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The UK vote to leave the EU in June 2016 sparked an intense period of activity for Select Committees in the House of Commons as they sought to scrutinise the Brexit process.

This is the second of two Commons Library briefings setting out data on Select Committee activity in the period following the referendum vote. The first focused on the period between the referendum vote in June 2016 and the UK’s exit from the EU on 31 January 2020 (phase one).

This briefing focuses on the Brexit transition period between 1 February and 31 December 2020 (phase two). During this period, EU rules continued to apply to the UK and the UK and EU negotiated new arrangements for their future relationship, which culminated in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement in December 2020.

The briefing provides an overview of Select Committee activity in the House of Commons during the Brexit transition period, providing data on public sessions held, witnesses questioned and prominent themes in Committee discussions.

How many sessions were related to Brexit?

Our analysis of data from the Select Committee Office shows that out of 679 public sessions held by House of Commons Select Committees during the transition period, 104 (15.3%) covered Brexit. This was a decrease from the 18.4% of meetings that covered Brexit in phase one.

Which committees held most sessions?

Among the new committees set up to scrutinise the Brexit process and issues arising from it following the 2016 referendum was the Exiting the EU Committee. It was superseded by the Committee on the Future Relationship with the EU (CFREU) following the 2019 General Election and the start of the transition period in February 2020, before itself being wound up once the transition period had ended and the new UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement had been finalised.

CFREU had the highest number of Brexit-related meetings during the transition period, with all its 20 meetings covering Brexit issues.

Brexit also featured in the majority of meetings for the International Trade, Northern Ireland Affairs, and Welsh Affairs Committees, and in the two public evidence sessions held by the European Scrutiny Committee (ESC) during the transition period. 

While the ESC could no longer use its previous scrutiny powers in relation to the positions Government Ministers took in the Council of the EU (given that the UK was no longer a part of EU decision-making processes) it gained a new power in the transition period to request EU legislation of vital national interest to the UK be debated in the House of Commons.

Who were the most common witnesses?

Witnesses at these public evidence sessions came from government and public organisations, business, trade bodies, non-governmental and campaign organisations, think tanks and universities:

  • Close to 30% came from Government at the UK level (an increase from just under 25% in phase one).
  • Just over 10% came from other government and public bodies, including 4.6% from the devolved administrations (an increase from 2.9% in phase one).
  • Among other witnesses, just over a quarter came from businesses or organisations representing them. The majority of these were from trade bodies (17.9% of the total).
  • Around a third of witnesses came from other external organisations, including academics (14.1%), think tanks (9.5%) and charity/third sector organisations (3.5%).

There was a small increase in the proportion of female witnesses compared to phase one. In phase two, 30.5% of witnesses were women. In both phase one and two, the figure was slightly higher where Committees had greater discretion as to who to invite. 

Our analysis also identified the witnesses appearing most frequently in Committee evidence sessions. The witness with the most appearances in this period was Michael Gove, the then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Cabinet Officer Minister.  Representatives of trade bodies also figured highly alongside government representatives. 

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