The process of leaving the EU brings opportunities and challenges for House of Commons select committees. Previous research shows how their inquiries can influence policy and bring expert evidence to discussions of government proposals. But the scale and complexity of the Brexit process, the secrecy of the negotiations and the significance of the Leave versus Remain fault-line mean that achieving consensus and influence on the Brexit process may be difficult for select committees.
In a companion post, we consider the extent and possible effects of select committee composition in terms of the Leave versus Remain division. Here, we look at the nature of inquiries on Brexit, the potential for overlap in select committees’ activities and how greater coordination could be beneficial.
At the time of writing there are more than 20 select committee inquiries that focus primarily on Brexit and at least three with a partial consideration of this. Russell and Benton’s research on select committee influence shows how it can vary from government implementation of committee recommendations to drawing attention to issues that may not have been sufficiently considered by ministers and acting as a source of evidence on which policy change might be based.
If we look at the chairs of the 28 select committees included in our analysis (see Table 1), 21 supported Remain in the referendum and 7 voted Leave. Some chairs may be disappointed if a report is not unanimously agreed as it may carry more weight with the government if supported by all committee members. Divisions over reports may indicate major differences among members although they may also be a mechanism simply for MPs to put their views on the record.
Achieving consensus on Brexit issues may be difficult given the Leave versus Remain fault-line that is present within and between parties at Westminster, although there are differences within as well as between the two sides about the Brexit process and future relationship with the EU. .
Three select committees in the 2016-17 session delivered differing perspectives on a ‘no deal’ scenario. The Exiting the EU committee’s third report of the 2016-17 session warned it was ‘very important’ to avoid ‘no deal.’ Six Leave-supporting Conservative members voted against the report. However, the International Trade committee unanimously agreed a report which recommended ruling out ‘no deal’ and considering the implications of re-joining the European Free Trade Association. All of its Conservative members were Leavers.
All Conservative MPs on the Foreign Affairs committee also backed Leave while three Labour and one SNP committee members had voted against triggering Article 50. But its ninth report of 2016-17 was unanimously agreed and envisaged situations in which no deal would be better than a bad deal. Divisions in the Exiting the EU committee show that the Leave-Remain divide can be potent, but the other examples show that agreement is possible and that committee members are often pragmatic and independent-minded.
Meanwhile, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) committee drew attention to the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with Euratom. Having heard evidence from the civil nuclear sector, it recommended that the government either delay exiting Euratom or urgently seek transitional arrangements.
With so many inquiries taking place, how effectively are select committees coordinating their efforts to scrutinise the Brexit process? So far, there appears to be only limited coordination of Brexit inquiries. Informal channels include bilateral (or multilateral) discussions between committee chairs or meetings of clerks of select committees, but there are limits to what can be achieved outside of formal mechanisms.
The Liaison Committee, which considers ‘general matters relating to the work of select committees’, may be the obvious venue in which to work out how the committees can complement each other and reduce duplication. However, it was only set up in early November 2017. By contrast, the House of Lords has created an Informal Brexit Liaison Group including members of the Lords’ Liaison Committee and Senior Deputy Speaker Lord McCall. It holds discussions with relevant experts and oversees Brexit-related scrutiny in Lords select committees.
Some overlap is inevitable given that Brexit issues range from broad questions about strategic objectives to complex, highly technical questions about particular policy areas. The Exiting the EU committee holds wide-ranging inquiries and its 2016-17 reports drew upon evidence from other committees. The BEIS committee has adopted a sectoral approach, launching an inquiry on Brexit’s impact on business with five sub-inquiries covering different areas.
One, on processed food and drink, aims to avoid explicit overlap with the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) committee’s investigation into trade in food. But there is a case for committees considering joint inquiries or evidence sessions, particularly where they seek evidence from a similar pool of witnesses.
The EU (Withdrawal) Bill is being considered by the Exiting the EU, Public Administration, Procedure and Scottish and Welsh Affairs committees. Their inquiries are hampered by time lost because of the election. But the Procedure Committee has produced an interim report critical of the Bill – and one that has more clout as it was agreed without division despite all its Conservative members backing Leave while their Labour and SNP counterparts supported Remain. Published ahead of the Bill’s committee stage, the report adds weight to the case for amending the provisions on delegated legislation.
Select committees have the opportunity to scrutinise and influence the government’s approach to Brexit. Greater coordination with regard to inquiries and witnesses could help them in this aim. The opportunities open to committees are those of making an impact by providing evidence, raising issues and forcing ministers to respond.
The limitations are the complexity of the Brexit process, the difficulty in obtaining information on negotiations, the divisions within committees and the degree of coordination of select committees’ activities. Informal contacts can produce results on the latter but there is inevitably a limit to what can be done without chairs agreeing that collective benefits will flow from coordination at a higher level.
A longer version of this blog can be found on the Parties, Parliament and Brexit project website.
By Philip Lynch, Associate professor in politics and Richard Whitaker, Associate Professor in European Politics at the University of Leicester. Both authors are co-investigators on the UK in a Changing Europe project Parties, Parliament and the Brexit Process.