Goldsmith 'failed duty to MPs' by withholding advice on war

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The Attorney General faced accusations of failing in his "constitutional duty" to advise Parliament as MPs called him to account over his legal advice on the war on Iraq.

The Attorney General faced accusations of failing in his "constitutional duty" to advise Parliament as MPs called him to account over his legal advice on the war on Iraq.

Lord Goldsmith was warned yesterday that he could face an inquiry by Parliament's watchdog if he ignores MPs' demands to publish the background to his advice that war would be legal.

MPs have dredged up precedents which show the Attorney General must advise Parliament on legal matters - a duty which previous prime ministers have ruled is as important as advising government.

The Attorney General now faces calls to attend the Commons to explain the advice he gave and release the factual papers behind his legal view.

MPs accused the Prime Minister of deliberately eroding Lord Goldsmith's duty to Parliament and using him like a personal barrister.

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader and a senior barrister, said: "It is accepted that the Attorney General has dual responsibilities to the Government as its principal legal adviser and to Parliament as a guardian of the public interest. Under this government it appears that the second of these has been eroded."

Alan Beith, the chairman of the Constitutional Affairs Committee, said: "I see no reason [why] Parliament shouldn't ask for the same advice [Lord Goldsmith] provided for the Government on the legality of war."

Adam Price, the Plaid Cymru MP, plans to refer Lord Goldsmith to the parliamentary ombudsman if he fails to answer written questions tabled in the Commons about the legality of war. "The Attorney General has a constitutional role as a legal adviser to Parliament. He will now have to answer these questions which the House authorities have already accepted as valid," he said.

The Government has repeatedly refused calls from MPs from all parties for the release of the legal advice on the war. They now plan to turn their fire on Lord Goldsmith, citing his historic duty to provide legal advice to the Commons.

In 1963, Sir Harold Wilson stated: "It is [the attorney general's] duty to advise the House on legal matters - a duty going beyond his responsibility to this government and the Crown."

In 1946, Clement Atlee said "parliamentary duties should be the law officers' priority".

Lord Goldsmith accepted his duty to Parliament on 10 March 2003, only days before he expressed his "clear view" that war would be lawful under United Nations resolution 1441. He made a definitive statement that war would be legal in a parliamentary answer published on 17 March. But he has avoided calls to publish the full legal advice - including the paper he prepared for Tony Blair on 7 March in which he is understood to have stopped short of saying war would be legal.

MPs believe they have the right to see papers relating to his change of heart. After a ruling by the parliamentary ombudsman, MPs can demand the factual background papers relating to parliamentary questions. Lord Goldsmith will now face calls to release the papers behind the parliamentary answer of 17 March on the legality of war.