John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, has given the Government a deadline of tonight to publish its secret Brexit assessments with Labour warning it will press for a contempt of Parliament investigation if the Government refuses.
Sir Keir Starmer, the Shadow Brexit Minister and a former top prosecutor claims that Ministers could be suspended or even expelled if they ignore Bercow’s deadline following a House motion last Wednesday directing the Government to release 58 reports by civil servants on the impact of Brexit on various sectors of the UK economy.
Bercow said on Monday that the Government should comply “very promptly indeed. Failing that, I expect Ministers to explain to the House before we rise (Tuesday) evening why they have not and when they intend to do so.”
Starmer said that if the Government does not give the 58 reports to the House of Commons Brexit select committee he will press to investigate a case of contempt.
The Government last week grudgingly accepted a House vote to release the reports after dissident Tories made it clear they would side with Labour on the issue.
Andrea Leadsom, the Leader of the House of Commons, promised to release the documents but did not commit to any deadline and said parts of the reports would need to be withheld to avoid “disclosing information that could harm the national interest”.
Kept from the Public
The 58 reports by civil servants examine sectors ranging from advertising, aerospace and agriculture to telecommunications, textiles and tourism and are estimated to cover almost 90% of the British economy. Starmer (left) warned that the parliamentary rulebook says actions that obstruct or impede the Commons “in the performance of its functions, or are offences against its authority or dignity, such as disobedience to its legitimate commands” can be viewed as contempt and potentially punishable by the suspension and expulsion of MPs.
The Government has desperately tried to hide the contents of the 58 reports from public release. Seema Malhotram, a Labour member of the Brexit committee who voted to remain in the EU, had asked the Brexit Department the scope, terms of reference and state of completion of the reports but even those details were withheld with the department rejecting Freedom Of Information requests.
Brexit Secretary David Davis has argued that releasing the reports would undermine Britain’s negotiating position by giving too much information to the EU about Britain’s priorities as it tries to protect various sectors from disruption after Brexit. Labour claims that EU officials already know what impact Brexit will have on those sectors, accusing the Government of actually seeking to keep British voters in the dark about how damaging Brexit will be.
The successful Opposition motion to release the documents would normally only be advisory but it was presented to the House as a “humble address” which Bercow said would be binding. The Conservatives used a regular recent tactic of not opposing the motion in order to prevent an open rebellion by dissident Tory MPs.
The leader of the Brexit select committee Hilary Benn wrote to Davis (above) on Friday demanding to see the studies. Davis responded that the Labour Party was mistaken about what the reports actually contain.
“It is a wide mix of qualitative and quantitative analysis, contained in a range of documents developed at different times since the referendum,” Davis said.
“It examines the nature of activity in the sectors, how trade is conducted with the EU currently in these sectors and, in many cases, considers the alternatives after we leave as well as looking at existing precedents. It is not, nor has it ever been, a series of discrete impact assessments examining the quantitative impact of Brexit on these sectors.”
He then blamed any further delay on bureaucratic hold-ups and gave a vague promise of prompt delivery. “Given the above, it will take my department – and other departments since this work draws on inputs from across Government – time to collate and bring together this information in a way that is accessible and informative for the Committee. We will, of course, provide the information to the Committee as soon as is possible.”
by Stewart Vickers