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Correcting the Record

Volume 738: debated on Tuesday 24 October 2023

[Relevant documents: Fourth Report of the Procedure Committee, Correcting the record, HC 521; Correspondence from the Leader of the House to the Procedure Committee, on the Committee’s report on Correcting the record, reported to the House on 13 September 2023.]

I beg to move,

That this House approves the Fourth Report of the Procedure Committee, Correcting the record, HC 521.

It is a pleasure to open this debate on proposals put forward by the Procedure Committee in its fourth report of this Session. I would like to thank the Committee and its Chairman for their work on this important matter. The House is being asked to consider the expansion of the formal ministerial corrections process to all MPs. It is an important principle that all Members of the House—be they Ministers of the Crown, Members of the official Opposition, or Back-Bench Members—adhere to high standards of accountability and openness. We have a similar responsibility to provide accurate information.

The obligation on Ministers is to ensure the information that they provide to Parliament is accurate, as set out in the ministerial code and the House’s 1997 resolution on ministerial accountability, and Ministers take that obligation very seriously. The current system for ministerial corrections is well established following the House’s approval of the 2007 Procedure Committee report on the subject, and the Government believe that the process relating to Ministers’ corrections is generally effective. The lack of a formal mechanism for Members of the official Opposition and Back-Bench MPs, however, means that there is no clear way of identifying a correction given and linking it to the original statement, and the public should not have to work their way through Hansard before finding that correction. The Government therefore welcome the proposed expansion of the formal corrections process, and believe that this change would improve the clarity and transparency of corrections.

In addition, the Government agree with the Procedure Committee in its assessment that the existing procedural mechanisms for challenging the accuracy of contributions made in the House are sufficient. The House is also asked to endorse further recommendations from the Committee regarding the visibility and accessibility of corrections, which are that cross-referenced hyperlinks provided in the Official Report should be improved; that cross-referenced hyperlinks currently used in the ministerial corrections system should also be added to the corrections made through points of order and other oral contributions; and that corrections should be easier to access through the creation of a central corrections page.

What procedure does the Minister envisage being used where a non-Minister misleads the House or gives incorrect information, and declines to correct the record?

All these matters are matters for the House. We asked the Procedure Committee to consider these matters and bring forward recommendations to the House, but it is very clear that we have a code of conduct. Often, if a Member has not adhered to their obligations to this House, points are raised through the Chair; however, it is ultimately for the House to decide what sanction it provides to individuals who do not adhere to the rules that we ourselves create in this place.

The Government’s priority is that the process ensures transparency and that the visibility of corrections made to the Official Report is sufficient. Should the House agree with the Committee’s recommendations to further improve the transparency of corrections, that would, of course, be a positive step. Trust and confidence in our democracy and its institutions are vital, and it is therefore important that we have clear and transparent processes when MPs make inadvertent errors. I hope that these measures carry the support of Members, and I commend the motion to the House.

I put on record my thanks to the Procedure Committee for its report on correcting the record, and to all those inside and outside the House who contributed to that report. Any strengthening of transparency and accountability for Members is welcome, as are steps to make this easier to understand and contextualise.

When speaking to the House of Commons, Members are expected to tell the truth to the best of their knowledge. If they identify an error in something they have said to the House, they are obliged to correct the record at the earliest opportunity. Since 2007, we have had a system in place for ministerial corrections to be linked to the Minister’s original error, and it is right that the Procedure Committee looked at the effectiveness of that system and how it can be extended to Back-Bench and Opposition Members. We can see from the Committee’s report that ministerial corrections reached a high point in the 2019-21 Session, and that during this Session, Ministers have corrected the record 1.5 times a day. The Committee also received evidence from a number of sources—including Members from across the House, Full Fact, and the Constitution Unit—about their concerns that there are currently few effective mechanisms for challenging inaccurate statements made by Ministers and, indeed, other Members. However, recommendations were not made to that end.

It is ironic that we are discussing transparency, as it has emerged that the Government published 160 transparency documents on by-election day last Thursday. That is the highest single total for more than three years, beating the previous record of 130 documents published on the day that three by-elections were held in July. Data in this dump, but unable to be reported because broadcast media were unable to do so during the by-elections, included the news that 42 hospitals and 43 additional schools have been identified with reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, and details relating to the Prime Minister’s spending on flights.

In conclusion, we support this motion. The current system can be opaque for Members and members of the public, and bringing corrections together in one place will make these more accessible and transparent.

One of the reasons why I became an MP was to serve those I represent. Having been proudly elected in 2019, it is increasingly clear to me that it is incumbent on all of us in this place to improve the covenant between Parliament and our constituents by ensuring that what we do as public servants is as transparent, credible and authentic as it can be. It therefore gives me pleasure to commend this motion to the House, and I am honoured to speak on behalf of the Procedure Committee.

I thank the Leader of the House for bringing forward this work, and for making time for the House to debate our recommendations. I am grateful, too, for the support of the shadow Leader of the House. The House is always at its best when we come together with a common purpose. I would also like to commend my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) for her excellent leadership of the Procedure Committee—regrettably, she cannot be here today—and her superb team, including Richard Ward, Ffion Morgan and Margaret McKinnon, all of whom have contributed significantly to this work.

What we say in this place matters, and it must be accurate. Constituents place their trust in us to do and say the right thing on their behalf, and we have a responsibility to set a high bar for how we conduct ourselves.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and other members of the Procedure Committee on this excellent report. Is there not a case, when a Member or Minister corrects the record, for stating in that correction how many times in the same Session of Parliament that person has had to correct the record previously, so that we can easily identify anyone who is being rather cavalier with the truth?

I agree with the thrust of what my right hon. Friend is saying, and I will come on to that in due course. However, what is important is that the record that is going to be available at a single point on a website will make it possible, very quickly and easily, to work out who perhaps has a record in this particular area.

What we say in this place matters and must be accurate. Sadly, it is inevitable that mistakes sometimes happen, but it is what we do about it that matters. It should be routine for adjustments to be made where a Member has given incorrect information and needs to correct the record.

The motion, in effect, enshrines three improvements in procedure. First, it means that all MPs will be able to correct the record, not just Ministers. While it will not compel Members to do so, due to parliamentary privilege, it will provide the means for it to be done. Secondly, the visibility of any corrections will be improved in the official record. The exact mechanism for this is being worked through, but it will be obvious in Hansard where corrections have been made.

I very much support the Procedure Committee’s report. As part of the next stage of looking at the detail, has the Committee considered whether, when we talk about correcting the record “at the earliest opportunity”, that will be part of what is published when the correction is made?

The technical detail of how this will work is yet to be thrashed out, but I have no doubt it will be subject to further work between the Procedure Committee and the House authorities.

As I have said, the visibility of any corrections will be improved in the official record and the exact mechanism for that is being worked through. It is, for example, possible that the format of cross-referenced hyperlinks in Hansard will be improved so that they are much clearer, whether in relation to a point of order or through other oral contributions. Thirdly, there will also be an easily accessible corrections page, probably on the parliamentary website, and linked elsewhere, where anyone will be able to see a bespoke record of parliamentary corrections.

While we believe that existing mechanisms to challenge the accuracy of contributions made in the House are sufficient, and that understanding those mechanisms can assist Members in effectively and creatively challenging accuracy, these improvements are necessary. Importantly, the Procedure Committee does not believe that distinction between Ministers and non-Ministers justifies any difference in the means by which Back Benchers may seek to correct themselves when they discover that they have made an error. We have therefore concluded that the rules should apply equally to all MPs.

I am supportive of the Procedure Committee’s report, and I wonder if I could pick up on the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridlington—[Interruption.] I apologise. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight)—I will correct the record. If a Back Bencher chose not to correct the record when they were made aware of something, would the Procedure Committee consider that that may be a contempt, and as a consequence of not correcting the record, would there be a referral to the Committee of Privileges?

The Procedure Committee considered that issue carefully, and we concluded that the existing procedural mechanisms to challenge the accuracy of contributions made in the House are sufficient. It is difficult to compel any Member to do anything, but we hope that with the new improvements to the process, Members may be feel obliged to do so.

For the sake of clarity, I take it that the position the Committee has adopted is that if the House feels that an individual Back Bencher has misled it, that is one thing, but it cannot compel that Back Bencher to withdraw anything if that Back Bencher feels that they have not in fact misled the House.

My understanding is the same. It is difficult to compel any Member to do what he or she does not want to do, but as the Leader of the House said earlier, this is a matter for the House. It may be that a track record of poor behaviour may attract further attention from the House authorities and the House itself.

The hon. Gentleman is doing a sterling job of reporting from the Procedure Committee. Pulling some of the threads and discussion together, would it be appropriate for the Procedure Committee to look at publishing, perhaps in the form of a written statement and possibly at the end of term, a list of people who have offended?

I think that is a very fair point, and if I may, I will report that back to the Committee. It may well be subject to further work, but a termly report could be a good way forward. It should be obvious in Hansard and on the corrections page where people have offended, and whether or not they have corrected the record.

In conclusion, the Procedure Committee recommends that the system of ministerial corrections be extended to all Members, and that the corrections should adhere to the same rules as set in the ministerial corrections system. We are pleased that the Leader of the House is supportive of our recommendations, and we hope that the House will agree to them today. If it does, Hansard will begin work with the parliamentary digital service to bring those changes in. It will take time.

There is probably no more suitable Member of this House to report back from the Procedure Committee than one who knows well the importance of integrity from his time serving in the Army. Could the measure that we are hearing about deal with the sort of campaigning that we saw ahead of the last election, when sometimes false statements were made deliberately so as to lead to denial and repetition?

I thank the hon. Member for his kind remarks. I have a problem, as I am sure we all do, with falsehoods and false statements, and it is incumbent on all of us in this place to make sure that we are accurate with our facts and not disingenuous with how we use them. I acknowledge his remarks and agree with them. Again, we will put to the Committee in due course how we take that forward. Finally, we will work also with the House administration, which will write to the Committee in the coming weeks with a timeline for implementation.

Honesty, transparency and credibility in politics do matter, as we have heard, and this proposal is the right thing to do for everyone whom we serve. I therefore commend this report to the House.

I echo the comments of the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), in welcoming this report and the work of the Procedure Committee, its members and its Clerks, and that is not just because I am a former member of that Committee who was serving on it when this inquiry started. That is purely coincidental.

With these changes, we are effectively creating a level playing field. Ministers currently have the ability to issue corrections, but other Members do not. The process if a Member realised that they had misspoken in the House was rather cumbersome. The Member made a point of order to draw attention to the fact that they had misspoken. That is then not in any way linked or joined up to the comment that they originally made, which stands in Hansard. Putting in place these changes makes a lot of sense for openness and transparency and making it easier for members of the public to find their way around the comments that have been made.

It is easy at times to get carried away by what we mean when we say “correcting the record”. It could be something as simple as what the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) mentioned in a debate yesterday in Westminster Hall on honesty in politics; it could be as simple as someone saying “billions” instead of “millions”. That is the sort of thing we could be talking about, albeit we all know there are situations where it is taken significantly further than that. We have seen now former Members of the House perhaps almost doing it deliberately.

On a lack of willingness to correct the record, that probably does need a bit more work, but that is not a matter for today or this situation. But we need to look at that. If there are persistent offenders who simply refuse to acknowledge when mistakes have been made, a system is being put in place that makes this very straightforward. That will warrant further attention. It is in all our interests to get this right. Openness and transparency and honesty in politics are what our constituents expect. It is the very least they can expect from all of us, and it is incumbent on us all to make sure that we can find mechanisms, where appropriate, to make that as easy as possible. For most of us, it would be a genuine mistake—an accidental misspeak—and something that, if this proposal is agreed, will be easily corrected.

I look forward to seeing how this proposal can work in practice when the Committee goes off to work with digital services to implement it. I look forward to what comes next.

First, may I thank again the Procedure Committee, its Chairman and my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland), who stepped into her shoes today, for all the work they have done on this? All Members who have contributed this afternoon have given the matter careful consideration. I am glad that this report is very much welcome.

I will pick up on a couple of points that have been made. The first is that it is difficult to give this House statistics about how many deliberate misleading statements have been made by non-ministerial colleagues versus simple errors, because there is not currently a central corrections page where we can go and look at those things. But I am going to stick my neck out here, and hope I will not have to correct the record, and say that I think most errors that are made are just that—errors by Members of this House. I think that all Members generally come to this Chamber wanting to get the facts on record and have a genuine debate. I hope that, when the central corrections page is up and running, we will be able to see that. Of course this is in relation to things that are said to this House in this Chamber.

Has any thought been given to protections? If we are to publish these lists, there may be fast-moving debates, such as we had during the pandemic, where a Member could willingly state one piece of information and find out that it is incorrect because the science has moved on quickly. Creating a public list of those people ranked as making the most mistakes could inadvertently lead to attention or possibly even abuse of those people. Are there any protections for Members who find themselves on top of that list?

The Procedure Committee has thought carefully about that and distinguishes between things that, all things being equal, are incorrect and were factually incorrect at the time. Clearly, during the pandemic, science information was developing. This is not about rewriting what has been said in a different context or going back on that. The report is clear that this is simply about facts that at the time were not correct or misled the House. It just relates to things that are said in here. I note what the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) said. Bar charts on Liberal Democrat leaflets are not covered by this set of rules. [Laughter.]

A couple of hon. Members raised the point that this is about the House holding itself to account. These rules and procedures are here for the benefit of all Members. The Procedure Committee looked at whether this would require an enhanced role for the Speaker but very much felt that that was not what was required. There are existing mechanisms—points of order and other ways—by which people can raise their concerns. I thank again the Procedure Committee and all Members. I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.