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Sat 25 May 2019
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As MPs scrutinise the Government for being in contempt of Parliament, the executive’s defence of ‘sensitive information’ is ridiculed.

The House of Commons is the highest authority in UK politics on what we – the public – are allowed to know.

Our MPs are able to call a vote for facts and, sometimes, sensitive documents are carted into public view. But, with Theresa May’s slimmed-down minority, her executives have increasingly found themselves at odds with the will of the House.

Tension between the House of Commons and Government reached its tipping point last December when May’s Government was found in contempt of Parliament for trying to hold back, and keep private, legal advice it had received on Brexit, which it had previously consented to releasing to MPs.

“The Government will have to reflect carefully on what measures may be required in order to protect how it should respond in the public interest.”

UK Government

“For months the Government have ignored Opposition day motions, and now their tactic has got them into very deep water indeed,” said Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the EU Keir Starmer, calling for the Government to be found in contempt of Parliament, at the time.

It was a rare issue on which Brexiteer-in-chief Jacob Rees-Mogg and former Remainer Starmer were united and it resulted in the Government being forced to release the sensitive document.

Once made available, the suppressed legal advice was used by MPs in Theresa May’s own party as one of their key reasons for voting down her Brexit deal.

Following on from this humiliation, the Government now appears determined to prevent any repeat. In this quest, it is looking for a new benchmark of privacy for Government documents on the premise that ‘sensitive information’ – which it has not defined – should not be released to the public.

“Not in the public interest and a threat to good governance”

Parliament’s Procedure Committee, which considers and makes recommendations on the practices and procedures of the House of Commons, is now inquiring into Parliament’s powers to demand documents from Government and Whitehall.

In a written submission to the committee, the Government said that MPs’ powers to make “sensitive information” public should be quelled, stating that this is “not in the public interest and a threat to good governance”.

“… such powers lack statutory force and, if they cease to be exercised responsibly, the Government will have to reflect carefully on what measures may be required in order to protect how it should respond in the public interest,” it added.

The Government has said it would welcome the committee’s views on the matter.

“For months the Government have ignored Opposition day motions, and now their tactic has got them into very deep water indeed.”

Keir Starmer MP

Opening its session this week, the committee’s chair, Charles Walker MP, asked key Opposition MPs: “Do you think the Government has a leg to stand on?” when it came to keeping requested information out of the hands of elected representatives.

SNP MP Joanna Cherry QC (SNP) said she did not believe that the Government has a “leg to stand on” if MPs’ requests for factual information, particularly on Brexit, are stonewalled.

“They have to accept that they are a minority government,” she said, before adding that Parliament is operating in “exceptional circumstances” that are at least equivalent to those before the Iraq War.

This issue strikes at the heart of what the public should have a right to know.

What is ‘sensitive’ information? What does the Government mean by responsible behaviour? And what measures can the Government use to prevent the public seeing certain documents?

In its vague but clear attempts to keep information hidden, it seems that Theresa May’s Government is desperately trying to take back control.

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