ladytizzy says:

    Would you clarify to whom the gvt has to provide explnatory memoranda and how ie do they only need to find a good day to bury them in a newspaper?

    On your amendment: neat!

    • Lord Norton says:

      ladytizzy: My amendment, now part of the Act, reads:

      “In laying a treaty before Parliament under this Part, a Minister shall accompany the treaty with an explanatory memorandum explaining the provisions of the treaty, the reasons for Her Majesty’s Government seeking ratification of the treaty, and such other matters as the Minister considers appropriate.”

      As you will see, the memorandum has to accompany the treaty. The UK ratifies about thirty treaties a year, most of them fairly uncontroversial or minor. With substantial and controversial treaties, it will be difficult to bury them on a day when other issues attract media attention, since Parliament has three weeks to consider it and, in certain circumstances, that period can be extended. What I am keen to ensure is that, once a treaty reaches Parliament, Parliament is in the driving seat in respect of scrutiny.

  2. franksummers3ba says:

    I believe that in intrinsic terms the language is very significant. Secondly given the ferment in the UK just now it may be more effective than at an ordinary time.

    It is possible that there will be geopolitical changes in the next ten years which will make the underlying principles of this provision more appealing. Of course I am someone associated with many causes which are heavier on bravery than on political calculation. So very possibly barely constitutional bureaucracy will come on strong for the foreseeable future and be opposed by short-sighted profiteering only.

  3. Dear Lord Norton,

    This is very good news. I trust that in the future you’ll be pursuing with the Government what they have done to implement this provision?

    Wannabe Expat.

  4. Your amendments seem to me to be very significant. There has always seemed to me to be far too little accountability to Parliament, though this has improved to some degree since the 1980s with the development of the committee structure. Yet the committees themselves seem to have precious little resources, cf, say, a Congressional Committee in the USA, and seem to lack clout.
    Ensuring the principal civil servants at least understand and implement the present rights of Parliament must be progress, well done!

    • Lord Norton says:

      Stephen Paterson: Many thanks. As you say, great strides have been made by the Departmental Select Committees, though officials are somewhat constrained by the Osthmotherley Rules. As a result of my amendment, I hope officials will have a greater appreciation than at present of the role of Select Committees and, of course, Parliament more generally.

      As you mention, committees lack the resources of US committees, but that is largely inveitable given the different positions of the Houses from which the committees draw their powers. Congressional committees are powerful because Congress is powerful.

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