Wednesday 28 January 2009

Government Announcements

MPs and Peers often complain that announcements are made to the press before they have been made in Parliament. This week the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications produced a report covering many aspects of Government Communications. Early in the report they deal with announcements.

Liam Byrne MP had told the committee that all substantial announcements should be made to Parliament first with no pre-briefs. The report says "We agree with this aim but doubt whether it is always fulfilled."

The Report points out that "The Ministerial Code states: “When Parliament is in session, the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance, in Parliament.” This is an important principle. Members of Parliament are the democratically elected representatives of the people and they have been elected to Parliament in order to scrutinise the Executive on behalf of their constituents.

In Parliament, substantial announcements should be made orally by the relevant Minister. (Statements made in the House of Commons may be repeated in the House of Lords.) Other announcements may be made by written statement to both Houses or in the course of debate or passage of a Bill.

When an announcement is made to Parliament, the information is put in the public domain in an open and transparent manner. All journalists and members of the public have access to that information at the same time and the opportunity of opposition parties and backbenchers to question the Government means that policy is scrutinised from different perspectives as soon as it is announced. The release of information through a statement to Parliament is fully in line with the Phillis principle of “openness, not secrecy”.

The guidance given by the Speaker is also repeated -

I must make it clear that if Ministers were to release information to the press before the House was informed of major policy developments I would regard that as an unacceptable discourtesy to the House. If that occurred, I would expect the Minister concerned to apologise to the House … I expect Ministers to take measures to ensure that other authorities, who are privy to confidential information, protect it until the House has been informed.”

Yesterday Lord Mandelson made a statement on the car industry. He made it clear that he felt it was important that Parliament was told prior to the car summit on Wednesday.