Diligent MPs are filling the information vacuum because the government won’tby Paul Wallace / May 2, 2018 / Leave a comment
Amber Rudd will not forget the occasion of her self-destruction. Her denial that there were official targets for removals of illegal immigrants was at a hearing of the Home Affairs Committee of the House of Commons. The former Home Secretary resigned on Sunday after accepting that she had inadvertently misled the committee when answering a question from Yvette Cooper, its Labour chair.
Departmental select committees were established almost four decades ago in the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. Their architect was Norman St John-Stevas, whom Thatcher had appointed Leader of the House of Commons in May 1979. A Tory “wet” who wanted to restore the influence of MPs (he was a devotee of Walter Bagehot, the mid-Victorian author of a classic study of the constitution), St John-Stevas did not survive Thatcher’s first reshuffle in 1981. His parliamentary baby has fared better.
Select committees have grown in stature for two main reasons. First, they provide backbench MPs of all political persuasions a forum in which they can exercise more influence than in the chamber. Second, they break the government’s stranglehold over information and advice from the civil service by assembling evidence from a wide range of expert witnesses, including testimony from officials.
Since 2010 the chairs of select committees have been first allocated to the parties in line with their share of seats in the house and then elected by a secret ballot of all MPs. Chairing a select committee now compares favourably with life as a junior minister bound by the strictures of government policy. The work of committees has become even more relevant in a parliament defined by Brexit.
More than most governments Theresa May’s is reluctant to divulge information on a strategy that includes the crucial choices of leaving the single market and customs union. Supposedly, the attempted blackout is to strengthen the government’s hand in negotiating with the EU in Brussels. In fact it is mainly to disguise splits within the Conservative Party while avoiding the embarrassment of revealing official analysis showing the weaknesses in the strategy.
The government’s reticence has given select committees an opportunity to fill the information vacuum by conducting their own investigations. The Brexit Committee monitoring the Department for Exiting the EU has recently published a report on Britain’s future relationship with Europe, setting out some tough tests on what it expects the government must achieve in the negotiation. The committee’s website is the place to find the leaked document that spelt out the dismal economic effect—a long-term loss of 5 per cent of GDP—if the talks result in a free-trade agreement similar to Canada’s with the EU, which is the most likely outcome as things stand.
Reflecting the multifarious effects of Britain’s departure from the EU after 45 years of European membership, other select committees have been busy, too. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee has for example issued reports in recent months on the effects of Brexit on big industrial sectors such as aerospace, carmaking, and processed food and drink. The Treasury Committee has examined transition arrangements after Britain’s formal exit in March 2019. And the Home Affairs Committee has issued a report on the Home Office’s ability to deliver after Brexit on its role in customs operations through Border Force staff.
“Departmental select committees were established almost four decades ago in the early years of Thatcher’s first government”
A backbench debate last Thursday harvested these investigatory efforts. Called by the chairs of a dozen select committees, the motion called upon the government to include among its negotiating objectives “an effective customs union” with the EU, a policy backed by Labour but anathema to the government. The speakers backing the motion, who included Conservatives such as Nicky Morgan, who chairs the Treasury Committee, and Sarah Wollaston, chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, had hard, practical evidence to support their arguments. As Morgan pointed out, the committees were bringing before parliament “the hours and hours of evidence we have gathered from expert witnesses.”
Cooper, the lead speaker, highlighted the onerous rules of origin that will come into play once Britain leaves the customs union which allows not just products but also components to move back and forward across different borders within the EU. This is possible because any import from outside the bloc has already paid the common external tariff. Once Britain leaves businesses will have to account for where the different ingredients come from, she pointed out, creating “a huge, ongoing burden for businesses.” Morgan for her part cited a senior official at HMRC, the tax authority, who set out the kind of practical difficulty that will arise: “The key challenge, for example, in ro-ro ports, in contrast with container ports, is that in a lot of them there are no port inventory systems in place.”
Rachel Reeves, the Labour MP who chairs the BEIS Committee, said that in its five inquiries into different industrial sectors it had “heard time and again that any border delays would undermine just-in-time delivery systems.” That would “force companies to expand warehousing facilities massively, at a significant cost” while also putting at risk “time-sensitive imports and exports, particularly of food, medical radioisotopes and many pharmaceutical products.”
Meg Hillier, a Labour MP and chair of the venerable Public Accounts Committee, which dates back to mid-Victorian times and is supported by the National Audit Office, cited estimates from HMRC that customs declarations after Brexit could be five times as high, soaring from 55m in 2015 to 255m a year. The number of traders making declarations is expected to increase from 141,000 to 273,000. Testimony to her committee had shown a woeful lack of preparedness for leaving the customs union, which she said would mean “chaos, cost, confusion and huge damage to the UK economy.”
One of the reasons making the debate pertinent was the still unresolved question in the negotiations about how to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, which is supposed to be settled at the European summit in late June. One of the government’s two options—the “max fac” (maximum facilitation) approach—offers a technological solution. But as Cooper pointed out, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee concluded in March that it had been unable to find “any technical solutions, anywhere in the world, beyond the aspirational, that would remove the need for physical infrastructure at the border.”
Although the motion was passed the victory was symbolic because the outcome was non-binding on the government. But it was not in vain, not least since MPs will before long have a chance to vote on amendments calling for a continuing customs union link in crucial Brexit-related legislation. The weight of evidence mustered by advocates of maintaining a customs union was overwhelming. One of the many paradoxes of Brexit is that it has made parliament matter again, not least through select committees.