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Volume 475: debated on Thursday 8 May 2008

The Leader of the House was asked—

Treaty Ratification Procedure

26. What consideration she has given to the modernisation of parliamentary procedure relating to the ratification of treaties. (204041)

Proposals on parliamentary scrutiny of treaties are included in the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, which is currently being considered by a Joint Committee of Parliament. Under the proposals, the Government would be legally required to lay treaties before Parliament for 21 sitting days prior to ratification. A vote by either House against ratification would mean that the Government could not simply ratify the treaty without further steps. In particular, the Government could not ratify a treaty that the Commons had voted against, unless they relaid the same or a revised proposal and the House did not vote against it again. The Government believe that the right of Parliament to scrutinise treaties before ratification should be based on statute. This will transfer power from the Executive to Parliament and make the rules clearer and more transparent.

I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for that answer, but in a previous case where we had parliamentary scrutiny of a treaty—namely the Lisbon treaty—it was not a rip-roaring success. The Government broke their promise on having a referendum and then we were promised detailed line-by-line scrutiny in the House, which was also not delivered. If the Government are going to bring forward the proposals that the Deputy Leader of the House described, they had better listen, learn from those experiences, deliver on their promises and ensure that the House has a genuine say in the ratification of treaties, because if the Lisbon treaty process is any example, people will be left feeling let down by the Government yet again.

The hon. Gentleman has not taken account of the fact that European treaties will not be covered by the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, because they have a higher barrier to pass. European treaties must be incorporated into a piece of legislation and go through all the normal legislative processes of the House, and that is precisely what the Government did with the Lisbon treaty.

The statement by the Deputy Leader of the House on the Government’s plans for the future is welcome. However, she will be aware that even since the beginning of this Session, the UK has entered into five international treaties, including an important one on sentencing with the International Criminal Court. Will she consider a proposal to allow us to look at treaties that will come down the pipeline between now and the eventual passage of a Constitutional Renewal Bill, which could take two or three years to come into effect? All colleagues, in both Houses, would welcome the chance to see the treaties in draft and express a view on them, and that cannot be too difficult to arrange.

As the hon. Gentleman understands fully, the procedure for treaties currently follows the Ponsonby rule. The convention is that they are laid on the Table in both Houses for 21 days. Obviously that will continue until we have the Constitutional Renewal Bill. As he may also be aware, on some occasions there are time limits that make giving full notice particularly difficult. However, I will look into the suggestion that he made.

New Technology

27. If she will propose to the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons that it inquire into the use of new technology to connect Parliament with the public. (204042)

The Government and the House attach great importance to promoting parliamentary engagement with the public. There are no current plans for the Modernisation Committee to examine the specific issue of the use of new technology in support of that, but the Committee has frequently examined it within its other work—for example, in the recent reforms to the legislative process.

I thank the Minister for that answer. There are many ways in which new technology can help Parliament better to connect with the public, as highlighted by my own campaign to allow parliamentary video clips to be shown on YouTube and other websites and also by the “Free our Bills” campaign to make legislation more easily accessible, searchable and understandable online. Will the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House further consider asking the Modernisation Committee to undertake an inquiry specifically on that issue, taking into account the two subjects that I have mentioned?

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady is aware that television proceedings and subsequent use on Members’ websites are subject to a licence issued by the Speaker. The licence stipulates that material must not be hosted on a searchable website and must not be downloadable. The reason for that is to ensure that it is not re-edited or reused inappropriately for campaigning or satirical purposes.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of mySociety’s “Free our Bills” campaign and it is obvious that great strides have been taken recently in improving the parliamentary website. She is right to suggest that if our constituents can gain easier access to the progress of Bills, it will enable them to intervene as they wish. That work is ongoing. The specific proposals of mySociety, however, have some disadvantages. It wants to be able to provide explanatory material and to reorder some material, but before we went that far we would need to look into it in much greater detail.

The most important way in which the public can access the parliamentary system is by accessing their MPs. I want to commend those who organise the IT system, or—as it certainly went through difficult times—those who are now running a much better system. Will my hon. Friend make it clear—it may have to be done through parliamentary procedures—that we really should not be shutting down the system? When we are trying to work through remote access, it is very annoying when neither our constituents can access us nor we them.

Like my hon. Friend I have a rural constituency, so I understand the particular difficulties faced by Members whose IT access collapses, if only temporarily. I will take up my hon. Friend’s points with the Parliamentary Information and Communication Technology department.

Draft Legislative Programme

28. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Government’s publication of a draft legislative programme. (204043)

May I first apologise, like the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), for the fact that because I will be attending the funeral of my good friend and doughty parliamentarian, Gwyneth Dunwoody, I will be unable to remain in my place for the conclusion of these questions I will leave the business statement in the competent hands of the Deputy Leader of the House.

Following the publication of last year’s draft legislative programme on 11 July 2007, the Government published in November a summary of the consultation carried out and the comments received in “The Government’s Draft Legislative Programme— Taking a Wider View”. As Leader of the House, I contributed to the Modernisation Committee’s inquiry on the draft legislative programme. That Committee reported in January 2008, and the outcomes from those exercises have informed the consultation process for this year’s draft legislative programme, which will be published shortly.

While the Government are now apparently full of empathy and listening, does the Leader of the House recall the fanfare greeting of last year’s draft legislative programme, which said that it was all about

“improving the public’s opportunity to have a say in that process”?

How many members of the public actually had their say and what difference did it make?

Last year, for the first time, instead of merely producing the list of Bills that would comprise the Government’s legislative programme in the Queen’s Speech, we published our programme in draft in advance, in order to make transparent a process that had hitherto been carried out only behind closed doors. That allowed people to see what we were doing and to have their say. We conceded that we did that late in the day because it was brought in by the new Prime Minister, who had only taken up his office in June. We thus undertook to do it earlier this year in order to allow people more of a say, and that is what we intend to do.

Are we going to have a special referendum Bill relating to the future of the United Kingdom? I remind the right hon. and learned Lady that my constituents and hers have as much ownership of, and interest in, the future of the United Kingdom as do people in Edinburgh or Glasgow. If it is true that the United Kingdom Cabinet has not discussed this matter, then it should. Its failure to do so would be an abdication of its constitutional responsibilities, and this House has a duty, for the sake of the future of the United Kingdom, which needs to be addressed.

The contents of the draft legislative programme will be announced shortly. However, on scrutiny by this House of English regional issues, my hon. Friend will know that the Modernisation Committee is conducting an inquiry into English regional Select Committees and will make its proposals shortly.

The Leader of the House said that the draft legislative programme would be published shortly. The Modernisation Committee report of January supported the proposal that she had put forward that the draft legislative programme should be published at Easter. I note she said that that would provide enough time for the Government to have sensible measures to put forward. Are we to read into the fact that the programme has not been published at Easter this year that the Government have nothing sensible to say?

The right hon. Lady will have to make up her mind, along with everybody else, when we publish our draft legislative programme, but perhaps she will also remember that Easter was very early this year.