Without proper scrutiny of this deal our democracy is at stake

Without proper scrutiny of this deal our democracy is at stake

by Tim Pope
article from Tuesday 29, December, 2020

IF YOU WERE TO EXAMINE the pillars of our democracy and had to choose one that was the foundation on which all else rested, what would it be? My vote would go to the process of informed scrutiny of Bills put before our elected representatives. However, the exercise of this priceless right depends on our representatives having adequate time to read, understand and assess the pros and cons of proposals, question Ministers and so make a rational and informed judgment as the basis for casting their vote.

Will that happen with the proposed UK-EU deal? The answer is a resounding ‘NO’. There cannot possibly be enough time. In the circumstances it is a pretty safe bet that if this deal is passed without the scrutiny it deserves, there will be much crying over spilt milk in years to come.

Crucially, this scrutiny process ought to be aided by Ministers reliably describing the terms of the EU deal and related legislation, warts and all. In other words, they give the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth rather than describing the sugar and forgetting to reveal the pill it coats. Do we trust Messrs Johnson and Gove to do this? Past experience should make us sceptical. All the promises relating to the future position of Northern Ireland have not been kept. Northern Ireland will be more a child of the EU than the United Kingdom. In truth, this government has given the EU a far better deal on Northern Ireland, now semi-detached from Great Britain, than did Mrs May. Little wonder the EU so quickly and easily agreed to it. 

Then there is fishing. I stand to be corrected by better legal minds than I have but as I read the text of the Fishing agreement, we are stuck with our maximum catch as determined by the formula at the end of the five-and-a-half year 'transition'. In many cases, hardly at a level that returns our fish stocks to us. If we seek to take more than that we have to terminate the fishing agreement. BUT! Under Paragraph 1 of Article Fish:17 Termination (page 273), this automatically triggers the right of the EU to terminate the whole trade agreement as well as other sections such as Aviation agreements. Alternatively, after those five-and-a-half-years, we can buy back (through compensation payments) the fish in our waters so we might catch them. 

In reality, we have nothing like control of our fishing.  

After five-and-half-years we will be bound in a straitjacket from which there is no realistic escape. There seem to be other similar tripwire clauses in this section. What about the rest of the agreement? It is clauses and interpretations such as these of which our MPs should be fully conversant and debate their acceptability versus the benefits of WTO terms. If they cannot do this they should not vote for the Bill assenting to this agreement.

The Withdrawal Agreement signed on 24th January 2020 is an abomination.  It should never have passed informed scrutiny as a sound basis for Brexit.  For any MP subsequently to claim they did not fully understand its terms when they voted for it demonstrates how lightly they take their responsibilities and how disingenuous is the government in informing them. That should be a red light warning to them not to let that happen this time.

The news of the deal came out on, of all days, Christmas Eve. There then followed a few days holiday of respite from a pandemic that shook the nation and has seen us become isolated and withdrawn. Very few wanted to spend the weekend reading a trade document – no matter how important – they wanted to enjoy themselves best they could.

We have had four and a half years of wrangling, obfuscation and delay. We have no idea what the UK and EU negotiators have cooked-up and so do not have a full understanding of a deal that with annexes reportedly runs to 2,000 pages.  

Boris is overjoyed, or so he says. No doubt Conservatives will shower praise on him. All we know, however, is what he and the EU have said. The critical information will be found in what they did NOT say. That is only going to emerge from detailed scrutiny.

It will be a complex and intricate set of terms, beset by baffling legalese and cross references to Treaties and other laws and agreements. It will take a clear head and much research by knowledgeable experts, to get to grips with it and then analyse and question important aspects of it. It is not a job to be rushed and railroaded through Parliament on a take it or leave it basis. That is just as true for the EU, despite the disregard for real democracy in that institution. 

Interestingly, the European Parliament has said they will not be rushed into voting on the treaty and will look at it in their own time. If they agree it, it will be passed retrospectively. It would be perfectly proper for our MPs to take a leaf out of the MEPs’ book and insist on a similar approach. Sauce for the goose and all that. Indeed, if Boris and his government was intent on treating our democracy and MPs with the respect they deserve, he would be promoting this approach.  Not doing so smacks of wanting to guillotine both the time for considered review and debate. An unhealthy attitude that may well mean that far from ending the debate on our relationship with the EU, it will add fuel to the fire and prolong argument and rancour for years to come. Especially if unattractive elements of the deal emerge over time when the detail is really absorbed but it is all too late.

The consequences for this Government, for Boris Johnson’s reputation and the future of our country will be dire. It will demonstrate once again how far away are the views of the Westminster elite from those who put them there. The arrogance of power contains the danger of contempt for ‘the little people’ and we have had far too much of that. The next election is in just under four years. This gives plenty of time for the death-watch beetles in this deal to mature and emerge from its woodwork. This government should look with trepidation at their prospects. 

Tim Pope FCA is a retired Risk Management Partner of PwC LLP UK. The article reflects the author's own thoughts and should not be taken as speaking on behalf of PwC.

Photo of House of Commons, London, by Andy Reed from Pixabay 


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