Silence on advice by Lyell 'was an option'

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MINISTERS considered the option of withholding from the Commons the legal opinion of the Attorney General on amendment 27 to the Maastricht treaty legislation - because of the embarrassment it would cause.

A well-informed source told The Independent this week that it was one of the first options considered. That would explain the delay between the delivery of the advice by Sir Nicholas Lyell QC, on the evening of Wednesday, 10 February, and its announcement to the Commons by Douglas Hurd on Monday, 15 February.

The Attorney's advice directly contradicted the statement made by Tristan Garel- Jones, the Foreign Office minister, to the Commons in a debate on the treaty's Social Chapter protocol on 27 January. He argued that Labour's amendment 27, excluding the protocol from part of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill, would 'have very serious consequences, not just for Britain but for the entire European Community'.

But Sir Nicholas advised that it would make little difference and would not block ratification of the treaty because the protocol enshrined an opt- out and was, therefore, not an essential component of UK domestic law. The Attorney told the Commons on Monday that the Foreign Secretary had received his advice on the morning of Thursday, 11 February, but Mr Hurd continued to adhere to the mistaken line taken by Mr Garel-Jones; that Tory rebels supporting amendment 27 would be voting, in effect, for the Social Chapter.

The Foreign Secretary told BBC television on 11 February: 'I do not see that any Conservative can urge that Britain should put itself under the Social Chapter.'

When the Commons returns to the committee stage consideration of the Bill this afternoon, Michael Morris, the committee chairman, will have an opportunity to rule on a new amendment, tabled by Calum Macdonald, proposing exclusion of the social protocol from another part of the Bill. Because that amendment, yesterday re-numbered 443, would have an impact on UK domestic law, it could well impede ratification of the treaty in the way initially intended by amendment 27.