Written evidence submitted by Professor Meg Russell,

Director, Constitution Unit, UCL (CTR 08)

 

Summary

 

This evidence makes the following points:

 

 

Context: public opinion on misleading parliament

 

In the past 18 months, the Constitution Unit has conducted significant research into public opinion on the UK’s democracy and constitution, as part of our Democracy in the UK after Brexit project.[1] This 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 public 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% getting things done. The question was repeated in 2022, when 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 allowed participants to deliberate in depth, and develop conclusions and recommendations in their own words, found deep concern about honesty and integrity:

For context, when the Assembly’s final conclusions were being reached, news of Downing Street parties had just begun to filter through to the news, and the Owen Paterson episode had recently taken place.

 

The 2022 survey, which postdated Boris Johnson’s reference to the Privileges Committee, included a series of questions about whether UK democracy would be better or worse if certain stated measures were introduced. Fully 81% of respondents thought democracy would be better ‘if politicians spoke more honestly’ (57% said it would be ‘a lot better’); only 3% thought that this would make democracy worse. More specifically, 74% said democracy would be better ‘if MPs were thrown out of parliament for lying’ (46% saying ‘a lot better’), while again only 3% considered that this would make democracy worse (11% responded ‘no better or worse’, and 12% ‘don’t know’).

 

All of these public opinion findings are highly consistent with those of others, including surveys by the Committee on Standards in Public Life and Spotlight on Corruption, both of which were detailed in the written evidence from Full Fact.

 

 

Priorities for changes to the system

 

The call for evidence focuses on a number of specific points, including existing procedures for correcting the record, and whether corrections could be made more visible, and these procedures extended to other MPs beyond ministers.

 

It seems clear, as discussed in written evidence from other individuals and groups, and in the committee’s oral evidence hearings, that there is room for improvement in these areas. Most obviously, that links between corrections and the original misleading statement should be strengthened, with a prominent marker next to the original statement on the written record to indicate that a correction has been made. There are also clearly some sound arguments in favour of enabling opposition and backbench members who wish to correct the record to do so through more straightforward means than raising a point of order – and that however these members choose to correct the record such corrections should be visibly linked from the original statement, as indicated above.

 

But the far bigger problem is dealing 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.

 

Such problems of reluctance to correct the record, or persistent misbehaviour, will tend to be more serious and important when the transgressor is a minister. First, one of parliament's primary roles is to hold ministers to account. Ministers (unlike other MPs) are responsible for policy delivery, and it is crucial that the government gives an accurate account of its activities and policy. Second, ministers are bound not only by the rules and conventions of parliament, but by the Ministerial Code. Third, they are prominent and visible, with a potentially far greater impact on public trust in the political process. Fourth, ministers are substantially better resourced than other members. They should have the specialist resources to deliver accurate statements to parliament. And on the occasions when they fail in this regard, they should have adequate resources to review their statements and to ensure that the record is corrected. Notwithstanding arguments that there should be greater parity within the system between ministers, opposition members and backbenchers, the ability to deal with ministerial transgressions is therefore the key priority, to secure reliable ministerial accountability to parliament.

 

Recent months have seen various instances of ministers (most obviously former Prime Minister Boris Johnson) being accused of misleading parliament, but parliament appearing to be either powerless or very slow to act. Actions by the Speaker to censure MPs who have raised accusations of lying in the chamber, while the accused (even in the face of credible evidence) goes uncensored, have attracted incredulity, and risk bringing the House of Commons, the Speaker, and politics in general into disrepute.

 

This is not a criticism of the Speaker, who has applied the rules as they stand. But the current barriers for action – requiring governing party MPs to allow a motion in the chamber to pass referring a minister for investigation without formal evidence having been gathered – are extremely high. Combined with the evident public frustrations and wish for change expressed above, recent arguments have highlighted the system’s shortcomings. Dealing with those shortcomings, while undoubtedly more difficult, is more important to the integrity of parliament and our political system than dealing with the smaller procedural matters highlighted in the call for evidence.

 

 

Finding a solution to persistent cases is difficult, but should not be dodged

 

Other groups (again most notably Full Fact) have begun to put forward proposed solutions for persistent cases, where ministers resist correcting the record even in the face of firm evidence that their statements to parliament have been misleading.

 

Constructing such a system would not be straightforward, and would require careful consideration and design. Clearly some claims of misleading parliament may relate to basic matters of fact, while others may involve greater ambiguity. In our contemporary polarised environment, bodies that seek to arbitrate on matters of truth risk being dragged into politicised debate.[2] But reputable organisations external to parliament already conduct such work, and seek to highlight anomalies in a balanced way. There may therefore be means whereby the parliamentary authorities could draw upon such work in designing a new system.

There may be a natural reluctance by parliamentary actors, such as the House of Commons Library, the Speaker, parliamentary committees and staff, to enter this territory. Notably, the written evidence from the Clerk emphasises that ‘it is not the role of the Speaker or House officials to assess the accuracy of Members’ contributions’. But while this is undoubtedly a challenge, the problem should not simply be ducked. Some kind of more robust system, however uncomfortable, now appears necessary in order to rebuild public trust.

 

It is worth emphasising that a robust system need not imply creation of a more adversarial environment in which ministers are frequently subject to allegations and forced to account for themselves. The tendency in parliament is for robust systems of scrutiny to have their primary impact through ‘anticipated reactions’ – i.e. because ministers know that they could face difficult consequences, they take greater care in their statements to parliament. With a robust system in place, ministers who do make errors would also be more likely to comply with reasonable requests to correct the record. It is only when a robust system of scrutiny is lacking that ministerial standards are likely to slip. At the moment, it is unfortunately clear (including to the wider public) that ministers can potentially mislead parliament persistently and get away with it.

 

The publication of the Procedure Committee’s report may 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 some kind of specialist review group given the complexities, would be widely welcomed by the public and potentially help to begin restoring trust. In contrast, if the committee’s report can be presented in journalistic headlines as ducking the central problem, this could cause further damage to parliament’s reputation and to public trust.

 

November 2022


[1] https://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/research-areas/deliberative-democracy/democracy-uk-after-brexit

[2] See e.g. Alan Renwick and Michela Palese, Doing Democracy Better: How Can Information and Discourse in Election and Referendum Campaigns in the UK Be Improved? (London: Constitution Unit, 2019), chapter 2.