50. The Leader of the House suggested that the House
should implement a rule "similar to that on its relations
with the House of Lords which bars offensive expressions about
the other House and permits criticism of its Members only on a
Members of the House of Lords are not alone in that they can only
be criticised on a substantive motion; in general, the prohibition
on criticism in debate applies either to those involved in Parliament
(the Speaker, the Chairman of Ways and Means, the Lord Chancellor,
Members of either House) or to those whose constitutional position
prevents them from defending themselves (the judiciary, Members
of the Royal Family). Members of the devolved legislatures fall
into neither of these categories. The House of Lords refrains
from criticism of the Commons; Mr Maxton, who was most supportive
of the Leader's proposal, also believed the devolved legislatures
should refrain from criticism of Westminster.
We think this unlikely, nor would we wish to curtail their freedom
of speech in such a way.
51. The Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege
"Freedom of Speech is central to Parliament's
role. Members must be able to speak and criticise without fear
of penalty. This is fundamental to the effective working of Parliament".
It has often been said that Members should use their
freedom of speech responsibly, and should not lightly criticise
those who are unable to reply, but the need for freedom of speech
has been held to be more pressing than formal rules to ensure
it cannot be abused.
Members of the devolved legislatures have been given statutory
protection against defamation proceedings in respect of their
words in Parliament or Assembly. Mr Atkinson drew a clear distinction
between attack "on grounds of competence on a political level",
which would be unexceptionable, and attack at a personal level,
which was objectionable. We draw this distinction to Members'
attention and agree that "people should not make widespread
personal attacks on each other under the guise of privilege".
The House can, of course, rely on the Speaker and her deputies
to use the discretion of the Chair in support of this principle.
However, this is a general principle; we are reluctant to restrict
the freedom of speech of Parliament by giving Members of the devolved
legislatures greater protection than that available to members
of the public at large, or other politicians, such as local councillors.
52. In addition, we suspect the Leader of the House's
proposal might have precisely the opposite effect to that intended.
The existing restrictions on criticising certain categories of
people work because the House implicitly assents to those rules,
and Members rarely wish to indulge in such criticism. We trust
that the devolved legislatures and the United Kingdom Parliament
will operate in a climate of mutual respect. However, to forbid
criticism in passing on the floor of the House would, in our view,
make the tabling of substantive criticism in an Early Day Motion
(EDM) more likely. Since such EDMs are likely to receive extensive
publicity, a rule that criticism had to be made by EDM could make
harmonious relations more, not less, difficult to achieve.
Access to Precincts
53. The Leader of the House suggested that Members
of the devolved legislatures could be given access to the precincts.
We consulted the Administration Committee about this; and their
reply is printed with our evidence.
They are concerned about the numbers involved, and about the extent
to which arrangements at Westminster would be reciprocated by
the devolved legislatures. We believe that access to the precincts
is properly a matter for the Administration Committee and are
content to await their decision.
85 HC (1998-99) 148, Appendix 1, paragraph 16. See
also QQ 265-266. Back
(1998-99) 214-I; HL (1998-99) 43-I. Back
it has been said a privilege which cannot be abused is no privilege;
Rt Hon Enoch Powell, HC Deb, 2 May 1978, c44. Back
p 141. Back