Philip Lynch and Richard Whitaker
The process of leaving the European Union (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 policies. On the issue of Brexit though, while negotiations for the UK to leave the EU began in June 2017, the membership of select committees took some time to finalise after the 2017 election, meaning four months went by with no inquiries in progress. Inquiries that were running before the election had to be stopped abruptly, although some have since been relaunched. 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 process of leaving the EU may be difficult for select committees. In a companion post, we considered 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, divisions and differences within and between committees on Brexit-related issues, 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. There will be more to come as other committees consider the ways in which Brexit might affect their policy area. Russell and Benton’s research on select committee influence shows how it can vary from its most direct form, in which the government implements committee recommendations, to indirect forms including drawing attention to issues that may not have been sufficiently considered by ministers, acting as a source of evidence on which policy might be adjusted, and contributing to debates on policy. Single session inquiries in which government ministers are questioned can also force new information into the public domain. In the Exiting the EU committee’s session on 23 October 2017, David Davis indicated that a deal with the EU could be signed before Parliament has a vote, prompting an urgent question in the Commons.
How far committees make a difference will depend on a range of factors including the working methods of the committee chair, the extent to which consensus can be achieved in reports, and the degree of coordination between committees. We consider some of these factors in the context of Brexit.
If we look at the chairs of the 28 select committees included in our analysis (see Table 1 for a list of these), 21 supported Remain in the referendum and 7 voted Leave. The views of these chairs range from those of Nicky Morgan (Treasury) who has been highly critical of the possibility of a hard Brexit and whose committee is looking at the UK’s economic relationship with the EU, to Leave-voting Bernard Jenkin who heads the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs committee which currently has an inquiry into the civil service’s capacity to deal with Brexit.
Some committee chairs may be disappointed if a report is not unanimously agreed, on the basis that it may carry more weight with the government if supported by all committee members. Divisions over reports may indicate major differences among committee members although they may also be – less dramatically – 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 and which has been particularly evident in the work of the Exiting the EU select committee. Whether it will be present in others, and how far the threat of such division leads committees to avoid inquiries on the more difficult and divisive issues, or to dilute their recommendations, remains to be seen.
Select committee reports in the 2016-17 session delivered differing perspectives on the contentious issue of a ‘no deal’ scenario. Three committees looked at this question. The Exiting the EU committee’s third report of the 2016-17 session warned it was ‘very important’ that the UK and EU avoid a situation in which no deal was in place at the end of the two-year negotiating period (paragraph 293). The report divided the committee’s members with six Leave-supporting Conservative members voting against it. 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 the Conservatives on the committee were Leavers. The Foreign Affairs committee in that session similarly included an entirely Leave-voting Conservative contingent. Three of the four Labour members and the one SNP member on the committee had opposed the EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill at second or third reading. Its ninth report of 2016-17 was unanimously agreed and envisaged situations in which no deal would be better than a bad deal. The report was also critical of the Government for not giving the possibility of no deal ‘the level of consideration that it deserves’ (paragraph 60); it recommended all departments should prepare a ‘no deal’ plan. At the time of writing, none of these reports have received a government response. The absence of unity across (and within one of) these committees to the ‘no deal’ situation is indicative of the difficulty in achieving consensus on some elements of Brexit although it surely also reflects the complexity of predicting economic outcomes under different scenarios.
Other committees have considered the effect of Brexit on specific policy areas. Consistent with select committees’ ability to spotlight issues, in Russell and Benton’s terminology, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) committee drew attention to the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). Having heard concerns from the UK nuclear industry, a BEIS report in May 2017 stated that the sector was at risk and recommended that the government either delay exiting Euratom or seek transitional arrangements. The committee report was followed by a Westminster Hall debate on the subject initiated by BEIS committee member Albert Owen. The new BEIS chair, Rachel Reeves has identified membership of Euratom as a priority for the committee and one of the committee’s 2017-18 sub-inquiries on Brexit effects covers the civil nuclear sector.
With so many inquiries taking place, how effectively are select committees coordinating their efforts to scrutinise the many elements of 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, whose remit includes considering ‘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. Since the EU referendum, the Liaison Committee has held just one evidence session.
By contrast, the House of Lords has gone further by creating an Informal Brexit Liaison Group including members of the Lords’ Liaison Committee and Senior Deputy Speaker Lord McCall. This group holds discussions with relevant experts and oversees Brexit-related scrutiny in Lords select committees. A similar institution would surely be beneficial for the Commons.
Some overlap is, however, inevitable given the scope of Brexit where issues range from broad questions about future strategic objectives to complex, highly technical questions about its impact on particular policy areas. The Exiting the EU committee has held wide-ranging inquiries and its 2016-17 reports drew upon evidence from other select committees. It is expected to receive copies of the government’s sectoral assessments. However, as well as being the most high-profile Brexit committee, it is also the one in which Leave-Remain divisions have been most pronounced.
The BEIS committee has adopted a sectoral approach, launching an inquiry on Brexit’s impact on business which has 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 own investigation into trade in food, including agri-food and farming. The Home Affairs select committee’s inquiries on immigration policy will surely produce evidence of interest to committees on Science, EFRA and others. Nevertheless, they are running in parallel with a Scottish Affairs committee inquiry on immigration and Scotland. Taking into account the Home Affairs committee’s findings would make for more efficient investigations by other committees with an interest in this area. But there is also a case for committees considering joint inquiries or evidence sessions, particularly where they are likely to seek evidence from a similar pool of witnesses.
Several committees are examining the EU (Withdrawal) Bill including the Exiting the EU, Public Administration, Procedure and Scottish and Welsh Affairs committees. Each has particular interests in the Bill meaning that these various committees are likely to come to different conclusions. These inquiries are also hampered by the time lost during and after the election, and they face a race to produce reports before the Bill reaches committee stage in the Commons. The Procedure Committee has done so by producing an interim report critical of the Bill’s provisions on delegated legislation – and one that has more clout as it was agreed without division despite all its Conservative members being Leave voters while their Labour and SNP counterparts backed Remain. Although not specifying amendments that have been tabled, the report adds weight to the case for amending Schedule 7 in particular.
Given the uncertainty and complexity of the process of leaving the EU, 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 in areas where there is uncertainty. The limitations are the complexity of the Brexit process, the difficulty in obtaining information on the Article 50 negotiations, the divisions within committees and the degree of coordination of select committees’ activities on Brexit. 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.
|Committee||Change in proportion of Leavers since 2016||Majority position 2017-19|
|Backbench Business||No change||50/50|
|Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy||–||Remain (82%)|
|Communities and Local Government||+||Remain (80%)|
|Digital, Culture, Media and Sport||–||Remain (100%)|
|Education||No change||Remain (73%)|
|Environment, Food and Rural Affairs||+||Remain (60%)|
|Environmental Audit||–||Remain (83%)|
|European Scrutiny||–||Leave (63%)|
|Exiting the EU||–||Remain (67%)|
|Foreign Affairs||–||Remain (64%)|
|Home Affairs||+||Remain (55%)|
|International development||+||Remain (55%)|
|International trade||–||Remain (55%)|
|Justice||No change||Remain (91%)|
|Northern Ireland Affairs||+||Leave (75%)|
|Public Accounts||–||Remain (80%)|
|Science and Technology||No change||Remain (55%)|
|Scottish Affairs||No change||Remain (82%)|
|Transport||No change||Remain (55%)|
|Welsh Affairs||–||Remain (73%)|
|Women and Equalities||–||Remain (70%)|
|Work and pensions||No change||Remain (73%)|