Asperity of speech

by Nick

Imagine that you are a peer in the House of Lords. Another peer stands up in the chamber and says something that you feel is inappropriate. What do you do?

If this was the House of Commons, the Speaker would judge whether what was said was out of order, and intervene if it was. However, the House of Lords is self-regulating. There is no concept of “out of order” (the equivalent phrase is “undesirable”), and the Lords Speaker has no power to judge what is undesirable or to take action as a result. Instead this is the responsibility of the entire House.

So as an offended peer, it is up to you to draw the House’s attention to what has been said, and to use the right procedures to deal with it. If you are both offended and well-versed in parliamentary procedure, then you will remember the House’s Standing Order on Asperity of Speech.

This is one of a number of orders that have been agreed by the House over the centuries as a way of managing their business. This particular standing order – currently number 33 in a list of 86 – is one of the oldest, and dates back to 1626. It has its origins in an incident on 12 June in the Lords Committee for the Safety and Defence of the Kingdom, which was so shocking that the Lords Journal does not report it:

That an Accident happened at that Committee, of some Sharpness of Speech between two Lords; which the Committee thought fit to be reported to the House, that an Order might be settled, to avoid all Asperity of Speech at Committees hereafter.

The House thought it not fit to have the Words related, or the Lords named between whom they past; but referred it to the Lords Sub-committees for Privileges to set down an Order to prevent the like hereafter.

It is worth noting, though, that the Committee was considering Charles I’s requests for new supply amidst calls in the Commons for the duke of Buckingham to be impeached – and that Charles had alienated much of the Commons and the Lords in doing so. Whichever two peers were quarreling, it came only a few days before Charles dissolved Parliament altogether, so ‘sharpness of speech’ is probably a rather muted description of what was said.

The Lords Committee for Privileges came up with the following standing order in response:

To prevent misunderstanding, and for avoiding of offensive speeches, when matters are debating, either in the House or at Committees, it is for honour sake thought fit, and so ordered, That all personal, sharp, or taxing speeches be forborn, and whosoever answereth another man’s speech shall apply his answer to the matter without wrong to the person: and as nothing offensive is to be spoken, so nothing is to be ill taken, if the party that speaks it shall presently make a fair exposition or clear denial of the words that might bear any ill construction; and if any offence be given in that kind, as the House itself will be very sensible thereof, so it will sharply censure the offender, and give the party offended a fit reparation and a full satisfaction.

In other words, clarify what you said or take it back and apologise. Note that you should not actually stand up and read this standing order. You have to move that the order be read by the clerk, and this motion is debatable. It’s this debate that gives you your chance to challenge the offending peer. It is, however, a nuclear option to be used with care: as far as I can tell, there have only been five times in the last 200 years or so at which it has been debated.

In 1833, during Third Reading of the Local Jurisdiction Bill, Lord Wynford attacked the Bill but was accused by Lord Brougham (the Lord Chancellor) of getting his facts wrong. Wynford objected strongly:

I have submitted to this for a long time, but I will not be held up to ridicule in this way any longer. [Cries of “order.”]

The reading of the order did prompt an apology of sorts from Brougham, although he was able to use the wording of the order to supply his own ammunition:

The Lord Chancellor would confine himself, as far as modern usages would permit (for modern practice had somewhat modified it), to this order, and would avoid most carefully the example set by the other side, of making offensive, sharp, and taxing speeches. He trusted, that while he complied with one of the exigencies of the order, his noble and learned friend would comply with the other exigency, namely, that as “nothing offensive is to be spoken, so nothing is to be ill-taken.”

The next seems to have been in 1871, when the Earl Granville described some remarks made by Lord Oranmore and Browne as impertinent. Asked to withdraw his remark, Granville came back with this gem:

I am not unwilling to withdraw the word ‘impertinent;’ but I must say it was not pertinent.

Oranmore came back on another day and moved that the standing order be read, then addressed his objections to Granville:

Having used the strongest and most offensive expression that could be used—one that would not be permitted in any private society of gentlemen—I ask your Lordships is it becoming to use it in your Lordships House? I hope the noble Earl will not hesitate to state that he withdraws the word “impertinent,” as applied to anything I said, and which I submit he is called upon to do.

A year later the standing order was read again during Committee stage of the Parliamentary and Municipal Elections Bill, which proposed creation of a secret ballot. Many peers objected to the creation of culture of secrecy in elections, and the Duke of Richmond, who was leader of the Conservative Opposition in the Lords, led criticism of the Bill. The debate became very heated, and the Earl Granville accused the Opposition of wanting to wreck the Bill:

Noble Lords opposite are so accustomed to have their own way in matters of this sort, that they cannot conceive any course being taken except for us to vote and be beaten on every Amendment they propose.

The Marquess of Clanricarde objected and moved that the order on asperity of speech be read, which the clerk duly did. Outside observers do not seem to have been impressed. Here is the Spectator:

In a burst of petulant discontent, they tore the Ballot Bill to fragments, and then, excited by their achievement, danced a war dance over its remains, flourishing their tomahawks at each other, till Lord Clanricarde, of all human beings, was obliged to recall them to decorum and sense by asking the Clerk to read a sort of private Riot Act, which the Peers, it would seem, keep up to prevent themselves from becoming too disorderly.

The next occasion the order came up was in 1950, when in a debate on “communists in public service”, Lord Vansittart criticised the Bishop of Bradford for writing a pamphlet in which he was alleged to have argued that Soviet Russia was spreading Christ’s message, and described a socialist vicar as a potential killer. The Bishop was not in the chamber at the time, and a couple of months later Viscount Stansgate moved that a motion of regret be agreed:

That this House, ever jealously regarding the Privilege of Parliament, is no less zealous to provide against its abuse, and regrets that the Lord Vansittart, in the speech which he made in this House on March 29 last, did not use due care in the exercise of the Privilege of Parliament.

The Marquess of Exeter intervened to move that the standing order on asperity of speech be read instead, anticipating an ill-tempered debate. Stansgate focused in particular on the accusations against the socialist vicar:

I am not a lawyer, but I cannot imagine a grosser criminal libel against any man. Yet we are asked (for we are all judges—we are all sitting Speaker to-day) to give the privilege of Parliament to the noble Lord in the use of words of that kind against a man with whose political opinions and beliefs most of us in this House disagree.

The Bishop of Bradford also weighed in against Vansittart with some choice words:

The fact of the matter is that if you disagree with the noble Lord you must expect some epithets quite soon, and the fact that they may be mutually contradictory epithets does not matter. I should like to end by suggesting that before he next selects his epithets, the noble Lord should ask himself rather carefully whether they do not come under the ban of the Ninth Commandment.

Vansittart was not restrained in his response:

Well, the noble Viscount has come out and called me, in the most ostentatious manner, the equivalent of a liar. I shall, of course, retort to that by saying that by so doing he has taken his ticket and labelled himself as a fellow passenger of fellow-travellers.

Viscount Addison, the Leader of the House, eventually intervened to ask that Viscount Stansgate not pursue his original motion, using a procedural device of a question on whether Stansgate’s motion should be moved:

There is no Speaker. We rule ourselves. We rule by the good will and common consent of every individual Peer, and we have no other rule. I think that that is one of the reasons why the debates of this House are so highly esteemed. Therefore the careful refraining from any misuse of our privileges is, I think, a stern duty that falls upon every one of us… With the greatest possible respect to my noble friend Viscount Stansgate, whom I have known and loved for forty years, I am going to ask him not to press his Motion. I want this House to shut this business down.

Stansgate was unrepentant:

My Lords, we Nonconformists have a hymn: Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone. That is what I propose to do.

The House then divided on the question of whether Viscount Stansgate’s motion should be put, but a majority disagreed – so neither Stansgate’s motion nor the standing order were agreed or read.

The last time the order was actually read was in 1998, during a debate on the Teaching and Higher Education Bill. Amongst other things, this Bill established the current system of student loans. Lord Whitty, the Government Whip leading the Bill in the Lords, accused a number of peers of hypocrisy in purporting to represent students’ views. The Earl Russell – appropriately enough, given his life outside the Lords as a historian of the seventeenth century – moved that the order be read. On this occasion it wasn’t debated but immediately pushed to a division, which was passed by 169 votes to 98. The clerk then read the order.

Immediately afterwards, Lord Richard – who was the Leader of the House – suggested that the House adjourn for a short break. This is the Parliamentary equivalent of a pub landlord saying “come on mate, you’ve had a good night but it’s time to go home”. When proceedings resumed, Lord Whitty clarified that he had not intended any personal attack by what he had said, and the House got on with the business before it.