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Privilege (Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Advice)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:16 pm on 4th December 2018.

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Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee 3:16 pm, 4th December 2018

The hon. Gentleman is right. The difficulty is that a court of law has available to it a judge who can determine what may be disclosed. The Freedom of Information Act, passed fairly recently, put significant constraints on what may be disclosed and gave powers to the Information Commissioner to use their discretion to permit, or otherwise, information to enter the public domain. We do not have that here.

The Government are mindful not only of potentially setting a precedent, but of the very real possibility that in the advice given—in this case, by the Attorney General—there might be something that is embarrassing to this country internationally or which has security implications. It is irresponsible of the House not to recognise that dilemma, which the Government now face. They are trying to reconcile their duty to be as candid as possible with their duty to safeguard the public interest, and specifically the interests of individuals who might be adversely and directly affected by such a disclosure.

On contempt, it is appropriate to dwell for one moment on the nature of the advice the Attorney General gave to the House yesterday. Nobody in this place could fail to have been impressed by his candour, and it seems wholly inappropriate to associate the word “contempt” with anything he said.

I have grave reservations, as a former Minister in the Ministry of Defence and the Northern Ireland Office, about the impact that this could have on the disclosure of sensitive information. I am worried about that, knowing what I do about the nature of some of the material that the Government would like to keep unto themselves. It has nothing to do with the precedent in 2005 cited today in relation to the Iraq war, where it came two years after the event and dealt with whether the Government had behaved lawfully. That is not a question facing the House today—clearly the Government are behaving lawfully—so the two cannot be compared or contrasted in any way. The Government amendment is a sensible and pragmatic way forward that reconciles the House’s desire for openness and transparency with their legitimate desire to ensure that they put nothing in the public domain that might harm individuals or set a dangerous precedent.