It’s fair to say – I think – that having a positive future relationship between Scotland and the European Union will matter to many voters in Scotland, even whilst within the UK. It is in this context that the following insights are relevant: they shine a light on failings by the Westminster parliament, notably by HM Official Opposition, to hold Tory government/s to account over Europe.
Source: Institute for Government (September 2022) Accountability after Brexit – Parliament and the UK–EU relationship. (https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/accountability-after-brexit-parliament-uk-eu-relationship.pdf )
In this report the Institute for Government (IfG) examines the extent of Westminster’s scrutiny of the Tories post Brexit. It observes that:
- ‘UK–EU relations now rarely feature in the prime minister’s Liaison Committee appearances’
- ‘There is little activity on the floor of the Commons now about the UK–EU relationship’
- ‘The UK parliament has a diminished role on treaties and trade compared to before Brexit’.
However, in the cause of good governance, it argues: “Brexit is not ‘done’ enough for parliament to ignore it”!
The IfG considers the role of Commons committees in the scrutiny of UK-EU relations. It is not a reassuring picture for anyone favouring good relations: it is not a reassuring picture for any pro-EU Unionist in Scotland post-Brexit looking to the Labour Party as a counterweight to hard-line Brexit ideologues amongst the Tories.
The IfG provides this background: ’By allowing the standing order establishing the CFREU (the Committee on the Future Relationship with the EU) to lapse, and by FAILING TO PROPOSE ANY ALTERNATIVE ARRANGEMENTS, the government ensured that the role of future scrutiny of THE OVERALL EU–UK RELATIONSHIP FELL, BY DEFAULT, TO THE EUROPEAN SCRUTINY COMMITTEE. This left other select committees to look at specific aspects of Brexit that fell within their remit – IF THEY HAD THE TIME OR INCLINATION.’ (with my emphasis)
On the make-up of the European Scrutiny Committee: ‘The committee has long been DOMINATED BY ITS CURRENT CHAIR, THE CONSERVATIVE SIR WILLIAM CASH. While MPs’ membership of select committees tend to last for one or at most two parliaments, CASH HAS SERVED ON THE ESC AND ITS PREDECESSORS CONTINUOUSLY FOR NEARLY A QUARTER OF A CENTURY, first joining in November 1998. He has chaired it for half that time, taking on the role in September 2010. He is now scrutinising his fourth prime minister as chair, and sixth as a member.’
Just another bending of the rules when it suits?: ’CASH’S TENURE AS CHAIR OF THE ESC IS EXCEPTIONAL – exceeded only by that of Labour veteran Clive Betts at the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee. Commons Standing Order No.122a IMPOSES A TERM LIMIT OF EIGHT YEARS, OR TWO PARLIAMENTS, whichever is the longer, on the same MP chairing the same committee. But Cash and Betts were both the beneficiaries of a decision by the House in January 2020 to SUSPEND THAT ORDER ALTOGETHER IN THE CURRENT PARLIAMENT.’
More on membership: ‘The ESC is a big committee, with 16 members. Following changes made to the committee on 4 July 2022, just before summer recess, the committee now has eight Conservative, five Labour, one SNP, one independent (formerly SNP) and one DUP member.’
But it seems that members from one party in particular are opting not to participate much: ’Analysis of MPs from the three main parties who have sat on the ESC in each session between 2017–19 and 2021–22 … ESC meetings have seen COMMITTED ATTENDANCE FROM THE CORE MEMBERSHIP OF CONSERVATIVES – ALL OF WHOM BACKED LEAVE IN THE 2016 REFERENDUM. Both Cash himself and former cabinet minister David Jones missed just one meeting in the two sessions following the 2019 election. Most Conservatives attended well over half the meetings in the same period (69%).’
And then the stark contrast: ’The average attendance of Labour MPs on the committee has been below 50% in each parliamentary session between 2017–19 and 2021–22 – and has declined over that period. If Cruddas’s (Labour MP John Cruddas) high rate of attendance is excluded, in the two parliamentary sessions SINCE THE 2019 ELECTION LABOUR MPS HAVE ATTENDED JUST 11% AND THEN 4% OF THE SESSIONS THEY COULD HAVE ATTENDED.’
‘SNP attendance is higher than Labour’s, averaging 66% across the 2017–19 and 2021– 22 sessions, though it also has smaller representation on the committee.’
And on the impact of this: ’The ESC has become VERY MUCH THE PRESERVE OF COMMITTED BREXIT SUPPORTERS ON THE GOVERNMENT SIDE. Many are long-standing Eurosceptics in the image of their chair. THIS, AND THE ABSENCE OF OPPOSITION MPS AT MANY PUBLIC HEARINGS, IS REFLECTED IN THE LINES OF QUESTIONING THE COMMITTEE PURSUES.’
The IfG gives an example: ’In a separate session with James Cleverly, the committee’s lines of questioning (with the exception of Margaret Ferrier’s) were ALL PUSHING THE MINISTER INTO A POTENTIALLY MORE CONFRONTATIONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH THE EU.’
The IfG confirms the significance of this committee: ‘The European Scrutiny Committee has become the principal forum for Commons scrutiny’. And its Chair William Cash clearly still regards it as having important work to do, as the IfG reports. ‘At a hearing with the then Brexit opportunities minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg, in April 2022, Cash made clear the many issues he considered within his committee’s remit:
“Brexit was not done with the signing of the withdrawal agreement or the new trade deal. Rather, IMPORTANT QUESTIONS REMAIN regarding how we will REGULATE THE ECONOMY post-EU/Brexit, and DELIVER AND SIGNPOST THE BENEFITS OF BREXIT for the public and for business. These are issues that we as a Committee are deeply interested in. Our inquiry into the FUTURE OF EU RETAINED LAW is ongoing, and we have recently considered further work looking at the opportunities for and the challenges of regulating differently after the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.”
So why is Labour not participating fully?
Perhaps this helps emphasise the importance of the question!Between February and May 2022 the European Scrutiny Committee conducted an inquiry into the future of retained EU law. It held four formal oral evidence sessions with academic and other legal experts. As best as I can ascertain from the House of Commons website, only John Cruddas from Labour attended the evidence sessions, on three out of four occasions. Of those Labour MPs opting NOT to engage was the MP for the Welsh constituency of Aberavon.
Why is this latter point relevant? On 23 September 2022, on the matter of the Tory government’s ‘Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill 2022-23’, the Labour Welsh Government issued a strongly worded statement (see https://gov.wales/power-grab-fears-over-new-uk-government-legislation ): ‘As currently drafted, this legislation could see UK government ministers given unfettered authority to legislate in devolved areas – contrary to the democratically established devolution settlement.’ And: ’It also risks the reduction of standards in important areas including employment, health and the environment.’ The Scottish Government has made a similar statement.
So on future UK-EU relations, here we haveanother example of the marginalisation of the interests of a majority of voters in Scotland in the mechanisms of the parliament that decides for Scotland its futures. And an example of why a Unionist Labour Party is not the solution!