Privilege (Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Advice)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:59 pm on 4th December 2018.

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Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons 12:59 pm, 4th December 2018

I will not give way for a while.

The consequences of not following the principles of transparency on the one hand and safeguarding public interest on the other are obvious. The House could request, by way of a Humble Address, information that could compromise national security. It would mean releasing information with no method for the House itself to review or assess the information in question, before its full release into the public domain. It would not be possible under the Humble Address procedure to weigh up any potential consequences of such a disclosure. It is simply an irresponsible thing to do.

Turning to the present case concerning Law Officers’ advice. As the House is aware, this is the subject of very long standing conventions which are enshrined in the ministerial code, and recognised in “Erskine May”. First, without the authorisation of the Law Officers, the fact that—or indeed whether—their advice has been provided to Government should not be disclosed. Secondly, such advice must not be provided to those outside of Government without the Law Officers’ express authorisation.

The purpose of the conventions is to provide the best possible guarantee that Government business is conducted in the light of full and frank legal advice. This is a fundamental principle of the rule of law. If Government knew that they might be forced to disclose the advice that they had received, it could seriously compromise the sorts of request for advice that would be made, and totally impede the ability of the Law Officers and Government lawyers to provide it. In turn, that would seriously compromise good government.

The motion we are debating today would undermine these vital conventions, and it would do so through the blunt instrument of the Humble Address, an arcane parliamentary procedure which, until very recently, was last used in this way in the 19th century. Moreover, there is real doubt about the ambit of the procedure: as I said earlier, it contains no mechanism by which information can be reviewed to ensure that its disclosure would not seriously harm the public interest. In considering today’s motion, hon. Members must reflect carefully on this—and on the potential consequences not just for this Government, but for all future Governments.

As this House knows, the Government have worked extremely hard to comply with Humble Addresses that have been passed previously. We have also sought to do so in response to the case we are debating today, while at the same time, taking steps to protect the national interest. The conventions that I have spoken about stand and endure because they respect the proper balance between the Government and Parliament—and the principle that Ministers should be as open with Parliament as it is possible to be, provided that disclosure of information does not compromise the wider public interest. We chip away at them at our peril; today’s motion is not in the interests of Members and it is definitely not in the national interest. What we break now may be very difficult to fix later.