The purpose of the procedure
This power enables MPs to formally require documents and information to be produced by Government departments to assist the House in carrying out its duties.
The procedure is routinely used by Ministers to have reports of high profile public inquiries placed in the public domain without the risk of legal challenge. During the present Session it has also been used by the Opposition as a means of forcing the Government to divide the House on Opposition motions demanding papers—so-called ‘humble Address’ motions.
Scope of the inquiry
The Committee’s inquiry looked at concerns raised by Ministers and others over the use of the powers on Opposition days, and in particular the use of the procedure to compel the Attorney General to release his legal advice to the Government on the provisions of the Withdrawal Agreement between the UK and the EU.
As part of the inquiry the Committee took evidence from a number of senior serving and former MPs, including the Leader of the House, the Attorney General and Shadow Solicitor General and a former Attorney General, and looked at a number of issues arising from the House’s recent practice.
One issue looked at by MPs was the Law Officers’ convention, whereby the existence and content of advice to Government from the Law Officers is not to be disclosed outside the Government without the authorisation of the Attorney General.
The Committee recognises the importance of this convention, but does not recommend that the House should place any further prior restraint on the exercise of its power to call for papers. Similarly, the Committee does not recommend that the House should modify its practice so as to rule out motions calling for certain categories of information which the Government would not normally disclose.
Today’s report notes that motions seeking the production of papers may be defeated in the usual way by a Government using its majority in the Commons. Such motions may also be amended to require extracts of information to be provided.
The Committee recognises that where the House has demanded that information should be provided to a select committee, the committee has worked constructively with the Government to agree on the publication of information. It recommends that where a proposal is made to provide information to a select committee, the consent of the committee is secured in advance of the motion being debated.
The Committee concludes that the House does not require a change in its practices in order to accommodate the recent use of motions for return. It observes that the issues which have arisen are political ones which stem from disagreement between the Government and the Opposition over the terms of engagement on Opposition days: it is not clear that these underlying issues can be addressed simply by changes in the procedures and practices of the House.
Charles Walker OBE MP, Chairman of the Committee, said:
“The power to call for papers is crucial to the work of the House of Commons in scrutinising Government. The Committee recognised that Ministers have duties to keep certain information confidential in the national interest. But the Committee was not persuaded that it was right to curtail the powers of the House in order to observe conventions and obligations on the release of information which are operated solely by Ministers.
“The underlying issue is a disagreement between the Government and the Opposition about how both sides engage on Opposition days. The Committee did not think it was wise to make permanent procedural changes in response to a temporary political impasse.
“The House and the Government both recognise that motions calling for papers, if passed, are binding on Ministers. It is the House’s responsibility to use these powers in a proportionate way.”