A petition is seeking to ban untruths from the House of Commons — it will fail
If lying in court is a criminal offence — i.e. perjury — then why shouldn’t the same apply to lying in Parliament? That’s the argument behind a petition launched by the vlogger Peter Stefanovic that’s already gathered 120,000 signatures:
“The Government should introduce legislation to make lying in the House of Commons a criminal offence. This would mean that all MPs, including Ministers, would face a serious penalty for knowingly making false statements in the House of Commons, as is the case in a court of law.”
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OK, let’s think this one through. For a start, we’d have to put our MPs on oath. But that could be done: when they take the existing Oath of Allegiance they could also swear to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”.
Of course, there are circumstances in which MPs — especially ministers — are duty-bound to lie. Reasons of national security, for instance. But if we carve out some sensible exemptions, what’s wrong with criminalising the barefaced ‘political’ lie?
Well, there’s the sheer impracticality of it. If rigorously enforced, half the Commons and most of the Government would be arrested within the first week. Just imagine: “I welcome the Minister to his new role…”, “Having read the report carefully…”, “My honourable friend…”. There aren’t enough police cells in London, let alone Westminster.
But let’s assume we can draft a law that ignores the petty untruths of politics. In theory, that would just leave the misrepresentation of important facts.
I think we can guess which ‘facts’ the supporters of this petition have in mind: the sort of claims one might find painted on the side of a bus or featured in a dodgy dossier. But that gets us into the weeds of context — not to mention interpretation, rhetoric and fair comment.
Who gets to hand down judgment on that? Remember that a criminal offence of lying in Parliament wouldn’t just require a fact-checking operation, but the ability to distinguish a deliberate falsehood from an honest mistake (or a stupid one). This would mean developing a whole new branch of criminal law, upheld by a specialist police force and prosecution service. Any such apparatus would become the most powerful actor in our national politics — a ‘ministry of truth’ beneath which our elected representatives would cower, afraid to open their mouths.
The fact is that some truths — and some lies — are just too big for the law. The only court in which they should be judged is the court of public opinion.