Privilege (Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Advice)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:34 pm on 4th December 2018.

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Photo of David Davies David Davies Chair, Welsh Affairs Committee 3:34 pm, 4th December 2018

I am not an expert on the Scottish Parliament—[Laughter]—but I do know that the Scottish National party Minister was refusing to publish that advice. The hon. Gentleman laughs, but it was on the front page of The Scotsman back in March. Mike Russell refused to publish it because he said it was a dangerous precedent.

The fact of the matter is that Governments across the United Kingdom—Governments of all political parties, the SNP included—know that they must have the right to be able to obtain legal advice without that advice being published. Not just Governments but local authorities—even, dare I say, the House of Commons authorities—can get hold of legal advice, and it is very important that that advice remains confidential. If it does not, the danger is that at best it will become a political football, kicked around by members of all parties using the information to try to buttress the arguments that they wish to present, and at worst it will become a stick which can be used to beat our own Government by the Governments of other nations who may, during complex negotiations, have aims that differ very much from our own.

What the Government have been doing is not defending the information about Brexit, because we already know what the problem is. I am an ardent Brexiteer. I already knew that the problem would be over the backstop. None of the information that has come out since then—none of the information that was leaked, rather unhelpfully, over the weekend—has changed anything. We already knew that the problem was the backstop, and we will no doubt spend more than a few minutes debating that over the next couple of days. If anything, however, I have been reassured by what I have seen—reassured that the Government have at least been behaving honourably, because we have not learned a single thing from the leaks that came out over the weekend that we did not already know about. There has been no smoking gun, and no hidden information.

The principle is what the Government have been defending: the important principle that the information that they access remains confidential. It is not only SNP Members who are being inconsistent; so are Labour Members. They already have a Labour Government in Wales, and that Labour Government are not known for their approach to openness. I can certainly tell Opposition Members that I have submitted numerous freedom of information requests to the Welsh Labour Government that have not been properly dealt with, and I am pretty certain that they are not going to start publishing the information that they receive from their legal officers. Let me also say to my Liberal Democrat friends that there is not just a Labour Government in Cardiff; there is a Liberal Democrat Education Minister. Wonderful though she is, will she start publishing the information that she gets from her law officers when she decides to close down school sixth forms, as has happened in my own constituency? I would like to think that she might, but I doubt it very much, and I doubt whether Tom Brake will be asking her to do so.

What I detect here is a whiff of inconsistency from Members opposite—a whiff of inconsistency from those who for years have accepted that Governments and public authorities have the right to independent, impartial, confidential legal advice, and who know perfectly well that if that advice is going to be offered up in public it will no longer be sought.

This is a not an attempt to get openness; this is yet another attempt to subvert the will of the people, who in a referendum in 2016 clearly voted to leave the EU, and that is why I will be supporting the Government amendment tonight.