CONDUCT IN THE CHAMBER
PRECEDENCE FOR PRIVY COUNCILLORS
25. The practice of the House
of Commons in determining precedence in speaking differs greatly
from that of many other Parliaments where the order of speaking
is largely determined by party machinery. As in so many other
cases, the House is content to leave the matter completely to
the discretion of the Speaker, whose only guidance is the rather
broad statement of practice set out in Erskine May (pp. 373-4):
"When two or more Members
rise to speak the Speaker has complete discretion over whom to
call though he will generally call alternately backbench Members
from either side of the House (or, when the subject of debate
is not a matter of party politics, from those whom he adjudges
to be supporters or opponents of the questions). Although it
is customary for a Privy Counsellor to be called when he rises,
this is not a matter of right, and of recent years the Chair has
declined to call two consecutive Privy Counsellors from the same
side of the House. Members of the front benches are normally
given precedence over those on the backbenches".
26. In line with the recommendations
we have made about short speeches, we believe that the discretion
entrusted to the Speaker should be completely unfettered by precedent,
and that no special precedence need be given to Privy Councillors
other than to those speaking from the front benches. The only
criteria which should guide her choice of speakers and the order
in which they speak need be the proper balance between the two
sides of the House (or between supporters or opponents of the
questions under discussion); the rights of minority parties; and
the qualifications of Members to speak on the subject under discussion.
(It is of course easier for the Speaker to form a judgment of
Members' qualifications to speak if they write to her to indicate
that they wish to speak to a matter under debate, and why.)
27. There will be of course occasions
when a Privy Councillor has a good case for being called, not
simply because he or she is a Privy Councillor, but for some other
reason. He or she may be Chairman of the appropriate Select Committee
or party committee, or may formerly have been the Minister responsible
for the policy being debated. All other Members, senior and new,
may have equally good claims to be called, whether for constituency
reasons, expertise on the subject perhaps acquired before coming
to the House, or on some other grounds. The essential point which
we cannot stress too strongly is that the Speaker must have freedom
to regard all Members as equal. In so far as she or her predecessors
have felt obliged to follow the guidance set out in the current
edition of Erskine May, there has not been such absolute freedom.
Henceforth there should be.
28. We therefore recommend
that the Speaker need be under no obligation to give any precedence
to Privy Councillors in debate. We do not regard it as necessary
for the House to pass any specific resolution to this effect;
the simple act of adopting this Report will suffice.
WITH THE HOUSE OF LORDS
29. We strongly support the present
practice in which each House treats the other with complete respect.
As Erskine May puts it (p.382), "Offensive expressions against
the character and conduct of Parliament itself are not permitted
....If directed against the other House, and passed over without
censure, they would appear to implicate one House in discourtesy
to the other, though criticism of the role and functions of the
other House is in order ... It is most important that the use
of offensive words should be immediately reproved in order to
avoid complaints and dissensions between the two Houses".
30. We equally support the present
rule under which reflections must not be cast in debate upon the
conduct of a Member of the House of Lords except on a substantive
motion drawn in proper terms which allow a distinct decision of
31. There is, however, one rule
affecting relations with the House of Lords which seems to us
neither logical nor necessary. At present, again to quote Erskine
May (pp.380-1), "The content of a speech made in the House
of Lords in the current session may be summarised, but it is out
of order to quote from it unless it is a speech of or a statement
by a Minister in relation to Government policy". The alleged
justification for this rule is that it "prevents fruitless
arguments between Members or two distinct bodies who are unable
to reply to each other, and guards against recrimination and offensive
language in the absence of the other party".
32. This argument is indeed a
justification for the general rule regarding respect for Members
of the House of Lords which we endorse but is no sort of justification
for this particular rule when all that the Member is normally
trying to do is to utilise the words of a Member of the House
of Lords to support his own argument. The rule is often difficult
for the Chair to enforce, since it is not always easy immediately
to be certain that the Member is quoting rather than summarising,
that the Peer in question is not a member of the Government, and
that the debate quoted from took place in the current session.
By the time the facts have been established, it is generally
33. We therefore recommend
that the rule banning direct quotation from speeches made in the
House of Lords in the current session should be abolished. The
House of Lords itself has a similar rule in relation to speeches
in the House of Commons; it will be for the Procedure Committee
of the House of Lords to take note of our recommendation, if agreed
to by the House, and to decide whether to proceed on similar lines.
34. If Members refer to a Peer
by name in the course of their speech, they normally use the formula
'the noble Lord, Lord X'. We consider that the shorter form,
'Lord X', should be equally acceptable.
35. Members in debate frequently
refer to the House of Lords as "the other place" or
"another place". This custom presumably was intended
to deter any Member from addressing any derogatory reference specifically
to the House of Lords. We are convinced that this practice is
totally unnecessary and only serves to confuse the public at large.
It should henceforth be perfectly permissible to refer to the
House of Lords directly, provided of course that the reference
is in courteous terms; although we accept that some Members may
prefer to retain the older usage in their own speeches.
MODE OF ADDRESS
36. "In order to guard against
all appearance of personality in debate no Member should refer
to another by name" (May p.386). Equally Members must address
the Speaker and not direct their speeches to the House or to any
party on either side of the House.
37. No one has suggested any
change in the latter rule, but it is nonetheless one which is
frequently broken, mainly but not exclusively by new Members.
We cannot emphasise too strongly its importance. As the
Deputy Speaker succinctly explained in the House on 1 December
both to a new Member and to a Member who had been in the House
for some years, "The conventions exist precisely so that
we do not lose our tempers and get carried away". It is
not a difficult rule to understand and to observe, and we trust
that all Members will in future observe the rule that all speeches
must be addressed to the Chair.
38. There are some who feel that
the need to refer to other Members by their constituencies is
both difficult and unnecessary, and that use of names would be
more fitting in a modern Parliament. We disagree. While it is
indeed difficult in a new Parliament to learn every Member's constituency,
let alone remember that some Members have differently named or
different constituencies, it is equally difficult to learn a series
of new names and faces.
39. Quite apart from the practicalities
there is, however, a much more important point of principle.
Members do not sit in the House as individual citizens, they are
there as representatives of their constituents; and it is in that
capacity that they should be addressed. We therefore do not recommend
any major change in the way in which Members are addressed. It
is, however, in our view essential that the constituency as
well as the name of the Member who has the floor should be displayed
on annunciators which are visible in the Chamber, and we so recommend.
Responsibility for detailed arrangements lies with the Information
Committee, and we ask them to put this in hand as a matter of
40. We are, however, perfectly
content that some of the extra embellishments which are added
to the standard form of address, such as "gallant" and
"learned", should be abandoned. They are in any case
largely falling into disuse in the case of "gallant",
since no Member of the present House holds a gallantry award,
or misused in the case of "learned".
41. There remains the distinction
between "honourable" and "right honourable",
which is properly used when referring to Privy Councillors. There
are those who feel that all Members are equal and that there should
be no distinction drawn between them in oral forms of address,
as opposed to written communication. There are others who feel
that membership of the Privy Council should be recognised by the
House. We believe that this is a matter which can be left to
the common sense of Members.
WHEN NOT SPEAKING
42. The current rules in relation
to silence, which are more often honoured in the breach than in
the observance, are described on page 391 of Erskine May: "Members
must not disturb a Member who is speaking by hissing, chanting,
clapping, booing, exclamations or other interruption". By
contrast, "when not uttered till the end of a sentence, the
cry of 'hear, hear,' offers no interruption of the speech".
Several new Members, while accepting that interruptions of the
sort described are not permissible, have indicated that they find
it incomprehensible that it is not in order to clap at the end
of a speech, a practice which is commonplace in other gatherings
and indeed in other Parliaments.
43. While we agree that spontaneous
clapping at the end of a speech could in no way be interpreted
as disturbance of the speaker, there is a danger that such a practice
might be open to abuse and could lead in certain circumstances
to orchestration of what would amount to standing ovations with
the success or failure of a speech being judged not by its content
but by the relative length of the ovation at the end. This might
not disrupt an individual speech, but would disrupt the tenor
of the debate, as indeed would slow handclapping. At the same
time we condemn the growing misuse of the traditional cry of "hear,
hear" and in particular the recent practice of unnecessary
noise of this kind from both sides which has routinely accompanied
the entrance of the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition
before Prime Minister's Questions. Such noise serves no useful
purpose and is grossly unfair to the Member who is currently trying
to ask a question and to the Minister who is replying.
44. Members who read-or who appear
to be reading-their speeches or supplementary questions are sometimes
barracked with cries of "Reading!". Whilst we do not
favour the reading of speeches, we believe that barracking Members
for excessive use of notes is counter-productive.
45. Erskine May (page 390) makes
it quite clear that Members entering or leaving the Chamber during
a debate must acknowledge the Chair when so doing. This is a
simple matter of common courtesy. May also makes it clear that
Members must not pass between the Chair and the Member speaking.
To do so is not merely discourteous but also disruptive of the
flow of debate, since it has the effect of "shutting out"
the Member who is addressing the House. Members who wish to enter
or leave the House should either find another route to or from
their place, or wait at the bar or behind the Chair until the
Member who is speaking has resumed his seat. Regrettably these
rules are far too often ignored. We would expect Members to observe
them in future, and we would look to the Chair to rebuke offenders.
46. There is a particular problem
of noise and disturbance when a well-attended item of business
in the Chamber is followed by one which is of concern to a much
smaller number of Members, for example, when the half-hour adjournment
debate comes on immediately after a major division, or when Prime
Minister's Questions are followed by a ten-minute rule bill.
In such circumstances Members leaving the Chamber should, in fairness
to the Member who is to initiate the next item of business, do
so quickly and above all quietly. As the House fills up before
a division loud conversations behind the Chair and beyond the
bar can also have a disruptive effect on the debate in progress.
We ask Members to show greater consideration for those of their
colleagues who have an interest in the business in the Chamber.
47. It is essential for the good
name of the House that the rules governing behaviour in the Chamber
should be upheld, and we expect the House to support the Speaker
in admonishing seriously any Member who persistently offends.
More frequently, though, offences are committed not by individual
Members but by large numbers. In these cases it cannot be left
to the Speaker alone to uphold acceptable standards of behaviour;
the responsibility must be assumed by the parliamentary parties,
acting through their chairmen and through the Whips. We call
upon them to take concerted action without delay to improve standards
in all parts of the House.
48. We can, and do, simply reiterate
the need to observe the courtesies we have described
in the foregoing sections of
this Report, but that is we fear unlikely to be sufficient. If
they are to be properly observed, it is necessary to deter potential
49. We deal later in this Report
with the sanctions currently available for dealing with Members
whose conduct is grossly disorderly. Clearly these penalties
are not appropriate to Members who are simply discourteous, and
some other remedy is needed. We recommend that the Speaker
should inform a Member who has failed to observe the courtesies
of debate that he or she need not expect to get priority in being
called to speak.
THE USE OF
50. There is a good deal of confusion
among Members about the rules relating to the use of quotations,
not least because different rules apply to different matters and
in some cases to different categories of Members. For the benefit
of the whole House it is worth explaining in simple terms what
the existing rules are and their purpose. We go on to suggest
one change to the existing rules. (We have already in paragraph
33 recommended a modification to the rule about quotations from
speeches in the House of Lords in the current session.)
51. The present rules are as
- Question time:
It is not in order for a Member to quote from a speech or document
at Question time. However a footnote in Erskine May makes it
clear that this rule does not apply to Ministerial replies (May,
p.305, footnote 1).
- Statements: This
rule does not apply to questions arising out of statements, but
has been called in aid by the Chair in the interests of brevity.
A Member is allowed to read extracts from documents, but such
extracts and quotations must be reasonably short (May, p.372).
52. The underlying principles
behind these rules are as follows:
- Question time: As
we state quite clearly in another section of this Report, the
keynote of Question time should be short questions and answers.
Quotations tend potentially to lengthen questions. For Ministers,
the essential requirement is to give accurate information; in
some cases this may require a document or speech to be quoted
The same principles of brevity on the part of questioners and
of accuracy on the part of Ministers apply equally.
We have emphasised throughout this Report that debate should be
characterised by informality and spontaneity. The give and take
of debate is as much undermined by lengthy quotations as it is
by a refusal to allow interventions. The passage in May we have
already referred to explicitly states that the rule prohibiting
long quotations is to maintain the cut and thrust of debate.
53. In general the existing rules
seem to us sensible and designed to bring about the style of debate
we have sought to encourage. We do, however, think that there
is scope for some relaxation in the absolute barring of quotations
in supplementary questions as opposed to answers. In particular
it seems an unnecessary aggravation to backbenchers that there
should be one rule for Ministers and quite another for all other
Members. Of course Ministers must give accurate information,
but so equally must Members ask accurate questions. Of course
Members must ask brief questions, but so equally must Ministers
give brief replies. The use of brief quotations, whether in questions
or answers, emphasises accuracy without sacrificing brevity.
A succinct quotation would be both shorter and more accurate than
a laborious paraphrase. We see no objection whatever to a question
"Last April the Minister
said "The new proposals on x would be introduced in June".
Last week he said "It would be quite wrong to introduce
the new proposals on x before September". Why has he changed
Such a question would be both
a good deal shorter than most of those now asked, and would make
it more difficult for the Minister to avoid answering it.
54. We therefore recommend
that the absolute ban on direct quotations in supplementary questions
should be lifted. The Speaker should, however, in accordance
with the principles we lay down later in this Report, have no
hesitation in stopping lengthy quotations, both in questions and