Wed 19 February 2020

The Government would like its own legal advice and Cabinet papers to be off-limits to Opposition MPs

Parliament’s Procedure Committee has held its final hearing on how Theresa May’s minority Government was found In Contempt of Parliament last December.

The MPs’ inquiry – known officially as the “Powers of the House of Commons to Call for Papers” – looks at whether certain categories of Whitehall documents ought to be kept secret from the public, even when MPs vote to demand their release.

At this time of great fervour over Brexit, amid intensifying clashes between Parliament and the Government, May’s minority administration has appeared desperate to use the MPs’ inquiry to limit the distribution of documents such as legal advice, cabinet papers or matters it considers a risk to national security.

“I think there is a sense that the Government needs to be given an extra opportunity to reassure the House before the House…goes nuclear?

The Inquiry held its final public meeting on 27 February, with four senior figures providing evidence: Attorney General Geoffrey Cox QC, Commons’ Leader Andrea Leadsom and two House of Commons’ clerks.

Leadsom said there were more categories of information that she feels are ‘sensitive’ and should not automatically be available for public consumption. She also warned MPs’ requests for information should not be a “fishing expedition.”

In particular, Leadsom criticised leaks to the press of key Brexit documents – specifically controversial “No Deal” Impact Assessments for different sectors of the Economy. Leadsom argued the documents were too sensitive and could harm the UK’s broader economic prospects.

“It was not intended that those impact assessments went outside that strictly controlled publication to a select committee and I think more broadly to MPs but in controlled circumstances,” she told the inquiry.

“You might say; ‘That is not reasonable, they should have been published to the whole world!’ But the point is, who decides?”

The Committee’s conservative chair, Charles Walker MP, retorted that May’s government had ‘made its bed’ by deliberately thwarting Opposition Day Motions – requests for information- since 2017. Ministers, he said, had snubbed “25 Opposition motions”. MPs resorted to an archaic Parliamentary rule, known as a ‘humble address’, to demand answers from ministers – a move Leadsom described as a ‘blunt’ technique that had not been used for 200 years.

During a prickly exchange, Walker said: “The House does not have a lot of rights, when it comes to dealing with the Executive. I simply cannot see the House deciding to limit its powers to make this current government’s life more comfortable.”

Leadsom responded: “I just don’t agree that that is what the Government is trying to do”. The government wants new Parliamentary rules to make a humble address less of a ‘blunt instrument’.

25 February Houses of Parliment Refurbishment. | Photo: Sebastian Davis © Byline Times

Walker suggested his Committee may try to reach some middle ground. “I think there is a sense that the Government needs to be given an extra opportunity to reassure the House before the House…goes nuclear? Would that be a happy circumstance?”

But Attorney-General Cox said the Government instead wanted some hard and fast rules. In particular, he said, senior personnel wanted to stop MPs using a ‘humble address’ to gain access to key Government legal advice.

Leadsom argued: “The humble address does not allow her majesty’s loyal opposition to understand the significance – the potential implications – of the information that is being sought. That’s the point about it being a blunt instrument.”

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