John Hemming's Web Log John's Reference Website
Monday, December 08, 2008
  Contempt of Parliament in 2004

The link is to Hansard in which the following exchange occurred

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your advice on a point of order of which I have given you notice. As you know, robust debate is in the nature of politics and no one, least of all you, would want to inhibit that. However, I hope that you agree with me that there is an important distinction to be made between matters of argument and the deliberate misreporting outside this place of proceedings within it, including the doctoring of quotes from Hansard and the invention of votes by hon. Members on motions that were never moved.
My point of order, Mr. Speaker, is to say that that is what has been happening in Birmingham, where a Conservative councillor, Peter Douglas Osborn, distributed a leaflet misreporting a Hansard quote from the Minister for E-Commerce, Energy and Postal Services in respect of the Post Office urban reinvention programme. You will also be aware that Councillor Douglas Osborn, together with Liberal Democrat Councillor Holtom, has written to a third party alleging that I voted against a motion that did not exist regarding a post office in my constituency. Those documents follow allegations made by the leader of the Liberal Democrats on the city council in leaflets distributed in my constituency, also alleging that I and other Labour colleagues voted for a number of propositions concerning local post offices that were never put to this House.
May I therefore seek your advice, Mr. Speaker, on what can be done to protect the integrity of the parliamentary record and to safeguard the reputations of hon. Members of all parties against those who seek to falsify them?

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me advance notice of his point of order. He has raised a significant matter, which should be of concern to the whole House.

On 16 July 1971, the House resolved not to entertain any complaint of contempt or breach of privilege in respect of the publication of its debates or proceedings, but that resolution in no way removed the constraints on those who, for whatever reason, choose to misrepresent the proceedings of the House or to publish false or misleading reports of our debates.

As "Erskine May" makes clear, since at least 1699 the House has regarded the misrepresentation of its proceedings not only as a contempt, but as
"destructive of the freedom of Parliament".
Nothing in the 1971 resolution alters that view.

I can therefore advise the hon. Gentleman and the House that the deliberate or reckless misrepresentation of the debates and proceedings of the House is potentially a contempt of the House, against which the House may wish to proceed. Moreover, those who act in this way are unlikely to be protected in the courts by the unqualified privilege which normally attaches to the reporting of our proceedings.

I am sure the that House will take a serious view of the situation if the conduct which the hon. Gentleman has described continues.


The issue was that various Labour MPs have voted for funds to go to Post Office to close post offices.

 
Comments:
But that would be set against the Article 10 Protection for Freedom of Expression which the ECtHR has held gives particularly strong protection for political speech.
 
Hywel: There's a very good argument that preventing the perversion of the process of democracy by prohibiting misrepresentation of politician's voting record is "necessary in a democratic society [...] for the protection of the reputation or rights of others".

Whether it would succeed or not is an interesting question. There is, I would say, a "pressing public need" to prevent people from being misled concerning the actions of their representatives. However, the closest case law I can find is Lombardo & ors. v. Malta (2007). In this, the court said:

"The Court would in any event observe that the distinction between statements of fact and value judgments is of less significance in a case such as the present, where the impugned statement is made in the course of a lively political debate at local level and where elected officials and journalists should enjoy a wide freedom to criticise the actions of a local authority, even where the statements made may lack a clear basis in fact."

The main distinction I can draw between this case and the case we are discussing is that in the Malta case, the claimants had been found unable to prove their statements, which may or may not have been true in fact, whereas in this case we would be talking about statements that are provably false.

Not much to go on, but still something.
 
However, the statements I made as the then leader of the lib dems on Birmingham City Council were accurate.
 
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