One of the quieter Brexit-related announcements made by the Government this week concerned a ‘reshuffle’ of its Cabinet Committees. The European Union Exit and Trade (Domestic Preparedness, Legislation and Devolution) sub-Committee, which oversaw domestic policy preparation for Brexit, has been disbanded. The European Union Exit and Trade (Preparedness) sub-Committee has been created to “oversee and ensure effective delivery of plans for an orderly exit from the European Union.”
So far, so Judean People’s Front and People’s Front of Judea. But Cabinet Committees have considerable decision-making clout, so it is worth paying attention to Committee reshuffles. As the Government notes, Cabinet Committees “reduce the burden on Cabinet by enabling collective decisions to be taken by a smaller group of ministers” on specific policy areas. The collective decisions made in Cabinet Committees are “binding across government”, although Cabinet remains “the supreme decision-making body in government.”
The updated list of Cabinet Committees was published on 9th January. Sure enough, the new EU Exit and Trade (Preparedness) sub-Committee is listed on page 8, and James Brokenshire represents the interests of local government as one of the members of this sub-Committee.
Based on the Cabinet Committees list, it appears that the disbanded EU Exit and Trade (Domestic Preparedness etc) sub-Committee’s remit to oversee domestic policy preparation for Brexit is now shared between two Cabinet Committees.
First, oversight of domestic policy preparation and plans targeted at delivering a smooth exit from the EU is the priority of the newly created EU Exit and Trade (Preparedness) sub-Committee.
Second, more general and longer-term oversight of post-exit domestic policy preparation has been awarded to an already existing Cabinet Committee, the European Union Exit and Trade Committee (page 5 on the Cabinet Committees list). This Cabinet Committee was previously just responsible for overseeing the Brexit negotiations and future relationship between the UK and the EU. From this week, the EU Exit and Trade Committee’s terms of reference is extended to cover “post-exit domestic policy and implementation.”
The problem for local government is that Brokenshire is not a member of the EU Exit and Trade Committee. By contrast, the Secretaries of State for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are all members of this Committee. They will have the opportunity to take part in collective and binding decision-making between ministers on post-exit domestic policy and implementation. But the Secretary of State representing the interests of local government in England will not be involved in this decision-making process.
This might seem completely illogical, but the Secretary of State for Local Government has not been involved in post-exit domestic policy discussions at Cabinet Committees for most of the post-referendum period. Sajid Javid was never a member of the now disbanded EU Exit and Trade (Domestic Preparedness etc) Cabinet sub-Committee when he was Secretary of State at MHCLG. Brokenshire became a member of this sub-Committee following his appointment at MHCLG in April, and it is disappointing that his membership has only been carried over to one rather than both Cabinet Committees now overseeing domestic policy preparation for Brexit.
So, why does this situation matter? First, it re-emphasises the structural problem with the Brexit Ministerial Local Government Delivery Board that the UK Government sees local government as a partner in terms of delivering post-exit domestic policy, but not in terms of helping to design it. This is now reflected in Brokenshire’s membership of the new Cabinet Committee preparing for an “orderly exit” from the EU and his absence from the Cabinet Committee that will discuss the post-exit domestic policy developments that local government is expected to deliver.
Second, it further marginalises the voice and interests of local government in the Brexit process. For example, one of the key post-Brexit domestic policy pledges made by the Conservatives in their 2017 election manifesto was to create a UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) to replace the current system of European structural and investment funding that many councils have used to stimulate growth in their local economy. MHCLG is the Government Department responsible for creating UKSPF (and it will not have been lost on local government that the UKSPF consultation promised in 2018 has still not materialised). We now face the bizarre situation that the development and implementation of UKSPF will eventually be discussed by the Cabinet Committee overseeing post-exit domestic policy, but the Secretary of State for MHCLG will not be part of the Cabinet Committee’s discussions and decisions on UKSPF because he is not a member of that Committee.
The Secretary of State for Local Government is the Cabinet Minister with the authority to represent and champion the interests of local government in Cabinet discussions and decision-making on Brexit. With James Brokenshire being, inexplicably, excluded from Cabinet Committee meetings on post-exit domestic policy and implementation, it is becoming increasingly difficult to make the case that local government will have any meaningful say in what will happen to our country from 29 March 2019.