Clerk of the National Assembly Sherlock Isaacs has advised Members of Parliament (MPs) that criticism of the character or actions of the Speaker are impermissible, whether done inside or outside of the National Assembly.
In a letter that was sent to all MPs on Wednesday, titled ‘Criticisms of the Speaker,’ Isaacs apologised to Members for not briefing them during their post-election orientation on certain parliamentary procedures, including of criticism of the Speaker.
Isaacs’ letter was sent in wake of PPP/C MP Harry Gill being recently reprimanded and referred to the National Assembly’s Privileges Committee for criticising the rulings of Speaker Dr. Barton Scotland as inconsistent in a recent letter to the press.
In his letter, Isaacs explained that whenever a Member is dissatisfied with a decision or action of the Speaker, then they have a right to table a motion to challenge the Speaker’s decision. “For example, if a Member is dissatisfied with the Speaker’s approval of a motion, he/she has the right to table a substantive motion challenging the Speaker’s decision. Such a motion will receive priority over the motion challenged,” Isaacs explained.
He cited different examples from the Parliaments of Canada, India, Australia and New Zealand that spoke about reflections on the character or actions of Speaker, both in and outside of the House. He noted that the Canadian House of Commons Procedure and Practice, Second Edition, says, “Reflections on the character or actions of the Speaker – an allegation of bias, for example – could be taken by the House as breaches of privilege and punished accordingly. On two occasions, newspaper editorials were found to contain libellous reflections on the Speaker and were declared by the House, in one instance, to be a contempt of its privileges and, in the other, breach of its privileges.” He said in a similar vein, the Lok Sabha Practice and Procedure of the Parliament of India, Seventh Edition, stated that reflections on the character or impartiality of the Speaker in discharge of his duties as the Speaker of the House had been held to constitute a breach of privilege and contempt of the House. Isaacs also used an example from Australia’s House of Representatives Practice, Fourth Edition, which says ,”…a reflection on the character or the actions of the Speaker inside or outside the House has been regarded as punishable as a breach of privilege.”
Isaacs said that his understanding of the texts and from discussions with his fellow Clerks in the Commonwealth Caribbean, including the Clerk of the Parliament of Barbados “is that all reflections, inside and outside of the House, on the character or actions of the Speaker are also impermissible.”
“It is my hope that Hon. Members will use this as a guide when considering criticising the character or actions of the speaker,” he wrote.
The PPP has called Gill’s referral to the committee as a result of his views as “a crude assault” on parliamentary democracy and the right to free speech of a Member of the National Assembly.