This week, all eyes were fixed on Monday’s Order Paper for the Commons – the second day of the second reading of the European Union (Withdrawal) Paper. The vital piece of legislation which the UK Government urgently needs to pass, and soon, in order to repeal the European Communities Act 1972, and so commence the lenghtly legal adventure of converting EU law into UK law.
As I write, the Bill is still being debated in the Commons. The vote is due to get underway around midnight – it will be tight, but it is expected to squeeze past, much to the relief of the Conservative Government, who will be aware that more battles over the Bill are just over the horizon, when it reaches Committee stage.
In fact, the Conservative Government might have to face down a battle even earlier than that. Tuesday evening of this week might just see a furious showdown in the Commons, all over membership of a Commons’ Committee: the Committee of Selection.
You see, losing the outright majority wrangled by her precedessor in June’s snap election made the Brexit process more difficult for Prime Minister Theresa May. Losing her majority does not just diminish her party’s representation and strength, both at home and abroad, or even votes which the Government can rely upon – it has cost her in strenght and representation across Commons’ Committees. However, the Conservative Government has seemingly devised a plan to help smooth parliamentary progress of any and all Brexit-related issues.
In what has been deemed a ‘power grab’ by angry Labour and Lib Dem MPs, the Conservatives are attempting to pack a crucial Commons committee with their own MPs.
A quick reminder: UK Commons Select Committee composition is proportional on the amount of seats received by each political party represented in the Commons. The UK Government – the party with the largest number of seats, normally with a majority – will occupy a majority of Committee members. Now, the Conservatives lost their outright majority in GE17, but are still the largest party. So they are still entitled to the most Committee members, but not the same number they would have had if they had retained their majority of seats.
And, without the number the Government had become accustomed to – an outright majority of Conservative MPs serving as veritable cheerleaders, cheering through the plethora of legislation needed to assist the UK’s EU exit through all stages of the process -the UK Government risks delays it cannot afford.
It’s solution? To slip in a motion to be voted on late on Tuesday night, which will give the UK Government a majority in standing committees — where important clause-by-clause legislative heavy lifting occurs.
Now arguably, if the Conservatives have an outright albeit slender majority through the confidence and supply agreement with the DUP, they are entitled to extra members on Committees.
Charles Walker, a Conservative MP and Chair of the Procedure Committee, spoke to POLITICO about the motion.
He said that whilst he expects “lively debate” he thinks the Conservative Government’s plan is a “reasonable proposition.” He explained the Government’s logic: through its deal with the DUP, it has a working majority in the Commons, so it should also have a majority in the parliamentary Committees that scrutinise legislation. Under the current rules, the DUP group is too small to qualify for Committee seats, meaning that the Government falls short of seats.
Mr Walker added to POLITICO that without the motion, “you could potentially see the legislative process grind to a halt…The Government has to have a legitimate chance of getting its business through.”
However, the party itself did not win the outright majority required, so technically it cannot try and pack up the Committee of Selection. Parliamentary officials have advised the UK Government against carrying out the power-grab, but it’s going ahead anyway. Its critics, including Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn say this plan is rigging the system.
What is the Committee of Selection? Well, the Committee of Selection decides whether the Government of the day has a majority on Committees for both statutory instruments (SIs), and primary legislation – without which, Ministers are unlikely to press ahead. The Committee basically arranges which statutory instruments (SIs) will be pushed through Parliament, and when.
As previously outlined, the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill essentially aims to convert EU law, which exists and operates in the UK, to UK law. It’s a piece of primary legislation, but there could be up to 1,000 ‘corrections’ to make in the process of law conversion, which the Conservative Government proposes to do through SIs – this is where the ‘Henry VIII’ powers come in. The Government has admitted there are no specific restrictions in the bill to prevent Ministers also changing aspects of law they “do not like”.
So, the power grab in question is the Conservative Government is trying to pack the Committee in such a way so the membership will favour the Government, and so ensure SIs are permitted for use in the future – SIs which, after all, lack scrutiny and debate of the level primary legislation is subjected to, and which could be misused by Government Ministers, especially those favouring a hard Brexit.
POLITICO says one senior Labour MP described the motion has “the biggest vote of this parliament.” Moreover, Conservative MPs have been told it is an unmissable vote.
It is set to be a Parliamentary showdown. However, if the motion passes, the Conservatives has won a battle, not the war.
After all, even if the UK Government manages to get its way on the Committee stage of Brexit-related bills, they must return to the Commons for report stage — which is just another chance to add amendments dilute the intention of the bill. Following that is the third reading, when MPs make the ultimate decision whether to support, or reject.
Whose Committee is it, anyway?