Post-Brexit Lords committee reforms will mean a cross-departmental, forward thinking approach to scrutiny
The House of Lords after the EU (Future Relationship) Bill received an unopposed third reading in the House of Lords, 30 December 2020 | PA Images
Changes to the House of Lords committee structure will allow expert scrutiny from peers to complement the Commons’ work
In 2019 the Liaison Committee published the report on our comprehensive 18-month review of House of Lords committees – the first major review for 25 years. This marked the start of a significant change in the positioning of Lords committees to begin to put in place a thematic approach, with a more flexible structure designed to ensure that committees with larger footprints provide effective scrutiny of all major areas of public policy.
Since then a number of measures to address scrutiny gaps have been implemented, including the expansion of existing committee remits and the creation of a new Public Services Committee. A key ambition of the review was to increase the responsiveness of our committee structure, and the appointment of a Covid-19 Committee, and a Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee, demonstrate our ability to react promptly to issues of interest to the House and wider society.
The thematic approach ensures that we continue to complement the departmental focus of the Commons and sustain the scrutiny capacity of Parliament as a whole
In the 2019 report we noted that many areas of public policy had hitherto engaged EU competence, and were addressed principally through our European Union Select Committee and its five sub-committees. The EU Committee structure was ‘ring-fenced’ and left unchanged during that review, but we acknowledged that further work in this respect would be required in due course.
We have now undertaken that further work, with a comprehensive report setting out new proposals published in December. The recent motion to agree that report from the Liaison Committee heralds further significant change to the committee structure in the Lords.
The EU Committee in the House of Lords was established in 1974. It has a long and illustrious history of scrutinising the European Union and our relationship with it. This work has been vital in informing and supporting scrutiny of the Brexit process in recent years, both within and beyond Parliament. But the fundamental changes wrought by Brexit mean that by April the work of the EU Committee and its sub-committees will wind down.
In its place we will see important new committees scrutinising Justice and Home Affairs; Environment and Climate Change; Industry and Regulators; and the Built Environment, as well as a time-limited special inquiry on Youth Unemployment. These committees will undertake a crucial role in considering the cross-departmental, long term challenges for which our thematic approach has been designed, allowing expert Members of the House to examine key issues and help to ensure that the right policies are in place to meet the challenges of the future.
Some elements of the existing EU Committee will be developed into a new form, to reflect changing relationships with our European neighbours and global partners. We will maintain a European Affairs Committee, with an additional time-limited sub-committee to scrutinise the Protocol on Ireland / Northern Ireland. Our existing sub-committee on International Agreements will be constituted as a standalone committee in its own right, reflecting the growing importance of this complex area of work.
These changes are a significant step forward in strengthening the structure of House of Lords committees. They provide the framework to allow us to undertake comprehensive scrutiny of domestic policy, while also reflecting Britain’s new relationship with Europe and developments in our international relations. The thematic approach ensures that we continue to complement the departmental focus of the Commons and sustain the scrutiny capacity of Parliament as a whole. The platform provided by the comprehensive review and its evidence base will also mean that we can respond appropriately to new and emerging challenges. The reforms will be vital in ensuring that Parliament is well equipped to play its part in undertaking essential scrutiny of public policy during a time of radical uncertainty both at home and abroad.
Lord McFall of Alcuith is a Non-affiliated Life peer, senior deputy Speaker and chair of the Lords Liaison Committee