Honesty in Politics

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Monday 23rd October 2023

(7 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Chris Bryant Portrait Sir Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)
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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—

Chris Bryant Portrait Sir Chris Bryant
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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.

--- Later in debate ---
Alex Burghart Portrait The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Alex Burghart)
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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.