Friday 3 November 2017

"An Humble Address" to Her Majesty - 1st November 2017

On Wednesday 1st November, the House of Commons debated Exiting the EU: Sectoral Impact Assessments.  The Opposition Motion was worded in archaic terms:

"That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that the list of sectors analysed under the instruction of Her Majesty's Ministers, and referred to in the Answer of 26 June 2017 to Question 239, be laid before this House and that the impact assessments arising from those analyses be provided to the Committee on Exiting the European Union."

The Opposition motion was moved by Sir Keir Starmer QC MP (Labour) and the government side of the debate was led by Mr Robin Walker MP (Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department for Exiting the EU).

The risks to the economy of Brexit are, to say the least, considerable and are referred to in the Bank of England announcement regarding the interest rate rise to 0.5%.

It seems that 58 sectors of the economy covering around 88% of the economy had been analysed but Ministers argued that providing the material would prejudice negotiations with the EU and steadfastly refused to provide the material - usually referred to as "impact assessments" - to Parliament.  The Government published a list of these sectors on 31 October 2017 (but not the assessments themselves) as part of their response to a report by the Lords EU External Affairs Sub-Committee (Brexit: trade in goods) - (see also Second Reading).  The Humble Address - has the effect of requiring the government to provide the assessments to the Committee on Exiting the EU - The Guardian 2nd November 2017.

One reason for using this procedure was that it was considered to result in a binding decision of the House that the material be produced.   Sir Keir Starmer (Labour) said - "What is important about this procedure is that we believe this is a binding motion, and that makes it—we hope—impossible for the Government to pull their usual Wednesday afternoon trick of not voting on Opposition day motions or not taking any notice of them. That is why we have chosen the procedure that we have. But let me be clear: our motion does not require blanket publication without further consideration. Instead, it would require that the documents covered in the list should be provided to the Brexit Select Committee—or other Select Committees if the Government’s concern is that that is too limited and these things ought to go to all the Select Committees. We are very open to that discussion, but these documents should go to the Brexit Select Committee. Then it would be for that Committee—or any other Select Committee—to decide which documents should and should not be published. It would also fall to that Committee to decide in what form publication should occur."

Whether the motion was actually binding on the government was raised during the debate.  Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg MP (Conservative) said: "I have no doubt that the motion is, in all senses, binding. It is not parliamentary wallpaper. It is exercising one of our most ancient rights, to demand papers. It is interesting that in the instructions given to Select Committees they are given the right to send for people and papers, but that is the right of this House delegated to those Select Committees. It is not something inherent in Select Committees, and it is therefore something clearly that this House can, at any time, call back to itself, as, quite rightly, the Opposition have proposed today."

Near the end of the debate The Speaker said - "motions of this kind have traditionally been regarded as binding or effective. Consistent with that established pattern, I would expect the Vice-Chamberlain of the Household to present the Humble Address in the usual way."  The Vice-Chamberlain is Mr Chris Heaton-Harris MP - see this previous post.

Even in the face of the Humble Address it seems that the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU (Mr David Davis MP) is saying that the government will be "as open as we can be" over the material but will discuss with the Chairman of the Exiting the EU Select Committee the confidentiality surrounding the documents that will be handed over - . David Davis pleadges openness over Brexit studies

Research Briefing:

A House of Commons Library Research Briefing notes - "Each House has the power to call for the production of papers by means of a return.  Erskine May, the authoritative guide to the practices and procedures of the House, explains that:  Each House has the power to call for the production of papers by means of a motion for a return.  A return from the Privy Council or from Departments headed by a Secretary of State is called for by means of an humble Address to the Sovereign.

Calling for a paper which is then produced as a return confers on the paper parliamentary privilege.   Erskine May notes that this power to call for papers was frequently exercised until the middle of the nineteenth century but has rarely been used in more recent times.  The Government now more routinely publishes the sorts of papers previously sought through returns as command papers.  Where motions for a return are tabled, they are generally now unopposed. For example, such motions have been used to provide parliamentary privilege for public inquiry reports ..... The power is of continuing importance since it is regularly delegated to select committees, enabling them to call for persons, papers and records ..... "

In recent years, Humble Motions have appeared from time-to-time but in connection with matters such as the 90th Birthday of HM The Queen (HERE) or, following the Queen's Speech opening Parliament, each house will debate the contents of the speech under a motion for a humble address thanking the Queen for the speech (HERE).

This House of Commons Library Research Briefing was issued prior to the debate.

Government response:

The Guardian 2nd November

Media etc:

BBC 2nd November - Brexit study details 'will be published'

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