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8 January 2020

Hilary Benn vows parliamentary scrutiny of Brexit will continue despite Whitehall overhaul

The chair of the Brexit select committee confirms to the New Statesman that the committee “will disappear” after 31 January. 

By George Grylls

Over the past year Hilary Benn has proved a constant thorn in the side of the government’s most ardent Brexiteers. However, the Labour chair of the Exiting the European Union select committee, today confirmed that one of parliament’s most valuable weapons of scrutiny is likely to be lost.

“Clearly the select committee will disappear because we are told the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) will no longer exist after the 31st of this month,” Benn told the New Statesman, reacting to the government’s announcement last month that DExEU would be wound up on the day the transition period begins. “If there’s no DExEU there will be no select committee for exiting the European Union,” confirmed the former shadow foreign secretary.

As of yet, it is not clear which government department will oversee the forthcoming trade negotiations with the EU.

“Does it go to the Department for International Trade (DIT)? Does it go to the Cabinet Office? The honest answer is nobody knows because the government hasn’t indicated what its plans are,” Benn said. “Wherever it rests, the select committee that is responsible for that bit of the Whitehall machinery will have responsibility, I presume, for scrutinising it.”

However, Benn was quick to criticise rumoured plans to roll the DIT into the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Downing Street briefed over the Christmas break that a Whitehall overhaul was at the top of the new government’s agenda. But Benn outlined fears that a select committee tasked with scrutinising such a large department as BEIS and DIT combined could be overloaded.

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“Inevitably if you have a select committee that is covering the whole of BEIS’ responsibilities and international trade including the negotiation with the European Union (which is about trade but also about a lot of other things besides –data, consumer safety, cooperation on the approval of new aircraft, the whole of the service sector, foreign policy, security) how’s it going to be managed?”

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Benn insisted that, whatever the changes on Whitehall, he would like to see an overarching parliamentary body specifically tasked with interrogating Brexit.

“It’s very important parliament does look in detail at the process overall. But until we see what the shape of the government departments are going to be, and in particular until we see where responsibility for the Brexit negotiation lies, it’s hard to answer the question how that’s going to work.”

On the day the new president of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, visited London, Benn was quick to reaffirm parliament’s role in the upcoming negotiations.

“It is parliament’s job to scrutinise this process. This is the single most important international negotiation that the government will be engaging in in my political lifetime.”

Given the revised political declaration of Boris Johnson’s deal, Benn also questioned why a new economic assessment had not been released examining the government’s new priorities. 

“It remains extraordinary that this big decision about the future relationship with our biggest, nearest and most important trading partners – there is no assessment of what the economic impact is going to be. I think it’s highly irresponsible.”