Privilege (Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Advice)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:16 pm on 4th December 2018.

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Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee 3:16 pm, 4th December 2018

A number of interesting things have come out during this debate about our general procedures and our way of handling matters of the sort we have been discussing—in relation to procedures and privileges, and the nature of the Humble Address and whether it is an appropriate vehicle for advancing Labour’s essentially political aims. I think there is one thing on which we can agree: we need to find a sensible way forward, and it seems to me that the Government’s amendment, although not perfect, is a sensible way through this particular conundrum. The Government are clearly not in principle averse to being as transparent as possible, but they have to safeguard the national interest. My right hon. and learned Friend Mr Clarke made a sensible suggestion, as one would expect, on the use of Privy Councillors to examine this matter. Of course, we have the Privileges Committee, which is up and running already. As a number of right hon. and hon. Members have said, although it is imperfect for the purposes of examining this issue, it is at least there and we could at least support that in determining whether the very serious charges of contempt are reasonable or not.

We have to understand that some serious allegations have been made. Lawyers and legislators understand full well what contempt is. The general public probably think that it means something rather different, and they can be forgiven for that. Contempt is a very harsh term. If it is associated with individuals—I am not suggesting that the Attorney General has necessarily been associated with this, but Ministers have been—and it sticks, that is very serious, even if we have not decided yet what the penalty might be. Of course, when this language was being got up hundreds of years ago, the penalties may have been very severe indeed. Mercifully today, that is not the case, but we have yet to determine what happens if individuals are found to be in contempt. That is left uncertain, but one thing that we can agree on is that this is a very serious allegation to make and the consequences are potentially significant, so we have to get this right. Simply to use an arcane measure such as the Humble Address to make this determination, untrammelled, seems unfair to me.

If we accept that this is a rather archaic vehicle, which is more traditionally used not for legislation or things that might lead to legislation, but for providing gifts to Commonwealth countries, as suggested in “Erskine May”—which I cited in my intervention on my hon. Friend Mr Rees-Mogg— we must also accept the possibility of using a measure that is not ideal for determining this issue, and that, in my view, means the Privileges Committee.