MPs may struggle to hold Brexit department to account, warns think tank

Written by Jim Dunton on 15 August 2016 in News

Institute for Government says new select committee is likely to be almost three times the size of other watchdog panels, hampering its effectiveness

David Davis, secretary of state for exiting the European Union. Image: PA

The select committee that will be set up to scrutinise the work of David Davis’ new Department for Exiting the European Union could be crippled by the range of MP interests it will have to represent, the Institute for Government has warned.

The new Brexit department was set up by new prime minister Theresa May in the wake of Britain's decision to quit the EU, and a select committee of MPs is likely to now be set up to  hold it to account.

According to the think tank, the committee is likely to host around 30 members, making it a “supersize” version of the more usual 11-member panels, such as the Treasury Select Committee.

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IfG programme director Hannah White said “political necessity” seemed to be driving the government towards creating  a larger-than-usual scrutiny group for the Brexit department.

“That would be large enough to include MPs representing every possible shade of opinion on Brexit, the minority as well as larger parties, and every nation – and maybe region – of the UK, as well as any with particular constituency interests [such as] the City of London,” she said.

However, in a recent blog post White said lessons on parliamentary effectiveness suggested that such a large committee would be compromised by its size.

She said that as well as practical considerations, such as finding a room big enough to accommodate the committee and supplying enough parliamentary support staff to ensure the panel could do “high-quality, innovative work”, there would be political complications.

Among them would be an amplified risk of evidence sessions being bogged down by lots of members pursuing “superficial lines of questioning” and a changing cast list at every meeting because of the difficulty of co-ordinating all panel members’ diaries.

“Precedent tells us that parliamentary committees are most effective when they are able to scrutinise issues in a sustained manner, reach a consensus and then speak with one voice,” she said.

“The larger they are, the more difficult this becomes. As views on Brexit are polarised, achieving consensus on the analysis of evidence and reaching agreed conclusions will be tricky in any case.

White added: “The Brexit Committee is likely to be seen as an opportunity for MPs to push very particular agendas and promote their personal brand. Neither of these motivations will be conducive to effective evidence gathering, rational deliberation or consensual outcomes. But effective scrutiny will become harder still with a super-sized committee.”

White also warned that the Brexit Committee could risk duplicating the work of “every single existing departmental select committee”, all of which were likely to look at the policy implications of leaving the European Union for its part of Whitehall.

She said that the area in which the new committee could really add value would be if was able to co-ordinate the Westminster-wide scrutiny and fill any gaps, rather than “simply seeking the limelight for itself”.

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Jim Dunton
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