Alistair Burt is MP for North East Bedfordshire and is a former Foreign Office Minister.
If anything has helped in the process of reviving some of Parliament’s lost authority in recent years, it has surely been Select Committees. With Chairs now chosen by the House rather than through the usual channels, which enhances the former’s authority; with their tendency to work as a cross-party team rather than in a severely partisan manner and, from time to time, their forensic questioning of all and sundry, Select Committees have given credibility to the Commons’ role as a scrutineer of government and beyond on behalf of the public.
I believe that the consequences of the EU referendum decision demand that the Commons and the Government move quickly to get the appropriate Select Committees set up as soon as possible, and trust that the Commons’ return this week will see an end to a relative lack of noise and attention to this issue. Over the past few weeks, we have tended only to hear of Parliament’s role in terms of Article 50, but the truth will be that Parliament will have a lot more to do with Brexit than that.
The referendum has presented Parliament, which voted for the process in some numbers, with a blank sheet of paper in terms of detail. We all know the result – but, as we have seen discussed over the last few weeks in media and elsewhere, exactly what terms are best for the UK as a whole for trade, immigration, significant individual sectors such as farming, finance and research, the regions, the City, the devolved administrations? The list goes on. We read of disputes between key Ministers (which we can pretty well work out for ourselves) and also between the respective departments – the established and newly created.
None of this can carry on behind closed doors. Parliament has helped get us all into this position, and now requires both a say, and to perform its obligations, to help us all make the very best of our situation.
Accordingly, I think we should move speedily in the next couple of weeks. We need to follow the current convention of a committee for each department – which means new ones for Brexit and for International Trade. We should keep the conventional numbers, too – and not have inflated committees of 30-plus. I am sure that this option is tempting, and I can see the argument for it, but the best of our current committees have made a virtue of being a cohesive group, striving in difficult circumstances to work collectively, with a minimum of minority reports.
Bearing in mind the sharp divisions over the referendum, we need to restore that collective sense more than ever. This will not be easy on committees in which MPs’ positions on the referendum will be open. The campaigns, both of them, have been much criticised, with differing degrees of fairness, for a sparsity of truth, outlandish promises or threats, all of which have done little for the reputation of politics or how big issues are handled. Select Committees have, however, often succeeded in providing sufficient balance to be authoritative, without losing their ability to be sharp clawed. So keep them tight, and do not compromise the effectiveness of the committee for other reasons.
We need to start questioning Ministers, civil servants and others soon to scrutinise what they are doing, and what Government policy might actually be. We need to hear from the different sectors affected, with their observations on what is happening, and what they are looking for in the negotiations. We need to recognise the differing needs, and votes, from throughout the United Kingdom, and engage MPs as well as devolved administrations. We need to provide a public platform for this – for as well as scrutiny I suggest the committees will have a further important role, which is to make very clear to all the various compromises which the process of Brexit will inevitably involve. We will want to look at constitutional questions, too, and offer Parliament’s view of the extent of prerogative, and where we believe overt Parliamentary endorsement will be in the country’s interest.
And there will undoubtedly be questions which we have not yet been able to phrase – nor which have yet come up. The public are going to want an additional source of reference at Westminster beyond the Government. We are all beginning to come to grips with what the country has asked of Parliament and of government. It is genuinely immense, and cannot be minimised as some sort of sideshow that we will somehow get over. We now need to get on with this. I trust Parliament this week will give the Government a strong reminder that scrutiny is in the hands of the House – as are decisions on many matters, and that the sooner we get working on this process the better.