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Outcome of the European Union Referendum - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:43 pm on 5th July 2016.

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Photo of Lord Boswell of Aynho Lord Boswell of Aynho Chair, European Union Committee, Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees 12:43 pm, 5th July 2016

My Lords, it may help the House if I confine my remarks as chair of the European Union Select Committee to the immediate task in hand: that is, making the most effective and constructive input we can, as a committee, to the Brexit process. It is not for me, as chair, to express today a view on the timing of withdrawal or of notification under Article 50, or in any way to prejudge decisions that will be for the incoming Prime Minister.

In times of turmoil, it is wise to “keep calm and carry on”, but not to the extent of ploughing on regardless. For our 43 years of European Union membership, our committee and its sub-committees have grounded our work in the scrutiny of documents, and we have together made good use of Members, many but by no means all of whom have specialist experience, alongside an expert staff. We have built a reputation for independent, evidence-based inquiry, demonstrated most recently by the huge amount of interest generated by our report published in May on the process of withdrawing from the European Union.

I should stress that we simply cannot give up on scrutiny. The EU continues to develop legislation and policies with an impact on the United Kingdom, its businesses and its citizens for as long as we remain members. Even thereafter, in areas where continuing involvement with the European Union is possible, such as single-market and security issues, decisions reached now at EU level could have a continuing impact on our future interests. I am therefore glad that the United Kingdom Government have made it clear that they will continue to be represented at Council meetings, and that the Government will continue to provide explanatory memoranda to us for European Union documents.

As a committee we will continue to fulfil our scrutiny duty but will strive to keep it proportionate and will put a particular focus on issues relevant to the withdrawal negotiations and our long-term interests. But our remit is not limited to scrutiny, and it is clear that a new focus on Brexit will be required. We are pleased that Oliver Letwin, who heads the new Brexit unit, has agreed to see us, alongside the Europe Minister, David Lidington, later today. I hope that our committee will be in a position to publish some initial thoughts on how this House can best scrutinise the withdrawal negotiations before the Summer Recess. That is, I suggest, a matter of both operational arrangements and the major subject areas of concern.

We are conscious of the risk of duplication and overload, so we will look at how best to collaborate or co-operate with other committees in both Houses. We will also build on our existing good links with the devolved legislatures and Administrations. It is clear that in a fast-moving situation we will need to enhance communication with all the main players and find innovative ways of picking up the phone and talking to people, and we must be ready to show flexibility and make changes as appropriate. I remind noble Lords that we as a committee are not conducting these negotiations; we are scrutinising them, and our use of resources should reflect that practical reality.

Nevertheless, I note, looking around the House, that there is a rich resource of experience here on the Whitehall side, and I hope that ways can be found for the civil and diplomatic services to tap into this to supplement their existing resources. I myself was once drafted in to help out with a comparatively minor crisis a generation ago, and suggest that Whitehall often does its most productive work when the scale of events demands innovation and flexibility. I should stress, though, that this is not an area of work I would seek to put through my committee.

Instead, we can perhaps as a committee help more effectively in two other areas. First, we are charged with representing the House in interparliamentary relations within the European Union. I hope that we will keep up our bilateral ties and friendships with colleagues in other European member states to maintain mutual understanding in testing times—although, of course, I invite colleagues outside our committee also to maintain that process and to feed it into us. Secondly, I believe very strongly that we have a real duty and democratic obligation to the country, as well as to this House, to do our best to analyse and explain unfolding events. We have all already heard horrible stories of intimidation but are also very well aware of the wider subcurrents of concern and uncertainty felt across our society.

As a committee, we have a continuing duty to provide evidence-based, non-partisan, timely analysis of events as they unfold. Much of that work will continue to bear fruit in reports from my committee, although I am also giving some thought to how I might respond more informally to issues raised by colleagues.

We now have to make the best job we can, for the sake both of our own country and of our neighbours and allies. The process must start with a readiness to contemplate necessary change and to work with others to ensure that, as I hope and believe, the outcome will be one that all of us can live with.