Privilege (Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Advice)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:45 pm on 4th December 2018.

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Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Reform and Constitutional Issues), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit), DUP Westminster Leader 1:45 pm, 4th December 2018

It is a pleasure to follow Ms Dorries. I do not agree with the main thrust of what she said, but she did make some useful and pertinent comments about what the Attorney General said yesterday in terms of the analysis of where we find ourselves. I agree with her and with other right hon. and hon. Members who have praised the Attorney General, his candour, his honour and what he brought to the House yesterday in terms of more truthfulness about what this deal actually means. By contrast to others who have been prepared to say things to the press and media, he came here, as a member of the Cabinet, and told us some of the unvarnished truth about this agreement. So I praise him for that and join the hon. Lady in what she has said, as I went through the adjectives that he used in his devastating commentary yesterday. He said that this deal was “a calculated risk”; that it was “unattractive”, “unsatisfactory” and “undesirable”; that it provided “no unilateral” exit clause for the UK; and that it was indefinite, with

“no unilateral right…to terminate”. —[Official Report, 3 December 2018;
Vol. 650, c. 557.]

Yet he asked us to take it on trust that it would all never happen because, believe it or not, having spent 18 months negotiating all this, the EU and the Irish Government do not actually want to implement any of it.

The fact is that despite all the candour and all that was said yesterday, coming to this House to make an oral statement lasting two and a half hours and taking all the questions and providing the reasoned position paper does not actually fulfil the order given by the motion that was passed by this House, which was for the final and full advice provided by the Attorney General to the Cabinet to be published. The Government may not like the fact that that was passed by this House, but they cannot simply wish it otherwise.

During the debate on 13 November, they argued that they would do precisely what they have now done, and that was rejected by the House—the House passed a different motion. We do not particularly single out the Attorney General here, because, as he said in his statement yesterday, he wished that he was not in the position he was in. The Government as a whole are collectively responsible for deciding that they would simply ignore this binding, effective motion and revert to doing what they said they would do during the debate. Frankly, that cannot be allowed to stand. We have heard a lot of talk about precedent and about conventions of this House and respect for all that—surely, this is one area where the Government must respect the will of Parliament. They simply cannot set it aside.

Mr Clarke, the Father of the House, in his intervention earlier, made an interesting and positive contribution about a way around this. Interestingly, the Government did not take that up. They did not take it up during this debate and they have not taken it up previously, so clearly it appears they are not interested—they certainly have not said anything publicly up to now—in taking that suggestion forward. What they have done is say, “No, no, it doesn’t matter what is said by this House. It doesn’t matter what other suggestions are out there. We are going to stick to the plan.” Obviously, the Government have a grid somewhere, where it is on the plan that they will publish this reasoned summary position paper and have a statement, and that is it. This House will have the final say, and I hope that it will reiterate what on 13 November it ordered to be done.

We are told that this situation is unprecedented. It was said in the other place yesterday that such advice can be published in exceptional circumstances. I have also heard the argument used that the advice is privileged, but of course in the lawyer-client relationship privilege belongs to the client, not to the lawyer—not to the person giving the advice. The lawyer has a duty to protect the client’s privilege, but the reality is that if the client waives that right, the lawyer—the provider of the advice—is quite at liberty to disclose it. So the argument about privilege is bogus.

The Attorney General said yesterday that he wished he could comply with the order of the House, but that it is not in the national interest or the public interest. I am afraid it is not the duty or job of any Minister to decide that. The House has decided what it wishes to do and it is not for a Minister unilaterally to override that with no good reason.