23/Apr/2014 - Last News Update: 22:39

Has Bercow 'lies' ruling overturned tradition?

Category: Politics

Published: 15th Jun 2012 10:08:45

When he ruled that a Labour MP could accuse with impunity Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt of lying, Commons Speaker John Bercow prompted howls of protest from the Conservative backbenches.

For the wise owls who serve as clerks in the debating chamber, this was the first time in living memory the word "liar" had been deployed and then not forcibly retracted, a spokesman for the Speaker confirmed.

Yet the spokesman stood firm: Mr Bercow had been right, he said, and the clerks had given their full backing to the judgment.

So why have centuries of tradition seemingly been overturned?

The first recorded retraction of a similar accusation in the bible of parliamentary practice, Erskine May, occurred in 1867, in a debate about the suspension of the right to trial by jury in Ireland.

Then MP for Cork John Maguire suggested that "the constitutional liberties of an entire nation" had been withdrawn, eliciting the ire of John Roebuck, then the MP for Sheffield.

"The House [of Commons] has been doing all it could to alleviate the physical, the constitutional, and the moral injuries of Ireland," he said.

How could Mr Maguire "dare to say we are unjust to Ireland", he thundered: "I say that a more foul calumny, a more gigantic falsehood, was never uttered."

A series of points of order from the MP impugned by Mr Roebuck's choice of words prompted then Commons Speaker John Denison, who had been in the job for 10 years, to issue a ruling.

"I wish to ask you, Sir, as the highest authority in this House, is that language consistent with the usages of Parliament?" Mr Maguire demanded.

"Certainly not, if it was addressed to any particular member of this House," the historic response ensued.

This is the basis of the rules that remain in place to this day, which mean that harsh words can be directed in debate towards entire parties or groups of MPs that would be ruled out of order if they targeted an individual MP.

The Speaker subsequently confirmed: "I think the terms used by the honourable and learned gentleman are hardly such as should be used in this House."

The offending MP responded with a deft conditional response that both withdrew the remark and left his audience in no doubt about his true, undiminished point of view.

"I always bow, Sir, to your commands, and if you think that I have said anything but the truth I withdraw the expression," he said.

This provided a blueprint for MPs' future verbal gymnastics, which pushed and thereby defined the limits of acceptable language in debate over the decades.

The MP for Whitby in 1887, Ernest Beckett, was rebuked for accusing a fellow MP of lying.

If he had said "falsehood", Beckett protested, he had meant "concoction"; the latter formulation was allowed to stand.

And in 1915, MP for West Ham South, William Thorne, complained that Sir Alfred Mond, the MP for Swansea Town and boss of a chemical manufacturing company, had been "bleeding the public by the prices you were charging during the War".

Having retorted that this was an "absolute lie", Sir Alfred inadvertently confirmed that to accuse a fellow MP of dishonesty is worse than accusing one of extortion according to the rules of Parliamentary procedure.

These days, when MPs accuse their colleagues of misleading the House, they pre-emptively insert the word "inadvertently" beforehand to avoid censure.

So why was Labour MP Chris Bryant able to describe Mr Hunt as a "liar" in 2012, in spite of all this precedent and much more besides?

The answer, according to the Speaker's spokesman, is that Labour had put down a "substantive motion" which suggested that Mr Hunt had misled Parliament.

On a substantive motion about a member's conduct, the rules are quite different.

An obscure footnote to Erskine May attests that: "The suggestion that a Member is deliberately misleading the House is not parliamentary, and the proper course, if such an allegation is made, is to table the appropriate motion."

The Speaker's spokesman concluded: "The inherent logic of that is that if such a motion is being debated, then making such allegations needs to be in order."

It did not matter that Labour's motion was ambiguous as to whether Mr Hunt had inadvertently or deliberately misled the House, he argued: both possibilities were up for discussion.

Now that this logic has been laid bare, it remains to be seen whether a spate of similar motions will enable MPs to impugn the integrity of their adversaries more frequently.

Source:
BBC News External Link Show Citation

Latest News

Harvard Citation

BBC News, 2012. Has Bercow 'lies' ruling overturned tradition? [Online] (Updated 15th Jun 2012)
Available at: http://www.ukwirednews.com/news/1434850/Has-Bercow-lies-ruling-overturned-tradition [Accessed 23rd Apr 2014]

News In Other Categories

  • Anatomy of the cost of a new drug

    The cost of drugs is in the headlines following the decision by NHS watchdog NICE that a new cancer treatment should not be funded.
  • Apple announces share buyback as earnings rise

    Technology giant Apple reported profits of $10.2bn (£6.1bn) after selling 43.7 million iPhones during the three-month period ending 29 March.
  • Crusaders-Cliftonville league game switched to Solitude

    The Premiership game between Crusaders and Irish League champions Cliftonville on Saturday has been switched from Seaview to Solitude.
  • Apple announces share buyback as earnings rise

    Technology giant Apple reported profits of $10.2bn (£6.1bn) after selling 43.7 million iPhones during the three-month period ending 29 March.
  • Bristol Academy extends reach overseas with first foreign students

    With the doors to its brand new £1million training centre officially open, one of the UK's leading apprentice training providers, Bristol based S&B Automotive Academy, is showcasing its world-class facilities by launching a series of foreign student exchanges for the first time in its 41-year history. To get a flavour of what life is like as an apprentice in the UK, the Academy hosted 16 apprentice engineers and bus drivers from the G9 Automotive College in Hamburg, Germany, as part of a Europe-wide vocational training initiative called the ‘Leonardo Programme’ with support from the European Social Fund. In a reciprocal arrangement, S&B will be sending nine apprentices to Germany during February 2012 so that they can get an appreciation of life in the automotive industry on the Continent. A further three German exchange groups are being planned for next year. Designed to assist the development of vocational skills and training across Europe, including work placements for trainees, the Leonardo Programme has a budget of €1.75bn, which is helping to encourage UK organisations to work with their counterparts abroad. In what is expected to be another challenging year for employers in the UK automotive sector, S&B’s Chief Executive, Jon Winter, claims that the exchange initiative will bring many benefits to the Academy and its apprentices: “In a world of global automotive brands, it’s important for our learners to understand the international context of the industry they have chosen to make their career. This new exchange programme will enable apprentices and Academy staff alike to achieve a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities within the automotive arena in Europe. With the Academy’s influence also extending to the USA and Asia, there’s every possibility that this initiative could move further afield in the future.” Continued Winter: “The need for skilled technicians across the world is on the increase and we actively encourage our apprentices to look at broader horizons during their training. Many of them have already learned the phrase ‘Vorsprung durch Gelehrtheit’, quite simply, ‘Advancement through learning.” In the 2010/11 academic year, S&B doubled the number of successful Apprenticeships over the previous year with some 350 apprentices graduating from the Academy. At the same time, achievement levels reached an all-time high with an overall success rate of 85%. For those learners on the Advanced Apprenticeship three-year programme, success rates were even higher, at over 98%. PHOTO CAPTION: As part of their exchange visit, S&B Automotive Academy arranged for the German apprentices to visit Hampshire bus operator, Bluestar, at its Barton Park depot. The students are pictured with S&B’s Andy West (3rd right) and Steve Prewett, Bluestar’s Area Engineering Manager (2nd right). Ends http://www.sandbaa.com
  • Actress Jodie Foster marries girlfriend

    US actress Jodie Foster has married her girlfriend, Alexandra Hedison, the actress' representative confirms.