Outrage: Government Secrecy Over Brexit
On Monday evening, when an 850-page dossier was given to the Brexit Select Committee, MPs were outraged after they had found that the Department for Exiting the European Union, of which David Davis is the responsible Minister, removed some material before handing it to the committee.
The Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) explained that the refusal to release key details was a measure to protect officials so that they can make policy in a “safe space.”
They said: “There is a strong public interest in policy-making associated with our exit from the EU being of the highest quality and conducted in a safe space to allow for design and deliberation to be done in private. In this case, releasing the commissioning document for this exercise, which is still a live policy issue, may undermine the effective formulation or development of policies which are key to our negotiating strategy. Disclosure would similarly set a precedent that would inhibit free and frank discussion in the future. Without the necessary safe space for unreserved instruction in commissioning briefs, the quality of the eventual advice from the respective exercise would be diminished and would in turn lead to poorer decision making.”
However, the government’s intention to conduct Brexit policy-making in a “safe space,” means that both parliament and the public would be kept in the dark and will be unable to influence Brexit decisions.
The angry MPs called Davis to explain why the government wanted to keep secret some of the information gathered from various Brexit reports regarding the impact of exiting the EU. The committee requested from David Davis to appear before it and explain his actions as a “matter of urgency.”
The dossier, which comprised of Brexit impact assessments regarding 58 different sectors of the British economy, was prepared especially after MPs voted earlier this month for a motion that forced the government to make such reports available to the committee. Opposition MPs decided that the committee was responsible for deciding which material should be published and which should be withheld so that it doesn’t undermine the UK’s negotiations with the EU.
The chairman of the committee, Hilary Benn, wrote to Davis criticising his decision to remove information, which she described as “contrary to the instruction given to the Government in that motion and to the clear expectations that I set out to you in our discussions.”
Contempt of parliament
While the government considered that certain material was commercially sensitive and complicated the UK’s negotiating hand, opposition politicians and other MPs accused the government of holding parliament in contempt.
Today, Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, accused Davis of being in contempt of parliament due to the edited dossier. Talking to BBC radio 4’s Today programme, Starmer said: “The government is under an obligation to pass this information to the Brexit committee. If it is failing in that obligation, as it appears to be, we intend to raise it with the Speaker … It follows from that that the government could be in contempt of parliament. They are certainly treating parliament with contempt and we intend to press the Speaker on the issue and raise the issue of whether they are now in contempt. Having agreed to this procedure, they are now breaching it at the 11th hour.”
Even Jacob Rees-Mogg, Conservative and Brexit supporter, said that the parliament’s vote should be binding and that the government was “in serious constitutional waters if it doesn’t provide the full information.” He told the Guardian: “The government could have amended the motion, and that is still a fallback position for them. But without doing that, failure to provide all the information does not meet the terms of the humble address and is potentially a breach of privilege. This is nothing to do with Brexit or party politics – it is to do with the rights of the House of Commons. We will all be in opposition one day – and it is important to remember that. If you try to trample the rights of the Commons in government – then when in opposition you have no means of curtailing abuses of power.”
Many of us would never have believed that a day would come that we would agree with Jacob Rees-Mogg. But there, it has come, and he couldn’t have said it any better.
According to various sources, the information given to the committee was a “piece of sectoral analysis,” that admittedly covered all industries, but that there were never 58 separate studies, and only civil servants’ work which was edited in such a way to satisfy the parliament’s requirements.
With Starmer’s humble address—a rare parliamentary procedure whereby parliament petitions the monarch or the government to order documents to be produced—Davis would have to comply. As the Brexit committee's Labour MP Seema Malhotra stated, “Parliament is not here to give the government a blank cheque on Brexit, but to assist in achieving the best deal for our economy and society.”