POLITICS
03/12/2018 18:05 GMT | Updated 04/12/2018 10:15 GMT

Attorney General Geoffrey Cox Facing ‘Contempt Of Parliament’ After He Fails To Publish Secret Brexit Legal Advice

Speaker acts after cabinet minister's 'two fingers' to MPs’ demands.

Theresa May’s top law officer is facing possible suspension from the House of Commons after he refused to publish secret legal advice on her Brexit plans.

Labour, the DUP, SNP and Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru triggered historic ‘contempt of Parliament’ proceedings against Attorney General Geoffrey Cox after he failed to comply with MPs’ demands.

Just eight days before the big vote on the deal, Cox sparked anger when he published only a “legal position” on Monday, rather than the “full legal advice” insisted on by the House of Commons last month. 

Commons Speaker John Bercow announced on Monday night that there was ‘an arguable case that a contempt has been committed’ and an emergency debate will be held first thing on Tuesday.

Cox, who is the most senior legal officer in the cabinet and government, now faces the humiliation of being subjected to a contempt hearing by the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee.

He insisted that to publish his full legal advice would be against the “public interest” and could open up government secrets to similar requests in future.

The most serious penalties for MPs found guilty of contempt – defined as those who obstruct or hinder the work of parliament - are suspension or even expulsion from the Commons.

Although the contempt offence is hundreds of years old, only a handful of MPs have been suspended and no cabinet minister has ever faced the charge.

Labour was joined by other political parties – including the Tories’ allies the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) -  in writing a letter calling on Commons Speaker John Bercow to allow a contempt motion.

During an unprecedented statement to the Commons, Brexiteers and pro-EU MPs also seized on an admission by the Attorney General that May’s compromise Brexit plan for Northern Ireland could apply ‘indefinitely’.

He also admitted that there was no unilateral way of getting out of the ‘backstop’, prompting backbench veteran Sir Desmond Swayne to shout “It’s a trap!”

But Cox repeatedly said that the issue was “a political question, not a legal question” and said of his critics: “It’s time they grew up and got real”

He sparked uproar when he said of his private advice “there is nothing to see here!”

Earlier shadow attorney general Nick Thomas-Symonds told the Commons that the government was seeking to avoid the publication of legal advice for “fear of the political consequences”.

Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesperson Tom Brake said: “The Attorney General, in his most bombastic court-room manner has shown parliament two learned fingers and refused to comply with parliament’s request to publish the full legal advice.

“This must constitute contempt of parliament which will be pursued by all legal means.”

Asked by Labour’s Chris Williamson if he was personally “prepared to be expelled” from the Commons if found guilty, Cox said he was “truly sorry” if MPs felt he was obstructing their wishes.

“I hope the House will reconsider the position. I hope it will understand that no attorney would wish to place himself in contempt of the House.

“The House has at its disposal the means by which to enforce its will...It can seek to impose a sanction, I fully accept that. I simply say I cannot compromise the public interest.”

At the close of the debate, Speaker Bercow said he would now act quickly to decide on the timing of the contempt debate and motion.

“I intend to come to a rapid decision which I will convey to the House before it rises tonight or if that proves impossible at the earliest opportunity tomorrow.”

Cox added that he too would write a letter to the Speaker on Monday night.

Amid intense behind-the-scenes manoeuvring, one Westminster source told HuffPost that it was possible ministers could offer to share the legal advice under Privy Council terms to senior figures in Opposition parties.

Reuters

During the debate, Cox insisted that ‘regulatory divergence’ between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK would affect 15 different areas of agricultural goods, though he stressed they could be ‘mitigated’ and ‘minimised’. 

But DUP Westminster leader Nigel Dodds said the full legal advice “must” be published.

He added that it seemed that lawyers would have to take cases in international court, “rather than this sovereign parliament being able to decide when we can get out of these arrangements”.

 

The letter to the Speaker in full:

3 December 2018
 
Dear Mr Speaker,
 
Contempt of Parliament
 
We are writing to request that you consider giving precedence to a motion being placed before the House of Commons that the Government has held Parliament in contempt.
 
On 13 November 2018 the House debated the following motion:
 
“That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, that she will be graciously pleased to give directions that the following papers be laid before Parliament: any legal advice in full, including that provided by the Attorney General, on the proposed withdrawal agreement on the terms of the UK’s departure from the European Union including the Northern Ireland backstop and framework for a future relationship between the UK and the European Union.”
 
During the debate on that motion Labour’s frontbench made it clear that:
 
“the motion requires the publication of the final and full advice provided by the Attorney General to the Cabinet concerning the terms of any withdrawal agreement. This must be made available to all MPs. It is to be published after any withdrawal agreement is reached with the EU, but in good time to allow proper consideration before MPs are asked to vote on the deal.”[1]
 
The motion passed unanimously and was not opposed by the Government. After the motion was passed you ruled that:
 
“the motion is effective — I have been advised thus. It is not just an expression of the opinion of the House; it is an expression of the will of the House that certain documents should be provided to it.” [2]
 
The Government did not oppose this motion. We therefore expected the Government to comply to it by:
 

  • Publishing the final and full advice provided by the Attorney General to Cabinet concerning the terms of any withdrawal agreement.

 Making sure the information is available to all MPs.

  • Ensuring the information is published after any withdrawal agreement is reached with the EU but in good time to allow proper consideration before MPs are asked to vote on a deal.

 
These demands were reiterated in a letter from Keir Starmer to David Lidington on 27 November.[3]
 
Neither a “reasoned position statement” nor a document “setting out the Government’s legal position” constitute the final and full advice provided by the Attorney General to the Cabinet. It does not comply with a motion of the House that you have ruled to be effective. It was the concession offered by the Government during the debate, but it was rejected – and ministers made no attempt to amend or oppose the motion for debate.
 
It is apparent to us – and we believe the overwhelming majority of the House – that the information released today does not constitute the final and full advice provided by the Attorney General to the Cabinet. It does not comply with a motion of the House that you have ruled to be effective.
 
We would now ask that you consider giving the House of Commons the opportunity to debate and consider this matter of contempt at the earliest opportunity.
 
Yours sincerely,
 
Keir Starmer MP
Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union
 
Stephen Gethins MP
SNP Foreign Affairs and Europe spokesperson
 
Tom Brake MP
Liberal Democrat Spokesperson on Exiting the European Union
 
Nigel Dodds MP
Deputy Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party
 
Hywel Williams MP
Shadow Plaid Cymru Spokesperson on Brexit