09 August 2016

Theresa May reorganised government to deliver Brexit, but there remains a lingering question over how Parliament will scrutinise the process. Amongst the various options, the emerging frontrunner now seems to be a 30-member Commons committee. Hannah White has her doubts on how effective this might be.

The creation of a new government department like the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) would normally be followed by the establishment of an 11-member select committee to scrutinise it. But Brexit is the hottest topic in Parliament, and many parliamentarians will want to play a central role in scrutinising the process.

While in theory the means for conducting scrutiny will be a decision for Parliament, in practice the process for proposing a solution and getting the majority required to agree it are in the hands of the Government. At the moment, political necessity seems to be driving the Government towards creating a supersize Commons committee on Brexit, with around 30 members. That would be large enough to include MPs representing every possible shade of opinion on Brexit, the minority as well as larger parties, and every nation (and maybe region) of the UK, as well as any with particular constituency interests (for example, the City of London).

But while political necessity points to a super-sized committee, the lessons on parliamentary effectiveness point firmly in the opposite direction.

Speaking with one voice

Precedent tells us that parliamentary committees are most effective when they are able to scrutinise issues in a sustained manner, reach a consensus and then speak with one voice. The larger they are, the more difficult this becomes. That is why Andrew Tyrie MP only agreed to chair the Parliamentary Committee on Banking Standards on the condition that its size would be limited (the eventual compromise was 10 members).

As views on Brexit are polarised, achieving consensus on the analysis of evidence and reaching agreed conclusions will be tricky in any case. The Brexit Committee is likely to be seen as an opportunity for MPs to push very particular agendas and promote their personal brand. Neither of these motivations will be conducive to effective evidence gathering, rational deliberation or consensual outcomes. But effective scrutiny will become harder still with a super-sized committee.

Looking inward

A big, disparate committee risks becoming preoccupied with sorting out its internal battles – and thereby losing sight of important opportunities to engage with the public. Public engagement could be an important role for a Brexit committee – both to understand the perspective of different constituencies on different possible outcomes, and to communicate the process of Brexit to the public. The sheer size of the committee could make getting out of Westminster tricky.

Establishing a Commons-only committee, thereby rejecting the option of a joint committee with the Lords, also risks alienating the Upper House and losing their expertise. Certainly some in the Lords are already rattling sabres about their role on Brexit.

Duplication with other committees

Brexit will impact most government departments – some of them profoundly. So every single existing departmental select committee is likely to look at the policy implications of Brexit in their individual areas, as will committees in the Lords. This means that – for the Brexit Committee – there is a real risk of duplication. It will need to be clear about what it brings to the party over and above what other committees are already doing. For example, the Brexit Committee could really add value if it is able to co-ordinate and fill gaps in the work of other parliamentary actors – but that implies seeing  the importance of this role, rather than simply seeking the limelight for itself.

Practical constraints

At the most basic level, there will be practical issues to overcome for a 30-member committee.  Apart from finding rooms big enough to meet in, possible issues include:

  • The parliamentary staff team supporting the committee being stretched so thin that it reduces its capability to do high quality, innovative work.
  • Lots of members wanting to be involved in questioning at evidence sessions, exacerbating the risk of superficial lines of questioning without proper follow up.
  • A changing cast list at every meeting because diaries will be difficult to co-ordinate, leading to inconsistencies in understanding the committee’s work.

How to mitigate super-sized committee risks

If a super-sized committee is going to be the chosen scrutiny structure for Brexit, the choice of Chair will be crucial. It will need to be someone who commands the confidence of the whole House, has a strong relationship of mutual respect with the Prime Minister and key Brexit ministers, and has a clear vision for the contribution that the Brexit Committee should be aiming to make.

Providing sufficient resource to support the committee’s activity – including seconding in appropriate specialists such as legal experts – will also be important. Alternative structures could also be used to manage the differing interests of members – the Banking Commission used sub-committees or ‘panels’ – but careful thought will need to be given to ensuring their work really contributes to that of the committee as a whole.

But ultimately, the lessons of history tell us that big is not beautiful where effective parliamentary committees are concerned, and size often comes at a cost of effectiveness.

Brexit select committee