In Depth

What does contempt of Parliament mean?

Theresa May facing ‘full-blown constitutional crisis’ over decision to withhold legal advice on Brexit

Theresa May is facing the latest in a long line of Brexit challenges today as MPs debate whether her government is in contempt of Parliament.

The prime minister has sparked outrage by refusing to publish the full legal advice from Attorney General Geoffrey Cox on her draft withdrawal agreement from the European Union.

Opposition parties including the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) - on which the Government depends for its survival - have signed a motion accusing ministers of ignoring a binding Commons vote demanding they release the report in its entirety.

The PM is “facing a full-blown constitutional crisis”, after House of Commons Speaker John Bercow ruled that there is “an arguable case” her government acted in contempt, says The Independent.

So what happens if the motion is passed and will heads roll?

What is contempt of Parliament?

Anything that “obstructs or impedes either Parliament in the performance of its functions, or its Members or staff in the performance of their duties, is a contempt of Parliament”, says transparency website TheyWorkForYou. MPs can be suspended or expelled, although this is rare.

“The most recent case was in 2016 when Tory MP Justin Tomlinson was suspended for two days for leaking a draft report,” says the i news site.

Today’s opposition motion seeks to bypass the normal route for finding individual MPs guilty of contempt, which is to refer the matter to the Privileges Committee, because that would usually take months. Instead, the opposition parties are seeking a straight up-and-down vote on whether ministers are in contempt in order to force publication of the full legal advice.

What will MPs vote on?

The motions states: “That this House finds Ministers in contempt for their failure to comply with the requirements of the motion for return passed on 13 November 2018, to publish the final and full legal advice provided by the Attorney General to the Cabinet concerning the EU Withdrawal Agreement and the framework for the future relationship, and orders its immediate publication.”

MPs will also vote on an amendment tabled by the Government to have the issue referred to MPs on the Privileges Committee to investigate whether its response fulfils all its obligations, taking into account any relevant past cases.

This amendment “seems to implicitly accept the Government is in contempt, but just wants to delay things”, says the HuffPost’s Paul Waugh.

What is the significance of the vote?

The vote “adds to a wider picture of a prime minister unable to get her way, and a government descending into chaos”, says Politico’s Jack Blanchard.

Last night former lord chancellor Charlie Falconer tweeted: “Tomorrow’s debate on contempt an absolutely key moment constitutionally. If Commons votes government is in contempt in not publishing full advice, and govt then publishes full advice, Commons will have significantly tightened its control over executive.”

The move is about showing that “Parliament has the means, motive and opportunity to impose its will on a weak executive”, adds the New Statesman’s Patrick Maguire.

What happens next?

If the Government is found to be in contempt of parliament, Cox is the most likely person to face punishment.

The attorney general gave a speech to MPs yesterday in which one of the “more striking things was him effectively admitting he was in contempt of Parliament”, says Waugh on HuffPost.

In refusing to publish his full legal advice, Cox “knew he was defying the express will of the Commons”, Waugh adds.

“The House has at its disposal the means by which to enforce its will... It can seek to impose a sanction. I fully accept that,” said Cox.

If the Government is defeated, and ministers found to be in contempt, Labour “believes Downing Street will cave and the advice will finally be published”, reports Politico’s Blanchard.

Should that not be the case, “a further motion would likely be forthcoming, either setting out specific sanctions for named ministers, or referring a decision on punishment to the Privileges Committee”, he concludes.

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