Is the government trying to avoid scrutiny of its Brexit policy? That’s the charge that MPs on the Labour and SNP benches are levelling at ministers today as the White Paper on leaving the European Union is published. Keir Starmer told the Commons this afternoon that he and his colleagues were being hampered in their attempts to ask decent questions and properly scrutinise the government’s approach because they had been handed the document just minutes before David Davis gave his statement on the publication. The SNP’s Stephen Gethins complained that the whole situation was a ‘mess’ and that Parliament was being mistreated. These complaints were echoed from the benches behind them.
That the statement and the accompanying White Paper might be an exercise in placating MPs rather than offering further detail was underlined by questions from Tory MPs about the fate of EU citizens living in Britain. Theresa Villiers, who was a passionate Brexiteer, raised the case of a woman in her constituency who was receiving cancer treatment and anxious about her status. The White Paper itself merely says ‘implementing any new immigration arrangements for EU nationals and the support the receive will be complex and Parliament will have an important role in considering these matters further’.
I reported last week that the intention of those around Theresa May was to package up her Lancaster House speech in a White Paper-style format, and this is certainly the case when it comes to questions that the Prime Minister left unanswered in that speech. On the border with Ireland, an issue on which May only promised a ‘practical solution’ from the government last month, the document still doesn’t furnish any more detail:
‘When the UK leaves the EU we aim to have as seamless and frictionless a border as possible between Northern Ireland and Ireland, so that we can continue to see the trade and everyday movements we have seen up to now.’
It again promises that the Westminster government will ‘work with the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to find a practical solution that recognises the unique economic, social and political context of the land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland’. Annex B on UK/Ireland merely repeats these points.
David Davis argued in the Commons that MPs would have many meaningful votes on Brexit over the coming months. And to be fair to the government, yesterday’s Second Reading vote on the bill allowing the government to trigger Article 50 was only the first in a series of votes on the detail of that legislation as it goes through its committee stage, report stage and third reading in the Chamber, which means that MPs were hardly making a final decision without the relevant information to hand. Indeed, it seems from the White Paper that only a little more relevant information is being provided to them today.