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Privilege (Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Advice)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:15 pm on 4th December 2018.

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Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee 1:15 pm, 4th December 2018

I must say that I found the answers given by the Attorney General yesterday extremely difficult to understand in the terms in which they were expressed—that is, of relating to the national interest, because that is a question that is contained in the results of the referendum and the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Following reports that I have heard, I also find it most unsatisfactory that this issue is regarded as a parlour game, and that we have been told to stop messing around with the process and to grow up. I think that that somewhat underestimates the significance of what we are dealing with here, but I will leave it at that, because people in these circumstances sometimes use language that underestimates the importance of the matters that are being dealt with.

I would like to say to the Leader of the House and to the Law Officers that the question of conventions turns on the reason for the rule. In this context, the reason for the application of this particular convention, which includes the question of the ministerial code, clearly demonstrates that, unless we know what the Attorney General has actually given by way of a full disclosure, it is extremely difficult to know whether or not the public policy that has been pursued is consistent with the legal advice that he gave.

Ivor Jennings was one of the greatest constitutional authorities on these matters. He said that

“conventions are observed because of the political difficulties which arise if they are not.”

I suggest that nothing could better illustrate the current situation, and in particular the issues relating to the ministerial code. The ministerial code states:

“The Law Officers must be consulted in good time before the Government is committed to critical decisions involving legal considerations.”

The Chequers proposals lie at the heart of the beginnings of the issues with which we are considering the withdrawal agreement, and I have been informed that the Law Officers were not consulted before the Chequers proposals. This has had dire consequences. Indeed, I said to the Prime Minister on 9 July that I did not think she would be able to reconcile the Chequers proposals with the express repeal of the European Communities Act 1972 in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which was passed on 26 June, 16 days before Royal Assent was given. We were then presented with the Chequers proposals. Everyone knew, when Royal Assent was given, that the express repeal of the 1972 Act had been enacted, yet it was clear, because it happened only a few days later, that an 80-page White Paper was being produced, the effect of which was to demonstrate that the 1972 Act was going to be considerably altered. I regarded that as a massive breach of trust, but it could have been resolved if we had had the full advice of the Attorney General at that time.

Under that same convention, and with respect to the present withdrawal agreement, it is essential for us to know now whether the present Attorney General gave advice on the issue of incompatibility between the express repeal of the 1972 Act in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act and the withdrawal agreement. There is no indication in the Attorney General’s introduction to his legal statement yesterday that he addressed that question as a matter of fundamental constitutional importance. Indeed, he states that the agreement needs a new Act of Parliament in domestic law, but as I pointed out in The Sunday Telegraph that is no more than a wing and a prayer.

I asked the Prime Minister about such matters during her statement last Monday and in the Liaison Committee, but I received no satisfactory answer. I also asked the Attorney General a similar question yesterday, requesting that he draw his attention to a Queen’s bench division that was cited as a precedent for the disclosure of the Attorney General’s advice. There are four other precedents, but Factortame is particularly significant due to the incompatibility between the 1972 Act and the withdrawal agreement.

If we do not have the full disclosure of the Attorney General’s opinion, that is relevant to the question of whether the actual withdrawal agreement itself is invalid under the Vienna convention, because a fundamental failure to comply with internal domestic constitutional law amounts to grounds for the invalidity of such a withdrawal agreement.