Mon, Feb 07, 2005 - Page 2 News List

British House of Commons holds lesson for Wang

THIS WAY The position of Wang Jin-pyng as legislative Speaker and KMT vice chairman is fraught with conflicts of interest. That does not have to be the case

By Derek Marsh

There are many differences between the British House of Commons and other legislatures. A key difference between the UK and Taiwan is the role of the Speaker.

In the House of Commons, he or she is impartial and completely above party political controversy. Betty Boothroyd for example, was a Labour MP who was Speaker during the last Conservative Government for five years and then during the Labour Government, over the period 1992 to 2002. On election, the Speaker resigns from his or her political party, stays away from party events, and must give up loyalties and friendships within the House. He or she even stays away from the Commons dining rooms and bars so that he or she is seen to be aside from controversy and at all times impartial.

The Speaker's main job is to preserve order in the House of Commons and ensure that debate follows established rules. This is not to say that debates are orderly and tame affairs. Far from it.

The style of debate has traditionally been based on "cut and thrust," listening to other members' speeches, and intervening in spontaneous reaction to opponents' views. Reading of set-piece speeches from a podium or a desk is not allowed because they are not spontaneous. The Chamber is therefore, a rather noisy place. Opinion is expressed robustly with many interventions, expressions of approval and disapproval and sometimes, repartee and banter.

Throughout all this debate, the Speaker has to maintain order and the cry from the Speaker "order, order" is familiar to anyone who has seen a debate at the House of Commons or on TV.

Members may only speak if called by the Speaker. They are called by name (though members refer to each other by their constituency or by their official position, never by name). They may only speak when standing (unless physically unable to do so) and must sit down and hence, cease speaking, if the Speaker rises to his feet. The Speaker will rise to his feet to call for order, or to interrupt a debate. A member may only interrupt another member if the Speaker calls him to speak.

The great codifier of Parliamentary behavior, Erskine May, said "good temper and moderation are the characteristics of parliamentary language." Language and expressions conform to a number of rules and it is the Speaker's job to ensure that these rules are followed. Insulting, coarse and abusive language particularly if applied to other members is not allowed, nor are charges of lying or being drunk. Over the years, Speakers have objected to words like blackguard, coward, git, guttersnipe, hooligan, swine, stool pigeon and traitor. The Speaker will direct a member who has used "unparliamentary language" to withdraw it. Should he refuse to do so, the member may be required to leave the chamber.

Finally, briefcases are not allowed in the chamber; nor are members allowed to read newspapers, magazines, letters and other documents. Electronic devices are only permitted if their sound is muted. Eating and drinking is not permitted. Although members may often appear to be slumped on the benches sleeping, they are in fact putting their ears close to the small speakers embedded in the back of benches. Curiously, snuff is provided at public expense.

The rules and procedures of the house have been determined over hundreds of years and continue to change. A Modernization Committee in 1998 abolished many out-dated rules for example, in relation to the wearing of hats. Rules and procedures will continue to change, but the essence of the House of Commons, spontaneous debate in which all views are given a hearing, will continue.

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