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Parliamentary Language

Volume 551: debated on Wednesday 17 October 2012

Before we start, may I remind Members of the importance of abiding by our usual rules and conventions during this debate?

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I do not think that you say that at the beginning of every debate, so I feel a little admonished already.

“Erskine May”, the volume that governs how we behave in Parliament and dictates many of the rules that are not written up in the Standing Orders of the House of Commons, must be one of the most regularly ignored books in the history of English literature. Members will perhaps be surprised to know that it says:

“All Members should maintain silence.”

I do not know how often there is silence in the Chamber when somebody else is speaking. It is pretty rare, although on occasion the mood of the House can change on a sixpence. “Erskine May” also says that

“Members must not read any book, newspaper or letter.”

I have often seen Members signing Christmas cards in the House of Commons while a debate is going on, so I gently suggest that “Erskine May” is often ignored. I suspect that one of the reasons is that it is not generally available to the public—it costs £260 to buy. I believe that it should be available online and I cannot see any earthly reason why it should not be. All the Standing Orders of the House and everything else that dictates the way that we do our business are available online.

I know that some members of the public might think that there was a golden age when all MPs sat in the House of Commons and listened to one another carefully and attentively, only ever voting according to their consciences and not according to any party Whip, and that there was never any unruliness. In fact, the modern era has probably been one of the most ruly in parliamentary democracy.

On 24 July 1911, Tory MPs completely and utterly refused to allow the Prime Minister—Mr Asquith—to speak for the best part of 20 minutes by literally shouting at him at a very important point in his attempt to resolve a row between the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Then, when F. E. Smith was going to speak on behalf of the Conservatives, the Liberals, who believed that Smith had orchestrated the shouting at Mr Asquith, all shouted at him until the Speaker had to suspend the sitting before eventually adjourning it for the rest of the day. It is the only time that I have found that the Prime Minister was literally unable to get a single sentence out and on to the record; I suppose that is what happens when there is a Chamber dominated by Conservatives and Liberals.

In 1920, things got even worse. On 22 November that year, a Conservative, John Elsdale Molson, attacked an Irish nationalist, Joseph Devlin, when Devlin raised the matter of the Croke Park massacre, which had happened the day before. Indeed, things got so bad that the Conservative dragged the Irish nationalist over the top of the Bench and started pummelling him on the Floor. A Liberal actually shouted out, “Kill him,” and obviously the sitting had to be suspended.

Likewise, on 11 April 1923 the Speaker suspended the sitting because the Government had lost a vote the day before and Labour MPs were insisting that they should therefore change their policy on ex-servicemen. At that point, Robert Murray, a Conservative politician, and Walter Guinness, a Labour politician, ended up in a fist-fight and the rest of the day’s business was lost.

I mention all those incidents because people sometimes have this glorious image of a perfect, pacific past in the House of Commons. Sometimes we romanticise the past too much and I would argue that “Erskine May” has also entrenched some of the archaisms of the past that are no longer necessary.

Personally, I find the whole business of calling somebody an “hon. Friend”, a “right hon. Friend” or an “hon. Member” rather unnecessary. I do not know why; it just makes us seem as if we are hung up on titles. Ordinary members of the public have no idea what the difference is between an “hon. Member” and a “right hon. Member”—indeed, often Members themselves do not know the difference. It just seems so ludicrous when one Member has referred to another Member as “honourable” and then someone else pipes up and says, “Oh no, he’s right honourable.” I just think, “Honestly, have we not got something better to obsess about than our own status?”

Similarly, it is a particular irony that we always refer to one another by our constituencies, not least because we can rarely remember each other’s constituency names. So we will go, “The hon. Member for…somewhere down in the south-west,” or something like that, and then somebody will shout out the constituency name and it gets corrected and tidied up by Hansard. The irony of it all is that Hansard will actually then put the name of the Member.

It is bizarre that we play this game of having to refer to one another by our constituencies rather than our names. I do not think that the fact that people in the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament call one another by their names means they are any less courteous to one another; indeed, they might actually be a little more courteous.

There are also a lot of inconsistencies about how the Chair sometimes rules in relation to specific comments that are meant to involve unparliamentary language. For instance, Eric Forth regularly got away with using the term “PMPs”. When he was shadow Leader of the House, he always referred to “PMPs” as opposed to “PMQs”, with “PMPs” meaning “Prime Minister’s porkies”. If that was not accusing the Prime Minister of lying, I do not know what would have been.

That was quite a direct accusation of dishonesty, yet Jacob Rees-Mogg—sorry, I am not allowed to call him that; I must call him “the hon. Member for somewhere or other down in the south-west”—did not get into trouble for using the word “flipping”, but Sally Keeble got into considerable trouble for using a word that begins and ends with the same letters as “flipping” but is slightly different in the middle, and that was because it was used in a quotation.

Members are not allowed to use quotations. It says quite clearly in “Erskine May” that Members are not allowed to use a quotation at all, at any point. No extracts from books, magazines or newspapers can be used, and yet we do it regularly—in fact, we do it all the time. On occasions in 2002, the current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions used quotations as a means of accusing Stephen Byers of lying, but he was not reprimanded by the Chair for doing so, even though it is absolutely clear in “Erskine May” that a Member is not allowed to use the fact that they are quoting somebody else as a means of passing off an imputation of dishonesty against another Member.

I cannot remember Tom Watson’s constituency, but it is somewhere in the midlands—West Bromwich east, north, south or west. He was told off for using the word “pipsqueak” on 8 July 2010, yet the words “stoolpigeon”, “hooligan”, “blackguard” and “idiot” have all been used at various times by hon. Members and they have never been told off for using them. So I simply say that it is time for a greater degree of consistency about what we consider parliamentary and unparliamentary language. Indeed, I would say that it is time for a full redraft of “Erskine May”.

In particular, Members may not know that they are not allowed to be ironical in a debate in the House of Commons. It was a ruling of the Speaker on 25 August 1860, when he spoke to a Member:

“I should have informed him that to discuss any matter in the House in an ironical sense is unparliamentary and out of order.”—[Official Report, 25 August 1860; Vol. 160, c. 1827.]

When I have heard people make ironical comments in the House, I have often wondered whether those comments should be put in italics in Hansard, so that everybody catches the drift of what the person was really saying; sometimes it looks as if they are saying exactly the opposite of what they really mean. However, the ruling is still in “Erskine May” as a result of that decision in 1860.

I have already referred to the fact that “Erskine May” says that extracts from newspapers or books, and paraphrases of or quotations from speeches and so on, are not admissible. I think that that ruling is out of date and it is

“more honoured in the breach than the observance”.

I am sorry to have to use the term “my hon. Friend”; in fact, I will just say “my Friend.” Does my Friend agree that some things cannot be put in “Erskine May” and that there should be some guidelines that just mean that we lead by example? For instance, when I have been going round the country asking people why they hate politicians, they say that one of the primary reasons is that they do not think that we answer questions put to us. We may think that senior politicians might lead the way on that issue, but the Prime Minister demonstrated the opposite today in an answer—or non-answer—to the question that my Friend put. That is the kind of thing that infuriates voters.

I will come later to what the Prime Minister said this afternoon, but to be honest I think that it was pretty scandalous. The whole point of Parliament is that Members are sent here on behalf of their constituents to be able to hold the Government to account, and that must surely require the Government to answer questions. Indeed, the ministerial code of conduct, ironically enough, was written by the Prime Minister in May 2010. It says absolutely categorically:

“It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament”.

It also says:

“Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament and the public, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest”.

People might think that that is just the ministerial code of conduct, and that the Prime Minister wrote it so he can ignore it. However, it is also a motion of this House —it was a resolution of this House carried on 19 March 1997. I cannot understand, and I do not think that our constituents will understand, why the Prime Minister should think himself able to declare that he will not answer a particular question from somebody, apparently just because he does not like them.

I happen to think that the Prime Minister did that because he had something to hide. He made it pretty clear that he chose not to deny the fact that there are additional e-mails between him and Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, of a salacious nature and embarrassing to him, which he refuses to publish. He could have chosen to deny that today. It seems absolutely clear to me that there is precisely such a stash, and he should, in the interests of democracy—and, frankly, in the interests of his reputation—publish them as soon as possible.

Incidentally, the Prime Minister said earlier this year that he was not going to reply to any of my questions, then he started replying to some of them and now he has gone back to not replying. I presume that today’s not-replying answer was precisely because I had asked a question that embarrassed him and because he had something to hide.

“Erskine May” also says that we are not allowed to ask certain kinds of questions:

“Questions which seek an expression of opinion, or which contain arguments, expressions of opinion, inferences or imputations, unnecessary epithets, or rhetorical, controversial, ironical or offensive expressions are not in order.”

That would rule out pretty much every single parliamentary question I have ever heard, certainly those on the Floor of the House; perhaps written questions are rather different. This seems to be yet another example of where we must consider changing how we write our rules.

Some of the issues are very specific, and I want to refer to how “Erskine May” says we are allowed to refer to other Members of Parliament, Members of the House of Lords, judges, governors-general of other territories, the Queen, the heir to the throne and members of the royal family.

It is absolutely right and proper that we should not seek to bring members of the royal family into our debates, and not seek to pray in aid a member of the royal family to try, in some way or another, to influence a debate—by saying, for example, “Princess Anne agrees with me” or “Prince Andrew disagrees with me.” However, extending that to mean that we cannot say a word about a member of the royal family is inappropriate, because we can write about them in newspapers. As Members of Parliament, we can say things on television, and in debates on “Question Time” or “Any Questions?” so not to be able to say the same things in Parliament, which is meant to be the fundamental place of debate in our society, seems misguided and wrong. It relies on an understanding from the late 17th century, which is archaic.

“Erskine May” also states, incidentally, that we are not even allowed to ask a question about ecclesiastical patronage. When the Prime Minister, in the next few days, gets two names suggested to him as next Archbishop of Canterbury, we will not be allowed to ask him which name he put forward to the Queen for appointment. One of the problems with the Church of England today is that the whole process of appointing bishops and archbishops is far too clouded in secrecy. It would be far better to have an open and transparent system, as we have for any other Government appointment. Why can we not ask questions about how patronage is exercised?

Similarly, and this strikes me as very strange, we are not allowed to ask questions about how the Prime Minister exercises his patronage in the granting of honours. That is particularly bizarre, because in 1922 a Conservative Member, Colonel John Gretton—as I am sure you know, Mrs Riordan, he won two golds in the 1900 Olympics—wanted to ask Lloyd George if he could give a definite assurance

“that no money or other consideration of money value has been paid, or passed either directly or indirectly, in connection with any of the honours recommended by the Prime Minister in announcing the list of honours on the 3rd of June this year.”—[Official Report, 27 June 1922; Vol. 155, c. 1842.]

The Speaker refused to allow him to ask the question, but it seems to me absolutely quintessentially important that we should know whether money has been handed over to a political party or an individual for the granting of an honour. The Speaker relied on the answer that had been given by his predecessor, Speaker Lowther, on 21 July 1907, when another MP, Hugh Lea, wanted to ask Campbell-Bannerman, another Liberal Prime Minister, about a knighthood he had given to Sir James Brown Smith. We know, in retrospect, that those were corrupt arrangements, but we could not have found that out through Parliament. If exactly the same were to happen today, we would have no means of establishing whether there was a corrupt arrangement.

I want to come to the matter of imputations of falsehood. Earlier this year, we had a debate about the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who is now the Secretary of State for Health—a bizarre promotion to my mind, but that is a matter for the Prime Minister’s conscience and not for anyone else’s. I made allegations about him in the debate, which had been made by other people in different terms, but amounting to exactly the same thing. I will not repeat them here, because that would be inappropriate. Members have to understand that when a motion specifically refers to the conduct of a Member they must be able to make an allegation about that conduct, and that also applies to Members of the House of Lords and of elsewhere.

In the 19th century, there were direct accusations against Viscount Palmerston, who, because his viscountcy was an Irish one, was a Member of the House of Commons. The Speaker ruled very clearly that if the debate was about whether Viscount Palmerston had lied to the House, it was perfectly possible to make that allegation, although it would not be in any other kind of debate. We need to draw that line very carefully, because there will be times when our constituents want us to say directly, in words that they understand, adhere to and support, what the allegation is. Sometimes when we mystify parliamentary language, we do ourselves an enormous disservice.

I have already referred to the issue of what should and should not be said in Parliament, and there is just one other thing that I want to mention. If we are to do our job well in opposition—all of us, at some point, are likely to be in opposition—it is important that Ministers adhere to all the elements of the ministerial code. I note that on Monday the Home Secretary was not able to provide a copy of her speech to the Opposition before she stood up to make her statement. It was said that providing it beforehand was merely a convention of the House. That is not so. Section 9.5 of the ministerial code states:

“A copy of the text of an oral statement should usually be shown to the Opposition shortly before it is made.”

I think that “usually” is there because of the Budget, and only because of that. It goes on:

“For this purpose, 15 copies of the statement and associated documents should be sent to the Chief Whip’s Office at least 45 minutes before the statement is to be made.”

I cannot remember the Home Secretary providing a copy of her statement to the shadow Home Office team 45 minutes, 40 minutes, 35 minutes or 25 minutes before, and I very much hope that when the Minister replies, he will tell us that he will ensure that the Prime Minister will reply to questions and that all Ministers will provide Opposition spokespeople with a copy of their statements at least 45 minutes before they deliver them, as required in the ministerial code.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who is a former Deputy Leader of the House, on securing the debate. He has set out his detailed historical knowledge of parliamentary procedure and his long-standing interest in the matter. He highlighted some of the discrepancies that can be identified in “Erskine May”, and has entertained us with stories of how Parliament used to be. He presented an image that resembled a fight club, but with occasional use of parliamentary procedural language.

It is a great pleasure to respond to the debate, particularly as the Government have no direct responsibility for parliamentary language. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the language used in Parliament is a matter for Parliament itself, and in this House it is the Chair rather than the Government who has responsibility for ensuring that what is said is in accordance with the rules and conventions of the House. We all rightly respect the Chair, and in responding to the debate I certainly will not be suggesting to you, Mrs Riordan, nor to the Speaker or his Deputies, how they should apply the rules of the House.

Having absolved myself of any responsibility for parliamentary language, I am happy to address the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. It is right that we conduct debates in the House in a courteous and reasonable manner. Although we may profoundly disagree with one another, resorting to personal insult and abuse would demean the institution of Parliament and its Members. “Erskine May” states that

“good temper and moderation are the characteristics of parliamentary language.”

There may be times when those characteristics are not as in evidence as they might be, but we rely on the wisdom and authority of the Chair to set the limits.

Being too prescriptive about terms that are and are not parliamentary is easy. Much depends on the context in which they are used. As the hon. Gentleman may know, pre-1983 editions of “Erskine May” contained lists of terms that had been ruled unparliamentary. The disadvantage, of course, is that unparliamentary use is often more to do with context or the tone with which something is said. Simply having a list is no guarantee against parliamentary abuse by Members.

We have all experienced this, me included: I thought that my language was in good temper and moderation as I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill on freedom of information, during which I did not accuse individual Members, but accused some of perhaps duplicitous behaviour in relation to expenses and a particular Bill, but I was slapped down because my language was deemed bad-tempered and immoderate. I felt that, in those circumstances, the language that I used was appropriate. To codify such things is extremely difficult, as they are not always black and white, which is why it is better for the Chair to judge the factors on a case-by-case basis.

I think that most Members would not want us to go down the Australian route, where a much more colourful turn of phrase is permitted. The terms of endearment that Paul Keating used towards John Howard include “desiccated coconut,” “mangy maggot,” and much worse. I hope most Members would agree that that is not the route we should go down.

The hon. Gentleman referred to arcane language. I understand his point. He said that the arcane language we use is often unnecessary or old-fashioned, but addressing other Members through the Chair provides some distance and perhaps reduces the antagonism that might be felt and, therefore, slightly lowers the temperature of debates, which should be welcomed.

I could talk through the Chair but, none the less, refer to Tom Brake, rather than the right hon. Member for whatever constituency he represents.

Indeed, the hon. Gentleman could. My point is that, by talking through the Chair and referring to other Members as right hon. Gentlemen or right hon. Ladies, we are providing some distance and reducing the temperature, which, except for some rather bad-tempered debates, ensures that good-tempered and moderate language is used in the House.

People might feel that some of the terminology that we use—Adjournment debates, early-day motions, substantive motions and Divisions—do not help the public to engage, but others would argue that at least some members of the public appear to have little difficulty in following parliamentary proceedings on the Parliament channel. They seem to cope with some of that language. Of course, there have been some incremental reforms: we do not refer to the Public Gallery as the Strangers Gallery any more. The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), the new Chair of the Procedure Committee, might have views on such matters and want to consider the question of archaic language.

One point on which the hon. Member for Rhondda was perhaps not entirely correct is that, in this House, we may refer to members of the royal family, the Speaker, members of other Parliaments and judges, provided that there is a substantive motion for the House to debate. In such circumstances, it is perfectly legitimate to debate members of the royal family or other categories, such as senior judges. Again, the fact that that is done through a substantive motion ensures that, for instance, the courts are treated with the respect they should and that there is a strong relationship of trust and respect between the courts and the House.

If, for instance, a member of the royal family is appointed by UK Trade and Investment to adopt an ambassadorial role on behalf of the country and the Government, is it not perfectly appropriate that Members of Parliament should be able to ask questions about the expenditure on their flights, how much it costs for them to travel, whether they have been doing a good job and whether, frankly, they have been a complete and utter embarrassment to the country?

A debate on the hon. Gentleman’s specific points might be possible through a substantive motion, and I will write to him to clarify that.

Finally, time does not allow me to rehearse the 13 June debate on the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, but that debate made something clear: when a serious allegation is made against a Member and provided there is a substantive motion, it is perfectly in order for that debate to take place and for matters contained in the substantive motion to be raised. The only caveat is that there is still a need to maintain good-tempered and moderate language in that debate, so that the genuine, substantive issues contained in the motion can be debated appropriately.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter. I have noted his concerns and will ensure that they are drawn to the attention of, for instance, the new Chair of the Procedure Committee. He raised the specific point about Ministers ensuring that statements are received within 45 minutes, which I will ensure is taken up with Departments.