MPs accuse ministers of not being upfront about changes to withdrawal agreement

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove (left) speaking

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove (left) speaking at a press conference in Millbank Tower. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA. - Credit: PA

Ministers must be more upfront about decisions made at the UK-EU Joint Committee overseeing the implementation of the Brexit treaty, MPs have said.

A cross-party group politicians have accused the UK government of not being transparent about what amendments it was accepting during the regular meet-ups, warning ministers that 'significant improvements' were required in terms of accountability to parliament.

A new report from the European Scrutiny Committee pointed out that on May 15, the European Commission published a proposal to amend the Withdrawal Agreement to address a number of 'errors and omissions'.

The changes included 'certain adjustments to the number and scope of EU laws on goods that will continue to be applicable in Northern Ireland beyond the end of the post-Brexit transition period', as per the Protocol affecting the region in the Withdrawal Agreement.

Under the agreed exit plan, Northern Ireland will continue to follow a number of EU rules in sectors such as agriculture in order to avoid a hard border in Ireland, an issue the Joint Committee is designed to monitor.

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The commission also proposed 'technical changes' to the financial settlement between the UK and the EU, and the application of certain social security measures under the citizens' rights section of the treaty, according to the committee's report.

At a Joint Committee meeting with Brussels officials on June 12, ministers did not ratify the proposed alterations affecting Northern Ireland but did accept the financial settlement and citizens' rights changes, the report stated.

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But MPs complained that Michael Gove, the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster who has represented the UK on the Joint Committee, did not forewarn parliament that the government was going to agree to the amendments before the meeting took place.

MPs wrote: 'It is unclear whether the UK has rejected those remaining amendments definitively, or whether it will continue to discuss them with the EU in advance of the next meeting of the Joint Committee in September 2020.

'In any event, ministers failed to inform Parliament beforehand of their position on the proposed changes to the Agreement and which, if any, they intended to support.'

The committee has written to Mr Gove 'seeking further clarification of the government's position' over the EU's Northern Ireland demands, while also pushing for 'parliamentary scrutiny' over future Joint Committee activity.

Tory MP Sir William Cash, chairman of the committee, said: 'The government's current approach in informing parliament about its participation in the Joint Committee responsible for overseeing the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement needs significant improvement, as my committee's report illustrates.

'The government must be more open about the role of the Joint Committee and ensure effective parliamentary scrutiny of the decisions it takes within that committee.

'I expect the government to address the concerns raised in our report before the next Joint Committee meeting.'

A government spokeswoman said: 'We are committed to working transparently with parliament as it scrutinises the work of the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee. We have received the European Scrutiny Committee's report and will respond formally in due course.

'With regard to proposed amendments to the Northern Ireland Protocol, we have been clear that we are not seeking to reopen or renegotiate the Protocol.

'As we have set out in our Approach to the Protocol published last month, it must be implemented in a way that upholds the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, preserves NI's place in the UK, and respects the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland.

'As such we support flexibilities that work for NI businesses, and which minimise the impact of the Protocol on the everyday life of communities.'

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