Nick Thomas-Symonds debates with Attorney General

There have been 13 exchanges between Nick Thomas-Symonds and Attorney General

Mon 22nd June 2020 Extradition (Provisional Arrest) Bill [Lords] 3 interactions (1,694 words)
Thu 3rd October 2019 Oral Answers to Questions 5 interactions (177 words)
Wed 25th September 2019 Legal Advice: Prorogation 3 interactions (329 words)
Fri 29th March 2019 United Kingdom’s Withdrawal from the European Union 35 interactions (1,668 words)
Tue 12th March 2019 Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Opinion 3 interactions (778 words)
Tue 19th February 2019 Northern Ireland Backstop (Urgent Question) 6 interactions (383 words)
Tue 15th January 2019 European Union (Withdrawal) Act 23 interactions (2,072 words)
Mon 3rd December 2018 Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Position 7 interactions (1,055 words)
Tue 13th November 2018 EU Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Advice 3 interactions (1,070 words)
Tue 15th May 2018 Public Legal Education (Westminster Hall) 9 interactions (1,363 words)
Thu 10th May 2018 Belhaj and Boudchar: Litigation Update 3 interactions (435 words)
Wed 6th December 2017 Unduly Lenient Sentences (Westminster Hall) 10 interactions (894 words)
Thu 29th June 2017 Oral Answers to Questions 5 interactions (146 words)

Extradition (Provisional Arrest) Bill [Lords]

(Programme motion: House of Commons)
(2nd reading: House of Commons)
(Programme motion: House of Commons)
Nick Thomas-Symonds Excerpts
Monday 22nd June 2020

(3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Attorney General
Kevin Foster Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Kevin Foster) - Hansard
22 Jun 2020, 12:01 a.m.

I beg to move, that the Bill be now read a Second time.

I will start by making clear what the Bill does not do. It does not change our extradition process or any safeguards that already exist in extradition proceedings. It does not make it more or less likely that a person will be extradited, and it does not in any way affect the current judicial oversight of the extradition process, or the character of core proceedings. Nor is the Bill concerned with the UK’s extradition relationships with other countries, or the criminal behaviours for which extradition can be sought from the United Kingdom. The Bill is concerned only with how persons who are wanted for crimes enter the UK’s court system. It changes when and how a fugitive who is wanted for a serious offence by a trusted country is brought before a UK court.

Currently, when UK police have a chance encounter with a person who is wanted by a non-EU country, they cannot arrest them. The officer is required to walk away, obtain a warrant from a judge, and then try to relocate the individual later to make the necessary arrest. That means that fugitives who are known to the police to be wanted for serious offences remain free on our streets and are able simply to abscond or, worst of all, to offend again, thereby creating further victims.

Let me give you a shocking example, Madam Deputy Speaker. In 2017, an individual who was wanted by one of the countries within the scope of this Bill for the rape of a child was identified during a routine traffic stop. Without the power to arrest, the police could do nothing to detain that individual there and then, and he is still at large. The Bill will change that and ensure that fugitives who are wanted by specified countries, and then identified by the police or at the UK border, can be arrested immediately. They can be taken off the streets and brought before a judge as soon as it is practicable to do so.

The usual way that police officers become aware of an international fugitive is after a circulation of alerts through Interpol channels. Interpol alerts from all countries are now routinely available to UK police and Border Force officers. Access to that information by frontline officers has created a situation whereby a police or Border Force officer might encounter an individual who they can see, by performing a simple database check, is wanted by another country for a serious offence. Many countries, including most EU member states, afford their police the power of immediate arrest on the basis of Interpol alerts, and this Bill will create a similar power with appropriate safeguards. That power will apply only to alerts from countries with which we already have effective extradition relationships, and—crucially—when we have confidence in their use of Interpol.

The warrant-based system in part 1 of the Extradition Act 2003 carries an immediate power of arrest for individuals who are wanted by EU member states. Last year, more than 60% of arrests made under part 1 of that Act by the Metropolitan police were the result of a chance encounter. Without a similar immediate power of arrest for people wanted by our key international partners, known fugitives will walk free.

Let me turn to the specific provisions in the Bill. It proposes a power for UK law enforcement officers to arrest an individual on the basis of an international arrest request—typically an Interpol alert—without a UK warrant having first been issued. The new power will apply only when the request has been issued by specified countries with which we already have effective extradition relationships and in whose use of Interpol and the alerts that they issue we have confidence. Initially, the power will apply to requests from the United States of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Liechtenstein and Switzerland.

Members will appreciate that we have taken care to tune the application of the powers to strike the right balance between ease of use by our law enforcement agencies and the provision of proper safeguards to those who might be arrested. The Bill will identify a designated authority, which will have the power to create an alert—typically an Interpol notice—only when it relates to a serious extradition offence. In practice, that will mean three things: first, the offence for which the person is wanted must be an offence in one of the United Kingdom’s jurisdictions; secondly, the offence must be able to attract a period of imprisonment of at least three years; and finally, the offence must be a serious one—that is, the seriousness of the conduct constituting the offence makes the certification appropriate.

What is intended by “serious” in this context is reflected by the proportionality assessment in section 21A of the Extradition Act 2003, which similarly refers to

“the seriousness of the conduct alleged to constitute the extradition offence”.

Operational bodies are well versed in applying the test in their consideration of other cases, and they can bring to bear considerable expertise in exercising the new power.

It is not frontline police officers who will have to decide whether an Interpol alert is from a specified country or for a sufficiently serious offence. The National Crime Agency receives Interpol requests and, as the designated authority, it will identify which alerts have been issued by a specified country and for a sufficiently serious offence. Arrangements are in place to ensure that, when the agency is satisfied, the request is underpinned by a warrant for arrest or conviction in the requesting country. The NCA will then certify that those alerts, including the immediate power of arrest, will apply. Certified alerts will be clearly distinguishable on the databases available to police and Border Force officers. Following arrest, the individual must be brought before a UK judge as soon as practical.

The Bill does not change any other part of the subsequent extradition process, and all the safeguards that currently exist in extradition proceedings, as set out under part 2 of the Extradition Act, will continue to apply. The courts will have the same powers and protections they have now—including the fact that they must ensure that a person will not be extradited if it would breach their human rights, if the request is politically motivated, or if they would be at risk of facing the death penalty.

The need for the power has been expressed by the law enforcement community. Members will be interested to know that the Director of Public Prosecutions, Max Hill, QC, wrote to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security on 2 March to explain why the power is needed; I will place his letter in the Library of the House. We will continue to strengthen our security with like-minded security partners across the globe. In future, additional countries could be specified if we have effective extradition relationships with them; if—crucially—we have confidence in their use of Interpol alerts; and if Parliament agrees to the extension of the arrangements to those countries.

Scrutiny of the Bill in the other place has served to improve it; however, two amendments were made on Third Reading that the Government have considered carefully but do not support. The first requires the Government to consult on the merits of adding, removing or varying a territory in the Bill with the devolved Administrations and relevant interested stakeholders; requires the Government to lay a statement before Parliament on the risks of adding, varying or removing a territory; and requires the Government, when a territory is to be added to the Bill, to lay a statement before the House to confirm that that territory does not abuse the Interpol system.

That amendment is not necessary. The Bill mirrors the existing provisions in the Extradition Act 2003 in respect of the designation of any additional countries, and the Government are committed to ensuring that Parliament has the ability to question and have the final say on whether any new territory should come within the scope of the legislation. Also, although extradition is a reserved matter, relevant officials are engaged in regular discussions with their counterparts in the devolved Administrations about how it should operate in practice.

The second amendment specifies that if a Government want to add territories to the legislation in future, they would not be able to add more than one country in a single statutory instrument. Similarly, we consider that that is not required and is unnecessarily burdensome. Again, the Bill already mirrors the existing provisions in the Extradition Act 2003 in respect of the designation of any additional countries. Including any additional countries in the Extradition Act is subject to a high level of parliamentary scrutiny and, similarly, there would be the opportunity for both Houses to debate and scrutinise proposals in relation to any new territory to which the provisions in this Bill might be extended. If the Government of the day were minded to make the case to Parliament that this legislation should be extended to six new countries, what specific value is added by considering six separate statutory instruments to do so? For those reasons, the Government do not feel these amendments will add further scrutiny to the legislation than is already in place, and therefore believe they should be reviewed during its passage through this House.

To conclude, I would like to reiterate the point I have made throughout my remarks. The Bill is first and foremost about protecting the UK public. Any individual arrested under the powers contained in it would be in front of a UK judge as soon as reasonably practicable, and the existing safeguards afforded to every person before the UK courts for extradition would remain as now. As a global leader in security, we want to make the best use of our overseas networks and international tools to protect our nation from those who would do it harm. The Government are committed to doing all we can to protect the public. This Bill is directed to that end, and I commend the Bill to the House.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab) - Hansard
22 Jun 2020, 12:03 a.m.

I thank the Minister for his opening remarks, and I pass on my thanks to my Labour colleagues in the other place who took the Bill first, and who have worked hard to scrutinise and amend the Bill we see today. May I outline from the outset that the Opposition are not seeking to divide the House this evening on this Bill?

This extradition Bill seeks to fill a gap—the situation where police become aware of someone wanted by a non-EU territory, usually via the system of Interpol alerts, as the Minister has set out, but are unable to arrest them without a warrant from a court. The risk that the Bill seeks to address is that a wanted person may abscond or even reoffend before they can be detained. Thus the Bill seeks to give a power to UK law enforcement officers to arrest, without the need for such a warrant, for the purposes of extradition. Such a power already exists in relation to the European arrest warrant mechanism, which remains available to us until the end of the transition period at the end of this year.

At present, the Bill applies to extradition requests from only the following non-EU countries: Australia, Canada, Liechtenstein, New Zealand, Switzerland and the USA. The Government position is that there is a high level of confidence in these countries’ criminal justice systems and their use of extradition.

Max Hill, the current Director of Public Prosecutions, stated in a letter to the Security Minister that

“this Bill strikes the right balance between ensuring sufficient human rights safeguards and delivering the capabilities that the police and CPS require in order to safeguard the public…

The Bill does not…make it more or less likely someone will be extradited, but it does increase the chances that persons wanted for serious offences by some of our closest and most trusted partners will enter, with all existing safeguards, the extradition process.”

I of course note his comments very carefully.

Turning to the contents of the Bill itself, it is a very short Bill with only two clauses. Clause 1 gives effect to the schedule, which creates the new power to arrest, and clause 2 outlines the extent and commencement of the Bill. The schedule amends the Extradition Act 2003, and inserts several new sections. Once the arrest has taken place, the individual must be brought before a judge “as soon as practicable”, which is in proposed new section 74A(3).

The noble Baroness Williams of Trafford said about this in the other place:

“I have listened carefully to the concerns raised at Second Reading and in Committee and have concluded that the new power of arrest in the Bill should be consistent in this respect with existing law and practice in relation to Part 2 of the 2003 Act, and that it should therefore mirror the wording ‘as soon as practicable’. That will ensure that individuals are not detained for any longer than is strictly necessary before being put before a judge. If, for example, an individual was arrested in central London, ‘as soon as practicable’ would in all probability be considerably less than 24 hours. Our operational partners have already proved themselves very effective at producing wanted persons before courts within strict timeframes, and the three UK extradition courts have proved strict arbiters of police actions under the ‘as soon as practicable’ requirement.

Additionally, if an individual is arrested and for legitimate reasons it is not possible to get them to court within 24 hours—for example, if they are arrested in a remote part of the UK or in an area affected by an extreme event—this change in wording will make the legislation operable across all parts of the UK in all circumstances.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 June 2020; Vol. 803, c. 1950.]

I am grateful for that explanation, which we will scrutinise carefully during the Bill’s passage through this House. We will be looking for assurances from the Government that “as soon as practicable” does not allow for individuals to be detained longer than is absolutely and strictly necessary.

Let me turn to the trusted partner countries listed in schedule A1 and the two amendments made in the other place, to which the Minister has already referred. The Government’s impact assessment states:

“Under the proposed new power, the police could arrest a suspect who was wanted for extradition by a trusted partner country (those who respect the international rules based system and whose Red Notices and Criminal Justice Systems the UK trusts) for a serious offence if that information has been properly certified.”

I believe that the Government’s hope is that more territories will be added to the partner list in future.

My Labour colleagues in the other place tabled an amendment, which was then made to the Bill, specifying that in allowing further territories to be added to the list, the following requirements must be met: that the Home Secretary has consulted with each devolved Administration and with non-governmental organisations; that a risk assessment has been laid before each House on the risk of the change; and that a statement has been laid before each House outlining that the territory to be added does not abuse Interpol’s red notice system. The inclusion of these safeguards is a perfectly sensible change that we will support in this House.

My Labour colleagues in the other place also supported a Cross-Bench amendment, which was then made to the Bill, which means that the Government can list only one territory to be added to the trusted partner list at a time. The Minister asked what the purpose was of having separate consideration of each territory. Quite simply, we would not want a situation to arise in which a future Government—this Government or another—listed, say, five territories, with differing standards of criminal justice systems and differing human rights records, to be offered to the House on a “take it or leave it” basis. Each territory should be considered individually on its own merits. We will seek to uphold that amendment during the Bill’s passage through this House. That is the most effective way to uphold the values of human rights around the world. I hope that the Government will listen. We will also be insisting that the Government regularly update the House on Interpol and on how effectively countries are working within the system.

What we must not do is close one gap in our security arrangements through the Bill, only then to open up another one that is much wider by not negotiating the effective security arrangement that we need with the European Union. In February the Government published their negotiating mandate. I was a little concerned by point 51, which states:

“The UK is not seeking to participate in the European Arrest Warrant as part of the future relationship. The agreement should instead provide for fast-track extradition arrangements, based on the EU’s Surrender Agreement with Norway and Iceland which came into force in 2019, but with appropriate further safeguards for individuals beyond those in the European Arrest Warrant.”

In my previous role as shadow Security Minister, I argued for the Government to give priority to the future security partnership, because the European arrest warrant has proved to be an incredibly useful tool for fighting and preventing crime. In 2018-19, 15,540 requests were made by UK-EU law enforcement using the European arrest warrant—1,412 arrests related to the EAW and 919 related to surrenders. I hope that during our consideration of the Bill the Minister will set out how the Government will provide for the replacement fast-track extradition arrangements by the end of the year, and whether this House will have the opportunity to scrutinise them in advance at the end of the transition period.

When the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), sought reassurance at Prime Minister’s questions on 3 June that

“from 1 January 2021, the UK will have access to the quantity and quality of data that it currently has through Prüm, passenger name records, the European Criminal Records Information System and SIS—Schengen Information System—II”,

the current Prime Minister said:

“That depends, I am afraid, on the outcome of our negotiations”.—[Official Report, 3 June 2020; Vol. 676, c. 846.]

But that the Government’s first priority is to keep people safe is not negotiable, and should be the Prime Minister’s first duty.

The Minister for Security last week gave evidence to the Lords EU Security and Justice Sub-Committee about the future security partnership with the European Union, saying that if an agreement could not be reached there would be

“some mutual loss of capability…there are alternatives and well-rehearsed plans”.

I hope that the Minister will enlighten us as to what exactly those well-rehearsed plans are.

It is in the public interest to have appropriate extradition arrangements in place with as many countries as possible, as that reduces the number of safe spaces in the world where those who could do us harm can go to hide, escape and get beyond the reach of our law enforcement, but as we have now left the European Union and as we move out of the transition period, it is vital that our future security relationship is given priority, and the Government must listen to the concerns of EU law enforcement on this in order for our streets to be kept safe.

The role that all our frontline policing plays in this is vital. We cannot legislate our way to safety and we cannot see issues in isolation. The Government must keep to their promise of delivering 20,000 additional police officers. The cuts to policing and preventive services have had a devastating impact over the past 10 years. There has been a sharp decline in certain types of crime during the lockdown, and, sadly, a rise in others, but none of the underlying factors that drive it have been addressed and there are real concerns that crime overall will rise rapidly as lockdown restrictions are lifted. It is vital that the Government plan for that in the coming weeks and months. Labour Members take our role in helping to keep people safe very seriously, so we will be closely scrutinising the Bill as well as the Home Office’s wider work against the central and vital test of keeping the public safe.

Mr Richard Holden Portrait Mr Richard Holden (North West Durham) (Con) - Hansard
22 Jun 2020, 12:04 a.m.

I agree with the shadow Home Secretary that this legislation fills a gap. It is a really important, sensible, sound and sober piece of legislation that meets a need and builds on our existing tried and tested relationships with valued partners across the globe. It is limited in scope and tightly focused, and the amendments passed in the other place to ensure that people should be brought to a judge as soon as possible are incredibly sensible, understanding the geographical nature of our country and addressing clause 39 of Magna Carta—no imprisonment without due legal process.

The Bill addresses a real need to get people off the streets as quickly as possible. The most interesting part of the Bill has been that most extradition seems to revolve around chance encounters; as the Minister said, 60% of people just happen to be stopped in traffic incidents or other minor legal infractions. I am particularly glad that this legislation will enable us to get those people to speedy justice, rather than allowing them to slip through the net for something that might not have been a crime that they would otherwise be arrested for. I am also glad that it does not change any safeguards in our extradition practices; that is a fundamental underlying principle of this legislation. As the legislation only applies to people whose crimes would lead to a sentence of over three years, and is considered a serious offence in the UK, there are quite clearly sensible safeguards in place to protect people.

This piece of legislation is not before time, and I welcome the fact that speedy extensions can be made to new countries via statutory instrument with the appropriate safeguards in place, rather than having to go back to primary legislation. I support the Bill and look forward to its speedy passage through the House.

Oral Answers to Questions

Nick Thomas-Symonds Excerpts
Thursday 3rd October 2019

(11 months, 4 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Attorney General
Mr Geoffrey Cox Portrait The Attorney General - Parliament Live - Hansard
3 Oct 2019, 10:17 a.m.

I have not seen the response to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I can certainly confirm that the Government will comply with the law. I am not convinced that the Prime Minister said anything contrary to that; I would have to look at Hansard.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard
3 Oct 2019, 10:18 a.m.

I have the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019 in front of me, so perhaps the Attorney General can confirm his interpretation of it. The Act is clear that, if this House has not approved a deal or if it has not approved leaving with no deal, the Prime Minister

“must seek to obtain from the European Council an extension”

in the terms set out in the Act. Will the Attorney General confirm that that is what this Act of Parliament requires?

Mr Geoffrey Cox Portrait The Attorney General - Parliament Live - Hansard
3 Oct 2019, 10:18 a.m.

The hon. Gentleman has read it out, and he does not need any confirmation from me. He is a superbly competent lawyer—[Interruption.] So I am told by others on his side of the House. The reality is that the Government will comply with the law.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Parliament Live - Hansard
3 Oct 2019, 10:19 a.m.

I am afraid that confirmation is required from the Attorney General. Let me explain why. We keep being told that the Government will comply with the law, yet the Prime Minister goes around saying that he would rather be dead in a ditch than apply for the extension that he is required to seek under the Act. Does the Attorney General not realise that the Government’s ambiguous position towards the rule of law is damaging our justice system, our society and our international standing? Why does the Attorney General just stand by and let that happen?

Mr Geoffrey Cox Portrait The Attorney General - Parliament Live - Hansard

Because I am quite convinced and completely satisfied that this Government will obey the law.

Legal Advice: Prorogation

Nick Thomas-Symonds Excerpts
Wednesday 25th September 2019

(1 year ago)

Commons Chamber
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Attorney General
Mr Geoffrey Cox Portrait The Attorney General - Parliament Live - Hansard
25 Sep 2019, 11:46 a.m.

I certainly can say to my right hon. and learned Friend that it is important when we reflect on judgments that may be seen to go against the short-term interests of any particular Government that we remember that they stand as precedents and principles for the future. I invite all my hon. Friends to reflect on precisely the situation that my right hon. and learned Friend has set out before the House, which is that this would stand for Governments of a colour of which those on my side would not approve and for their actions too. It is important that when we comment on the decisions of judges we remember that those judges are both impartial and independent, and they are entitled to reach the view that they have reached. We are fortunate in this House to have one of the finest judiciaries, I believe, in the world, and it is important to remember that the principles they set apply to both sides, as my right hon. and learned Friend has said.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard
25 Sep 2019, 11:46 a.m.

I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) for securing the urgent question and for her work on this matter. Yesterday’s decision of the Supreme Court—I give credit to all those who brought the cases—was the most damning judicial indictment of a Government in modern times: that the decision to advise Her Majesty the Queen to prorogue Parliament was unlawful.

This Government stand in shame, tendering illegal advice to our monarch and not even able to uphold that most basic and important of principles: abiding by the rule of law. What we know from yesterday’s leaked document is that the Attorney General said that his advice on the question of the law was that this was

“lawful and within the constitution”,

and that any accusations of unlawfulness were “motivated by political considerations”. If that is in any way accurate as to his full advice, he was wrong on both counts. His “close interest” simply was not enough.

I will ask the Attorney General a number of questions. Can he confirm why the Government gave no witness statement to the Court? Indeed, the Court was left in a position where it said:

“No justification for taking action with such an extreme effect has been put before the court”.

Why not? The Attorney General talks about respecting the decision of the judges, but the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was on the radio this morning saying that he disagrees with the decision. He should tell us which parts of the judgment the Government disagree with. May I give the Attorney General a simple piece of advice for his considerations about the publication of this advice over the next few days—a simple suggestion? Just publish it and make it open to Parliament and the public.

On this Attorney General’s watch, the Government have been found in contempt of Parliament. Now they have been found in contempt of the law. Does he not accept that he does not have a shred of credibility left?

Mr Geoffrey Cox Portrait The Attorney General - Parliament Live - Hansard
25 Sep 2019, 11:49 a.m.

I do not know whether in the hon. Gentleman’s practice at the Bar he felt that just because he had given advice that might not have been upheld by a court he had no credibility. That is an absurd and ridiculous proposition. Furthermore, it was advice that was agreed with by the first instance court in Scotland and by the Lord Chief Justice of England. Is the hon. Gentleman calling for his resignation as well? Is he calling for the resignation of the Master of the Rolls? Is he calling for the resignation of the President of the Queen’s bench division? Is he calling for the resignation of Lord Doherty? [Interruption.]

United Kingdom’s Withdrawal from the European Union

Nick Thomas-Symonds Excerpts
Friday 29th March 2019

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Attorney General
Mr Geoffrey Cox Portrait The Attorney General - Parliament Live - Hansard
29 Mar 2019, 10:01 a.m.

I must make some progress. I am very conscious that it is Friday and that we need to move forward as swiftly as we can.

The House can take a single, decisive step today to afford certainty to the millions of people throughout this country who are waiting for it and to have a short—not prolonged—extension that will bring our exit from the European Union to 22 May. There will be no further uncertainty. The political declaration can be resolved in that time. The ratification of the Bill can proceed with any amendments that might be forthcoming in connection with the subsequent negotiating stage.

I submit to the House the responsible thing. I ask the House to consider and reflect carefully, because what we have before us today is the legal right to extend. No other extension is guaranteed; every other extension would require European parliamentary elections, as the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said. We are therefore at an important crossroads for the purposes of this nation’s future and its history, and I urge all Members of his House to embrace this opportunity now, when this withdrawal agreement, in its substance, is in no way objectionable to any Member willing to consider moving forward with it. In those circumstances, what conceivable point can there be now in not embracing this agreement, subject to further discussions on the political declaration? I urge the House to vote for this agreement.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard
29 Mar 2019, 10:04 a.m.

Members of this House secured a proper meaningful vote for a purpose. It was so that this House would be able to make an informed judgment on the future of our whole country. The point was to know not only the terms of the withdrawal but what the future relationship would look like—a future relationship that would shape our economy and our constituents’ jobs and livelihoods for decades to come. To consider those two things together is vital; it is what this House should rightly expect, and what has always been promised, because it is central to the whole process.

Article 50 itself says:

“the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union.”

If we look at the withdrawal agreement, article 184 specifically refers to the political declaration and even identifies the particular document.

In their letter to the Prime Minister of 14 January, Presidents Juncker and Tusk said this:

“As for the link between the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration, to which you make reference in your letter, it can be made clear that these two documents, while being of a different nature, are part of the same negotiated package. In order to underline the close relationship between the two texts, they can be published side by side in the Official Journal in a manner reflecting the link between the two as provided for in Article 50”.

It is also what the Prime Minister herself has always said. On “Sophy Ridge” on 21 November last year, this was her view:

“we agreed the withdrawal agreement in principle last week, the withdrawal agreement goes alongside the future relationship, it’s the future relationship that actually delivers, if you like, on people’s concerns in the withdrawal agreement.”

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien (Harborough) (Con) - Hansard
29 Mar 2019, 10:04 a.m.

rose—

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Parliament Live - Hansard
29 Mar 2019, 10:05 a.m.

I will give way in a moment. I will just finish this part of my speech.

The Prime Minister continued:

“Getting that future relationship right is necessary but nothing’s agreed until everything is agreed.”

She is not known for her flexibility, so, unsurprisingly, on 14 January in the House, she said again:

“the link between them means that the commitments of one cannot be banked without the commitments of the other.”

Simon Hoare Portrait Simon Hoare (North Dorset) (Con) - Hansard
29 Mar 2019, 10:05 a.m.

rose—

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Parliament Live - Hansard
29 Mar 2019, 10:06 a.m.

Let me finish this section.

The Prime Minister went on:

“The EU has been clear that they come as a package. Bad faith by either side in negotiating the legal instruments that will deliver the future relationship laid out in the political declaration would be a breach of their legal obligations under the withdrawal agreement.”—[Official Report, 14 January 2019; Vol. 652, c. 826.]

How many times have I heard the Attorney General argue from the Dispatch Box, when we have spoken about the backstop and the future relationship, about the importance of reasonable endeavours and good faith in ensuring that we secure a future trade agreement in good time? Yet the Government have now decided to remove from our consideration in the motion today one of the documents against which we can judge bad faith.

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk (Cheltenham) (Con) - Hansard

The fact is that the withdrawal agreement would be accepted by the European Union—that is the first point. The second point is that it sorts out the implementation period and the money and, crucially, that it guarantees citizens’ rights for my constituents, EU nationals and Brits abroad. Which of those factors does the hon. Gentleman actually disagree with? The answer is none.

Break in Debate

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Parliament Live - Hansard
29 Mar 2019, 10:08 a.m.

I will answer. We used to say that the political declaration was so vague that it was a blindfold Brexit. However, we also now know, because the Prime Minister has made it clear that she intends to leave office, that rather than this just being a blindfold Brexit, the Tory party is asking us not only to be blindfolded but to be led into a different room by a different Tory Prime Minister. Let us be clear: this will be a Prime Minister ultimately chosen by Conservative party members, who constitute a tiny part of the wider electorate. The Tory party can talk about the national interest, but it is not in the national interest for the future of our country to be decided by a Tory leadership contest.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab) Parliament Live - Hansard
29 Mar 2019, 10:08 a.m.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He is making excellent points and, in the process, demolishing the premise of the Attorney General’s request to the House today. The Attorney General did not take my intervention, but in his speech he promised mechanisms and processes to Parliament to guarantee a future say. We acted in good faith on section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which put both these things together. With the Government today undermining that mechanism, why should we trust a word the Attorney General says?

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Let me be clear: Labour Members will never leave a Tory Prime Minister free to rip up workers’ rights and protections and to put the jobs and livelihoods of our constituents at risk in a Brexit that would be driven by ideology. As my hon. Friend set out, the motion before us today is clear, and the Attorney General is clear, that it does not even pretend to meet the requirements of section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act.

Martin Whitfield (East Lothian) (Lab) Parliament Live - Hansard
29 Mar 2019, 10:09 a.m.

In the cul-de-sac of certainty that the Government are announcing today, is it not possible that they might seek to appeal or revoke section 13 at some date, which would get them out of their problem?

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Parliament Live - Hansard
29 Mar 2019, 10:09 a.m.

Given the Government’s conduct in negotiations in recent years, who knows? We can rule very little out.

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge (South Suffolk) (Con) - Hansard
29 Mar 2019, 10:10 a.m.

I am grateful to my five-a-side colleague for giving way. Will he kindly tell us: which bits of the withdrawal agreement does he disagree with?

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Parliament Live - Hansard
29 Mar 2019, 10:10 a.m.

We have always been clear: the two documents—the declaration and the withdrawal agreement—have to be taken together. The chicanery of this Government in trying to separate them does them no credit whatsoever. The Government can seek to blame others because they cannot carry out the statutory approval process in their own legislation, but we are here today because this Government have manifestly failed on their central policy over the past two years. The handling of the negotiations has been frankly disastrous.

The Prime Minister took office in July 2016. It was then that she could have tried, after the referendum, to build a cross-party consensus on the way forward. The Prime Minister did not. She called a general election in June 2017; she lost her majority. Knowing then that she was leading a minority Government, again, she could have reached out across this House, and she did not.

Gloria De Piero (Ashfield) (Lab) Parliament Live - Hansard
29 Mar 2019, 10:12 a.m.

People outside this Chamber will rightly wonder what on earth is going on today, so can my hon. Friend confirm, for the benefit of my constituents and the rest of the country, that the Labour party has voted repeatedly for Brexit, but for a different deal—for a Brexit that supports and protects jobs and workers? If the Conservatives would move their red lines a bit, we could honour the result of that referendum, as we all want to do.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Parliament Live - Hansard
29 Mar 2019, 10:12 a.m.

For months and months, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, the shadow Brexit Secretary and many, many others have made it clear to the Prime Minister that if only she would change her red lines, we could reach a consensus on the way forward.

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (SNP) - Parliament Live - Hansard

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that what we have heard today from the Attorney General is an attempt to dress up political shenanigans as a requirement to secure legal certainty, when in actual fact what the Government are trying to do is solve the Tory party’s political problems so that they can usher in an unelected right-wing Prime Minister to negotiate—[Interruption.] Shut up! [Interruption.]

Break in Debate

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry - Parliament Live - Hansard
29 Mar 2019, 10:13 a.m.

Perhaps hon. Members on the Government Benches would like to go and join the mob outside. What this is about today is an attempt to solve the Conservative party’s political problems and usher in a right-wing, unelected Tory Prime Minister to negotiate a Canada-style free trade agreement and a workers’ rights-free Singapore-style economy.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Parliament Live - Hansard
29 Mar 2019, 10:14 a.m.

We talk about political chicanery today, and the hon. and learned Lady is absolutely right. Remember, as well, that today’s was a non-binding motion. I appreciate that you have not chosen any amendments, Mr Speaker, but even if you had, they would not have been binding in any event and the Government could have wriggled out of them in due course.

Jim McMahon Portrait Jim McMahon (Oldham West and Royton) (Lab/Co-op) - Hansard
29 Mar 2019, 10:14 a.m.

I will take no lectures from the SNP, who failed to vote for a customs union that could have created the conditions for a compromise. Can my hon. Friend confirm that it is entirely conceivable—[Interruption.]

Break in Debate

Jim McMahon Portrait Jim McMahon - Hansard

It is entirely conceivable that the motion could be voted through today, but then when we are required to bring forward the meaningful vote, the exact same legislation could be voted down. What type of constitutional crisis would that create?

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Parliament Live - Hansard
29 Mar 2019, 10:14 a.m.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is promoting uncertainty rather than providing certainty.

Simon Hoare Portrait Simon Hoare - Parliament Live - Hansard
29 Mar 2019, 10:14 a.m.

rose—

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Parliament Live - Hansard
29 Mar 2019, 10:14 a.m.

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but then I must make some progress.

Simon Hoare Portrait Simon Hoare - Hansard
29 Mar 2019, 10:15 a.m.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. It was the EU Council itself that separated these two strands of the process. Both strands have to be delivered. The letter that he referred to from Presidents Tusk and Juncker, while referring to both parts of the package, in no way suggested that they had to be voted upon on the same day or simultaneously. May I put it gently to the hon. Gentleman that he is dancing on the head of a pin to provide a fig leaf?

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Parliament Live - Hansard

The hon. Gentleman should read section 13 of the EU withdrawal Act, which he voted for and which is very clear that the two documents have to be approved together.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Parliament Live - Hansard
29 Mar 2019, 10:15 a.m.

I am going to make some progress; I have given way a number of times.

The Prime Minister signed off the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration in November. She was originally supposed to hold the meaningful vote on 11 December. Since the day she took the decision to abandon that vote—the day before it was due to take place—109 days have passed. She knew then that the deal was going to be defeated by a substantial margin, but she ploughed on. On 15 January, the Government suffered the biggest defeat in parliamentary history, by a margin of 230 votes, on the first meaningful vote. Two weeks later, on 29 January, the Prime Minister promised the House that she would change the withdrawal agreement:

“What I am talking about is not a further exchange of letters but a significant and legally binding change to the withdrawal agreement. Negotiating such a change will not be easy. It will involve reopening the withdrawal agreement”.—[Official Report, 29 January 2019; Vol. 653, c. 678.]

At this late stage in negotiations, any withdrawal agreement would have required the backstop. It was always totally unrealistic for the Prime Minister to pretend that she could drop the backstop entirely or make substantive changes to the withdrawal agreement, yet she wasted weeks and weeks on this fruitless pursuit, including voting for the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady), which required the Northern Ireland backstop to be replaced by “alternative arrangements”. Those arrangements have not been secured and they could never have been secured.

On 12 March, the Government suffered the fourth largest defeat in parliamentary history, by a margin of 149 votes, on the second meaningful vote. And now the Government are trying to carve out the withdrawal agreement, in a last-ditch attempt to save a botched deal that has failed to even come close to commanding the support of a majority of this House. This Prime Minister has recklessly run down the clock. She knows that her deal is unacceptable and she has failed time and time again to listen and to change course.

Too often this Government have ignored motions of this House. It took Parliament to fight for a meaningful vote on the two documents, the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration, to be considered together. To suggest that they should be considered separately now is to go back on what the Government have been saying about the importance of the link between them for months and months.

Gareth Snell Hansard
29 Mar 2019, 10:18 a.m.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. As always, he is giving a fine performance at the Dispatch Box highlighting the Labour party’s position, but could I seek from him two points of clarity? As was made clear by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero), the Labour party has on numerous occasions put forward what we consider to be an acceptable form of Brexit. If the Prime Minister were to relent on her red lines and accept that form of Brexit, and the Labour party were to consider that acceptable, can he confirm for me whether the Labour party would still consider that deal as requiring a confirmatory public vote? Secondly, when this deal fails this evening, our choice on 12 April will be no deal or a lengthy extension. Can he outline for me what length of extension the Labour party will be seeking and for what purpose?

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard
29 Mar 2019, 10:19 a.m.

The purpose of the extension is always the critical issue. Let me just say, in respect of the issue of a—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker Hansard
29 Mar 2019, 10:19 a.m.

Order. Mr Seely, calm yourself. Your attempt to intervene was politely rejected. Do not holler across the Chamber, man. Calm yourself—Zen.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard
29 Mar 2019, 10:20 a.m.

I say to my hon. Friend that we have raised the idea of a comprehensive customs union for months and months. That has not been properly considered because of the Prime Minister; it is nothing to do with the Opposition. Let me be clear: we will never mortgage all our futures on the outcome of a Conservative party leadership contest which most Members have no control over at all and would have to sit back and watch.

Without the clarity and protections that we need in the political declaration, we should not approve this withdrawal agreement. Today’s vote is a shoddy gimmick from a desperate Government trying to hide away from the reality that a meaningful vote on the political declaration and the withdrawal agreement still needs to be brought back to the House. For months and months, the Prime Minister’s deal has simply created division and discord when we needed consensus on the way forward. The national interest is in building consensus for a future that protects the jobs and livelihoods of all our constituents. That is why the House should reject this motion.

Sir William Cash Portrait Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con) - Parliament Live - Hansard

We have heard a great deal—[Interruption.]

Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Opinion

(1st reading: House of Commons)
Nick Thomas-Symonds Excerpts
Tuesday 12th March 2019

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Attorney General
Mr Geoffrey Cox Portrait The Attorney General - Parliament Live - Hansard
12 Mar 2019, 12:38 p.m.

In my view, as a matter of law, the provisions relating to the timing of the efforts to be made in resolving withdrawal agreements make time of the essence in the negotiation of a subsequent agreement. A doctrine with which the lawyers in the House will be familiar is of legal relevance. In my opinion, the provisions of the joint instrument extend beyond mere interpretation of the withdrawal agreement, and represent materially new legal obligations and commitments which enhance its existing terms.

Let me now turn to the unilateral declaration. It records the United Kingdom’s position that, if it were not possible to conclude a subsequent agreement to replace the protocol because of a breach by the Union of its duty of good faith, it would be entitled to take measures to disapply the provisions of the protocol in accordance with the withdrawal agreement’s dispute resolution procedures and article 20, to which I have referred. There is no doubt, in my view, that the clarifications and amplified obligations contained in the joint statement and the unilateral declaration provide a substantive and binding reinforcement of the legal rights available to the UK in the event that the Union were to fail in its duties of good faith and best endeavours.

I have in this statement, and in the letter that I have published today, set out, frankly and candidly, my view of the legal effect of the new instruments that the Government have agreed with the Union. However, the matters of law affecting withdrawal can only inform what is essentially a political decision that each of us must make. This is a question not of the lawfulness of the Government’s action but of the prudence, as a matter of policy and political judgment, of entering into an international agreement on the terms proposed.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard
12 Mar 2019, 12:42 p.m.

I am grateful to the Attorney General for his statement and for advance sight of it.

The Attorney General made it clear in his original advice of 13 November on the backstop protocol that:

“In international law the Protocol would endure indefinitely until a superseding agreement took its place, in whole or in part”,

and he was right, because article 178 of the withdrawal agreement is clear that the remedy of suspension of obligations is only ever meant to be temporary to secure compliance to the agreement and not as a gateway to a full exit.

So people quite rightly ask now what has changed. In her Strasbourg statement the Prime Minister said the joint interpretative instrument makes three changes. She said, first, that the UK can challenge the EU in an arbitration panel if the EU is found in breach of good faith and suspend the backstop. But that was already in article 178 of the withdrawal agreement; it is not new. Secondly, the Prime Minister said there is a legal commitment that whatever replaces the backstop does not need to replicate it, but the January letter of Presidents Tusk and Juncker said:

“Any arrangements which supersede the Protocol are not required to replicate its provisions in any respect”;

it is not new. Thirdly, the Prime Minister said it entrenches in legally binding form the commitments made in the exchange of letters with Presidents Tusk and Juncker in January, but on 14 January the Prime Minister told this House:

“My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General has also written to me today confirming that in the light of the joint response from the Presidents of the European Council and the Commission, these conclusions ‘would have legal force in international law’.”—[Official Report, 14 January 2019; Vol. 652, c. 824.]

That is not new either.

I am going to take the Attorney General at his word, because he said in his Mail on Sunday interview:

“I will not change my opinion unless I’m sure there is no legal risk of us being indefinitely detained in the backstop.”

I am going to be fair to the Attorney General: he has not changed his opinion. Let us read his advice to this House at paragraph 19:

“the legal risk remains unchanged that if through no such demonstrable failure of either party, but simply because of intractable differences, that situation does arise, the United Kingdom would have, at least while the fundamental circumstances remained the same, no internationally lawful means of exiting the Protocol’s arrangements, save by agreement.”

I say to the Attorney General that paragraphs 15 to 19 of his advice constitute seven sentences that destroy the Government’s strategy of recent weeks—that sink the Government’s case that they had any chance of securing a right, under international law, to unilaterally exit the protocol’s arrangements. We have gone from having “a nothing has changed” Prime Minister to having “a nothing has changed” Attorney General.

In fairness to the Attorney General it is not just his view: it is the view of a number of other respected lawyers, including Professor Philippe Sands, Professor Sir David Edward and the Government’s own former counter-terror watchdog, now Lord Anderson QC. The Attorney General knows that speaking about reasonable endeavours and bad faith is one thing, but he can confirm the reality, which is that the new documents do nothing about the situation when the talks with the EU are at a stalemate not because of bad faith, but simply because both sides cannot reach an agreement.

Proving bad faith is extraordinarily difficult, and the Attorney General points that out in paragraph 16 of his own advice. The strongest remedy in this withdrawal agreement, even with this document, remains a temporary suspension. Indeed, we need only look at his own legal advice to see that, at paragraph 9, which speaks of

“suspension of all or parts of the Protocol, including the backstop, until there is satisfactory compliance.”

Trade talks can break down for a variety of reasons. For two parties to act on the basis of their own interests is not bad faith, and the Attorney General knows it. In these circumstances, despite any assurances about the temporary nature of the backstop, the reality is that it can endure indefinitely. Ninety-two days after the Prime Minister abandoned the first meaningful vote, in this Attorney General’s view

“the legal risk remains unchanged”.

What the Attorney General was asked to do, and what the Prime Minister promised in this House on 29 January—to change the text of the withdrawal agreement—simply is not possible. He is a lawyer; he is not a magician. Does not this whole episode of recent weeks show that when national leadership is required, this Prime Minister, as always, puts party before country?

Mr Geoffrey Cox Portrait The Attorney General - Parliament Live - Hansard
12 Mar 2019, 12:45 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman asks me about my opinion. He knows that my opinion is that there is no ultimate unilateral right out of this arrangement. The risk of that continues, but the question is whether it is a likelihood, politically. One thing that we did not hear from him is what the Labour party’s position is on the backstop. Does they accept the backstop? Do they think it is a good thing? If they think it is a good thing, why on earth are they criticising it? Or is this just the usual political opportunism that one expects to hear from the Front Bench of the Labour party?

The hon. Gentleman says to me that there is nothing new in this agreement, but that is not so, and some of the authorities that he has quoted are saying that this morning. There are material new obligations—for example, in relation to alternative arrangements. There is now a heavy emphasis upon a swift and expedited track to negotiate them, and it would be unconscionable if, having made that emphasis and having said that time was of the essence, the European Union simply refused to consider or adopt reasonable proposals relating to alternative arrangements. That is new. What this document does is address the risk that we could be kept in the backstop by the bad faith and deliberate manipulation of the Union. This makes significant reductions in that risk.

I say to the hon. Gentleman that it would be a good thing if we could hear from the Labour party just occasionally not only political shenanigans but some sincere engagement with the real issues that this withdrawal agreement now raises. The question now is: do we assume our responsibilities as a House and allow not only this country—yearning as it is for us to move on—but the entire continent of Europe to move on? To do that, the time has come now to vote for this deal.

Northern Ireland Backstop

Nick Thomas-Symonds Excerpts
Tuesday 19th February 2019

(1 year, 7 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Attorney General
Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard
19 Feb 2019, 12:39 p.m.

(Urgent Question): To ask the Attorney General if he will make a statement on options for legally binding changes to the Northern Ireland protocol of the EU withdrawal agreement, which contains the backstop arrangement.

Robert Buckland Portrait The Solicitor General (Robert Buckland) - Parliament Live - Hansard
19 Feb 2019, 12:40 p.m.

Before I answer the hon. Gentleman, my constituents would expect me briefly to express their dismay and deep concern about Honda’s announcement this morning, which will deeply affect the community. I anticipate the statement of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy—

Break in Debate

Robert Buckland Portrait The Solicitor General - Parliament Live - Hansard
19 Feb 2019, 12:41 p.m.

I am very sorry, Mr Speaker, but I said what I said.

The Government recognise the legitimate desire of Members on both sides of the House to understand the legal effect of the proposed withdrawal agreement. On 12 February, the Prime Minister set out ways in which legally binding changes to the backstop could be achieved. She explained that the UK and the EU would hold further talks to find a way forward. Those discussions are ongoing, and it would not be appropriate to provide a running commentary.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Parliament Live - Hansard
19 Feb 2019, 12:42 p.m.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker, and I thank the Solicitor General for responding. The reality is that there are 38 days until we leave the EU, and in all likelihood eight days until the next round of voting, and we are nowhere nearer having any further clarity on this issue. All this time, our economy, our jobs and our futures are affected by that uncertainty.

On 29 January, the Prime Minister told the House:

“What I am talking about is not a further exchange of letters but a significant and legally binding change to the withdrawal agreement. Negotiating such a change will not be easy. It will involve reopening the withdrawal agreement”.—[Official Report, 29 January 2019; Vol. 653, c. 678.]

Can the Solicitor General confirm that it is still Government policy to formally reopen the withdrawal agreement? If not, what positive, concrete proposals are the Government suggesting? Can he confirm whether the Government have actually put forward those proposals as options to the European Commission and the European Council?

Yesterday, on Radio 4’s “Today” programme, the Minister for the Cabinet Office said:

“The Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, is closely involved with the negotiations too, and he will be making a speech on Tuesday to set out how, in his view, the legal tests that he has set, about ensuring that the so-called backstop cannot be used to trap the United Kingdom indefinitely, could be met and overcome.”

Can the Solicitor General clarify exactly what the Attorney General’s role is in the negotiations and when he will publish those legal tests? Are the Government seeking, as is reported in the media, a “joint interpretive instrument” on the withdrawal agreement, some sort of annexe to it, another exchange of letters, or changes to the political declaration?

We are about to make a momentous decision on the future of our country. The Government need to be clear with this House about precisely what their strategy is. Running down the clock is reckless and irresponsible. Surely this nation deserves better than a Government wandering in the wilderness, not even sure about what their next move is.

Robert Buckland Portrait The Solicitor General - Parliament Live - Hansard

What would be reckless and irresponsible is for the Government to provide a running commentary on sensitive negotiations. I would have thought it is as plain as a pikestaff to the hon. Gentleman that that is not the way negotiations should be conducted. Let the Government get on with this work at pace, which is what we are doing.

Rather than criticising from the sidelines, it now behoves the hon. Gentleman and all Opposition Members to work for a constructive solution and end the uncertainty. It is in his hands as much as it is in the hands of the Government.

European Union (Withdrawal) Act

Nick Thomas-Symonds Excerpts
Tuesday 15th January 2019

(1 year, 8 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Attorney General
Mr Geoffrey Cox Portrait The Attorney General - Hansard
15 Jan 2019, 1:58 p.m.

I say to the House with the greatest respect, we must seize this opportunity now. This is the key—the first of two—by which we unlock our future outside the European Union. I believe that it is an exciting future. I believe that the opportunity for this House to hold the pen on 40% of our laws, from the environment through to agriculture and fishing, should excite us as an opportunity to do good in this country.

Let us not forget, however, that many outside this House as well as in it wish to frustrate the great end to which the people of this country committed us on 23 June 2016—17.4 million of them in hundreds of constituencies, regardless of party, voted to part company with a political structure that no longer commanded their assent. We should be deeply grateful, because in other ages and other places, such a moment could only have been achieved by means that all of us present would deplore—but we should not underestimate the significance of the moment because it was expressed peacefully by the ballot.

If we approve this agreement, we know that we shall leave the EU on 29 March in an orderly way, and can commence negotiation of the permanent treaties. This agreement and the accompanying political declaration are the two keys that unlock the demand of the electorate that we should repatriate control over vast areas of our laws that hitherto have been in the exclusive legislative competence of the EU. If we do not take that first step, history will judge us harshly, because we will be plunged into uncertainty.

If this vote fails today, those who wish to prevent our departure will seek to promote the conclusion that it is all too difficult and that the Government should ask the electorate to think again. That is why former Prime Ministers and their spin doctors, and all their great panjandrums of the past, are joining the chorus to condemn this deal, for they know that this deal is the key. There is no other. Destroy it—in some form or other, the only practicable deal—and the path to Brexit becomes shrouded in obscurity. If we should be so deceived as to permit that, when historians come to write of this moment, future ages would marvel that the huge repatriation of powers that this agreement entails—over immigration, fisheries, agriculture, the supremacy of our laws and courts—was rejected because somehow it did not seem enough and because of the Northern Ireland backstop.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard
15 Jan 2019, 1:58 p.m.

I am happy to open today’s debate for the Opposition and to follow the Attorney General—I am, of course, grateful for his remarks over the past hour. I was also pleased to see his letter to the Prime Minister yesterday, which gave advice on the backstop protocol and the latest exchange of letters, and to receive it without the need for a contempt motion on this occasion.

On 3 December, I was sitting at this Dispatch Box when the Attorney General made his statement on the legal position. He said of Members:

“It is time that they grew up and got real.”

He had even said to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman):

“There is nothing to see here.”—[Official Report, 3 December 2018; Vol. 650, c. 557-563.]

After the Government were found to be in contempt of Parliament, however, and he had published his advice the next day, it turned out that there was everything to see here, and that it was the Government who needed to get real.

Let us be clear about what the Attorney General advised. What did he say about the backstop protocol? He said:

“Therefore, despite statements in the Protocol that it is not intended to be permanent, and the clear intention of the parties that it should be replaced by alternative, permanent arrangements, in international law the Protocol would endure indefinitely until a superseding agreement took its place, in whole or in part, as set out therein.”

Which parts of the backstop are more likely than others to remain, even in the event of a trade deal being agreed, he has never actually told us. He added:

“There are numerous references in the Protocol to its temporary nature but there is no indication of how long such temporary arrangements could last.”

On Northern Ireland, incidentally, the Attorney General said:

“GB is essentially treated as a third country by NI for goods passing from GB into NI”—

those are his own words. The Attorney General even said:

“The Protocol appears to assume that the negotiations will result in an agreement.”

Are we in the House to assume, given the conduct of the negotiations, that this Government will be able to negotiate a full future trade deal in time for the protocol not to come into effect?

Michael Gove Portrait The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Michael Gove) - Parliament Live - Hansard

Yes.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Parliament Live - Hansard

Nick Macpherson, the former permanent secretary to the Treasury, disagrees with the Secretary of State. I know that the right hon. Gentleman is not a fan of experts, but perhaps he will listen to this one for a moment. Mr Macpherson said:

“There is no way the UK will negotiate a trade deal with the EU by December 2020. Even 2022 is optimistic. Mid-2020s more likely.”

As a matter of law, as a shadow Law Officer, I ask myself whether there is anything to prevent the backstop from becoming permanent:

“As a matter of international law, no there is not—it would endure indefinitely, pending a future agreement being arranged”.—[Official Report, 3 December 2018; Vol. 650, c. 553.]

They are not my words, but those of the Attorney General in this House.

I have to state, clearly, for the House that, as the Opposition, the Labour party is committed to the Good Friday agreement—an agreement that my constituency predecessor, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, helped to negotiate when he chaired the peace talks. That was one of the greatest achievements of any Government since 1945. Labour Members are committed to the long-lasting peace that has been achieved since 1998 and care deeply about the livelihoods and communities of the people who live on the Northern Ireland-Ireland border.

Our position is that a permanent customs union, with a say in external trade deals, a strong single market relationship and guarantees on rights and protections, would have rendered a backstop unnecessary.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove - Parliament Live - Hansard

Name me a single other country that is in a customs union with the EU that has a say over trade deals. Is not this an unprecedented legal and political novelty of the kind that is rightly called a unicorn?

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard

Let me be clear that I would want our own arrangements. The Secretary of State asks me to give an example of that particular theoretical possibility. It is not one that I wish to emulate, but Turkey is one of them, if he actually looks at it. Secondly—[Interruption.] No, let me respond to the Secretary of State on this. He will vote this evening for a backstop that itself contains a bespoke customs arrangement—[Interruption.] It has a say, and that is the difference, as the Secretary of State should admit.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove - Hansard

You’re wrong.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard

No, I am not.

Let me be clear: this backstop provides only a bare bones customs union, and that is why we cannot support it.

Lady Hermon Hansard

May I inform the hon. Gentleman—I am sure he already knows—that the vast majority of farmers, businesses, fishermen and community leaders in Northern Ireland strongly support this deal negotiated by the Government? I heard his warm words about his support for the Good Friday agreement, but actions speak louder than words. Voting down the Brexit deal tonight will be a clear signal that the Labour party does not care about the consequences for the Good Friday agreement.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Parliament Live - Hansard
15 Jan 2019, 1:59 p.m.

I have great respect for the hon. Lady, but I fundamentally disagree with her final remark. There is a commitment to the Good Friday agreement among Labour Members. My constituency has great pride in the agreement because the peace talks were chaired by my predecessor—we have great respect for it and want to protect it.

Let me be clear why we cannot support the bespoke customs union within the backstop: it would have no proper governance; firms based in Britain, rather than Northern Ireland, would be outside the single market facing barriers to trade; and the protections for workers and the environment would be unenforceable non-regression clauses that would see the UK fall behind over time. The arrangement falls far short of what Labour has argued for.

What other routes are there to an exit from the backstop? I asked the Attorney General about international treaties that the UK has no unilateral right to terminate. His response was to direct me to the Vienna convention on the law of treaties. Even if it applied—and it only applies between states—the Attorney General knows this is clutching at straws. First, it is said, we could argue that the EU was not using “best endeavours” to complete our future trade agreement and that that constituted a “material breach” under article 60 of the convention. The Attorney General has said, in relation to article 2.1 of the backstop protocol, that

“it is the duty of the parties to negotiate a superseding agreement. That must be done using best endeavours, pursuant to Article 184 of the Withdrawal agreement. This is subject also to the duty of good faith, which is both implied by international law, and expressly created by Article 5 of the Withdrawal Agreement”.

But he has also said:

“The duty of good faith and to use best endeavours is a legally enforceable duty. There is no doubt that it is difficult to prove.”

Again, those are the words of the Attorney General. He knows that that is the case.

Secondly, we could try to argue that there had been a “fundamental change of circumstances” under article 62 of the Vienna convention, but we could not credibly argue that entering the backstop was such a change in circumstances when the situation is clearly set out in the withdrawal agreement in such a way. To say that a scenario we are all aware of and debating now represents a fundamental departure would not wash with anyone, as the Attorney General knows. It is not so much an airlock as a padlock, and it is a padlock with two key holders, of which we are only one.

What changed over Christmas? What has been achieved by delaying the vote? The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs told us on the morning of the vote that it was

“definitely, 100%, going to happen”.

We all know what happened after that—it is one of many incidents during this process that has led many of us to disbelieve so much that the Government say. The Prime Minister said in her statement later that day:

“I have heard those concerns and I will now do everything I possibly can to secure further assurances”.

The Leader of the House said:

“The Prime Minister has been clear that the vote will take place when she believes she has the legal assurances that Parliament needs that the backstop will not be permanent.”—[Official Report, 10 December 2018; Vol. 651, c. 25-84.]

The International Trade Secretary, went even further, saying that it would be

“very difficult to support the deal without changes to the backstop”.

He was not sure that the Cabinet would agree for it to be put to the House of Commons.

What actually happened? The Prime Minister went to the European Council but could not persuade leaders to give her the conclusions she wanted. The Christmas break came and went. We got a document on commitments to Northern Ireland that did nothing to change the legal text and then, yesterday, letters appeared between the Prime Minister on the one hand, and the President of the European Council and the President of the Commission on the other.

Anna Soubry Parliament Live - Hansard
15 Jan 2019, 1:59 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman is making a case about trust, and that is what the country is being asked to do—make this great leap of faith. We do not know what our future trading and security relationships will be. The sorry story is that all the way through the past two and a half years we have had a series of promises that have not been delivered. He will remember, for example, the then Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), saying at the Dispatch Box that we would have a deal before we left that would convey the “exact same benefits” of our current membership of the single market and the customs union. That is what is troubling people. This is a blindfold Brexit and that is why people will not vote for it.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard

The right hon. Lady is right and I am sure that she has noted the inconsistency. The Attorney General said only a few moments ago that we could not expect to have anything detailed negotiated at this stage, but that is precisely what the Government had previously promised. How are we supposed to believe those conflicting statements?

Karin Smyth Portrait Karin Smyth (Bristol South) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard
15 Jan 2019, 2:10 p.m.

That point is exactly at the heart of this question of trust. The Attorney General just committed the EU to not agreeing to future trade deals, in response to our request for a customs union, but he refused to say—the Government still refuse to do so—whether the Government will commit to a customs union in that future trade agreement. If they were to do so, there would be no need for this discussion about the backstop or about the matter of trust that the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) talked about.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Parliament Live - Hansard
15 Jan 2019, 2:10 p.m.

My hon. Friend highlights the really vague nature of the political declaration, which I will come back to in a moment.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Parliament Live - Hansard
15 Jan 2019, 2:10 p.m.

They are queueing up! I will give way to the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans), but then I need to make some progress.

Mr Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con) - Parliament Live - Hansard
15 Jan 2019, 2:10 p.m.

We have talked about trust and promises, which are vital. We promised to deliver on the outcome of the referendum. It was this House that gave the people the referendum in the first place. We passed our sovereignty to the people and promised that we would deliver on their verdict. That verdict was to leave the European Union. Does not the hon. Gentleman believe that if we failed to deliver on that verdict, it would be seen as one of the greatest betrayals of trust in this country?

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Parliament Live - Hansard
15 Jan 2019, 2:10 p.m.

My constituents, like those of the hon. Gentleman, voted to leave the EU, and I voted to trigger article 50 in good faith and in line with their wishes. I sincerely hoped that there would by now be something significantly better before this House that we could all have supported and got around.

Daniel Kawczynski Portrait Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con) - Hansard

rose—

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard
15 Jan 2019, 2:10 p.m.

I am going to make some progress, but I will give way again in a moment.

I want to move on to the letter that has been sent by President Juncker and President Tusk, page 2 of which states:

“The European Council also said that, if the backstop were nevertheless to be triggered, it would only apply temporarily, unless and until it is superseded by a subsequent agreement”.

They again spoke about “best endeavours” and about the backstop being in place only for as long as “strictly necessary”, but we all know that that represents no difference at all to the position on which the Attorney General advised in December. Have there been any changes to the withdrawal agreement text? None. Changes to the possible interpretations of it? None. Changes to the reassurances available? None. What did the Attorney General himself say in his latest letter to the Prime Minister about the Council’s conclusions and their impact on the Northern Ireland protocol? He said that

“they do not alter the fundamental meaning of its provisions as I advised them to be on 13 November 2018.”

To coin a phrase, nothing has changed.

Daniel Kawczynski Portrait Daniel Kawczynski - Hansard
15 Jan 2019, 2:10 p.m.

rose—

Simon Hoare Portrait Simon Hoare (North Dorset) (Con) - Hansard

rose—

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard
15 Jan 2019, 2:10 p.m.

I want to make some progress.

I made it clear in response to an intervention that my constituency of Torfaen voted to leave. I respect everyone who voted. In good faith, and in line with their wishes, I voted to trigger article 50 to start the process of our withdrawal. I wish there were a withdrawal agreement worthy of wide support across this House. I wish there were a political declaration that actually did point a way to a future that secured our economy, our jobs and our futures, and that it was not the meaningless text—the leap in the dark—that it actually is. Now, more than ever, we need to unite the country away from fractious debate and towards a shared vision of our future.

The Prime Minister says she wants to unite, but all she has done is divide. She failed to unilaterally guarantee the rights of EU citizens at the outset, which would have been the right thing to do, creating good will on both sides. Her red lines created more problems than they solved, and she has negotiated issues in an order and a way that made a backstop inevitable. The Prime Minister has had two years to reach out across the House for consensus, but she has failed to do so. Instead of speaking to others, she has stayed in her bunker. Now she only speaks at the concrete walls, unable to deliver the changes needed.

This country deserves so much better than this totally inadequate agreement. We hoped for more in the 916 days since the Prime Minister first stood on the steps of No. 10 with what have proved to be completely empty promises. I stand here today, nearly four years after I was first elected, knowing that we can and must do better at this key moment in our history. For that reason, the Prime Minister’s deal should be voted down by this House.

Mr Speaker Hansard

Order. The first of the approximately 70 Members wishing to speak from the Back Benches is the Father of the House, Mr Kenneth Clarke.

Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Position

Nick Thomas-Symonds Excerpts
Monday 3rd December 2018

(1 year, 9 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text
Attorney General
Mr Geoffrey Cox Portrait The Attorney General (Mr Geoffrey Cox) - Parliament Live - Hansard
3 Dec 2018, 4:32 p.m.

It is very good of the Prime Minister to warm up for me today.

With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement to the House. I should make clear the context in which I consider that I am to do so today; my statement is intended to inform the debate that is shortly to commence on the motion to approve the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration on the future relationship concluded with the European Union by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

It is important to understand how the Law Officers habitually give their advice, which may be a mixture of oral and written communications given at different times during fast-developing events. Ministers are advised by their own departmental lawyers, and the points that arise for consideration of the Law Officers are invariably limited to the relatively few of particular importance to the policy decision of the Government. Therefore, my statement today is complemented by a detailed legal commentary, provided for the purpose of the debate and published this morning, that analyses the effect of the agreement as a whole. That legal commentary has been produced with my oversight and approval, and I commend it to the House as both an accurate examination of the provisions of the agreement and a helpful exposition of some of the salient issues that arise from them.

There is, of course, no want of other sources of helpful commentary available to the House, and in making this statement in these unusual circumstances and in answering any questions that hon. Members may have, I consider that I have a solemn and constitutional duty to this House to advise it on these legal questions objectively and impartially, and to place such legal expertise as I have at its disposal. The historical precedents strongly support that view. The House may be sure that I shall discharge this duty with uncompromising and rigorous fidelity. If this agreement is to pass this House, as I strongly believe it should, I do not believe that it can or should pass under any misapprehension whatsoever as to the legal matters on which that judgment should be based.

It is important to recall that the matters of law affecting the withdrawal can only inform what is essentially a political decision that each of us must make. This is a question not of the lawfulness of the Government’s action but of the prudence, as a matter of policy and political judgment, of entering into an international agreement on the terms proposed. In the time available to me, it is impossible to have covered each of the matters of law that might arise from 585 pages of complicated legal text, and no Attorney General—certainly not this one—can instantly possess the answers to all of the pertinent questions that the skill and ingenuity of hon. Members may devise.

However, I am aware that there are certain parts of the agreement the meaning of which attracts the close and keen interest of the House, and it is to some of these that I now turn: first, the Northern Ireland protocol and some of the other provisions of the withdrawal agreement relevant to it. The protocol would come into force, if needed, on the conclusion of the implementation period on 31 December 2020 unless, pursuant to article 132 of the agreement, both the UK and the EU agreed to a single extension for a fixed time of up to one or two years. By article 1, the protocol confirms that it would affect neither the constitutional status of Northern Ireland nor the principle of consent as set out in the Belfast or Good Friday agreement. The statutory guarantee that a majority in Northern Ireland would be required to consent to a change in its constitutional status as part of the United Kingdom and the associated amendment to the Irish constitution to remove its previous territorial claim remain in place.

Once in force, by article 2.1 of the protocol, the parties would be obliged, in good faith, to use their best endeavours to conclude by 31 December 2020 an agreement that supersedes it. There is a separate but closely related duty on the parties under article 184 to negotiate expeditiously and use best endeavours in good faith to conclude an agreement in line with the political declaration. Having regard to those obligations, by article 1.4 of the protocol, it is expressly agreed not to be intended to establish a permanent relationship but to be temporary. That language reflects the fact that article 50 of the Treaty on European Union does not provide a legal basis in Union law for permanent future arrangements with non-member states.

If either party did not comply with its obligations of good faith after the implementation period, it would be open to them to bring a complaint under the dispute settlement provisions set out in articles 164 to 181 of the agreement. These include independent arbitration. Clear and convincing evidence would be required to establish a breach of that obligation. If the protocol were to come into force, it would continue to apply in international law unless and until it was superseded by the intended subsequent agreement which achieved the stated objectives of maintaining the necessary conditions for continued north-south co-operation, avoiding a hard border and protecting the Belfast agreement in all its dimensions.

There is therefore no unilateral right for either party to terminate this arrangement. This means that if no superseding agreement can be reached within the implementation period, the protocol would be activated and in international law would subsist even if negotiations had broken down. How likely that is to happen is a political question, to which the answer will no doubt depend partly on the extent to which it is in either party’s interests to remain indefinitely within its arrangements.

Under the protocol, the UK would form with the EU a single customs territory for goods for fiscal or tariff purposes. Accordingly, Northern Ireland would form part of the same customs territory as Great Britain, with no tariffs, quotas or checks on rules of origin between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. However, Northern Ireland would additionally apply defined aspects of the EU’s single market rules relating to the regulation and control of the supply of electricity on the island of Ireland; goods, including cross-border VAT rules; and the EU customs code. Those rules would be enforced as they are now, including preliminary references from Northern Ireland courts to the Court of Justice of the European Union.

By those means, the need for any hard border would be avoided, and goods originating in Northern Ireland would be entitled to free circulation throughout the EU’s single market. In all other respects of its regulatory regime, Northern Ireland would follow the applicable UK legislation, save where those were devolved. By article 7, a Northern Ireland business would also enjoy the same free circulation of its goods throughout the United Kingdom, while its EU competitor—whether situated in the Republic of Ireland or elsewhere in the single market—would not.

I turn to the role of Union law and the CJEU under the withdrawal agreement and within the dispute settlement provisions. It is important to place these provisions in the context of the objectives of the agreement, which is the orderly exit of the UK from the EU for our citizens and businesses. To that end, following the implementation period, the agreement provides for the continued application of Union law in defined and strictly limited respects, where it is necessary or desirable for legal certainty to do so.

Although we will legally leave the EU and cease to be a member state on 29 March 2019, part 4 of the agreement provides for an implementation or transition period of 21 months, which is designed to enable our people and our businesses to adjust to the changes that are coming. During that implementation period, so as to give the time, predictability and continuity that is needed, it is provided that Union law should continue to apply, and the laws, systems and institutions of the EU will have the same role and functions as before.

But on the conclusion of that period, on 31 December 2020, that will come to an end. Thereafter, Union law and the Court of Justice will possess a relevance in the United Kingdom only in so far as it is necessary, in limited and specific areas, for the winding down of the obligations of our relationship of 45 years. For example, the rights of our own citizens living in EU member states and of EU citizens in the United Kingdom are created and defined by Union law. If they are to be preserved in equal measure and with the necessary consistency and certainty, it is inevitable that the mutually protected residence and social security rights of those particular groups of people must continue to be defined by reference to that law. Those rights are provided for in part 2 of the agreement.

Our citizens living in member states throughout the EU will continue, as is natural, to depend for their ultimate protection on the CJEU, while EU citizens living in the United Kingdom will look to the UK independent monitoring authority set up under article 159 and to the UK courts. But they will no longer be able, as now, to require our Supreme Court to refer a question of interpretation of their rights under Union law to the CJEU where the determination of such a question is necessary to resolve a dispute.

Instead, pursuant to article 158, the UK courts, for a fixed period of eight years only, may refer—I repeat, may refer—to the CJEU a question of interpretation of part 2 of the agreement in the interests of achieving consistency in the enforcement of the rights of citizens while the new system is established. After that time, our courts will, pursuant to article 4.5, continue to interpret concepts and provisions of Union law in the areas in which the agreement applies it as they always have, and to have due regard to relevant post-implementation case law where, for example, it may be required for the practical operation of the agreement, such as in regard to the co-ordination of social security rights for the protected EU and UK citizens.

Part 3 deals with the lawful conclusion of judicial and administrative proceedings, transactions, processes and other matters that have arisen or commenced under Union legal frameworks before the end of the implementation period, and to which Union law and the role of institutions must continue to apply for their orderly disposition. It allows a four-year limitation period on the power of the Commission to refer to the Court an alleged breach of an obligation incurred prior to the end of the implementation period.

Part 5 deals with our agreed financial obligations. It provides, under article 160, for Union law and the jurisdiction of the Court to apply beyond the implementation period only for the time and purpose of closing out the UK’s financial obligations and entitlements incurred under Union law, again prior to the end of that period.

All of these are inherently time-limited functions, and once they are at an end the Court will have no jurisdiction in relation to disputes involving citizens and businesses in the United Kingdom. A dispute between the EU and the UK about the systemic operation or interpretation of the agreement may be referred by either side to an independent arbitration panel in which the Court has no automatic role, but if the panel needs to and a question of interpretation of Union law is relevant to the dispute, it can ask the Court to resolve that question. It is then for the panel to apply that interpretation to the facts of the dispute, and thus decide how the dispute should be resolved.

The divorce and separation of nations from long and intimate unions, just as of human beings, stirs high emotion and calls for wisdom and forbearance. It calls also for calm and measured evaluation by the House of the terms of the separation agreement in the light of the complexity and difficulty of the task it is intended to achieve. The gradual loosening and removal of the legal ties that have bound us to the European Union for 45 years will take time to work out. This agreement and the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, already passed by the House, allow for the necessary time and legal means for that process to unfold in a peaceful and orderly way.

I am at the disposal of the House to answer questions, in so far as I can, on these and other legal matters. I commend this statement to the House.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard
3 Dec 2018, 4:50 p.m.

I am of course grateful to the Attorney General for his statement, and for advance sight of it, but all Members who are asking questions are at a major disadvantage, because they have not read the legal advice on which the statement is based. That is totally unacceptable when aspects of the Attorney General’s advice have been selectively leaked to the press over the weekend. For example, it has been reported that in a letter to Cabinet Ministers last month, the Attorney General said, in respect of the backstop arrangement,

“The protocol would endure indefinitely”

if trade talks broke down. In his statement, the Attorney General talked about political factors that might, in his view, make the backstop temporary, but in reality, that is not the legal position. Perhaps he can confirm that the legal position is as set out in the letter—that the protocol will “endure indefinitely” if the trade talks break down.

On 13 November in this House, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer)—the shadow Brexit Secretary—and I were very clear on what was being sought: the final, full advice provided by the Attorney General to the Cabinet on any completed withdrawal agreement should be made available to all MPs in good time for the vote on the deal. Offers short of that, including of the Attorney General’s statement today and of a summary made by the Government, were rejected, and the House unanimously passed a motion to that effect. [Interruption.] “Playing games,” shouts the Chancellor. On 13 November, the Conservative party could not get one of its MPs to vote against the motion—not one.

The document that has been produced is, in the Attorney General’s own words, a legal commentary, produced with his oversight and approval. It is not the final legal advice to the Cabinet. Frankly, the explainer produced alongside the withdrawal agreement was longer and more detailed than this document. Is not the reality that the Government do not want MPs to see the full legal advice, for fear of the political consequences?

There is no point whatever in trying to hide behind the Law Officers’ convention. The “Ministerial Code” and “Erskine May” are very clear: Ministers have the discretion, under that convention, to make advice available in exceptional circumstances. What circumstances could be more exceptional than these? The economic, political and constitutional integrity of our country is at stake.

I quote paragraph 82 of the legal commentary:

“The Agreement does not contain any provision on its termination. In the absence of such a provision, it is not possible under international law…to withdraw from the Agreement unilaterally.”

A straight question to the Attorney General: can he direct me or the House to any other international treaty to which the UK is party that it has no unilateral right to terminate? Can he even name one?

Furthermore, articles 1.4 and 2.1 of the backstop protocol are clear that its provisions

“shall apply unless…they are superseded, in whole or in part, by a subsequent agreement.”

[Interruption.] No, the “in whole or in part” bit was not commented on in the statement, actually. Put simply, that means that parts of the backstop could become permanent, even in the event of a trade deal being agreed. I ask the Attorney General directly: what is his view on which parts of the backstop arrangement in this protocol are most likely to become permanent?

May I raise with the Attorney General the issue of the impact on the Good Friday agreement? Page 306 of the withdrawal agreement refers to the need for the protocol to be implemented so as to

“maintain the necessary conditions for continued North-South cooperation,”

including the conditions for possible new arrangements in accordance with the 1998 agreement. So can the Attorney General tell the House, in his view: first, which new arrangements he believes would be in accordance with the 1998 Good Friday agreement; and, secondly, which arrangements he believes would not be in accordance with it?

In the first instance it will be for you, Mr Speaker, to rule on whether there has been an arguable case of contempt for what we on the Opposition Benches believe to be a failure to comply with the motion of 13 November. For the sake of our economy, our jobs and our futures, all possible information should be made available to Members of this House. The Government should do the right thing and make the full advice available. With so much at stake for all our constituents and with eight days to go before the vote on the deal, this House and this country deserve better from this Government.

Mr Geoffrey Cox Portrait The Attorney General - Hansard

First, let me say to the hon. Gentleman that he has far better than any advice I may or may not have given to the Government: he can ask me. All he has to do is ask and he will receive, because I will give him a frank answer. [Interruption.]

Break in Debate

Mr Geoffrey Cox Portrait The Attorney General - Parliament Live - Hansard
3 Dec 2018, 6:49 p.m.

No, I do not believe that that is the case. Once it became de facto the subsisting and permanent arrangement, in that there was no prospect of agreement because negotiations had broken down, it would be severely vulnerable to challenge, because it is widely understood that article 50 cannot be a proper basis for any sort of permanent or enduring arrangement. The fact of the matter is that it would be extremely vulnerable to legal challenge.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab) - Hansard
3 Dec 2018, 5:58 p.m.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance regarding how the House should proceed in pursuing the publication of the advice provided by the Attorney General to the Cabinet. It is clear to Opposition Members, and we believe to the overwhelming majority of the House, that the document provided does not constitute the final and full advice provided by the Attorney General to the Cabinet. More importantly, this does not comply with the motion of the House that you have ruled to be effective. Indeed, I suggest that in the course of his statement, the Attorney General has been quite open about the fact that he is not complying with the motion based on his belief that it is not in the national interest to do so.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), the shadow Brexit Secretary, along with the Scottish National party’s foreign affairs and Europe spokesperson, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on Brexit, the Deputy Leader of the Democratic Unionist party, the Plaid Cymru spokesperson on Brexit and the leader of the Green party in Parliament, have this afternoon written to you asking whether you would consider giving this House, at the earliest opportunity, the chance to debate and resolve whether this is a matter of contempt. It is clear to me that the Government have taken an unprecedented decision not to comply with the unanimous and binding decision of this House. Instead, they seem to be playing for time, hoping that contempt proceedings take longer than the timetable for the meaningful vote. But we as a House cannot allow that to happen. I therefore ask you to set out how we should proceed to resolve this vital matter.

Mr Speaker Hansard

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for his characteristic courtesy in giving me advance notice of his intention to raise it—[Interruption.] I shall ignore the sedentary chuntering, which is undertaken for no obvious benefit or purpose. I have only just seen the letter to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I shall give it immediate attention when I leave the Chair. Having sat through these exchanges, 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. I hope that that is helpful to colleagues.

EU Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Advice

Nick Thomas-Symonds Excerpts
Tuesday 13th November 2018

(1 year, 10 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Attorney General
Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (SNP) - Parliament Live - Hansard
13 Nov 2018, 3:30 p.m.

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts), who speaks eloquently and courteously, as always, although I disagree with him on this occasion. I rise to support the Labour party’s motion. In doing so, I declare an interest. Like many who have spoken in this debate, I have previously acted as a Government lawyer. I was a standing junior counsel to the Scottish Executive—as they used to be known before my colleagues came to power and changed the name to the Scottish Government, and quite right, too—and have acted as Crown counsel and one of the Lord Advocate’s deputies.

I understand the particular concern that Government lawyers have, but I have also acted for members of the public. I know there is a balance to be struck and that the interests of the Government are not always synonymous with the public interest. In this particular case, I do not think the interests of the Government are synonymous with the public interest.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) has already referred to the difference between the ministerial code in the United Kingdom and the ministerial code in Scotland on the disclosure of legal advice. The UK Cabinet Office ministerial code says:

“The fact that the Law Officers have advised or have not advised and the content of their advice must not be disclosed outside Government without their authority.”

That is an important qualification, and I will come back to what “Erskine May” says in a second.

By contrast, the ministerial code in Scotland has a section about exceptions to the convention of not disclosing legal advice:

“If, in exceptional circumstances, Ministers feel that the balance of public interest lies in disclosing either the source or the contents of legal advice on a particular matter, the Law Officers must be consulted and their prior consent obtained. Such consent will only be granted where there are compelling reasons for disclosure in the particular circumstances.”

The ministerial code in Scotland envisages that there can be disclosure in exceptional circumstances. Having regard to what “Erskine May” says, and having regard to some of the precedents we have discussed today, I would suggest that that, in effect, is what is recognised by this House. “Erskine May” says that

“the opinions of the law officers of the Crown, being confidential, are not usually laid before Parliament, cited in debate or provided in evidence…and their production has frequently been refused; but if a Minister deems it expedient that such opinions should be made known for the information of the House, the Speaker has ruled that the orders of the House are in no way involved in the proceeding.”

“Erskine May” recognises that the UK Government can make the sort of exception that the Scottish Government are entitled to make in exceptional circumstances, and some historical precedents have already been mentioned today.

What I am saying is that these are exceptional circumstances. Again, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes said, another parliamentary convention has already been ridden over roughshod in relation to Brexit. The Sewel convention states that normally the Scottish Government should be consulted. The Government have said this is not a normal situation, and they may well be right. Of course, there is great legal debate about what “normally” means in the Sewel convention but, by the Government’s position, we are not in normal times. No, we are in exceptional times. Even if there were no precedent—and there are precedents—it would be appropriate for the Government to publish their legal advice on the finalised deal, if there is one, in full.

In this event, very unusually, I find myself in agreement with DUP Members. The people of Northern Ireland have a right to know this advice in full, as do the people of Scotland, England and Wales. It is this House that will make the decision on whether or not to accept that final agreement, not the Government. They are in danger of mixing up the functions of the Executive and the legislature in relation to Brexit.

Reference has been made to the case in which I am a petitioner, and which is going to the European Court of Justice, on the question of the unilateral revocability of article 50. The Government have fought that case tooth and nail, because they say it is up to them whether or not to revoke article 50, but the highest court, Scotland’s supreme court, has said, “No, it is up to this Parliament.” Just as it will be up to this Parliament whether to revoke article 50, it is up to this Parliament whether or not to accept the deal, so this Parliament should be given the advice that the Cabinet has been given. That is why I cannot agree to the compromise put forward by the Government Front Bencher, because it is a matter of trust now. As has been said by the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), the referendum in 2016 was won on the back of what we now know to have been some lies, some misinformation and, in some cases, breaches of electoral law. Unlike in the Scottish independence referendum, there was no prospectus as to what Brexit would look like. People have lost trust in the process. If trust is to be won back, this Parliament and indeed the people must be fully informed about the deal that is reached before the final decision is made to endorse the deal.

Legal privilege can be waived by the client, and that is what we are asking the Government to do. In the public interest, in these exceptional circumstances, we are asking them to waive that privilege. I am conscious that I have less than a minute left, but on the compromise offered from the Government Front Bench, I have three specific questions I would like the Solicitor General to answer. First, will what the Government are offering be made available to the devolved Governments? Secondly, how much detail will be in the legal advice that they are going to put forward—will it be sufficient for those of us who are going to be looking at it carefully to take an alternative opinion on it? Thirdly, if the Attorney General is going to come to this House to answer questions on it, will he give answers that are meaningful? Ministers so often do not give us a meaningful answer. In addition, will the Government allow a reasonable amount of time to elapse between the provision of their written document and the oral statement, so that the written document can be studied in order that properly informed questions may be asked?

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard
13 Nov 2018, 3:39 p.m.

Throughout this well informed debate, we have rightly heard a great deal about the important principle of the confidentiality of legal advice and lawyer-client privilege. However, it also needs to be said that the Government are no ordinary client and the position of the Attorney General, a political appointment, means he is no ordinary lawyer. Let us be clear about the Law Officers convention on not disclosing legal advice and what it actually consists of.

Reference has been made to the Cabinet Office ministerial code, which states:

“The fact that the Law Officers have advised or have not advised and the content of their advice must not be disclosed outside Government without their authority.”

The 24th edition of “Erskine May”, which has been cited by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and other Members, states:

“The purpose of this convention is to enable the government to obtain full and frank legal advice in confidence. Therefore, the opinions of the law officers of the crown, being confidential, are not usually laid before Parliament”.

Then, “Erskine May” specifically refers to the situation where

“a minister deems it expedient that such opinions should be made known for the information of the House”.

Put simply, we on this side of the House wholly respect the Law Officers convention, but it is not the case that the convention means the Government shall not disclose legal advice whatever the circumstances; the convention is not an absolute ban on releasing legal advice given. The Government should not hide behind the convention, because there is clear discretion for them to decide whether or not this is a situation when the advice should be laid before Parliament. It is for the Government to tell us why they want to keep MPs, including their own, in the dark about the full content of the legal advice on the withdrawal agreement and why this situation is not exceptional.

I listened carefully to the concessions made by the Minister for the Cabinet Office in his speech, but my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) is entirely right to say that they simply do not go far enough. First, we are told that a statement will be published. As many Government Members said, that statement is different from the legal advice. The safeguard that we have been offered—that the thrust of the two documents will be the same and that all nuances and all other things will be included—is, apparently, the resignation of the Attorney General in circumstances in which they were not the same. The Attorney General was not even present to give that assurance; the person who gave it was actually the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), in his thoughtful speech. That is the only safeguard on that that the House has been offered.

Secondly, we are told that the Attorney General will give an oral statement to the House and be questioned by Members, but that actually means that the Attorney General will have seen a document on which Members of Parliament are expected then to interrogate and forensically question him without seeing the same document themselves. That is exactly what the situation would be. The concessions do not go far enough.

There is no point in saying that the publication of the advice will somehow prejudice ongoing negotiations, because by the time it is published, in time for it to be considered before the House votes, the negotiations on the backstop will be completed—if, of course, the Prime Minister has reached a deal. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) made clear, we are asking not for a blow-by-blow account, every step of the way, but for a specific piece of legal advice on something of profound importance. That is what is crucial.

Our constituents’ jobs, businesses, livelihoods and living standards all depend on the outcome of the negotiations. The issue is one of fundamental importance for this House and its consideration of a matter that is so vital for the future of our country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd put it, the whole constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom is at stake. It is difficult to think of a more compelling case for exceptionality and for the disclosure of legal advice. The idea that disclosing it in these most exceptional of circumstances would somehow damage the Law Officers convention has no credibility at all. Indeed, in these circumstances it is right that all right hon. and hon. Members can see the whole picture—that the Government provide the fullest possible transparency. It is an issue that goes across party lines and that is of great importance to this House and its ability to take decisions on the very best evidence available at the time.

The legal basis for the Northern Ireland backstop—if there is one to be agreed—what it means now, and the implications for what it could mean in future, are central to our considerations. It should be scrutinised and interrogated, and the Government have no good reason to prevent the legal advice from being made available to right hon. and hon. Members so that that can take place. Nor should this House ever be content with edited highlights. We need to see the full consideration of the different arguments provided by the Attorney General. The House should be able to consider every sentence and every nuance.

If a deal is reached, the House deserves to see a properly detailed political declaration, to see a full economic impact assessment that applies both nationally and regionally and covers all parts of the United Kingdom, and to have full time to debate. The legal advice is crucial in informing that debate. This debate has wide implications for our politics and affects the lives of all our constituents. It is about accountability and the Government’s willingness to subject themselves to scrutiny on the most vital of issues. I urge the Government to listen, to respect transparency and openness, and to respect Parliament on an issue of such magnitude. The Government have promised the House a meaningful vote. Such a vote requires Members of Parliament to analyse forensically any deal so that they can fully understand the implications of the Government’s position. The Opposition say publish the full advice, so that Parliament can make an informed decision for the future of this country, to secure our economy, our jobs and our future.

Robert Buckland Portrait The Solicitor General (Robert Buckland) - Hansard
13 Nov 2018, 3:44 p.m.

It is more than a pleasure—it is a privilege—to speak at the end of this well-informed, wide-ranging and important debate. May I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster for, in the right spirit, reaching across and making a proper and considered offer with regard to the Government’s position? His contribution reflected very much the careful and deliberate argument of the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), who rightly, and perhaps almost inevitably—he will forgive me for saying that—moved away from the wide-ranging terms of the motion and very clearly set out his and his party’s position with regard to the subject matter that he and other Opposition Members wish to deal with.

The hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) rightly explained the context of the debate. This is an extraordinary time in our nation’s history, with grave decisions to be made by this place that will affect the lives of all of us. I readily accept all that, but I do hope that hon. and right hon. Members will forgive me if, as Law Officers have done in times gone by, and I hope will do so in the future, I dwell a little on the particularly important and unusual role that is filled by both the Attorney General and me within this wonderful unwritten constitution that we all have and celebrate. I will not repeat the proper references made by the hon. Gentleman and others to “Erskine May”, the ministerial code and indeed the Cabinet Office code—they all stand on the record and do not bear repetition.

It comes to this: the quality of collective decision making in government is dealt a fatal blow when, bit by bit, that decision making is subdivided, unpicked and, frankly, made almost impossible even in circumstances as important and exceptional as this. The argument that we are now having boils down to whether Labour Members and others in this House can accept the Government’s clear statement that we wish to provide a comprehensive position statement that deals with not just the economic and political consequences of any withdrawal agreement and future relationship, but the legal consequences of that decision.

We have inevitably and properly focused on the question of Northern Ireland, which the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) quite properly raised, together with the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), who is no longer in the Chamber. We accept all that, but say that, consistent with previous incidences when the Government’s legal position has been set out in a way that has helped debate in this House, that would be the appropriate course of action here, rather than publishing Law Officers’ advice.

Much has been made about the previous occasion when that was done in relation to the Iraq war—in fact it was the only occasion when the full text of Law Officers’ advice has ever been disclosed. It was two years after the event in particular circumstances when, as has already been referred to, the question of the lawfulness of an action by the Government lay at the heart of the debate. We are in a different position now.

Right hon. and hon. Members know that it would be wrong if I were to try to speculate about the content of any advice on this issue that may or may not have been given by Law Officers. I have to remain true to the convention that we have referred to, but doing the best that I can, it would seem to me that using the Iraq precedent, bearing in mind the particular context and the particular circumstances, is not a helpful guide for where we are today.

Instead, I have looked back to the time of a previous Solicitor General, the late Lord Howe of Aberavon— Sir Geoffrey Howe as he was then—who is sadly no longer with us. He was the Solicitor General who took through the accession of this country to the treaties and the European Communities Act 1972. Although he spoke a lot about the legal basis and effects of entry to the then European Economic Community and the other communities, there was no suggestion at that time that any advice that he may or may not have given should be published. That is probably the best parallel that we can draw between the important events of 2018 and the very important events of 1972. If the House can accept that parallel, perhaps it can go on to accept the Government’s position.

The right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras sought to make four key points. First, he spoke about the unprecedented context of the negotiations—I agree with that point—and, secondly, he referred to the nature of the advice as general, rather than something specific with regard to an action. Thirdly, he talked about the operation of the convention with regard to Law Officers’ advice and its position regarding privilege. His fourth point was that the advice or parts of it could not be shown to some but not others. These are all fairly reasonable and clear points.

I have already mentioned why I say that although these circumstances are exceptional, there is no reason at all for Law Officers’ advice to be published in the way in which the right hon. and learned Gentleman seeks. However, I want to deal with the point that he makes about—I hope he will forgive me if I use this phrase—a carve-out from the convention on the basis that the Government’s approach should allow for the disclosure of advice when that advice is in general terms. I would resist any suggestion that we should look at the disclosure of Law Officers’ legal advice on anything other than a strict case-by-case basis. In other words, the particular facts of each disclosure will very much depend on whether Law Officers’ advice should be published.

I agreed to some extent with the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s point about legal professional privilege, although I would say that the context of litigation is really the source of any disclosure, rather than a particularly special status whereby Law Officers’ advice is in a different category of legal professional privilege. If anything, there is a particular premium on the care that Government Departments take about the disclosure of Law Officers’ advice for all the consent reasons mentioned by the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry). With respect to the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras, one must look at the context. It is the litigation context that would allow disclosure, as opposed to anything intrinsically to do with the status of Law Officers’ advice.

I have dealt with the past as best I may, but I want to reiterate—I hope for the benefit of the House—why the Law Officers’ convention still remains important. It is important not just when it comes to legal professional privilege, but because it protects the public interest in reflecting collective Cabinet responsibility. That is a vital constitutional principle. Why? Because it would be wrong and damaging to start distinguishing the specifically legal components of collective decision making. This places the rule of law at the centre of Government decision-making processes and at the centre of the minds of all Ministers, not just the Law Officers, and it does not permit a delegation of those important responsibilities by Ministers to me and to the Attorney General.

As one of my illustrious predecessor Law Officers and fellow “sosbanite”, the late Sir Elwyn Jones, wrote:

“the Minister who is advised by the law officers that he cannot do something…is not allowed to say, ‘I cannot do it because the Attorney-General tells me that I cannot.’”

I could not have put it better myself. We are talking about the indivisibility of Government decision making, and I am sure that the House will agree that it is a pretty fundamental point.

It is the role of the Law Officers to guard this principle, however tempting—however convenient—it might be to publish legal advice. We are the stewards; we are here to jealously guard the gate. A decision to disclose Law Officers’ advice requires a very powerful countervailing public interest to override that position. The authority of the Law Officers to disclose the fact that they have or have not advised, and then the actual content of that advice, is rarely sought and rarely given. Contrary to what some people have suggested about the right of the client—in this case, the Government—the content of the advice must not be disclosed outside the Government without the authority of the Law Officers.

In the few short minutes I have left, as I am mindful of the need to move on to other important debates—the Opposition Chief Whip is in his place—I think it would be right for me to refer very briefly to some of the important contributions made by hon. Members. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), the former Attorney General, spoke fundamentally about the need to speak truth to power—if Law Officers cannot do that, where are we? I entirely agree with him.

The right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) made a really important point about the difference between legal advice and the legal position of the Government. I think he accepted the point that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield made in an intervention. I do not wish to repeat that, but I simply reiterate the point for, I hope, the benefit of him and everybody in the Chamber.

I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), who spoke with authority as a former Government lawyer. She rightly reminded us in detail about the litigation position of the Government and the realities of disclosure, and the particular status of the Law Officers’ advice with regard to the deliberations of Government lawyers. Many other eminent lawyers spoke today—and many eminent non-lawyers as well, Mr Speaker, as I know that you regard the non-lawyer with particular affection, so I do not want to miss them out.

Today’s debate has been about not just dusty conventions, but pretty important constitutional positions. We know that the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras fully understands that. Admirable advocate though he is, I could not help but detect perhaps a little sense of sheepishness in his approach to the conventions. I readily forgive that, and I know that it will make him pause for thought in the days ahead. I hope that it can lead him and his colleagues to accept the clear view, and the clear offer, set out by my right hon. Friend the Minister. I readily adopt and repeat that offer. I hope that it will allow the right hon. Gentleman to draw back and, in the spirit of consensus and constructive dialogue, to accept the Government’s position and not press his motion to a vote today.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

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.

Public Legal Education

Nick Thomas-Symonds Excerpts
Tuesday 15th May 2018

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text
Attorney General
Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry - Hansard
15 May 2018, 3:40 p.m.

Yes, I have. My constituency office in Edinburgh South West, on Dundee Street in Fountainbridge, is next door to the local citizens advice bureau in Fountainbridge library. We work closely together on this sort of issue. Citizens Advice provides an amazing service. In my experience, Members of Parliament who work in conjunction with it can have successful outcomes in fighting issues of administrative justice in the UK social security system. That is a much-neglected area; we need to look at how the social security system is functioning or, in my experience, not functioning, and failing to properly respect people’s rights. We need to look at all the facts of the case. As in the immigration field, there seems to be a considerable amount of capricious decision making, which is why it is important for people to have access to legal assistance in facing down that unfair decision making.

I am happy to say that on a number of occasions, I have referred constituents to the free legal services unit at the Faculty of Advocates with good outcomes. The Faculty of Advocates also arranges open days to encourage students from schools across Scotland to come and see what life as an advocate is really like.

I am proud that the Faculty of Advocates has done much to increase its diversity since I was called to the Bar in 1995, when I was one of a small number of women advocates in Scotland and there were no female judges on the senior Scottish bench. Now, our second most senior judge is a woman and we have many women on the senior judicial bench in Scotland, but there is still quite a long way to go before we achieve parity with the men.

There is also the issue of trying to encourage more people from working-class backgrounds and from diverse and BAME communities to come into the law. As well as holding open days, the Faculty of Advocates runs a couple of mini trials—or mock trials—initiatives, which are particularly directed at kids from schools and backgrounds from which people would not normally be expected to end up at the Bar, to try to break down the barriers and to show that—if I am allowed to say this—the law can sometimes be fun, and that it is not just for posh people who went to a private school. I hope that my former colleagues are making some progress in that area. They run the mock trials as part of the Citizenship Foundation, which has been mentioned. It is a cross-UK foundation that is supported north of the border by the Faculty of Advocates.

Another way that legal professionals can contribute to legal education is by providing briefings to parliamentarians working on Bills. In the three years that I have been here, I have had invaluable assistance from briefings provided by the likes of the Law Society of Scotland, the Law Society of England and Wales, the Bars of Scotland and of England and Wales, and organisations such as Liberty, and Justice. I am proud that the Faculty of Advocates actively contributes to law reform north and south of the border under the excellent chairmanship of Laura Dunlop, QC, who was my pupil master, although she is not responsible for any of my mistakes—only for the good parts.

The Law Society of Scotland also provides fantastic briefings. I could not have done my job as an MP properly without its assistance in the last few years, particularly the assistance of Michael Clancy, who is the head of law reform there and is well known to parliamentarians from all political parties. In more general terms, it has also engaged in significant activity in the area of public legal education.

The hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) mentioned StreetLaw. The Law Society of Scotland participates in the StreetLaw project. That involves sending out StreetLaw trainers to teach students and schoolchildren about the law, the legal process and the sort of knowledge and skills that students can use to recognise and prevent legal problems in their lives, and perhaps also to prompt them to consider participating as legal professionals in later life.

All the Law Society of Scotland’s StreetLaw trainers are law students studying in Scotland who undertake this work on a voluntary basis. I am very proud to say that they are supported by two major international law firms in doing so—CMS Cameron McKenna Nabarro Olswang, and Pinsent Masons. They have also had support from the Law Society of Ireland and from international leaders in public legal aid education, such as Harvard University, Georgetown University and Penn State University.

As well as participating in the StreetLaw project, the Law Society of Scotland participates in a charitable foundation, which was set up to give bursaries to students and to support summer schools, schools programmes, visits and events. The Law Society of Scotland is also playing an active role in a campaign to increase diversity in professional services in Scotland.

Just before I draw to a close, I will add a note of caution. An awful lot has been said today about the importance of public legal education, but public legal education should never be viewed as an easy way to plug the gaps left by legal aid cuts. Access to justice should always be our paramount concern. Public legal education should be more about developing capacity and not really about answering specific legal problems because of unmet needs due to gaps in the legal aid system.

Recently we saw a leaked Ministry of Justice report that revealed judges in England and Wales are concerned that legal aid cuts are leading to an increase in the number of defendants without legal representation. I think it is fair to say that the extent to which legal aid has been cut in England and Wales has pushed many people out of eligibility for it in crucial areas of justice, meaning that vulnerable people are often left without legal aid and appear in court or before a tribunal without a lawyer. That is not just my view; it is also the view of many of the witnesses who have given evidence to the inquiry by the Joint Committee on Human Rights into the enforcement of rights. It is also the view of Amnesty International, which has said that the cuts included in LASPO—the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012—have created a two-tier justice system in England and Wales.

Recently in Scotland, we had an independent review of our legal aid system. It highlighted that, despite the fact that we spend less per capita in Scotland on legal aid than is spent in England and Wales, legal aid is far more widely available in Scotland and covers a wider scope of categories than it does south of the border. As I say, that was not a Scottish Government review but an independent review, chaired by Martyn Evans, the chief executive of the Carnegie UK Trust. It shows that it is possible to have legal aid that is more widely available without actually spending any more money. So, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

I end by urging the Solicitor General to be cautious about letting public legal education plug the gaps that legal aid should fill, and I urge the UK Government—as I have done on previous occasions—to carry out an independent review of the legal aid system in England and Wales, rather than the in-house Government review that is going on at the moment.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab) - Hansard
15 May 2018, 3:54 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, and I draw attention to my relevant entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am a non-practising barrister at Civitas Law in Cardiff. Indeed, I practised as a barrister for some years before entering Parliament in 2015.

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena) on securing this debate on a very important subject and I join him in congratulating the many organisations that contribute to public legal education, which includes professional bodies such as the Law Society and the Bar Council, but also many other organisations, within our communities all around the country.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s passion for citizenship education, not only as taught in our schools but as part of lifelong citizenship education. He spoke very powerfully about scams and other matters when, of course, knowing your rights is important, whether that is at the age of 20 or much later in life. The hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) spoke very powerfully about a really important point to take from this debate, which is that nobody should ever feel that the legal profession is not for them. We want anyone to aspire to be in the legal profession on merit and not because of background.

[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]

The hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) raised another important issue, namely the fact that public legal education really should not be an intimidating subject; it should be something that we can all speak about and access. I share the passion of the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) about public legal education in schools. Giving people the skills to go through life is indeed very important. I thank the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), who drew, in a moving way, on her own personal experience of dealing with her mother’s dementia and applying for a lasting power of attorney which, with our ageing society, is something that more and more people will have to apply for in the years ahead.

The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) set out well how law shapes our lives and she spoke very powerfully about the issue of maternity discrimination. The only thing that I will say about that is that we all need to be grateful to the Supreme Court for declaring tribunal fees unlawful, because I am sure the right hon. Lady will appreciate that between the introduction of the fees in July 2013 and the date on which they were declared unlawful by the Supreme Court the number of maternity discrimination cases fell significantly.

Mrs Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller - Hansard

My point was much broader than that. Far more people are affected by maternity discrimination than bring maternity discrimination cases. Although the point that the hon. Gentleman has made is factually correct, I hope he agrees that it is important to think about those women who would never even have understood that they had been discriminated against. That is the point I was making.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard
15 May 2018, 3:58 p.m.

I do not disagree with the right hon. Lady, and she is absolutely right to say that the problem is broader. However, she will appreciate that there must be an ability to enforce the right before a tribunal; otherwise, of course, the right loses its meaning. I think that we all hope that, now those fees are gone, we will get back to a position where everyone who wants to bring such a case is able to do so.

I do not doubt for a moment the Solicitor General’s commitment, and I know that he has been at the forefront of efforts to set up a panel that will co-ordinate work in this area. I will quote what he said when he set up the panel, because I agree with it:

“Teaching people about their legal rights and responsibilities, together with helping them gain the confidence and skills to get access to justice, can really make a difference to people’s lives—as well as our legal system.

The new Panel will help drive forward Public Legal Education, so more people can reap the benefits.”

That is all absolutely right.

Similarly, I do not disagree with what the hon. Member for North East Hampshire said when he maintained that one of the benefits of public legal education might be that more people can settle disputes outside court. That is absolutely right, as well. Of course we all want to see that; we do not want to see unnecessary litigation.

At the same time, although it is not my intention to be unduly partisan in a Westminster Hall debate, I have to record the concern that exists about the ability of people to enforce their rights before a court irrespective of their wealth. “Our system of justice has become unaffordable to most”—those are not my words, but those of the previous Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, who said them in January 2016 in his annual report to Parliament. There is concern that we have to put alongside an absolutely correct drive towards greater public legal education a similar ability for people to enforce their rights before our courts if they need to do so.

The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) mentioned a concern that exists about people in a very vulnerable position not having access to legal aid to enforce their rights. A very good example of that is state help in benefits cases, when people are indeed in a very vulnerable position and looking for advice as to how they can best enforce their rights and ensure the continuation of their income. The statistics on this are stark. In 2012-13, 83,000 people had the benefit of state help in those circumstances; by 2016-17, the figure was 440. That is a swingeing cut in help and assistance for those people to enforce their rights, and it is a great concern.

The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), who is not in his place at the moment, rightly made the point that with the changing dynamics of our courts, with virtual courts and online courts, the idea of public legal education is becoming more important than ever. Far more people are representing themselves before the courts. In one sense, that reinforces the point about more public legal education, but there is a concern about the family courts in that regard. There has been a leap in those representing themselves from 45,000 people in 2012-13 to 64,000 in 2016-17, and the worry is that there is no protection in family courts for perpetrators of domestic violence to cross-examine their victims. Such a measure was included in the Prisons and Courts Bill, which was lost just before the general election of last year—I served on the Public Bill Committee. When will that provision be brought back? It would command wide support across the House, and the sooner it can be brought back and put into effect, the better for everyone concerned.

Legal aid is a huge concern across a number of areas, whether that is immigration, civil legal aid or criminal legal aid. I have looked at the figures, and between 2010-11 and 2016-17 there was a £950 million cut in legal aid. No wonder the legal profession has been driven to take the action it has, but it is about far more than figures; it is also about the idea that early legal advice can save money. I commend to the Solicitor General my noble Friend Lord Bach’s report, published in the past 12 months, in which precisely that issue of early legal advice is proposed as something that should be absolutely central in our justice system.

I think there is consensus about the importance of public legal education, and I am grateful to all those who do work in that area. I do not doubt for a moment the Solicitor General’s commitment and I am sure that progress will continue, but the means by which people can enforce their rights before the court should not be based on their personal wealth. At the same time as enhancing our public legal education, let us put legal aid back to where it was meant to be when it was introduced in 1949 as the fourth pillar of the welfare state.

Sir Gary Streeter Portrait Mr Gary Streeter (in the Chair) - Hansard

Order. I remind Members that the debate closes at 4.17 pm. If the mover of the motion were given two minutes to have the final word that would be wonderful.

Break in Debate

Robert Buckland Portrait The Solicitor General - Hansard
15 May 2018, 4:17 p.m.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. For those of us who were in the full throes of private practice, very often the delivery of PLE was a better use of our time than our having to immerse ourselves in often very unfamiliar areas of law, with all the concomitant risks. My message to the big firms is: where there is an issue about availability, allow members of the team to go into schools first thing in the morning. I have seen that in several state schools in London. I have joined employed barristers and solicitors helping to deliver citizenship foundation courses, for example in social media law. To see the engagement and sense of ownership that young people have when talking about issues so close to their everyday lives—when they suddenly understand that law is not some remote, dusty concept, but reaches into their existence and everyday experience—is quite a sight to behold.

I want to outline and underline the work that we are doing with the public legal education panel, which has been formed from leading organisations in the field to promote the importance of that work. It was convened by me last year. It involves the professions and organisations such as the Citizenship Foundation and Law for Life. We are bringing together organisations in a joined-up way to help work out where the need is and what the provision is currently. I have two sub-groups working on those issues.

There are two types of PLE. “Just in case” PLE is all about ensuring that people have skills, information and knowledge about their rights. “Just in time” PLE is all about giving people knowledge and support when a legal issue happens to arise. Both types of provision are equally important, and we are working our way towards getting a better understanding.

Through organisations and such events as National Pro Bono Week, I can champion the importance of PLE through the community, whether it is delivered in schools, to people who are homeless or those in prison, who really need to understand their rights and, most importantly, their responsibilities. Last year during Pro Bono Week, I took part in a session on social media and the law being delivered by university students to local secondary school pupils in Chester. It gave young people a chance to learn about their rights and the surrounding law. One issue that arose was the increasing problem in schools of young people taking videos of fights and other incidents in the playground. The session was about understanding what the sharing of those videos meant for privacy, the rights of the individuals involved and the problems that we are all familiar with here, but which all too often young people sadly only learn about to their expense after the event. I was proud of and impressed by the commitment of the university students delivering the sessions. That has been backed up in recent months by my experience at the Kent law clinic at the University of Kent in Canterbury. Law students there are not only delivering support and advice to members of the public; they are also helping to spread public legal education more widely.

We have some shining examples of the work that is going on, and I pray in aid the work of His Honour Judge Wildblood, QC at the Bristol family court. He is allowing his court to be used for public debates about the law. He is even using local drama groups to help to educate young people. He is bringing together the legal community in Bristol and the surrounding area in a most effective way. With that sort of leadership, many great things can be achieved but here, Mr Streeter, is where you and other colleagues come into play. As has been said by many Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) and for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), there are opportunities for colleagues to take a lead in their local communities and work with local firms of solicitors or legal practitioners to help to deliver public legal education in our schools.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard
15 May 2018, 4:14 p.m.

I know the Solicitor General has done his fair share of school visits over the years. Does he agree that there is still work to be done on diversity and encouraging more people to apply to the profession? We can all make a difference by visiting our local schools and speaking about these matters.

Robert Buckland Portrait The Solicitor General - Hansard
15 May 2018, 3:11 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Only last Friday I was doing that at a school in my constituency, the Ridgeway. I was talking to young people in the sixth form who did not have a background in the law about what opportunity there was for them. Like me, he no doubt has taken on youngsters in chambers deliberately with the knowledge that they did not have a background in law. In fact, I would not take people who had any connection with the law because I wanted to empower young people and give them a chance.

I want to deal with some of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) about the curriculum. The position has yet to be clarified because more work is being done, particularly on sex education in schools and the issue of consent and withdrawal. That is not yet a statutory part of the curriculum. Citizenship remains compulsory at key stage 3. We are talking about youngsters in years 7, 8 and 9 who can access that education in school, and it must include PLE. It is a matter for schools to determine how to deliver it, but by working collaboratively with professionals, a lot can be achieved.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) made some important points about access in the workplace, particularly for women who have no knowledge—I say that with respect; it is not their fault—about their rights. That is why the regulatory objective in the 2007 Act is important. More has to be done to deal with the question of empowerment of our citizens via the regulatory bodies. That would not just include lawyers, even though the 2007 Act has that remit. I will go away and think about her point very carefully. Perhaps we can use it as the start of an important discussion. I thank all hon. and right hon. Friends and Members for taking part today. The law is not some mystical holy of holies and lawyers are not the high priests. We should demystify it, and that is where public legal education is so important.

Belhaj and Boudchar: Litigation Update

Nick Thomas-Symonds Excerpts
Thursday 10th May 2018

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Attorney General
Mr Speaker Hansard

I thank the Attorney General for that statement, which very properly will have been heard by Mrs Boudchar and a great many others.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard
10 May 2018, 12:29 p.m.

I am grateful to the Attorney General for the statement and for advance sight of it.

Mrs Boudchar is indeed in the Public Gallery, and I am sure the whole House will sympathise with her and with Mr Belhaj. They suffered appalling treatment at the hands of others. What happened to them both is deeply disturbing, and I can only hope that the settlement of the legal case allows some closure on a terrible set of events.

The Prime Minister has written to Mr Belhaj and Mrs Boudchar to apologise for the appalling treatment they suffered. She was entirely right to do so and to accept, unequivocally and unreservedly, the failings on the part of the UK Government at that time. I, of course, agree with the Attorney General that our security and intelligence services carry out great work in helping to make us all safe, but the rule of law must always be respected and must always guide the Government’s actions. Our security and intelligence services must be properly overseen. When things do go wrong, it is right to acknowledge that in very clear terms, to do what can be done to make recompense and to learn lessons going forward. The Attorney General’s statement rightly raised problems regarding information sharing, the need for more actions to reduce the risk of mistreatment and missed opportunities to alleviate suffering. We can and must do all that we can to stop this happening again.

The relationship between our intelligence and security services and the Government is now subject to a different framework, which is a welcome step forward. The statutory rights of the Intelligence and Security Committee, independent of the Government, to review past intelligence operations and to have direct access to agency papers are important. It is crucial that Ministers will be consulted whenever UK personnel are involved in a planned operation and believe that a detainee is at serious risk of mistreatment by another state. I appreciate that the Attorney General is, understandably, limited in what he can say openly, but I would ask for an assurance that such consultation with Ministers will be detailed, considered and informed by as much information as can be reasonably made available to them at the time.

Will the Attorney General assure me that we will always be vigilant in ensuring that the framework within which our intelligence and security services operate is robust and always shaped by our values of the rule of law, liberty and human rights? After all, it is only by behaving according to those standards ourselves that we can stand up for those values all around the world.

Jeremy Wright Portrait The Attorney General - Parliament Live - Hansard
10 May 2018, 12:39 p.m.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks and for the tone of them. He is right to say that one thing we should seek to achieve, not least for Mr Belhaj and Mrs Boudchar, is the ability for them to have closure and to move on with their lives. He is also right to say that the framework in place for the future must be properly robust and ensure that this kind of thing does not happen again. He asked me about consultation with Ministers on questions of this nature. I am sure he will be aware of the consolidated guidance published by the coalition Government in 2010, which of course we keep under review. It indicates clearly that when it comes to the treatment of detainees and information obtained from them, there are clear expectations of the intelligence agencies; where necessary, they should refer matters to Ministers; and when they do so Ministers should be properly informed of the background to the decisions they are being asked to take.

The hon. Gentleman is, of course, also right to say that the framework that surrounds all these activities must be fundamentally based on our values, one of which is the capacity of this Government or any Government to accept where mistakes have been made and apologise for them.

Unduly Lenient Sentences

Nick Thomas-Symonds Excerpts
Wednesday 6th December 2017

(2 years, 9 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Attorney General
Stuart C McDonald Portrait Stuart C. McDonald - Hansard
6 Dec 2017, 5:11 p.m.

Thank you, Mr Davies. If the right hon. Gentleman is patient, he will hear that I am trying to support his case by saying that there are no restrictions in Scotland, and the system works. I will also explain changes made there that may provide some ideas for how it could be made to work in England.

As I said, the right to appeal against unduly lenient sentences in Scotland is contained in the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995. On the face of that legislation, there are no limits to the class of cases on indictment where the prosecutor can appeal sentences on the grounds of undue leniency. However, in summary cases, the right applies only to a class of case specified by order made by the Secretary of State.

On the face of it, exactly the same situation applies in England and Wales. However, for whatever reason—I do not know what the reasons were at the time—when the order was made in 1996, the class of case specified was effectively “any case”. In short, all sentences, whether on indictment or summary proceedings, can be appealed by the prosecutor. In fairness, that has not clogged up the courts there or indeed the prisons, so I think that is a separate issue. As far as I am aware, it has never been suggested since that limits be applied to such rights to appeal unduly lenient sentences. Some more recent reforms may also be relevant to the current debate; they were designed to make the court processes more sustainable, with significant changes taking place after wide-ranging reviews of both civil and criminal court processes.

In fact, it was a review of civil procedure that prompted the introduction of a new appeal tier, a Sheriff Appeal Court. To assist in ensuring that the High Court and Court of Session focused on the work it truly needed to focus on, the new Sheriff Appeal Court established in 2015 was given the task not only of taking on civil appeals work, but of hearing summary criminal appeals, including appeals against sentence, from both sheriff and justice of the peace courts. Whereas, in the past, sentencing appeals from summary cases would go to the High Court of Appeal, they now go to the new national Sheriff Appeal Court. In short, to answer the right hon. Gentleman’s point, what the Government should consider is whether, at the same time as extending the prosecutor’s right of appeal in “either way” cases, one way to make it work more effectively and efficiently without clogging up the Court of Appeal is to look for an alternative forum for such appeals against unduly lenient sentences.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab) - Hansard
6 Dec 2017, 5:11 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I refer Members to my relevant entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, indicating that I am a non-practising door tenant at Civitas Law in Cardiff.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) on securing the debate, and on the considered way in which he introduced it. I know he has carried out a number of ministerial roles; I remember in particular his role that combined both justice and policing. While I might not always have agreed with him, I always thought he carried out the job in extremely good faith, and it is good to see him making this contribution from the Back Benches today. He described well how the system works, with the right of appeal for defendants and the unduly lenient sentence scheme as it stands. I wholly agree with him on the question of public understanding of, and confidence in, the working of the scheme and of how victims are communicated with throughout the process, whether by the courts system, the Crown Prosecution Service or their lawyers. The need for clarity is vital, and I am sure the Solicitor General will be able to touch on it in his closing remarks.

There was also a good contribution from the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell). I know the job he does on the Justice Committee, on which I served briefly in 2015, and he identified well the role of the Committee as a statutory consultee as we set the sentencing framework. That is important, and it is crucial that the Justice Committee makes its views known at that stage, as it can only assist with consistency in sentencing.

I thought there was a thread running through all the other contributions to the debate, whether from the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight), the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), the hon. Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) or the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald). The real sense was about clarity, consistency and public understanding, which are vital to our criminal justice system. If I may say so, it was also a pleasure to hear from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who spoke powerfully about his 30 years of public service and the thousands of cases with various sentencing decisions that he has dealt with in Northern Ireland.

Coming to the issue of the unduly lenient sentence scheme, the Solicitor General will be aware of the 19 terror- related offences added to the scheme on 8 August this year. The statistics are instructive, and I looked them up prior to the debate. There is no doubt that the number of requests is increasing, although that is partly due to sentences being added to the scheme. In 2010 there were 342, in 2015 there were 713 and last year—the most recent set of statistics available—the figure was up to about 837. In 2015, of those 713 requests, 136 were referred to the Court of Appeal—[Interruption.]

Geraint Davies Portrait Geraint Davies (in the Chair) - Hansard

Order. The sitting is suspended for 15 minutes for the Division. If there is a second vote, it will be suspended for a further 10 minutes.

Break in Debate

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard
6 Dec 2017, 5:27 p.m.

I was referring to the statistics about the number of cases that have been referred to the Court of Appeal and subsequent increases. In 2015 there were 136 referrals, and 102 sentences were increased. In 2016, which is the most recent year for which there are statistics, 190 cases were referred and 141 sentences were increased.

I raise those statistics to put the debate in context. Each year, there are about 80,000 Crown court cases. I agree that there is a need for clarity and confidence in the system, which has come through powerfully in all the contributions. We need that at the police and investigation stage, at the charging stage—a number of Members referred to charging issues—and when cases are proceeding through the courts, as well as in the trial process, in the sentencing process and in terms of the options available at sentencing. It is vital that all those things are communicated. The hon. Member for North Devon raised the issue of reporting restrictions. There have to be ways to ensure that victims and their families are still aware of what has happened and get an explanation for why a particular sentence has been imposed.

All those things are very important, but I come back to the fact that in 2016, there were 141 increased sentences and 80,000 Crown court cases. We have to look at where there have been issues with sentences that fall outside the reasonable band.

Sir Mike Penning Portrait Sir Mike Penning - Hansard
6 Dec 2017, 5:28 p.m.

Using statistics is a wonderful thing. As a Minister, you get them thrown at you all the time. With all due respect, the shadow Minister is not comparing like with like. We can only use the figure of how many sentences are appealed if every one of those 80,000 cases is appealable, and they are not. That is the problem. I understand where he is coming from. We do not want the courts swamped. I do not think they would be, but I am still looking for the evidence from the Justice Department. We are not comparing like with like.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard
6 Dec 2017, 5:29 p.m.

As a matter of fact, it is obviously the case that the unduly lenient sentence scheme does not cover the entire 80,000 cases. I totally accept that. That is absolutely correct.

Philip Davies Portrait Philip Davies - Hansard
6 Dec 2017, 5:29 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman seems to be running away with the idea that, of all these cases, only very few are deemed unduly lenient. We must make it clear that these sentences can only be appealed if they are unduly lenient. Sentences may well be lenient, but they cannot be appealed. There could be many more sentences that are lenient. These are just ones that happen to be unduly lenient.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard

The hon. Gentleman is quite right, but that applies the other way as well. If the defendant appeals something, as long as it is within a reasonable band, it will not be appealable the other way either. The reasonable band exists to bring certainty and consistency to sentencing, which all of us in this House who believe in the rule of law should want.

I take the point entirely that the unduly lenient sentencing scheme does not cover 80,000 cases. None the less, there are thousands of cases where the judiciary, within the sentencing framework it has, does a good job, and we should not lose sight of the fact that we should be backing our judiciary.

Geraint Davies Portrait Geraint Davies (in the Chair) - Hansard
6 Dec 2017, 5:30 p.m.

Before inviting the Solicitor General to respond, I point out that the debate will end at 5.42 pm.

Oral Answers to Questions

Nick Thomas-Symonds Excerpts
Thursday 29th June 2017

(3 years, 2 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Attorney General
Robert Buckland Portrait The Solicitor General - Hansard
29 Jun 2017, 10:33 a.m.

It is vital at solemn and serious times like this that we all exercise our right to free speech responsibly, and that we are mindful that criminal investigations are ongoing, as well as concurrent inquests and, of course, the public inquiry. All of us have to make sure that we pass that very high test, and I am afraid that the shadow Chancellor failed that in his remarks this week.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab) - Hansard
29 Jun 2017, 10:33 a.m.

I am sure the Solicitor General would agree that it is vital that the independent public advocate has the powers needed to carry out the role. I pay great tribute to the work of the Hillsborough families over many years, but he will be aware that key to that were the findings of an independent panel in overturning the first inquest verdict. Will the independent public advocate have the powers to appoint an independent panel if they see fit to do so?

Robert Buckland Portrait The Solicitor General - Hansard
29 Jun 2017, 10:34 a.m.

The hon. Gentleman raises a very germane point, and we all need to bear the Hillsborough precedent very much in mind. I am keen, and the Government are keen, to ensure that the independent advocate has as powerful and as meaningful a role as possible. Each case will depend on its merits, but I am certainly prepared to look at all details, including the one he raises.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard
29 Jun 2017, 10:25 a.m.

Does the Solicitor General also agree that it is crucial that there is full public confidence in the role of the independent public advocate? As such, the role should be subject to appropriate scrutiny. Will he also promise that the independent public advocate will place reports before this House on an annual basis, so that Members can look carefully at the work in detail?

Robert Buckland Portrait The Solicitor General - Hansard
29 Jun 2017, 10:34 a.m.

Like many other appointments of this kind, I can envisage the sort of accountability that the hon. Gentleman mentions. The publication of annual reports is a regular and common occurrence. Again, it is a particular point that we will consider very carefully indeed.