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Article 50 (Constitution Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:12 pm on 22nd November 2016.

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Photo of The Earl of Kinnoull The Earl of Kinnoull Crossbench 5:12 pm, 22nd November 2016

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord—as ever, logic and common sense ran throughout his remarks. I declare my interests as set out in the register of the House and in particular as a member of the European Union Select Committee. I also add my thanks to our chief clerk, the very excellent Chris Johnson, and his clerking staff for their work. It was a short and intense inquiry and drawing together the many strands into a cogent report was a testing task, and he did it very well. I also pay warm tribute to our chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, ever the provider of a bon mot in our long meetings.

In what is an incisive report, the Constitution Committee has yet again tackled a complex issue with great clarity and admirable brevity. I certainly found it very helpful. The conclusion of the report, in its final paragraph, notes:

“Parliament and the Government should, at this early stage, take the opportunity to establish their respective roles and how they will work together during the negotiation process”.

The all-consuming national conversation that is Brexit has a common single theme, and that is, in various forms, a demand for clarity. There is of course a wide understanding that one cannot have clarity where such clarity would be damaging to the United Kingdom’s interests, or where it is not reasonable to feel that clarity can yet exist. However, it is hard for this House to hold the Government to account properly on the matter of clarity when we ourselves are unclear as to how we will scrutinise Brexit.

The framework for our scrutiny is a matter for the House, and I know we all agree that we need to move quickly to establish that. The European Union Select Committee report, in chapter 9, “Internal arrangements”, addresses how this clarity might be achieved. As a star-studded cast—the noble Lords, Lord Kerr and Lord Boswell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie—has said, I stress that good scrutiny is a great help to the Government and to the nation, endorsing good outcomes, analysing tough situations, and using the knowledge and experience that is to be found in the Select Committees greatly to help and guide negotiations.

In our report, at paragraph 98, the committee states:

“we reiterate the recommendation in our July 2016 report, that the House of Lords can best contribute to effective parliamentary oversight of the negotiations by also charging a specific Select Committee with explicit responsibility for scrutinising the negotiations”.

I feel that Select Committee should, and must, be the European Union Select Committee. This is not a sort of land grab; it is simply a practical point. I make it with two important provisos, which I will come to in a second.

There are 25 members of professional staff in the European Union Select Committee structure. Members of this House who are part of that structure comprise nearly 10% of the House. I am told that former members comprise another nearly 10%. In short, the committee and its sub-committees are a deep repository of experience and knowledge and have the resources to be effective right away. I have a great fear of an “all new” structure as, in my long experience, “all new” structures take time to bed in, take time to mature and would be unlikely to “hit the deck running”. This option, to my mind, would be most unwise for our House to follow.

I turn now to my provisos. To make sure we do not trip over each other, I feel, first, that the committee should have a regular interaction with the Liaison Committee on a formal basis. Secondly, there should be a regular and formal interaction with the chairmen of all the standing committees of the House. After all, it is important that we use the full resources of the House on Brexit matters. I certainly accept that the other committees must be part of the scrutiny process and continue to undertake inquiries that, through this structure, will be carried out in a co-ordinated fashion. I believe this, or a similar framework, would give satisfactory clarity as to how the Lords will conduct Brexit scrutiny. To go back to what I first said, I think we can then justifiably hold the Government to account for lack of clarity on their side.

Regarding clarity about what access to information the scrutiny function has, this is unclear as well. However, we have been much helped by the words of David Davis, to which the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, referred earlier. I shall quote them in full; they are very brief:

“We will certainly match and, hopefully, improve on what the European Parliament sees”.

Indeed, laid out in box 1 of chapter 5 of our report is what the European Parliament is meant to see. This is therefore what will be available, and I feel it should be available, although I feel that “data room” rules should apply to all Members who access “data room” information. In other words, that would mean a confidentiality agreement, which I suspect would not be dissimilar to the Official Secrets Act regime of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament.

In summary, for scrutiny I would ask for framework clarity as soon as possible and urge the Leader of the House, the Senior Deputy Speaker and appropriate others, including the chairmen of the Select Committees, to agree on a framework very rapidly and bring proposals forward to the House for adoption. Clarity on access to information can follow on afterwards as it will need the consent of government. At the end of my first, rather long, point, I would like to ask the Minister: does he agree that clarity on Lords’ scrutiny on Brexit would be helpful from the UK’s and the Government’s perspective?

So much for scrutiny; I now turn to my second, final and much shorter theme, which is communication. Being in the privileged position that I am on the EU Select Committee, I am more than aware that a lot of commendable government Brexit work is going on. This is augmented, in my case, by various private briefings from City sectors, and I would like to associate myself with the words of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. I come from an underwriting background, and I think it would be a great pity if the underwriting excellence and “world-leading-ness” of the London market were to be damaged in any way by the Brexit process. I am very grateful for the chat that I have already had with the Minister on that point. Of course, briefings from the private sector come from everyone on the planet. I find that it does not matter whether it is a taxi driver or a very senior person on a board; they all want to talk about it and give their view.

I am struck that the media seem entirely to lack understanding and certainly promote a lack of understanding among the public, and I think that this should be addressed at a very early stage. The Scottish Government reportedly have more than 40 professional staff whose sole aim is to put out their message by and in the media and directly to the people. I do not know how many communications staff there are in the department for Brexit at the moment but, as I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, talk about smart Brexit, I thought, “Gosh, that needs to be put out to the public, because it is a very appealing thought”. However, I suspect that there are not nearly enough people in the department to do that at the moment. Accordingly, I urge the Government desperately greatly to beef up their Brexit communications function in numbers of people and capability, and I close by asking the Minister to comment on that thought.