Should MPs read?
If our representatives aren’t reading these weighty documents, then who is?
Today the Prime Minister’s spokesman suggested that the Prime Minister had not read the trade deal with the EU that he signed. After being asked a number of times whether he had read every word, the best we got was that the Prime Minister was “fully aware” of its contents. When this produced unhelpful news stories, a spokesman hastily sent round a “correction” that the Prime Minister had read the deal. Although it did not say whether that included “every word”.
The question was asked because Fisheries Minister Victoria Prentis has come under fire for saying that she had not read it when it came out on Christmas Eve. She had been asked in a House of Lords Committee if her “jaw dropped” when she saw the part on fishing, but had to admit that she had been very busy during that period because she was too busy organising a nativity event. The fishing arrangements were heavily criticised by the industry who have branded the Prime Minister “Ted Heath 2.0”.
Ken Clarke, arguably the Tory party’s most unabashed Federalist, famously admitted he hadn’t read the Maastricht Treaty. In 2009 Labour’s Europe Minister Caroline Flint admitted to her shadow Mark Francois that she hadn’t read the Lisbon Treaty that she was guiding through parliament. Flint told him that she had “read some of it” and “been briefed on some of it”. Francois replied: “You are supposed to be Minister for Europe; how can you not have read the treaty?” Lisbon gave the EU huge new powers by abolishing national vetoes in several areas, created a new EU presidency, diplomatic service and gave the European Court of Justice jurisdiction over key elements of criminal legislation including arrests and sentencing. The revelation that she hadn’t taken the time to read it didn’t do the career of the admirably spiky and honest Blairite any favours.
Most MPs and ministers aren’t lawyers and would have struggled to understand the 1,246-page document
So perhaps the Prime Minister can be forgiven for only flicking through the executive summary. Most MPs and ministers aren’t lawyers and would have struggled to understand a lot of the 1,246-page document, and inevitably rely on advisors and civil servants to interpret it for them. That being said, Steve Baker, the former ERG chair is not a lawyer by background but the former RAF aerospace engineer read the lot, more or less. He said: “I went through the deal and all the associated documents from cover to cover. I fast forwarded through the reservations and one or two other relatively secondary parts, but I reviewed every page.”
Mr Baker’s not a minister of course, so had the time to do so (even over Christmas) and he also waited to hear what the ERG’s “star chamber” had to say before he decided how to vote. But isn’t actually reading the documentation what people expect of their MPs, let alone Cabinet Ministers? This isn’t you or me impatiently ticking ACCEPT for some biblical-length T&Cs a social media giant presents us with. The old dictum that ‘advisors advise and Ministers decide’ breaks down a bit if the advisors are the ones interpreting the documents for their Ministers – and spinning their own handiwork to those ministers, having negotiated the deal.
Steve Baker notoriously read Theresa May’s Chequers plan when he was a junior Brexit Minister and even resigned over it. For Prentis, daughter of the amiable, deeply wet Europhile ex-Tory MP, Tim Boswell, the deal was never likely to be a resigning matter, even if she had read it.
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