23 March 2017

While the main focus of Brexit in Parliament is on the action on the floor of both houses, Robert Buck notes the number of select committee inquiries into Brexit has grown dramatically. 

Our Legislating Brexit report finds that the extent of legislative change required to deliver Brexit will inevitably lead to the Government using different routes to make Brexit-related changes – such as using secondary legislation to amend primary legislation (so-called 'Henry VIII powers') – that are subject to less parliamentary scrutiny. Parliament should focus on where it can add value, through early inquiries on the issues at stake. Much of this value will come through committee work. 

So, in the nine months since the referendum vote, what’s been happening on Brexit in Parliament?

There has been an explosion in the number of committee inquiries into Brexit.

Parliamentary select committee inquiries into Brexit

The number of parliamentary select committee inquiries focused on Brexit has grown to 55, with 34 inquiries in the Commons alone. The Lords, although slower off the mark, is now catching up with a further 20 inquiries of its own. The Joint Human Rights Committee, working across both Houses, has concluded its own inquiry into the implications of Brexit on human rights.

Brexit inquiries are being taken up broadly across Parliament. Out of the 26 committees in the Commons who do substantive inquiries (departmental select committees or cross-cutting committees like EU Scrutiny and Environmental Audit), 21 have announced Brexit inquiries. Similarly, out of the 12 relevant committees in the Lords, 10 have announced Brexit inquiries.

Of these Brexit inquiries:

  • 34 focus on the future for specific policy areas – for example, the Lords EU Financial Affairs Committee inquiry on 'Brexit: financial services'
  • 10 focus on the future of geographical regions – for example, the Commons Justice Committee inquiry on ‘Implications of Brexit for the Crown Dependencies’
  • Six look at parliamentary processes – for example, the Lords EU Select Committee inquiry on ‘Brexit: Parliamentary Scrutiny’
  • Five centre on negotiation priorities – for example, the Commons Exiting the EU Committee inquiry on ‘UK’s negotiating objectives for withdrawal from the EU’.

More inquiries are being set up faster than they are finishing.

Concluded parliamentary committee inquiries into Brexit

Of the 55 Brexit inquiries announced, only 19 have been concluded so far. Across these 19 concluded inquiries, select committees have taken 101 days on average to move from launch to publishing a concluding report. The Lords is doing a better job than the Commons at processing and concluding Brexit inquiries, with 13 of its 20 inquiries now concluded. These concluded inquiries include work on fisheries, financial services, UK-EU trade relations, science and research, security and police cooperation, and the movement of people.

Concluding an inquiry is not a precondition of producing a report; the Exiting the EU Committee has already produced two reports while its inquiry into the 'UK’s negotiating objectives for withdrawal from EU' continues to proceed. Similarly, the Foreign Affairs Committee is continuing with its inquiry into the 'Implications of leaving the EU for the UK’s role in the world', having already published two reports.

Ongoing parliamentary committee inquiries into Brexit

There are now 36 active inquiries, which is reducing the scope for committees to look at non-Brexit issues.

Government is missing the deadlines for responding.

Government responses to parliamentary committee inquiries into Brexit

 The Government is committed to responding to select committee reports within 60 days, either by publishing a Command Paper or sending a memorandum to the relevant committee. However, the Government is struggling to respond to committee inquiries within this deadline. Of the 19 inquiries concluded thus far, the Government has only responded to one within the deadline. Four inquiries have received a belated response, and responses to a further seven inquiries are already overdue.

Good parliamentary scrutiny has significant potential to improve the effectiveness of government. Select committees are one of Parliament’s key scrutiny mechanisms. Parliament must ensure that its select committee inquiries are adequately co-ordinated and concluded in good time. By the same token, the Government must also work to respond to concluded inquiries within 60 days – otherwise a vital part of the accountability mechanism is missing.