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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:15 am on 19th October 2019.

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Photo of The Earl of Kinnoull The Earl of Kinnoull Chair, European Union Committee, Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees 11:15 am, 19th October 2019

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, whose insight has been informed by her time as a distinguished MEP.

Last year, the draft text of the then withdrawal agreement appeared on 14 November, the finalised text appeared on 26 November, the debate in the House of Commons began on 4 December and our own debate on 5 December. The European Union Committee report on that agreement and the political declaration appeared on 4 December as well, in order to inform debate. The new Northern Ireland protocol is a particularly long and complex document and the political declaration, although shorter, is full of subtleties. I, like the noble Lord, Lord Newby, with only a non-sitting Friday to analyse these documents, strongly regret that the House of Commons is being asked to agree them without the scrutiny committees having any opportunity to inform their decision.

The new withdrawal agreement is 536 pages long and consists of six parts in the main body, three protocols, including the Northern Ireland protocol, and nine annexes. The only bit of the withdrawal agreement that has changed is the Northern Ireland protocol, with a couple of very small conforming changes in the main body of the agreement. Accordingly, I would commend our report of last December on the withdrawal agreement. In it, we described the joint committee as,

“a uniquely powerful and influential body”.

It has, for instance, the power to amend the withdrawal agreement itself in certain ways and, most especially, it also has the power to extend the transition period. Our conclusion about the power was that,

“this is a widely drawn power, and is not subject to clear scrutiny procedures or parliamentary oversight”.

We also felt that the joint committee was not transparent. The rules governing the joint committee are governed by Annexe VIII of the withdrawal agreement—an annex that of course has not changed. In commenting on the rules, we said last year that:

“The relevant rules suggest that meetings would be confidential, decisions might not be published, and even summary minutes might not be made publicly available”.

This lack of scrutiny in the withdrawal agreement is clearly deeply unsatisfactory. I ask the Minister, when he gets up—I realise that this was partly addressed in what the Leader of the House said at the start but, I felt, not strongly enough—to confirm that the Government intend to engage with Parliament on how scrutiny over the joint committee will work and, in particular, how Parliament will exercise control over extensions to the transition period.

This is of course not the only scrutiny that is important. Switching to the Beyond Brexit report that we delivered in March this year—a report which, I regret, has still had no government response—the committee unsurprisingly concluded that it was equally important to have strong scrutiny of the negotiations of the future relationship discussions for the UK and European Union. Indeed, in the joint statement of 11 March, which supplemented the then political declaration, there was specific reference to the “appropriate involvement of parliaments”. Can the Minister give us further comfort and confirm that this is still the Government’s position and they will engage with Parliament?

In closing, I submit that the lack of engagement by the Government of Parliament has been a root cause of the problems of the process to date. We must not compound that error going forward.