Privilege (Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Advice)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:45 pm on 4th December 2018.

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Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham 3:45 pm, 4th December 2018

It has been said more than once in this debate that this is the high court of Parliament. My constituents, and anyone else watching the debate, might assume that that is some historic nicety or arcane expression, but it is far more important than that. In the context of these proceedings, this court has the ability to achieve the conviction, punishment and disgrace of one of our number. Therefore, it is critical that when it does so, it complies with what we might think are natural rules of fairness and, in the present context, other important statutory limits—most obviously, of course, the European convention on human rights.

Why does that matter? Any court, be it the magistrates court, the Crown Court, the High Court or the Court of Appeal, must ensure that its proceedings are fair. Never is that more important than here in the high court of Parliament. It is no defence to say, “Well, we are seeking to condemn the Government as a whole.” In the court of public opinion, assumptions and judgments will be made about precisely who is being identified. If anyone has any doubt about that, it is made clear in the press that is already circulating on social media who it is who stands to be condemned.

In those circumstances, we need to be careful to ensure that what is taking place is truly fair. If these were criminal proceedings in a normal court—the magistrates court or the Crown Court—the first question would be what precisely is being charged. What is the matter that is being breached? I suggest that there is serious confusion about what was ordered on the last occasion—the proceedings on 13 November. The written motion before the House on that day stated:

“That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, that she will be graciously pleased to give directions that the following papers be laid before Parliament: any legal advice in full”.

In the course of those proceedings, an attempt was made—perfectly properly, no doubt—to seek to amend that motion.

The document submitted to the House yesterday states that

“During the debate on that motion Labour’s frontbench made it clear that: ‘the motion requires the publication of the final and full advice’”.

Leaving to one side for a moment precisely what is meant by “final and full”, and leaving aside whether those two adjectives are capable of pulling in different directions, I suggest that some confusion must remain about what exactly happened. There were two hon. Members who sought to clarify what it was that we were being asked to vote on—my hon. Friend Kevin Hollinrake and my hon. Friend Victoria Prentis, who is in her place. It was you, Mr Speaker, who said:

“Order. I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady. It might profit her and all Members of the House if they listen to the development of the argument in which the shadow Secretary of State is engaged. Frankly, it is not really very confusing at all. There is a motion, and Members can read the motion and form their own view of it.”

In that remark, it seemed to me that you were saying, “Look at the text: it is tolerably plain.” But then my hon. Friend Vicky Ford said:

“I am deeply unclear—are you asking for publication of the final advice”— which is what was being proposed orally—

“or of any legal advice”.—[Official Report, 13 November 2018;
Vol. 649, c. 193-6.]

Although it is not necessarily for me to give evidence, there was a state of some confusion at the end of the proceedings on 13 November about precisely what had been ordered. That matters because the wording that appears in this motion is the latter, not the former. In other words, it is what is amended. That is significant because, if we are applying the European convention, proceedings must be fair under article 6, and article 7 says that the must be no punishment without law. In other words, it must be crystal clear precisely what law is alleged to have been contravened. I want to make the basic point that there was considerable confusion in the House about precisely what had been ordered.