The Right to be Told First: Punishing UK ministers for leaking to the media

It’s been a longstanding grievance of backbenchers and the opposition that ministers announce policy to the media before parliament. This reached a head during the last years of the Labour government when policy announcements to parliament were perceived to be much fewer than previously (and sadly, I can’t find data on this yet) while the practice of announcing them to the media grew enormously as Tony Blair reformed Downing Street’s then-antiquated media operation. It was, in fact, one of the first aims of the Backbench Business Committee to find a way to halt the practice.

What happens now?

Ministers, if they so wish, can make a ministerial statement to the House of Commons which is often repeated in the House of Lords either by a whip or a junior minister in that House (or occasionally the other way round). The minister makes a statement, which is anywhere from ten minutes up to half an hour long, explaining the policy and its implications. The opposition spokesman then gets to ask a ‘question’ – usually more of a speech with questions in it – and the minister has to answer it. Backbenchers then have the rest of the time to ask questions of the minister to which he or she will respond.

There is no time limit on a statement in the House of Commons and the Speaker effectively determines the length simply because he determines when interest has waned. Usually, such statements will last most of an hour, though there are exceptions. Speaker Bercow kept the Chancellor of the Exchequer on his feet for three hours last week answering 96 MPs questions on the economy in his ‘Autumn Statement’ as punishment for leaking so much of it to the media.

In the House of Lords, a statement is more regulated – after the initial statement, there is a limit of 20 minutes on front-bench speech-questions and the ministers’ reply to it (though the ministers reply can go outside that 20 minutes if they so desire) and then a further 20 minutes of backbench questions. As a result of recent reforms, the minister doesn’t have to repeat the statement in full in the Lords if the minister made the statement in the Commons long before it comes to the Lords and there is agreement among the Usual Channels (government and opposition whips) that it can simply be referred to rather than repeated.

In both Houses, ministerial statements typically come straight after oral questions – though sometimes the House of Lords has to wait until the statement is being made in the Commons before they can begin to repeat it. This can lead to the statement interrupting other business or being taken in ‘grand committee’ – a secondary debating chamber available to all members.

The basic idea behind it is to allow the details of policy to be challenged by elected MPs and parliamentarians before the media gets their hands on it.

Currently, there is an obligation on ministers to make important policy announcements to parliament, but that is an obligation in the ministerial code policed by the prime minister.

If it’s not important enough to be made to parliament in an oral statement, it can be made in a written ministerial statement.

What’s the history?

Ministerial statements have a long history. I can’t find exactly when they started, nor when they entered their current incarnation, but Hansard records them going back to at least the early 1800s in the House of Commons, though these ones took place in committee.

The House of Lords has had statements for a long time, and I can’t find their origin here either. Until 1989, the Lords separated out ministerial statements (repeats of those made in the Commons) from Lords statments (made by ministers in the Lords) – the former was time-limited in the current form, the latter was unlimited. After 1989, the two were effectively merged in all but name.

Written ministerial statements came into operation in 2002 after a review of how written answers were being used by government ministers to make policy announcements – persuading government backbenchers to ask written questions on new policies.

What do they do elsewhere?

The Canadian parliament has provision for ministerial statements, but they’re not quite of the same form nor are they used for the same purpose. Only opposition spokesmen get to reply, they’re short (usually around ten minutes) and are not used for general policy announcements. Policy announcements can usually be made in Question Period by getting a government backbencher to ask about it, though this has obvious weaknesses.

The Australian parliament’s ministerial statements are similar to the Canadian ones – brief statements on policy by a minister followed by a response by the opposition. Likewise as in Canada, normal Question Time can be used by backbenchers to ask about an area and ministers can then announce the policy they propose.

New Zealand’s parliament has ministerial statements which can be responded to by the leaders of other parties – and the minister, after them, may reply. I’ve not really seen these used much, and I can’t find statistics on them. There’s still Oral Questions, which can be used similarly to Australia and Canada.

The United States Congress can call a joint sitting to hear an address from the President, but this happens very rarely and members cannot ask questions. Any question-and-answer sessions can only happen in Committees.

In Continental Europe: France’s National Assembly allows the government to make, on its initiative, statements of general policy. These are different to question-and-answer sessions however because these are debates ending in votes. Their Senate also doesn’t appear to have anything similar. Both chambers, however, have Oral Questions where policies can be announced as in the non-UK Commonwealth countries.

Germany’s Bundestag has provision in the rules for a government policy statement, but nowhere does it actually explain the procedure for this which is rather odd. There are oral questions however, so that could be one method of announcing a policy even if policy statements aren’t generally used (which I don’t know – no statistics so far as I can see). The Bundesrat rules don’t mention policy statements, but they also have question-and-answer sessions.

What do they propose?

The Procedure Committee and Backbench Business Committee recommended that Speaker would have the power to force ministers to come to the House and apologise for policy leaks, acting as a gatekeeper for frivolous claims by MPs. If the case was serious or complex, the Speaker could referring the case to the Committee on Standards and Privileges.

What do the government think?

They oppose it, as might well be expected. They say that they have made more statements to parliament than any other government and have shown their generosity by allowing the backbench business committee to be set up. The first argument is disingenuous – this is as much about future governments as it is this one, and you have to wonder how much the Speaker granting more Urgent Questions has had to do with that – and the second is plainly false and irrelevant even if it were true – the backbench business committee was entered into Standing Orders under the last, Labour, government and both front benches tried their hardest to block it.

What was the result?

The motion failed by 227 to 118 – ministers remain accountable to the prime minister for their policy statements. Whether it was defeated because there is a general feeling that this is going too far, or if there is a feeling that the Backbench Business Committee didn’t consult enough on the proposals, I don’t know. In relation to government parliament has, since the 1721, had a right to ask. Sometime during the 20th Century, it asserted a right to be told, but it has yet to assert the right to be told first.

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