“Parliamentary privilege” exists to allow MPs to ask questions, put forward views, criticise, challenge and propose, without fear of interference from outside the House, such as, for example, a lawsuit for slander. What privilege gives is immunity in respect of what MPs say, though there is a limit: their constituents can throw them out at the following election if they say particularly stupid or repulsive things, or things opposite to what, at the previous election, they offered to say if elected.
Does parliamentary privilege protect them against lying? There have been egregious examples of untruths told to parliament in recent times—the reasons given for invading Iraq are a major case in point—and the troubling question about them is whether they were not merely untruths but actually lies. For a lie is a deliberate, conscious untruth, the intention of which is to mislead and manipulate; and in the case of the highest court in the land, the court of parliament, deliberate and intentional misleading of fellow legislators and the public at large is a profoundly serious matter.
For this reason it is an open and shut case that it is wrong to lie in parliament. The question before us is, however, a different one: should it be illegal to lie in parliament? Should MPs be arrested and charged when suspected of lying, should they suffer imprisonment and expulsion from the House of Commons if convicted? There is a good case for thinking so, given that the harm done by lies in parliament is potentially so great.
Considering this question requires considering the place of lies in the social economy of life. We all know that lies can keep the peace in domestic life, save embarrassment (to others as well as oneself), calm the frightened, reassure when reassurance is vital, cover important information that the enemy might be seeking, and much more. Lying is not always a bad thing and is sometimes a good thing: though it very much matters what the circumstances are and what case can be made in justification of it, given that the very high value of truth makes the demand for such a justification an exigent one.
There are places where lying is never acceptable: in science, for example. There are places where lying is extremely undesirable: in a court of law, for example. There are places where lying is a necessity: under questioning from the enemy, for example. What about parliament? Might it ever be necessary to lie to the House?
One clear case might be when matters of national security are genuinely at stake, in such sensitive circumstances that even parliament cannot yet be told what is happening. Suppose an opposition MP asks a question directly relevant to those circumstances, and in reply a minister tells a conscious and deliberate lie. It might be that the lie is never discovered until government papers are opened to inspection decades later. Is this justifiable? In these circumstances the answer might well be Yes.
A second clear case is when ministers wish to do something that they know will meet serious opposition unless they tell a conscious lie that persuades others to give way. If what they wish to do is a matter of policy, choice or preference, rather than something justifiable on the kind of grounds just envisaged, then the lie is obviously unacceptable, and is the type of case where questions about sanctions arise.
Should those sanctions be legal? Some might say that it would depend on the effect on freedom of expression, which is what parliamentary privilege exists to protect. For if suspicion of lying could result in arrest and charge even if the suspicion turns out to be unfounded, there will be a definite effect on how MPs express themselves. It might, such folk would therefore say, be better to accept that there will be occasional lying in order to protect general immunity, than to add a sanction that inhibits speech.
The moral opprobrium attached to lying about important matters in such important places as parliament or the press is a sanction in itself, as is the attitude of constituents to a representative caught in the act of deliberate lying. Is this not enough of a remedy against it? Though one might not accept the argument that a law against lying in parliament would have an undesirable effect on the nature of parliamentary debate, the opprobrium consideration alone could prompt one to answer the title question with a No.