Brexit: Government ignores order to release key documents and internal messages

Ministers condemn 'unprecedented, inappropriate, and disproportionate' request and claim that releasing advisers' messages on decision to suspend parliament would be illegal

Benjamin Kentish
Political Correspondent
Wednesday 11 September 2019 15:14
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MPs order Boris Johnson to hand over government communications about parliament suspension and no-deal planning

Boris Johnson’s government is facing further accusations of undermining parliament and the prospect of a fresh legal battle after ignoring a House of Commons motion calling for key Brexit documents to be made public.

Ministers rejected MPs’ demand that they release in full a series of no-deal Brexit impact assessments, along with details of internal discussions about Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament.

Both were included in a motion passed by the House of Commons on Monday in the form of a “humble address” to the Queen, which asked the monarch to order to government to release the files by 11pm on Wednesday.

Instead, the government published only a six-page summary of a “Operation Yellowhammer“ assessment of the risks posed by a no-deal Brexit and refused to release any emails or messages between senior government advisers relating to the suspension of parliament.

Michael Gove, the cabinet office minister, claimed that doing would be illegal and against the “basic principles of fairness”.

The refusal means ministers have flouted the motion passed by the Commons, which requested the release of ”all correspondence and other communications” between nine named government advisers, including Boris Johnson’s top aide, Dominic Cummings, on the subject of proroguing parliament.

It also said ministers must publish “all the documents prepared within Her Majesty’s government since 23 July 2019 relating to Operation Yellowhammer and submitted to the cabinet or a cabinet committee”.

In a letter to former Tory attorney Dominic Grieve, who tabled the motion calling for the documents to be released, Mr Gove said releasing details of private messages risked breaking laws relating to human rights and data protection and criticised the use of the humble address to try to force the release of the correspondence.

He wrote: ”This is an unprecedented, inappropriate, and disproportionate use of this procedure. To name individuals without any regard for their rights or the consequences of doing so goes far beyond any reasonable right of parliament under this procedure.

“These individuals have no right of reply, and the procedure used fails to afford them any of the protections that would properly be in place. It offends against basic principles of fairness and the civil service duty of care towards its employees.”

He added: “Moreover, the motion appears to direct the government to carry out searches that could only be discharged by breaching the legal framework set by parliament itself, whether the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, the Human Rights Act 1998 implementing the European Convention on Human rights, or the Data Protection Act 2018.”

The summary of the Operation Yellowhammer assessments warned that, in the event of a no-deal Brexit:

  • Lorries could face delays of up to two and a half days at Dover.
  • Energy prices would rise
  • There would be delays and potential shortages in the supply of medicines 
  • Some fresh foods would run out and the price of others would rise, disproportionately affecting the lowest-paid
  • Protest and public disorder would take up “significant” police resources

The failure to abide by the Commons motion is likely to result in another legal battle. The government faces being found to have acted in contempt of parliament when MPs and peers return from the enforced suspension in early October.

On Monday, John Bercow, the Commons speaker, said ministers must comply with the request.

In response to a point of order from Labour MP Stephen Doughty, he told MPs: “[He] has raised a legitimate matter. The simple answer is that the government must comply with the humble address passed by the House.

“That is the reality of the matter. A debate has happened, a decision has been made, and it is incumbent on the government to comply manifestly with what has been decided, the spirit, purpose and content of which are entirely clear.”

Commenting on the government’s response, Mr Doughty told The Independent: “These documents show the shocking impact of a no-deal Brexit on fuel, food prices, medicines and a whole series of other critical parts of national life.

“However, the question must now be asked: where are the rest of the documents? Either the cabinet was taking extraordinarily reckless decisions based on six pages of information, or the government has not provided all the documents on Yellowhammer as specifically required by parliament’s vote on Monday.

On the refusal to release advisers’ correspondence relating to the suspension of parliament, he said: “The excuses given by ministers for not releasing this will not suffice. Understandably they do not want more controversial information coming out before the Supreme Court case on Tuesday. but I am sure that other information will come into the public domain and they will seriously regret this decision.

“Ministers have not complied with the terms of the motion and they could face contempt proceedings whenever parliament next sits – which may be sooner than the government thinks.”

Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrats' Brexit spokesperson, said: “The Tories are as transparent as mud. Refusing to publish communications that will reveal the full extent of the government’s duplicity over the shutting down of parliament, as demanded by MPs, is a slap to the face of our democracy. What are the Tories hiding?"

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