Prorogation (Disclosure of Communications)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:43 pm on 9th September 2019.

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Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee 6:43 pm, 9th September 2019

I think I can say without peradventure that they were happier days, Mr Speaker.

I will vote against the motion this evening for the very clear reason that Government must function. If officials and advisers are to provide information to Ministers, they should be able to do so freely and without any thought that their correspondence, while in an official capacity, will be dragged before us. However, I will, if I may, make a couple of important caveated points. My understanding is that our unwritten constitution, as crazy and as byzantine as it often can be, can only work, and can only continue to work, where there is trust, where there are checks and where there are balances. Those three things must be observed and maintained.

We all hear the phrase, “Through the usual channels”. We all know what that means. This place would not function—our constitution would not function—without the daily conversations between the principal parties in this place and others on how legislation is going to be delivered. It does not matter to this motion whether one voted leave or remain or even abstained in the referendum campaign—a number of right hon. and hon. Members have referred to that. The motion is about the functioning of Government and, as a number of colleagues have said, trust. It matters that good practice and the rule of law are followed. People in this place and, indeed, in the country are broadly satisfied in accepting a decision if and when they are confident that the means by which that decision has been arrived at is clear and fair—or, as I would say colloquially, it has passed the sniff test.

Interestingly, I have had, as I am sure we have all had, hundreds, if not thousands, of emails over the past month advocating position x, y, or z with regard to leaving the European Union, but I have not had a single email from a constituent—not even from the most avowed and determined advocates of Brexit in my constituency—who has felt that proroguing Parliament has been the right thing to do. We should not be hiding behind the narrative of, “Well, we were going to rise for three weeks anyway for the conference recess”. Having had six weeks off already, the conference recess should not have been used as an argument to support a Prorogation. The conference recess should not have been taking place, and the conferences should either have been cancelled or gone on in a lesser form. I do not think that that narrative passes the test. It is interesting that I have had no correspondence on the matter—I will probably regret saying that when I am inundated tonight and tomorrow—from any constituent saying that Prorogation is the right thing to do.

I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench to consider those points and, importantly, to take on to ourselves the humility that, certainly last week, we were a minority Administration. I have lost track of the figures slightly, but we do not have such muscularity of numbers that we can deal lightly with constitutional norms and with this place.

I am concerned that, as was flushed out at the urgent question on Thursday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—and, as I understand it, every other Cabinet Minister—has still not received legal advice from my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General with regard to Prorogation. We have had the legal advice of the Attorney General published in the past. I am not a lawyer, but I understand that, in normal times, it is perfectly proper for that to be under lawyer-client privilege. However, we all recall that we saw the legal advice of the Attorney General with regard to the amendments that the then Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend Mrs May, had secured and how they had affected the legal status of the withdrawal agreement. There is therefore a precedent for the publication of legal advice. As somebody who is concerned to get leaving the European Union right on behalf of my constituents, but also as the chairman of the Northern Ireland Committee, I think that the legislative needs of Northern Ireland, particularly in the scenario of a no-deal exit, are being ridden roughshod over by the fact that the House is being prorogued this evening.

I seek assurance from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster that the needs of Northern Ireland and the need to maintain the unity of our United Kingdom, which he and I hold to be incredibly precious, are not being dealt with in a cavalier fashion. I will be voting against this motion, but the Government do need to think about how they deal with these matters.