Lying with impunity

I have today had a letter from the office of that egregious ass, Jake Mogg, known principally for lying in the House of Commons, as shown above, though he has lied elsewhere, too [see Mogg the Mendacious, Mogg Mendax]. The letter (which is quite as underwhelming as you would expect) was in belated response to a petition seeking to ‘Make lying in the House of Commons a criminal offence’ which asked that

The Government should introduce legislation to make lying in the House of Commons a criminal offence. This would mean that all MPs, including Ministers, would face a serious penalty for knowingly making false statements in the House of Commons, as is the case in a court of law.

We believe false statements have been made in the House and, although regarded as a “serious offence” in principle, options to challenge this are extremely limited as accusing a member of lying is forbidden in the House. 

Truth in the House of Commons is every bit as important as truth in a court of law and breaches should be treated in a similar way to perjury and carry similar penalties.

The letter begins,

‘The Government does not intend to introduce legislation of this nature. MPs must abide by the Code of Conduct and conduct in the Chamber is a matter for the Speaker.’

As will become apparent below, this utterance is on a par with Mogg’s habitual standard of misleading statements.

(You can read the response in full – for what it is worth – if you click on the link to the petition above)

It has taken over three weeks for the government to come up with this response, which should have been triggered when the petition reached 10,000 signatures, which it did on the day that Dawn Butler was expelled from the House of Commons for telling the truth. The truth she told was that on several occasions the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, had lied to the House of Commons by making false or misleading statements at the despatch box. Ms Butler cited a video by Peter Stefanovic which documented those instances. An independent fact-checker subsequently found that ‘the majority of Mr Johnson’s claims that Ms Butler mentioned were either false or misleading.’ The video has now had in excess of 31.1 million views and has featured as a news story on foreign TV stations, yet has inexplicably failed to feature on BBC News (even in their report of Ms Butler’s expulsion, when she expressly cited it).

Ms Butler was expelled because the House of Commons has very precise and detailed rules about ‘unparliamentary language’. Thus, ‘Accusations of deliberate falsehood, if seriously alleged, would be a matter of privilege and could be made only on a substantive motion secured by writing privately to the Speaker to obtain permission to raise a matter of privilege. Any such accusation made in the course of other proceedings would be disorderly and must be withdrawn.

Technically, there is no doubt that Madam Deputy Speaker was correct in asking Ms Butler to amend her words and in expelling her when she refused to do so, but the manner of her doing it suggested that she found the breach of parliamentary etiquette far more outrageous than the well-substantiated assertion that the Prime Minister had repeatedly misled the house. There is a yawning hole in the procedures of the archaic and often absurd institution on which our country depends for government and legislation that means that the Speaker has stronger powers to sanction MPs who accuse others of lying in the chamber than those who actually lie (see ‘what are the consequences for politicians who lie?‘ a Channel 4 fact check).

The full flavour of this absurdity is well brought out in Mogg’s letter, which helpfully informs me that

MPs are also subject to the House of Commons Code of Conduct and the Guide to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members’ which ‘includes a general duty on MPs to “act in the interests of the nation as a whole…” alongside a requirement that MPs “act on all occasions in accordance with the public trust placed in them. They should always behave with probity and integrity”

furthermore, there is a

Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards [who] is an independent officer of the House of Commons and is responsible for investigating allegations that MPs have breached the rules in the Code of Conduct.’

Sounds good, eh? Except that, as the letter goes on,

Conduct in the Chamber is beyond the remit of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. This is because the House has determined that how Members conduct themselves in the Chamber, including their adherence to the principles of public life, is a matter for the Speaker

In other words, the House of Commons Code of Conduct has no force in the Chamber of the House of Commons because the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards (an officer of the House of Commons) has no responsibility for… standards of conduct in the chamber of the House of Commons.

However, although one would have thought that lying to the House of Commons was clearly a case of not ‘adhering to the principles of public life’ what is less clear is that it is the responsibility of the Speaker to do anything about it: Erskine May, the so-called ‘Bible’ of Parliamentary procedure, says that

The Speaker’s responsibility for questions is limited to their compliance with the rules of the House. Responsibility in other respects rests with the Member who proposes to ask the question, and responsibility for answers rests with Ministers.

And the present Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle – a sadly spineless and ineffectual creature, in my view – has said, “The Speaker cannot be dragged into arguments about whether a statement is inaccurate or not. This is a matter of political debate.” (Though to be fair to him, previous holders of that office have said the same).

So if it is not for the Parliamentary Commissioner or the Speaker to do anything about the Prime Minister’s lying to parliament, whose then is the responsibility?

I expect you have already guessed. Such conduct is a clear breach of the Ministerial Code (aka ‘the Nolan Principles’) and the sole responsibility for interpreting and enforcing that lies with…

…the Prime Minister.

To sum up, in this absurd Alice-in-Wonderland institution, which has not enough seats to accommodate its members, a voting system that requires the members to troop out into the lobby then back in again through the appropriate door, and till recently required the wearing of a top hat to make a point of order during a division*, the Prime Minister is sole arbiter of whether he (or any of his ministers) should suffer any sanction for lying to the House or failing to correct the parliamentary record when they have made a false statement to the House.

Could I suggest, Mr Mogg, that a more honest response would simply have read,

‘The Government does not intend to introduce legislation of this nature as the Prime Minister (and other ministers, if he allows it) can at present lie to parliament with impunity, and we would prefer to keep it that way.’

*To increase their appearance during debates and to be seen more easily, a Member wishing to raise a point of order during a division was, until 1998, required to speak with his hat on. Collapsible top hats were kept for the purpose. This requirement was abolished following recommendations from the Modernisation Select Committee, which stated: “At present, if a Member seeks to raise a point of order during a division, he or she must speak “seated and covered”. In practice this means that an opera hat which is kept at each end of the Chamber has to be produced and passed to the Member concerned. This inevitably takes some time, during which the Member frequently seeks to use some other form of covering such as an Order Paper. This particular practice has almost certainly brought the House into greater ridicule than almost any other, particularly since the advent of television. We do not believe that it can be allowed to continue.”

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