Parliamentary Language

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:00 pm on 17th October 2012.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 5:00 pm, 17th October 2012

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 MinisterMr 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.”—[Hansard, 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”.