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John Bercow tells MPs 'arguable case contempt committed' by Government over Brexit legal advice

Commons Speaker John Bercow (Rick Findler/PA)
Commons Speaker John Bercow (Rick Findler/PA)

Commons Speaker John Bercow has told MPs that he believes there is an "arguable case that a contempt has been committed" by the Government over Brexit legal advice.

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Mr Bercow gave the ruling after representations from Labour, the DUP and four other opposition parties that ministers were in contempt of Parliament for failing to publish the full Brexit legal advice on Monday.

Opposition parties complained, after a fractious two-and-a-half-hour debate, that the summary legal advice released by Attorney General Geoffrey Cox did not comply with a Commons resolution agreed on November 13.

Mr Cox, who is the Government's chief legal adviser, had staunchly defended the decision - telling MPs "there is nothing to see here".

The Speaker however, in a statement to the Commons, said he was "satisfied" the matter should be put before MPs to consider on Tuesday morning.

He said: "The letter that I received from the members mentioned at the start of this statement asks me to give precedence to a motion relating to privilege in relation to the failure of ministers to comply with the terms of the resolution of the House of the 13 November."

Mr Bercow stopped his statement to scold Government chief whip Julian Smith, who was talking to ministers on the frontbench, saying: "It would seem courteous if he could just hold off for a moment and allow me to make the statement that would appear to show perhaps a proper politeness."

He added: "I have considered the matter carefully and I am satisfied that there is an arguable case that a contempt has been committed. I'm therefore giving precedence for a motion to be tabled tonight before the House rises and to be taken as first business tomorrow."

Mr Bercow said it was "entirely for the House to decide on that motion".

The Attorney General earlier said that he "fully accepts" MPs may impose a sanction against him or the Government for contempt of Parliament over Brexit legal advice.

He said: "The House has at its disposal the means by which to enforce its will.

"It can bring a motion of contempt and seek to have that motion passed and seek to impose through the committee, or whichever way it is appropriately done, to impose a sanction. I fully accept that.

"I don't set myself up contrary to the House, I simply say that I cannot compromise the public interest."

Mr Cox had asked MPs to suppose the advice included details on relationships with foreign states and arguments that might be deployed in the future, noting: "Would it be right for the Attorney General, regardless of the harm to the public interest, to divulge his opinion.

"I say it wouldn't."

Mr Cox said it would be difficult to ensure information would be redacted, adding: "I cannot take a step that I firmly and truly believe would be contrary to the public interest".

He went on: "I ask the House to understand that it is only that consideration that is motivating me and this Government in declining at this stage to break the convention that applies to both sides of the House when they are in government.

"There is nothing to see here."

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