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Sat, 13 April 2024

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By Baroness Fox
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We need a system that gives all MPs the ability to admit their mistakes in Parliament

(Alamy)

4 min read

When a backbench MP says something wrong in the House of Commons they can't correct it.

Take a second to savour this: most MPs, including the leader of the opposition, are stopped from doing what we tell any six-year-old to do – owning up to their mistakes. 

Cynics will say that MPs don't want to correct their mistakes, but many do. Today I'm giving evidence to the House of Commons Procedure Committee —a group of MPs who are trying to make sure it’s actually possible.

Mistakes can be tragic. We've been told of one MP who gave the wrong cause of death for a constituent in the House of Commons. They were unable to correct the record, adding to a family's grief. 

A broken system is corroding trust in our democracy from inside Parliament

Mistakes can also be expensive. Liz Truss recently told the nation that no household would pay more than £2,500 per month in energy bills in a series of interviews with BBC local radio. A Full Fact investigation has identified more than 100 potentially misleading claims about the Energy Price Guarantee—from 25 different politicians and media outlets—which might have led people to believe their bill rather than the unit price of their energy would be capped this winter.

The £2,500 is an average and not a cap. How much you pay depends on what you use. But a Uswitch survey suggests that two in five households, not unreasonably, believe what the Prime Minister (and others) told them. Some of them may be in for unexpected and unaffordable energy bills as a result. 

The Prime Minister made what looks like an honest mistake, garbling a complicated but important detail, getting it right at some times and wrong at others. It's the kind of mistake that needs to be set right as clearly and quickly as possible, with a correction appearing where the original mistake was made - whether that’s on a TV show, in the pages of a newspaper, or in Parliament’s official record. 

Recently we fact-checked Ian Lavery MP after he made the claim that NHS nurses were only being offered 72p per week as a pay rise (in reality, it was 72p per hour). Mr Lavery’s comments came after the Royal College of Nursing general secretary misspoke in a press interview. A mistake which had started out in the media ended up being repeated in Parliament. But while we are able to submit corrections requests to the press and see errors acknowledged in print, because Ian Lavery MP is not a minister, there is no way for him to correct Parliament’s official record – which as a result is left littered with false or misleading claims. 

As MPs know from their work scrutinising government there are many kinds of inaccuracies. They can be simple mistakes, careless behaviour, reckless, or just dishonest. The biggest problem with Parliament's corrections systems is that the few who can use it, government ministers, only use it when it suits them.

For months, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson made the same, false claim about his government’s performance on increasing employment, ignoring requests to correct the record from not just Full Fact, but organisations including the UK Statistics Authority. His premiership ended in no small part because of a breakdown in trust. 

There's something about being lied to. It treats you cheaply. "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me", they say. It doesn't take much to stop trusting someone permanently. And at the moment, from the public’s view, there is nothing separating those MPs who are unable to correct their honest mistakes, from those who refuse to. A broken system is corroding trust in our democracy from inside Parliament.

When I give evidence to the Procedure Committee, I’ll share examples of how it could work - including how the Scottish Parliament has handled corrections since 2010. It allows all MSPs to correct the official record when they misspeak.

A fix isn’t just simple, it’s popular. I’ll be speaking today on behalf of more than 34,000 people who have joined Full Fact’s campaign and helped make this inquiry happen. We know it’s something many thousands more voters in constituencies across the country want and appreciate, too. MPs who've corrected the record after a Full Fact fact check often get enthusiastic praise.

There is no shame in being honest about making mistakes. It’s the responsible thing to do when we know that small extracts of official sources are regularly taken out of context online and used to mislead. 

On Monday, the Prime Minister herself told the BBC that admitting a mistake is the mark of an honest politician, in fact, her exact words were “'Yes, I've made a mistake. I've addressed that mistake.”. If you agree her actions—and those of all MPs—should match her words, tell them for yourself: sign our petition today.

 

Will Moy, CEO of Full Fact.

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