David Davis has been told he could be in contempt of parliament after his department heavily edited government analyses on the impact of Brexit on 58 industrial sectors before handing them to a select committee.
Opposition MPs accused the Brexit secretary of leaving out “politically embarrassing” information after he refused to include anything deemed to be market sensitive or that he said could damage the UK’s negotiations with the EU27.
Davis said he was withholding the information because he had “received no assurances from the [Brexit] committee regarding how any information passed will be used”. But that triggered a furious reaction from MPs on the Brexit select committee who were supposed to be handed over the reports after a unanimous and binding vote of MPs. One option, they said, is to trigger contempt proceedings against the cabinet minister.
They will meet with their chair, Hilary Benn, to discuss whether the release is acceptable on Tuesday morning.
Seema Malhotra, a Labour MP and member of the committee who has spearheaded a drive to obtain the information, said publishing material that had been edited was “against the spirit and the letter of parliament’s motion”.
“It seems like the government has already decided what should and should not be seen by editing them before sending the impact studies to the select committee,” she said.
Pete Wishart, an SNP member of the committee, said there had been a promise of no “redaction or qualification” and said he had written to Benn about the issue. He warned that he was ready to pursue “contempt of the House” proceedings with speaker John Bercow if he was not satisfied.
The MP for Perth said he expected the matter to be raised in the House of Commons through a series of points of orders and it would be for the speaker to decide whether the government was in contempt of parliament. If this is the case, he suggested that there could be a motion brought forward to refer the government to a parliamentary committee to await sanction.
An influential Brexit-supporting member of the committee agreed. Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Conservative, said that parliament’s vote should be considered as binding. He said that the government was “in serious constitutional waters if it doesn’t provide the full information” to the committee.
“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,” he told the Guardian.
“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 Commons in government – then when in opposition you have no means of curtailing abuses of power.”
Sources admitted that the information passed to the committee was a “piece of sectoral analysis” compiled into 39 reports that they said covered all the industries. They insisted there never were 58 separate studies, but instead continuous work by civil servants that had been pulled together and edited in a way that officials believed would satisfy parliament’s demands.
However, the Brexit secretary previously claimed the government was “in the midst of carrying out about 57 sets of analyses, each of which has implications for individual parts of 85% of the economy. Some of those are still to be concluded.”
However, it is not clear yet whether Benn will be satisfied with the information, as his reaction could defuse the row.
It came as a confidential study conducted by the UK government and the European Commission listed 142 cross-border activities on the island of Ireland that would be negatively affected by a hard Brexit. They include heart surgery in Dublin for children from Northern Ireland as well as cancer treatment in Derry for people from the Republic because patients, clinicians and ambulances are free to move across the border without checks.
Also listed as at risk are existing cross-border agreements on mobile phone roaming, which enable commuters, tourists and business travellers with charges restricted to local rates across the entire island of Ireland.
Davis has been under pressure to release the reports linked to 58 British sectors after MPs voted in favour of a Labour-led motion, which the Commons Speaker, John Bercow, made clear was binding. He called on ministers to comply “very promptly indeed”, setting a deadline of 28 November.
The shadow Brexit secretary, Sir Keir Starmer, had forced the issue by using an ancient parliamentary procedure known as a humble address. He said that Davis now needed to comply in full. “Parliament was very clear in its instruction to ministers. All 58 impact assessments should have been shared with the select committee in full, without redaction and unedited,” said Starmer. “If the government has failed to comply with this ruling then we will not hesitate in raising this matter with the Speaker.” He indicated that the ultimate sanction would be contempt proceedings.
Pat McFadden, a Labour MP on the Brexit committee, said he was yet to see the information. “Unless the government has a very convincing reason to withhold something, my instincts are that it should be made public,” he said. “There’s a big difference between information which is politically embarrassing and information which genuinely is not in the national interest. And I am highly sceptical of about the accusation that anyone asking serious questions about the issues on Brexit is undermining our negotiating strategy.”
Chuka Umunna, a Labour MP, said it was “not only a potential contempt of parliament in not providing what was promised but misleading the House of Commons too”.
The select committee said the information would be treated in the same way as any evidence, with members assessing it during a meeting on Tuesday morning and deciding what should be placed in the public domain.
Meanwhile, former international development secretary Priti Patel said the government was “ill-equipped” for the Brexit negotiations and Brussels should be told to “sod off” over its financial demands.
Patel said one of the government’s failings had been not setting out the economic opportunities that Brexit presented. “The government has been ill-equipped in terms of preparations for the negotiations,” she said. “It’s not an ideal state at all.”
At an event in London hosted by the Spectator magazine she added: “My views on money are pretty clear, I don’t like spending money so I would have told the EU in particular to sod off with their excessive financial demands.”
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