Ensuring honesty in public life needs a new system for correcting mistakes in Parliament

2 March 2022 | Team Full Fact

Full Fact welcomes the Committee on Standards inquiry on MPs Code of Conduct, and in particular the proposals to update the descriptors of the Seven Principles of Public Life in the Code so that they better reflect MPs’ roles. 

Yet the public deserves better than a system that pretends mistakes don't happen, and the proposals do not go far enough at guaranteeing the honesty we deserve.

What the proposals say

The original Honesty descriptor, “Holders of public office have a duty to declare any private interests relating to their public duties and to take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest”, is strikingly limited and highlights the wider problem with honesty and accuracy in public life.

The Committee proposes to change the description of Honesty to “Members should be truthful in everything they say, write or do”. This would go a significant way towards ensuring the Code reflects the serious commitment to honesty and truthfulness in public life.

But honesty is about more than looking at your own behaviour

It is also about taking the lead and tackling the adversaries of honesty in public life and encouraging accountability when mistakes are made. To ensure this is reflected in the MPs Code of Conduct and its Honesty descriptor, we suggest the following: 

‘Holders of public office should be truthful. Members should be truthful in everything they say, write or do. They should seek out and present information honestly in a way that others can assess, correct mistakes and demand the same of those around them.’

This would provide for the necessary step change required. However, it would need to be supported by changes to parliamentary processes to help MPs meet what is expected of them. 

Correcting the record shouldn’t be seen as political weakness, requiring it by all politicians would help make it a political strength

Our work over the last decade we’ve seen ministers and even the Prime Minister failing to correct inaccuracies–undermining the public’s trust and perpetuating the spread of bad information.

Currently, there is no way for an MP who is not a government Minister to correct the official record when they make a mistake in the House of Commons. There are lots of examples where MPs respond positively to correction requests by Full Fact. But since this cannot be done officially on the record, MPs are being hampered in acting in the spirit of Honesty. 

It’s hard enough to be seen as honest in public life without parliamentary process working against you. Yet at the moment that is what happens.

Full Fact urges the Committee on Standards to recommend a straightforward system, similar to the Scottish Parliament’s process, so that MPs can correct the official record when they misspeak.

We propose a simple five-step process for upholding standards when an MP persistently fails to correct the record after making inaccurate statements, based on the existing processes of the House:

  1. When an MP believes another MP may have made an error, they can ask the House of Commons Library to assess the issue. The UK Statistics Authority can also be called on to provide authoritative independent advice.
  2. If the Library analysis confirms there was an error, the MP should raise that with the MP who made the statement and ask them to correct the record.
  3. If the MP who made the statement fails to correct the record and is a Minister, an MP may ask the Speaker to authorise a debate or an Urgent Question under existing powers. 
  4. If the Speaker becomes aware of multiple instances of an MP failing to correct the record when required, the Speaker alone should be given the power to refer this pattern of behaviour to the Commissioner for Standards for investigation.
  5. If the Commissioner finds that an MP has persistently failed to correct the record in accordance with the rules of the House, the Committee on Standards should be empowered to impose appropriate sanctions. 

We believe this approach is balanced, impartial, and non-partisan, and perhaps the least the House of Commons should do to uphold its expectations of MPs, and government Ministers in particular.

Lastly, we recognise that these rules don’t apply in MPs' personal and private lives. However, when an MP makes a contribution in public, on social media, on TV or in another public setting, they are acting in their capacity as public representatives and should be subject to the Seven Principles of Public Life, including the principle of being Honest. 

Current mechanisms to ensure MPs uphold the standard of Honesty in public life are neither effective nor applied consistently. We recognise the complexities that a system to address inaccuracies made outside of Parliament would have, but upholding truth and accuracy in political discourse is vital. Other sectors have found practicable and proportionate approaches from which to learn. Why should MPs be held to lower standards than advertisers or estate agents? 

Therefore, we are urging the Committee to address inaccurate and uncorrected contributions by MPs online or outside of Parliament in their capacity as public representatives as well as what happens in Parliament. 

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Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash 

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