A former Clerk of Committees in the House of Commons says Brexit presents problems but also opportunitiesby Andrew Kennon / September 10, 2018 / Leave a comment
Brexit will not be over by the end of March 2019. As the unknowns become known, new policy solutions will be needed. At a time when both government and opposition front-benches are stymied on policy-making, there is a great opportunity for cross-party committees to come up with solutions which the front-benches can readily adopt. This may require committees to shift their emphasis from identifying problems and allocating blame to devising workable answers and selling them to colleagues.
Set against this opportunity is the challenge of maintaining the record of evidence-based reports at a time of unprecedented political bitterness—as much within parties as between them.
While committees have an honourable record of making unanimous recommendations based on the evidence, there are examples of where committees have become completely ineffective because they have lost the ability to reach consensus internally. Generally speaking other MPs have respected select committee reports even if they do not agree with them. The pressures of Brexit have made it harder for committees to build internal consensus. Equally there have been examples of other MPs dismissing reports they disagree within the grounds that the committee concerned is biased on the Brexit issue.
The pre-eminent role of the chair has become all the more important since the position was first directly elected by the whole House in 2010. This was a huge change—and, so far, unmatched in any other parliament. In a few cases, committees became the private fiefdom of idiosyncratic individuals, but that is less true in the current House. More significant is the calibre of the MPs who now chair the committees. Half the main 25 or so committees are chaired by former minsters and eight of them have chairs who were either cabinet ministers or members of the shadow cabinet (Hilary Benn, Harriet Harman, Nicky Morgan, Yvette Cooper, Maria Miller, Mary Creagh, Meg Hillier and Rachel Reeves).
But these names flag up a possible challenge to select committees—that their chairs are overwhelmingly MPs who did not support Brexit. Since most of them are elected by the House itself—where enthusiastic Brexiteers are in a minority—this is hardly surprising. But it does make it easier for those who wish to disparage their reports before reading them to do so. Only four chairs were pro-Brexit—Bernard Jenkin, Frank Field, David TC Davies and Bill Cash—though the latter was elected within the European Scrutiny Committee and not by the whole…