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.Continue reading