Select Committee on Procedure Fourth Report


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 substantive motion".[85] 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.[86] 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 recently stated:

"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".[87]

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.[88] 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".[89] 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.[90] 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
86  QQ 186-191. Back
87  HC (1998-99) 214-I; HL (1998-99) 43-I. Back
88  Indeed, it has been said a privilege which cannot be abused is no privilege; Rt Hon Enoch Powell, HC Deb, 2 May 1978, c44. Back
89  Q 38. Back
90  Evidence p 141. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 24 May 1999