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Reform needed to ensure honesty in politics

Martyn Day MP
November 6, 2023

I recently led a Westminster Hall debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee about honesty in politics. I was disappointed – though not surprised – to find that the responding Minister was the only Conservative MP who participated.

As I pointed out in my opening comments, addressing this issue is crucial for all of us if we want to restore public trust in our democratic processes.

Research conducted by University College London’s Constitution Unit - even before Boris Johnson’s fall from grace – revealed that UK public opinion at that time ranked the Prime Minister as the least trustworthy, and Parliament second last, when it came to trust in our democratic system.

It is deeply ironic that these findings show democracy is perceived as being perverted by those who have been entrusted to defend it; with only six percent of people perceiving that a healthy democracy requires politicians to sometimes break the rules.

Bear in mind… this was before the rule-breaking that was Partygate came to light.

Like many others, I struggle to see how this breaking of the rules strengthened our democracy. In fact, it affirms the “one rule for them and another rule for everyone else” mantra.

At the other end of the spectrum, the research showed that UK public opinion trusted the courts most in our democratic system.

When it came to integrity, UK public opinion put a high value on honesty, law adherence, and transparency.

The petitioners I spoke for want it to be a criminal offence for MPs to mislead the public or to lie in the House of Commons. I agree because I believe the foundations of democracy, like justice, depend on trust and credibility. 

Therefore, why should lying in Parliament, or contempt, not be treated with the same seriousness as it is in the legal system?

Why should lying in Parliament, or contempt, not be treated with the same seriousness as it is in the legal system? Quote

The responding Minister revealed that he had “…toyed with the idea of finding examples of dishonesty from within the ranks of the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and Labour.”

To my mind, this was a back-footed reaction that showed his Party in a disadvantaged position.

That he went on to use the contribution of a Labour MP to shore up his government’s refusal to introduce legislation to make it a criminal offence to mislead is, in my opinion, questionable on more than one level.

Mainly, that the leading opposition Party can be used in this way; and, that the leading opposition Party agrees with the Government’s refusal to take this step. So, where is the “opposition” here?

The responding Government Minister conceded that, without honesty democracy cannot function. However, he avoided expanding on how his government would improve the Parliamentary processes.

In other words, as frequently happens with UK Governments, the issue is kicked down the road.

On the other hand, he did cite examples from past centuries of Members receiving excessive retribution for speaking freely in Parliament. How helpful the House’s agreement in the fifteenth century that there should be no “…manner of challenge, charge or punishment” to what is said in the House is equally questionable.

That, if ever there was one, is a green light to those who want to mislead.

Since we are living in the twenty-first century, I want to strongly encourage the UK Government to fast-forward six hundred years and deal with this problem in the here and now; not in the dim and distant future; nor by referring to cases in the dim and distant past.

There is widespread agreement that appropriate mechanisms to deal with the problem of MPs’ misleading the public or lying in Parliament are not in place and, for fear of extinction, I will not hold my breath that self-regulation will settle this issue.

It is clear that Parliamentary privilege has been abused. I fear, however, that the recent debate on honesty in politics is yet another wasted opportunity for this UK Government to put wrongs to right.

Martyn

Martyn Day is the Scottish National Party MP for Linlithgow and East Falkirk. He is the SNP's Health and Social Care Westminster Spokesperson.

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