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Government: Rule of Law

Volume 744: debated on Thursday 1 February 2024

7. What recent steps she has taken with Cabinet colleagues to ensure the rule of law is upheld within Government. (901317)

I have always been clear that the rule of law is fundamental to our constitution, and it is the duty of the Law Officers to uphold it. As I emphasised in my speech at the Institute for Government last summer and in my appearance before the House of Lords Constitution Committee, I take that duty very seriously indeed. I engage not only with colleagues across Government but with students and other young people, to ensure that the rule of law is protected not just now but for generations to come.

The Horizon scandal has raised many important legal questions, ranging from the reliance on flawed evidence to the slow pace of the justice system in correcting miscarriages of justice. Will the Attorney General now address the implications for the power of organisations such as the Post Office to pursue private prosecutions, and in particular what oversight the Crown Prosecution Service can or should have over the use of those powers?

I thank the hon. Lady for her serious question and would like her to rest assured that these matters are being considered very carefully within Government. The immediate priority is to take bold and novel action to right, in so far as we can, the wrongs that have come about through the Horizon scandal, but a slower-timed but nevertheless urgent piece of work is to make sure that private prosecutions are sufficiently scrutinised and inspected in future.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the leaking of Law Officer advice for political or any other purposes is not only a breach of the very important Law Officers’ convention respecting the confidentiality of legal advice, but damaging to the public interest and contrary to the rule of law?

My right hon. and learned Friend makes a characteristically significant intervention. Having served as both Solicitor General and Attorney General, he will know very well the importance of the Law Officers’ convention to the working of Government. Legal professional privilege generally is a very important construct and something on which the client relationship relies. In Government it is, if anything, even more significant, and when Law Officers’ advice is leaked it has a chilling effect on our ability to provide free, frank and honest advice to the rest of Government. That is something I wholeheartedly deplore, and I agree with everything my right hon. and learned Friend said.

We have all read with deep concern last week’s interim ruling from the International Court of Justice regarding the situation in Gaza, and Labour is absolutely clear that Hamas must release all remaining hostages immediately, that Israel must comply with the ICJ’s orders in full, that the judgment of the Court must be treated with respect, and that all parties must comply with international law as part of an immediate humanitarian truce and a sustainable ceasefire. I ask the Attorney General, very simply: does she agree with me on all those points; and is it the official position of the Government to accept the authority of the Court in this matter and, even more importantly, to urge Israel also to accept the authority of the Court and to implement its orders in full as a matter of urgency?

The right hon. Lady is right to call for international humanitarian law to be respected and civilians to be protected in Gaza, and I join her in that call. We are deeply concerned about the impact of what is happening on the civilian population in Gaza; too many have been killed, and we want to see Israel take greater care to limit its operations to military targets. We regularly review Israel’s commitment to IHL, and I believe that we in this House all call for an immediate pause that will allow aid to get in and hostages to come out.