Honesty in Politics Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office
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.

Liz Saville Roberts Portrait Liz Saville Roberts
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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.

Chris Bryant Portrait Sir Chris Bryant
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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.

Sheryll Murray Portrait Mrs Sheryll Murray (in the Chair)
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I gently remind Members that it is appropriate to refer to Mr Speaker as Mr Speaker, not by his Christian name.