Written evidence submitted by Alan Thomson (CTR 01)

 

 

I have concerns about the procedures by which MPs:

  1. Can (or more appropriately, can’t) bring attention to mistakes made by Honourable and, especially, Right Honourable Members in the House, and
  2. Can (or can’t) require a mistake to be corrected

 

I have raised these issues in the last 6 months with the Speaker (ain correspondence with the Speaker’s Office) and had replies to the effect that I need to raise the issue with the Procedure Committee.

 

I have also raised the issue with my MP – Laura Farris.

 

None of the argumentation in this note has been published by me in any public forum.

 

As preamble, and with some a priori apology where I have not used the precise terms, I start from the principle(s) in Erskine May that accord the title of Honourable Member to members of the House of Commons.

 

To provide the underpinnings of

‘honourable’ there are two balancing provisions:

 

  1. That members in the house, will not call another member a liar, and
  2. Any misstatement to the house by a member will be corrected at the earliest opportunity

 

Let me first deal with an apparent imbalance in the upholding (or policing) of these two

Provisions.

 

Any breach of the first is managed by the Speaker of the House. Indeed, in the last 6 months several members have been called upon by the Speaker to withdraw the aspersion that another member is a liar and where that statement has not been withdrawn have been named and forced to withdraw from the House and the precincts of Parliament.

 

However, the second provision appears to have no sensible method of enforcement. In correspondence with me the Speaker’s Office have reiterated what the Speaker has said when questioned - that he has no power to require a member to correct a misstatement, and that intervening would be inserting himself into a matter of debate.

 

As to the first point – how to bring attention to a misleading statement, the Speaker’s Office has pointed out that the Opposition can move a substantive motion where they believe a Minister (for instance) has lied (knowingly and deliberately misled the house). However, where a Minister has made an inadvertent mistake there is no procedure to require the Minister to either correct the record or explain to the house why they believe their statement is correct. This is left to the honour of the Minister (being assumed to be Honourable).

 

This position seems incongruous. It means that to try and force a correction the Opposition has to take the stance that the Minister has knowingly (or deliberately) misled the House so that it can bring a heavy-handed procedure to bear. As one knows from other professional areas a requirement to impute motive is a rather onerous task (as it should be if one is calling another a liar).

 

There is no simple method (Point of Order, for instance) that allows a member to request that a Minister returns to the House to either correct a misleading statement or to defend it.

 

These circumstances mean that where (Right) Honourable Members simply ignore any call to correct the record there is no simple method of calling them to account.

 

In recent times the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister have used statistics in the House, which the Chairman of the UK Statistics Authority has written to both to point out that the use was misleading (e.g. Crime Statistics and Employment Statistics). In both cases the statements were repeated in the House after the letters from the Chairman were issued.

 

As far as I can gather neither misleading statement has been formally corrected nor has either Right Honourable Member apologised to the House for the misstatement.

 

There needs to be a simple mechanism that requires apparent misstatements to be corrected or defended.

 

Without such a mechanism the House calls itself into disrepute by allowing incorrect information to end up in the public domain with the full power of Parliament behind it.

 

Also, it cannot defend itself against the accusation that it does not have a balanced way to uphold the Erskine May principles and ultimately forfeits the right to call members (Right) Honourable.

 

I think the Procedures Committee should find ways to insist on relevant changes to the way the Erskine May principles are upheld (and in turn any other relevant guides – such as the Ministerial Code)

 

28 July 2022