Brexit: what’s happening?

Posted on 06/02/2019 by Ed Hammond.

The short answer to this question is, of course, “nobody knows”. As I write this a further “meaningful vote” on the Withdrawal Agreement is scheduled for 14 February. A win for the Government – both in Parliament and then in securing EU amendments to the WA – still seems a remote prospect. A defeat seems to make more likely the prospect of “no deal”.

Increasingly local councils are looking at what is unfolding and thinking “what does this mean for us?”. In particular, the impact of no deal will require urgent attention. What role could scrutiny play in understanding councils’ planned action?

In recent days the Secretary of State James Brokenshire has written to all councils asking them to assure themselves of their preparation activities. As 29 March nears – and assuming no extension to Article 50 – councils have a job of work to do in grappling with this issue at a time when (amongst other things) minds are particularly focused on the budget cycle.

A topic like this seems to be ready-made for member scrutiny. Something with national impact but where that impact will play out at local level in perhaps unpredictable ways; something requiring political judgement and insight to respond to.

It might therefore come as something of a surprise that we are suggesting that – as things stand – scrutiny has little role to play, yet. We want to explain why that is the case – and when the right time to feed in might be.

Brexit is a unique phenomenon whose inherent uncertainty places local government in an extremely difficult position – that is without thinking about its inherent political tensions. Impacts are unknown and unpredictable, and fiercely contested by those on either side of an increasingly polarised debate.

As the coming weeks draw on we think there is little that scrutiny would be able to do to constructively influence what is likely to be a fast-paced range of contingency activities. Councillors should of course be kept upto speed, as it would for similar issues that are significant risk factors. Here the role is to observe, to be aware, and to listen to and understand the concerns of local people.

It is important that councils think of ways in which to keep councillors informed and engaged – particularly in relation to “no deal” planning. But the mechanism of scrutiny is not the way to do this, in our view.

That is not to say that scrutiny should have to part to play at all, once impacts are known and understood, once we have a more settled sense of what the comings months and years may hold, and once enough time has passed after this period of preparation scrutiny will be able to take a more reflective view. Debriefing on preparation, understanding impacts (positive or negative) and weaving an understanding of those impacts into the wider scrutiny work programme are all things that can and should happen – but not now.

Once the immediate period of uncertainty is over – assuming that happens at some point in the coming weeks – we plan to think more deeply about the ongoing role of scrutiny in Brexit. Until that our advice to scrutiny practitioners is that you should be aware of your council’s plans, reflect on possible impacts, and ready yourself to spring into action once the fog lifts.

If you are thinking of getting scrutiny involved earlier please get in touch (as part of our helpdesk service) and we’d be happy to advise.

About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfGS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.