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Yet again UK government ministers, having painted themselves into a corner, have tried to manoeuvre out of trouble by misleading other MPs and the general public.
Readers of this blog – and its writer – were disgusted (although not surprised) to hear Iain Duncan Smith protesting innocence on behalf of his absent employment minister, Esther McVey, in a statement and short debate on Universal Credit in the House of Commons yesterday (July 9).
We have all endured too much of this. It is time honesty – or at least, more of it than is currently evident – returned to the corridors of power.
With this in mind – in hope more than expectation – I have written to John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, to request action. He chairs debates; it seems likely that he should be the one who puts and end to dishonest practices. The letter runs as follows:
It may have been inappropriate for Chris Bryant MP to make an accusation of deliberate deception against a group of ministers during the debate on Universal Credit, but in my opinion he would have been correct if he had done so.
We know that the Employment Minister, Esther McVey, told Parliament on June 30 that the Department for Work and Pensions’ business case for Universal Credit had been approved by the Treasury; we know that Sir Bob Kerslake said on Monday that the business case has not been signed off; and yesterday we heard from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that the Treasury has only been signing off on annual budgets.
There is a significant difference between a business case and an annual budget. It would stretch credulity too far to ask the British people to accept that the Employment Minister, the Secretary of State, the head of the Civil Service or anybody in the Treasury cannot tell the difference.
Therefore we must conclude that at least one member of the government has lied to Parliament and to the public. Since the Employment Minister’s statement referred to a comment by the Secretary of State on December 5, in which I am reliably informed that he did not say the business case had been signed off, it seems likely that she is the culprit.
It is also possible, however, that she was misinformed by the Secretary of State himself. Logically, if the Employment Minister did not check Mr Duncan Smith’s speech in Hansard, then she must have asked him what he said. In that case, the Secretary of State has knowingly misled the Employment Minister, Parliament and the public.
You will be aware that it is possible for MPs to commit Contempt of Parliament, if “any act or omission … obstructs or impedes either House of Parliament in the performance of its functions… or … has a tendency, directly or indirectly, to produce such results”. An attempt to mislead the House regarding the status of a flagship policy such as Universal Credit must certainly qualify as such an offence.
Perhaps you are aware of the case of Nicholas Scott, a minister of state for social security in the John Major government of 1992-7, who ‘talked out’ a private members’ bill aiming to outlaw discrimination on grounds of disability. Asked if he had deliberately filibustered, he denied it – but was found to have misled Parliament.
The then-Prime Minister had previously given his word that any minister who knowingly misled his or her fellow MPs should be sacked. It is to his shame that he did not honour this promise.
MPs accused of contempt of Parliament may also be suspended or expelled.
I regret to say that this is the point at which my knowledge runs out – I do not know whether a member of the electorate may request the investigation and possible dismissal of a Member accused of misleading Parliament, or whether the request must come from another Member. Perhaps you could assist me in this respect.
At the very least, it would seem that if Mr Bryant or another Member raised an official complaint on grounds that one or more of the team at the Department for Work and Pensions has misled Parliament, an investigation would be in order. Perhaps – again – you could assist me with information on how this may be facilitated.
This seems an appropriate moment to explore Parliamentary procedures on contempt/misleading or lying to MPs, as Hansard is littered with incidents of such behaviour – not only by ministers of state but by Cabinet ministers including the Work and Pensions secretary, the Minister without Portfolio (Cabinet Office) (Mr Shapps), and indeed the Prime Minister himself.
I cannot speak for everybody but I do know that many members of the electorate are utterly sick of this behaviour and want it ended.
No Member was ever elected to Parliament in order to lie to us and an example should be made of those who do.
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