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Privilege (Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Advice)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:32 pm on 4th December 2018.

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Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Father of the House of Commons 2:32 pm, 4th December 2018

I follow up entirely on what has just been said by Geraint Davies. He and Hilary Benn obviously have some sympathy with what I said.

It seems to me that the House is facing an extremely difficult dilemma, which was exactly the one faced by the Attorney General yesterday. There are two very important constitutional principles involved here that are important to people on both sides of the House, and unfortunately the present situation puts them in direct conflict with each other. The first is the sovereignty of Parliament and its ability to instruct the Government to do things that the Government do not want to do.

I will not repeat what my hon. Friend Mr Rees-Mogg said, because I entirely agree with everything he said, but the Humble Address is an extremely important weapon of this House. It is the duty of Parliament sometimes to instruct the Government to do things. We know that whenever the Government lose a vote, they think Parliament is wrong—they disagree—but they should comply. Parliament in recent years has greatly weakened its powers vis-à-vis the Executive. We should all think ahead to future Parliaments and simply not weaken it any further.

The Government did not vote against the motion when it was before the House because they knew they were going to be defeated. We all know why they asked Conservative Members not to vote at all. I disapprove of that. A Humble Address is an instruction. I disapprove of refusing to vote on Opposition motions and other motions. It may well be that constitutionally they are not legally binding, but we have never previously had a Government that just said, “Well, the House of Commons can express opinions if it wants, but as they’re not legally binding, we won’t bother to attend, and not many of us will listen to it.” That is a very unpleasant step.

Ahead of us are votes, including the meaningful vote on the withdrawal agreement and votes on the Bill that is necessary to implement that. Particularly on the meaningful vote, I hope that the Government abandon the idea that the only vote of any legally binding significance is the one on the Government’s proposal—yes or no—and that if the House wants to pass amendments or motions or express a different opinion, that is very interesting and a matter of opinion, but the Government will ignore any amendments. That was virtually what was being urged on the Procedure Committee a few weeks ago.

I hope that when we get on to sorting out the procedure for next week’s vote on amendments and the motion and for the Bill that ultimately follows, we go back to the standard procedure, whereby amendments can be tabled to Government motions before the motion is put, and when amendments are carried, the only vote remaining of the House is whether it approves of the motion as amended. With great respect, I do not think we should take any notice of all this stuff about the Government’s duty being to listen to what the House says and then decide, in their opinion, whether the public interest justifies complying with it. I am entirely on the side of the critics.

On the other hand, as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset said, the Conservative party will deeply regret when one day it is in opposition that it has challenged the authority of Parliament, and the Labour party might well come to regret when it gets into government its attempts to override the convention that Governments are entitled to confidentiality when they get legal advice from the Attorney General. It is quite ridiculous to throw out either of those principles, because there are occasions when they are both extremely important.

I am not a lawyer in the same rank as my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General, though I have practised for many years. I once declined an offer of an appointment as a Law Officer, because I preferred to stay in the departmental job I was then in. I am now totally out of date—I accept that—but I am very familiar with the circumstances when a lawyer gives advice to his clients and gives honest opinions of the legal advice. Of course a lawyer is talking about the circumstances of the case, but Law Officers’ advice in particular, which I have seen many times when I have been given it as a Minister, is all muddled up with questions of policy, the law, arguments about tactics and comments on what the other side might do. Advice is given to a client in a way that 100% should be an accurate expression of the lawyer’s opinion of the law, but it will be coupled with lots of other things, because the lawyer does not just sit there ignoring the merits or what the client wants to achieve.