Use of unparliamentary language

Written evidence submitted by the Clerk of the House of Commons (P 19, 2012–13)

Unparliamentary language

1. I understand that the Procedure Committee has been invited to consider the rules on the use of unparliamentary language, in particular the circumstances in which some words or phrases which are not normally permitted in the course of debate may be permitted.

2. In accordance with a previous Procedure Committee’s recommendations, the Speaker now makes a statement on the opening day of a session before the commencement of the Queen’s Speech debate. On 9 May 2012, Mr Speaker Bercow said-

"Freedom of speech in debate is at the very heart of what we do here for our constituents, and it allows us to conduct our business without fear of outside interference. But it is a freedom that we need to exercise responsibly in the public interest and taking into account the interests of others outside this House. [...]We should ensure that every Member is heard courteously, regardless of the views that he or she is expressing. [...] Every member of the public has a right to expect that his or her Member of Parliament will behave with civility, in the best traditions of fairness, with the highest level of probity and with integrity."

3. In February 2003, Mr Speaker Martin wrote to all Members reminding them of the conventions and courtesies of the House. The current version of that guidance is published as Commons Briefing Note 12: and includes this passage:

Parliamentary language

17. You should always bear in mind Erskine May’s advice in ‘Parliamentary Practice’ that "good temper and moderation are the characteristics of parliamentary language".

18. There is no hard and fast list of unparliamentary words. Whether something said is a breach of order depends on the context. The Speaker deprecates personal remarks about other Members. Any abusive or insulting language used in debate will be required to be withdrawn immediately. Accusations of deliberate falsehood, if seriously alleged, would be a matter of privilege and could be made only on a substantive motion secured by writing privately to the Speaker to obtain permission to raise a matter of privilege. Any such accusation made in the course of other proceedings would be disorderly and must be withdrawn.

4. The text of Erskine May’s Parliamentary Practice has been revised over many editions since that work first appeared in 1844; but my predecessor Sir Malcolm Jack who edited the current (24th) edition) preserved the classic formulation set out in Sir Gilbert -later Lord-Campion’s (14th) edition in 1946-

Good temper and moderation are the characteristics of parliamentary language.

Parliamentary language is never more desirable than when an Member is

canvassing the opinions and conduct of his opponents in debate.

5. May (24th edition, page 444) explains that, in order to guard against "all appearance of personality in debate", no Member should refer to another by name. That is why we have an ancient practice of always addressing the Chair, and Members referring to other Members by the office they hold, by the place they represent or by another designation, such as ‘the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs’, ‘the (right) honourable Member for York’, or ‘the honourable Member who has just sat down’. These conventional courtesies cannot be rigidly enforced by having the Chair intervene upon every breach of the niceties; but my experience over 40 years of serving the House and of eleven Parliaments is that there is a widespread understanding amongst Members of the value and good sense of the practice.

6. Journalists sometimes affect to find parliamentary language, and the rules on unparliamentary language, arcane; but viewers of our webcasts and satellite/cable channel, or readers of Hansard online or in hard copy, have no problem in following the debates in either House or in Westminster Hall.

7. The basic rule set out in Erskine May (24th edition, pages 443-444) is that "Unless the discussion is based upon a substantive motion, drawn in proper terms, reflections must not be cast in debate upon the conduct of the Sovereign, the heir to the throne, or other members of the royal family, the Lord Chancellor, the Governor-General of an independent territory, the Speaker, the Chairman of Ways and Means, Members of either House of Parliament, or judges of the superior courts of the United Kingdom, including persons holding the position of a judge, such as circuit judges and their deputies, as well as recorders" .

8. In other words, it would be in order-but only on a substantive motion drawn in proper terms-to criticise the conduct of a judge, someone in the Royal Family, or a Member of either House of Parliament, in strong and direct terms.

9. The Speaker has ruled that a Member who intends to mention another Member’s name in a debate should inform the other Member; this is not necessary if the Member is present in the Chamber.

10. Expressions which are unparliamentary and which normally call for prompt intervention from the Chair include:

(1) the imputation of false or unavowed motives;

(2) the misrepresentation of the language of another and the accusation of misrepresentation;

(3) charges of uttering a deliberate falsehood;

(4) abusive and insulting language of a nature likely to create disorder.

11. The Speaker has said in this connection that whether a word should be regarded as unparliamentary depends on the context in which it is used.

12. Expressions are still unparliamentary even when based on a quotation from elsewhere; one cannot make something orderly by putting it in the mouth of another.

13. The formal disciplinary powers of the Chair seldom need to be invoked: the Speaker or a Deputy Speaker has the authority to require a Member to withdraw remarks, to discontinue a speech, or to leave the Chamber for the rest of that day’s sitting. Where that is not sufficient, or a Member refuses to comply with the Chair’s requirement, the Speaker or Deputy Speaker may "name" a Member or, in the most serious cases of grave disorder, the Chair may suspend the sitting. If a Member is named, it is the responsibility of the senior Member present on the Government front-bench instantly to move "That the Member for be suspended from the service of the House". That Question is put forthwith without debate and of course the House normally supports the Chair without a vote. To divide upon such a Motion naturally reflects upon the authority of the Chair.

14. The incidence of "naming" has fluctuated over the years; such theatrical defiance of the Chair, resulting in suspension without pay for least a week, may appear to have gone out of fashion-but the powers of the Chair are unchanged.

15. To take a notorious example of a debate on a Member’s conduct, on 20 June 1963 the House considered a substantive Motion as follows: "That Mr. John Profumo, in making a personal statement to this House on 22nd March, 1963, which contained words which he later admitted not to be true, was guilty of a grave contempt of this House". In that debate, Mr Sydney Silverman said-

Nobody ever thought that for a man making a personal statement in the House of Commons to tell a deliberate lie was anything other than this Motion describes it to be.

Incidentally, during that debate, another Member began to make allegations against the Home Secretary. The Speaker made the following ruling:

Mr. Speaker: Is the hon. Member making a personal charge of dishonesty against another hon. Member? He cannot do it on this Motion.

The reason was, of course, that the Motion did not refer to the conduct of the Home Secretary.

16. Members may resort to paraphrase, as in this example from 21 February 1984:

Mr. Dalyell: Is it the submarine commander or the Prime Minister who is lying?

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Member must not use that word. I am sure that he will rephrase that final comment.

Mr. Dalyell: Is it the submarine commander or the Prime Minister who is telling the truth?

17. In conclusion, then: context is important. It is almost always out of order, for example, to allege in debate that another hon Member has lied to the House. Such an allegation, however regrettable it may be as a lapse of good temper and moderation, could nevertheless be in order provided that the substantive Motion before the House concerned the truthfulness of the hon Member against whom the accusation was made.

18. But because something is strictly in order does not mean that the House will hear it with equanimity. The Chair does not generally intervene on matters of taste, but Members may take a collective view; and I have from time to time seen an individual Member, by the way he expressed himself, damage himself more in the estimation of the House than he damaged the target of his accusation.

19. It is not very sensible in my view to return to the "taboo" list of supposedly naughty words. On the one hand this would ignore the all-important issue of context; and on the other it would provide perhaps irresistible temptation to some.

20. There are issues of habit and culture which are broader than those of order. Accusations of hypocrisy, double standards or misleading on the part of a political party or a group of Members-often in high-profile proceedings-do not attract the intervention of the Chair, but they are at best unedifying, and they are often heard. As the House continues its recovery from the plunge in public esteem which it suffered in the 2009 expenses crisis, I would suggest that Members might reflect on the risk that the language they use about each other may tend to lessen the respect of the public for the most important institution in our democracy.

21. What is absolutely invaluable is the capacity of the House to remain "a safe place for an argument", however difficult or contentious that argument may be. Only very seldom do those arguments necessarily have to focus on a Question before the House of the truthfulness of an hon. Member.

Robert Rogers

Clerk of the House of Commons

25 June 2012

Prepared 20th July 2012