Privilege (Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Advice)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:02 pm on 4th December 2018.

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Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union) 2:02 pm, 4th December 2018

May I start by praising the Attorney General for spending more than two hours answering questions, but may I also gently chide him for the manner in which, occasionally, his style of delivery descended rather into Vaudeville? Finger-pointing, faux bonhomie and expansive arm gestures may work in court, but perhaps he might like to leave those at the Bar of the House.

The Leader of the House referred to an arcane procedure and Government Members have talked about Opposition Members playing parlour games. The arcane procedures and the parlour games to which the Government Members refer are about holding the Government to account on a matter of contempt. Arcane they might be, but, clearly they are essential as well. Members will know that Parliament’s bible, “Erskine May”, makes it very, very clear that the Government’s actions are in contempt. The Government’s refusal to release the advice is an act that impedes the House in the performance of its functions, and what could be a more important function for this House than to be able to take the decisions in the next week or so in full knowledge of the impact of Brexit having seen the full legal advice on Brexit? That is why we are here today. That is why, Mr Speaker, I wrote to you on 28 November and subsequently signed the joint letter raising this issue of contempt.

The Government came forward with a reasoned position paper. Mr Grieve did a good job of explaining quite how complex and extensive the legal advice is that the Attorney General will have received, but that rather reinforces the point that the Attorney General’s producing a synopsis of said extensive legal advice spread over much correspondence runs the risk of presenting that synopsis in a way that is most advantageous to the Government. In relation to my intervention on Ms Dorries, who is no longer in her place, the only point that I was making again—I am very happy to get it on the record again—in relation to the advice about the Iraq war is that, clearly, that advice was cherry-picked, massaged and presented in a way that reinforced the Government’s case. That is the only comparison that I am making, with the possible risk of the Government, unintentionally perhaps, doing exactly the same thing in relation to the full legal advice that Ministers have seen—and indeed that Ministers have leaked. While a reference was made to that leaking, the Attorney General simply shrugged his shoulders as if leaking that advice selectively to the media by the Government is perfectly normal and acceptable in the daily course of Government business.

We know what happened in relation to that advice about the Iraq war, and, as for the Government’s amendment, we know clearly what the purpose of that is. Even with undue alacrity, the prospect of the Committee of Privileges addressing this before 11 December is precisely nil, so we will clearly not get that clarity, guidance and direction to the Government before 11 December. I must say that I suspect that that is what motivates the Government in pushing that amendment. This is, of course, a pattern of Government unwillingness to allow Members of Parliament access to the legal advice that we need in order to take the decisions that we need to take. The article 50 case is a very good example of that, as the Government have repeatedly refused to say whether article 50 is revocable, hiding behind the fact that they will not seek to revoke it, so Parliament does not need to know. I am very pleased that, today, the Advocate General has given a recommendation—it is only a recommendation, but one that is very likely to be adopted by the Court—that makes it very clear that article 50 is revocable. For Members of Parliament voting next week, it is critical to know whether, if a people’s vote is secured and if, at the end of that campaign, people vote to stay in the European Union, we have a means of revoking article 50 to bring that into effect.