The Commons must overhaul Brexit scrutiny as MPs fail to turn up to committee meetings
The House of Lords used to do a lot of heavy lifting on detailed EU issues.
Once Brexit was “done”, it took the initiative and revamped its structures – and now has a European Affairs Committee, a Northern Ireland subcommittee alongside a committee on international agreements and one on the common frameworks which are a key part of making the UK internal market work.
The Commons, on the other hand, did nothing. The government allowed the committee established first to scrutinise the work of the Department for Exiting the EU and then the future relationship with the EU to expire as Parliament passed the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. It studiously ignored the final report from Hilary Benn’s FREU committee on post-Brexit scrutiny arrangements. It was left to the European Scrutiny Committee to expand its remit to cover the post-Brexit relationship, and other departmental select committees to pick up specific issues.
Concerns receive short shrift from the committee which acts as Brexit cheerleader rather than scrutineer
The failure to overhaul structures has combined with the toxic political legacy of Brexit to leave a massive scrutiny gap which means that the Commons is failing to hold government properly to account over its management of the consequences of Brexit and its approach to the overall relationship with the EU. Departmental select committees are – with a very few exceptions – ducking the issue, leaving the field clear for the European Scrutiny Committee.
But the European Scrutiny Committee is a very unusual beast. It used to be the place which engaged in detailed scrutiny of slews of EU documents while the UK was a member and as such became the preserve of those who were most concerned about the impact of EU legislation on UK freedom of action. Unlike departmental select committees and other cross-cutting committees, like the PAC and the Environmental Audit Committee, neither its chair nor its members are elected. Sir Bill Cash has chaired the committee for a near record breaking 12 years and counting. Unlike the Exiting the EU and the Future Relationship committees, there is no provision for Northern Ireland parties to be represented on the committee (though the Conservatives in July ceded a place to the DUP).
Our new report recommends that, if the committee is to be the main forum for scrutiny, it needs a proper overhaul – with an elected chair and members and new standing orders to reflect its wider remit. There should be guaranteed representation from Northern Ireland MPs given the centrality of their concerns to the management of the post-Brexit relationship. And the government should commit to providing both Commons and Lords committees with all the information they need to keep ahead of the agendas of all the committees set up between the UK and the EU under the Trade and Cooperation and Withdrawal Agreements and of upcoming developments in the EU which might affect UK interests.
But structures only take you so far. One of the problems with the standard of scrutiny provided by the ESC is that its active membership is drawn almost exclusively from the hard Brexit wing of the Conservative party. One Nation Conservatives have shunned the committee and the Labour party seems to find it near impossible to nominate members who are prepared to turn up. Labour has only just moved to replace members on the committee who were nominated to the shadow front bench after Keir Starmer’s election as Labour leader. Labour MPs – with one sporadic exception – do not show up for public hearings of the committee.
The result is lopsided non-scrutiny. Concerns being expressed by business or wider civil society receive short shrift from the committee which acts as Brexit cheerleader rather than scrutineer. Now Labour finally has decided it has a policy of “making Brexit work”, it needs to stop running scared and reengage with Brexit in Parliament.
Jill Rutter, senior fellow at the Institute for Government.
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