Attorney General Questions

11th April 2019

Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox QC MP, answers questions from MPs.

EU Withdrawal: Protection of Human Rights

4. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the UK leaving the EU on the protection of human rights in the UK. [910348]

The United Kingdom has a long tradition of ensuring that rights and liberties are protected domestically, and of fulfilling its international human rights obligations. The decision to leave the European Union does not change that.

The Scottish Government set out three principles for human rights protections after Brexit—non-regression from current EU rights, keeping pace with future EU rights developments, and continuing to demonstrate leadership in human rights. Does the Attorney General agree with those principles, and will he share them with his colleagues in Government?

I find myself in total agreement with what the hon. Lady has said. I will share them with my colleagues. We are not in any way going to permit our departure from the EU to detract from our firm and unshakeable commitment to human rights in this country and to the rule of law.

In that context, and given the December resolution of the House regarding publication of the Law Officers’ opinions, will my right hon. and learned Friend be good enough to tell the House whether his advice was sought on these vital matters of time extensions before critical decisions were taken, as required by the ministerial code? Will he publish that advice?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the question. He knows that I am acutely conscious of his desire to have the maximum transparency upon the legal advice I give to the Government. He also knows that I am bound by a long-standing convention relating to Law Officers’ advice to disclose neither the fact nor the content of it. Within those constraints, I consider constantly to what extent I can make available to the House all the information it needs to take the important decisions that theses times require.

Whatever happens with regard to trade, the economy and so on, one of the most important elements in ensuring that we can still secure justice in this country is maintaining some form of extradition with other European Union countries. What will we do if the European arrest warrant is not available to us?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government are committed to a close and special relationship with the EU in relation to security. The question of our participation in a system relating to European arrest warrants will be close to our hearts in the negotiations that are to follow. But if we were not able to avail ourselves of what it is in the interests of both sides to agree, of course we would fall back on the 1957 extradition legislation and its provisions, and the preparations are at an advanced stage, in conjunction with the possibility that still exists of there being no deal between us.

I hope it is not indecent to point out that yesterday’s European Council was a humiliation for the Prime Minister. At a time when everyone is crying out for more coppers and school budgets are under tremendous, genuine pressure, how does it make sense to spend £100 million of British taxpayers’ money electing 73 Members to the European Parliament to serve for a maximum of five months?

Order. I think the right hon. Gentleman is concerned, in the context of his inquiry, with the protection of human rights.

Including electoral rights.

Including electoral rights and possibly the rights of candidates. I feel sure that was implicit in the right hon. Gentleman’s inquiry. I am merely rendering it explicit for him.

To answer the question, as amended, I quite understand my right hon. Friend’s frustration. To the outsider, it does not look sensible for us to be holding European elections when the entire country is expecting us to move on, leave the European Union and fulfil the commitments of both major parties at the last general election. However, we are under a legal obligation to do so while we remain a member of the European Union. There is a single, simple answer to this question: let us ratify the withdrawal agreement and we are out.



Leaving the EU

5. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on securing an agreement on the UK leaving the EU. [910349]

I am extremely grateful for the question. I regularly meet ministerial colleagues to discuss important issues of common interest, including on matters relating to the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU. The hon. Lady will understand that I am unable to talk about the legal content of those discussions, but the Government’s main priority is to honour the pledges made at the time of the referendum by national politicians of all parties and fulfil its outcome. We can do that by ratifying the withdrawal agreement.

The Attorney General has already set a precedent by publishing his legal advice on the withdrawal agreement, so will he commit to publishing his legal advice to the Government should Labour and the Tories reach an alternative agreement?

I made it clear to the hon. Lady and to the House that I am acutely conscious of the need for the House to be as fully informed as possible of all legitimate matters that it should know before taking these important decisions. At any significant event in these proceedings, I shall review that need accordingly.

Does the Attorney General agree that it is critical that any agreement ensures that our police, prosecution and judicial authorities continue to have uninterrupted access to co-operation and information sharing mechanisms under Eurojust and Europol? That access would be lost in the event of no deal but could be retained in the event of a deal.

I agree with my hon. Friend. That is one of the most important negotiating objectives in connection with our security and law partnership, and it is a matter that we are constantly bringing to the attention of the European Union. If we can ratify the withdrawal agreement, it will be one of the highest priorities.

During the Attorney General’s podcast interview with Nick Robinson last week I was delighted to hear him say that the Government would consider the option of a second European Union referendum, and yesterday the Prime Minister did not rule out that option when questioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), so can the Attorney General tell us what recent discussions the Cabinet have had about a second EU referendum?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.