For more than 40 years, Parliament has carried out its role within the context of the UK’s membership of the institutions of the European Union (EU). After Brexit, it will need to take on new functions, or adapt ways it has carried out tasks, to ensure that it is fully prepared to scrutinise the Government once the UK is no longer part of the EU.
The exact nature of the UK’s future relationship with the EU is extremely uncertain, and there is still a chance that the UK will not leave the EU at all. Despite this uncertainty, there remains a real imperative for Parliament to shape its role in a post-Brexit UK.
- The UK may be leaving the EU, but the relationship between the two will probably remain close. Parliament will need to consider how it can continue to influence – and stay informed about – events in Brussels. The Government and Parliament have still not explicitly agreed the precise role of Parliament in the negotiations on the future relationship.
- After Brexit, the UK Government will be conducting trade negotiations for the first time in more than 40 years. It will also take back responsibility for negotiating treaties beyond trade deals, which will have an impact on important domestic policy areas. The Government has set out a role for Parliament in free trade negotiations but has largely remained silent on treaty negotiations beyond those.
- The devolved governments of the UK and Westminster have committed to working together on policy areas that were devolved during EU membership. But current forums for discussion are not transparent to Parliament or other affected parties. Parliament should consider what type of information it needs to properly scrutinise decisions that the four governments are making.
Parliament’s experience of Brexit so far has exposed deep-seated problems with parliamentary processes and highlighted uncertainties in the relationship between the executive and the legislature. There have been questions about what the Government is able to do without Parliament’s approval, the wide-ranging powers given to ministers to amend and introduce laws as well as who should control the agenda in the House of Commons. The powerful role of the Speaker has also been a key flashpoint. Parliament needs to explicitly address these issues rather than simply assume that the UK will shortly return to a period of majority government and that closure on the divisive issue of Brexit will be reached.
Questions raised by Brexit present both Parliament and the Government with a real opportunity to re-examine how Parliament should function in the 21st century. The Government and the Opposition should actively consider these challenges.
Both Houses of Parliament should establish a joint committee with a remit to equip Parliament for its role after Brexit. Relevant work is already being done in different parts of both Houses, but it lacks the strategic oversight and direction that such a joint committee could bring. The various issues that a joint committee should consider will need to be addressed according to different timescales. Some must be dealt with now. A joint committee could prioritise and co-ordinate this work, with the ambition of ensuring that Parliament has the powers and resources it needs to perform its role in the UK’s democratic system after Brexit.