Motion to crack down on press leaks defeated

A motion aimed at clamping down on ministers leaking statements to the press was defeated in the House of Commons this week.

The backbench business committee said the issue went to the ‘very heart of the effectiveness’of the Commons to hold the government to account.

The motion’s sponsor, Tory MP Philip Hollobone, said the motion would require the Government to ‘contain themselves so that they release that information on the floor of the House in the afternoon rather than on the Today programme in the morning”.

‘All Governments, whether this Government, the previous Government or the one before that, have leaked information, and that is not how our great House of Commons ought to be treated,’Hollobone told MPs.

‘This increasingly has become standard practice, but it is fair to say that it has got worse over the past five, 10 or 15 years.’

He told MPs they had a ‘golden opportunity’to reverse the trend thanks to the creation of the backbench business committee, which in a report released earler this year expressed its dismay that ‘too often details of important government statements appear in the press before they are made to Parliament”.

Such leaks, the committee claimed, affected the ability of MPs to scrutinise the Government on behalf of their constituents.

Under the current arrangement the ministerial code requires important announcements are made to Parliament first – but this is enforced by the Prime Minister and not by Parliament.

If the motion had been successful then the responsibility for holding ministers to account would have been transferred to the House, with complaints made to the Speaker.

Hollobone added: “This is our chance to say: are we going to hold Her Majesty’s Government to account for the principle, which they uphold in their own ministerial code, that it is this Chamber, where the elected representatives of the British people are gathered together, that should be the first place to hear of major new Government policy initiatives?

‘Should it be ‘The Andrew Marr Show’ on Sunday, the ‘Today’ programme on Radio 4 in the morning or ITV’s ‘Daybreak’; or should it be the Chamber of the House of Commons?

‘Would it not be wonderful to see the public gallery full of journalists eagerly anticipating the Government’s latest policy announcement, made here first, on the floor of the House?”

Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg added: ‘Why does it matter that we hear things before the News of the World, as was, or Sky News or the BBC?

‘The reason is that control of the news agenda gives the Government an extra advantage over the opposition, over their critics and over those who wish to hold them to account, which they would not be able to afford themselves.

‘That advantage is paid for by public money.”

The Leader of the House of Commons, Sir George Young, said there was a ‘tension’between the realities of the 24-hour news cycle and the requirement of the ministerial code

‘Ministers must adhere to the responsibilities of the code, but we also need to bear in mind the need to address the public’s desire for timely, accurate information, especially when fast-moving events have a capacity to distort or misrepresent the Government’s policy.

He also claimed the Coalition was making many more statements to Parliament than its Labour predecessor.

‘We have so far made 163 oral statements this session, and compared with the last two sessions of the previous Government, this Government are making 40 per cent more oral statements than Labour Ministers.”

The motion was defeated by 228 votes to 119 on Monday.

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