Privilege (Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Advice)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:44 pm on 4th December 2018.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Finance Committee (Commons) 2:44 pm, 4th December 2018

It would have been interesting if the Government had made that argument, but they did not. They made no argument—they allowed the motion to go through. If they had said in the meantime, for example, yesterday afternoon, “We will provide the document that you want. We’ll give it to the Chair of the Exiting the European Union Committee, which has a majority of Conservative Members, and it can decide what should be in the public domain”, I think the House would have been content. That would have been a perfectly logical process to adopt, but the Government have not done that. Perhaps they will do it later today if they lose the motion—I do not know.

Let me consider the important substantive point. Can the House require the Law Officers to provide their legal advice to Parliament? It is important that Select Committees can require documents of all sorts of people outside Parliament, and it is difficult to enforce that if we cannot even require documents of Ministers. Yesterday, the Attorney General referred several times to “previous editions of ‘Erskine May’” to show that “the motion to return” is traditionally always

“confined to documents of public and official character.”—[Official Report, 3 December 2018;
Vol. 650, c. 563.]

That was his argument for saying that “Erskine May” did not really allow for Law Officers to provide anything that was sought by the House, even though the current 24th edition does exactly that. He suggested that the 22nd or the 23rd edition had changed the rule and that we should return to a previous version.

Perhaps the Attorney General was referring to the 10th edition of “Erskine May”, which, as I am sure the hon. Member for North East Somerset knows, came out in 1893. In that, the traditional version of this doctrine, which I think the Attorney General meant, is laid out:

“The opinions of the law officers of the Crown, given for the guidance of ministers, in any question of diplomacy or state policy, being included in the class of confidential documents, have generally been withheld from Parliament.”

I think that the Attorney General believes that that should still be the case, although that has been superseded. Unfortunately for the Attorney General, “Erskine May” goes on to say:

“In 1858, however, this rule was, under peculiar and exceptional circumstances, departed from, and the opinions of the law officers of the Crown upon the case of the Cagliari, were laid before Parliament.”

I will not go into the instance—I know that hon. Members are saddened by that.

The point is that, when the House has required that the Law Officers provide the information, they have always done so. The Attorney General’s argument therefore does not stand.