Before the debate begins, I remind Members that the motion is on a general topic. The normal rules about criticism of or accusations against Members of either House are not affected. I remind colleagues of the rules in “Erskine May” paragraphs 21.21 and 21.24 and, in particular, that “Erskine May” paragraph 21.21 makes it clear that it is not in order to try to evade those rules by quoting someone else’s words. I call Martyn Day to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 561730 and 576886, relating to honesty in politics.
Both petitions call for it to be a criminal offence for MPs to mislead the public or to lie in the House of Commons. I am delighted to see you in the Chair today, Mrs Murray, and equally delighted to lead this debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. It is perhaps a pity that such major events are being discussed in the Chamber, or we would have had a larger attendance.
On a home visit just the other week to Blackburn, West Lothian, my constituent Glenn told me that
“the problem with Parliament is that it filled with”
a shower of “lying B’s”—Members can fill in the blank for themselves, but they will get the picture. In politics, public perception is everything, and even more so when the public are rightfully scunnered by the actions of some bad apples and by the non-correction of genuine mistakes. Addressing the issue is therefore crucial for all of us if we want to restore public trust in our democratic processes.
The Petitions Committee had to request a revised Government response to the first petition, “Make it a criminal offence for MPs to mislead the public”, because the Committee did not think that the Government’s original response directly addressed the petition’s request. The Government’s revised response stated categorically that the Government
“does not intend to introduce legislation”,
citing the MPs’ code of conduct and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards as suitable substitutes. However, I met with the Constitution Unit, the Institute for Government and Full Fact ahead of this debate, and we all agreed that those are not appropriate mechanisms to deal with the problem of MPs’ misleading the public or lying in Parliament. That the Government had to be asked for a response that actually addressed the petition’s request is an indication that this issue was not given due and proper consideration. I hope that today’s debate will correct that, and that agreement can be reached on how we achieve a mechanism that alleviates the existential high public concern over MPs’ misleading Parliament.
Both petitions are now closed, and over two years have passed since the Government responded to them. I will refer to the responses further during my speech, but it is appropriate at this early juncture to state the obvious: events have passed relating to this matter since the responses were given. Indeed, I will discuss one of those events at length to demonstrate how the current Commons procedures hinder accountability for MPs who mislead or lie. It will be interesting to learn whether the responding Minister agrees with the Government’s historical responses, or whether the passage of time and related events have since been given due consideration.
By way of background, it is relevant to note that this debate was originally scheduled to take place on 6 June 2022. However, it was delayed by the related event that I will discuss: an investigation by the Committee of Privileges on a matter referred to it about the conduct of the former Prime Minister and Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, Mr Boris Johnson. It concerned whether Mr Johnson misled the House of Commons and whether, in its nature, his conduct
“amounted to a contempt.”
That is an important word to which I will return very shortly. I raise the Privileges Committee’s inquiry because its investigation of six gatherings between 20 May 2020 and 14 January 2021 at No. 10 Downing Street, during Mr Johnson’s residency, substantiates the petitioners’ concerns, even though the gatherings were not public knowledge when the petitions were started in November 2020 and April 2021.
I recently met Mr Baccas, the creator of petition 561730, entitled “Make it a criminal offence for MPs to mislead the public”. I asked him what led him to start the petition more than a year before the allegations that covid rules had been broken in No. 10 emerged. He told me that it was due to the lies that had been told in relation to Brexit, and that he had been influenced by the failed legal challenge on the ground that Mr Johnson had
“repeatedly lied and misled the British public as to the cost of EU membership.”
I am spotting a pattern here.
Mr Baccas believes that if an MP “intentionally or recklessly” does not speak the truth or misrepresents facts, they should face sanctions in the same way that other public servants would. It is simple: as public servants, MPs should face tangible accountability. Mr Baccas further believes that this would improve the quality of our politics, and I am inclined to agree with him. He shared his disappointment at what he described as the Government’s “expected response” to his petition, and revealed that his intention had been that the anticipated response would put on the record, and thereby highlight, the poor quality of UK politics. I agree that the response reflected the poor quality of our politics currently.
Mr Baccas added that he understood it was not in the Government’s interest to face sanctions for misleading people. I believe that self-interest should not be so apparent, given that the Government are supposed to serve the country and that MPs are elected to serve their constituents. Mr Baccas agrees, pointing out that it is in the interest of voters that MPs are expected to tell the truth due to the impact they have on other people’s lives. He believes that MPs are guardians of the morals and standards that create a civilised society, and that they should set an example to which the population aspires. In Mr Baccas’ own words:
“If MPs cannot be relied upon to maintain those standards, why should the electorate maintain them? The passive attitude towards dishonesty in politics opens the door to the breakdown of civilised society.”
Who can argue against improving the quality of our politics? I thank Mr Baccas and all the petitioners for making today’s important debate possible.
After allegations emerged about the Downing Street gatherings in December 2021, Mr Johnson proceeded between then and May 2022 to make over 30 statements to the House of Commons about compliance with covid rules and regulations in No. 10. The Committee of Privileges concluded that Mr Johnson’s statements “misled the House”, and it shared its provisional conclusions with him on 8 June 2023, inviting him to make further representations. That led to Mr Johnson announcing his intention to resign the next day, with his resignation being confirmed three days later. The fact that he made a statement ahead of the Committee’s final report being published on 15 June, knowing that the Committee would not be able to respond publicly, is significant. Indeed, Mr Johnson’s conduct on 9 June was considered
“in itself a very serious contempt”.
That brings me back to the importance of the word “contempt”. It strikes me that, in this context, the word is important for two main reasons. First, the House of Commons initially referred the matter to the Committee of Privileges to consider whether Mr Johnson’s statements amounted to a contempt. The reason for doing that is that, in parliamentary terms, the word refers to a contempt of privilege, which describes any act that might disrupt Parliament’s work. Additionally, the Committee’s final report used the word repeatedly, indicating its thoughtful consideration, and concluded that:
“Mr Johnson’s conduct was deliberate and…he has committed a serious contempt of the House.”
When the final report came to the Commons for debate on 19 June, the word “contempt” was again used multiple times by Members of different parties. On that day, I joined 353 other Members in approving the Committee’s findings. This is an opportune moment to thank all members of the Committee of Privileges for their diligent work in producing its final report. To be clear, the Committee found that the work of the House had been frustrated by the highest office of Government, and the House of Commons agreed with its findings.
The second main reason why the word “contempt” is important is that the seriousness of the findings is not reflected in the consequences, given that expulsion from the House is the worst penalty a Member can face when they do not speak truthfully in Parliament. Being expelled from the House pales in comparison to the penalties for committing a contempt of court, which can see someone going to prison for up to two years, getting a fine, or both. Being expelled from the House pales in comparison to the legal framework for coronavirus restrictions and fixed penalty notices, some of which amounted to thousands of pounds that ordinary members of the public had to pay.
Let us bear in mind that a false statement made in court amounts to perjury, or lying under oath—a crime treated with great seriousness because the very foundation of the legal system depends on trust and credibility. Let us remember that in many cases perjury leads to justice being perverted. The very foundation of democracy also depends on trust and credibility. Democracy must not be perverted, especially by those who have been entrusted to defend it. Why should lying in Parliament not be treated with the same seriousness?
Contempt is usually associated with legal jargon and is defined as disobedience to or disrespect for the rules or orders of a court or legislative body. The House of Commons is not a court, but it is a legislative body that debates and passes new laws, and changes existing laws as required. The Government introduce most plans for such laws and the Government actively seek public comment on some of the legislative change that they wish to pursue. For that reason, the Government should be cognisant that in this case the rules are perhaps reversed, and the public is asking them to
“introduce legislation to make lying in the House of Commons a criminal offence.”
Why should they not comply with such a reasonable request? After all, it is the collectively held will for the common good that forms the political legitimacy of the social contract and determines that we should all live by a common rule. Why should introducing legislation to make lying the House of Commons a criminal offence be opposed? Or is it indeed a case of one rule for them and another rule for everyone else?
Both petitions are clear that trust, truth and honesty are crucial elements in a modern democracy and that lying in Parliament should carry the same penalties as lying in court. I agree with the sentiments of the nearly 244,000 people who felt compelled to sign the petitions. As Members take an oath before they can take their seat in the House, just as anyone does ahead of appearing in court, the same principle should be applied to this legislative body as in a court.
Let us look again at the Government’s response, which states:
“Once elected to Parliament, all MPs must abide by the seven principles of public life which form the basis of ethical standards expected of holders of public office. These are set out by the Committee on Standards in Public Life and are: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.”
Honesty is there, but should truthfulness be introduced as an eighth principle in public life just for the avoidance of doubt?
The MPs’ code of conduct states,
“Members have a duty to uphold the law”
and it is part of the parliamentary commissioner’s job to oversee the code of conduct. Despite the Government’s response citing the MPs’ code of conduct and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards as suitable substitutes to legislation, it is noted in the code of conduct’s procedural protocol that
“The Commissioner cannot investigate allegations solely about breaches of the Seven Principles of Public Life.”
Will someone please enlighten me as to what sense these myriad procedures make? We have only to look at the length of time between public concerns being raised about Boris Johnson misleading the public and his referral to the Committee of Privileges to see that
“the hurdles to achieve this are very high.”
As the director of the Constitution Unit points out,
“In any less extreme case even triggering an investigation to examine the facts might have proved politically impossible.”
Would it not be more straightforward to make lying in Parliament to be an offence?
The UK Government should take the number of petitioners that want legislative change as a clarion call that legislative change is not just desired, but necessary. We must never forget that we are elected by people across the UK to represent their interests and concerns, not our own. We must never forget that as MPs our primary privilege is that we are elected to serve our constituents, not ourselves. We must also never forget that one of our duties, as laid out in the MPs’ code of conduct, is that we should act on all occasions in accordance with the public trust placed in us. At the very least that must mean being truthful.
It is a sign of the backwards nature of the Westminster system that in February 2022, after both of the petitions had closed and it was obvious to many that lies had been told, the then SNP Westminster leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), was forced to leave the Chamber for telling the truth. At the same time, the then Prime Minister, who happens to be the guardian of the ministerial code, was able to use his position to spread misleading information and rebuke facts through lies, without recourse or accountability. The hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) was also ejected for calling Boris Johnson a liar—she was expelled for telling the truth. This madness places a stain on both Members’ parliamentary records for getting it right. Can the Minister put on the record whether either Member has even received an apology?
When the House of Commons’ rules eject Members from the Chamber for calling out dishonesty, the rules are clearly not working. Parliamentary privilege grants Members the right to speak freely without fear of legal liability or other reprisal, but that privilege has been abused, and that abuse goes against our code of conduct with little repercussion. We should grab the opportunity to examine the challenges and complexities of this matter and come together to find a solution that works. Legislation should be brought forward that prevents the trust between Government and those who are governed being further eroded. It should be done at the earliest opportunity, so we can move the backward nature of this Parliament forward.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mrs Murray.
Just one in six people in the UK—17% of the British public—who were polled last year said that they were highly satisfied with how democracy is working. I am afraid that compares very badly with some of our friends and neighbours, such as Canada and Germany, where 36% of the public say the same of their Governments. Clearly, whether we are in government or opposition, we need to take a careful look at issues of honesty and trust in Government.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day). The points he raised about partygate are absolutely central to the issue. I will extend one of those points. On 12 April 2022, the Metropolitan police served a fixed penalty notice on the then Prime Minister and the then Chancellor of the Exchequer for attending a rule-breaking event in the Cabinet Office in June 2020. Newspapers were full of that dramatic news when, just two days later, the Government announced the so-called Rwanda partnership. Whatever one thinks about the Rwanda partnership—the £120-million scheme that would see some asylum claimants having their claims processed while they were in Rwanda—it is, at the very least, newsworthy. My point is that increasingly over the last couple of decades, we have been subject to something that started out as spin but has since become something that verges on dishonesty.
Going back to 11 September 2001, we heard the phrase that it was a “good day to bury bad news”. At the time, that was symbolic of the worst aspects of the dark arts of spin. Since that time we have seen the development of that into an election campaigning technique. We now hear about the dead cat strategy. “Dead catting” is the idea that when something inconvenient is in the news headlines, the masters of spin might slap a dead cat in front of the public—a shocking announcement to divert attention away from those inconvenient headlines. Hon. and right hon. Members, it is time to end “a good day to bury bad news”, and it is time to end the dead cat strategy. It is a good day to bury the dead cat.
We need more honesty in public life, but if the public considered that MPs tell the truth only because it has become a criminal offence to lie, that could reduce trust in MPs. I pay tribute to the people who put the petition together and to the more than 100,000 people who signed it, but if we were to adopt the measures called for, we would need to be careful about a couple of things. First, if it became a criminal offence for MPs to lie in Parliament, what about when MPs are thought to have not told the truth outside Parliament? Could that, by contrast, reduce trust in MPs when they are speaking in other places, such as in the media or in meetings in their constituencies? The other thing that worries me about the idea of making lying an offence for which MPs could be prosecuted is what we see in other countries where political prisoners are made of people who are simply practising opposition politicians. Of course, that is taking the risk to the extreme, but I worry about the idea of opposition politicians getting locked up simply for telling the truth.
We should not need this. We should be able to proceed on the basis of honour, a term that goes in front of our constituencies: we are the hon. or right hon. Member of the constituency that we represent. We need more than a code of conduct or code of honour that binds us to the truth. Back in the days of Boris Johnson, we witnessed the terrible technique of a wild claim being amplified by denial: if a political opponent made a claim that we knew to be untruthful, by denying it we would repeat it, and by repeating it we would amplify it. We have to be aware of these partial truths because they are getting us into great political hot water.
For example, the 2019 Conservative manifesto claimed that 40 new hospitals would be delivered in this Parliament, but since then we have heard that they are not hospitals, there are not 40 of them and they are not new. Instead, the community hospital in Seaton in my constituency is under threat and there are suggestions that part of it might be demolished by a wrecking ball.
We need honesty and integrity to underpin our democracy. As politicians, we have a job not only to call out fake news, but to stand up and act with integrity. Over recent years, we have seen a dangerous rise in misleading statements from political parties and politicians. Clearly, the public feel there is distortion going on. Research from the organisation Full Fact showed that 71% of the public believe there is more lying and misuse of facts in politics now than 30 years ago. Yet the Constitution Unit found that the public admire politicians who are prepared to stand up and admit mistakes, rather than being dishonest about them. On top of that, a wave of sleaze and scandal has emanated from the Conservative party, and it was one such scandal that resulted in me coming to office as the Member of Parliament for Tiverton and Honiton.
In this place, we have a mechanism for correcting the record and inadvertent errors by going before Parliament, but we need a better method for MPs to correct Hansard, rather than things being distorted and going viral over social media. We have to be wary of politicians who cook up half-baked proposals, pretend that they are meaningful policies and then claim they have scrapped them. I take as a case in point the Conservative party conference earlier this year, where ideas about seven bins were magicked up. There was a time when the office of Prime Minister was that of statesman, but to stoop this low is to go to the level less of statesman and more of binman. It is deceitful and against the Nolan principles.
I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman says, but does he recognise that some of his proposed solutions already exist, yet we are still in the condition we find ourselves in? They do not work. Somehow or other, we need to shift the dial and, within the politics of the United Kingdom, stop rewarding those who say what they like and get away with it, and rather reward those who stick by the truth.
The right hon. Member is exactly right. We absolutely need to put on a pedestal those people who are prepared to stand up and admit when they have made a mistake and applaud those who correct their own record.
Before I close, one other aspect that I see increasingly is neighbouring MPs claiming credit for the work and achievements of the community campaigners in my part of Devon. Flattery is clearly at play here; it is sometimes said that mimicry is a form of flattery. However, what we are seeing is against the Nolan principles of honesty and accountability.
Finally, anyone who has joined the House of Commons Chamber at the start of proceedings will remember this part of the prayer that we listen to every day. We pray that Members
“never lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility”.
I was not intending to make any allegations about any sitting Members, but I might refer to a couple of former sitting Members and others. It is a great delight to have you in the Chair, Mrs Murray, and to have this debate. It is only a sadness that, of course, it is in competition with very serious matters in the House of Commons Chamber this afternoon.
There is an irony that it is the fundamental assumption of the House of Commons that every single Member always speaks the truth to the best of their knowledge, understanding and ability. Of course, sometimes we get things wrong by mistake; we accidentally misspeak and all the rest of it, but it is the fundamental assumption of the House of Commons that every single Member always speaks the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
However, it is the absolute presumption of every single member of the public these days that, every time a Member of Parliament opens their mouth, whether in the House of Commons or outside Parliament, we are lying. I cannot tell you, Mrs Murray, how many times I have heard that. We have all known it. We have all seen it on the Twittersphere—I cannot bring myself to call it X any more; it seems a very odd name. It is the working assumption of lots of people, and it is considerably worse than when I first arrived in the House. I cannot remember when you first arrived, Mrs Murray, but I arrived in 2001—I think I am the longest-standing Member present this afternoon. It was nowhere near that bad back in 2001. The statistics have got worse in every decade since the second world war, and the public are now at catastrophically low levels of trust in what politicians say. That is truly problematic.
Of course, as I said, we all make mistakes. I have made mistakes. I have had to correct the record several times. Sometimes, entirely inadvertently, one says “million” when one meant “billion”. Sometimes one gets the name of a country wrong. These things happen. Sometimes I have said “Labour” when I meant “Conservative”, or “Conservative” when I meant “Labour”. Sometimes we just have to correct the record, but it is not that easy for a Back-Bench Member. There is not, at the moment, a formal process for us to do so. We can do a point of order, although sometimes we may feel—I know I can be pompous anyway—
We can feel phenomenally pompous when raising a point of order about some minor correction of the record and can kind of think that we are wasting the House’s time. I really hope that tomorrow afternoon we vote through the amendment that will allow for the process to correct the record—which we introduced in government in 2007—to apply not just to Ministers but to all Back Benchers. We all know times when we wish we could have been able to correct the record. The good thing about this is that it will correct the original moment in Hansard. At present, if I were to say something foul that I believed to be true about a member of your family, Mrs Murray—I would not be able to say it about you, because of the rules that you have already laid out—but I subsequently found it to be untrue, it would still stand in the original Hansard even if I corrected the record two days later. But if the motion goes through tomorrow, we will be able to correct that problem in the present system.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) spoke very eloquently at the beginning of the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. I think his heart was in it and he was not just doing it for the Petitions Committee. He referred to the term “bad apple”. Now, I dislike this term, because I think people believe it means, “Oh, there are just some bad apples, but everybody else is okay.” That has never been the meaning of the proverb, which goes all the way back to Chaucer. In “The Cook’s Tale”, one of the pilgrims refers to the one bad apple spoiling the whole barrel. That is the point—there needs to be just one bad apple to spoil the whole barrel, which I honestly think is what has happened in this Parliament.
We need to be terribly cognisant of the fact that 25 MPs in this Parliament since 2019 have been suspended for a day or more or have left Parliament before a report on their misconduct was produced to the House. That is 25 out of 650 of us, which is a record by a country mile. The Clerk of the House tells me that a country mile is as far as someone can see into the distance, to the horizon. I think that it has become normalised for some of our colleagues. I will not refer to specific individuals, but the whole idea of a meat tax theoretically being proposed by the Labour party—which has never, ever been proposed by the Labour party—is a flat-out, blatant lie.
This is why it is so critical, because we have to challenge the advantages associated with the influence that someone can gain under lies; otherwise, the individual is being rewarded by throwing a lie out there, and in no way are they are penalised for bringing it back again. That, in the sense of it affecting all of us and polluting our whole politics, is why we need to address this, in a way that presently this House does not seem to have sufficient resources for.
I completely agree. If this Parliament does not get around to doing it, the next Parliament will have to address this issue far more seriously than we have heretofore. I will come on in a moment to some of the problems with the present system. I commend the right hon. Member for suggesting a way to deal with it. She is not the only Member to do so, as a Member from my own party has done the same. I will explain why I disagree with the precise route that she wants to go down, but I do not disagree with what she is seeking to change. Incidentally, what I said about the meat tax could be said about seven bins, and so on.
A legitimate point was made by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) from the Liberal Democrat Benches, which is that the public does not draw an enormous distinction between whether an MP has lied in Parliament or out of Parliament. They just think that we all lie all of the time, and that at pretty much the moment our lips start moving, we are all lying. This is surely problematic for the whole of democracy.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk alluded to another problem. We have a rule that states that a Member cannot say that somebody else has lied, unless the motion on the Order Paper is specific on whether that is what we are debating. I remember some people got awfully excited in the Chamber when people started saying that Boris Johnson had lied, when the motion on the Order Paper was about whether Boris Johnson had lied. Of course, we have got to be able to advance that argument and prosecute that case in such a debate, but we have an assumption that we cannot say that a Member has deliberately lied. We have to say “inadvertently”, even though we all know that every time somebody says, “He has inadvertently lied,” the person who is saying “inadvertently” is actually lying themselves. What they really believe is that the other person has not “inadvertently” lied at all, but has absolutely advertently lied, and deliberately and recklessly done so. We then throw that person out of the Chamber for a day if they refuse to retract the point. I do not want us to get to a place where we spend all our time accusing each other of being a liar. That would be a very inelegant way of conducting our business, and it would not enhance political debate in this country. We are, however, going to have to review this rule at some point.
It is also a particular irony that, as has been said, two Members of Parliament were thrown out of the Chamber for calling Boris Johnson a liar when, first, Boris Johnson patently was a liar, and secondly, he was subsequently found to have misled the House on precisely the grounds that had been adduced by the two Members concerned. Yet they are the ones who ended up on the list of bad MPs—they are on my list of 25. I think we will have to review that.
My second point is that it is even more important that a Minister tells the truth, as I said earlier, in so far as they are able to know it to be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The reasons for that are, first, Ministers have an army of advisers to make sure that what they are saying is true and to tell them that they must correct the record should that be necessary; secondly, decisions on spending and public policy are made on the basis of what Ministers say in the Chamber; and thirdly, it is a fundamental principle of good Government and written in the ministerial code that Ministers must always tell the truth.
I honestly think that 98% of the time Ministers do tell the truth. I know lots of Ministers who are very rigorous with themselves and their teams: “Can I really say that? Is that really true? Is that a correct interpretation of the statistics?” But there are others who are perhaps a little more casual with the use of statistics and whose approach effectively amounts to being misleading. That is why it is so important that Ministers have the opportunity to correct the record and should do so. They do it hundreds of times every year.
Ironically, Boris Johnson did it only once. Just after the second invasion of Ukraine in 2022, when asked by the Leader of the Opposition whether Roman Abramovich had been sanctioned, Boris Johnson told the House that yes, he had been sanctioned. I quizzed him again, and he said yes, Abramovich had been sanctioned. The next day, however, he corrected the record to say that no, Roman Abramovich had not been sanctioned—he was subsequently, but not at that time. It seems a little odd that the only time Boris Johnson chose to correct the record was when a Russian oligarch, with very deep pockets and very expensive lawyers to hand, called on him and made him do so.
As I said earlier, this system for correcting the record should be available to all Members, and I hope that the motion is carried tomorrow; I am fairly confident that it will be. But what are we to think if a Minister, or a series of Ministers, keeps on repeating something by using a statistic that is false, and that we know to be false because the Office for National Statistics, which consists of a pretty dry set of people who are not all that interested in getting into party political argy-bargy, writes to the Minister, “Thou shalt not use this statistic because it is not true any more”? I have a simple answer: if the Office for National Statistics writes to a Minister to say that they must not mention something again, and copies in Mr Speaker, but the Minister does not correct the record within 28 days, they should automatically be considered to have breached the code of conduct. The Committee on Standards could then decide the importance and significance of the issue. If a Minister were faced with such a situation, I suspect that after the first time they were caught out and suspended from the House by the Committee on Standards, they would never do it again. That is the kind of measure that we need to introduce.
In the present system, someone has to refer the matter of whether an individual Member has lied to the Committee of Privileges. This is phenomenally cumbersome. For a start, they need to get the whole House to vote in favour of it. Therefore, in the main, it is unlikely that Government Members, who, by definition, are in the majority, will vote for one of their own Ministers—let alone a Prime Minister—to be referred to the Committee of Privileges. It has happened once, but I suspect it is unlikely to happen again. It is a very long and cumbersome procedure. It requires Mr Speaker to grant permission for the reference to the Committee of Privileges. We need to reform that.
I note yet another irony: when the Department for Culture, Media and Sport Committee found, in essence, that Nadine Dorries had lied to the Committee, it decided to not seek a reference to the Committee on Privileges—I guess because it thought that it was just too cumbersome and tedious a process. We probably need to make this process simpler, and to not necessarily require a Committee of the whole House to do it.
The Government response to the e-petitions says:
“It is an important principle of the UK Parliament that Members of Parliament are accountable to those who elect them. It is absolutely right that all Members of Parliament are fully accountable to their constituents for what they say and do and this is ultimately reflected at the ballot box.”
Well, yes—sort of. I am conscious that I represent the Rhondda, the only seat in Parliament that has been Labour since 1885, although it is being redrawn at the next election. My point is that some MPs are more accountable to their electorate than others. We have a first-past-the-post system, which means that many MPs are sitting in very safe seats, and so are not as accountable. That is why it is all the more incumbent on the whole House to take these issues very seriously. We cannot just leave these issues to the ballot box.
Various ways of sorting out the issue have been suggested. One is that the Speaker should intervene and decide. I regularly see people on Twitter condemning poor old Lindsay for not having told off such-and-such a Minister for lying. That is not fair. We cannot have the Speaker decide on the accuracy or inaccuracy of comments made by any Member of the House; that way madness lies. I fully support not giving that power to the Speaker; it would be unfair.
There is an argument that there should be a criminal offence of lying, and I understand that. However, I used parliamentary privilege to make allegations about Roman Abramovich in the Chamber, which I think enabled the Government to proceed with eventually sanctioning him under the Ukraine sanctions regime. I am sure that he has very expensive lawyers and would have sought a criminal prosecution. I think I was doing the right thing, and operating under another principle: the principle that all Members should speak without fear or favour. That is of course guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, which says in article IX that no proceeding in Parliament should be questioned or impeached in any court of law, or in any other place. That guarantees that we cannot be sued in other places for the things that we say in Parliament. It is important that we maintain that; otherwise, he would have been seeking some kind of criminal prosecution of me. We MPs need to use that power judiciously and carefully, and I admit that I have sometimes got that wrong. However, we need that power in place to ensure that we have a fully functioning system.
A further point to make about a criminal offence is that it will not deal with what happens outside Parliament. It would be difficult to start having MPs brought to court for what they may or may not have said on Twitter or whatever, unless they were inciting violence or breaking another law.
We must also bear in mind that sometimes two people can, quite legitimately, read the same event completely differently. I use the Evangelists—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—as an example. Matthew and Luke have completely different versions of the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain; they differ on whether Jesus is standing up or sitting down; on whether it is “Blessed are the poor” or “the poor in spirit”, and so on. That is a frivolous remark in one sense, but I am being deadly serious. I really do not want the courts—and, for that matter, the police—to spend all their time analysing whether something is proportionate, deliberate, and so on. That is why I am not in favour of a criminal offence. However, I do think that the offence of misconduct in public office is ripe for reform. It has been around for a very long time. It is rarely used. I am not aware of it ever having been applied to a Member of Parliament, but there is an argument that, if a statutory offence of misconduct in public office were introduced, then it should apply to Members of Parliament in certain circumstances.
I have two final points. First, I cannot tell you, Mrs Murray, how many times I have been told, or have heard on television or radio, during this Parliament: “The public doesn’t care about standards in public life. This is all just Westminster tittle-tattle.” I am sorry, but that is so wrong. If we do not care about it, the public certainly do. I gently suggest that the by-elections last week point to a public who genuinely care about standards in public office and lying. Let us not forget that Boris Johnson was referred to the Committee on Standards over what he said about parties in Downing Street; he was not referred to the Committee of Privileges for what he said about Chris Pincher, which was actually what brought him down—but that was another set of lies. There were dozens of different issues that could have been sent to the Committee of Privileges if necessary.
The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, was absolutely right: the Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy, which has done a lot of work on this subject, said that by far the No. 1 thing that it sought in a Member of Parliament was honesty; that is by far the No. 1 quality it wants in a Member. Its favourite option would be to throw Members out of Parliament if they lie to Parliament. With all the caveats that I gave earlier—that we sometimes make mistakes and so on—if a Member refuses to correct the record, that is by definition a wilful misleading of Parliament.
This is my final point. Why does all this matter? In the end, if people start losing trust in democracy, it may lead to them not voting, or to believing, “Well, it is a lot more efficient just to have an autocrat decide,” as has happened in other places in Europe in recent years. We will then have lost one of our fundamental freedoms, and something that makes this country very special. Parliament is on trial. The linchpin of that is about whether MPs tell the truth or lie; whether we—the rest of the House—care when a Member lies; and whether we do anything about it.
I thank my friend, the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), for bringing these e-petitions before us. It has been really interesting to hear the previous speakers. Westminster Hall has the advantage of being a place where you feel as though you are actually debating something, rather than just standing up and saying a series of words. It is disappointing that there are so few of us here, although I understand the circumstances, given the statement being made in the Chamber.
Others have touched on partygate. It is timely that “Partygate” was broadcast by Channel 4 a couple of weeks ago, though this debate is over a year later than anticipated. “Partygate” reminded people—we saw this played out in the recent by-elections—of the real, visceral shock at how many people behaved during covid. It was like a slow disaster movie. There was shock that people were behaving in a completely different way from us, at a time when we had taken the Prime Minister on his word and given up our liberties. People were not just breaking the rules, but dispensing with the truth when justifying their actions.
During the conference recess, we heard claims about a meat tax, about proposals for seven different bins in which to separate out our refuse, and about people purporting to be gay to gain asylum. We were even given what we were told were concrete spending plans for HS2, only to be told, conveniently a couple of days later, that those plans were actually illustrative. How can people believe what they are told under such circumstances? In Wales, some politicians have dubbed the 20 mph legislation a “blanket” rule, but in my county, there are 85 exceptions to it, so how can it be a monolithic imposition—unless what we have here is not a nuanced interpretation of various political standpoints, but lying for the sake of division and to stoke emotions? If it is that in action, we need to take a step back and ask where it will land us.
As a number of hon. Members mentioned, I tabled a private Member’s Bill that would make it an offence for politicians to wilfully lie to the public. Like many private Members’ Bills, it is an opportunity to talk about the gravity of the situation and the pros and cons of what we can do to address it, and I think that everyone who has spoken so far agrees that the situation needs to be addressed. The Elected Representatives (Prohibition of Deception) Bill would bring Parliament in line with 21st century standards, and make it an actionable offence for MPs, Members of devolved legislatures, police and crime commissioners, and elected Mayors wittingly to lie in their public statements, including in their public pronouncements on social media, in podcasts, and in broadcasts and printed election material. If found guilty, they could face an unlimited fine and be banned from standing for election for up to 10 years. Yes, those would be serious sanctions, evidently, but the question is: what sort of sanctions will bring about change? The Bill provides safeguards to ensure that only those who wilfully lie are held to account, and that police time is not wasted on frivolous tit for tat or malicious accusations, and of course national security concerns would be safeguarded.
As hon. Members have mentioned, we all make mistakes, but we do not have a culture that drives the admission of having made mistakes. We are penalised more for admitting our mistakes than we are for correcting them, and that is, to a degree, self-perpetuating. My party has been calling for such an Act for a long time. The Member of the Senedd Adam Price, who was the MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, back in 2006 presented a Bill relating to misleading the public over the illegal war in Iraq. It is astonishing that, 17 years later, nothing has changed. A 2022 survey by Compassion in Politics found that 73% of people supported my Bill, including 71% of Conservative voters and 79% of Labour supporters, and the e-petitions show that there is real public support for accountability and integrity, and that purposeful dishonesty and deception should have consequences.
That brings me to the question: why legislation, rather than a protocol? I was holding myself back earlier and not intervening, because I thought, “I will talk about this, so I’ll do it with a bit more decorum and dignity, and at a better pace.” First, let us remember that there is consumer protection legislation about the description of goods and services and, of course, advertising. What is advertising but another industry, alongside politics, that deals in influencing people? When it comes to what is true, and what is unacceptable falsehood, we should endeavour to control how we influence people. Why legislation rather than protocol? Because gentlemen’s agreements work only between gentlemen who play by the rules. When there is a culture of disapplying the rules from people who consider themselves to be, let us say, world kings, we need something more robust than codes of conduct. The ministerial code is, in essence, as strong as the political stature of the Prime Minister.
We have heard about the role of the Committee of Privileges, and I think the phrase used was that it can be cumbersome and tedious. We have seen Ministers referred to previous Prime Ministers. I must say that this also happens with the First Minister in Cardiff. In both instances, there is the same risk of party considerations and immediate political priorities overriding the common ethical good. That holds true in both places.
Recent events have shown that we need to take greater preventive steps to safeguard against polluting public discourse with blatant untruths. I believe that in a democracy, this should be a collective action enshrined in law, not a privileged act of patronage, granted or withheld on the grounds of party political interests. Why does all this matter? To me, it is because politics is ethics in action. The alternative, if we do not safeguard that, is that it becomes self-interest in action. Diolch yn fawr iawn.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for opening the debate and for bringing the petitions before us, and I thank all those who signed them. They have to be commended for their foresight, given that they signed up before many of the issues touched on this afternoon even came to light.
We live in strange and turbulent times, and there is a danger that we are slipping into an era of post-truth politics. We need only look across the Atlantic at the situation in the United States, where a former President is still denying the outcome of an election years after it happened; we can see the impact that is having on society. If we do not do something—I am not saying that I have all the answers—there is a danger of sliding down the same slope.
As has been touched on, the former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, lied to the public and Parliament. He was found by independent ethics advisers to have broken the ministerial code after being found guilty by a Met police investigation, yet nobody in this place could call him out for lying. Surely it is our job to come to this place to hold people and systems to account. To paraphrase an Australian politician who used a much pithier phrase, we need to keep the scoundrels honest.
The public are sick and fed up of politicians who think they can have one rule for themselves and another for everyone else. They want politicians to be honest and to have integrity, which is surely the very least that the public should be able to expect from us. It was interesting that the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) suggested that we need to throw out the “dead cat” strategy, and I entirely agree with him. Perhaps one or two Lib Dem bar charts could go with it, but that is perhaps another matter altogether.
University College London research published last year revealed that the UK public want politicians who, over and above delivering outcomes, operate within the rules. UCL’s report, entitled “What Kind of Democracy Do People Want?”, details the responses of 6,500 people who are representative of the voting-age population across the whole UK, who were surveyed in July 2021. It is the most in-depth report to date on what roles people think institutions should play. It shows that UK voters care about how those in power are held to account, and there is notably higher support for judicial intervention than is often supposed. It reveals that people do not want power concentrated in the hands of a few, but would like it shared among Parliament, judges, regulators, civil servants and the public.
When respondents were asked whether they agreed that
“healthy democracy requires that politicians always act within the rules”,
“healthy democracy means getting things done, even if that sometimes requires politicians to break the rules”,
75% chose the former and just 6% the latter. Professor Alan Renwick, the deputy director of the UCL’s Constitution Unit, said:
“It’s true that few people pay much attention to the fine details of democratic institutions…But people do want a system in which politicians act with integrity and where power isn’t unduly concentrated with ministers in government. Most people, across different political affiliations, think that’s not the case at present.”
These findings show that voters care deeply about integrity and do not want power to be unduly concentrated in the hands of the Executive.
It is beyond doubt that the trust gap between public and politicians is threatening our democracy; as I say, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have accelerated the slide. Unless we halt the political disinformation, democracy will be in deep trouble. I have previously highlighted the possible need for a truth tsar or truth commissioner to fact-check MPs and hold us to account, and I would be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on that idea. Clearly, we cannot have a situation where we do that ourselves. In an ideal world we would, but that is what we have got just now and it is not working.
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant) is right that it would be entirely unfair to expect the Speaker to take on that role, but somebody has to, and we need to give that serious consideration. There could be an independent body entirely separate from the political system, which could give confidence not only to those of us in this place but to the public at large. It could have the power to investigate allegations of dishonesty against MPs and recommend sanctions, such as suspension from the House. That would be more than naming and shaming MPs who make mistakes, because mistakes happen in every workplace and every organisation. There is huge merit in the Bill that the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) introduced, which I hope will progress with a lot of support. We need to do something; if we do not, the entire foundations of our democracy are in danger of falling into disrepair.
I will give a case in point. Recently, a Minister—I will not name anyone—commented in the Chamber that Scotland “does not house refugees”. If someone was being fair, they could argue that that was a throwaway line or a flippant comment, but factually it is entirely untrue. I pointed that out through a point of order, but I have not yet seen a correction to the record. That was a very simple case, where somebody could look at the facts and check the statement, and the easiest solution would be for the record to be corrected, but at the moment there is nothing to make that happen.
There are other moves afoot. In Iceland, all major political parties have agreed to a code of conduct, which includes provisions for transparency, accountability and ethical behaviour. Perhaps we could look at that existing model, at least to bring ourselves a bit further forward in terms of what actions we could take.
Public anger about dishonesty in politics runs deep; there is a deep-seated view that there is one rule for politicians and another for everyone else. A small number of people making wildly flamboyant claims undermines all of us; it impacts every single one of us. It is in all our interests to try to do everything we can to get this right.
The UCL experts showed that most people are outraged at the suggestion that they should have to use up the one vote they get every four or five years to make what they think should be the blindingly obvious point that lying in Parliament ought to be punished. They expect politicians to step up and enforce the rules. If that does not happen, they could increasingly support more stringent and perhaps problematic external constraints on Parliament. There would be nothing in that for any of us, so it is in all our interests to get this right.
I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for leading this debate on a subject—honesty in politics and how MPs can be made more accountable for what they say in public and in Parliament—that was determined by the Petitions Committee but is clearly close to his heart, and for explaining very clearly the intent of the petitioners.
We all know the shocking reason why the issue of MPs telling the truth has become a matter of such public concern over the past few years: while people up and down the country were making huge sacrifices to comply with the covid rules and help to keep us all safe, with families unable to be with their loved ones in their dying moments, friends unable to attend funerals, businesses struggling and young people missing out on education and social contact, there were parties at No. 10 Downing Street. As if that were not enough, to add insult to injury, we had the unedifying spectacle—that is very modest language, Mrs Murray—of the then Prime Minister, himself in denial, squirming around and changing his story at the Dispatch Box. We can understand why the leader of the Labour party, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), called for him to be referred to the Committee of Privileges.
The problem, as we all know, is that that behaviour by a former Prime Minister has completely shattered the public’s trust in politics. That is why we have said that, for Labour, it is a priority to try to restore trust in politics and to restore standards in public life. For us, that has to start from the top, with the Prime Minister and the Government. It is of paramount importance that all MPs should be honest, but clearly the influence and impact of what Ministers say is much greater. They affect people’s spending decisions. They affect people’s planning decisions. They are crucial in terms of what the future of the country holds.
We cannot continue with the current situation, in which the Prime Minister appoints his own ethics adviser, who can instigate investigations only on the say-so of the Prime Minister, and in which sanctions can be imposed only with the agreement of the Prime Minister. Sadly, for all the rhetoric, the current Conservative Government have done precious little to restore the public’s trust in politicians.
We have set out very clearly that a Labour Government would create a genuinely independent standards watchdog, the ethics and integrity commission, which would be completely independent of political control and would oversee and enforce standards in Government, ending the current situation in which the Prime Minister is the judge and jury on every case of ministerial misconduct. The current independent adviser on Ministers’ interests and the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which advises on former Ministers taking up jobs, would be subsumed into that new ethics and integrity commission.
The new commission would have the power to launch investigations, without ministerial approval, into misconduct and breaches of the ministerial code; to put forward sanctions for breaches of that code; to recommend changes to ensure that the code is fit for purpose; to insist that former Ministers apply to the commission before accepting any job; and to ban former Ministers from lobbying, consultancy or any paid work related to their former job. That is how we want to clean up Government. Disappointingly in the light of the events described by hon. Members today, the Government have not brought forward proposals for much-needed reform to create independence in the system.
The conduct of MPs has traditionally been a matter for the House of Commons and the Speaker. I thank those hon. Members who have taken part in today’s debate and set out their proposals for how things could be improved: my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant); the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord), who spoke for the Liberal Democrats; the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), the Westminster leader of Plaid Cymru; and the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson), the SNP spokesperson . It is an important feature of our democracy that we safeguard freedom of speech and that we should be able to express ourselves forthrightly. Inevitably, there will be strong differences of opinion. The question is this: how do we uphold the highest standards in the House while at the same time safeguarding freedom of speech? How effectively do the current procedures work?
Back in April 2022, the Leader of the Opposition called on Mr Speaker to allow a debate on a motion to refer the then Prime Minister to the Committee of Privileges for assertions that
“appear to amount to misleading the House”.—[Official Report, 21 April 2022; Vol. 712, c. 351.]
In the event, the motion was agreed nem. con. As we know, a referral was made and sanctions were imposed. Those included a 90-day suspension, which would have allowed a recall petition had the Member not resigned. Therefore, democratically elected Members were able to do the right thing and back, or at least not oppose, the investigation of a fellow Member, albeit he was the Prime Minister, for misleading the House. However, the day before, Ministers had been minded to table an amendment to the motion, so perhaps there is a case for a stronger ministerial code that would prevent that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda has put on record, there are real concerns about that process, and there is potential for streamlining it.
As I said, the conduct of MPs in the Chamber has traditionally been a matter for the House of Commons and the Speaker, but it behoves each one of us not to tarnish the reputation of Parliament by knowingly lying to—or misleading, as it is always put—the House, and therefore lying to the public. I am sure that the majority of Members endeavour to be truthful the majority of the time. However, as Members have pointed out today, a Member is more likely to get into trouble and be thrown out if they point out that another MP has lied than if they are the perpetrator of the lie in the first place.
While there are a number of ways in which a Minister can correct the record, that is not the case for other MPs. They can choose to make a correction by using a point of order, but that is not referenced to their original statement, which remains in Hansard. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda, the former Chair of the Committee on Standards, pointed out how it could be made easier for an MP to make a correction and how the information could be made more accessible. What thought have the Government given to that proposal, and what will be their position on the proposed amendment when it is put to the House? What discussions has the Minister had with the Leader of the House and Mr Speaker about ways to foster a zero-tolerance culture towards telling and repeating lies in the House and to rebuild trust in Parliament?
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda and the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton explained the potential complications of making it a criminal offence for MPs to lie to Parliament or to the public. The right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd explained how her ten-minute rule Bill, which would do that, would work. However, this has to be led from the top, which is why we in the Labour party think it very important to get the role of the Prime Minister, the ministerial code and the idea of an independent ethics and integrity commission off the blocks as a starter.
What proposals do the Government have for putting things right now? In the light of the events that have taken place, it is extraordinary that we have not seen significant action to create any form of independence in respect of ethics and integrity. What would the Minister propose to ensure that we have a better culture in Parliament and a better understanding of what honesty in politics means, and that we can demonstrate to the public that we are trying to clean up our act?
It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to respond in this important and wide-ranging debate, which touches on one of the fundamentals of the unwritten constitution: honesty. It is fundamental not only to our relationship with the public, but to our relationship with each other, and to the relationship that everyone in society has with one another. Without honesty, democracy cannot work properly, and society cannot work properly either.
All credit to Members on all sides of the House: everyone has raised important examples—[Interruption.] This side of the House is being represented—it is being represented now. Members across the Floor have raised important examples of Members being found wanting—often not examples from within their own parties, of course, but examples nonetheless. I toyed with the idea of finding examples of dishonesty from within the ranks of the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but we all know that they are out there and I do not wish to engage in that sort of knockabout, much though the hon. Member for Llanelli (Dame Nia Griffith) tempted me by not mentioning certain things that occurred when her party was last in power.
Through the petitions, the question before us is how we improve honesty. The petitions set out a particular route; the question is whether that is the right and appropriate route. I have to be clear with the House immediately that I do not think it is, for the reasons set out by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant). If honesty is one of the core values of our system, parliamentary privilege and freedom of speech within Parliament is one of the absolute pillars of the modern constitution—and not just in the modern constitution. The Bill of Rights 1689, in article 9, states that,
“The freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament.”
Perhaps closer to the heart of the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk who opened the debate is the Claim of Right Act 1689 from the Convention of the Estates in Scotland, which states,
“That for redress of all greivances and for the amending strenthneing and preserveing of the lawes Parliaments ought to be frequently called and allowed to sit and the freedom of speech and debate secured to the members”.
That was not even a new idea in the late 17th century. We know that it was a principle upheld in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and there is a case from 1455, of a Member called Younge who proved that he had been unduly punished because of something that he had said in the House. The House agreed that there was
“The olde liberty and freedom of the Commons of this land…to speak and say in the House…without any manner of challenge, charge or punishment.”
Even in 1455, it was considered to be an old privilege. There are examples from the late 14th century that may show likewise, but they are more contested.
It would seem that one of the founding principles of parliamentary debate is that people should be free from interference when they speak. It stands to reason that within Parliament people will not always agree. Of course, that does not give everyone the right to say whatever they like. The House has means of regulating its own behaviour.
The example that the hon. Member for Rhondda gave was far better than the made-up example that I had in my head. The consequences of success for petitions such as these is that the hon. Member will stand up and make a criticism of an oligarch; that oligarch has very deep pockets, and will find a way to get him into court. Even if the hon. Member wins, which he would do, he might find that legal process very expensive—so expensive that the next time he stood up he might genuinely think twice about what he said. It would not just be him; every Member of the House would think twice before they spoke on a contentious issue. That would have a supremely damaging effect on the honesty of discourse. Honesty is not just about what someone says; it is sometimes about what someone chooses not to say, and not to stand up against.
I do not believe it would stop there. Not only would there be rich individuals who sought to intimidate Members of the House, but there would be campaigning organisations with very deep pockets that would go after individuals who spoke on certain subjects and seek to clamp down on debate in certain areas. That would have a very damaging effect on our democracy. That is why, in my opinion and the opinion of the Government, the House has to grant those privileges and find means and mechanisms for self-regulation. That is why it is such an important and long-standing principle.
Hon. Members have raised interesting ideas about how those processes can be improved. I will not go into those today, but it is good that they have had the opportunity to air them here. If we were to accept the ideas put down in the petitions, though, we would be accepting—nay, sanctioning—the legal intimidation of MPs in the House of Commons. I am afraid that is something that this Government will not support.
We have had a good and wide-ranging debate. We have probably only scratched the surface of what could have been said. We have heard, basically, that it is very difficult for Members who genuinely wish to correct inadvertent mistakes to do so, and it is nigh-on impossible to hold people who deliberately mislead Parliament to actual account. There is no ultimate sanction other than the electorate at the ballot box, and that is not a proper sanction at all.
There is definitely something that we need to do if we are to restore public faith in our democratic processes. We have to send a message that honesty is not out of fashion, and the debate we have had today has helped to do that. We have got to ensure that there are repercussions when people wilfully mislead Parliament, and I hope the Minister will reconsider his position.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petitions 561730 and 576886, relating to honesty in politics.