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A new style of Committee for a post-Brexit UK: The Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee

7 Oct 2022
Satellite image of the United Kingdom with borders

In Autumn 2022 the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee will again be a feature of the House of Lords Select Committee line-up, after the Committee’s lifespan was extended for a third time to reflect delays in the Common Frameworks programme. The Committee is a Brexit innovation, which differs in its ways of working from previous House of Lords Select Committees in several respects.

Baroness Andrews, Chair, House of Lords Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee
,
Chair, House of Lords Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee

Baroness Andrews

Baroness Andrews
Chair, House of Lords Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee

Baroness Andrews OBE has been Chair of the House of Lords Commons Frameworks Scrutiny Committee since 2020. From January 2022, she is also Chair of the Lords' Adult Social Care Committee. She has been a Member of the House of Lords since 2000, where she has also served on the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, and as Deputy Chairman of Committees and Deputy Speaker. In Government, she was a Government Whip (2002-05) and Parliamentary Under-Secretary (2005-09). In 2022, she is on the Advisory Panel for the Hansard Society's Delegated Legislation Review.

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The innovative nature of the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee means that chairing it is both incredibly interesting and challenging.

In short, the Committee is charged with scrutinising a new type of document that will be instrumental in inter-governmental relations in the UK, now that the country has left the EU.

Common Frameworks are relatively obscure and need explanation. They are a new type of arrangement, in the form of agreed documents that articulate and facilitate intra-UK co-operation in the wake of Brexit. They outline how the four administrations in the UK will work together on devolved policy areas that were previously harmonised under the EU – including areas such as food standards, health and safety, pesticides, transport and building standards. Their key role is to ensure agreement across the UK as appropriate, and at the same time enable divergence as agreed in the devolution settlement. For example, the processes set out in the Motor Insurance Framework ensure that UK drivers can continue to use their insurance to drive in any part of the UK.

The Committee’s role is to scrutinise provisional versions of Frameworks to ensure that the final result is as effective and as close to the original principles set out in 2017 as possible.

One of the challenges the Committee has faced in scrutinising Frameworks is that it is dealing with something completely new in terms of policy and politics.

Common Frameworks are not like traditional international agreements or laws. As such, the Lords Committee is not concerned strictly with policy-making itself, but is rather scrutinising the content and format of Frameworks and the processes proposed. It is doing so – increasingly – in the context of a growing canon of Frameworks. The Committee questions the logical flow of the document, whether key requirements have been met, whether key relationships have been observed, and if there is consistency across Frameworks. If there is not, the Committee has to analyse why this is the case.

Frameworks do vary greatly in quality as well as purpose, and the Committee has had to work hard to identify and encourage what and how standards can be improved.

Because Common Frameworks are driven by their own timetable and requirements, the Committee is also difficult to fit into the wider structure of Committees in the House of Lords. The Committee’s staff derive from the Committees Scrutiny Unit, a fairly new unit within the House of Lords Committee Office that focuses on resourcing committees that are short term and ad hoc, or that do not fit neatly into another team in the Office.

The Committee has also conducted scrutiny in an unusual way by having an even mix of public and private meetings:

  • In private meetings, the Committee scrutinises individual Frameworks in granular detail and sends recommendations on changes to the relevant Departments and Ministers (often the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy or the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs).

  • In public meetings, the Committee takes evidence about the implications of Frameworks more generally from stakeholders.

The Committee has used this evidence to drive its latest (July 2022) report, which provided more sweeping recommendations on the Common Frameworks programme as a whole.

Frameworks are also different because they must be scrutinised, additionally, by Committees from the devolved legislatures.

This has led to the Lords Committee working closely with its counterparts in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Committee staff have met regularly with staff in the devolved legislatures; the Lords Committee has also been involved in written correspondence with devolved legislatures’ Committees; and it hosted a visit from the Senedd’s Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee.

Co-operation has really worked well for all parties to Frameworks. For example, Committees from the devolved legislatures share with the Lords Committee the letters or reports they have produced on Common Frameworks, which either supported conclusions the Lords Committee had made or raised new issues it had not considered. Likewise, the Lords Committee has shared with Committees from the devolved legislatures the correspondence it has had with departmental officials and Ministers. The feedback the Lords Committee has received shows that its correspondence has helped to inform and assist devolved Committees’ scrutiny.

Because the Lords Committee is the only Committee across the UK tasked with scrutinising every Framework, and is able to draw out the whole picture, it is in a unique position both to develop expert knowledge on the whole breadth of the Common Frameworks programme, and to share that and the wider implications with scrutiny Committees in the devolved legislatures.

Additionally, the Lords Committee has used the findings of the devolved legislatures to support the conclusions of its overarching July 2022 report. This gave its recommendations additional weight because they are supported not just at Westminster but also by parliamentary Committees in the whole of the UK.

Working with the devolved legislatures has also posed challenges. While the Lords Committee has made every effort to engage with Northern Ireland and has had some success with some Frameworks, the lack of an Executive in Northern Ireland has made it difficult for this part of the UK to engage fully in the scrutiny process, and inevitably added to delays.

Additionally, the devolveds have on occasion taken a different path, for example in relation to the UK Internal Market Act exclusions process. The Act sets out ‘market access principles’ which mean that goods which comply with regulations permitting their sale in one part of the UK can also be sold in other parts of the UK. The Lords Committee feels very strongly that the exclusions process – under which market access principles can be suspended in some cases – should be outlined in individual Common Frameworks. The Welsh and Scottish governments do not, to date, share this view.

What the Committee has made clear in both the reports it has published so far is its belief that Common Frameworks are a real opportunity to strengthen devolution through closer and respectful working at all levels.

Having been established in September 2020, the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee was initially intended to finish its work at the end of the 2020-21 Session, after publishing its first report (which it did in March 2021).

However, consistent delays to the publishing of Frameworks have meant that the scrutiny of all Frameworks is not complete. The Committee was therefore delighted that in July 2022 the House of Lords Liaison Committee extended its lifetime so that it can complete scrutiny of all Frameworks, including those expected to be published by the end of 2022. After March and then October 2021, this was the third time that the Committee’s planned lifespan has been extended.

The Committee expects to continue scrutinising individual Frameworks in the same way it has previously, by analysing them line-by-line and sending detailed responses with recommendations to the Government.

It is clear, however, that this is just the first step in terms of scrutiny.

Once Frameworks are fully in place, there will need to be continuing scrutiny of how they are working in practice - this will be the absolute test.

There may also be a necessity for new Frameworks in order to fill gaps or cross emerging policy boundaries - so this is very much work-in-progress. The Committee will continue to argue for parliamentary scrutiny as we go forward.

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