Comment: Spin over substance devalues parliament

Allowing the government to get away with briefing the media before MPs risks making parliament irrelevant.

By Chris Bryant MP

There is an irony at the heart of the British (mostly unwritten) constitution. The Commons is meant to hold the government to account, but the government is only the government because it has a majority in the Commons. So it nearly always gets its way, especially if one party has a hefty majority or two parties bind themselves at the hip to deliver a large majority. That majority then tempts the government into taking the Commons for granted.

From the beginning this government has yielded to that temptation by constantly briefing the press before it announces policy changes to the Commons. We had an example today. Jeremy Hunt's decision on Sky was briefed to the press yesterday and was running on Sky this morning long before Hunt appeared in the House. He had tried to slip it out without being questioned on a written statement, so it was only when an Urgent Question was granted by the Speaker that he was forced to the House.

It's not the only case. Last year's Queen's Speech was briefed to the press and specific figures from the Budget were in the papers days before George Osborne stood at the despatch box. Both of these would have led to a minister resigning in earlier times – but now we are letting them get away with it.

The latest wheeze is for a minister to issue a written statement early in the morning, followed by the prime minister doing a press conference on the subject long before the minister concerned makes a statement in the Commons and answers questions. That's a deliberately sly attempt to subvert the principle that the Commons should be able to question government and bring it to heel.

The problem is that when we allow the government to get away with this we make parliament ever more irrelevant. Spin wins over substance and the government avoids the tough questioning that only parliament can provide.

So what should we do? Well, the ministerial code of conduct is clear that announcements should be to the House first, but the only person who adjudicates on that is the prime minister, who has never been known to find himself guilty.

Literally all that is left to us is the Urgent Question or Standing Order 24 under which the government could lose a whole day's business so that the Commons can debate a matter of urgency. Both depend on the Speaker, who is quite rightly already making it clear that he will take applications for SO 24 debates very seriously.

The one other thing we could do is tackle the issue of the journalists who participate in this subversion of parliament, many of whom work in the parliamentary lobby. In an extreme case when a journalist is effectively in contempt of parliament we should consider removing their parliamentary pass.

An MP who leaks a select committee report before its publication has been suspended from the House – surely a journalist who relies on their access to parliament and does the same should also be caught by the powers of the House? After all, a good government can only be made better by robust scrutiny and a bad government can only be held to account if parliament is kept in the loop.

Chris Bryant was elected as Labour party MP for Rhondda in 2001.

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