Geoffrey Cox intervenes to question the legal effect of a Humble Address Motion on the release of personal communications

9th September 2019

Speaking during the emergency debate on the Humble Address requiring ministers to publish correspondence relating to the prorogation of Parliament and no-deal Brexit planning, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox questions the legal right of the government to require employees to disclose the contents of private email accounts and personal mobiles.

I have been listening with great care to my right hon. and learned Friend’s observations and part of his draft Humble Address troubles me. What legal right do the Government have to require their employees to give up private email accounts and personal mobile numbers? If there is no legal right—I imagine he would contend that there is not—how on earth would the Government enforce the Humble Address if they desired to do so?

These are Government employees. In the course of their work it is their duty to observe the civil service code and to comply with its requirements, including, I respectfully suggest to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General, not using private means of communication to carry out official business.



My right hon. and learned Friend has just refined the Humble Address to confine the request for personal mobile information and personal private accounts only to communications that ought to have been carried out as official business on official accounts. The difficulty with the Humble Address that I invite him to consider is that it is a blunt instrument and that, in truth, what this Humble Address requires is careful refinement so that it complies with legal rules. This Humble Address has no binding legal effect on individuals. It potentially has a binding effect on the Government, if they observe it, but not on individuals. There seems to be a risk that it will trespass upon the fundamental rights of individuals, as it is currently drafted.

I am afraid I have to disagree politely with my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General. The issue is clearly defined: it relates to the Prorogation of Parliament. That is what it concerns. If I may say so, picking up on the earlier point that he made, I was just a little bit surprised. Of course he may argue that the Government cannot get this information, but No. 10 Downing Street is saying is that it will not even seek or try to provide it. This again is absolutely illustrative of the slide we are experiencing towards a Government that will not respect the conventions, without which orderly government in this country cannot take place.