Standing Orders Etc. (Machinery of Government Changes) (Exiting the European Union)

Other Proceedings – in the House of Commons at 6:27 pm on 11 October 2016.

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Motion made, and Question proposed,

That, with effect from 17 October 2016 and for the remainder of this Parliament, the following changes be made to Standing Orders; and that such changes shall cease to have effect upon the lapse or repeal of the temporary Standing Order on the Committee on Exiting the European Union:

A: Committee on Exiting the European Union

(1) There shall be a select committee, to be called the Committee on Exiting the European Union, to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the Department for Exiting the European Union and related matters falling within the responsibilities of associated public bodies.

(2) The committee shall consist of no more than twenty-one Members including:

(a) the chair; and

(b) no more than twenty other Members who shall be nominated upon a motion made on behalf of the Committee of Selection as set out in Standing Order No. 121 (Nomination of select committees); and the provisions of Standing Order No. 121(2) shall apply to motions for the nomination and discharge of Members to and from the committee as if it were a committee not established under a temporary standing order.

(3) Unless the House otherwise orders, each Member nominated to the committee shall continue to be a member of it for the remainder of the Parliament.

(4) The committee shall have the power to appoint a sub-committee.

(5) The committee and any sub-committee appointed by it shall have the assistance of the Counsel to the Speaker.

(6) The committee and any sub-committee appointed by it shall have power to appoint legal advisers, and specialist advisers either to supply information which is not readily available or to elucidate matters of complexity within the committee’s order of reference.

(7) The committee and any sub-committee appointed by it shall have power to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, to adjourn from place to place and to report from time to time the evidence taken before them.

(8) The quorum of the committee shall be six and the quorum of any sub-committee appointed by it shall be three.

(9) The committee shall have power to report from time to time, and any sub-committee appointed by it shall have power to report to the committee from time to time.

B: Election of Select Committee Chairs

(10) That Standing Order No. 122B (Election of select committee chairs) be amended in paragraph (1), by inserting, in the appropriate place, “the Committee on Exiting the European Union”.

C: Liaison Committee

(11) That the Resolution of the House of 10 September 2015 (Liaison Committee (Membership)) be amended, in paragraph (2), by inserting, in the appropriate place, “Exiting the European Union”.

D:European Committees

(12) That Standing Order No. 119 (European Committees) be amended as follows:

(a) in paragraph (4) by inserting after “departments)” the words “, or the Committee on Exiting the European Union”; and

(b) in the Table in paragraph (7), in respect of European Committee B, by inserting, in the appropriate place, “Exiting the European Union”.

E: European Scrutiny Committee

(13) That paragraph (12) of Standing Order No. 143 (European Scrutiny Committee) be amended by inserting, in the appropriate place, “the Committee on Exiting the European Union”.

F: Public Bodies: Draft Orders

(14) That Standing Order No. 152K (Public bodies: draft orders) be amended as follows:

(a) after sub-paragraph (b) to paragraph (1) to insert

“(c) in respect of a draft order laid by a Minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union, the Committee on Exiting the European Union”; and

(b) in paragraph (2) by inserting after “departments)” the words “, or the Committee on Exiting the European Union”.

G: Positions for which Additional Salaries are Payable for the Purposes of Section 4a(2) of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009

(15) That the Order of the House of 19 March 2013 (Positions for which additional salaries are payable for the purposes of section 4A(2) of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009) be amended, in paragraph (1)(a), by inserting, in the appropriate place, “the Committee on Exiting the European Union”.— (Mr Lidington.)

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee 6:29, 11 October 2016

The Leader of the House has just told us that we have been without Select Committees to oversee international trade and Brexit. As Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, I take some mild exception to that remark, because the Foreign Affairs Committee, along with a number of other Select Committees, has been working on Brexit. Indeed, on 26 April, we produced a unanimous report on the implications of whether the United Kingdom chose to stay or leave the European Union. With a Committee split down the middle, that was a remarkable piece of work, and I hope that it served to give Members a definitively unbiased account to present to their constituents before the referendum. Subsequent to the referendum, we produced a further report, in which we were particularly critical of the Government’s failure—indeed, their instruction to Departments to do no contingency planning at all in the event that the country voted to leave the EU.

I wrote to the Government Chief Whip on 30 August and copied the letter to the Leader of the House, the Clerk of the House and the Clerk of Committees to make clear my unease about the discussion then going on about the formation of a Select Committee to oversee the Department for Exiting the European Union. I would like to take this opportunity to put my concerns on the record, as I suspect that such a Committee is likely to be set up, given the arrangements that have been made. I want what I might call the gypsy’s warning about how the Committee might work to be on the record.

Our departure from the EU will generate unprecedented constitutional, political and economic challenges that will affect every Department and almost all aspects of Government policy. Effective scrutiny of this process and the new Department tasked with managing it should require a made-to-measure response from the House. That response should have been to prioritise flexibility, adaptability and cost-effectiveness. I believe that what we are presented with this evening is a mistake in setting up a classic departmental Select Committee to oversee what is in a sense a project that is being organised through a Department of State but that is in the end a time-limited project that will almost certainly come to a conclusion by the end of March 2019.

The Department for Exiting the European Union is unlike any other Department. It will not originate or develop any discrete domestic policy area, and as I said, its task is time-limited. Overseeing it with a discrete Select Committee will ensure that the House is probably about six months behind the Department. No doubt, the Committee will produce reports on the Department after it has ceased to exist. The Department’s website says that it will be

“responsible for policy work to support United Kingdom negotiations”,

but in practice, existing Departments will have key roles in setting policy aims for when we leave the EU and be involved in the planning of how we achieve them.

The role of the Department for Exiting the European Union will be to oversee those negotiations and to ensure consistency and coherence across the Government. We already have existing Select Committees that have the understanding and expertise needed to hold Departments to account for their progress in preparing for Brexit. Several Committees have already launched Brexit-based inquiries, building on work conducted in advance of the referendum. Scrutiny of the Department’s oversight and cross-Government co-ordination role would in these circumstances fall rather more naturally to the Liaison Committee and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. Select Committees could also, of course, work alongside one another, pooling resources and expertise.

There are also the resources available through the European Scrutiny Committee, which could adapt its role to go beyond simply examining European Union documents, but the House will badly need its expertise when examining the future regulatory framework beyond Brexit; that will present significant opportunities for Parliament, given the inevitable lack of clarity on what will apply in advance of the negotiations.

The Foreign Affairs Committee already oversees the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and its budget and programme, but given the very close relationship between the FCO and the people staffing the Department for Exiting the European Union, there is no reason why the Foreign Affairs Committee could not also oversee that Department’s budget and resources. Indeed, it is almost certain that when the Department for Exiting the European Union ends, most of its people will be reunited with the Department that they came from: the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Given the likely impact, in the short and long term, on the FCO, it would make perfect sense for the Foreign Affairs Committee to take this work.

Of course, prior to the referendum, my Committee proved itself to be balanced in its assessment of the United Kingdom’s options. Any new Committee that we set up is likely to be highly partisan on the subject of Brexit, and whether this will lend itself to effective scrutiny, rather than conflict with the Government’s stated policy on Brexit, is frankly open to doubt. Setting up a special Select Committee with 21 members, rather than the normal 11, with the costs that involves, in terms of staff and member time, also disturbs the balance in the allocation of Committee chairmanships between the parties. I am aware that the resources available to my Committee are likely to be significantly reduced in order to service this new Select Committee.

The fundamental question that the House ought to address is whether the new Committee will improve our scrutiny, or instead duplicate the work of existing Committees, as was suggested by a senior figure at the Institute for Government. The new Committee will impose an extra layer of demands on the already hard-pressed Ministers in the Department for Exiting the European Union and their officials. My view, shared by the European Union Committee in the other place in its first report of this Session, is that the existing structures of the House would serve us best.

As I acknowledged at the beginning of my remarks, I suspect that I am in a significant minority, so I do not intend to press this matter, unless I suddenly find that my arguments have surprisingly convinced a majority of those present. I invite my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to explain to me and the House why the concerns that I have expressed will not come to pass, and how we can ensure that this new Select Committee, despite my concerns, will be able to work in a way that does not bring it into automatic conflict with the Government, rather than being an exercise of oversight, or into conflict with existing Select Committees of the House.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons 6:38, 11 October 2016

I am grateful. May I first say to my hon. Friend Crispin Blunt that the Government, in bringing forward this motion, have absolutely no intention of in any way denigrating or downplaying the work that he and the members of the Foreign Affairs Committee and other departmental Select Committees have done, or continue to do, on European affairs? Of course, all those departmental Select Committees will continue to have oversight of the European Union responsibilities exercised by the Departments that they shadow. Indeed, scrutiny of those elements of Departments’ business has always been an integral part of the responsibility of those Select Committees.

When the Chief Whip and I received the letter from my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate, we considered seriously the proposal that he made. It is true, as he said, that the Government’s intention is that the Department for Exiting the European Union should endure only as long as that work needs to be carried out. In the end, we concluded that there was merit in the long-established principle that each Government Department should have a Select Committee to which Ministers and, through them, the officials in that Department are accountable. I refer my hon. Friend to the wording of the motion, which refers to the Select Committee being responsible for scrutinising

“the expenditure, administration and policy of the Department for Exiting the European Union”.

Given the breadth of policy areas that the new Department covers there would be a lack of clarity and lines of accountability if we tried to spread not just policy but expenditure and the administration of the Department among a number of departmental Select Committees, each having a finger in the European pie.

I would briefly make two more points. First, it remains the case that Select Committees can carry out joint inquiries. I believe that the report delivered to the Liaison Committee in the last Parliament by our former colleague, Lord Beith, advocated changes to Standing Orders that would make the co-option of a small number of members of a Select Committee to another for a particular inquiry easier to organise. Secondly, I understand what my hon. Friend said about the risks of partisanship, but the history of Select Committees shows that they are most effective when they can deliver a consensual report. It will be for the members of the new Select Committee to decide how they conduct their business, but they will go into this work knowing that their reports will carry greater weight both with the Government and with the wider public if they achieve a consensus, as the best Select Committees, including his own, have been able to do in the past.

My hon. Friend mentioned the size of the Select Committee. Yes, it is larger than normal, but that is because we wanted to make sure that for this question of Britain’s departure from the European Union all parts of the United Kingdom, including all three devolved parts of the United Kingdom, had proper representation, and that all the main political parties represented in the House have representation on the Committee. I accept that we will not reach complete agreement, but I hope that my hon. Friend at least understands the Government’s reasons for introducing the motion. We considered his case carefully, but we stand by the motion.

Question put and agreed to.