Richard North, 09/02/2018  

On Tuesday, we got word from Stephen Kinnock that there was to be an evidence session in the Brexit select committee, looking at the EU's relationships with Norway and the European Economic Area.

The session was on Wednesday and we now await the transcript in order to fully evaluate the evidence.

We could have watched the video, and I did look in on the session until tedium overtook me. Predictably, given the list of witnesses, there was never going to be much of any value and dipping into the session was enough to confirm it.

Nevertheless, that did not stop the Telegraph gleefully reporting extracts which seemed to indicate that a "Norway-style EU trade agreement for the UK might not cover many areas of agricultural production".

This, the paper averred, might have "particularly severe implications for groups such as Northern Irish dairy farmers and food processing firms near the Irish border".

According to the narrative, MPs had "quizzed experts including the director of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, Ulf Sverdrup, who highlighted the problems with border and tariff arrangements for some agricultural or fishery foodstuffs".

As a signatory of a Efta and an EEA member, we were told, Norway is subject to tariffs on processed foods, such as a processed fish.

More to the point, Mr Sverdrup had told the committee that an initial failure to agree veterinary alignment with the EU led to truck-loads of fish "standing on the border rotting", as the border then caused substantial delays.

The UK has sought to avoid this situation in its Northern Irish position paper, the Telegraph asserts. However, it says, checks on the origin of goods would still apply.

Such examples, it goes on to say, illustrate the potential difficulties for trade in foodstuffs such as milk and processed derivatives across any future Irish-UK border once the UK leaves the Customs Union. Currently, the dairy and other food industries frequently send produce backwards and forwards between farms and processing units.

What is quite predicable about this, though, is the issue illiteracy – not least the reference to leaving the customs union – which has no impact of border checks on food.

As to "truck-loads of fish" problem, for historical reasons, Norwegian farmed salmon stands outside the EEA agreement but for the general import and export of foodstuffs, the Efta states (including Switzerland) are fully integrated into the Single Market.

Thus, wearily, I was able to post on Twitter that, typically - and largely as expected - the Brexit Committee had got half the picture and was being royally misinformed. Norway is fully covered for sanitary and phytosanitary border arrangements.

The thing is that no one needed to go through the palaver of calling in prestigious witness to waste time talking to the committee, only then to be misinformed by them. Literally, minutes on the internet would have told the committee all it needed to know.

As I remarked on Twitter, though, the committee had made a more fundamental mistake of just looking at Norway option. The Efta/EEA Agreement allows for individual, bespoke agreements for each of the Efta states. Each one is different. The UK, thus, would not be following in the path of Norway, but would have its own bespoke agreement under the EEA umbrella.

As to tariffs on agricultural products, the Efta/EEA (NIL) states have opted out of the CAP and pay their own farmers higher subsidies than the EU – which means there are tariff issues at the borders. However, there is no reason why this situation should prevail for the UK - there is provision within the EEA for elimination of tariffs between the EU and UK.

In other words, if we took the Efta/EEA route, we could (and most likely would) broker our own specific agreement on tariffs – and much else. This would not be the Norway option, but the UK option, tuned specifically to our needs. That is the advantage of the Efta/EEA option - it is infinitely flexible.

This has been pointed out numerous times on the EU Referendum blog, such as here, and I have even drawn Kinnock's attention to it. Sadly, as MPs only have a slender grasp of the basics, this is evidently too much for them to take in. Hence they are so easily misled.

So often do we see this that we find select committees becoming repositories for misinformation - sharing half-truths and misconceptions and never getting to the bottom of the issues and contributing anything of value. Small wonder they are treated (as I am advised privately) with disdain by ministers and civil servants.

If the system is to work at all, we need to see fundamental changes to it – and not just confined to the Brexit committee. In the past, we've had major reservations about the Defence Committee, which has proved just as inadequate in monitoring the MoD.

One thing I would like to see is the end of the practice where MPs on the committee each take turns questioning witnesses. Instead, it might be better if each committee appoints its own advocate (who might be a barrister) to conduct the oral sessions. The MPs would then act in a similar fashion to a judge (or jury).

On a broader level, the committees should rely less on oral testimony and much more on their own staff carrying out structured research. I've seen this done with US Senate Committee inquiries, which deliver far more comprehensive investigations. And, on something as important as Brexit, this is the sort of quality we need. Needless to say, Parliament would have to engage higher calibre researchers, and pay them more.

Then, as for witnesses, we need to see much more reliance on people with knowledge rather than opting for prestige. Time and time again, we see the parade of the "great and the good", their pontifications often being nothing more than an opportunity for them to parade their ignorance.

MPs themselves also need to be reminded that the title "professor" is a job description – not a qualification. Many are primarily administrators and are distant from cutting edge research.

Nevertheless, for all the desperate need for change, there is no immediate prospect of this happening. But that means that – as we have already observed – select committee reports are often of very little value. And all too often, not only do they represent missed opportunities, they are actively misleading.

We need better. MPs need to do better.

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