Phil Woolas ejected from parliament over election slurs
The Guardian: Court ruling that former immigration minister lied about his Lib Dem opponent triggers a by-election in Oldham East
I don’t propose to cover the issue, save for a few observations below. The press reports (Guardian above) do this fully.
Section 106 Representation of the People Act 1983 (c. 2)
— (1) A person who, or any director of any body or association corporate which—(a) before or during an election,
(b) for the purpose of affecting the return of any candidate at the election,
makes or publishes any false statement of fact in relation to the candidate’s personal character or conduct shall be guilty of an illegal practice, unless he can show that he had reasonable grounds for believing, and did believe, that statement to be true.
The solicitor to Mr Woolas, Gerald Shamash, according to The Times ‘insisted that the ruling was an infringement on the rights of free speech’. This, of course, is arrant nonsense. We do not have a right to go around ‘freely’ telling lies about other people for political or other advantage. I do not criticise Mr Shamash for making this statement – he must represent the interests of his client, including brand and image management?
The Times editorial took a similar line on the freedom of speech issue – “The suggestion that erroneous campaign statements should be open to juridical interpretation is a thorough danger to the process of free speech”.
Last night there was a fair amount of criticism on twitter that the democratic process was being undermined by ‘unelected judges’. The fact of the matter, determined by two High Court judges appointed to sit in a special election court, is that Mr Woolas was found ‘knowingly to have printed two untruths’.
The Representation of the People Act 1983 was enacted to protect the democratic process. As with all laws, it was enacted by Parliament. Most legal disputes in our country, should there be a breach of criminal or civil law, are dealt with by judges. The separation of the Judiciary from the State is a healthy part of all mature democracies. Ipso facto, it is illogical to complain when ‘unelected judges’ do what they are supposed to do and ‘judge’. The decision is not subject to appeal but may be subject to judicial review.
Mr Bercow, The Speaker, has a difficult task on Monday – to postpone the by-election pending the outcome of judicial review. We shall see what he says.
I have some sympathy with the line that exchanges between candidates at election time can be vociferous and even quite unpleasant – but Parliament in its wisdom determined that a criminal offence is committed when a person….“makes or publishes any false statement of fact in relation to the candidate’s personal character or conduct shall be guilty of an illegal practice, unless he can show that he had reasonable grounds for believing, and did believe, that statement to be true.”
I have some sympathy with the line that other parliamentary candidates may have engaged in brutal electioneering – but they were not the subject of complaint. Mr Woolas overstepped the mark and now faces being stripped of his seat. I cannot, for the life of me, see how committing a criminal offence of this nature infringes freedom of speech as currently defined by ‘reasonable men and women’.
If Parliament, in its wisdom, wishes parliamentary candidates to be free to lie about each other without criminal sanction and the interference of ‘unelected judges’ or wishes to enshrine the ‘right to lie’ as one of ‘the freedoms of speech’ – it is a fairly routine and simple process: Repeal the Representation of The People Act 1983. Parliament is, after all, ‘supreme’.
Alternatively, let Parliament deal with these matters of dodgy practices between honourable members and potential honourable members. After all, they made a good job of dealing with their expenses last year.
And…. while we are on the subject of *Rights*…. please have a look at this excellent round up from The UK Human Rights blog – always an excellent read!