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Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this, it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 119 to 122, 132 and 133.

Mr. Tipping: The amendments deal with the rather arcane practice of election petitions, and I shall deal with them quickly. Paragraphs 2 to 6 of schedule 16, to which amendments Nos. 118 to 120 relate, remove the requirement that parliamentary and local election petitions are tried locally. I understand that a parliamentary election petition has not been heard since 1929. However, new information suggests that some local petitions have been heard fairly recently. Accordingly, amendments Nos. 118, 119 and 120 delete or amend paragraphs 2 to 6 of schedule 16, so as to preserve the status quo. Amendment No. 132 makes consequential changes.

Amendment No. 119 also repeals section 130(2)(a)(ii) of the Representation of the People Act 1983, which prevents a judge from serving on an election court in the area where he practises--a procedure that appears to be out of date.

Amendments Nos. 121, 122 and 133 relate to paragraph 8 of schedule 16. This paragraph removes the provision in section 153 of the 1983 Act in which an elector may stand in the place of the respondent. That provision dates back to the time when electors and candidates had difficulty travelling. I hope that the House will therefore agree to modernise election practices.

Sir Patrick Cormack: When the Minister talks about maintaining the status quo, he has our sympathy;

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when he talks about modernisation, he has our deep distrust. Nevertheless, there is nothing too violently appalling in his suggestions, although we shall certainly ensure that they are considered with great assiduity in the other place. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that we may want to return to them. However, with that point, I commend the hon. Gentleman.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 119, in page 158, line 16, leave out from "trial)" to end of line 17 and insert--

', in subsection (2)(b) (disqualification of persons to constitute election court) for the words from "area" onwards substitute "area in which he resides.".'.

No. 120, in page 158, leave out lines 18 and 19.

No. 121, in page 158, line 21, leave out "152" and insert "153".

No. 122, in page 158, leave out lines 22 to 27.--[Mr. Touhig.]

Schedule 17

Election campaigns and proceedings: miscellaneous amendments

Amendment made: No. 123, in page 160, line 26, at end insert--

'(1A) If any such return contains a statement of donations in accordance with section 81(3)(e) above, the appropriate officer shall secure that the copy of the statement made available for public inspection under subsection (1)(a) above or (as the case may be) supplied under subsection (1)(b) above does not include, in the case of any donation by an individual, the donor's address.'.--[Mr. Touhig.]

9.30 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 160, line 30, at end insert--

'7A.--(1) Section 106 (false statements as to candidates) shall be amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (1) after the words "character or conduct" there shall be inserted the words "or fails to take reasonable steps to withdraw from circulation and public availability a false statement previously made or published".
(3) After subsection (1) there shall be inserted--
"(1A) 'For the avoidance of doubt, a person who makes or publishes a statement on the Internet or by other electronic means, or who causes a statement to be so made or published, makes or publishes a statement for the purposes of this subsection; and a person who fails to remove or cause the removal of a statement from the Internet shall be regarded as having failed, for the purposes of this subsection, to take reasonable steps to withdraw that statement from circulation and public availability".'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 2, in page 160, line 30, at end insert--

'7B.--(1) Section 106 (false statements as to candidates) shall be amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (1), the words "(b) for the purpose of affecting the return of any candidate at the election" shall be omitted.'.

Dr. Lewis: The amendments deal with the telling of deliberate lies during an election campaign about a candidate in that campaign, with the intention of damaging his vote. Amendment No. 2 is a probing amendment.

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Amendment No. 1 is more substantive; it is aimed at closing a specific loophole. I declare an interest because the loophole was exposed in a case that affected me. Deliberate lies were told about me during the previous general election campaign. I was able to secure the sevenfold conviction of the person responsible, but the conviction was overturned on appeal on a legal technicality. The purpose of the amendments is to try to close the loophole illustrated by my case.

I mentioned the matter briefly on Second Reading and in much greater detail in Committee on 10 February. I shall not take up the time of the House by rehearsing those points. I was gratified by the interest and by the support in dealing with the problem that were shown by Conservative Front-Bench Members and by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. I was especially touched by the sympathy and concern shown by Labour Members--most notably the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), who has probably forgotten more about the internet than I shall ever manage to learn. I have also received sympathy and encouragement--although, as yet, no guarantee of action--from no fewer than three Home Office Ministers. I am sure that they want to close the loophole and I shall be happy to co-operate with them in negotiating the minefield of the knock-on problems that might affect other legislation if my proposal were accepted.

Section 106(1) of the Representation of the People Act 1983 is short and clear. It states:

In order to secure a conviction under that provision, one has to show that what was told was a deliberate lie. It is not enough to show that it was false--one must show that the person who made the allegation against the candidate knew that he was lying when he made it. One also has to show that the person's motive was to affect the result by damaging the candidate's vote. Furthermore, as the section makes clear, it applies only to the period of the election campaign and to polling day itself.

In the case of the allegations on the internet made against me, it was held by the Crown Prosecution Service that the continued broadcasting of those allegations on the internet throughout the period of the election campaign amounted to a continuous process of re-publication. That view was not upheld on appeal. If deliberately false allegations are placed on the internet even before an election campaign begins, if they are made with the intention of affecting a candidate's vote and if they are not stopped during the campaign, amendment No. 1 would make it clear that that would amount to publication during the election campaign.

I shall not go through the points that were put to me in an extremely helpful letter that the Minister sent to me yesterday. It outlined the difficulties that might arise if we closed the loophole in the way that I suggest. I assure him that I will take up his offer of commenting on those points, and I am convinced that there are answers to every

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one of the possible objections to closing the loophole that have been made and that he has helpfully gathered together in his letter.

The normal way to deal with deliberate defamation is through the civil courts, but that breaks down in certain circumstances. The first is when the defamation's damage cannot be undone by the subsequent payment of financial damages. For example, if an election result is decisively affected, no payment of money after the event can compensate for that. It also breaks down if the defamer cannot repay the victim's costs even if the victim succeeds in obtaining an injunction and subsequently wins a civil case.

What are the ways forward? I have three possible suggestions. First, we could adopt something similar to amendment No. 1 with the added proviso that the deliberate liar should have been challenged to remove the deliberate lie for the entirety of the election campaign, and have failed to do so. Secondly, there is the possibility of adopting the civil route, but indemnifying the candidate who is the victim of the defamation against legal costs if his case against the defamer is proved and the deliberate liar declares his inability to pay his victim's costs after the event. Finally, we could consider adopting the methods used by the Internet Watch Foundation but lay a statutory duty on internet service providers to block access to the sites throughout the campaign.

I will not take the argument any further at this point, but I look forward to hearing what progress the Government have made in finding their way through the labyrinth that confronts us in this new technological age.

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