CM(2008)4 final 16 January 20081
1015 Meeting, 16 January 2008
1 General questions
1.6 Procedure of the Committee of Ministers for dealing with questions from members of the Parliamentary Assembly
The handling of written questions from members of the Parliamentary Assembly has already been considered by the Ministers' Deputies on several occasions. The last review of the procedure was in April 2004.
I. The texts
Article 58 of the Assembly's Rules of Procedure defines the concept and arrangements for presenting written questions2.
No specific provision of the Statute of the Council of Europe is devoted to the handling, by the Committee of Ministers, of written questions by parliamentarians. Under these circumstances, Article 19 of the Statute of the Council of Europe3 which covers statements by the Committee of Ministers to the Assembly, combined with Article 20 of the Statute4, which provides that decisions on statements to the Assembly are taken unanimously, had been applied for a long time to both replies to recommendations and replies to written questions.
As the activities of the Assembly and the Committee of Ministers have expanded over the years, this practice prevented or delayed the adoption of replies by the Committee of Ministers to texts from the Assembly. As a result, the Deputies decided – when following up the report of the group of wise persons set up after the 2nd Summit – to change the practice and to allow the adoption of replies by a qualified majority: (519 bis meeting of the Ministers' Deputies (4 November 1994) – Point 2.2 paragraph C.) :
"C. Regarding the voting procedures,
2. the Deputies, noting that no binding decision on this subject exists in the Statute, agreed to adopt replies to the Parliamentary Assembly henceforth by the majority provided for in Article 20 (d) of the Statute, considering that every effort will be made to reach a consensus within a reasonable period of time;
3. the Deputies agreed to specify, at the beginning of the text of an answer of the Committee of Ministers to the Parliamentary Assembly, if a delegation should request it, that this answer was adopted by a majority as provided by Article 20 (d) of the Statute."
This reasonable period of time was interpreted initially as 9 months, and then 6 months (corresponding decisions taken by the Deputies on 20 January 1998, at their 615th meeting, then on 22 January 2003, at their 825th meeting).
II. In practice
Until now this decision has been applied only to Assembly recommendations. The Deputies have interpreted the phrase “replies to the Parliamentary Assembly” as referring to texts adopted by the entire Assembly and not questions submitted by individual Parliamentarians, even if those questions are deemed admissible by the President of the Assembly. Thanks to this procedure all the Assembly's recommendations have received replies.
Where the adoption of replies to written questions is concerned, the practice of adopting replies by a unanimous decision has been maintained. Under Article 16 of the Rules of Procedure of the Committee of Ministers, these questions are first examined by the Ministers' Deputies. In practice, they are placed on the agenda of a meeting of the Deputies (as far as possible within 10 days of being submitted) for an exchange of views. After that preliminary examination, the Deputies invite the Secretariat or the Chair, in conjunction with the Secretariat, to propose a draft reply.
However, as a growing number of questions are being submitted for which it appears impossible to strike a consensus – despite the considerable time spent trying to reach agreement – the meeting agendas of the Deputies have become congested and there is a backlog of questions without reply. Indeed, the problem was raised by the Chairman-in-office in July 2005 with the President of the Parliamentary Assembly and an item concerning this question was placed on the agenda of a Joint Committee meeting; without it having a concrete effect.5
Bearing this in mind, the Deputies adopted, on 7 April 2004, a procedure to be implemented in cases where it was impossible to reach a consensus on a reply to a Written Question:
"If a consensus cannot be reached […] in a reasonable timeframe, the Chair of the Deputies should hold further consultations with the delegations concerned. If these consultations fail to find an agreed reply, the Chair of the Deputies will inform the President of the Assembly that the Committee is unable to agree on a reply to the written question with a balanced and purely objective explanation of the reasons why it could not do so. In this case, once the text of the reply has been finalised, after consultations with the parties concerned, and approved by the Chair of the Deputies, a copy will be distributed to delegations. It is clear that responsibility for the wording of the reply would lie with the Chair." CM/Bur/Del(2004)7
This procedure has been used on numerous occasions since. Of a total of 117 written questions from Parliamentarians to the Committee of Ministers since January 2002, 22 replies out of 88 made, ie one quarter, have come from the Chair. Of the 29 pending questions, it could be said that a good fifteen or so might prove problematic and might therefore ultimately be replied to in the same way. Unfortunately, this is a growing trend, with recent practice pointing to an ever increasing number of questions of this kind, not to mention the fact that draft letters of reply from the Chair themselves are sometimes disputed by those concerned when consultations take place before a letter by the Chair is sent.
It is clear that continuing with the current procedure will cause an even more important log-jam in the work of the Deputies and of the Chair in particular. The effort and time invested are not proportionate to the chances of arriving at a solution. Moreover, practice shows that when a question is of a general nature and concerns all the member States, the Assembly tends to adopt a recommendation. Accordingly, consideration needs to be given to changing current practice and approving a simplified procedure.
On the understanding that the primary objective of the Committee of Ministers remains that of drafting a consensual reply to written questions of Parliamentarians and with a view to speeding up replies to written questions in conformity with Article 20 of the Statute, the following procedure is proposed:
1) Placing the item on the agenda for an exchange of views (oral and/or in writing). The current presentation of written questions on the agenda is maintained, i.e. with the item setting out the number of the written question, its author and its title, the latter in quotation marks.
2) Delegations that so wish, are encouraged to submit their comments in writing before the discussion, to be held during the first consideration of the item in plenary. Depending on their nature, these written comments may provide a first indication as to what chances there are to end up with a consensual reply.
3) Holding an exchange of views (oral and/or in writing) on the question in the plenary meeting of the Deputies.
4) In the light of this exchange of views, the Committee of Ministers could:
i. either instruct the Secretariat to prepare a draft reply;
ii. or invite the Chair to hold informal consultations in order to explore the possibility of arriving at a consensual draft reply.
5) If, in the light of these consultations, the Chair notes that it appears impossible to prepare a consensual reply, he/she informs the Committee of Ministers accordingly. The Committee may then decide, by the majority specified in Article 20(d) of the Statute, to instruct the Chair to inform the President of the Parliamentary Assembly that, "owing to a lack of consensus it has not been possible to adopt a reply". The Chair’s letter would not be a reply of substance.
6) This procedure would apply only to questions for which the informal consultations held by the Chair clearly show that it will be impossible to establish a consensual reply.
7) The Deputies may wish to reexamine this procedure after a period of one year.
This document has been
classified restricted at the date of issue. It was declassified at the 1015th
meeting of the Ministers’ Deputies (16 January 2008) (see
Note 2 Rule 58: "Questions to the Committee of Ministers" states:
Note "58.1. Representatives and Substitutes may at any time address to the Committee of Ministers, or to its Chairperson-in-office, written questions bearing on matters within the competence of the Committee of Ministers. The President of the Assembly shall decide whether those questions are in order and shall transmit them to the Committee of Ministers."
Note 3 Article 19 - "At each session of the Consultative Assembly the Committee of Ministers shall furnish the Assembly with statements of its activities, accompanied by appropriate documentation."
Note 4 Article 20 - "a. […]
Note ii. questions under Article 19;
Note require the unanimous vote of the representatives casting a vote, and of a majority of the representatives entitled to sit on the Committee."
Note 5 At the Joint Committee meeting of 6 October 2005, the President of the Assembly stated that : "Under the Assembly’s Rules of Procedure, the President of the Assembly decided (Rule 58) if a question was in order. This meant that it had to bear on matters within the competence of the Committee of Ministers. There were currently no other criteria. […]. If in some cases there was a degree of abuse of the Parliamentary Assembly for the purpose of tabling written questions concerning internal political considerations, which did not contribute to reconciliation in the relevant region, then he would discuss with the members of the Assembly whether they should make use of their right to table the questions or not. In any case, such questions had to contribute to reconciliation instead of pouring oil on the fire. He had agreed with the Chairman of the Ministers’ Deputies on this approach."