Departments urged to keep focus on new EU legislation

Select committee voices fears Brexit process may cause departments to miss implications of new European laws

By Jim Dunton

07 Apr 2017

The UK risks being lumbered with damaging European Union regulations to comply with if it takes its eyes off scrutinising new legislation because of the demands of Brexit, MPs have warned.

A new report from members of the European Scrutiny Committee said there are concerns departments are paying insufficient attention to evolving EU legislation in the wake of last year’s referendum on EU membership.

It recognises the pressure that Whitehall is under following the vote, but argues departments cannot view the European legislative landscape as fixed and must continue a “business as usual approach” to evaluating reforms in parallel to preparing the ground for departure. 

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The committee, which has a primary role of alerting the House of Commons to EU issues of legal and political concern, said it was a misconception that the UK’s decision to leave the EU would lessen the importance of scrutinising new legislation during the exit process.

“Legislation and policy continue to be developed and to progress through the system,” it said. “Whether or not changes at EU level involve the UK directly, they may make a significant difference to the context of negotiations.

“In negotiating exit, the UK government needs to be alert to the negotiations on current business; it cannot start from the assumption that EU policy and legal frameworks are fixed.”

The report said that rather than driving away from a fixed petrol pump, Brexit would be “analogous to disengaging from mid-air refuelling”, with both parties moving.

“The challenge is to separate them without either losing momentum,” it said.

The report also quoted concerns from the UK’s former representative to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers that “others” within the EU who were “looking at opportunities … to land things in directives and regulations that they know are going to cause us difficulty”. 

Rogers – who resigned his role at the beginning of the year – told MPs there was a danger that the UK could find itself bound, post-Brexit, by legislation the nation still had an opportunity to influence.

He also told the committee he had observed a “diminution of Whitehall attention and effort” on-day-to-day work related to the EU in the months following the referendum.

Committee chair Bill Cash said the government had to be more alert to the connection between ongoing EU business and Brexit negotiations, and ensure that its thoughts on new legislation were effectively communicated to the UK’s Brussels mission and Rogers’ successor Sir Tim Barrow.

“The government may consider that there will be occasions when it feels it should vote against proposals it considers to be against the national interest, rather than allowing agreement by consensus,” he said. 

“If it does vote against a proposal, it should make sure its reasons for doing so are put on record in a minute statement.”

The committee also urged ministers not to withhold useful information from members on the grounds of confidentiality surrounding the Brexit negotiations, warning that there was no justification in allowing things that were “common knowledge” in Brussels to be denied to parliament.

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