The Select Committee for the Department for Exiting the EU has completed and published its first report, as readers will be aware.
Much to my surprise this has ended up as fairly consensual, in that there were just four divisions on the consideration of the report, the stage in the process when those who wish to fundamentally disagree with a report can make a stand. I welcome the constructive outcome.
But more of this later.
The committee, twenty MPs plus Chair Hilary Benn, chose as its first aim a report ‘The Process of Exiting the EU, and the Government’s negotiating objectives’. We wanted to get this out long before the date suggested by the PM for triggering Brexit, as we hoped to put some ideas her way. There wasn’t much time after a start in mid November, and I think we have done well to get out something cogent, consensual and yet a bit punchy.
The structure is not easy, but we are all making the best of it. Twenty one MPs, all of whom want to speak and ask a question, require some self-discipline, and teamwork, and we are managing this. Hilary Benn seems to ensure that all who want to ask a question do so. Colleagues in party groups arrange between themselves what they are going to ask, and those outside such structures are able to ensure Chair and clerks know what we want to raise. You cannot ask every witness everything you want of course, but I think between us we have covered the initial ground well. There is the occasional spat in our private time, but nothing of any consequence, and the usual Parliamentary friendliness is covering even this most contentious of subjects.
We had four evidence sessions of witnesses, covering manufacturing, City, civil service, academics, Pharma, and representative groups including CBI and TUC. The committee has had two external visits to Sunderland and Aberdeen. Events have prevented me from going on these, but I am looking forward to going to the Midlands this Thursday, and places further afield, including Northern Ireland, quite soon. Not just listening, but going out of Westminster to listen, is important.
In terms of the report, I think that key highlights were the determination to get behind the reasons for Sir Ivan Rogers departure, and conclusions such as the need for a White Paper to set out the Governments position before triggering Art 50, the need for a transition period to help adjustment for business, and the need for a vote in Parliament at the end.
As I mentioned earlier, almost all the report got through without division. This was due to a good bit of give and take from committee members, even on contentious matters, and to Hilary Benn’s expert chairing. Hilary found a form of words, and changes to words for almost every difficult amendment, of which over 100 were originally submitted. That only four went to a vote, three of these related to devolved administrations, was quite a feat. The only issue which divided Conservatives on the Committee was the request by some to remove the paragraph dealing with the need to prevent a ‘cliff edge’ for business and trade through a transition mechanism of some sort. Eight Conservatives and Sammy Wilson of the DUP believed that such a paragraph should not be there- a sort of admission of possible failure or a ruse to keep the EU door open, or something. Myself and Jeremy Lefroy, together with all other members of the Committee believed that it was a reasonable position to consider and that the Report should say so.
In the event, it appears that the Prime Minister agreed with us and the Select Committee, in saying in her speech this week that she wanted to argue for a ‘phased implementation’ and avoid that cliff edge. I am pleased with that outcome.
In all, the Report suggests that the Committee, without removing our own teeth, is engaged in exactly what the PM has called for, that, despite our differing positions on Leave or Remain, and without losing the integrity of our view, we seek to find the common ground on behalf of the UK. Disappointing as it might be to those who would prefer us to indulge in mud wrestling to the death, I think we are trying.
Equally happily, it’s early days yet, so the mud wrestling may yet occur!