There is something deeply wrong if we need stronger rules to compel MPs to act with integrity
Controversy over Boris Johnson’s remarks about Sir Keir Starmer’s record as Director of Public Prosecutions – repeatedly proven to be false – have highlighted the weaknesses in Parliament’s ability to force MPs and ministers to correct the record when they say something false.
The rules themselves are clear. The Ministerial Code, Nolan Principles on Standards in Public Life, and Erskine May—the guide to parliamentary procedure—all say that a false statement, made inadvertently or knowingly, should be corrected by the person who made it as soon as possible. But ensuring these rules can actually be enforced is less easy— allowing falsehoods to spread.
The current rules about correcting the record depend greatly on people valuing honesty and transparency: if an MP or a minister is found to have said something inaccurate in the Commons, it is assumed they will be so embarrassed and contrite they will quickly correct the record. There are plenty of examples of MPs and ministers making points of order or issuing statements to correct something that they got wrong.
But where a minister or MP seems impervious to embarrassment and shows no sign of correcting the record, there is no easy way to compel them to do so.
The Commons clearly needs more robust processes for securing corrections
Ministers who fail to correct a false statement are breaking the ministerial code, but the question of whether they are investigated—and then sanctioned—is entirely up to the Prime Minister. The Nolan Principles are just that—principles, not rules—and the remit of the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner doesn’t cover remarks made in the Commons.
The current Speaker has made it clear that he does not view it as his role to fact-check statements made in the House. And while an MP or minister could be held in contempt of Parliament for making a false statement—as John Profumo was in 1963—this would depend on a majority of MPs supporting the motion.
Ultimately, the most effective mechanism is also the least codified—the political pressure that tends to build on somebody to correct the record. As recent events have shown, that’s hardly failsafe. This situation looks all the more odd given the more easily and strongly-enforced rules that forbid MPs from accusing each other of making false statements.
There are good reasons for these rules, which help prevent debate from descending into a slanging match. But they create the impression that an MP or minister gets into more trouble for accusing somebody else of spreading falsehoods, rather than for actually uttering falsehoods. This is hardly a good look for Parliament. Nor is it conducive to quality debate, especially when remarks in the Commons are broadcast live and can spread across social media within minutes.
The Commons clearly needs more robust processes for securing corrections. Doing this, though, will be difficult. There are a lot of practical questions that will need unpicking to build new processes: for example, whose role it will be to judge whether somebody has made a false statement in the Commons; or who can exert authority over remarks in the House, given parliamentary privilege?
The Commons Procedure Committee can play an important role in thinking through these questions. But any changes to the Commons rules will require the government to make time for those changes to be debated and voted on—and, of course, for a majority of MPs to agree to the changes. Given its recent behaviour, there is little sign that the Johnson government will do any of this.
But while it is right to strengthen enforcement of the rules, we should not lose sight of the fact that the existing rules are clear and ought to be followed. It is not unreasonable to expect that MPs and ministers, individually and collectively, have will show leadership by seeking to tell the truth in the Commons and correcting the record if they inadvertently or deliberately say something false.
It should not be naïve to expect that Members act with integrity—and if we have to develop stronger rules purely because they are not doing so, then there is something deeply wrong.
Alice Lilly is a senior researcher at The Institute for Government.
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