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Rule of Law within Government

Volume 742: debated on Thursday 7 December 2023

5. What recent steps has she taken with Cabinet colleagues to uphold the rule of law within Government. (900549)

6. What recent steps has she taken with Cabinet colleagues to uphold the rule of law within Government (900550)

As I emphasised to the House of Lords Constitution Committee in June, the rule of law is fundamental to our constitution, and it is the duty of the Law Officers to uphold it.

I will not ask the Attorney General to comment on specific legal advice that she has given to colleagues—I know she cannot do that—but, as a general point of principle, does she agree that the inclusion of a notwithstanding clause in legislation cannot magic away the international laws to which it refers, especially if an individual claimant can still assert their rights under those international laws?

As the hon. Gentleman knows very well, I am unable to do away with client confidentiality and give him the specifics of any legal advice that I may or may not have given. I take very seriously my obligations to encourage the Government to act in a lawful manner and to ensure that the Government are acting in a lawful manner, both on the domestic front and on the international front.

While it is a pleasure to see my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) back in his rightful place on the Front Bench, I wonder how long the Attorney General will feel able to remain in hers. How comfortable is she with the draft Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, which seeks to oust the jurisdiction of our highest courts, denies our country’s international treaty obligations and treats our constitution and the rule of law with contempt? She has rightly said that her first duty is

“as an officer of the court”,

and she has called for a “respectful relationship” between the Executive and the courts. Is that why her name does not appear on the face of the Bill?

May I start by thanking the former shadow Solicitor General for his great work while in that post and in particular for his championing of the pro bono movement, which I know he has always taken extremely seriously? It has been and remains a pleasure to do business with him. He knows perfectly well—better than most—that I cannot give from the Dispatch Box the details of legal advice that I have been giving to the Government, or of whether or not I have been giving such advice. That remains the case. I remain very comfortable in my role, and I hope that I will remain in this role to give the Government legal advice for a long time to come.

I join colleagues on both sides of the House in welcoming the new shadow Solicitor General, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), to his place. I am delighted to see his predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), still contributing to our debates. It is a pleasure and a blessing to work with both of them.

As the previous questions illustrate, there is an intense level of public interest both inside and outside the House about the legal implications of the new Rwanda Bill. While I appreciate that there is a doctrine of client confidentiality, it is nevertheless right to ask the Attorney General formally if she will publish her full legal advice on the Bill, as happened with the Brexit withdrawal agreement, or a summary of the legal position, as happened with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. In particular, will she set out the advice given to her colleagues across Government on whether the introduction and implementation of the Bill is compatible with their obligations under the ministerial code and the civil service code?

The right hon. Lady understands, as I hope all of us in the Chamber do, the complications of the Law Officers convention, which means that I simply cannot go into the details of my advice here. On very rare occasions, either legal advice has been leaked or, more recently, I am glad to say, a summary of the Government’s legal position, which may or may not include the Attorney General’s advice, has been provided. The sort of circumstances in which we would envisage that to be appropriate would be if we were taking military action overseas, for example. It is not something that is done on a regular basis.

What I would say to colleagues, because there has been a great deal of interest in the legal position surrounding the Bill, is that the use of a section 19(1)(b) statement is not unprecedented. In fact, I remember, as a much younger lawyer, when Tessa Jowell used such a statement for the Communications Act 2003. That Act went on to be tested in the Strasbourg Court and the Government were successful in that case, so I would not read too much into the use of a section 19(1)(b) statement. It is unusual, but not unprecedented.