The recent case of Boris Johnson, now referred to the Committee of Privileges, highlighted perceived problems in handling allegations of MPs misleading the House of Commons. Meanwhile, Constitution Unit research shows that the public want tough sanctions for such behaviour. Meg Russell summarises these findings, in the context of the Johnson inquiry, and a parallel inquiry by the Commons Procedure Committee on correcting the record – arguing that serious consideration should be given to tightening the rules.
Concerns about the truthfulness of politicians are nothing new. Indeed, historically politicians may often have been subject to unfair criticism in this area. Within parliament, and particularly with respect to ministers, there is a strong expectation that members should tell the truth. The December 2022 edition of the Ministerial Code states in its very first article (as did its predecessors) that:
It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.
Within parliament, this matter is in theory handled equally seriously. Erskine May states that ‘The Commons may treat the making of a deliberately misleading statement as a contempt’. As such, this behaviour may be referred to the Committee of Privileges for investigation leading to possible punishment.
These matters reached prominence under the premiership of Boris Johnson, who was frequently accused – by MPs and others – of misleading parliament. Things came to a head over statements that he had made about ‘partygate’ (the holding of social gatherings in 10 Downing Street during the COVID-19 lockdowns), which ultimately resulted in Johnson being referred to the Committee of Privileges. It is currently undertaking an investigation. Aside from the allegations themselves, controversy has reached the news over Johnson submitting a legal opinion to the committee questioning its processes, and over his legal advice being funded by the public purse. Hearings by the committee are expected in due course, with a report later this year.
Meanwhile, the House of Commons Procedure Committee is conducting a parallel inquiry which also addresses handling of misleading statements to parliament, with a focus on ‘correcting the record’. Unlike the Committee of Privileges, the Procedure Committee has invited evidence on general issues, rather than a single case, and it exists to propose changes to Commons procedures. Understandably, therefore, it has attracted evidence from those concerned about recent events.
What is the problem?
Given the Committee of Privileges inquiry, it might be asked, what is the problem here? Allegations of wrongdoing have been referred through formal channels, and are being dealt with. But the Johnson episode has led to very public questioning of parliamentary procedure.
Clearly, this case has a unique feature – that the individual accused of misleading the House of Commons was the Prime Minister himself. As indicated in the Ministerial Code above, high standards are expected of ministers, but the principal arbiter of decisions is the Prime Minister. When he or she is the subject of criticism, or indeed chooses not to act when other ministers breach the Code, the Commons may need to take action instead. This brings Commons procedures under the spotlight.
Arguments over Johnson’s behaviour had rumbled on for many months before his referral to the Committee of Privileges. Notably, some MPs actively sought to highlight problems with Commons rules by openly accusing him of misleading parliament on the floor of the Commons. This led to both Labour’s Dawn Butler (in July 2021) and the SNP’s then leader at Westminster, Ian Blackford, (in January 2022) being ejected from the chamber for refusing to withdraw such allegations – since accusing another member of dishonesty is considered unparliamentary behaviour. Such episodes attracted sharp public criticism of the Commons rules, and of the Speaker Lindsay Hoyle who sought to enforce them, as illustrated by the examples below.
Although Johnson was ultimately referred to the Committee of Privileges, the case demonstrated how the hurdles to achieve this are very high. References need to come from the House of Commons itself, meaning that the Prime Minister could potentially be shielded from investigation by his own MPs. His eventual referral indicated just how far he had lost their support over this matter. In any less extreme case even triggering an investigation to examine the facts might have proved politically impossible.
The Procedure Committee’s call for evidence also highlights some less high-profile problems. Even where an MP seeks to correct the record having made a misleading statement to parliament, this can be both difficult to achieve, and largely invisible. Only ministers can correct the record via an oral or written statement. This same mechanism is not available to other MPs, who can only make a correction via a ‘point of order’ – which is not linked in the online record to the original statement made. There are hence obstacles in the way of MPs who want to do their best, and a lack of transparency for the public.
Public concern about MPs misleading parliament is high
The Procedure Committee specifically sought evidence on public opinion about misleading the House of Commons. Here the findings from the Constitution Unit’s Democracy in the UK after Brexit project, on public attitudes to the UK’s democracy and constitution, are very pertinent. The project has included two large-scale public opinion surveys conducted by YouGov, from 23–29 July 2021 (6,432 respondents), and 26 August – 5 September 2022 (4,105 respondents) respectively, and a Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK (comprising 67 demographically representative members of the British public), which took place over six weekends in autumn 2021. All three of these have touched closely upon honesty and integrity in politics, including specifically relating to misleading parliament. All three have demonstrated very significant public concern about these matters.
Both of the opinion surveys asked the public which characteristics they most valued in politicians. In both cases, the top two items (out of 15) were ‘be honest’ and ‘own up when they make mistakes’. These ranked higher than, for example, ‘be in touch with ordinary people’, ‘keep their promises’, ‘get things done’, ‘work hard’ or ‘be inspiring’. The first survey was conducted before the ‘partygate’ controversy reached the headlines, and the second as Boris Johnson’s premiership was coming to an end.
Another key survey question asked respondents to choose between two options: that ‘healthy democracy requires that politicians always act within the rules’, or that ‘healthy democracy means getting things done, even if that sometimes requires politicians to break the rules’. In 2021, 75% of respondents chose acting within the rules, and only 6% selected getting things done. When repeated in 2022, the proportion choosing acting within the rules was at 78%, while getting things done remained at 6%. (Other options both times were ‘I agree/disagree with both equally’, or ‘don’t know’.)
The Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK, which took place just as news of Downing Street parties had begun to filter through to the media, allowed participants to deliberate in depth, and develop conclusions and recommendations in their own words. It found deep concern about honesty and integrity:
- In identifying principles that underpin a good democracy, the most widely supported principle (by 98% of assembly members) was ‘honesty in politics’.
- The fourth most popular principle (out of 16, with 96% agreement) was ‘systems of accountability and redress’.
- The most strongly supported recommendation from the Assembly (out of 51, with support from 98% of members) was that ‘Lying or intentionally misleading parliament should be able to be identified as “contempt of parliament”. As well as being made to give a public apology, MPs who break this rule should be fined or otherwise punished.’
The 2022 survey, which post-dated Boris Johnson’s reference to the Committee of Privileges, included a series of questions about whether UK democracy would be better or worse if certain stated measures were introduced. Fully 74% said that democracy would be better ‘if MPs were thrown out of parliament for lying’ (46% saying ‘a lot better’), while only 3% considered that this would make democracy worse (11% responded ‘no better or worse’, and 12% ‘don’t know’).
These public opinion findings were highly consistent with surveys by others, including the Committee on Standards in Public Life and Spotlight on Corruption, both of which were summarised in the written evidence to the Procedure Committee from Full Fact.
What should be done?
The Committee of Privileges will filter through the evidence and make a decision in the specific case of Boris Johnson. Once it reports, it will be up to MPs to decide whether to approve any punishment that it proposes. But there are clearly wider questions about whether Commons procedures need to be tightened up.
The Procedure Committee will undoubtedly report on some of the detailed issues, such as whether where MPs choose to correct the record, links between corrections and the original misleading statement should be strengthened, and whether opposition and backbench members who wish to correct the record should be able do so through more straightforward means than raising a point of order. Various submissions to the committee have supported these things.
But the far bigger problem is how to deal with persistent cases, of members who fail to correct the record even when their mistakes are pointed out to them by reputable organisations, sometimes on multiple occasions – again, the written evidence from Full Fact details some clear cases of this kind (including, but not restricted to, the Johnson case). Such problems are particularly serious and important when the transgressor is a minister. Ministers are accountable to parliament, are prominent and visible, and should have adequate resources both to get their facts right, and to correct them if they make a mistake.
While there is formally a mechanism to deal with such cases, recent events have shown that the barriers for action are extremely high. Some groups (again most notably Full Fact) have hence proposed solutions to the Procedure Committee for persistent cases. Constructing such a system would undoubtedly not be straightforward, and would require careful consideration and design. Some claims of misleading parliament may relate to basic matters of fact, while others involve greater ambiguity. In a polarised environment, bodies that seek to arbitrate on matters of truth may get dragged into politicised debate, and there is a risk of malicious politically-motivated claims. Parliamentary actors, such as the House of Commons Library, the Speaker, parliamentary committees and staff, may therefore be reluctant to enter this territory. Notably, the written evidence to the Procedure Committee from the Clerk of the House of Commons emphasised that ‘it is not the role of the Speaker or House officials to assess the accuracy of Members’ contributions’.
But while undoubtedly challenging, the clear levels of public concern suggest that these problems should not be ducked. Various reputable organisations external to parliament already conduct fact checking work, and seek to highlight anomalies in a balanced way. There may therefore be an opportunity for the parliamentary authorities to draw upon such work in designing a new system. The key change needed is to lower the barriers for referral for investigation – by the Committee of Privileges or some other body, with some kind of filter mechanism to avoid vexatious claims. Following evidence gathering and a report, MPs could then retain the final say.
A more robust system would not necessarily lead to more investigations than now. Indeed a significant dynamic in parliament is that robust scrutiny systems tend to have their main impact through ‘anticipated reactions’ – i.e. ministers taking greater care for fear of facing the parliamentary consequences. A robust system would at least encourage ministers who make errors to comply with reasonable requests to correct the record. It would encourage prime ministers to police good ministerial behaviour. It is only when such a system of scrutiny is lacking that ministerial standards may tend to slip. Currently, it is unfortunately clear (including to the public) that ministers can potentially mislead parliament persistently and get away with it.
The Procedure Committee’s report could prove to be an important watershed in this debate. A clear statement that parliament should tackle this problem, if necessary through a further inquiry or specialist review to get the details right, would be widely welcomed by the public. In contrast, a report that appears to duck the central problem, focusing only on minor technical details, could be met by further public disillusionment and criticism of parliament.
This post is partially based on the author’s written evidence to the Procedure Committee inquiry. That evidence, and the other evidence referred to in this post, can be found on the committee’s website.
About the author
Meg Russell FBA is Professor of British and Comparative Politics at UCL and Director of the Constitution Unit.
The featured image attached to this post is State Opening December 2019 (CC BY-NC 2.0) by UK Parliament.
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