Beyond the Pale

Ian Liddell Grainger’s repeated abuse of Parliamentary protocol has finally come to a head. Liddell Grainger is like an itchy scab. He simply cannot help himself and he returns to scratch it time and time again. He represents a geographically large constituency running from Exmoor to Bridgwater with lots of interest and lots of local issues to deal with. Yet if his Parliamentary utterances are anything to go by, we assume he has little interest in Bridgwater and West Somerset.

Instead the records of Hansard over the past couple of years are full of Liddell Grainger’s interventions on matters arising in the neighbouring constituency of Taunton Deane (though his latest outburst also took in Marcus Fysh’s constituency of Yeovil).

As we have repeatedly reported in the past, Parliamentary protocol requires a member not to comment on matters in another member’s constituency. This time it seems even the mild mannered Rebecca Pow, MP for Taunton Deane, has had enough.

It all started with a Liddell Grainger special which Hansard reports as follows:

Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater and West Somerset

Can we have a debate on house building companies? Recently, based on inside information on a route going from Taunton down to Ilminster, Persimmon paid £16 million for a speculative development. That has been in conjunction, I suspect, with the local council and a well-known estate agent who was caught price-fixing. We need to ensure that when organisations have privileged information, it is not used for other means. The Secretary of State for Transport is being dragged into this tomorrow. It is not a happy situation. Can we have time to debate it?

The reply from the Leader of the House is interesting. Again I shall leave it to Hansard:

Andrea Leadsom Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

I have chatted to our hon. Friend Rebecca Pow, who has been pleased to tell me about some of the excellent infrastructure projects that she has campaigned for in her wonderful constituency, including the upgrade of the Toneway at Creech Castle, the upgrade of the A358, the Staplegrove spine road and the upgrade of Taunton rail station, on which work is beginning now. Our hon. Friend is delighted with the efforts that she and others are making to improve Taunton Deane. I am sure that my hon. Friend Mr Liddell-Grainger has given you, Mr Speaker, and my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane prior notice of his intention to raise her constituency in this place.

When she says “I am sure” you can probably guess that she is hinting that she is pretty damned certain, having already checked with the MP for Taunton Deane, that in fact no such prior notice had been given. It rather looks from here as if courtesy is something that the MP for Bridgwater expects to receive rather than to give. It probably comes from being a direct descendant of Queen Victoria. He’d send a gunboat to Taunton Deane if only the damn place wasn’t landlocked…

But now we move on to Parliament and the next speaker who was in fact the Speaker. Hansard again:

John Bercow Speaker of the House of Commons

Well, I am not aware that that is so today, though I speak with care. The Leader of the House is quite right to say that if a Member intends to refer to another Member’s constituency, especially if he or she intends to do so in what might be called disobliging terms, it is a courtesy so to notify. Mr Liddell-Grainger has, on a number of occasions, notified me of his intention to refer to the Taunton Deane constituency, but—I express myself with care—I am not aware that he did so on this occasion, and that should have happened. [Interruption.] He is signalling that he either has written or will write; I think it is the latter—could do better.

But the MP for Taunton Deane has clearly found her teeth. She had not finished and was not going to let the matter lie. So back we go to Hansard:

Rebecca Pow Conservative, Taunton Deane

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance on a certain matter. You know how much I respect your running of the Chamber, so I wanted to ask you this question. What recourse does a Member have when a colleague uses business questions to make serious, damaging and unfounded allegations about another Member’s constituency that cause real distress outside this House?

Can you guess the identity of the member in question? One who is used to making unfounded allegations under cover of Parliamentary Privilege which he then is too afraid to repeat outside the House?

The Speaker will enlighten us:

John Bercow Speaker of the House of Commons

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her characteristic courtesy in giving me advance notice of her intention to raise this matter, which could affect any right hon. or hon. Member here present. She asks very specifically what recourse she, or any Member, has when a colleague makes damaging and unfounded allegations about her constituency. She knows how seriously I take this issue, which we have discussed.

I expect an hon. Member to give notice to the colleague whose constituency he proposes to refer to, to give notice to my office and to ensure that he is properly careful in what he says. Members take responsibility for what they say in the House and for its impact outside this House. The privilege of free speech must be used maturely and with sensitivity. It is no part of a right hon. or hon. Member’s role to be merely abusive or insulting. I hope that an hon. Member causing offence in this way will reflect very carefully on such conduct. This matter, as I said, has been discussed by the hon. Lady and me, and it has been the subject of wider discussion—including, from time to time, with the Leader of the House, who referred very sensitively to it earlier in our proceedings.

Let me just say tactfully, but in terms that are not ambiguous, that I hope that I do not have to return to this issue again. The message should be clear, and the hon. Lady’s concern, which is very real and, I think, widely shared, should be respected. We will leave it there for now, and I hope it will be able to be left there.

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