Senedd debates plan to ban lying in the Senedd

On Tuesday, the Senedd debated the “historic, world-leading” plan to ban lying politicians amid claims members have been given “erroneous” legal advice ahead of the crunch vote.

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Adam Price’s plan would make it a criminal offence for Senedd members, ministers or candidates to deliberately deceive the public, with a four-year disqualification as punishment.

The Plaid Cymru politician’s proposed ban was added to the elections bill, under clause 64, after Labour backbencher Lee Waters abstained in a vote during an earlier committee stage.

Now, the Welsh Government has introduced an amendment to delete clause 64, which will be subject to a vote of the whole Senedd – the final opportunity to change the bill.

Activists and legal experts have accused Mick Antoniw, the counsel general, of making “legal and factual errors” in letters to Senedd members, which urged them to resist change.

‘All-time low’

Speaking on the eve of the vote, Mr Price, who represents Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, urged his fellow Senedd members to act.

He said: “Trust in politics is at an all-time low and the existing solutions – standards committees, standards commissioners and recall – have failed to solve that problem.

“So, it’s time to do something different.

“If the three opposition parties stay united and independent-minded Labour members join us then we have the chance to start to rebuild that trust.”

Mr Price, who led a campaign to impeach former prime minister Tony Blair for “duping” the UK into the Iraq war, added: “Winning is the next step in this process – not the end, however.

“We hope the government will then shift from defending an old system that isn’t working to helping us design and build a new one together that will.”

‘Unworkable’

In a letter to members, Mick Antoniw, who is the Welsh Government’s chief legal adviser, raised concerns the bill could have profound, unintended consequences.

Describing the proposals as “unworkable” and lacking consultation, he warned clause 64 could stifle political debate and undermine effective scrutiny of government.

Mr Antoniw wrote: “While the underlying intentions behind the provision seem morally right, the proposed new crime represents a radical departure from modern constitutional norms in this country that has the potential to do much more harm than good.

“I do not overstate my concerns by highlighting that it is the kind of criminal law that was used as a tool to suppress dissent in the distant past in this country, is still used for that purpose in other countries today.

“And I worry that the good intentions that lie behind this provision could be abused in that way again here under different political circumstances.”

Mr Antoniw suggested the bill could be referred to the Supreme Court or prevented from receiving royal assent by the Welsh secretary.

‘Freedom to lie’

Sam Fowles, of Cornerstone Barristers, who has provided free advice to Mr Price, criticised “legal and factual errors” in the counsel general’s advice to members.

Dr Fowles claimed Mr Antoniw was wrong to say the bill would restrict freedom of speech and that issues of honesty cannot be adjudicated on by the courts.

He said: “[The law] does not impose any restriction on the freedom of speech of Senedd members beyond that already in place. It is surprising the counsel general implies otherwise.

“The counsel general’s scepticism as to the ability to distinguish between fact and opinion is at odds with the day-to-day reality of public discourse as well as law.”

In a follow-up letter to MSs, the barrister, who is director of the Institute for Constitutional and Democratic Research, argued that freedom of speech has never implied a freedom to lie.

Dr Fowles, who was involved in high-profile cases around the post office and prorogation of the UK Parliament, said clause 64 would make it easier to regulate deliberate deception.

‘Honesty matters’

Jennifer Nadel, co-director of Compassion in Politics, a cross-party think tank, called for decisive action at a dangerous time, “with a Putin apologist set to enter parliament”.

She said: “Sadly those who are perhaps concerned that the tradition of gentlemen’s agreements is about to be replaced by something altogether more transparent and accountable have made erroneous arguments in defence of the status quo.

“It is clear that something bolder and more courageous is needed to restore trust in politics.

“Honesty matters to the public and they want to see clear independent action, not politicians continuing to police themselves.

“They are on the wrong side of history. This bill is supported by the vast majority of the population. I am hopeful that Wales will do something truly historic and back this bill and let truth and integrity prevail.”

‘Out of touch’

The author and award-winning journalist accused Douglas Bain, the Senedd’s standards commissioner, of being out of touch with public opinion.

Giving evidence on Monday, July 1, Mr Bain criticised clause 64, describing its drafting as “clumsy at best” before adding “and I think that’s being rather generous”.

Ms Nadel said: “We are gravely concerned that the commissioner doesn’t appear to appreciate the gravity of the situation or the loss of public confidence in existing measures.

“His inability to see why the measure is needed makes the case for reform all the stronger.”

Dr Fowles also hit back at Mr Bain’s comments, saying: “The Senedd standards commissioner seemed to call political lying ‘a problem that isn’t really there’.

“Only 9% of the public trust politicians to tell the truth. It’s not a problem, it’s a crisis. The commissioner should take 91% of the public more seriously.”

‘Ministry of Truth’

Richard Symons, director of the Ministry of Truth – a BBC documentary on political lying – was followed by cameras on his campaign to persuade MPs to back a ban in 2007.

Mr Price, then a member of the House of Commons, agreed, proposing a “Misrepresentation of the People Act” which ultimately failed to make it onto the statute book.

But now, 17 years on, the pair are closer than ever to changing the law.

Mr Symons pointed to December’s Ipsos poll which found trust in politicians has fallen below a low set amid the expenses scandal, with trust in ministers at its lowest since the early ’90s.

The filmmaker said: “In other words, the existing mechanisms and those introduced after 2009 have brought only further decline. Nothing more.

“We don’t have a mechanism to engender public trust, we have mechanisms which erode it. Both the standards commissioner and the Labour government seem blind to this.”

 

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