INTERNET LIES (GUILLOTINE MOTION) – 29 November 2000

Dr Julian Lewis: This is the first time that I have spoken on a guillotine motion. It is also the first time that I have spoken in the Chamber since you were appointed to your present post, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I sincerely congratulate you. I hope that you will indulge me slightly if I speak not about the general principle of guillotining but about why I am sad that this Bill will be guillotined. I am sure that you will correct me if I stray into too much detail. I shall try to avoid doing so.

I moved in Committee and on Report in this House an amendment on which some of the Lords amendments have a bearing. My amendment related to a provision in the Representation of the People Act 1983 that makes it a criminal offence deliberately to tell lies about the character and conduct of a candidate for an election with a view to damaging his or her vote in that election.

As I explained at the time­­I shall not do so in any detail now­­I was the victim of deliberate lies and someone was criminally convicted on seven charges for making gross, lying accusations about my private life and my sexuality. Even to this day, I believe that they damaged at least one relationship that was particularly important to me. More relevantly to the Bill, which will be guillotined, the accusations remained in circulation throughout the election campaign because they were on the internet. Indeed, they remained in circulation on the internet even after the perpetrator had been convicted, having admitted in court that he had no evidence for the lies, and even after he died.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I know that the hon. Gentleman sought my indulgence, and I think that he has had that. However, I must remind him that this is not a general debate about the Bill, but a debate about the timetable motion. I ask him to return to that subject.

Dr Lewis: I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

It is a matter of great concern that a loophole that was identified in Committee and on Report will not be discussed because of the proposed guillotining of the Bill. The fact is that, in trying to close the loophole that enables such allegations to circulate even though their perpetrator is no longer alive, I had the support of the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr Miller) from the Government Back Benches, and I received exceptionally kind consideration from the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) and the Under­Secretary of State for the Home Department, who I am delighted is here now.

When referring to the problem on Report, the Under­Secretary said:

The Government note the broad support on both sides of the House for dealing with this issue, and the strong sympathy that exists for the proposition made, on this occasion, by the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr Lewis).­­[Official Report, 14 March 2000; Vol. 346, c. 263­4.]

My proposition was that material uploaded on to the internet before an election campaign should count as an act of publication if it remains on the internet while the election campaign continues.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I regret having to say this, but the hon. Gentleman must now direct his remarks to the timetable motion.

Dr Lewis: I have almost concluded my remarks. The debate will be truncated in such a way that we shall not be able to consider this and many similarly important issues that relate directly to the democratic process and the effect that abuses of that process can have on the lives and electoral possibilities of candidates for membership this House. I have raised the issue because I hope to elicit from the Under­Secretary a commitment that the Government will seek to deal with this problem in the future.

* * *

Mr John Bercow (Buckingham): Unless provoked, I shall be brief. Before dealing with a couple of particular concerns, I want to refer to the important issue highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr Lewis), who raised the subject of character assassination on the internet during an election campaign. It was my impression that he was genuinely aggrieved that, as a result of the timetable motion, there would be inadequate time properly to consider that matter. I also had the impression that the Under­Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr O'Brien), had some thoughts on it.

Mr Mike O'Brien: I do not know whether the timetable will allow us to discuss the points raised by the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr Lewis), but I can tell him that although we were unable to deal with his serious concerns in the Bill, the Government do not have a closed mind on such matters, and I shall be happy to discuss them with him if an opportunity arises.

Mr Bercow: I am grateful for that observation. It reassures me and, I imagine, is even more reassuring to my hon. Friend...