Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons Fourth Report



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.


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". We agree.

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 the House.

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 too late.

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.


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 urgency.

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.


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 offenders.

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.


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 follows:

  • 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.

  • Speeches: 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 verbatim.

  • Statements: The same principles of brevity on the part of questioners and of accuracy on the part of Ministers apply equally.

  • Speeches: 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 like this:

    "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 his mind?"

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 in answers.

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