Government 'risks contempt of Parliament' over secret Brexit papers

Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer

The Government has been warned it could be in contempt of Parliament unless it hands full details of its assessment of the potential impact of Brexit on the economy to MPs.

Brexit secretary David Davis faced a furious backlash after passing an edited version of the documents, looking at 58 sectors of the economy, to the Commons Exiting the EU Committee.

In a letter to the committee chairman Hilary Benn, Mr Davis said the papers had been redacted because there was no guarantee they would be kept secret.

But he was accused by Labour of breaching a Commons vote requiring the documents to be released to the committee.

Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said the Commons Speaker John Bercow had ruled the vote was binding on ministers.

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"It follows from that that the Government could be in contempt of Parliament. It is certainly treating Parliament with contempt," Sir Keir told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

"We intend to press the issue with the Speaker and raise the question of whether they are now in contempt.

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"Having agreed to this procedure they are breaching it at the 11th hour."

The Exiting the EU Committee will consider its response to the Government in a behind-closed-doors session at Westminster.

In his letter to Mr Benn, Mr Davis said it had been necessary to redact the papers to protect the Government's negotiating position and commercially sensitive information.

He said: "Given that we have received no assurances from the committee regarding how any information passed will be used, we have sought not to include commercially, market and negotiation-sensitive information.

"Delivering a successful outcome to our EU exit negotiations for the whole country requires keeping some information confidential for the purposes of the negotiations."

But Labour committee member Seema Malhotra, who has led efforts to examine the sectoral papers, said MPs must be given the full documents.

"The select committee must be given the full analyses which were completed and nothing less. We cannot and should not be short-changed. This will not be in the national interest," she said.

Liberal Democrat committee member Wera Hobhouse said: "There is a fine line between what is commercially sensitive and what is simply politically embarrassing for the government.

"It should be up to MPs on the Brexit Committee, not David Davis, to make that call."

Mr Davis agreed to release the documents after Labour won a Commons vote on November 1 asking for what it termed the "impact assessments" to be provided to the committee.

The Brexit secretary confirmed in a letter to Mr Benn two days later that he was making arrangements to comply, but insisted that it was not the case that 58 sectoral impact assessments existed in the form suggested by the motion.

Instead, he said that officials had drawn up a "wide mix of qualitative and quantitative analysis, contained in a range of documents developed at different times since the referendum" which looked at different sectors' current trading arrangements and the possible alternatives following Brexit.

The Department for Exiting the EU (Dexeu) stressed that ministers had a responsibility, endorsed by Parliament, not to release information that would undermine the UK's negotiating position.

A spokesman said: "The Government has satisfied the motion, providing the House of Commons Exiting the EU Committee with information covering 58 sectors of the economy."

Craig Mackinlay, a Conservative member of the committee and former deputy leader of Ukip, backed Mr Davis's decision to redact the documents.

"This committee is divided and there are many who want to use this information against the national interest," he told the Today programme.

"It is really rather perverse now, as some Labour members are saying, that opening up our hand to the world is in the national interest when it patently must be the reverse is true."

Sir Keir will challenge ministers about the redacted papers in the Commons after the Speaker granted his request for an urgent question. The Brexit Department would not confirm which minister would respond.

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