Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to create offences in relation to the publication of false or misleading statements by elected representatives; and for connected purposes.
This Bill represents an invitation to every parliamentarian to work together in the name of the betterment of democracy. When I ran for Parliament in 2015, I was under no illusions. I knew there would be challenges to my party, opposition to our views and hostility to our success. I knew that I would have to walk the line between exciting, rambunctious, attention-seeking rhetoric, and telling the truth. I would have to not let the story get in the way of the facts and to know the difference between facts and opinions, but at no point did I expect that I would one day be standing here before Parliament to defend a principle that I believe should be beyond question—that politicians should strive to be honest.
No doubt some Members will scoff or scorn in response to my saying that, and they will plead ignorance or innocence, and they will avert or divert, but they cannot outrun reality. Outside this Chamber, people are fast becoming disillusioned by the lies that have been told by some of those who sometimes sit within it. They are a public who stepped up to the challenge of defeating covid, while some of their leaders plumbed new depths of deception; a public who have grown weary of empty promises and false dawns; and a public who expect change. According to a survey by the think-tank Compassion in Politics, the No. 1 value that voters believe is absent in our politics is honesty.
Our choice now is either to fiddle while faith in democracy crumbles, or to act in the name of those we are meant to serve. Why do we need legislation? Why are our 19th century codes of gentlemanly honour not sufficient? Because we are no longer in the world of chivalry and words as bonds, if we ever were, and because doing so would finally bring our legislature into line with other 21st century standards.
No business can sell products or services through deception. There are two self-regulatory codes and in many cases three separate laws to guard against that. The Advertising Standards Authority and Ofcom exist to protect us. Doctors may not lie to their patients. Teachers may not lie to their students. Like them, politicians engage in the art of education and persuasion. Like them, we engage here in matters that impact on health, wellbeing, safety and, more than that, national security. Think of the responsibilities that we bear on our shoulders. We always have a vision, strategy, policy or idea to sell, but unlike others, we face no sanctions for doing so dishonestly. Previous Parliaments have recognised that truth and honesty matter and have legislated to ensure that in sectors beyond our own, such values are enshrined and codified. Now, our own profession must follow suit.
In terms of election communications, that point was recognised by the Electoral Commission in its review of the misinformation bandied around during the 2019 general election. In the 2020 report “Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust”, the Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies, chaired by Lord Puttnam, recognised the risk posed by misleading electoral advertising. The Government responded by throwing up a cordon of shields emblazoned “freedom of speech”. I refer the Government to the New Zealand model. The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 succeeded in incorporating freedom of speech, while latterly legislating against the freedom to lie. Why should parliamentarians act as if they are above these basic norms? How can we as elected representatives expect the public to follow, when our own standards lag so far behind?
We are elected to represent our constituents’ voices in this place. We should therefore be focusing on finding solutions to the cost of living crisis that is plunging thousands of people into historic levels of poverty. Thanks to this Government, we are held back by another crisis—a cost of lying crisis that undermines every aspect of Westminster political credibility. While I am here today to uphold the interests of the public, I am also here to uphold the good name of this Parliament, its Members—ourselves—and our staff, and the staff of Parliament, too. The lies of a few have tarred the reputations of us all. The legislation that our Parliaments enact, and the policies that we seek to carry out, are all the weaker for a lack of credibility. When people do not believe their leaders, those leaders’ words will carry less weight than a feather in an emergency. That matters, and therefore we must all act. If we do that, we will build a better democracy, and a better politics.
Honesty is not only the best policy, but is essential to the creation of policy. It is an honour to attend Parliament and engage in discussions and decisions that affect all our countries, to decide on policies that avert the climate breakdown and to legislate against hunger, homelessness and want, but we cannot do that from a position of bad faith, distrust or uncertainty. We cannot make good policies off the back of lies and misinformation, and we cannot expect the public to mobilise in support of the kind of transformative change needed to build a sustainable and just future if they cannot trust those who would lead them to do so.
And so to my Bill—my invitation. It is, as all good things are, extremely simple. I propose that we seek to put our house in order and that we borrow from the good practice that already exists. The Bill would make it an offence for an elected representative to wilfully and, when provided with evidence of their action, repeatedly lie to the public. After all, we are all mortal and we make mistakes, but at present politicians are effectively rewarded when the lies that they peddle garner political rewards. There is presently scant sanction for mistruths and the admittance of errors is seen as a weakness. We must create a culture here where we are rewarded for correcting our mistakes and chastised when we seek to profit from a lie. Arbitration should be carried out under the same procedures already used to determine whether a business or corporation has intentionally mis-sold or misled. Repeated offences should be sanctioned with a fine or ultimately with disbarment from public office temporarily.
For those who unwittingly repeat or invoke a falsehood, ample opportunity should be given to publicly correct the record and, in doing so, to reinforce the importance of honesty, humility and responsibility. False accusations would themselves be sanctioned in this Bill to prevent its misuse for political or other reasons. It also proposes effective checks and balances in its proposal to employ the judiciary as guardians of the good name of politics. There would be a rational defence when acting in the interests of national security.
This is a necessary Bill whose time has come, because its precedents in House procedure alone are no longer adequate. It is not only necessary, but it has public approval. A survey by Compassion in Politics found cross-party support for the Bill, with 71% of Conservative voters and 79% of Labour supporters backing the proposal. An ITV Wales poll this week asked whether it was ever acceptable for a politician to lie, and 85% responded saying no. At a time when unity and agreement are hard to come by, we ought to grasp this opportunity to change politics in a way that has consent and the approval of the majority.
In closing, I remind my friends what is at stake. No institution is indelible and no power irrevocable. Systems and structures that were once seen as being immortal have perished and been forgotten. I refuse to be passive when our parliamentary democracy is eroded and sullied. I choose instead to be an active and proud defender of the system, and the values it is based upon: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. Those are not empty words—they are there for a reason. I know that in this Chamber, there are Members who like me are worried about the state of our politics. Many have spoken out, and others may well have been silent until now, but it does not matter—what matters is what we do next.
In closing, I will quote Jonathan Swift, who I believe was protecting the Tory party at the time:
“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it”.
Surely now, several hundred years later, it is our job to give wings and power to truth, so that lies are overtaken and brought down before they can do their ugly work. Please support this Bill, and together let us work to defend democracy, serve the public and protect the basic standards by which we should all live.
Question put and agreed to.
That Liz Saville Roberts, Richard Thomson, Caroline Lucas, Claire Hanna, Wendy Chamberlain, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, Stephen Farry, Hywel Williams and Ben Lake present the Bill.
Liz Saville Roberts accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 28 October, and to be printed (Bill 120).