It’s high time we make wilful lying by politicians a criminal offence
With public trust in our democratic system plummeting as we hurtle helter-skelter from one scandal to another lie, the very reputation of our democracy, and of ourselves, is seemingly at stake.
With 73 per cent of the public in favour of a Bill that would criminalise politicians who willingly lie to the British public, Members from all benches need to come together to deliver for our democracy.
Plaid Cymru has been calling for stronger measures to ban politicians from lying in their public role for 15 years. Set against the backdrop of the Iraq War, we recognised that if Parliament saw fit through the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 to stop companies from misleading consumers, why shouldn’t the same principle apply to our parliamentarians? We are, after all, custodians and representatives of democracy in the UK.
Sadly, times have changed but the fundamental problem has not. In truth, it is worsening and driving division through our society.
The ministerial code has proven not to be worth the paper it was written on
We all know that we live in age of public disenchantment. From the same poll, conducted by Compassion in Politics, we learnt that 47 per cent of people have lost trust in UK politicians over the last 12 months. If we look back at the momentous events in that period - from the fall of Kabul to the pandemic to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis - what other conclusion can we draw than that we have failed in our duty to the public?
This sense of failure isn’t just rhetorical, confined to the tea rooms. From anti-vaxxers to the Putin regime, when we fail to confront mistruths, we create a truth vacuum in which division sets hold. When any truth is as good as another, division along political lines comes to matter more than agreement on the common ground of facts.
And what is one source of that division? That we as politicians, and the institutions in which we work in and whose interests we uphold, no longer command the respect and trust of our constituents.
For too long, Westminster politics has played hard and fast with truth. As one member of the government recently put it to a colleague of mine, “what people say politically is a matter of continual political debate” and “when they disagree, they often make accusations that are more aggressive than the facts bear out”.
We work in an institution where we can’t call out the lies of another Member, regardless of their position of responsibility. Lies which are broadcast around the country, recorded for posterity and heard by millions.
While I defer to the judgement of the Speaker in this matter, partygate has demonstrated conclusively that our self-regulating system is no longer fit for purpose. The ministerial code has proven not to be worth the paper it was written on.
We must do better. And if we can’t do better, because we make a mockery of the public concerns by reducing lying to being part and parcel of modern politics, then we must be compelled to.
There is a simple solution. We as legislators must legislate to uphold our good names, and, by extension, the good name of democracy itself. Working with parliamentary authorities to respect key traditions of Parliament, we must make wilful lying by politicians a criminal offence.
Honesty is the most important currency in politics. We have to restore it before we bankrupt our society.
Liz Saville Roberts is the Plaid Cymru MP for Dwyfor Meirionnydd and Plaid Cymru leader in the House of Commons.
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