Northern Ireland Protocol: First Treasury Counsel

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:32 am on 9th June 2022.

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Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 10:32 am, 9th June 2022

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing this urgent question. It was reported on Tuesday evening that Sir James Eadie QC, First Treasury Counsel, had not been consulted on the legality of the Government’s proposed legislation to override the Northern Ireland protocol. This was denied directly by the Prime Minister yesterday in a response to a question from Colum Eastwood. It would now appear that, at the very least, the answer given by the Prime Minister to the hon. Gentleman was incomplete.

We have learned in subsequent media reports that while Sir James was consulted on aspects of the proposals, he was in fact asked not to give an opinion on whether the plan would breach international law, and was told to assume that there was a respectable legal basis for the Government’s position. Can the Minister confirm to the House that this information in the public domain is correct? Was Sir James asked to give an opinion on the merits of the legal advice that the Government had been given or not? Can the Minister tell the House why the request to Sir James was framed in this way?

Sir James is understood to have volunteered that he found the argument of one particular lawyer advising the Government

“considerably easier to follow and more convincing”.

The lawyer in question had said that it would be “very difficult” for the UK to argue that it was not “breaching international law”.

It is a matter of fundamental import to this House that Members are being told by the Government that the content of a Bill is not in breach of international law when that assertion is based on information that is incomplete, and apparently intentionally so.

The Government have put First Treasury Counsel in an almost impossible situation. We are fortunate indeed that he has been willing to take his professional duties more seriously than those who sought his legal advice. We know the position about the publication of Government legal advice, but that relies on Governments acting in good faith and their legal advisers being free to give the best advice that their professional skills allow. That full advice must be published for the Bill.