James Sunderland reports on the Procedure Committee’s Inquiry into Correcting the Record

As a member of the Procedure Committee, James Sunderland reports back to the House of Commons on the Committee’s inquiry and recommendations into the processes by which Ministers and MPs can correct the parliamentary record.

James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)

One of the reasons why I became an MP was to serve those I represent. Having been proudly elected in 2019, it is increasingly clear to me that it is incumbent on all of us in this place to improve the covenant between Parliament and our constituents by ensuring that what we do as public servants is as transparent, credible and authentic as it can be. It therefore gives me pleasure to commend this motion to the House, and I am honoured to speak on behalf of the Procedure Committee.

I thank the Leader of the House for bringing forward this work, and for making time for the House to debate our recommendations. I am grateful, too, for the support of the shadow Leader of the House. The House is always at its best when we come together with a common purpose. I would also like to commend my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) for her excellent leadership of the Procedure Committee—regrettably, she cannot be here today—and her superb team, including Richard Ward, Ffion Morgan and Margaret McKinnon, all of whom have contributed significantly to this work.

What we say in this place matters, and it must be accurate. Constituents place their trust in us to do and say the right thing on their behalf, and we have a responsibility to set a high bar for how we conduct ourselves.

Sir Greg Knight 

I congratulate my hon. Friend and other members of the Procedure Committee on this excellent report. Is there not a case, when a Member or Minister corrects the record, for stating in that correction how many times in the same Session of Parliament that person has had to correct the record previously, so that we can easily identify anyone who is being rather cavalier with the truth?

James Sunderland 

I agree with the thrust of what my right hon. Friend is saying, and I will come on to that in due course. However, what is important is that the record that is going to be available at a single point on a website will make it possible, very quickly and easily, to work out who perhaps has a record in this particular area.

What we say in this place matters and must be accurate. Sadly, it is inevitable that mistakes sometimes happen, but it is what we do about it that matters. It should be routine for adjustments to be made where a Member has given incorrect information and needs to correct the record.

The motion, in effect, enshrines three improvements in procedure. First, it means that all MPs will be able to correct the record, not just Ministers. While it will not compel Members to do so, due to parliamentary privilege, it will provide the means for it to be done. Secondly, the visibility of any corrections will be improved in the official record. The exact mechanism for this is being worked through, but it will be obvious in Hansard where corrections have been made.

Edward Timpson (Eddisbury) (Con)

I very much support the Procedure Committee’s report. As part of the next stage of looking at the detail, has the Committee considered whether, when we talk about correcting the record “at the earliest opportunity”, that will be part of what is published when the correction is made?

James Sunderland 

The technical detail of how this will work is yet to be thrashed out, but I have no doubt it will be subject to further work between the Procedure Committee and the House authorities.

As I have said, the visibility of any corrections will be improved in the official record and the exact mechanism for that is being worked through. It is, for example, possible that the format of cross-referenced hyperlinks in Hansard will be improved so that they are much clearer, whether in relation to a point of order or through other oral contributions. Thirdly, there will also be an easily accessible corrections page, probably on the parliamentary website, and linked elsewhere, where anyone will be able to see a bespoke record of parliamentary corrections.

While we believe that existing mechanisms to challenge the accuracy of contributions made in the House are sufficient, and that understanding those mechanisms can assist Members in effectively and creatively challenging accuracy, these improvements are necessary. Importantly, the Procedure Committee does not believe that distinction between Ministers and non-Ministers justifies any difference in the means by which Back Benchers may seek to correct themselves when they discover that they have made an error. We have therefore concluded that the rules should apply equally to all MPs.

Andy Carter (Warrington South) (Con)

I am supportive of the Procedure Committee’s report, and I wonder if I could pick up on the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridlington—[Interruption.] I apologise. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight)—I will correct the record. If a Back Bencher chose not to correct the record when they were made aware of something, would the Procedure Committee consider that that may be a contempt, and as a consequence of not correcting the record, would there be a referral to the Committee of Privileges?

James Sunderland 

The Procedure Committee considered that issue carefully, and we concluded that the existing procedural mechanisms to challenge the accuracy of contributions made in the House are sufficient. It is difficult to compel any Member to do anything, but we hope that with the new improvements to the process, Members may be feel obliged to do so.

Sir Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)

For the sake of clarity, I take it that the position the Committee has adopted is that if the House feels that an individual Back Bencher has misled it, that is one thing, but it cannot compel that Back Bencher to withdraw anything if that Back Bencher feels that they have not in fact misled the House.

James Sunderland 

My understanding is the same. It is difficult to compel any Member to do what he or she does not want to do, but as the Leader of the House said earlier, this is a matter for the House. It may be that a track record of poor behaviour may attract further attention from the House authorities and the House itself.

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab)

The hon. Gentleman is doing a sterling job of reporting from the Procedure Committee. Pulling some of the threads and discussion together, would it be appropriate for the Procedure Committee to look at publishing, perhaps in the form of a written statement and possibly at the end of term, a list of people who have offended?

James Sunderland 

I think that is a very fair point, and if I may, I will report that back to the Committee. It may well be subject to further work, but a termly report could be a good way forward. It should be obvious in Hansard and on the corrections page where people have offended, and whether or not they have corrected the record.

In conclusion, the Procedure Committee recommends that the system of ministerial corrections be extended to all Members, and that the corrections should adhere to the same rules as set in the ministerial corrections system. We are pleased that the Leader of the House is supportive of our recommendations, and we hope that the House will agree to them today. If it does, Hansard will begin work with the parliamentary digital service to bring those changes in. It will take time.

Richard Foord (Tiverton and Honiton) (LD)

There is probably no more suitable Member of this House to report back from the Procedure Committee than one who knows well the importance of integrity from his time serving in the Army. Could the measure that we are hearing about deal with the sort of campaigning that we saw ahead of the last election, when sometimes false statements were made deliberately so as to lead to denial and repetition?

James Sunderland 

I thank the hon. Member for his kind remarks. I have a problem, as I am sure we all do, with falsehoods and false statements, and it is incumbent on all of us in this place to make sure that we are accurate with our facts and not disingenuous with how we use them. I acknowledge his remarks and agree with them. Again, we will put to the Committee in due course how we take that forward. Finally, we will work also with the House administration, which will write to the Committee in the coming weeks with a timeline for implementation.

Honesty, transparency and credibility in politics do matter, as we have heard, and this proposal is the right thing to do for everyone whom we serve. I therefore commend this report to the House.