Privilege (Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Advice)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:02 pm on 4th December 2018.

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Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee 3:02 pm, 4th December 2018

I am most grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for letting me speak now. I have been able to listen to the debate before deciding whether to speak. That may be unusual.

I rise to speak because the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee is in the process of concluding our inquiry into the status of resolutions of this House. We have been looking at the question of what we call “motions of return”: how they should be dealt with and what their legal status is. At the moment, how a Government responds to a Humble Address is merely a matter of precedent and convention. It is not a matter of law. It is not a matter of statute law or of common law. Therefore, this is not a device that should be overused or used irresponsibly. I am not casting aspersions on anybody’s motives. I just make that observation.

This House operates on the basis that it is not the Government. The Government exist as a separate legal entity and function when this House is not sitting, when Parliament is prorogued and even when Parliament is dissolved. Parliament holds Ministers to account and we scrutinise the work of the Government. We make the laws that bind the Government, and this House controls the supply of money to the Government and the Crown. But we do not run the Government. We have parliamentary Government, but not Government by Parliament. The point about labouring this little constitutional essay is that if we forget that, there is then confusion and we risk creating more confusion about how the distinct roles and responsibilities of Parliament and Government have to be divided if we use our powers and procedures irresponsibly, unpredictably, in the wrong circumstances, or—dare I say?—as a bit of oppositionism.

Where does that leave this Humble Address, a device that until very recently was not used since the 1850s? We find ourselves in a very abnormal political atmosphere. I will come back to that point in a moment. This device is known as a motion of return. If it was to be used indiscriminately and frequently, if the Opposition were to use the vulnerability of the Government to demand the advice to Ministers as well as legal advice, the minutes of internal meetings, previous drafts of policy or speeches, or matters of national security, it would be impossible to conduct the Government business. That does not happen, because we rely on the self-restraint of Parliament.

The credibility of the unwritten powers of this House depends on their responsible exercise. As they cease to have credibility, they will not be respected. Incidentally, the Select Committee has just returned from a visit to the US Congress. The US, of course, has a written constitution. One might think that that would provide all kinds of solutions, but it does not. They are suffering from exactly the same problems and exactly the same kind of breakdown in the understanding of the norms and conventions that surround their written constitution. Even in the US, it is not unknown for the Executive to ignore new laws passed by Congress.

I referred earlier to the normal atmosphere that we usually enjoy in politics and how, until very recently, motions of return had fallen into what our learned Clerks call “desuetude”—that is, they had ceased to be recognised as functioning bits of the constitution. So why are they being revived now? First, we have a minority Parliament. In particular, we have a minority Parliament where the confidence and supply agreement with the Democratic Unionist party appears to have broken down. Secondly, as in the US, politics has become extremely polarised, particularly between the two factions of remain and leave. The referendum demonstrated that the balance of opinion is different in the country than it might be in this House. That presents particular challenges. Thirdly, just as in the US, there is a breakdown of trust: trust in politicians generally, and trust, restraint and respect between the political parties and between factions. We have noticed—have we not?—how deeply embittered some of the political arguments are particularly around the referendum and the European Union question. As in the US, norms of procedure and convention become overshadowed by partisan dispute and political opportunism. I invite the House to look at the US and the endless confected rows about matters of supposedly fundamental constitutional importance, which we can see from this distance are really just partisan politics.

There is a strong case for reviewing and codifying in some way many of the ancient devices, procedures and powers of this House, but that would not resolve what we should do today. Keir Starmer underlined the real weakness of the justice in his case. Its weakness is a matter of procedure that is in the public interest. He warned the Government that they faced being found in contempt of the House. That supposes we are a high court of Parliament, which we are not, and that we are operating as some kind of judicial authority on this matter. But of course this Chamber is not behaving like anything we would recognise as a court. I am afraid that this vote is likely to divide on party lines. There is very little that is objective about this finding of contempt, which he invites the House to do in this debate.

The Government have made a sensible compromise. Chris Bryant said that the Government seemed to admit that they were in contempt. The amendment is an admission that there may be a contempt, by referring the matter to the Privileges Committee where there might be a slightly less partisan and heated atmosphere and where there might be a more objective atmosphere in which some of the ideas and procedures for sorting this out as quickly as possible could be reached.

I invite the Leader of the House to consider whether she would accept a little addition to her amendment—that the Committee should be required to report by 10 pm on Monday, so that there is no suggestion that the Committee is being used as a device to knock this into the long grass. I am going to give her my unqualified support for her amendment anyway, but I suggest that she could accept that proposal, or at least invite the Committee to report early next week in time for the debate—not that I think many people will change their minds as a result of what the Government may or may not publish. I think this issue has got caught up in this great dispute about our future relationship with Europe. It is the elephant in the room in the debate, and this is not necessarily the best circumstance under which the absolutist device of a Humble Address should have been exercised in the first place.