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Attorney-General and Iraq advice

From Mr Roy D. Roebuck

Sir, It is not a constitutional convention that all legal advice given to the government by the Attorney-General is confidential (letters, April 4). Although he is at the apex of the government legal hierarchy, he is not its solicitor. He is a minister and is accountable to Parliament for the advice he gives the government and shares its collective responsibility. The position was authoritatively set out by the late Sam Silkin, Attorney-General in 1978, in these words:

It is well established that when the advice of a law officer is relied on in determining government policy, it may be disclosed to the Commons.

In 1865 the Attorney-General's opinion on how the Government could react to the Belfast riots was given to the House. The Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, explained that there was nothing contrary to the rules of the Commons in disclosing any opinion of the law officers. Mr Speaker Denison agreed. The Attorney-General's opinion was then read to the House by Sir Robert Peel (The Law Officers of the Crown, by John Edwards, Sweet and Maxwell, 1964).

The fact that the present attorney is a peer does not change the situation. The Commons can scrutinise his activities through the Solicitor-General, Harriet Harman, a robust campaigner for openness in public affairs.

The blame for keeping the Iraq advice secret belongs to the Prime Minister. He is responsible for the ministerial code, which states in paragraph 24 that the law officers' advice must not be disclosed outside government without their authority. Mr Blair could change paragraph 24 by a stroke of the pen or instruct Lord Goldsmith to give authority to disclosure.

It is a sad fact that neither members of the Commons nor of the Lords have compelled this to be done. Why are they so feeble?

I have the honour to remain, Sir,

Your obedient servant,
ROY ROEBUCK,(Labour MP, 1966-70; barrister),
12 Brooksby Street,
N1 1HA.