Gina Miller’s legal challenge could derail PM Theresa May’s parliamentary lifeline before Brexit
By Bernard Purcell
British government lawyers this week admitted the £1.5 billion deal for the DUP to prop up Prime Minister Theresa May’s minority government will have to go to MPs for approval. It follows a new legal challenge by businesswoman Gina Miller who was behind a successful earlier move to ensure MPs voted on the Article 50 Brexit “trigger”.
The original deal angered MPs from all parties who asked why they had to justify austerity to their constituents when money could be found for the pro-Brexit, anti-homosexual, pro-Creationist Northern Irish party.
Low-paid migrant workers
Mrs Miller, and the small Independent Workers Union of Great Britain whose members are predominantly low-paid migrant workers in London, challenged the legality of the financial inducement offered to the DUP.
Treasury solicitor Jonathan Jones, for the UK Government’s Legal Department, responded that the controversial £1 billion has yet to be released and would only be disbursed when it has the “appropriate parliamentary authorisation”.
“No timetable has been set for the making of such payments,” he admitted but the government would use “long-established procedures, under which central government requests the grant of money by the House of Commons” in order to pay out the funds.
Last week the Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom was found to have tried to smuggle through a clause which would give Mrs May’s Conservatives – who do not have an overall majority of MPs in the Commons – an automatic majority on all MPs committees.
Mrs Miller was scathing about what she suggested was the underhanded way in which the government was trying to smuggle through the “dubious” DUP deal.
“It beggars belief that, neither at the time the government sealed its dubious deal with the DUP in exchange for their votes in the Commons, nor at any point since, has the government made it clear that the £1billion of taxpayers’ money for Northern Ireland could only be handed over following parliamentary approval.
“We all need to know when the Government intended to come clean to Parliament, its parliamentary party, and the public.
“When was parliamentary time going to be found to authorise this payment? And did the DUP know the cheque the Government promised to pay might bounce?
“On the day the Government is asking MPs to grant it sweeping new powers, and in the week it is trying to pack parliamentary scrutiny committees to blatantly change the rules in their favour, MPs are entitled to wonder what else the Government may have ‘forgotten’ to tell them.”
The so-called confidence-and-supply arrangement, signed in June, pledged £1 billion of “additional” funding for hospitals, schools and infrastructure in Northern Ireland in return for support from the DUP’s 10 MPs on key votes.
It was reported at the time that chancellor Philip Hammond and the Treasury strongly opposed the deal which, in part, also comprised £250m of additional funding for the health service and £50m for education and greater flexibility over a further £500m previously promised, but not yet disbursed, as part of previous political agreements.
Prerogative powers or secondary legislation
Mrs Miller and the IWGB questioned the legality and constitutionality of using either prerogative powers or secondary legislation to make the payment. They also contended payment would breach the Equalities Act if it was not first subject to a public sector assessment to establish whether it unfairly discriminated against other regions of the UK.
In separate proceedings a Green Party activist Ciaran McClean is trying to crowdfund a legal challenge to argue the deal contravened both the Bribery Act and the Good Friday Agreement.
Peter Dowd MP, Labour’s shadow chief secretary to the treasury Peter Dowd MP said the acknowledgement that parliamentary approval is required for the payment to be lawful is a “a clear indication that the Conservatives’ chaotic attempts to circumvent Parliament must come to an end”.
“(Chancellor Philip) Hammond must come clean about whether he intends to increase taxes, slash spending, or increase borrowing to fund the black hole created by the £1bn DUP bribe and the £2 billion u-turn on his attempt to increase National Insurance Contributions for self-employed workers.”
DUP MP for East Antrim Sammy Wilson said that parliamentary approval was the “normal process” for money being allocated by the government and that there is “the promise” that the money will come.
Last month he accused the Northern Ireland Secretary of “abdicating his responsibilities” by not releasing the money and attempting to tie it to agreement on restoring devolution and a power sharing Executive at Stormont.
“The government can’t spend money without parliamentary approval and, since the money will be spent year-on-year, we would expect to see that in the estimates for Northern Ireland on a year-on-year basis.”
UK government’s lawyers suggested any additional payments would be included in the “main or supplementary estimates of the Northern Ireland Office for the financial year in which they are made”.