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Why is Theresa May facing accusations of contempt in the House of Commons?

The last time an MP was expelled from parliament for contempt was in 1947 – and that’s an interesting story in itself.

G20 summit Prime Minister Theresa May giving a statement to the House of Commons on the G20 summit. Source: PA

THE UK GOVERNMENT is facing a parliamentary motion of contempt over its failure to publish the full legal advice it has received on the Brexit deal.

The rarely-used procedure could ultimately lead to the suspension of a government minister and in the past has resulted in expulsion or even imprisonment.

Here are some details about the process:

What is contempt?

Contempt of privilege is a term used to describe any act or failure to act that may hinder or block the work of parliament.

In this case, MPs have argued that not publishing the legal advice in full could hinder them in their process of deciding to vote for or against the Brexit deal on 11 December.

What is happening now?

On 13 November, a motion tabled by the main opposition Labour party passed the House of Commons demanding ministers immediately publish “any legal advice in full” on the Brexit deal struck with the EU.

The government yesterday published a legal position paper, but said it was convention for ministers not to publish the full advice because it might contain sensitive details.

Labour, backed by other opposition parties and the DUP – who, let’s not forget, are supporting the Tories in government – tabled a motion declaring the government in contempt.

Speaker John Bercow agreed “there is an arguable case that a contempt has been committed” and set aside time for a discussion starting today.

The government has tabled an amendment to the motion in an attempt to delay the process, which if passed would refer the question to the Commons’ Committee of Privileges.

What are the possible sanctions?

MPs can be suspended from the House of Commons for a variety of infractions, and this could be the fate of Attorney General Geoffrey Cox or other ministers.

The ultimate sanction is expulsion but this has not happened since 1947, in the case of Garry Allighan, MP for Gravesend in Kent, southern England.

He wrote an article alleging that MPs gave information to newspapers in return for money or favourable personal publicity, or under the influence of alcohol bought for them by journalists.

It transpired that Allighan himself was the source of reports sent to the Evening Standard newspaper.

In 2002, Labour MP Keith Vaz was suspended for a month for making an unfounded allegation to police against a woman who made a complaint about him.

Previously, the Commons could detain unruly members in a room in the clock tower containing Big Ben.

Charles Bradlaugh, MP for Northampton in central England, was the last to be held there.

He spent the night of 23 June 1880 in the room after repeatedly refusing to take the oath of allegiance required of every new member.

© AFP 2018 

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