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Privilege (Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Advice)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:50 pm on 4th December 2018.

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Photo of Keir Starmer Keir Starmer Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union 12:50 pm, 4th December 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
finds Ministers in contempt for their failure to comply with the requirements of the motion for return passed on 13 November 2018, to publish the final and full legal advice provided by the Attorney General to the Cabinet concerning the EU Withdrawal Agreement and the framework for the future relationship, and orders its immediate publication.

I move this motion in my name and in the names of the relevant spokespeople for the Scottish National party, the Liberal Democrats, the Democratic Unionist party, Plaid Cymru and the Green party.

The issue before the House on this motion is very simple: have the Government complied with the order made by this House on 13 November this year to publish the final and full legal advice by the Attorney General to the Cabinet concerning the EU withdrawal agreement and the framework for the future relationship, yes or no? That order was binding. Mr Speaker, on 13 November I sought your advice on that issue and you ruled in the following terms:

“The ruling I give is simply that the motion is effective—I have been advised thus. It is not just an expression of the opinion of the House;
it is an expression of the will of the House that certain documents should be provided to it.”—[Official Report, 13 November 2018;
Vol. 649, c. 236.]

Yesterday, the Government published a reasoned position paper. That was not legal advice. It simply described the deal: it was a synopsis; it was in the nature of an explainer—an explainer having already been published when the deal was published. It was a long way from legal advice. The Attorney General made a statement to the House and then answered questions, but the Government did not publish the full and final advice by the Attorney General to the Cabinet. That is the long and short of it. The Government are wilfully refusing to comply with a binding order of this House, and that is contempt.

Yesterday, the Attorney General as good as admitted it when he said:

“I wish that I could comply with the request of this House but if I did, I sincerely believe that it would not be in all of our interests.”

And slightly later he said:

“although the House says that I should disclose, I believe that the public interest compels me not to. I am sorry.”—[Official Report, 3 December 2018;
Vol. 650, c. 534 and 564.]

That is a plea of mitigation; it is not a defence.

I make three points about the Government’s position. First, as Mr Rees-Mogg made clear yesterday, for the Attorney General to say that in his view it is not in the national interest is not good enough. The hon. Member for North East Somerset went on to say:

“When the Government lose a vote, they must follow the will of this House under an Humble Address, according to all precedent. It is no longer a matter for the Government to judge;
it has been decided by this House, which is a higher authority.”—[Official Report, 3 December 2018;
Vol. 650, c. 563.]

My second point is this: if the Attorney General feels so strongly about this matter that he is prepared now to put the Government in contempt of Parliament for refusing to comply with a binding order, why on earth did he not vote against the order in the first place, or anybody else on the Government Benches? That was not an oversight: the Government knew very well what was being asked for. The Attorney General must have known what was being debated and voted on. Yet it appears from answers given by the Attorney General yesterday that he was not asked before that vote for his view on the wisdom of not voting against the order, nor did he offer any advice, directly or indirectly.

Again I quote the Attorney General:

“I had no discussions with the Chief Whip on this subject. None was sought.”—[Official Report, 3 December 2018;
Vol. 650, c. 569.]

I do not doubt the Attorney General’s word for a minute, but really—before that vote nobody asked the Attorney General’s views on the consequence of not opposing the order?

The truth is that the decision not to oppose the order was a political decision, taken by the Government because they feared they would lose the vote. They did not want the short-term humiliation of losing a vote, and the price of that was higher than voting against the order—and none of them did that. That is not the first time that has happened.