Point of Order

– in the House of Commons at 2:33 pm on 19 February 2019.

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield 2:33, 19 February 2019

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Many Members regard parliamentary privilege—that we can say things in the House that people cannot take action against—as the greatest privilege, but a small minority of Members seem to use privilege more regularly to attack either colleagues in the House or people outside. Today, during the urgent question on the Northern Ireland backstop, two Members went for a senior civil servant, Olly Robbins, saying things about him, his reputation and his character that were quite indefensible. I know that Members on both sides of the House have thoughts about such remarks about senior civil servants, who cannot answer back and have no recourse. Is there any way that you could look into how a small minority of people are using parliamentary privilege in a way for which it was not designed?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion Committee, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Chair, Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion Committee

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order, and I will make several points in response. First, Members should exercise their parliamentary privilege with due care and a sense of responsibility. Secondly, immoderate language, not merely in relation to subject matter but more particularly in relation to people, is frankly to be deprecated. Thirdly, we should observe the precepts of “Erskine May” in the conduct of parliamentary debate.

I do not recall off the top of my head whether the hon. Gentleman was present in his seat when I treated earlier of this matter in response to a timely point of order from Mr Clarke, who of course is also the Father of the House and who similarly took exception to some of what was said. I did not intercede at the time for there was no direct breach of parliamentary protocol. There was nothing specifically disorderly about what was said, but I did think that there was an issue, at the very least, of taste, and I think I did refer to the coarsening and vulgarisation of debate, which we should take care to avoid.

More particularly in relation to what Mr Sheerman says about civil servants, although each Member must of course take responsibility for what he or she says in this place, we must remember that such individuals are not in a position to respond. They cannot speak for themselves with a public voice, other than very specifically on behalf of their ministerial bosses. Many people will feel that it is inappropriate to launch personal ad hominem attacks on public servants. What we say to each other is a bit different, but great care and responsibility should be exercised in relation to such career officials. I am sorry that there have been departures from that principle in recent times, and I hope they will not be repeated.