EXPLAINED: What happens if the Government is found in contempt of parliament over Brexit

Posted On: 
4th December 2018

What does being in contempt of parliament mean and how does it work? PoliticsHome offers a helping hand. 

Attorney General Geoffrey Cox is at risk of being punished by the Commons
Credit: 
PA Images

MPs are set to vote later on whether the Government has held parliament in contempt by refusing to publish in full its legal advice on Brexit. It raises the spectre of a Cabinet minister - probably the Attorney General Geoffrey Cox or Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington - being punished.

The row was sparked when the Commons passed a binding motion earlier this month demanding the legal advice be published in full. But the Government has revealed just a summary"reasoned position statement" and argued offering up the full legal advice would set a dangerous precedent over the confidentiality between a lawyer and their client.

The debate should kick off around 3pm today - so in the meantime get clued up about what contempt of parliament means, how it works and what might happen next.

WHAT DOES BEING IN CONTEMPT OF PARLIAMENT MEAN?

It means a person had behaved in a way that could hinder the work of parliament. An MP or a member of the public could be held in contempt of parliament. Offences include preventing freedom of speech on the floor of the House, refusing to appear before a parliamentary committee or any attempt to bribe a member of parliament.

Parliamentary rulebook Erskine May defines contempt as “any act or omission which obstructs or impedes either House of Parliament in the performance of its functions, or which obstructs or impedes any Member or Officer of such House in the discharge of his duty, or which has a tendency, directly or indirectly, to produce such results may be treated as a contempt even though there is no precedent of the offence”.

HOW DOES A CONTEMPT MOTION WORK?

First, Commons Speaker John Bercow considers a formal complaint from an MP and gets to decide whether a contempt motion can be put to the House. If the motion is passed it is usually referred to the Commons Committee of Privileges, which investigates the complaint and suggests a punishment. That suggested punishment is then voted on by the Commons. MPs can be suspended or expelled from the Commons as punishment, while members of the public can be called to appear before a Commons committee.

ANY EXAMPLES?

The most recent case of contempt saw Tory MP Justin Tomlinson suspended for two days for leaking a report. The last time an MP was expelled from the Commons was 70 years ago when Labour man Garry Allingham was caught selling stories to journalists. In the past the Commons might have even thrown an MP in jail for being in contempt of parliament - but that has not happened for a while. It could also slap them with a fine, but that power has since been lost, although an MP will of course go without their salary if suspended or expelled.

SO WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN HERE?

Err... we don't really know. A member of the Government has never been found in contempt of parliament so the situation is completely unprecedented. The best bet is to assume a specific MP who is involved in the matter, in this case Geoffrey Cox or de facto deputy PM David Lidingon, will take any sanction on behalf of the Government. But obviously the member works under collective responsibility, so such a contempt ruling would be a hugely damaging blow to the Government. It is quite possible that the Government caves in beforehand and publishes the legal advice, thereby dousing the flames of heading off the contempt motion, but ministers appear pretty bullish so far. Ministers have tabled an amendment to the contempt motion to ensure it goes to the Committee of Privileges if passed, which would take up more Commons time as Brexit looms. Do not forget: The meaningful vote is on 11 December - and the five-day Brexit debate today will only begin after the contempt motion is dealt with.