European Scrutiny Committee calls for transparency on changes to Northern Ireland Protocol
24 June 2020
Following the latest meeting of the UK-EU Joint Committee on 12 June, the European Scrutiny Committee (ESC) has published a Report and written to the Minister for the Cabinet Office (Rt Hon. Michael Gove MP) calling on the UK Government:
- To commit to establishing an effective mechanism that will ensure meaningful parliamentary scrutiny of the Joint Committee and its specialised sub-committees as it continues its critical work on the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement
- To consult Parliament on any proposed changes to the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland (an integral part of the EU/UK Withdrawal Agreement) and to provide an assessment of their implications for Northern Ireland and for the rest of the UK before they are agreed by the Joint Committee
Read the report: UK-EU Joint Committee: Decision of 12 June 2020 amending the Withdrawal Agreement
Last month, the EU published a number of proposed changes to the Withdrawal Agreement and its Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, which were discussed at the latest meeting of the Joint Committee set up to oversee implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement. The European Scrutiny Committee found that the information provided by the Government ahead of that meeting "provided neither clarity about the implications for the UK (and Northern Ireland in particular) of accepting or rejecting the EU's proposals, nor confirmed the Government's intentions when they were to be put to the Joint Committee for approval.” This stood in marked contrast to the EU's position, which was fully public as early as 15 May.
Among other changes, the EU had suggested adding eight further EU laws to the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, which would expand the list of EU rules that will remain applicable in Northern Ireland beyond the end of the transition period. It also wanted to adjust how the EU's trade defence measures would apply to manufacturers in Northern Ireland.
While the Government did not approve the proposed changes to the Protocol on 12 June, the Committee points out that it remains unclear whether the UK has definitively rejected them, or whether they remain on the table for future discussion. This raises wider concerns about parliamentary scrutiny of the Joint Committee's work, as it prepares to take a series of critical decisions relating to the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement. Under current arrangements, the Government can agree Decisions within the Joint Committee without consulting Parliament on their implications for the UK or seeking Parliament's approval.
The European Scrutiny Committee concludes the Government must ensure greater transparency in the work of the Joint Committee and meaningful parliamentary scrutiny of the UK's position before Decisions are agreed.
As well as calling for a point-by-point clarification of the Government's position on the proposed changes to the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, the Committee also makes clear that the Government should commit to informing Parliament of any decisions to be taken at upcoming Joint Committee meetings, producing a substantive analysis of their implications for the UK, and explaining whether the Government intends to agree to their adoption. The House of Lords EU Committee wrote to the Minister on 17 June also reiterating the need for better Government engagement with Parliament on the work of the Joint Committee.
Commenting on the report, ESC Chairman Sir William Cash said:
"The Government's current approach in informing Parliament about its participation in the Joint Committee responsible for overseeing the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement needs significant improvement, as my Committee's report illustrates.
The Government must be more open about the role of the Joint Committee and ensure effective parliamentary scrutiny of the decisions it takes within that Committee.
I expect the Government to address the concerns raised in our Report before the next Joint Committee meeting."
A letter to Michael Gove MP, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, is included as an Annex to the Committee's report here.