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The Government has rejected calls to make deliberately lying in Parliament a criminal offence, despite mounting anger over the state of political debate.
Two petitions, together involving nearly 250,000 signatures, called for the change in an idea debated by MPs on Monday.
One of the petitions was started after a legal challenge to Brexit over the principle that former PM Boris Johnson had “repeatedly lied and misled the British public as to the cost of EU membership” failed.
SNP MP Martyn Day related to MPs that his constituent Glenn told him that: ““The problem with Parliament is that it filled with” a shower of “lying B’s’”.
“Members can fill in the blank for themselves, but they will get the picture,” Day said.
The Scottish National Party politician met with the Constitution Unit, the Institute for Government and Full Fact ahead of this debate. “We all agreed that those are not appropriate mechanisms to deal with the problem of MPs’ misleading the public or lying in Parliament,” he said.
As evidence, he cited the long delay between the revelations over partying in No 10 and Whitehall during Covid lockdowns and Boris Johnson being hauled before MPs for lying to them about having followed the rules “at all times.”
Expulsion from the House is the worst penalty a Member can face when they do not speak truthfully in Parliament (Johnson quit as an MP before this could happen). “Being expelled from the House pales in comparison to the penalties for committing contempt of court, which can see someone going to prison for up to two years, getting a fine, or both,” Day noted.
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“Being expelled from the House pales in comparison to the legal framework for coronavirus restrictions and fixed penalty notices, some of which amounted to thousands of pounds that ordinary members of the public had to pay. Let us bear in mind that a false statement made in court amounts to perjury, or lying under oath—a crime treated with great seriousness,” the SNP MP said, backing the petitioners.
Members of Parliament have to take an oath, bearing “true allegiance” to the King – though not truthfulness to the public.
Labour left-winger Dawn Butler MP was expelled from the Commons chamber in July 2021 for calling Boris Johnson a liar over previous statements on economic growth, nurses’ bursaries and investment in the NHS. The Government has repeatedly claimed it is building 40 new hospitals – a point that is simply untrue. However, it is deemed ‘unparliamentary’ language to brand another MP a liar.
In Monday’s debate, former privileges committee chair Sir Chris Bryant pointed to Rishi Sunak’s incorrect claim about the Labour party’s position on a “meat tax” at Conservative party conference as an example of misinformation – although it was made outside Parliament, which would not be affected by the proposed law change.
The public often believes MPs lie regularly, which poses a challenge to democracy, he argued. He urged ministers to be especially truthful in their words. Yet current systems for holding ministers accountable for falsehoods are cumbersome, Bryant said – while the first-past-the-post voting system which guarantees hundreds of safe seats means not all MPs face equal accountability.
Bryant expressed hope for the approval of an amendment allowing all MPs, not just ministers, to formally correct the record. This correction would amend the original statement in Hansard.
He suggested reforming guidance around the crime of misconduct in public office, a rarely-used offence that might be adapted to hold MPs accountable. The public cares deeply about standards in public life, Bryant noted, pointing to the by-election outcomes last week as a sign of public dissatisfaction with a perceived lack of accountability in politics.
But the high-profile Labour backbencher warned against the Speaker being handed the task of determining truth as impractical. Making lying a criminal offence for MPs also has risks, including inhibiting MPs from speaking out, he added.
Plaid Cymru’s Westminster leader Liz Saville Roberts hit out at lying during the Partygate scandal. Saville Roberts has proposed a private Member’s Bill aiming to penalise politicians who knowingly lie to the public.
“Partygate reminded people…of the real, visceral shock at how many people behaved during Covid,” she said. Her Elected Representatives (Prohibition of Deception) Bill would bring Parliament in line with 21st century standards, Saville Roberts said.
The SNP’s Owen Thompson warned of the danger of a “post-truth era” in politics, using examples from both the UK and the US. He pointed to the former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s misleading statements on Covid, and the public’s dissatisfaction with the current state of political honesty.
Thompson suggested the need for an independent body to verify the truthfulness of MPs’ statements. “The public are sick and fed up of politicians who think they can have one rule for themselves and another for everyone else,” he said, suggesting the idea of a Truth Commissioner to fact check MPs.
“Most people are outraged at the suggestion that they should have to use up the one vote they get every four or five years to make what they think should be the blindingly obvious point that lying in Parliament ought to be punished.”
But the Parliamentary Secretary for the Cabinet Office, which oversees the ministerial code, Alex Burghart MP, rejected calls for lying in Parliament to be made a criminal offence. “If honesty is one of the core values of our system, parliamentary privilege and freedom of speech within Parliament is one of the absolute pillars of the modern constitution—and not just in the modern constitution…
“The consequences of success for petitions such as these is that the Hon. Member will stand up and make a criticism of an oligarch; that oligarch has very deep pockets, and will find a way to get him into court. Even if the hon. Member wins, which he would do, he might find that legal process very expensive—so expensive that the next time he stood up he might genuinely think twice about what he said.”
He added: “We would be accepting—nay, sanctioning—the legal intimidation of MPs in the House of Commons. I am afraid that is something that this Government will not support.”
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