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Parliamentary Scrutiny of Brexit

The Referendum result caught the Government and Opposition unprepared and the “Brexit means Brexit” mantra was only a temporary smokescreen answer. Last Wednesday the House of Commons tried to find answers to the many questions being asked by MPs themselves and the many interest groups anticipating the consequences.

Wednesday’s debate in Opposition time was primarily about Parliament’s role, calling on the Prime Minister “to ensure that this House is able to properly scrutinise the plan for leaving the EU before Article 50 is invoked”.

Hitherto Theresa May had denied that Parliament had such a role. She intended to exercise prerogative powers in how she conducted the negotiations in the same way that Governments used to decide about sending British troops overseas without obtaining Parliamentary authorisation. However, her predecessor had consulted Parliament in 2013 about despatching RAF planes to attack the insurgents in Syria and the House voted against this. MPs were asked again in 2015 and approved. The convention about use of the prerogative had evolved. Moreover, one of the arguments for Brexit was to restore Parliamentary sovereignty. Denying MPs opportunities to scrutinise Government plans and hold them to account would be inconsistent.

The debate proved worthwhile. First, MPs clearly recognised that the result of the referendum must be honoured despite the fact that a majority of them are opposed to Brexit. Second, most MPs accepted that they should not expect to be involved in the details of the negotiations because that could make the P.M’s task harder. Third, MPs recognised the deep divisions in the country and the cynicism about politics and politicians. Nevertheless, leaving the EU has profound implications for the economy, the people and its place in the world and Parliament has a duty to ensure that the Government’s plans are in the nation’s best interests.

The biggest issue in the debate was the tension between post exit access to the EU single market and stopping free movement of people. For most MPs retaining access to the single market is crucial and worth some compromise on free movement. Like the CBI and other business interests, they want the Government to negotiate access to, not full membership of the EU markets, to save jobs and keep the economy buoyant.  Inevitably that would require some freedom of movement of labour because that is one of the four pillars of the ‘Common Market’. Hard line Brexiteers oppose that and are content to have no special access to the single market. They claimed that is what the people voted for but other MPs challenged that and argued that whilst people voted to leave they did not vote for higher food prices, lower wages and jobs lost. Therein lies the problem of defining what Brexit means.

Making the case for Parliament to fulfil its proper constitutional role, Sir Keir Starmer argued that the more serious the consequences for the nation the greater the need for meaningful parliamentary scrutiny to hold the Government to account.  To those who claim the people voted to leave the EU in every sense, Starmer contended that whilst the people voted to leave one treaty  it is inconceivable that we won’t sign new treaties with the EU about such matters as counter-terrorism and serious crime across the continent.

There is a huge need for wisdom for both the Ministers conducting the negotiations and all who have to deal with the consequences of a decision that will affect the nation for years to come. That is surely a matter for serious prayer.

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