Richard North, 23/07/2016  

In yet another Select Committee Report., this one from the House of Lords European Union Select Committee, the theme is one of scrutinising Brexit, with their Lordships taking a look at the role of Parliament.

"Withdrawal from the EU", they say, "is arguably the most complex, demanding and important administrative and diplomatic task that the Government has undertaken since the Second World War", then pointing out that, to keep an eye on it, Select Committees "will need additional resources that are proportionate to the scale of the challenge".

At last, it seems, we are beginning to get some recognition of the nature of the task confronting us, but to deal with it, we will need a lot more than just additional resources. The whole select committee structure needs to be revised, and the committees need to work in completely different ways.

Some long time ago, I was at the sharp end of a Congressional Inquiry (the US equivalent of a Select Committee) – and what a different beast that was. They sent staff all the way from Washington to London to interview witnesses, and I spent a very intense half-day being interviewed by a group of them.

What struck me was that the US Committees are far more generously endowed with their own research staff, who carry out their own investigations, drawing up detailed dossiers which fuel their own Committee inquires. And in the range of material they look at, and the witnesses consulted, they are far less prestige-driven than their Westminster equivalents.

That, it seems to me, is what must change here. Committees must be staffed with capable researchers who are able to pursue their own lines of inquiry and do genuine research of their own. They should not have to rely on a succession of opinionated witnesses to tell them what to think. And there should not be this almost total reliance of oral evidence. The Committees should be able to commission their own research.

As to the oral sessions, these facile games of packing the benches with four or five witnesses, and exposing them to random questions for a few hours from ill-prepared MPs, simply isn't good enough. Parliament should hire professional examiners acting in the manner of courtroom lawyers, and do the job properly.

In my time, I've been an expert witness in some really serious cases, including a fatal accident inquiry when I spent three days in the box, questioned by a team of top-class QCs. If you are going to get value out of witnesses, that is what it takes.

On the other side of the fence, I've represented clients in tribunals, where lay advocates have been allowed. Preparing the schedule of questions can take days of work, for just one witness. And a lot of the process is introducing written evidence, plans, photographs, etc., and asking witnesses to comment on them.

On one on my shelves in my office, I still have case dossiers containing over 7,000 scientific papers that I was expected to have read, once they had been introduced into evidence – then to lead the court through the contents and explain their significance. From start to finish, that exceptional case took nearly a year. And yes, I read every damn paper.

The thing is, when we are dealing with something as important as a complete revolution in the way we are governed, with the health and wealth of the entire nation dependent on it, that is the sort of detail we should be looking at. To have a amateurs casually interviewing a few high prestige witnesses, simply to confirm the prejudices of the questioners, is a complete waste of time and effort.

Of course, we are so good at having prolonged inquiries after the event – the BSE inquiry, the Bloody Sunday inquiry, Leveson and, more recently, the Chilcot inquiry. At a cost of hundreds of millions, it seems no expense is spared in our attempts to find out why things went wrong. Why then should we not invest a little of that money up-front, in attempt to make sure that we do things right? 

And, if Parliament can't hack it, it should move over and cede the ground to people who can do the job. We used quite frequently to have Royal Commissions to examine issues of substance, and their weighty reports used to fuel debates for years thereafter. If ever there was an example of a need for such a Commission, the post-exit reconstruction of Britain is one.

As it is, one cannot escape the impression that officials are flying blind and, outrageously to mix metaphors, are totally out of their depth.

This comes over from an article in the Guardian which tells us that UK officials have been trying to reach an outline agreement with European leaders on the sequence of Brexit talks, "including a discussion about whether the terms of Britain leaving the EU can be negotiated at the same time as talks about the future trade relationship".

On this basis, we are told that Theresa May and her Brexit departments in Whitehall "do not want to concede any ground on triggering Article 50 until this can be clarified". The sequence question, according to the newspaper, "is an essential in the opening phase in the tactical battle, with the UK being in a weaker position if the negotiations are rigidly organised".

This is a classic example of where our politicians should be better briefed, with an outline of the potential decision-trees set out before we get bogged down in such detail. If, for instance, we decide to go down the Efta/EEA route, then sequencing is wholly different from the free trade agreement option, carried on alongside the Article 50 settlement negotiations.

In the former event, there will in any case be a tripartite negotiation, one with Efta, the next with the EEA Joint Committee and the third with the European Commission's designated negotiating team – each covering very different areas. On top of this, we will need to be talking to global trading partners about treaty continuity.

The essence, therefore, is to define the big picture first - les grandes lignes. This is actually where the Select Committees could perhaps do a good job. These are essentially political questions. But to look at the performance of the Committees so far, we're going to have to wait an awful long time before we come up with anything usable.

So far, most of the discussion seems to be centred on issues which should have been settled years ago, with commentators rehearsing arguments at a terrifyingly superficial level. But with all those salaries and expenses paid – to say nothing of the cost of the offices – it is about time we got some value for money.

Our Parliament is going to have to re-learn its job. And it's going to have to do it very quickly. MPs in particular need to get out of the nursery and get stuck in to the jobs they are paid to do.

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