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Hilary Benn Is "Frustrated" The Brexit Committee Was Disbanded As Border Chaos Spirals

4 min read

The government’s decision to shut down the Brexit committee just days after UK agreed a free trade deal with the European Union was a “big frustration” and means ministers will face less scrutiny, committee chair Hilary Benn told PoliticsHome.

Amid severe disruption at the UK’s borders this month, House of Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg wrote to Benn telling him that the government had denied the committee’s request to continue its work for six months.

The committee, formed in 2016 following the EU referendum, had intended to interview key members of government – including Boris Johnson’s chief negotiator, David Frost – about the effects of the trade deal, as well as the implementation of the protocol agreed for Northern Ireland.

Rees-Mogg told Labour MP Benn: “There will be plenty of opportunities for questions, statements and debates, as well as the detailed analysis of the house select committees in the months ahead.”

It is the House of Commons, not ministers, that ultimately determines the status of select committees. However, the Benn-led committee almost certainly won’t survive without the government’s support.

In an interview with PoliticsHome, Benn seemed exasperated by the situation. “My big frustration was I told Jacob Rees-Mogg that whether there’s a trade agreement with the EU or not, there’ll be a lot to look at, so please can we have more time?," he said. 

“There are lots of things that are going to be needed to be looked at, as we have seen in the last few weeks with the issues facing Scottish fishermen and Great Britain to Northern Ireland trade.

“And don’t forget that freight traffic across short straits is still at a very low level.”

He said that the government had deprived the cross-party committee of one of its primary tasks: to question the UK’s chief negotiator about the trade agreement.

“We have ceased to exist without ever having the chance to speak to the person who negotiated the agreement, David Frost, which is what the committee was established to do.

“It is very much to be regretted,” he said.

Benn’s comments come as numerous British industries struggle to adapt to new paperwork brought about by the UK’s departure from the single market and customs union on New Year’s Eve.

The government is giving compensation worth up to £23 million to fish traders whose exports to the EU have been severely disrupted by new customs and health checks. Fishers, including a large number in Scotland, have had orders cancelled by EU customers due to delays, while some Scottish boats have resorted to landing in Denmark in order to circumvent chaos in Britain.

Elsewhere, the British meat industry is calling for its own financial support as businesses struggle to get exports of pork, beef and lamb to customers on the continent. PoliticsHome reported this week that pigs heads and other pork exports were rotting outside Rotterdam port due to severe delays.

Small-to-medium sized businesses across the UK are struggling to deal with the new red tape.

Geraldine Grandidier, who owns Tidy Books, an independent business selling children’s bookcases and storage to customers in the EU, told PoliticsHome that all her deliveries to the continent were stuck in a warehouse in Peterborough for a fortnight as a result of difficulties facing hauliers.

She said that her European customers were starting to look elsewhere due to hefty fees being slapped on their orders, giving one example of a customer being charged an additional £45 for an order worth £169. “Orders are already at a reduced level compared to what we normally get at this time of year,” she told PoliticsHome.

In its final report, published this week, the Brexit committee said it was vital that MPs were able to effectively scrutinise UK-EU relations going forward, and called on the government to come forward with proposals for allowing parliament to hold it to account.

The committee said that the Liaison Committee of Select Committee chairs should be able to request documents relating to meetings of UK and EU officials in the joint committees created to implement Brexit – like the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee dealing with Northern Ireland.

There continues to be significant disruption to Great Britain to Northern Ireland trade as businesses and hauliers struggle to deal with the mountains of paperwork required to move mixed consignments of food exports – or "groupage" – across the Irish Sea.

At a virtual roundtable on Wednesday hosted by Labour, Northern Irish haulier John Esler warned that he would be forced to make people reduntant if firms like his didn't receive more help from the government.

"We are a smaller company. We have no slack. If we don’t get help, come Easter the P45s will be starting to come out. Straight and simple," he said.

Richard Burnett of the Road Haulage Association warned that the disruption will "get significantly worse" if short-term easements agreed for supermarkets moving goods across the Irish Sea were not extended or replaced by long-term fixes.

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