Brexit at Westminster: can parliament play a meaningful role?

On March 13 the Constitution Unit hosted a seminar on Brexit at Westminster, exploring the role parliament has played in the lead up to the triggering of Article 50 and that it might play in the forthcoming negotiations. The panel consisted of Hilary Benn, Chair of the House of Commons Exiting the EU Committee; Arnold Ridout, Counsel for European Legislation at the House of Commons; and Baroness (Kishwer) Falkner, Liberal Democrat peer and Chair of the Financial Affairs Sub-Committee of the House of Lords EU Committee. Ascher Nathan reports.

Introducing this seminar on Brexit at Westminster, Constitution Unit Director Meg Russell remarked on the perfect timing: the Article 50 Bill would have its final votes that evening. Despite earlier concerns that parliament would be shut out from any influence over Brexit it has played a central role in the lead up to the triggering of Article 50 through debates, questions, the work of select committees and, following the judgement in the Miller case, the passage of the Article 50 Bill. The next big piece of legislation will be the ‘Great Repeal Bill’. Thus, the answer to the question of whether parliament can play a meaningful role in Brexit should be considered as a resounding ‘yes’ – it has already begun to do so. And yet if the Miller case and subsequent events have been a reminder about the role parliament can play, questions still remain about exactly how it will influence debates going forward.

The three speakers each brought a different perspective. Hilary Benn, Labour MP for Leeds Central, has served as a cabinet and shadow cabinet minister and is now Chair of the House of Commons Exiting the EU Committee. Arnold Ridout is Counsel for European Legislation at the House of Commons, and legal adviser on EU matters to the Commons select committees. Baroness (Kishwer) Falkner, a Liberal Democrat peer, sits on the Lords EU Committee and chairs its Financial Affairs Sub-Committee.

Hilary Benn

Hilary Benn explained that the Exiting the EU Committee was a mixed group of Leavers and Remainers and thus his role as chair was to establish consensus and direct their work in a constructive manner. In what he described as the most complex trade negotiations since the end of World War II, with the Great Repeal Bill to be an ‘enormously daunting task for any government,’ Benn pledged that parliament would ‘not be a bystander’ and intended instead to be a key participant in the policy process. Fundamentally, he challenged the government claim that persistent parliamentary involvement in the negotiations would undermine ministers’ position and lead to bad deals, noting Nick Clegg’s comment that the government’s position implied that only dictatorships were in a position to make treaties.

For Benn, the complexity of Brexit was a great challenge. He talked at length of numerous examples of areas where exiting the EU would prove difficult: passporting for financial services; regulation of medicines (where pharmaceutical companies will seek approval in the largest markets first) resulting in UK patients accessing them later; the regulation of data handling between states. Whilst this is a huge challenge for government, it is equally difficult for the Brexit select committee to address in the limited time available, as well as challenging for the EU. Benn agreed with the government’s position in favouring parallel negotiations for the divorce settlement and the new framework because the eighteen-month window given by Michel Barnier, chief EU negotiator, is so tight. Benn thinks it will be ‘impossible’ to agree a comprehensive trade negotiation in the time available and so called for a transitional agreement to be drafted.

Finally, he discussed the Great Repeal Bill, and the nature of the detail that should be scrutinised. He called for openness by government on both the negotiations regarding transitional arrangements, and the divorce settlement itself (whilst anticipating that much of this information may be gleaned through the ‘leakiness’ of Brussels). He wanted to see a white paper on the Great Repeal Bill, and information on how subsequent legislation will be formulated: will it largely be secondary legislation, authorised by Henry VIII clauses? Benn was concerned by the fact that so far government had had to be ‘pushed and cajoled’ into understanding that parliament would not be bystander: ‘We are not a string, we are very attached to our democracy … and we intend to do our job.’

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Brexit presents parliament with daunting challenges but steps are being taken to help it meet them

Brexit presents parliament with daunting challenges, both politically and procedurally. In this post Arnold Ridout, Counsel for European Legislation at the House of Commons, highlights some of these and explains what steps are being taken to held ensure that parliament performs its role effectively. The post is adapted from a talk he gave at a Constitution Unit seminar on ‘Brexit at Westminster’, held on 13 March.

As Counsel for European Legislation in the House of Commons I can be called upon to assist the House or any of its select committees on EU law matters. I have a formal role with the European Scrutiny Committee and the Committee for Exiting the EU, both of which have standing orders explicitly providing for assistance to be given by Speaker’s Counsel. For this purpose I generally represent her.

Uncertainty

I do not know if it is fair to say that parliament as an institution was as ready for the referendum result as the government was. There was a good deal of uncertainty at that time as to the very basics, such as the Brexit process itself and even more as to what role parliament would play. In some ways that might be regarded as an advantage; by leaving a clear field on which parliament could put down its markers, and influence at an early stage the formulation of the process and the policy. On the other hand it created the risk of lack of focus or focus on the wrong issues. In particular, it was unclear what tools were available to parliament to exert its influence. This remains the case to a certain extent.

The government has now committed to putting ‘the final deal that is agreed between the UK and the EU to a vote in both Houses of Parliament’. This is important as having a final say on the outcome could give parliament a real handle on the negotiations. However, if the Article 50 notice is not revocable, or revoked, then the choice for parliament looks like ‘deal or no deal’. Five eminent lawyers disagree and have gone as far as suggesting not only that the Article 50 notice is revocable, but that a further act of parliament is required to either agree the deal or authorise the UK’s departure from the EU without any deal. If correct it means that parliament has a further, and unilateral, chance to decide whether the UK leaves the EU or not even after the Article 50 notice has been served.

The government has committed to ensuring ‘that the UK Parliament receives at least as much information as that received by members of the European Parliament.’ We do not yet know with certainty what that entails, and in particular whether it includes something similar to the arrangement in trade negotiations whereby the European Parliament receives ongoing explanations as to how its view has been put into effect during negotiations.

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