Parliament’s committees are where our democracy is alive and well

The Houses of Parliament
(Photo: Diliff – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,
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One of the mortifying ironies of Brexit is that the UK enjoyed a reputation until very recently as high-grade mentor and exemplar in practices of good government and governance.

UK jurists had largely invented and written the European Convention of Human Rights; UK officials had a large part in designing the constitutional basis of the German Federal Republic; we passed on contributing to the foundation of the European Union, but after our accession the UK were respected and sometimes leading actors in building the Single Market as a system of shared standards of regulation, embedded in a system of the shared rule of law.

Now, in a brief moment of historical time, our national persona seems to have morphed into one of grafting rent-seekers and free-riders who rely on coercive bargaining and insolent bullying to extract benefits of cooperation from our neighbours, without wishing to share the corresponding costs.

A great transformation of a kind, but not so great of its kind: not a recipe for ‘soft power’, more like a passport to ignominy.

Nevertheless, despite some recent and increasingly ostentatious displays of public political corruption, parts of our parliamentary democracy are still in working order, and many lawmakers at Westminster are working hard to investigate government performance and challenge government failure at a time of grave democratic crisis.

Parliament’s select committees – an institution long-held in high international esteem – have a statutory role to examine and report on the performance of government at a detailed and departmental level.

Now, we must ask whether and how Parliamentary committees can contribute to managing and mitigating our nation’s passages through the twin crises – one of them self-inflicted, the other gravely aggravated by governmental negligence – of Brexit and COVID-19.

In the words of the official Short Guide, “A select committee is a cross-party group of MPs or Lords given a specific remit to investigate and report back to the House that set it up.”

Many of the MPs and peers engaged on these committees are informed, capable, often highly expert and seriously concerned citizens, and as such may be valuable potential allies of concerned democratic citizens campaigning outside Westminster as the crisis deepens.

The membership and leadership of the committees represented here adds up to a significant cross-party cohort of senior and influential lawmakers. The ethos of the committees is characterised by a well-established ethos of cross-party collaboration: Conservative committee chairs have proved in a number of cases willing to publicly question government policy and performance, highlight issues of concern, and press government in detail to explain its actions and plans.

In the Grassroots for Europe movement, which serves over 200 local campaigning groups, we have been issuing a series of bulletins collating the many statements by significant public voices calling for an extension to the Brexit Transition period, particularly and specifically in the changed circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. Via media reporting, it was apparent that several of the most powerful expressions of this message were coming from witnesses speaking in public at select committee hearings, and from the committee chairs tasked with reporting on their findings.

This prompted us to take a more systematic look at the work of the committees, not only in Westminster but at the Welsh Sennedd and the Scottish Parliament.

If one takes into account the committees examining aspects of the pandemic which are throwing up massive new complications for the already deeply problematic challenges of implementing Brexit, it turns out that over 20 parliamentary committees have been taking evidence and producing conclusions which are of the highest public importance and gravity. We have produced a new bulletin to collate and summarise the stories and evidence coming out of these committees. All of this material is fully and freely available via the official websites, with public oral sessions available as both video and transcript.

Parliamentary staff and the committee chairs are doing good work to highlight some key stories, which are then in some cases receiving significant media coverage: key witnesses who have recently given evidence and been questioned have included Chris Whitty, Sir Patrick Vallance, Priti Patel MP, Matt Hancock MP and the Nobel laureates Sir Paul Nurse and Sir Venki Ramakrishnan.

On rare occasions, the current Prime Minister allows himself to be questioned by the Liaison Committee, which comprises the chairs of select committees. While his answers may seldom be informative or even truthful, they provide a basis for investigative challenge: last week, while Parliament is in recess, Meg Hillier MP, chair of the heavyweight Public Accounts Committee, challenged Johnson to confirm his previous answers about Dominic Cummings’ alibi for a second allegedly illegal trip to Durham.

For those who are now – as in the Bylines newspapers – expanding the role of citizen journalism to raise the level of public debate across our regions, these resources from three Parliamentary sites, as well as materials from the Northern Ireland Assembly, offer a powerful resource and a real and meaningful addition to the [sometimes excellent] reporting coverage provided by mainstream media.

I contributed a short piece recently to North East Bylines drawing attention to a significant comment by Ian Martin, the most senior UK police officer engaged in Brexit preparation: he confirmed in reply to a question by Stephen Kinnock MP that he was concerned by the UK government’s failure to set out its future plans for combating money laundering. When in the following week the Intelligence and Security Committee drew attention to London’s role as a money ‘laundromat’ for Russian oligarchs, the wider connection between Russia and Brexit and the new challenges posed by Brexit for law enforcement and an uncorrupted politics in the UK, became suddenly clearer.

The final week of Parliament at Westminster before the summer recess saw a burst of high-profile sessions, publications and statement; on one remarkable day – Tuesday 21 July there were:

  • an oral hearing of the House of Commons Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union, discussing foreign defence development co-operation;
  • the press conference of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC), publishing the Russia report;
  • a statement by Julian Knight MP, chair of the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, responding to the Russia report and citing the previous DCMS committee’s call for “an independent investigation to uncover the impact of disinformation here in the UK and globally”, together with an oral hearing of his committee on the impact of COVID-19 on digital technology;
  • an oral session on the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, questioning Matt Hancock MP and his departmental permanent secretary, on “UK science, research and technology capability and influence in global disease outbreaks”;
  • an oral session of the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee, chaired by Jeremy Hunt MP, questioning Professor Sir Paul Nurse, Professor Sir Jeremy Farrar, Professor Sir John Bell, Professor Devi Sridhar, Professor Chris Whitty, Dr Jenny Harries, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, on “Management of the Coronavirus Outbreak”;
  • an oral session of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, on the science of COVID-19, with Professor Baron Peter Piot, Sir Paul Nurse, Professor Dame Anne Johnson and Professor Sir Venki Ramakrishnan.
  • publication by the DCMS Sub-committee on Online Harms and Disinformation of a report on “Disinformation and misinformation on social media about COVID-19”;
  • publication by the House of Commons. Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee of a report on COVID-19 and food supply, on which the chair, Peter Parish MP, commented that “it seemed as though the Government was constantly playing catch-up in trying to support the food industry during this crisis”. One of its key witnesses from the retail industry said: “If we get a disorderly Brexit, we potentially face a bigger challenge than the food supply chain faced in COVID.”

Despite the government’s stubborn refusal of the option available under the Withdrawal Agreement up to the deadline of 30 June 2020, to extend the current Brexit transition period beyond 31 December 2020, the drumbeat of warnings about the combination of COVID-19 and a disorderly Brexit continues to be heard in the evidence from business and industry. The official representative of American businesses in Europe, Marjorie Chorlins, Senior Vice-President for European Affairs at the US Chamber of Commerce, while offering the House of Lords EU International Trade subcommittee sober advice on the prospects of a UK/US trade deal, said on 16 July:

“The concept of the UK leaving the single market and customs union at the end of the year without its new relationship with the EU laid out would be very problematic for our member companies, regardless of sector. It is our very fervent hope that the negotiations will conclude before the end of the year. I realise that the idea of an extension or a transition period is not conceived of in UK law, but if that is what it takes to ensure that we do not end up in the most disruptive circumstances, we would hope that that course would be considered. ”

A similar message in written evidence was submitted by Patrick Keating, an executive of Honda Motor Europe to the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union, on the need for continuing frictionless seamless supply chain flows with the EU as a condition both for ongoing Japanese investment in the UK economy, and for a good future FTA between the UK and Japan; Keating concluded: “We urge the EU and UK to take the time needed to deliver a deep, comprehensive and fit-for-purpose agreement, and to not rule out the possibility of extending the transitional period to [sic] if more time is required to deliver an agreement that works for European and British business and consumers.”

Similar warnings from some the most at-risk UK business and industry sectors (chemicals, logistics, sheep farming and retail, among others) are spread across the evidence received by the committees, and sometimes break through to the media, though others – even among the most urgent – are in danger of being under-reported or unheard. Andrew Opie, director of food sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, received some press attention on 6 June when he told MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee that Britain could be liable to go “out of the frying pan into the fire” by bouncing from the coronavirus crisis to Brexit disruption at borders.

There appears to have been less prominent coverage of written evidence from NFU Cymru which spelt out in clear terms the devastating effect on Welsh farming if lamb exports to Europe should be blocked by the failure to negotiate a new trade agreement with the European Union. At a time when both Brexit and COVID-19 are putting stress on the integrity of the UK, it is worth adding that the Parliaments in Cardiff and Holyrood and the Assembly at Stormont have been platforms for major interventions in the national debate, including testimonies which have reverberated across UK media.

An example of the latter was the evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s EU committee by Philip Rycroft, ex-permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the EU, who commented dryly on the refusal to extend the Brexit transition during a pandemic, that: “It is a perfectly legitimate political decision to take, but of course that political outlook does not necessarily coincide with the interests of a lot of UK businesses.”

Parliament is in recess until 1 September, though reports and statements from the committees continue to appear and new investigations are being launched. On 5 August the Home Affairs Committee chaired by Yvette Cooper MP issued one of the most damning reports ever published on a government department, which stated: “The COVID-19 pandemic in the UK was accelerated in the early months by critical errors in the Government’s approach to border measures which led to many more people contracting COVID-19, the Home Affairs Committee has found in its report on Home Office preparedness for COVID-19 (coronavirus): management of the borders.”

Cooper repeated this accusation on national media. The following day, the same committee launched an inquiry, with a call for evidence, on “Channel crossings, migration and asylum-seeking routes through the EU”, stating: “This inquiry will examine the reasons behind the growth in migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats. It will look at the role of criminal gangs in facilitating the growth of this form of illegal immigration and the response of UK and French authorities to combat illegal migration and support legal routes to asylum.”

Meanwhile, the Department for International Trade should be kept busy in August, working on two letters from the House of Lords International Agreements Sub-Committee, relating respectively to the current trade negotiations with the US and Japan; the Japan letter alone contains an annex of 22 detailed questions. Campaigners with concerns about chlorinated chicken, farming standards and drug prices may be interested in the Sub-Committee’s call for written evidence on 27 specified questions.

Committee meetings will restart at Westminster from Tuesday 1 September. They should be worth watching closely.

Colin Gordon is a retired NHS manager, independent researcher, and a campaigner with Oxford for Europe and Grassroots for Europe