It is very good of the Prime Minister to warm up for me today.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement to the House. I should make clear the context in which I consider that I am to do so today; my statement is intended to inform the debate that is shortly to commence on the motion to approve the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration on the future relationship concluded with the European Union by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.
It is important to understand how the Law Officers habitually give their advice, which may be a mixture of oral and written communications given at different times during fast-developing events. Ministers are advised by their own departmental lawyers, and the points that arise for consideration of the Law Officers are invariably limited to the relatively few of particular importance to the policy decision of the Government. Therefore, my statement today is complemented by a detailed legal commentary, provided for the purpose of the debate and published this morning, that analyses the effect of the agreement as a whole. That legal commentary has been produced with my oversight and approval, and I commend it to the House as both an accurate examination of the provisions of the agreement and a helpful exposition of some of the salient issues that arise from them.
There is, of course, no want of other sources of helpful commentary available to the House, and in making this statement in these unusual circumstances and in answering any questions that hon. Members may have, I consider that I have a solemn and constitutional duty to this House to advise it on these legal questions objectively and impartially, and to place such legal expertise as I have at its disposal. The historical precedents strongly support that view. The House may be sure that I shall discharge this duty with uncompromising and rigorous fidelity. If this agreement is to pass this House, as I strongly believe it should, I do not believe that it can or should pass under any misapprehension whatsoever as to the legal matters on which that judgment should be based.
It is important to recall that the matters of law affecting the withdrawal can only inform what is essentially a political decision that each of us must make. This is a question not of the lawfulness of the Government’s action but of the prudence, as a matter of policy and political judgment, of entering into an international agreement on the terms proposed. In the time available to me, it is impossible to have covered each of the matters of law that might arise from 585 pages of complicated legal text, and no Attorney General—certainly not this one—can instantly possess the answers to all of the pertinent questions that the skill and ingenuity of hon. Members may devise.
However, I am aware that there are certain parts of the agreement the meaning of which attracts the close and keen interest of the House, and it is to some of these that I now turn: first, the Northern Ireland protocol and some of the other provisions of the withdrawal agreement relevant to it. The protocol would come into force, if needed, on the conclusion of the implementation period on
Once in force, by article 2.1 of the protocol, the parties would be obliged, in good faith, to use their best endeavours to conclude by
If either party did not comply with its obligations of good faith after the implementation period, it would be open to them to bring a complaint under the dispute settlement provisions set out in articles 164 to 181 of the agreement. These include independent arbitration. Clear and convincing evidence would be required to establish a breach of that obligation. If the protocol were to come into force, it would continue to apply in international law unless and until it was superseded by the intended subsequent agreement which achieved the stated objectives of maintaining the necessary conditions for continued north-south co-operation, avoiding a hard border and protecting the Belfast agreement in all its dimensions.
There is therefore no unilateral right for either party to terminate this arrangement. This means that if no superseding agreement can be reached within the implementation period, the protocol would be activated and in international law would subsist even if negotiations had broken down. How likely that is to happen is a political question, to which the answer will no doubt depend partly on the extent to which it is in either party’s interests to remain indefinitely within its arrangements.
Under the protocol, the UK would form with the EU a single customs territory for goods for fiscal or tariff purposes. Accordingly, Northern Ireland would form part of the same customs territory as Great Britain, with no tariffs, quotas or checks on rules of origin between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. However, Northern Ireland would additionally apply defined aspects of the EU’s single market rules relating to the regulation and control of the supply of electricity on the island of Ireland; goods, including cross-border VAT rules; and the EU customs code. Those rules would be enforced as they are now, including preliminary references from Northern Ireland courts to the Court of Justice of the European Union.
By those means, the need for any hard border would be avoided, and goods originating in Northern Ireland would be entitled to free circulation throughout the EU’s single market. In all other respects of its regulatory regime, Northern Ireland would follow the applicable UK legislation, save where those were devolved. By article 7, a Northern Ireland business would also enjoy the same free circulation of its goods throughout the United Kingdom, while its EU competitor—whether situated in the Republic of Ireland or elsewhere in the single market—would not.
I turn to the role of Union law and the CJEU under the withdrawal agreement and within the dispute settlement provisions. It is important to place these provisions in the context of the objectives of the agreement, which is the orderly exit of the UK from the EU for our citizens and businesses. To that end, following the implementation period, the agreement provides for the continued application of Union law in defined and strictly limited respects, where it is necessary or desirable for legal certainty to do so.
Although we will legally leave the EU and cease to be a member state on
But on the conclusion of that period, on
Our citizens living in member states throughout the EU will continue, as is natural, to depend for their ultimate protection on the CJEU, while EU citizens living in the United Kingdom will look to the UK independent monitoring authority set up under article 159 and to the UK courts. But they will no longer be able, as now, to require our Supreme Court to refer a question of interpretation of their rights under Union law to the CJEU where the determination of such a question is necessary to resolve a dispute.
Instead, pursuant to article 158, the UK courts, for a fixed period of eight years only, may refer—I repeat, may refer—to the CJEU a question of interpretation of part 2 of the agreement in the interests of achieving consistency in the enforcement of the rights of citizens while the new system is established. After that time, our courts will, pursuant to article 4.5, continue to interpret concepts and provisions of Union law in the areas in which the agreement applies it as they always have, and to have due regard to relevant post-implementation case law where, for example, it may be required for the practical operation of the agreement, such as in regard to the co-ordination of social security rights for the protected EU and UK citizens.
Part 3 deals with the lawful conclusion of judicial and administrative proceedings, transactions, processes and other matters that have arisen or commenced under Union legal frameworks before the end of the implementation period, and to which Union law and the role of institutions must continue to apply for their orderly disposition. It allows a four-year limitation period on the power of the Commission to refer to the Court an alleged breach of an obligation incurred prior to the end of the implementation period.
Part 5 deals with our agreed financial obligations. It provides, under article 160, for Union law and the jurisdiction of the Court to apply beyond the implementation period only for the time and purpose of closing out the UK’s financial obligations and entitlements incurred under Union law, again prior to the end of that period.
All of these are inherently time-limited functions, and once they are at an end the Court will have no jurisdiction in relation to disputes involving citizens and businesses in the United Kingdom. A dispute between the EU and the UK about the systemic operation or interpretation of the agreement may be referred by either side to an independent arbitration panel in which the Court has no automatic role, but if the panel needs to and a question of interpretation of Union law is relevant to the dispute, it can ask the Court to resolve that question. It is then for the panel to apply that interpretation to the facts of the dispute, and thus decide how the dispute should be resolved.
The divorce and separation of nations from long and intimate unions, just as of human beings, stirs high emotion and calls for wisdom and forbearance. It calls also for calm and measured evaluation by the House of the terms of the separation agreement in the light of the complexity and difficulty of the task it is intended to achieve. The gradual loosening and removal of the legal ties that have bound us to the European Union for 45 years will take time to work out. This agreement and the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, already passed by the House, allow for the necessary time and legal means for that process to unfold in a peaceful and orderly way.
I am at the disposal of the House to answer questions, in so far as I can, on these and other legal matters. I commend this statement to the House.
I am of course grateful to the Attorney General for his statement, and for advance sight of it, but all Members who are asking questions are at a major disadvantage, because they have not read the legal advice on which the statement is based. That is totally unacceptable when aspects of the Attorney General’s advice have been selectively leaked to the press over the weekend. For example, it has been reported that in a letter to Cabinet Ministers last month, the Attorney General said, in respect of the backstop arrangement,
“The protocol would endure indefinitely” if trade talks broke down. In his statement, the Attorney General talked about political factors that might, in his view, make the backstop temporary, but in reality, that is not the legal position. Perhaps he can confirm that the legal position is as set out in the letter—that the protocol will “endure indefinitely” if the trade talks break down.
The document that has been produced is, in the Attorney General’s own words, a legal commentary, produced with his oversight and approval. It is not the final legal advice to the Cabinet. Frankly, the explainer produced alongside the withdrawal agreement was longer and more detailed than this document. Is not the reality that the Government do not want MPs to see the full legal advice, for fear of the political consequences?
There is no point whatever in trying to hide behind the Law Officers’ convention. The “Ministerial Code” and “Erskine May” are very clear: Ministers have the discretion, under that convention, to make advice available in exceptional circumstances. What circumstances could be more exceptional than these? The economic, political and constitutional integrity of our country is at stake.
I quote paragraph 82 of the legal commentary:
“The Agreement does not contain any provision on its termination. In the absence of such a provision, it is not possible under international law…to withdraw from the Agreement unilaterally.”
A straight question to the Attorney General: can he direct me or the House to any other international treaty to which the UK is party that it has no unilateral right to terminate? Can he even name one?
Furthermore, articles 1.4 and 2.1 of the backstop protocol are clear that its provisions
“shall apply unless…they are superseded, in whole or in part, by a subsequent agreement.”
[Interruption.] No, the “in whole or in part” bit was not commented on in the statement, actually. Put simply, that means that parts of the backstop could become permanent, even in the event of a trade deal being agreed. I ask the Attorney General directly: what is his view on which parts of the backstop arrangement in this protocol are most likely to become permanent?
May I raise with the Attorney General the issue of the impact on the Good Friday agreement? Page 306 of the withdrawal agreement refers to the need for the protocol to be implemented so as to
“maintain the necessary conditions for continued North-South cooperation,” including the conditions for possible new arrangements in accordance with the 1998 agreement. So can the Attorney General tell the House, in his view: first, which new arrangements he believes would be in accordance with the 1998 Good Friday agreement; and, secondly, which arrangements he believes would not be in accordance with it?
In the first instance it will be for you, Mr Speaker, to rule on whether there has been an arguable case of contempt for what we on the Opposition Benches believe to be a failure to comply with the motion of
First, let me say to the hon. Gentleman that he has far better than any advice I may or may not have given to the Government: he can ask me. All he has to do is ask and he will receive, because I will give him a frank answer. [Interruption.]
Order. I know the Attorney General is very well able to—[Interruption.] Order. Members must calm themselves. I know the Attorney General is very well able to look after himself, but I simply and gently counsel Members—gently, at this stage—not to yell from a sedentary position in that way. The right hon. and learned Gentleman would not, I am sure, be accustomed to such treatment in a court. If he were subject to it, I think the judge would take a very dim view. [Interruption.] Order. He is entitled to a courteous reception. As the House knows from experience, I will want to hear everyone who wishes to question him. But in the first instance, be calm and behave.
It is very rare for the Attorney General to appear to answer questions in the House on matters of law. I am doing so, so that Opposition and Government Members can have a full, frank and thorough opportunity to ask me, as the Government’s chief legal adviser and as an adviser to the House on constitutional and legal matters, what our legal position is. I assure the House that if questions are asked, I shall answer them candidly.
The hon. Gentleman told me that I had not said anything about the subsistence of the Northern Ireland protocol. Let me make no bones about the Northern Ireland protocol: it will subsist. We are indefinitely committed to it if it comes into force. There is no point in my trying or the Government trying to disguise that fact. The truth, however, is this: what is the political imperative of either entering into it or not entering into it? That is a calculated equation of risk that each Member of this House is going to have to weigh up, and do so against different alternatives.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned that I should answer whether other treaties are permanent. Hundreds of treaties throughout the world are permanent—treaties on borders, treaties on rivers; the Vienna convention has entire sections on permanent treaties. If the hon. Gentleman wants me to enumerate some, I will write to him with them—I am afraid I do not have them to hand. There is an entire section of the Vienna convention on permanent treaties. The question whether we have a right to terminate under the convention is a matter of construction. Let me make it plain: there is no such right to terminate if the Northern Ireland protocol comes into force. The question of how likely it is to remain in force is a political judgment to be based on factors largely relating, as I have said, to in whose interests it would be to remain in it for longest. [Interruption.]
I call Mr Kenneth Clarke—[Interruption.] Order. It is rather unseemly for people to yell out, “Is that it?” The Attorney General, to be fair, has given a very full response—[Interruption.] Order. Members can make of it what they will, but in any case, everybody should cheer up now, because we are about to hear from the Father of the House.
Whether that will cheer people up or not, I have no idea.
First, I sincerely congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General on his masterly exposition of the facts and the law, which put paid to quite a lot of the paranoia and conspiracy theories that have been running around all too often in our European debate.
Secondly, does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that it was central to the Good Friday agreement—the Belfast agreement—that both sides committed themselves timelessly to an open border, and that will be all wrapped up if we ever move to the Northern Ireland protocol? It would be quite shameful if the European Union, the Republic of Ireland or the United Kingdom were given the right unilaterally to terminate that arrangement at a time of their political choosing, so this is perfectly sensible. Does he also agree that both the United Kingdom and the European Union will have reasons to hesitate before going into the protocol—they may prefer to extend the transition agreement—and that neither of the parties will have any political motive for staying indefinitely in that protocol?
In his exposition, I think my right hon. and learned Friend has done what he was trying to do: got rid of all these theories about the ECJ still being involved, as it obviously will have to be, in the rights of British citizens after we leave, and enabled the House to get back to the real political debate that we have to have in the next few days.
I am most grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his question. The truth of the matter is that the Northern Ireland protocol would represent a solemn commitment to the people of Northern Ireland that this Government will honour and respect the Belfast agreement. I make no bones about it: I would have preferred to have seen a unilateral right of termination in the backstop. I would have preferred to have seen a clause that allowed us to exit if negotiations had broken down irretrievably, but I am prepared to lend my support to this agreement because I do not believe—[Interruption.] I am most grateful for those cheers of applause. I do not believe that we are likely to be entrapped in the backstop permanently. I can give reasons why I say that, but my right hon. and learned Friend has foreshadowed them. So I agree with him: this represents a sensible compromise. It has unattractive and unsatisfactory elements for us, but it is for the House to weigh it up against the potential alternatives and to assess whether it amounts to a calculated risk that this Government and this House should take in these circumstances, weighed up against the realities of the alternatives.
The binding motion passed by this House on
The Attorney General and I are both senior lawyers in our own jurisdictions, so I am sure that he will not want to insult my intelligence or that of the House by pretending that this Command Paper reflects in any way the nuanced advice that he will have given to the Cabinet, focused on particular questions such as those that we saw leaked over the weekend. For example, he just said that it is not his belief that we will be trapped in the backstop permanently, but this House, which has to take the final decision—not the Cabinet—is not interested in his belief; it is interested in his legal opinion. Can he confirm, as a matter of law, that there is nothing to prevent the backstop from becoming the permanent UK-EU relationship in the event that the two sides cannot agree a future economic relationship? That is a matter of law.
Will the Attorney General acknowledge something else? He is a democrat, the Government are democrats; they have gone on incessantly about the will of the people for the last two years and profess to believe in parliamentary sovereignty. We sitting in this House are the representatives of the people, and we voted to see his advice in full, not his commentary, so will he undertake to produce that advice—the sort of nuggets that were leaked over the weekend, but in full—before the rise of the House today, and before tomorrow’s debate, or is he prepared to run the risk of being found in contempt of Parliament merely to protect the Conservative and Unionist party against further internal strife?
I have the greatest respect for the hon. and learned Lady. She has put her case rationally and reasonably, and I will deal with her points one by one. She asked whether there was anything to prevent the protocol from becoming permanent in the event of no agreement. As a matter of international law, no there is not—it would endure indefinitely, pending a future agreement being arranged—but that does not exhaust all the matters of law. As a matter of EU law, it would, in those circumstances, be highly vulnerable to legal challenge. It is widely accepted, including by the EU Commission and taskforce 50, that article 50 is not a sound legal foundation for permanent arrangements between states. If negotiations irretrievably broke down, the protocol would de facto become permanent and therefore seriously challengeable in the Court of Justice of the European Union for being invalid. That legal uncertainty by itself is sufficient to promote to the EU the need to do a deal with us. It would be profoundly detrimental to thousands—indeed millions—of traders throughout the single market. That is one factor that convinces me that this is a risk worth taking.
I start by welcoming without reservation my right hon. and learned Friend to his position. He knows that I have believed for many years that he should have filled this post.
I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s statement. Page 6 of his document refers to what is defined as “good faith”. He mentioned the International Court of Justice, so I hope he will not mind if I quote from one of its judgments referenced in footnote 8. He talked about how long the backstop should last and what defined “good faith”. The judgment states that
“the failure of the Parties to reach agreement, 16 years after the conclusion of”— earlier negotiations—
“does not itself establish that either Party has breached its obligation to negotiate in good faith.”
As my right hon. and learned Friend knows, his right hon. Friends on the Front Bench one by one have used good faith as their defence for being locked into this problem of the backstop and as their explanation of how we will get out. As a matter of law, is good faith required for best endeavours?
The duty of good faith and to use best endeavours is a legally enforceable duty. There is no doubt that it is difficult to prove—[Interruption]—as I hear from a sedentary position, but that is not to say that it has not been proven. The case reports of the International Court of Justice, as well as arbitral tribunals throughout the world, have recorded decisions where tribunals have found breaches of good faith duties. There would need to be clear and convincing evidence that the breakdown of communication was due to bad faith—I fully accept that—but if the EU refused to engage with us, strung out negotiations in a thoroughly unreasonable way or failed to observe reasonable time limits, those would be hallmarks of a possible case of breach of good faith. It is a meaningful legal obligation.
I remind the House that we are dealing here with the United Kingdom on one hand and the European Union on the other. Their reputations in international forums, and their reputations as a question of international law, are at stake. If you put your name to a solemn legal obligation to negotiate something in good faith within a certain time limit, it is a very serious obligation of which to acquit yourself: it cannot just be played fast and loose with.
As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, I have the utmost and deepest respect for him in relation to his approach to these issues and the discussions that we have had, but he has said himself that the whole business is deeply unsatisfactory and unattractive, which makes me wonder why he is recommending the agreement. It seems to me that we are now reliant on our learned friends to take cases in international courts, rather than this sovereign Parliament being able to decide when we can get out of these backstop arrangements.
Can the Attorney General confirm what he said—that this is an indefinite arrangement that can be permanent in law, despite what some of his Cabinet colleagues are saying? I do not have time to go into all of this, because, as other Members have said, we need to see the actual legal advice as requested by the House—that must happen—but can he also confirm that under article 15 of the Northern Ireland protocol, the Northern Ireland customs arrangements mean that Northern Ireland will form part of the EU customs territory and not the United Kingdom’s, although “a single customs territory” is established between the UK and the EU? Will he confirm that under article 4 of the protocol, there is a new right under international law—one that is not in the Belfast agreement of 1998—for the EU to oversee certain aspects of the implementation of that 1998 agreement?
I have added those detailed points, which I will follow up with the Attorney General in later discussions, but the overall context is, as he has said, a deeply unattractive, unsatisfactory agreement. Rather than recommending it, he needs to recommend that it be rejected.
The right hon. Gentleman has thrown down the gauntlet in asking me to re-examine my support for the agreement. I do not mind confessing to him that I have wrestled with this question, because I am a Unionist and dislike any divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom; but I have had also to take into account first that this is an arrangement that we can avoid, and secondly that if we were in it, it would be as much an instrument of pain to the European Union as it would be to the United Kingdom.
I ask the right hon. Gentleman to think of what the European Union is now accepting. It accepts that Northern Ireland can have free circulation of its goods not only into the single market, but to Great Britain. No other single market trader will have that advantage. Hundreds of single market traders throughout the European Union are going to resent the fact that the goods of a Northern Ireland business situated one mile north of the border can flow smoothly into the single market and smoothly into Great Britain, while theirs cannot. So there are real reasons, which the right hon. Gentleman and I can discuss at greater length, why I do not believe that this will become a permanent solution.
Let us suppose, however, that those negotiations broke down, or took an unreasonable length of time. All around the European Union there will be single market traders seeing the benefits that Northern Ireland can have, who will be induced by those benefits to ask, “Should we go on putting up with this uncompetitive arrangement?” And what are they likely to do? Why, they are likely to beat a path to the door of the Commission and the Court, and there to say, “Didn’t you say that article 50 is not a sound legal foundation for this arrangement?” And I tell you frankly, Mr Speaker, they are likely to win.
Order. I understand that the House is mildly animated, but we must hear what the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee wants to say.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
There are five precedents over the past 40 years of full disclosure being made of an Attorney General’s advice for compelling and exceptional reasons in the public interest. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that he can—as in my view he should—consent on his own independent account as Attorney General under the ministerial code to the full publication of his legal advice given that, as cited in the Queen’s bench division in July 2009, the then Attorney General’s advice on the seminal Factortame case was disclosed, which dealt with the incompatibility of the European Communities Act 1972 with an Act of Parliament, the Merchant Shipping Act 1988, which was then struck down in the courts, analogous to the legal status of the withdrawal treaty in relation to the European Union (Withdrawal) Act passed by this House in 2018, and with which that treaty is incompatible?
This is not a question of the lawfulness of the Government’s action, as it was in the publication of Lord Goldsmith’s advice; this is simply a view on the legal effects of a particular agreement. There are hundreds of lawyers throughout the United Kingdom, I am delighted to say, who could offer a perfectly competent view on this agreement. I cannot see why there is anything exceptional about the current circumstances and about my advice. But let us suppose there were something exceptional about my advice; well, I am here to be asked any question that the Government have also asked, so all that the hon. and right hon. Members opposite have to do is ask and I will give them a frank answer.
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman acknowledge frankly to this House that publishing this paper on the legal position on the withdrawal agreement and his statement to the House today does not represent compliance with the motion of this House that was passed unanimously on
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for that question. The truth is that I am caught in an acute clash of constitutional principle. A Minister is obliged to have regard to the public interest and the national interest. Let us suppose I had given any such advice that has been requested by Keir Starmer, and let us suppose that that advice had covered all sorts of matters, including our relationships with foreign states and including arguments that might be deployed in the future—and their strengths and weaknesses—and including matters of acute importance to this country; would it be right for the Attorney General, regardless of the harm to the public interest, to divulge his opinion? I say to the right hon. and learned Lady that it would not. There is no procedure by which this House can have redactions or entertain circumstances in which it could weigh the competing public interest against the interest in disclosure, as a judge would do. She knows what I mean. Therefore, I cannot take a step that I firmly and truly believe would be contrary to the public interest. I ask the House to understand that it is only that consideration that is motivating me and this Government in declining at this stage to break the convention that applies to both sides of the House when they are in government. There is nothing to see here. [Interruption.]
Order. I gently appeal to colleagues to lower the decibel level. You do not have to look into—[Interruption.] Order, Mr Russell-Moyle. You do not have to look into the crystal ball when you can read the book. The evidence is that I always call colleagues to ask questions, and the Attorney General has indicated his readiness to take those questions, as indeed he must. So you will all get a chance, but please let the answers be heard.
I ask the right hon. and learned Lady to accept that I will give this House a stark, uncompromising and completely frank view on any relevant point of law. I suggest that, if I had given advice, there would be no real significance in that advice being disclosed, because this House has the opportunity to ask me directly.
My right hon. and learned Friend is to be commended for his statement, and also for the document that has been produced, which I have to say from my own experience is rather fuller than any advice he might ever have been called upon to produce. It might be helpful to the House if he could take this opportunity to confirm that there is nothing in this document that is incompatible with any advice that he gave to the Government? I would not expect him to be in a position to endorse any such document if it were at variance in that way. Secondly, turning away from that first principle to the content, might he also wish to comment on the provisions specific to Northern Ireland in paragraphs 25 to 29, which appear to show quite clearly that under the protocol it would be possible to end up with a situation in which there were in fact checks and controls on good passing between Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain?
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. He will understand that if I were to make that express confirmation, I would by that means be disclosing what advice, if any, I had given. I hope that the House will understand—unless it is to be supposed that I would tailor my advice according to my audience, which I assure the House I would not do—that there is no matter on which hon. Members could ask me a question on which I am likely to have given a different answer to any other party who might have asked me about it in the course of these negotiations. In all candour, therefore, I can say that all the House has to do is ask.
In relation to my right hon. and learned Friend’s second question, it is true that there would be regulatory divergences—as there are within sovereign states throughout the world—between one part of the sovereign territory of the United Kingdom and another, but those divergences could be kept to a minimum. They involve, on my investigation, some 15 forms of product in respect of which checks might have to be carried out at the border. Those 15 forms of product are largely phytosanitary goods in respect of which checks are already carried out in many cases at the ports of Northern Ireland. Therefore, while that border would exist—I find that distasteful myself—the issues are nevertheless mitigable, and the question again is whether that feature should lead us to decline this deal, which I firmly believe is the best way of ensuring that we leave the European Union on
I say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that there is something to see here. If the Government can decide which votes of the House of Commons to respect and which to ignore—as you said when ruling on a point of order on
Now, I have a question for the Attorney General on which I want his legal advice. As he will be aware, the withdrawal agreement is legally binding, but the political declaration is not. Can he draw to the House’s attention a single example in international law of when a failure to act in good faith has successfully compelled one party in a negotiation to reach an agreement as extensive as the one that the Government hope to achieve and which is set out in the political declaration covering trade in goods and services, security, foreign policy, broadcasting, data and co-operation on a wide range of matters? If there is such an example, I would very much like to hear about it.
The right hon. Gentleman points out that we are in a unique situation. There has never been a case in which a country has seceded from the European Union, and there has never been a case in which 45 years of legal integration of a state the size of the United Kingdom has been untangled. That will take time, and it must be done in an orderly way. I will write to the right hon. Gentleman if there are any specific examples to assist me, but the fact of the matter is that I doubt it, which is the frank answer, because we are in this extraordinary and unique situation.
To address the first part of the right hon. Gentleman’s question, I will repeat myself: what does he expect us to do? When he was a member of the Cabinet, if he believed that to take an action would be fundamentally contrary to the public interest of this country, I suspect that he would find that a difficult situation to resolve. The House’s resolution is entitled to the greatest of respect, and the Government and I are inclined to do as much as we can and to go as far as we can, which is why I have come to the House today—it has barely happened more than a few times in the past 50 or so years—to answer the House’s questions. However, I cannot take a step that I believe in conscience would be against the public interest and potentially seriously harmful to a fundamental constitutional principle and the temporal interests of this country in the midst of a negotiation.
I welcome the Attorney General’s transparency both in his oral statement to the House and in the Command Paper. First, will he confirm that the article 20 review mechanism necessitates that the EU agrees to the UK exiting the backstop even if the negotiations have dragged on for many years or, indeed, have broken down? Secondly, while the article 50 basis for the backstop is meant to be temporary, it might well take some 10 years for it to be struck down by the European Court of Justice. If he thinks that that is too long, will he give the House his best estimate?
Article 20 permits both sides to consider, even when no final agreement has yet been reached, whether alternative arrangements might suffice to protect the stated objectives of the Northern Ireland protocol. If they do, both sides could agree to put in place those alternative arrangements before any final agreement had been reached.
It is important to remember that, when one says final agreement, it is of course possible, indeed likely, that it may be a series of agreements reached at different times. My answer to my right hon. Friend is that article 20 creates that ability, but it is not a unilateral right of termination. It does not give us a right to walk away. It creates a procedure and obliges the European Union to consider alternative arrangements that are not part of a final deal.
I think my right hon. Friend went on to ask me about article 50 and the time it might take. The period of years he mentions is probably far too long, but it is impossible to say. What one can say is that, long before any case is brought, the pressure bringing those cases to the Court would be telling upon the Governments of the member states and upon the European Union. The legal uncertainty would be intense, and it is a real factor that this House must weigh up in considering whether the protocol is something that it wishes to support.
I am trying to understand the Attorney General’s arguments in answer to earlier questions. He seems to be saying that the Northern Ireland protocol, including the close relationship with the single market and membership of the single customs territory, is such a good deal for UK businesses that EU member states would hate it and would be desperate to bring it to an end as soon as possible. Is that his view? Is that the Government’s view? If so, is he now arguing for us to stay in a single customs territory indefinitely and to keep a close relationship with the single market?
What I do say is that the customs arrangement under the backstop produces the following advantages. We pay not a penny and our goods have free access, in fiscal and tariff terms, to the European Union, yet the regulatory framework that we have to observe is dealt with by way of non-regression clauses that are not enforceable either by the EU institutions or by the arbitration arrangements under the withdrawal agreement. They are policed solely by British courts and British authorities.
In those circumstances, what does it mean? It means that they have split the four freedoms. They have created a situation where we can have the regulatory flexibility that they cannot. They have granted access to the single market for no contribution, without free movement, without signing up to the common fisheries policy and without signing up to the common agricultural policy. For all those reasons, what I say to the right hon. Lady is that if it is painful to us, it will be as painful to them. Where we want to end up is an arrangement that suits us both. This suits neither.
Evidence of wilful intransigence, evidence of refusal to engage, evidence of refusal to entertain alternative proposals or alternative means of achieving the outcomes that both share: that type of evidence, cumulatively, could amount to a case of bad faith, but each situation is facts-specific. It is not possible to identify beforehand, but those are the kinds of things that would be relevant.
The Attorney General has been very honest about the downside of this backstop, and that is even without the legal advice, so we dread what we would actually see in the legal advice, if we could see it.
On Sunday, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland told Northern Ireland’s “Inside Politics” with Mark Davenport that even if the backstop kicks in, Great Britain will stick to the same rules as Northern Ireland. Will the Attorney General have a word with her? She is going around Northern Ireland on a tour and saying some things that are actually not accurate, giving the people of Northern Ireland a very wrong impression about what this agreement means.
The regulatory regime in Great Britain will be a matter entirely for the Government of the United Kingdom. It is permitted and agreed under the protocol that they can maintain their regulatory regime in the way they choose, in which case they could choose to maintain, as I have no doubt they would wish to do, regulatory parity with the position in Northern Ireland. That is all the Secretary of State is saying, and I see nothing controversial in that.
I commend my right hon. and learned Friend on the statement he has made. Does he agree that in international law concepts of good faith and of using one’s best endeavours are very important, because right at the heart of international law is the idea of a rules-based system which good countries aspire to? Does he agree that it is therefore important both to the UK and to the EU that they should show good faith and should use their best endeavours? Does he also agree that if they did not do so when it came to the point that has just been raised by my right hon. Friend Sir Michael Fallon about paragraph 11 in the references to the protocol, it would be an absolute disaster for either the UK or the EU to be found not to be in good faith?
I do agree with that; the duty of good faith is a very solemn, well-understood one in international law. It would be an astonishing thing if the EU were not to negotiate in good faith, particularly after the act of good faith that this country, in concluding this agreement, will have committed itself to. So this is not something that can simply be ignored, but I fully accept that it is not a unilateral right of termination and it would not be easy to establish “bad faith” against an organisation of the type of the EU. It would never happen, because I do not believe that the European Union would descend to the kind of behaviour necessary for a bad faith claim to be brought successfully.
I am about to attempt to achieve the ambition of a lifetime and get a one-word answer out of a lawyer. Is it possible that the UK could find itself locked in backstop forever, against our will?
Does the Attorney General agree that a motion such as the one I have tabled on the Order Paper would give this House sovereignty on when we should leave the backstop, should we enter it, and that as a country we would have a degree of certainty, which he has been able to supply today? If the Government go down in defeat next week, would he suggest that that should be top of the Prime Minister’s negotiating list with the European Union?
I have enormous respect for the right hon. Gentleman and his suggestion, and I realise that other right hon. and hon. Members are considering similar things. I simply say this: what we cannot do is anything that is incompatible with our obligations under the withdrawal agreement. Any amendment to the meaningful vote that would introduce a qualification to our obligations under the agreement would be likely to be viewed by the European Union as a failure to ratify it and would justify non-ratification on its part.
We will be plunged into such great chaotic disorder in the circumstances that the right hon. Gentleman suggests that I very much hope the House will think and reflect carefully before doing that.
My right hon. and learned Friend has pointed out that the best-endeavours clauses in the withdrawal agreement impose a duty on both sides to proceed with the utmost good faith in seeking to achieve an agreement at some time in the future. He has said also that these are obligations that are judiciable and enforceable. As a practical lawyer advising the House, as he has kindly offered to do, will he tell the House whether this is a matter about which the House should be relaxed? Or should we proceed at our peril?
As my right hon. Friend knows, the job of any lawyer for any client is generally to assist the client to make decisions as to the balance of risk in any decision that they are about to take. There is no question but that the absence of a right of termination of the backstop presents a legal risk. The question of whether it is one this House should take is a matter of political and policy judgment that each one of us must grapple with. The House has heard and, for reasons that I am not going here to expatiate upon, I have taken the view that compared with the other courses available to the House, this one is a reasonable, calculated risk to take. Other Members of this House must weigh it up, but that is my view.
In response to some questions from Members of this House today, the Attorney General has asserted that in his view it would not be in the public interest to meet the terms of an effective resolution that was passed unanimously by this House. Can the Attorney General really take that view? Was it not incumbent upon him and the Government to vote against that resolution if he thought that it would be against the public interest to publish his advice, as he has asserted today?
I fully understand the hon. Lady’s understandable indignation, because the truth is that we are now in a curious situation in which no vote was passed against that motion. I ask her to reflect on this: let us suppose that the Government had voted against it and lost. What position would that place us in? It would place me in exactly—[Interruption.]
If the vote had been lost instead, precisely the same position would pertain, which is that the Attorney General and the Government would be faced with a clash of constitutional principle. Of course the Government wish to do all they can, which is why I am here today to answer as candidly and frankly as possible the questions of the House on any matter about which it wishes to ask, but if I am satisfied and convinced that any disclosure of the kind the House has asked for would be contrary to the national interest, I cannot comply with the House’s request. I urge the House to understand that I am doing everything I can, as are the Government, to fulfil the spirit of the request. No matter upon which this House inquires will be dressed up, disguised or in any way downplayed. Nothing—nothing—will be held back.
My right hon. and learned Friend has been enormously gracious in being willing to answer any question the House may have on legal matters, and there are many questions that we all have to ask that may not be easy to put in one short question, but unfortunately he does not answer the basic point about denying a motion passed by this House. Saying that in his view it is not in the national interest is not good enough. When the Government lose a vote, they must follow the will of this House under an Humble Address, according to all precedent. It is no longer a matter for the Government to judge; it has been decided by this House, which is a higher authority. I therefore urge my right hon. and learned Friend, in spite of his generosity in answering questions, to go back and release the advice asked for by this House.
Well, of course, when a request comes from the quarter from which it has just come, I will always want to re-examine the assumptions that I have made, but I have to say to my hon. Friend that the problem here is that it cannot be right that the House, by means of such a motion, has the power, blind, to call for any matter that has been discussed in connection with the Government of this country. Where does it end? [Interruption.] Just wait a minute. I am trying to do my best. Where do the limits of this power end? Does it extend to Cabinet minutes? Does it extend to the papers of the secret intelligence service? Is the House, by means of this motion, to command any paper of any kind, central to the interests of this nation, without even being able to check that, by its release, it is causing, or might cause, severe damage to the public interest? I invite my hon. Friend to consider the implications of the absolute rule that he is talking about. It cannot be right and if one looks at previous versions—[Interruption.] If one looks at previous versions of “Erskine May”, one sees that the motion to return is confined to documents of public and official character. If there are good reasons of public policy why those papers should not be disclosed, then the House will either withdraw or rescind its motion.
In this case, I am convinced that to disclose any advice that might have been given would be fundamentally contrary to the interests of this country. [Interruption.] I say to Labour Members that there is no use baying and shouting. What I am trying to do is guard the public interest—that is all. It is time that they grew up and got real. If there were a single item that I thought might be politically embarrassing, I would have no truck with the idea that this advice or any that I might have been given should be disclosed. It is because the public interest is at stake. What part of that proposition is the Labour party incapable of understanding?
At stake today are really serious issues and yet this House is descending into farce and into some kind of amateur dramatics. This is serious stuff—[Interruption].
Order. Mr Chalk, you are a most cerebral and ordinarily a most genial individual and you also practise—or have done—in the courts as a barrister in, I am sure, a most dignified and respectful manner. [Interruption.] Order. This is a serious point. Just as the Attorney General is entitled to be treated with respect, every Member of this House—[Interruption.] Order. It will go on for as long as it takes; I could not care less. Every Member of this House is entitled to be treated with respect in this matter and Caroline Lucas will be heard. The Attorney General talked about braying and shouting—[Interruption.] Order. He was justified in complaining about being subject to braying and shouting —a point that I have already made. The same goes for Members responding to the hon. Lady. She will be heard. What part of that proposition do some people not understand?
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
I was just saying that these proceedings are in danger of descending into farce. The Attorney General repeatedly says that he will subject himself to what he calls full, frank and thorough questioning, but he knows as well as we do that our capacity to do that questioning is seriously undermined by the fact that we do not have the full legal advice in front of us in order to interrogate it. He talks about the national interest. It is precisely because these are issues of national interest that we wish to see the full legal advice. Will he go away and look again at the principle that, in exceptional times, transparency should take precedence, and therefore produce the full legal advice for this House?
In all earnestness, when I gave my statement the hon. Lady will have noticed that I said that the House must understand the process by which the Law Officers give their advice. There may be no such “full legal advice”. Law Officers are consulted ad hoc, on the hoof, in fast-developing circumstances. That is what I said at the beginning of the statement. The fact of the matter is that I am here to answer the hon. Lady’s questions. [Interruption.] Well, then I will see the hon. Lady at any time and at her convenience, when she can ask me any question.
I cannot breach the constitutional convention to a client—in this case, the Government—particularly if I believe, as I do with all candour and sincerity, that it would be contrary to the national interest in the course of a negotiation that might involve discussions about strengths, weaknesses and future strategies. [Interruption.] There was a sedentary comment from the Opposition; this is not arrogance. I wish that I could comply with the request of this House but if I did, I sincerely believe that it would not be in all of our interests. In a court, that matter can be resolved by a judge, but in the procedures of this House—it may very well be that we need to look at those procedures—there is no such arbiter. Therefore, although the House says that I should disclose, I believe that the public interest compels me not to. I am sorry.
The backstop is in the agreement at the insistence of the EU, and it affords the EU a huge advantage and leverage when it comes to our determination never to be in it when we negotiate the future arrangements, does it not?
The answer is no. If anything, the leverage is in the opposite direction. The French, the Belgians and the Dutch all want access to our coastal waters, but this is outside the backstop’s purview. Therefore, they will want access and we will have to negotiate. We do not have to pay a penny. It is legally uncertain. We have regulatory flexibility in Great Britain. Northern Ireland has free circulation of its goods both to GB and the European Union. My right hon. Friend knows that I support leaving the European Union. If he wants my frank view, I believe that the European Union will be very keen indeed to do a deal with us.
Order. No one enjoys the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s eloquence more than I, but let us share it with the whole House.
The British Government insist that they have the right to take privileged legal advice that remains private between lawyer and client. I recall the Labour Government using the exact same excuse during the Iraq war. In the light of the confessed damage that any Brexit deal will cause, I beg, who is the client? Should not the Attorney General learn from the mistakes of the past, discharge his solemn and constitutional duty as a humble servant of Parliament and of the public, and publish? If not now, when?
First, I point out to the hon. Lady that the advice of Lord Goldsmith was published two years after the event. What the House is now asking is that the advice, if any, given by the Attorney General be published in the middle of the negotiations, where we may still need to deploy many of the arguments connected with the withdrawal agreement in the future. Secondly, the advice of Lord Goldsmith was on a question of the lawfulness of the Government’s action. This is not a question of whether the Government acted lawfully; this is simply a question of whether the Government are acting wisely, on which Members of the House can disagree. There is a fundamental distinction between the position when the advice of Lord Goldsmith was given in 2003 and the advice today.
The advice that the Attorney General and the Law Officers give on a matter such as this could be replicated by any lawyer of reasonable competence. Why, Keir Starmer could pop down to his chambers and find half a dozen lawyers capable of giving the same advice that I might have given on these points—probably better. The truth of the matter—what is so important about my advice?
The Attorney General has a very special role when the lawfulness of the Government’s action is at stake. There, it is true, he occupies a central role, because if he says it is not lawful, the Government cannot act contrary to his advice. But in a case such as this, the essential question before us all is a political question, not a legal one.
On whichever side of the House hon. Members sit, those of us who have been in government know that it is very important that there is safe space in which Law Officers and civil servants can give advice to Ministers. I fear that today we are trying to breach that convention, and that could be very dangerous for our system. It is extraordinary to me that people would prefer to have a piece of paper produced for them that they have clearly been told may contain information that damages the national interest, rather than have the Attorney General before us, who is giving us further and better particulars, and answering all questions in a full, frank and fair way.
I think the right hon. Lady is finished—no?
Order. I advise the House that 21 Back Benchers have questioned the Attorney General in 50 minutes. Believe me—I know these things, as I sit in this Chair for many hours and it is my privilege to do so—this is a much slower rate of progress than is customary. I appeal to colleagues to ask short questions and to the Attorney General, whose mellifluous tones I never tire of hearing, to be appropriately pithy in reply.
Given the precedent set by Lord Goldsmith, whose legal statement was clearly spun and cherry-picked, without seeing the full legal Brexit advice, why should any MP here today believe that this statement is not similarly massaged and designed to bolster the Government’s position, and deny MPs on both sides of the House full access to the legal advice that this House has demanded? I am afraid to say that the Attorney General has rather contemptuously and theatrically—as if he were performing “Rumpole of the Bailey”—dismissed us and refused to provide us with the advice.
I can only tell the right hon. Gentleman that I have not massaged the advice. I have given it absolutely as I see it—absolutely starkly. I will give that same advice if anybody asks to come and see me, but I cannot breach the fundamental constitutional principle that I believe it would be contrary to the public interest to break. I can only invite the right hon. Gentleman to accept that I have given this advice as candidly as I possibly can; I cannot say any more if he does not accept that.
An amendment was tabled to the Humble Address motion that was highly sympathetic to my right hon. and learned Friend’s position. It was not selected and not passed, but the motion, unamended, was passed. Therefore, whatever he has just argued at the Dispatch Box, the position is as my hon. Friend Mr Rees-Mogg set out—he is under an instruction. If he wishes to change the position in the House of Commons, will he move a motion in this House to support the position that he has just set out?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman says that it would not be in the national interest to share his legal advice with the House. Does he not realise, though, that in just over a week’s time this House is going to have to decide what is in the national interest? How are we supposed to do that when he will not tell us what his legal advice is?
With respect to the right hon. Gentleman, he has had my legal advice. What he has not had is what is in any kind of document that might have been created or my oral advice in any other circumstance, to Government Ministers or to the Cabinet—if such exists. But he has had my legal advice—
I think the right hon. Gentleman has plenty of opportunities to consult people other than me. Ultimately, what the House will have to decide is whether an Attorney General and a Government who are seeking to protect the public interest are in contempt of its motion when they have sought to comply with the spirit of it to the maximum possible degree, and when they have put their legal adviser at the disposal of the House and instructed him to give full, frank, complete answers to any question asked on the matters of law that any legal advice would have been likely to cover.
The Attorney General said that he would rather that there was a unilateral termination clause in the Northern Ireland protocol. Earlier, in the Select Committee on Exiting the European Union, Olly Robbins appeared to concede that one such clause had been drafted and had been tested with EU negotiators, but ultimately not deployed in the negotiations. Could the Attorney General confirm whether he was asked to provide legal advice on a unilateral termination clause, and whether the decision not to include it in the negotiations was a political or a legal one?
I cannot. I cannot, without breaching the convention, disclose whether or not I was asked to advise on any particular point. But what I can say is that the question of termination clauses was most certainly raised in the negotiations, but the European Union declined to entertain those termination clauses. It did so because the backstop is envisaged as an absolute guarantee that in all circumstances, including that of no deal, there would be no hard border at the Northern Ireland-Republic of Ireland border. Therefore, to have a termination clause would be a contradiction in terms. It would not be a guarantee if you can walk away from it. That is the decision the House must face—in the light of that, it must decide whether this is an arrangement into which it should, given the alternatives, enter.
I thank the Attorney General for his absolute candour in how he has presented this to the House this evening, but the stark reality of what he has set out, to any person living in Northern Ireland, is that as a result of Northern Ireland ending up in this backstop, which would be utterly shameful, Northern Ireland would become an annexe of the United Kingdom when it comes to trading relations during the backstop period. I quote to him from the document that he has placed in the Table Office today:
“These provisions apply to measures that affect trade between Great Britain and the EU, but not trade between Northern Ireland and the EU.”
In fact, we would have to comply with another regime. How could any Unionist sign up to that?
The European Union’s original proposal, as the hon. Gentleman will know, was that Northern Ireland should reside in an entirely separate customs territory. The Government took the view that that was wholly and completely unacceptable. Why? Because there is virtually no sovereign state in the world that has separate customs and fiscal tariffs within its own sovereign territory. But there are many nations throughout the world in which different provinces and parts have regulatory divergence. The regulatory divergence in this case can be minimised to an almost, if not wholly, invisible extent. Furthermore, we do not wish, nor expect, to be in this arrangement. Under article 132 we can extend the implementation period, and if we are close to doing a deal, or even reasonably close, no doubt that is a choice that we will have to consider.
I say to hon. Members that I understand entirely their feelings of concern, even distaste, but this is a question affecting the whole of the United Kingdom and its interests. So vital is the fact that we should have an orderly exit from the European Union that, as people who hold the United Kingdom’s Union at their heart, I would urge them to consider supporting this agreement, for it is our means out of the European Union.
Agri-goods, yes—goods only. So I would urge Members to consider the interests of the United Kingdom. I fully understand the elements of this agreement that are dissatisfactory to them.
My right hon. and learned Friend told my right hon. Friend Stephen Crabb that the European Union is refusing to allow a get-out clause on the permanent backstop, but he has also told us that he does not believe that the permanent backstop is sound in European Union law. Can this matter be resolved by a reference to the European Court of Justice in the same way that the European Court of Justice gave its opinion in relation to the relevance of the Lisbon treaty requirement that the EU should sign up to the European convention on human rights? When it gave its opinion on that, it said that it did not think it was compatible with the EU treaties, despite the fact that it had been signed up to in that particular treaty. Can something similar be done in this case to remove the uncertainty?
There is nothing to prevent a case from being brought to the Court of Justice of the European Union on whether any agreement that is signed by the European Union is compatible with the treaties. But I would point out that, as I said earlier, the time at which the backstop becomes legally vulnerable, or most legally vulnerable, is the time at which it becomes, de facto, not simply temporary but permanent. It is at that point that the problem may crystallise in connection with the use of article 50 to conclude this agreement. The legal uncertainty about knowing whether the backstop would survive such a challenge is one of the factors, I believe, that will impel the European Union to conclude an arrangement with us in expeditious time.
It appears to me that the Attorney General is treating this House and everyone we represent with a great deal of indifference, at best, and contempt, at worst. So I have to ask him: at what point did he advise the Chief Whip that he would not comply with the terms of the Humble Address? Was it before, during or after the point at which this House expressed its will in support of that Humble Address requiring him to publish full advice?
The decision as to whether a Law Officer’s advice, should any have been given, should be published is a collective decision of the Government. The Attorney General must consent, but first, it is a collective decision of the Government. I hope that that answers the question. I had no discussions with the Chief Whip on this subject. None was sought.
As someone who was born in Northern Ireland, I hold the Belfast agreement as very precious, because it safeguards my birth right to be accepted as British or Irish or both. On
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. May I say candidly that I did not say it was not a risk? It is a risk, but, weighed against the other risks of utter chaos, losing our departure from the European Union on
Secondly, my hon. Friend asked about fishing. She is right that in the backstop, there would be no access to our waters other than that to which we agreed.
The whole principle of devolution is that there will be divergences between parts of the United Kingdom that are governed by devolved Assemblies. Unfortunately, in Northern Ireland’s case, that devolved Assembly is not at present functioning. Were the institutions functioning, they may well have been given a central role in these matters, because Northern Ireland shares a land border with the European Union and therefore calls for special, specific measures rather than the same considerations that apply to other parts of the European Union.
The Prime Minister has said on many occasions that if we were to leave without a deal, we would not pay any money over to the European Union. The Chancellor has said on many occasions that we are legally obliged to pay the money over to the European Union. Can the Attorney General tell us what we are legally obliged to pay over to the European Union to leave, and which treaties he is referring to when he gives us that advice?
The position on money is this. The view of the Government, and my view, is that we would have obligations to pay a certain amount of money were we to leave the European Union without a deal. The House of Lords European Union Committee concluded that there would be no obligation under EU law. That is a stronger argument—not necessarily an incontestable one—as to our obligations under EU law, but the Committee also concluded that we might have obligations under public international law, and with that I agree. There is an argument that we would not have an obligation under public international law, but it is an argument unlikely to be accepted by any international tribunal.
My view is therefore that we would owe a presently unquantifiable sum were we to leave the European Union without a deal. It is impossible at this stage to say how much. It is true that the European Union is not a member state and is not a state, and therefore it is unable to take the case to the International Court of Justice. It might therefore be difficult to enforce the public international law obligation that existed. However, I ask the House to reflect on the fact that if this country, acknowledging that such obligations probably exist or do exist, did not pay them, it would be likely to cause the deepest resentment, just as it would to any of us who were unpaid a debt. If we leave a club, we pay the bar bill. If we do not pay the bill, we are not likely to get a lot of consideration from the other side.
I wonder whether the Attorney General can help me. He has said that in exceptional circumstances, legal advice can be disclosed. He has also talked this afternoon about the unique and extraordinary circumstances we are in. What is the difference? Why are we not in exceptional circumstances?
The Attorney General, by definition, is only called upon to advise on matters that are exceptional or in exceptional circumstances. The question here is what requires the advice of the Attorney General to be disclosed. In Lord Goldsmith’s case, the issue was whether the action of the Government was lawful. The action of the Government could not be taken if the Attorney General had not signed off on it, because it would be contrary to the ministerial code.
The circumstance here is that the House has available to it a wide range of highly competent legal advice that is just as good as mine and as those who advise me. There is nothing essential, I suggest to the House, about the advice of the Attorney General being disclosed in this case, but there is something that could lead to severe damage to the public interest. One hon. Lady on the Labour Benches said that I was being arrogant. I am not. I am trying genuinely to protect the public interest. The last thing I want to do is to be at odds with this House. I have been a Member for 13 years. I would very much like to ensure that the House is satisfied, which is why I am here today, answering these questions.
I am glad that the Attorney General draws a distinction with the Iraq case. Surely the act of withdrawal from the European Union must be lawful, because it is authorised by statute in this case. As to his advice, is not the reality that any lawyer often has to advise as to the difference between a theoretical risk and a practical risk? Do I take it that his assessment is that the likelihood of a theoretical risk being crystallised—namely, because the European Union is prepared to breach international law by breaching the best endeavours and good faith clauses, and at the same time to risk breaching its own Union law by relying on article 50 to form a permanent arrangement, for which it is not envisaged for—is not a realistic one, and therefore he advises that we accept it?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. As I have said, I think that there is unquestionably a risk. There is a legal risk because there is no unilateral means out of the backstop. The question is with what degree of probability one thinks it would arise. My view is that it is not probable, but other Members will have their own views.
May I gently remind colleagues of the need for brevity?
The Attorney General may be familiar with the terms of the so-called Norway-plus option, in which the United Kingdom would join the European economic area via the EFTA pillar and combine that with a customs union. Can he confirm that that arrangement would supersede the backstop, and in that case, the backstop would in fact fall away? Can he also confirm that it is possible to unilaterally come out of the European economic area via article 127 of the EEA agreement, so it enables a unilateral withdrawal?
If an EFTA-style arrangement —of course, a country cannot belong to EFTA if it is a member of a customs union—with a customs union were introduced, I see no reason why it would not satisfy the stated objectives of the backstop in protecting the hard border and north-south co-operation. The hon. Gentleman asked whether the arrangement is terminable. I think it is terminable on 12 months’ notice, but I may be wrong. However, a customs union would fall to be negotiated specifically with the European Union, and one would have to insist upon such a termination clause in that union. That would be a question of agreeing it with the Union.
“This is not a real arbitration tribunal—behind it the ECJ decides everything. This is taken from the Ukraine agreement. It is absolutely unbelievable that a country like the UK, which was the first country to accept independent courts, would subject itself to this”?
I do not accept that characterisation because, in any event, the only things that can be brought before the tribunal are systemic, operational issues to do with the management of the agreement by both sides. The Court cannot get involved, once the winding down has taken place, in the resolution of individual disputes between the citizens and businesses of this country. Members really must understand that. It will be over: the ECJ’s jurisdiction will be finished once the winding down takes place. This is an entirely different situation to resolve disputes between the state of the United Kingdom and the European Union. Where we have agreed to apply European Union law, it makes perfect sense that the EU Court should interpret it, and then it should be applied by the arbitral tribunal. I have to say to my hon. Friend that I see no real fundamental objection to it.
There is another strong constitutional principle in this House—that if a motion is brought before the House that the Government disagree with, they use their majority to vote it down. In this case, they did not. It is not in the national interest; it is in the Government’s interest not to produce this legal advice. Will the Attorney General tell the House what legal advice he will give the Cabinet, the Government or, indeed, himself about the principle of not abiding by the will of this House?
It is not such a matter. I must ask the hon. Gentleman to accept that it is not a matter of the Government’s interest. It is a matter of the public interest of this country through a fundamental convention and principle.
Well, that is what I understood the hon. Gentleman to have asked. With respect, I simply cannot accept that this is being done to protect the Government. It is not; it is being done for one reason only—the public interest. The question for this House is whether the Government, who are trying to protect the public interest, or any individual member of the Government are being contemptuous of the House, when they are driven—he is driven—to this position by a firm and conscientious conviction that it is contrary to the public interest.
May I suggest that when the Attorney General argued to Nigel Dodds that the differences were merely niggling and almost invisible that that is a bit like suggesting someone is a little bit pregnant? This is a sell-out in terms of the Union, and at what point is our Prime Minister’s pledge that we would not make separate arrangements for any country in the Union going to be sold out, in his argument, in the national interest?
I do not agree with my hon. Friend that this is a sell-out. There is no question but that aspects of it that are both undesirable and unsatisfactory, but this backstop need not ever be triggered, and if we are in, I am confident that we can emerge out of it. It will also produce significant benefits for the people of Northern Ireland—let us not forget that—were it ever to be engaged.
Many commentators and hon. Members believe that the Attorney General is in contempt of Parliament. If that is indeed the conclusion of Parliament, I understand the penalty could include expulsion from this place. Is the Attorney General prepared to be expelled for standing by his refusal to provide the details of the advice he has given, which has been voted for by this House?
I hope the House will reconsider the position. I hope that it will understand that no Attorney General and no Government would wish to place themselves—and certainly not I as Attorney General—in contempt of the House. There is simply nothing of that in my desire or wish, and I would not take this position if I did not feel that that was contrary to all of our interests. I stand before the House fully understanding the nature of its concern, not to say indignation; I accept that. It is a deeply unsatisfactory position for any Attorney General or Government to be in.
I am truly sorry that I am not in a position to disclose either the fact or the content of my advice. However, I am doing so not to frustrate the legitimate interests of the Members opposite or Members behind me, but rather and only because I do believe it is against the public interest at a time when we are negotiating and at a time when this involves advice to a Cabinet or might well involve advice to a Cabinet that must, for reasons of fundamental principle, be kept confidential.
I doubt it, Mr Speaker.
The Attorney General has made it clear that the provisions about the backstop are to address having no hard border and that there would have been no agreement without these backstop provisions being in the agreement. When we are making our political judgment about the potential permanence of or the reasons behind the backstop, what credence should we give to the fact that, although WTO terms suggest there would be a hard border, there is the potential for a waiver under WTO article 9.3 and there is the potential for a national security waiver under article 21? Given that the EU and the Republic have both said they would not put up a hard border, what conclusion are we to come to about their good faith and best endeavours?
My hon. Friend must understand that we cannot look at this simply as a question of the traffic of goods between the Republic and Northern Ireland. The stated objectives are to protect in all its dimensions the integration that has taken place between Northern Ireland and the Republic—in health treatment, in education, in cultural activities—and all of these activities are to be protected. The Government of the United Kingdom have made a solemn and good faith pledge to the Republic of Ireland and to the European Union that they will preserve that integration in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. What we have to do is find a way of doing so that is consistent with the interests of the Union and of the United Kingdom. The backstop is a temporary solution. We will find another, and it will not, except by the consent of the Stormont institutions, have the same problems that the backstop has.
I think I have made it plain that I am not seeking to suppose that I can override the decision of the House of Commons. The House has at its disposal—[Interruption.] Hear me out. The House has at its disposal the means by which to enforce its will. It can bring forward a motion of contempt, seek to have that motion passed and seek, through the Committee of Privileges or whichever way it is appropriately done, to impose a sanction. I fully accept that. I do not set myself up contrary to the House; I simply say that I cannot compromise the public interest, and if I had my personal desire—
The hon. Gentleman is shaking his head. Why would he not believe me? Does he think I want to be in this position? Does he really think that if there were not some fundamental bar of principle against my disclosing anything I might have given to the Government, I would not immediately volunteer it to him and all hon. Members opposite? I am only doing it to protect us.
I must press the Attorney General on the answer he gave to my hon. Friend Philip Davies on his legal advice about how much we actually do owe the European Union. How can he expect us to vote for this deal if he cannot give us his legal opinion about what we specifically still owe it? Is some of this money going on good will for the possibility, maybe, of a trade agreement?
There is a formula in the agreement for the calculation of our obligations, but it depends on others’ contributions, what particular programmes there are and whether they spend particular sums of money. There is a series of variable factors, which is why we cannot give a firm, clear and precise figure. If my hon. Friend is referring to what may be due after a no deal, that would depend on a series of arguments that would be untested except in a court.
Oddly, I had more sympathy for the Attorney General before today, because he has pushed the House into this situation. He knows perfectly well that the Government chose not to oppose the motion; they accepted it. It is the will of the House. He is, in effect, pushing us to say that he is in contempt of Parliament, because at some point, surely even a Government have to bow the knee to Parliament.
Suppose there was advice, and suppose the advice contained—this is a hypothetical situation—[Interruption.] Well, the same principle applies. Suppose the advice contained information, facts or considerations of the most acute significance for the national interests of this country.
But one might lose the vote. What then? No Minister could go ahead and harm the nation merely because of a resolution, when the House had not seen the document. In court, there is a mechanism for weighing this, but the House has not seen the document. The motion for a return was traditionally always confined to public and official documents.
That is because this procedure has been reinvented recently. The truth of the matter is that the House has no power to command documents that are not public and official. That is the constitutional question that the House needs to grapple with.
May I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on the passion with which he has made his submissions to the House today? In the light of his advice, would it be reasonable for the House to invite the Prime Minister to go back to Brussels and ask for termination of the backstop either on a given date, or after the passage of a certain amount of time?
As my hon. Friend knows, that is not a legal question. We have reached a deal. The House must make a judgment on this deal. If it had been possible to secure a unilateral right of termination, it would have been secured. It was not secured because the European Union asked for an absolute guarantee at the Northern Irish border, but has said that it is temporary; that is written into the agreement. It may well be that the word “temporary” is not enforceable, in the sense that this will subsist even in the event of negotiations breaking down, but that is a clear indication that the backstop cannot subsist forever; and, in my view, as a matter of European Union law, it cannot.
This was not just any motion; as the right hon. and learned Gentleman says, it was a motion for a return to release papers under parliamentary privilege. There are two reasons why he is wrong: first, he says of his advice, “There’s nothing to see here,” yet he is trying to argue that by releasing it, he would somehow breach considerations of national and public interest. Secondly, under the ministerial code, he can voluntarily release advice in exceptional circumstances without breaching any considerations of national interests, or any of his deeply held principles. Why does he not follow that logic and do the right thing?
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for that, because it is an important consideration. There are two things of real significance—certainly of real prominence—in the political declaration. First, the European Union has accepted that the final arrangement will involve an independent trade policy. One cannot have an independent trade policy and belong to a conventional customs union. Secondly, there will not be free movement; one cannot belong to the single market without subscribing to the four freedoms, so those set the outer boundaries of any deal that will be done.
The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill empowers the Prime Minister to submit an application under article 50 based on an advisory referendum. If that referendum is found to be illegal, and based on lying and cheating, surely it follows that the advice from that referendum is flawed, and that the Prime Minister should withdraw that application. The same would go for a general election result; such findings would require another election.
I hope I heard the hon. Gentleman’s question correctly. I hope he will forgive me—I could not quite hear; other voices were speaking. If the question was on the nature of the referendum result, and the suggestion that it was procured by some sort of fraud, I do not agree with that. In any event, a case on that is pending in court, so it would be wrong of me to make any substantial further comment on it, but the policy of the Government is that the referendum result must be honoured, and that is what will happen.
The terms of our EU membership say that we have the right to leave unilaterally under article 50. We also have the right to leave the unrelated European convention on human rights. What explanation and assurance can the Attorney General give the House as to why, under the proposed arrangements, we do not have those two rights?
As I have explained, a unilateral right of termination would be inconsistent with a backstop, which is a guarantee that in circumstances where there is not a deal, or during the negotiations for a deal, there will be no hard border, and there will be protection of north-south co-operation. That backstop has to exist, or there will be no deal. As to the ECHR, that is already protected by the Belfast agreement; it is embedded in that agreement, and would have to be preserved for that reason.
In paragraph 42 of the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s notes, he confirms that
This will, of course, have an effect on Scotland. Can he confirm what legal advice was given with regard to the devolved Government coming out of the common agricultural policy in an extended implementation period?
The CAP is dealt with by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and I have no doubt that Government lawyers will have given it advice. I am afraid that I am not in a position to assist the hon. Gentleman with any specific advice on that question at the moment, but I am happy to write to him about it.
We have heard of the will of the House tonight; what about the will of the people? They voted to leave the EU in its entirety, not to be half in, half out. I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his legal advice today, but it is full of ambiguity, as I fear the political interpretation could be in future. This will not breed confidence in our nation.
I was puzzled as to what I was to answer. I disagree with my hon. Friend. We will leave legally on
In the Attorney General’s somewhat bombastic responses to hon. Gentlemen and hon. Ladies, he has not addressed the issue to which my right hon. Friend Nigel Dodds referred: the backstop down the Irish sea. Will he outline the legal implications of Northern Ireland entering into a customs union with no voice or vote for an indefinite period of time, which to all intents and purposes would create a united Ireland without the mechanism of a border poll, a vote called for within the Belfast agreement?
The hon. Member puts his finger on something that I do regard as being one of the undesirable features of the backstop, which is that there will be rules passed relating to goods. The trade in goods is a narrow field of human and public life, but rules will be passed and the people of Northern Ireland will not have the right of representation in their passage. That is why I think it is essential it should be temporary, why we must strive to make it so, why the extension of the implementation period is a real option in those circumstances, and why I believe, for the reasons I have already given, we can avoid it or avoid it being of any great length.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend publish not the whole legal advice, but the legal advice on why we have to give £39 billion to the European Union? He mentioned that there could possibly be an extension to the transition period. Will he set out our legal financial obligations if we do extend the transition period?
There would be financial obligations for extending the implementation of the transition period. They would have to be negotiated at the time. The Joint Committee would consult on them and it would reflect a reasonable proportion or contribution for the period for which we were signing up. In relation to any advice connected with the £39 billion, again my right hon. Friend will understand that I am not at liberty to disclose advice the Government may have received on that matter. I can say that there has been very widespread commentary and discussion on it. I commend to him, for example, the House of Lords European Union Committee.
In attempting to prop up this failing deal, the Prime Minister has reached out to those of us on the Opposition Benches and asked for our support. Does the Attorney General not think that it is a bit rich to ask for our support, given that we will not even be given the courtesy of compliance with the will of this House?
I have said why. I truly wish that I were not in this position and the Government were not in this position. [Interruption.] I do believe it. I do not know what Anna McMorrin is saying. If I did not believe it, I would not be here now saying what I am saying. It is contrary to the public interest; I would be damaging the public interest if I took this decision. I am here to answer the questions of Opposition and Government Members as frankly and candidly as I can. Nothing that I advise today will be different from any other advice that I may or may not have given.
Can my right hon. and learned Friend reassure me, as someone without any legal background at all, that I have interpreted the lawyer-client relationship correctly: that it allows for the lawyer to provide impartial and proper legal advice unencumbered by political consideration? Does this convention hold true in relation to the issue we are talking about today?
Yes. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. No lawyer would be worth his salt or any use to his client if he allowed his personal or political views to affect his judgment on matters of law.
The Attorney General has been vehement in his assertion that the release of this information would be detrimental to the public interest. Is it therefore not a matter of regret to him that his Government have not had the basic virtue of consistency in their approach to the Humble Address? Now that contempt proceedings have been initiated by submitting a letter against the Government, what is his legal advice to the Government going to be?
I am afraid I cannot disclose the latter without committing the very sin that I am trying to prevent. Does the hon. Gentleman ask me whether I regret that? Let me be frank: yes, I do. We should have opposed the motion—of course we should have. We should have voted against it. All I can say is that if we had lost on a contested vote, we would be in exactly the same position as we are now in.
If we found ourselves in the backstop, we might seek to argue that the European Union had not acted in good faith and had not used best endeavours. Who would appoint the body that would adjudicate on that dispute, and how could we be satisfied that we were going to get a fair hearing?
The governance provisions, set out between articles 167 and 181, provide for 25 independent arbitrators, who are not members of any member state of the European Union or belong to the United Kingdom, to be appointed by both sides as a panel from which an arbitral tribunal can be selected. Ten are to be proposed by the United Kingdom and 10 by the European Union. Five chairmen are then to be proposed by each. If the parties are unable to agree, when a tribunal is formed two are appointed by the UK and two are appointed by the EU. Those four then choose the chairman. If they are unable to decide on a chairman, the permanent court of arbitration will appoint by lot.
Order. The Attorney General is perfectly at liberty to answer as he thinks fit. He looks quizzically. I say this only by way of interpretation: I think the hon. Gentleman asked whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman had conveyed his views about this matter, directly or indirectly, before the vote on the motion about which we have been speaking this evening. He indicated that he had not spoken or conveyed his views directly. I think the quizzical attitude related to whether there was any indirect communication.
My current understanding is that if there is no deal, we will leave with no backstop on
The purpose of the backstop is to give the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic the confidence of knowing that there will not be any retreat from the current integration that has taken place between them over the past 20 years. That is a solemn commitment that is in the interests of Northern Ireland, as well as the Republic of Ireland. The question is how to achieve it. In the interim before another solution is found, which I firmly believe we shall find, this is the solution that would pertain were we ever to have to use it. As to the Vienna convention, there is no provision in the Vienna convention that allows us to terminate a treaty that has no termination clause and that is plainly intended to subsist until another event takes place.
I hoped today that we would have clarity of thought and calmness of expression, so that we would be all informed on the matter on which we are due to vote next week. I can say that we have not had that. We have had bluster, we have had posturing, and we have had a very clear contradiction. On the one hand we are told that there is nothing to see here, but on the other hand we are told that it would be against the public interest to release information. My question is this: if the House does not have confidence in the Attorney General to deliver the advice in the way that we think is needed, is there any route in the constitution, via the Leader of the House or elsewhere, for us to get alternative, independent legal advice straight to Parliament?
I am very sorry the hon. Member feels that. If I have expressed myself intemperately it is simply because of the questions that I have been asked. I am trying to convey, obviously unsuccessfully, the fact that I am here to justify or to seek to defend this position only because I believe in the public interest. That is the reason why I am saying what I am saying. On all points of law on which I have been asked, I have given my best judgment, my fullest judgment and my starkest judgment about what the situation truly is—as I would give to anybody, including the Government. I assure him that that is the case. That is the complete and full truth. I have given, absolutely candidly, the legal views that I hold on this matter.
I am very grateful for the Attorney General’s indication that article 50 does not provide a legal basis in Union law for permanent future arrangements. Will he give his view on the concern that it might none the less be a basis for arrangements that prove to be indefinite?
No, I do not believe that that is the case. Once it became de facto the subsisting and permanent arrangement, in that there was no prospect of agreement because negotiations had broken down, it would be severely vulnerable to challenge, because it is widely understood that article 50 cannot be a proper basis for any sort of permanent or enduring arrangement. The fact of the matter is that it would be extremely vulnerable to legal challenge.