04 September 2017

The Brexit domination of political debate seems unlikely to stop any time soon, argues Jill Rutter in previewing the upcoming September mini-session.

On Tuesday Parliament meets again after its summer recess.

Since it last met, there have been two rounds of formal EU negotiations (though, as we learned last week with no decisive progress); three new position papers – including one on the sensitive subject of Northern Ireland and Ireland; the first four future partnership papers setting out initial thinking on customs and dispute resolution and enforcement; innumerable newspaper articles, comments and speeches while abroad from Messrs Hammond, Davis, Fox and Johnson, debating the government position in public instead of Cabinet Committee; reviews to inform future migration policy announced by the Home Secretary; and a change of position on Brexit transition from the official opposition.

All of that without a single ministerial statement, evidence session or urgent question or even written answer.

Welcome back. There is a lot to talk about.

The action this week will be on the floor of the House

Expect a marathon session when David Davis reports back on the progress of negotiations. His statements have been notable for their length, but also equally his reluctance to provide much useful insight into government thinking. Hopefully he will be able to enlighten members of the House on the basis of the government’s new thinking, seen in its 11 position papers published over the summer.

Migration may come up this week too. The row over statistics on student overstayers, and the decision to commission reports on the economic contribution of EEA migrants and the value of overseas students suggests something of a rethink going on in the Home Office under Amber Rudd.

Combine that with the furore over the “deportation” letters sent to EU citizens - with Michel Barnier singling that out as a reason to insist on post-withdrawal ECJ oversight on citizens’ rights - and it would be surprising if a Home Office minister managed to avoid being called to answer an urgent question if they don’t volunteer a statement.

But the real action will be on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill which has second reading on Thursday 7 and Monday 11 September. 

The big question will be whether Labour votes against the principle of a bill that is crucial to enabling Brexit, having meekly joined the government in the lobbies on the Article 50 bill. Keir Starmer is still trying to get answers to the pre-recess quiz he set David Davis.

What’s key for Labour is whether they will manage to seduce any of the Conservative Remainers to join them. Senior Ministers spent the weekend warning them off – tactics which have them already riled if Anna Soubry’s reaction is anything to go by. She was clear that Conservative Remainers would not vote down the bill at second reading. 

The government may yet face a rough ride on the programme motion which follows the second reading. It is much easier to rebel on process than on substance. 

The Lords are chafing at the bit….

Meanwhile the Lords are not happy with the government. Lord Adonis has been complaining about the failure to schedule an EU debate there. David Davis dismissed an invitation to appear before the Lords EU Committee in August, saying he would appear to update the Committee in October, and not in September as the Committee asked.  

….as are select committee chairs

There is only so much forensic scrutiny that can be done on the floor of the House. In a normal session, the position and partnership papers would be scrutinised not just by the Committee on Exiting the EU, but also departmental select committees – Treasury on customs, Business on Euratom, Northern Ireland on “Northern Ireland and Ireland”, Justice on future dispute resolution and Home Affairs on citizens’ rights and migration. Although all these committees have chairs, no committees have yet been set up – and the chairs are showing their frustration.

It is not likely that these committees will be set up this side of the party conference season. Parties have chosen their committee members, but the committees can only be set up once the Committee of Selection has met and Parliament has ratified its recommendations.

This breakdown of the “usual channels” means that process looks delayed again – meaning there may not be informal committee meetings before mid-October. If this happens, the Government would have escaped committee scrutiny for almost six months. In the last Parliament, at times it seemed that the government was suffering from inquiry overload, with Brexit inquiries proliferating. The reverse, however, is much less desirable.   

Papers, papers, papers

You wait months for a post-Brexit policy white paper and then three come along at once. Not only are we warned to expect four more papers that will inform the Brexit negotiations in the next few weeks, the government is also planning to release some of the ‘life after Brexit’ white papers – on customs, trade and migration. These will give the new select committees some early meat. 

Partnership, what partnership?

David Davis promised a discussion with Parliament when he launched his white paper on how to balance the need for smooth passage with proper scrutiny. House Leader, Andrea Leadsom, made soothing noises last week.

But so far, there has been precious little sign of any olive branches being offered to Parliament. Meanwhile, there is little sign that ministers have come to any accommodation with the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales. 

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