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Misleading parliament and correcting the parliamentary record

The clearest rules about making inaccurate statements to parliament mostly come from outside of parliament.

Westminster at sunset

What are the rules about making inaccurate statements to parliament?

The clearest rules about making inaccurate statements to parliament mostly come from outside of parliament – from codes of conduct that apply to ministers, and from principles that apply to all those in public life. Nonetheless, these rules and principles are clear that MPs – and especially ministers – must not give inaccurate information to parliament, either deliberately or inadvertently.

The ministerial code – which applies to all ministers – states that “It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.”

Separately, the Nolan Principles of Public Life – which apply to all those who hold national or local public office – include the principle of honesty: that “holders of public office should be truthful”. These principles have been incorporated into the code of conduct that all MPs (including ministers) must follow – but an alleged breach of the principles cannot be investigated or sanctioned.

These rules and principles are based on the idea that the Commons, in order to effectively fulfil its roles of scrutinising the work of government, passing legislation, and facilitating debate, needs to work with accurate information – and have confidence that everything said in the House is accurate.

What must MPs and ministers do if they have made an inaccurate statement to parliament?

Many MPs and ministers do correct the record when they are found to have given inaccurate information to parliament. Usually, they do this by making a written statement (in the case of a minister) or by raising a ‘point of order’ in the Commons chamber.

If MPs or ministers fail to correct the record, how can they be compelled to do so?

If a minister or an MP says something inaccurate in parliament and is unwilling to correct the record, there are some mechanisms that could be used to compel them to do so. However, none of these mechanisms are failsafe.

A ministerial code investigation

The ultimate arbiter of the ministerial code is the prime minister. The prime minister is the only person who can launch an inquiry into whether a minister has broken the code. If an investigation is opened under the code, it is conducted by the independent adviser on ministerial interests (currently Lord Geidt). But it is then up to the prime minister to decide on whether a minister found to have broken the code should face any sanctions – and what those should be. There is no real arbiter of the Nolan Principles – as these are principles, not rules.

A substantive motion in the Commons

The most concrete mechanism for enforcing the rules is for MPs to table a substantive motion (one that be debated and voted on by the Commons) setting out the accusation. Such a motion could be used to find a minister or MP who has misled the Commons to be in contempt of parliament. Erskine May, the guide to parliamentary procedure, states that “The Commons may treat the making of a deliberately misleading statement as a contempt.” This mechanism was used in 1963, when John Profumo was the subject of a motion accusing him of a “grave contempt” for having made a statement in the Commons “containing words which he later admitted not to be true.”

However, if the person who has made an inaccurate statement to parliament is from the governing party, the outcome of any vote on a substantive motion is likely to depend on the size of the government’s majority. And in addition, the actual sanctions for those found to have committed a contempt are not clear.

All of this means that it is politics that acts as the ultimate mechanism for upholding the rules about not giving inaccurate information to parliament. It is assumed that ministers and MPs will follow the rules, and if they do not, they will be politically pressured into doing so.

Can the parliamentary commissioner for standards role in making MPs correct the record?

No. Although the parliamentary commissioner for standards investigates allegations that MPs have broken the MPs’ code of conduct, their remit covers specific bits of the code and does not extend to remarks made within the Commons. This is because speech in the Commons is covered by parliamentary privilege.

Does the Speaker of the Commons have a role in enforcing the rules about accuracy?

Not a clear one, because Speakers have generally been reluctant to do this. The current Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, has previously stated that “the Speaker cannot be dragged into arguments about whether a statement is accurate or not. This is a matter of political debate.”

What are the potential sanctions for misleading parliament and refusing to correct the record?

The ministerial code is clear that if ministers give inaccurate information to parliament they must “correct any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.” The code also states that “Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister”– though there is no means of compelling this.

MPs and ministers who have given inaccurate information to parliament and refused to correct it could also be found to have committed a contempt of parliament, through the type of substantive motion discussed above. But the implications of being found in contempt are unclear.

Why can parliamentarians not accuse each other of misleading parliament?

MPs are not allowed to accuse each other of deliberately misleading parliament other than through the kind of substantive motion outlined above. Erskine May emphasises the importance of “good temper and moderation” in language used by MPs in the Commons, and if an MP accuses another MP of making deliberate falsehoods, they will be asked to withdraw the accusation for the Speaker. The reasons for this are both practical and historic.

The practical reason is that if parliamentarians can accuse each other of deliberately giving inaccurate information, there is a risk that debate descends into accusations, rather than focusing on substantive issues.

The historic reason is that the concept of honour is important among parliamentarians. It is assumed that MPs will act with honour, and therefore impugning the honour of others is regarded as wrong.

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