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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Should Politicians be Prosecuted For Lying?

MPs fight for their right to lie



I t would be reasonable to assume our legislators would do all they could to restore their tattered reputation at a time when distrust of politicians is at an all-time high.

But when the BBC commissioned a documentary exploring whether MPs were willing to pass a law that would allow them to be prosecuted for lying to the electorate, it prompted an angry backlash from those who frame Britain's laws.

Former Home Secretary Michael Howard told the programme makers: 'It's the stupidest idea I've ever heard.' Another former Home Secretary, Jack Straw, said the BBC was accusing all MPs of being 'charlatans and liars'. The Tory MP for Bournemouth West, Sir John Valentine Butterfill, said 'anarchy would reign' if ordinary voters were allowed to sue a Parliamentarian

for lying.
One Tory MP even went as far as to try to get his on-camera interview dropped from the one-hour programme, Why Democracy? The Ministry of Truth, to be broadcast this week on BBC2.

Film-maker Richard Simons, of Spirit Level Films, quizzed 46 MPs to see how many of them would back a private member's bill creating a legal mechanism allowing a member of the public to prosecute an MP for lying. This would be called the Misrepresentation of the People's Act and would leave parliamentarians open to prosecution for lying, much in the same way that the Trade Descriptions Act protects consumers from dishonest claims and statements.

But, while around a quarter said the idea was worth debating, the rest either argued that existing self-regulation was good enough to ensure MPs and Ministers remained honest, or dismissed the idea out of hand.

Only one MP - to be revealed in the programme - volunteered to sponsor a Bill and steer it through Parliament in the face of the likely wrath and obstruction of his colleagues.

Simons, of Spirit Level Films, told The First Post: "In the US it is illegal to lie to Congress, and a law in the state of South Australia makes it a criminal offence to lie in the run-up to an election. Why can't British citizens enjoy the same protection from their elected representatives?"

In his quest to frame a Bill, Simons enlisted the support of Professor Conor Gearty, barrister and director of the LSE's Centre for the Study of Human Rights. "There's a great deal to be said for a regulatory mechanism that makes it unlawful to engage in lying for political gain of the type we frequently see at election time," says Gearty.

During the course of the film, Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Sir Philip Mawer, expresses his bewilderment at the current arrangements, which rely solely on the House of Commons regulating itself.

Sir Philip says in the film: "Nobody independent looks at complaints by members of the public about the actions of government ministers." He says the public don't understand why this is the case - "and to be honest, neither do I".

As even the disgraced MP Neil Hamilton points out during the film: "Five years is a long time to wait for the next general election. In the meantime, MPs and political parties get up to all sorts of chicanery and there's no means to call them to account."

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