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Privilege (Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Advice)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:06 pm on 4th December 2018.

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Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay 4:06 pm, 4th December 2018

To be blunt, anyone who listened to the Attorney General’s statement yesterday would have been hard pressed to think that he had something to hide. He was very open about some of the challenges with the withdrawal agreement, particularly in respect of issues related to the Northern Ireland backstop and what it means, which will be of immense concern to the hon. Lady. There was not one word on which he was holding back on what he thought about the legal position on the backstop. I do not believe for one minute that he, as a very senior barrister, would have come to the Chamber and given a legal position that in any way conflicted with the legal advice that he had given to the Cabinet and the Government. We need to be very clear about that, because I do not believe there is anything to hide. The statement was not on why legally it might be a good idea to sign this treaty; it was on the legal position.

No one in the House is arguing that Parliament does not have the legal power to sign and ratify the treaty that the Government have negotiated, if it wishes to do so. The debate is fundamentally about whether or not we think it is a good idea to do so. There are obviously sharply differing views about whether it is a good idea, not only on either side of the Chamber but, to be blunt, among Members on the Government Benches, but nobody is arguing that there is not the legal power to do that, based on our constitution.

To turn to the intervention from Lady Hermon. I do not think that anything was hidden. The Attorney General was clear about the legal position and the backstop and he was clear in response to colleagues’ queries. I do not believe for one minute that any word of what he said would have conflicted with the legal advice that he had given privately. That is the difference: position is different from advice. Evidence is different from a lawyer commenting on the evidence to their client and giving them advice about what it might mean. If we reach the point at which we accept the idea that the Attorney’s advice will end up out in public, we will see a trend towards things not being written down but expressed verbally instead, and of there not being proper records that can be accessed at a later date when the advice might become relevant. We would be moving away from the idea that some of the key principles of law, including legal privilege, operate in the same way in Government as they operate outside.

Let me turn to the motion. I find it interesting that there has been a push to debate this today. I accept that—it is all part of the procedures of the House, all perfectly properly followed—but it would make much more sense for the Privileges Committee to carry out a proper investigation, rather than the House deciding whether someone is guilty of contempt in effect via a jury made up of their political opponents, and following a party political knockabout in the Chamber.

That is why, for me, the amendment has strength. This is not about saying, “Let us vote no, and forget about it”. This is about asking for the proper process of the House to be gone through. For those following our proceedings, the Privileges Committee is chaired by an Opposition Member. It is not a Committee that will purely follow the will of the Government, and that, for me, is where the strength of the amendment lies. This is about having a proper debate about this clash of principles, this clash of legal privilege, the position of the law officers and the position of this House to pass returns and to make a request for documents through the means of a Humble Address. I accept that nobody in this House would think that it was a sensible idea to have a Humble Address for MI5 documentation or for sensitive diplomatic papers, and I would not seek to advance that. However, in this instance, those things are coming together at a time when, actually, if anyone wants a legal opinion on the withdrawal agreement, they will not be short of suggestions coming into their email inbox from various eminent lawyers across the country.