Liz Truss should reset parliament’s lacklustre arrangements for post-Brexit scrutiny – and if she won’t then senior parliamentarians should pressurise government into making vital changes.
This report finds that parliamentary scrutiny of Brexit has been relegated to a niche activity despite the fact that Brexit is not done. Government and opposition are both to blame. MPs are failing to hold government properly to account with big falls in Brexit-related Urgent Questions, Opposition Day debates and questions to the prime minister at liaison committee hearings, while Labour MPs rarely show up at public sessions of the Commons European Scrutiny Committee.
But the Johnson government also did its best to avoid scrutiny, allowing the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union (FREU) to expire in 2021 without replacing it and instead leaving scrutiny for the UK’s post-EU relationship to reside with the Commons European Scrutiny Committee, a committee without an elected chair and with a membership dominated by Brexit enthusiasts.
Analysing post-Brexit scrutiny in the Commons since the Trade and Cooperation Agreement was passed, the paper finds:
- The average attendance of Labour MPs on the European Scrutiny Committee has been below 50% in each parliamentary session between 2017–19 and 2021–22.
- If the one regular attender is excluded, Labour MPs have attended just 11% and then 4% of the sessions they could have attended.
- Labour has been slow to replace members of the ESC who have been appointed to shadow ministerial roles.
- The amount of Brexit-related UQs fell from 45 in the 2017-19 session to under 15 in the 2019-21 session.
Just seven of 235 inquiries (or 3%) held by departmental and cross-cutting committees in the Commons (outside of the FREU Committee) have held inquiries on post-Brexit issues in the 2019 parliament so far; in the 2017–19 parliamentary session, one in eight committee inquiries dealt with Brexit, and all departmental and cross-cutting committees except four held inquiries relating to Brexit
With unresolved issues such as the Northern Ireland protocol and ongoing consequences for European citizens in the UK and British citizens in Europe, as well as a raft of Brexit legislation included in the 2022 Queen’s Speech, parliament should not be denied – and must not duck – its responsibilities to hold ministers to account.
The IfG paper recommends that:
- The European Scrutiny Committee’s remit be reformed to allow proper scrutiny of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, or a new committee be formed.
- The ESC chair be elected by the whole House – ending the existing arrangements which have seen Sir Bill Cash continue as an unelected chair since 2010 – so bringing the committee in line with most other Commons committees.
- Northern Ireland MPs have seats on the new or reformed committee as of right.
- The government commits to give parliament the materials it needs – on activity relating to the Joint Committee on the Withdrawal Agreement and the Partnership Council – for proper scrutiny.
- The government allow early involvement of parliament in discussing negotiating trade deal objectives and for post-ratification scrutiny and ratification.