Privilege (Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Advice)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:10 pm on 4th December 2018.

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Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset 2:10 pm, 4th December 2018

I think we need to start with why parliamentary privilege is so important, particularly those of us on the Government side, because there will come a time when we are not on the Government side, at which point the protections provided for us by parliamentary privilege are all the more important. Governments who run roughshod over parliamentary privilege when they are in government find that, when they are in opposition, their position is much harder to defend and uphold. When the Conservatives were in opposition, we disliked the streamlining of parliamentary procedures that made it easier for the then Government to get legislation through, because we found it harder to have the full debates and discussion that we wanted—the ability to discuss and sometimes even to delay things to which we were deeply opposed. That was a loss to us in opposition, even though it was a benefit once we were back in government.

My right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council mocked the Humble Address procedure on the basis that it was ancient, but every morning when we come into this House and pass through security, we are exercising a right that dates back to 1340. Whether we have our pass on or not, we are entitled to come into this House and nobody is entitled to obstruct us. This is an important right because in times less benign than ours, people have wanted to obstruct Members coming into Parliament. We sit in a House where there is a very slim margin and it may be that, rushing back for a Division—perhaps a Division of confidence in the Government—somebody obstructs Members coming in. That would be a breach of our privilege and, though it is one of our most ancient privileges, it is actually a great safeguard of the proper democratic operation of this House.

We heard from the Treasury Bench and from other right hon. Members a very good argument for why the Humble Address should not have been passed in the first place, but today is the wrong day for that debate. That debate should have been held on 13 November and voted on, or not, according to whether or not it were the will of this House for the Humble Address to go through. The tradition of Humble Addresses is very clear—that the Humble Address is followed. Now, that does not mean that this House is irresponsible in passing Humble Addresses. We have heard suggestions that we might seek information from the security services. This House has never passed a Humble Address of such an unwise kind.

Although I am not, dare I say, the greatest admirer of the socialists on the Opposition Benches, I accept that they are responsible enough not to wish to endanger the security of our nation, but that Parliament has the power does not mean that Parliament will exercise the power. Indeed, and importantly, this House constrains its right of free speech in relation to the sub judice issue. We have passed Standing Orders, and we give power to Mr Speaker, to stop hon. and right hon. Members breaching the sub judice rule in order to ensure that the system of justice in this country proceeds properly. Likewise, we are entitled to limit the means of Humble Addresses and the information that can be received from a Humble Address, but we did not do so before 13 November. Therefore, what happened on 13 November ought to be complied with, because if we simply say that motions of this House according to great antiquity and precedent can be ignored because the Government feel like it, what is this House here for? How are we protecting the rights of the people we represent? How are we able to seek redress of grievances?

The Humble Address may have been unwise. Indeed, had there been a Division on 13 November, I would have voted against revealing the Attorney General’s information and advice to the Government. I did not think that the Humble Address was well advised, but the Government decided to accept the motion. Having done so, it was not then up to the Government to say that it was not in the national interest to do so. I am afraid that is a classic confusion; the Government interest and the national interest are different things. The Government interest is a political interest, and the national interest is a higher interest. In my view, the national interest is better served by respecting the privileges of Parliament than the convenience of the Law Officers. Therefore, in the national interest—not the government interest—this legal advice ought to be produced because Parliament has said so.

This is clearly a right that this House has. Every Select Committee has the delegated right to send for persons and papers, and this is simply an exercise by the whole House of requiring that papers be produced. But the Government, with their majority—perhaps a majority they cannot always achieve, but at least with a technical majority thanks to our friends in the Democratic Unionist party—ought to be able to stop any papers being produced that they believe are too confidential. Indeed, it is still open to the Government to bring forward a motion suggesting that the previous motion be overturned; there is precedent for overturning a Humble Address and seeking to do the opposite. There is a proper process for the Government to follow if they do not want to release these papers, rather than sticking their feet in the mud and saying no.

Then we come to the motions before us today, and here I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend Mr Grieve. I do not think that the motion before us actually works because it is too indistinct about who it is criticising—that is, it is criticising Ministers broadly, rather than the ones specifically concerned. The motion needed to be more specific about who it was objecting to and who it was holding in contempt, and indeed it ought to have used the rights of Parliament to inflict some punishment on the person who is deemed to be in contempt.