Debates between Nick Thomas-Symonds and Mr Geoffrey Cox

There have been 11 exchanges between Nick Thomas-Symonds and Mr Geoffrey Cox

1 Thu 16th January 2020 Oral Answers to Questions
Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
7 interactions (584 words)
2 Thu 3rd October 2019 Oral Answers to Questions
Attorney General
5 interactions (282 words)
3 Wed 25th September 2019 Legal Advice: Prorogation
Attorney General
3 interactions (613 words)
4 Thu 11th April 2019 Oral Answers to Questions
Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
5 interactions (484 words)
5 Fri 29th March 2019 United Kingdom’s Withdrawal from the European Union
Attorney General
2 interactions (540 words)
6 Tue 12th March 2019 Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Opinion
Attorney General
3 interactions (1,401 words)
7 Thu 7th March 2019 Oral Answers to Questions
Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
5 interactions (432 words)
8 Tue 15th January 2019 European Union (Withdrawal) Act
Attorney General
2 interactions (790 words)
9 Thu 13th December 2018 Oral Answers to Questions
Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
5 interactions (293 words)
10 Mon 3rd December 2018 Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Position
Attorney General
5 interactions (2,998 words)
11 Thu 6th September 2018 Oral Answers to Questions
Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
5 interactions (423 words)

Oral Answers to Questions

Debate between Nick Thomas-Symonds and Mr Geoffrey Cox
Thursday 16th January 2020

(8 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Mr Geoffrey Cox Portrait The Attorney General - Hansard
16 Jan 2020, 10:16 a.m.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend and, if I may, I offer him a word of congratulation on his recent knighthood. I am delighted to welcome him in his new incarnation as Sir Bob.

My hon. Friend will know I agree with him that, as we leave the European Union, the country and the world should know that this nation stands for liberty, freedom and human rights. One mark of our standing for those values will be our continued vigorous participation in the Council of Europe and our subscription to the convention on human rights. That should not mean that we do not turn a critical eye to elements of the human rights structures in our country, and we will look at those in the time to come.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab) - Hansard
16 Jan 2020, 10:18 a.m.

Although I welcome most of what the Attorney General has just said, the Tory manifesto says:

“We will update the Human Rights Act and administrative law”.

Yesterday, at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister said that judicial review should not be

“abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays.”—[Official Report, 15 January 2020; Vol. 669, c. 1019.]

Can the Attorney General tell us which recent court decisions have been about conducting politics or causing needless delays?

Mr Geoffrey Cox Portrait The Attorney General - Hansard
16 Jan 2020, 10:18 a.m.

It has been an enormous pleasure to appear opposite the hon. Gentleman. He is a distinguished historian, a distinguished politician and an experienced barrister.

Break in Debate

Mr Geoffrey Cox Portrait The Attorney General - Hansard
16 Jan 2020, 10:18 a.m.

Of course it will.

The hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) knows I will not be drawn into commenting on individual cases, but what I can say is that there are widespread concerns throughout our society and throughout this House as to whether judicial review is sometimes being used in a manner, often through frivolous applications, that needs better focus and care in its procedures and tests. We will have a look at that to see whether the elements of judicial review could be better designed to serve its purpose of holding the Government to account for their administrative decisions.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard
16 Jan 2020, 10:19 a.m.

I always welcome compliments, but I did not detect an answer to the question from the Attorney General. He often says that he is a lawyer first and a politician second. He knows that Governments are sometimes vindicated in the courts and that they also face decisions from the courts that are uncomfortable. The answer is never to attack the independence of our judiciary or our courts system. There is a real worry that the Prime Minister is seeking some sort of vengeance because he did not like the Supreme Court’s decision that his prorogation of Parliament was unlawful. Does the Attorney General agree that if we are to weaken judicial review, it will be not the Prime Minister who loses out, but all our constituents whose rights to hold public authorities to account are watered down?

Mr Geoffrey Cox Portrait The Attorney General - Hansard
16 Jan 2020, 10:20 a.m.

There is no question of weakening judicial review. The question is whether we can make it more efficient and streamlined, and more focused on the purpose: holding the Government to account for their administrative decisions. Even the hon. Gentleman will have to accept that some judicial review cases have been brought that should perhaps never have been started—often they are indeed thrown out by the courts—and we can prevent the courts being clogged up with those applications. So I say to him: let us wait and see. The Government are looking at this extremely carefully, but I want him to understand one thing: there is no question of backsliding upon the fundamental principle of the independence of the judiciary.

Oral Answers to Questions

Debate between Nick Thomas-Symonds and Mr Geoffrey Cox
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

Debate between Nick Thomas-Symonds and Mr Geoffrey Cox
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.]

Oral Answers to Questions

Debate between Nick Thomas-Symonds and Mr Geoffrey Cox
Thursday 11th April 2019

(1 year, 5 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Mr Geoffrey Cox Portrait The Attorney General - Hansard
11 Apr 2019, 10:41 a.m.

That is a subtle enticement by the hon. and learned Lady, but I know that she knows that I am not going to tell her about what discussions the Cabinet may have had. What I can say, however, is that the current discussions with the Labour Opposition are being pursued in good faith. There are no preconditions and of course we will listen to any suggestions, whether they be about a second referendum or any other matter, to see whether we can find common ground, in the interests of the country, to leave the European Union as swiftly as possible.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab) - Hansard
11 Apr 2019, 10:42 a.m.

The Attorney General’s recent podcast is clearly quite popular, because I have been listening to it as well, particularly his comments on the legal implications of leaving the European Union. He said that

“we have underestimated its complexity. We are unpicking 45 years of in-depth integration.”

Which of his Government colleagues did he have in mind when he made those comments?

Mr Geoffrey Cox Portrait The Attorney General - Hansard
11 Apr 2019, 10:42 a.m.

I have been saying this since 2016, as the Hansard record will witness, and indeed most recently on 12 March. I take the view that we need to take a complex and careful view of how it is necessary for us to extricate ourselves from 45 years of legal integration. The withdrawal agreement does justice to those complexities. It settles matters at a complex level, and that is precisely why it is necessary for us to leave the European Union. I urge the hon. Gentleman to vote for it.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard
11 Apr 2019, 10:42 a.m.

We know that is the Attorney General’s view, but I did not detect an answer to my question in all that, so let us try asking about something else the Attorney General has said about Brexit, namely:

“It needs a hard-headed understanding of realities.”

When the majority was lost in the snap election, there was no sense of reality when the Prime Minister should have spoken out. The Attorney General was sent on a fruitless pursuit to reopen the withdrawal agreement, which was always impossible, and four months have been spent refusing to accept the reality of not being able to get the withdrawal agreement through this House. Does the Attorney General not agree that it is the failure of the Government to accept reality that has led to the mess we are in?

Mr Geoffrey Cox Portrait The Attorney General - Hansard

No, I do not accept that. The withdrawal agreement was the product of two years of exhaustive negotiation. It settles citizens’ rights for millions of British citizens in Europe as well as for EU citizens here. It fulfils the financial obligations to the European Union. It is a complex settlement that requires to be signed before we can leave. I do not accept that it was unrealistic to attempt to get the fruits of that agreement agreed in this House. In truth, as the hon. Gentleman knows, if we are to leave the European Union it is a necessary precondition of our doing so.

United Kingdom’s Withdrawal from the European Union

Debate between Nick Thomas-Symonds and Mr Geoffrey Cox
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.”

Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Opinion

(1st reading: House of Commons)
Debate between Nick Thomas-Symonds and Mr Geoffrey Cox
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.

Oral Answers to Questions

Debate between Nick Thomas-Symonds and Mr Geoffrey Cox
Thursday 7th March 2019

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Mr Geoffrey Cox Portrait The Attorney General - Parliament Live - Hansard
7 Mar 2019, 10:34 a.m.

I think the hon. and learned Lady knows that the Secretary of State has corrected those comments. I do not think it is necessary for me to advise her on the various matters that she suggests. I believe firmly that the Secretary of State will not have intended any offence and she has, in any event, corrected those remarks.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard
7 Mar 2019, 10:34 a.m.

It is widely reported that, should the Attorney General have a more successful trip to Brussels tomorrow than he has managed so far this week, he will be putting any concessions that he receives on the backstop to a star chamber of Eurosceptic lawyers—one QC, six Tory MPs and one Democratic Unionist party MP. Why are there no MPs from other parties in the star chamber?

Mr Geoffrey Cox Portrait The Attorney General - Parliament Live - Hansard
7 Mar 2019, 10:34 a.m.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall be putting them to the star chamber of this House. I am delighted that there are eight very distinguished Members who are going to sit in judgment on my opinion, but I expect and welcome the judgment of all Members of this House, on both sides of it.

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

I really hope the Attorney General appreciates the fundamental concerns here, because it now seems that as well as being part of the negotiating team he is advising the Government on the outcome of the negotiations. It seems he will then bring his proposals to the star chamber and then he will have to answer to this House. First, will he commit to publish any advice that he gives the Prime Minister on any concessions that he receives? Secondly, will he record what he has said in the star chamber, so that all MPs can make a decision on Tuesday on exactly the same information?

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

The hon. Gentleman is labouring under a misconception. I am not appearing before any star chamber, either on this side of the House or the other. The star chamber I am appearing in front of is this House. I will account to this House. I am not going to be appearing in front of any star chamber, although it is composed, as I say, of exceptionally distinguished people. Any Member of this House can come and see me if they like and I shall account to this House. I say to the hon. Gentleman: do not grieve because I shall, I assure him, be wholly open about my advice. He asks me whether I will commit to publishing it. I will commit now to saying to this House that I shall publish my legal opinion on any document that is produced and negotiated with the Union.

European Union (Withdrawal) Act

Debate between Nick Thomas-Symonds and Mr Geoffrey Cox
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?

Oral Answers to Questions

Debate between Nick Thomas-Symonds and Mr Geoffrey Cox
Thursday 13th December 2018

(1 year, 9 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Mr Geoffrey Cox Portrait The Attorney General - Hansard
13 Dec 2018, 10:19 a.m.

The impact of social media on the integrity and fairness of the trial process is obviously of considerable importance, and we do need to grapple with it. As he knows, we have a call for evidence on social media, and I am currently studying the responses to it.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard
13 Dec 2018, 10:20 a.m.

On the subject of contempt, the Attorney General was meant to disclose the full and final legal advice on the withdrawal agreement. What was actually disclosed was a letter to the Prime Minister dated 13 November exclusively on the legal effect of the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. Is the Attorney General seriously saying he did not advise on the remainder of the withdrawal agreement?

Mr Geoffrey Cox Portrait The Attorney General - Parliament Live - Hansard
13 Dec 2018, 10:20 a.m.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, his party colleague the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) refined and defined the request, which was for the final and full advice that was given to the Cabinet, and that is what he has had.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard
13 Dec 2018, 10:21 a.m.

The letter refers simply to the legal effect of the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, but let me then ask the Attorney General this: the Prime Minister said last night on the steps of Downing Street that she is seeking “legal and political changes” to the withdrawal agreement and the backstop, so as a matter of honour if nothing else, if the Attorney General advises on any changes or additions that the Prime Minister brings back, will he disclose that advice to this House?

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

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the principle of the convention applies and must be upheld. Of course the Government will consider very carefully, particularly in the light of the House’s expressed wish for assistance on these matters, what assistance they and I as Attorney General can give.

Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Position

Debate between Nick Thomas-Symonds and Mr Geoffrey Cox
Monday 3rd December 2018

(1 year, 9 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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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.

Oral Answers to Questions

Debate between Nick Thomas-Symonds and Mr Geoffrey Cox
Thursday 6th September 2018

(2 years ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Mr Geoffrey Cox Portrait The Attorney General - Hansard
6 Sep 2018, midnight

This has been a particular success story. The current numbers, as I said earlier, show that these agreements have realised £650 million in penalties. They have been applied to some of the biggest multinational corporations in the country, ranging from banks to major supermarkets. They are a valuable tool, and I hope to see an increased use of them, but they have to be used carefully, because plainly they are not a substitute for prosecution; they can only be used in the right circumstances where, according to the code, they are the appropriate action.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab) - Hansard
6 Sep 2018, midnight

I welcome the Attorney General to his role and wish him well.

An essential part of our action against economic crime is tough action internationally, including a public register of beneficial ownership of companies based in the overseas territories, yet in a debate on 1 May, the Attorney General spoke out about that, saying about publicity:

“All it will mean is that the money goes to where it is darkest”.—[Official Report, 1 May 2018; Vol. 640, c. 203.]

Has the Attorney General now changed his mind?

Mr Geoffrey Cox Portrait The Attorney General - Hansard
6 Sep 2018, midnight

I am disappointed with the hon. Gentleman. As we get to know each other, he will realise that that is not the sort of approach I would take. Let me explain to him what I said, and if he reads Hansard, he will be able to check it. I said that the means being proposed in the House at that time—namely the imposition of legislation from the centre—offended the devolved settlement that had been given to the Cayman Islands. I fully support the substantive policy of the Government, which is the increase of the use of public registers. I raised the subject at the “Five Eyes” conference last week and urged other countries to follow our example.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard
6 Sep 2018, midnight

I am always sorry to disappoint, but I have to say to the Attorney General that I have read Hansard very thoroughly and the numerous interventions he made about that. I was disappointed with the main thrust of his answer. If the Government are serious about transparency of our overseas territories, surely the Attorney General must be enthusiastic about it. Can he completely recant what he previously said?

Mr Geoffrey Cox Portrait The Attorney General - Hansard

I repeat: the fact of the matter is that I did not say what the hon. Gentleman says I said. I objected on a constitutional ground that a devolved settlement was being overridden. I fully support the transparency policy of the Government, and if he looks more closely at Hansard—I can take him through it—he will see that I am right.