Legal Advice: Public Disclosure

Attorney General – in the House of Commons on 13th December 2018.

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Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

When his Department’s policy on public disclosure of legal advice given by Law Officers to the Government was implemented.

Photo of Geoffrey Cox Geoffrey Cox The Attorney-General

As noted in “Erskine May”, it is a long-standing convention observed by successive Governments that neither the fact nor the substance of Law Officers’ advice is disclosed outside the Government without their authority. That authority is very rarely sought or given.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

Given that recent decisions of the House might mean a return to Tony Blair-style sofa Government, does my right hon. and learned Friend think the Humble Address procedure needs revisiting?

Photo of Geoffrey Cox Geoffrey Cox The Attorney-General

Of course, the corrosive effect of the disclosure of confidential advice is that in future Attorneys General will not be able, without risking and fearing its publication, to give frank and robust advice to the Cabinet or the Prime Minister when it is needed, with the point and emphasis that might be needed at that particular time. The risk if it is published is that it is taken out of context, parts of it are seized and plucked and dwelt upon, and the particular moment and context of the advice is ignored. I do think we need to look very carefully at the procedures of the House in this regard while paying due respect to the legitimate desire of the House to have all of the information that it requires.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I think we all understand what the Attorney General’s preferences are in this matter. In response to my hon. Friend Nick Thomas-Symonds, he said that the advice in his letter to the Prime Minister was full and final. It is credible that it is the final legal advice, but it is not credible that it is the full legal advice. Is that seriously what the Attorney General wants us to believe?

Photo of Geoffrey Cox Geoffrey Cox The Attorney-General

The request of Keir Starmer was for the final and full advice. As I understand it—I read what he said in Hansard—he requested all the final advice. In other words, he requested that it should not be summarised, and it was not. The House had all the final advice given to the Cabinet.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

Will the Attorney General further outline when the legal opinion on changes to the withdrawal agreement sought by the Prime Minister will be released, to clarify any change in his legal advice?

Photo of Geoffrey Cox Geoffrey Cox The Attorney-General

As I have just said, I will of course consider what assistance the House might require. Indeed, I shall listen carefully to the House on any changes that are introduced to the withdrawal agreement and on what the Government should do about publishing legal opinion on it.