Privilege (Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Advice)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:25 pm on 4th December 2018.

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Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union) 1:25 pm, 4th December 2018

I commend those hon. and right hon. Members who secured this debate and thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing it. I also pay tribute to the stamina of my hon. Friend Stephen Gethins and of other colleagues who ensured that you had ample time last night to consider the response to the original application.

Later today, we begin five days of debate on possibly the most important peacetime decision that this Parliament will ever take. Also today, Ofsted has described the Government’s treatment of thousands of vulnerable schoolchildren in England as a “national scandal”, we have a major investigation into alleged profiteering by funeral companies, and we have had reports from the UN special rapporteur and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlighting the appalling poverty that exists here in one of the wealthiest economies on the planet. What does all that have to do with the motion before us now? The only reason why we are allowed to know and discuss those things openly and without fear is because the power of the state to prevent us from knowing about them is tempered by the rights of this democratically elected Parliament—not tempered nearly enough in my humble opinion. Elections to this Parliament are not democratic enough, but we do have an elected Parliament to hold back the excesses of the Government, and that is what today’s motion is all about.

We have a Parliament of 650 people, and each of us is entrusted to exercise sovereignty on behalf of those who have sent us here. A contempt of this Parliament is a contempt for the fundamental principle of the sovereignty of the people. A Government who seek to place themselves above the express will of Parliament are a Government in contempt of the people. They are a Government who have already taken a dangerous step down the road from democracy to dictatorship.

Today’s debate is not about the rights and wrongs of the original motion presented to the House on 13 November. Astonishingly enough, the time for debate on those questions was on 13 November. Let us not spend time today on questions of convention and precedence, of the confidentiality of legal advice or of when that confidentiality should be waived. The time for opposition to the terms of that motion was when that Question was put to the House, but the Government instructed their MPs to do nothing. They instructed their Members not to oppose the motion. I welcome the degree of humility that they have shown in admitting that they got that wrong, but that admission is not an excuse for the Government unilaterally to seek to change the wording of or meaning behind a binding decision of this Parliament. They have the audacity to come here yesterday and today and say that they, not Parliament, know what Parliament decided. They are placing themselves above Parliament. That is a contempt of Parliament.

As for the “legal position” document published yesterday that was going to fix it all, it could hardly have been more patronising if they had included pictures to colour in and wee join-the-dots puzzles every so often just to keep us interested. It was not a legal position by any accepted definition. It was possibly an attempted sop to some Conservative MPs, who are in a very difficult position—struggling between their understandable loyalty to their Government, to their party and to individual Ministers and their overriding loyalty to the people and to this Parliament.

As Keir Starmer said, the Government have made a habit of not turning up if they think they are going to lose. Maybe the problem is that they are so used to being allowed to ignore the views and opinions of Parliament that they forgot that sometimes Parliament takes decisions they are not allowed to ignore. Maybe that is why they are so upset now. Maybe it is because, alongside the issues of what should and should not be made available to Members of Parliament and to the public, this decision has laid bare the incompetence at the heart of a Government who do not even know the basics of parliamentary procedure.