Posted: Thu 20th Jun 2024

Wales could become world’s first country to criminalise politicians who lie

News and Info from Deeside, Flintshire, North Wales

By Stephen Clear, Lecturer in Constitutional and Administrative Law, and Public Procurement, Bangor University


Trust and confidence in UK politics and the election system have never been lower. One of the central reasons for this breakdown in trust is the widespread popular belief that some politicians have made a practice of lying to the public. Research published in 2022 showed the British public overwhelmingly wanted lying politicians to face consequences.

And while the UK’s general election is grabbing the headlines, a proposal in Wales’ Senedd (Welsh parliament) is seeking to address this issue by introducing new legislation that would criminalise politicians who lie. If passed, Wales would become the first country in the world to introduce criminal sanctions for lying politicians.

The proposals are being led by the former leader of Plaid Cymru, Adam Price, who has described a “credibility gap” in UK politics as a “gaping chasm”. Price has pushed for such changes since the mid-2000s when he campaigned for the impeachment of Tony Blair over the war in Iraq.

Price tried and failed to introduce an offence for politicians who lie when laws were passed in May expanding the size of the Senedd. But a cross-party committee has now voted in favour of Price’s proposals, and they are being considered for incorporation into the new elections and elected bodies (Wales) bill instead.

Under the proposals it would be a criminal offence for a member of the Senedd, or a candidate for election to the Senedd, to wilfully, or with intent to mislead, make or publish a statement that is known to be false or deceptive. Proceedings would have to be brought within six months from the date on which the statement was made.

It would be considered a defence if it could be “reasonably inferred” to be a statement of opinion, or if it were retracted with an apology within 14 days. Being prosecuted for such a law would disqualify a person from being a Senedd member.

The proposals are not yet law, and the bill has further debate stages yet to go. Price’s amendment is supported by Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Conservatives and the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

But so far the amendment does not have the support of the Welsh Labour government and ministers may attempt to have it removed. The Welsh counsel general (similar to the UK government’s attorney general), Mick Antoniw, has said he supports the “general principle,” but is concerned that the amendment “amounts to little more than bad and ineffective law.”

There are also broader concerns about whether the Senedd has the ability under Wales’s devolved powers to make such a law. While Wales can pass laws in respect of the operations of the Senedd, legally speaking there are problems when it comes to straying into the realms of criminal offences. In this instance it is unlikely the Senedd would be able to expressly create a criminal offence such as this.

The Senedd may find itself in territory akin to what Scotland experienced when the UK government blocked Scotland’s gender recognition bill. In January 2023, the UK government invoked section 35 of the Scotland Act to veto proposals designed to make it easier for people to change their legal gender, on the grounds they would affect equality law for the whole of the UK.

Is such a law necessary?

The Welsh ministerial code already exists and is meant to uphold the standards of constitutional and personal conduct of ministers. The Senedd has an independent standards commissioner, who is an “impartial provider of advice on any matter of principle relating to conduct of members of the Senedd”.

But the commissioner doesn’t deal with complaints relating to the actions of the Welsh government and ministers carrying out Welsh government business. Nor do they investigate issues relating to the performance of Senedd members. The standards commissioner’s website states that this is because: “Issues relating to performance of the member of the Senedd in his or her role is essentially a matter for the electorate at the ballot box.”

There are also the Nolan principles which apply to those elected or appointed to public office across the UK. They include the principles of “integrity”, “openness” and “honesty”.

The problem with the current regime is a lack of enforcement. Beyond accountability to the electorate during elections, there are very few repercussions when politicians mislead the public. This is helping to fuel a mistrust of politicians, and casting doubt over what can be believed.

Laws may be a stepping stone to restoring trust and facilitating enforceability in a different way, and with legal safeguards. In terms of standards, it would bring politicians more into line with what is expected from other professions, such as lawyers and doctors. Of course, members of these professions aren’t criminalised unless they explicitly break the law, but they are held to account if they fail to maintain certain standards and can be struck off as a result.

Politically speaking, while the Welsh government could seek to remove anti-lying amendments at future debates, that would do little to signal trust in those elected to public office. In fact, it could prove to be even more damaging.

This issue is likely to shine a spotlight on the constitutional devolved competence of the Senedd itself. But trust in politics is a UK-wide issue. While some politicians are trying to put a sticking plaster over the wound, the new UK government will need to work with all devolved administrations to take more significant steps to rebuild trust.

It’s a bleak indictment of democracy that a law reminding politicians not to lie is even being considered. But a culture change in politics is evidently needed.The Conversation


This article is republished from The Conversation 

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