Brexit must not pass Parliament by
Labour MP Chris Leslie outlines why the Commons needs to hold the new Brexit Department and its ministers to account.
When the Commons returns after the summer recess on 5th September, there’s an important piece of procedural business that needs attention; the establishment of a Select Committee for Exiting the European Union. David Davis has been appointed to a brand new Government department specifically tasked with overseeing the negotiations to leave the EU. But the task has got to involve more than one part of one political party – our relationship with Europe is of fundamental importance to all corners of the country and Parliament needs to assert its voice here too.
Every Government department is mirrored by a select committee in the Commons, so the new ‘DEEU’ Ministers should face in depth scrutiny as well. There is a mountain of policy preparation to establish the UK’s negotiating position, vital dialogue with the devolved administrations, regions and localities about the questions that now follow, and the risks and pitfalls of extricating ourselves from EU membership will need to be navigated with dexterity.
As I argued when the Commons first reassembled after the referendum ‘leave’ vote, we should not be triggering Article 50 until the new calendar year at the earliest. Over the next few months, the new Secretary of State will have to get his skates on, assembling the downstream consequences for the UK from every other part of government, prioritising areas where Britain faces most vulnerability or new opportunities, and marshalling an opening account of how we want to proceed – and why our EU partners should feel compelled to agree. We’ll have to persuade Germany to give us access to their financial services markets and persuade them to import tariff free machinery & auto components; persuade Italy to let us compete with others on sales of minerals, gas & oil; persuade France to allow free trade of our food & drink and other exports such as aircraft and cars.
Does the new department have the skills and personnel needed urgently for these negotiations? Will David Davis balance his time effectively between the internal UK discussions and the bridges that need repairing across the continent? Above all, does the new department have the right strategic approach to securing the safeguards we need to avoid a damaging recession in Britain as a result of the decision to leave the EU?
These questions are too important for Parliament to fumble its way through without a dedicated select committee to monitor progress and ask the tough questions. Hoping to shed light on the floor of the Commons chamber alone won’t provide the accountability the country expects. And trying to carve out a few sessions here and there from the Foreign Affairs Committee or the BIS Select Committee or even the Treasury Select Committee won’t suffice. With the advent as well of the new Department for International Trade tasked with promoting worldwide trading deals for the UK led by Secretary of State Liam Fox, here too the Commons has to step up to its role in arguing for the right approach.
Changes to the machinery of government can often see Parliament lagging behind and taking months to catch up. In this case, there’s no time to lose. I don’t have enough confidence in the handful of Ministers that have been appointed so far to grapple with this enormous priority now facing the country. The Commons needs to play its role properly, probing, challenging and working constructively too. That’s why I’ll continue arguing for urgent changes to our select committee structure straight away.