Roles of Lord Chancellor and Law Officers

Attorney General – in the House of Commons at on 1 February 2023.

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Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

What assessment she has made of the implications for her policies of the ninth report of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, “The roles of the Lord Chancellor and the Law Officers”, HL 118, published on 18 January 2023.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Attorney-General

I thank the House of Lords Constitution Committee for its thoughtful and detailed report, which highlights the complexity of this historic office. It is an honour to serve—to make law and politics work together at the heart of Government.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

The Constitution Committee rightly says that we need Law Officers

“with the independence of mind, autonomy and strength of character to deliver impartial legal advice to the Government, even where it is unwelcome.”

I am sure that the Attorney General agrees, but can she give a single example of where her predecessor met that standard in the advice that she gave to the Government?

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Attorney-General

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, but as he knows—as we all know, I think—the Attorney General’s convention means that I do not comment specifically on the advice that has been given by any holder of this office, or even whether or not advice was given.

Seriously—this is a serious matter—the report highlights some very important points about how the Law Officers work in combination, as politicians and as lawyers. That is something that I take extremely seriously myself. I know that I have duties to the court, as well as to my constituents and to the Government, and it is very important that we treat this matter with the seriousness it deserves.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee

I think the Attorney General has just demonstrated that she and the Solicitor General are well up to the task of internal inquiries. In welcoming the report, will she recognise that, given the Attorney General’s important role of speaking truth to power—to Government—it is also important that the Law Officers should be consulted in a timely fashion, and appropriately and fully, on any controversial matters that may have a legal aspect, and that fellow Ministers should then listen and act accordingly, consistently?

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Attorney-General

I thank my hon. Friend—he is a very learned Gentleman, on whose Committee I was extremely proud to sit for many years—for his question, which I think was more of a statement. It is important to note that the Government’s commitment to the rule of law is absolute, and I will do my very best to uphold that.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Attorney General

May I join the Attorney General in thanking the House of Lords Constitution Committee for this excellent report? I have to say, it is a damning indictment of the former Attorney General, but also a helpful warning for current and future holders of the post. I want to ask the Attorney General about one specific point in relation to the report. Does she agree that it would be helpful to provide greater clarity within the ministerial code on the duties of Law Officers, particularly on upholding the rule of law within Government and providing impartial legal advice regardless of political considerations—both areas that the former Attorney General fell so drastically short on?

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Attorney-General

I have looked often at the ministerial code, and I think the section that deals with legal advice is sufficient. To go back to the previous question, I note that it is suggested that the advice sought should be timely, but, as all lawyers present in the Chamber know, that is not always the way with clients, and we do our best to accommodate them. On some things, however, we can clearly be less accommodating. The rule of law is absolutely a thread that runs through the legal advice provided by the holders of this office.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Attorney General

May I ask about one specific area of the ministerial code that might benefit from particular clarity? Section 7 requires Ministers to inform Law Officers if they risk becoming

“involved in legal proceedings in a personal capacity,” including when they are potential defendants or in relation to potential defamation cases, and preferably before they have instructed their own solicitors. On that basis, I ask the Attorney General to clarify two points of fact: are Ministers currently obliged to inform Law Officers if either their solicitors are sending letters to journalists threatening to sue them for libel, or they are under investigation by His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs over the non-payment of taxes?

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Attorney-General

I am not going to comment on specific cases—the right hon. Lady will understand why that is the case. I think the ministerial code allows for a certain level of wiggle room on that particular area. It is clear that when proceedings have already commenced, it is essential to ask the Law Officers’ opinion on those proceedings. However, I think she and I both know that it is not always clear at the beginning of a series of letters, which may or may not lead to proceedings, when that moment should be. I would always caution—as I am sure she would—that it would be good to involve the Law Officers at an early stage of proceedings, but I cannot comment on specific cases and whether or not that was done.