In Depth

Tracy Brabin: what are the conduct rules in the Commons?

Labour MP triggers online row by wearing off-the-shoulder dress at parliamentary debate

Shadow culture secretary Tracy Brabin has hit back after being criticised for wearing an off-the-shoulder dress in the Commons.

The Labour MP and former EastEnders actor has faced a barrage of abuse over her choice of outfit for a debate earlier this week, with one Twitter user asking: “Is this really appropriate attire for Parliament?”

In response, Brabin tweeted a list of the insults levelled against her, including looking like she had “just been banged over a wheelie bin’”.

The MP for Batley and Spen had been raising a point of order on Downing Street’s ejection of journalists from a No. 10 briefing when her dress attracted attention. In a subsequent interview with BBC Breakfast, Brabin said she was surprised by the “vitriolic nature” of the response and branded the criticism “everyday sexism” .

So what are the rules on dress and general conduct in the Commons?

Respectful dress

The Commons rulebook states: “As with the language you use, the way in which you dress should also demonstrate respect for the House and for its central position in the life of the nation.

“There is no exact dress code: usual business dress is suggested as a guide. Jeans, T-shirts, sandals and trainers are not appropriate. It is no longer a requirement for men to wear a tie, but jackets should be worn.”

Constituency names

Parliamentary naming convention “sounds like part of a bad drinking game, but it’s true”, says The Independent.

For starters, MPs are not allowed to call each other by their names. Instead, they must always refer to “the honourable member for [constituency]”.

If an MP lacks an encyclopaedic knowledge of where each MP is from, they can refer to colleagues as “the honourable gentleman” or “the honourable lady”.

If they are referring to someone in their own party, they can refer to the member as “my honourable friend”, while members of the privy council – usually ministers – are dubbed “the right honourable”.

However, the House speaker is allowed to ignore all of these rules and can refer to any MP by name.

Addressing the speaker

MPs are not allowed to speak to one another, and can only address the House speaker, a role currently held by Lindsay Hoyle. That’s why MPs often say “Mr Speaker” in their statements and questions, and refer to colleagues by their third person pronouns rather than saying “you”.

Insulting colleagues

A raft of words fall under a ban on “unparliamentary language”. The following have all been deemed unparliamentary following their usage in the Commons, and may no longer be said there:

  • bastard
  • blackguard
  • coward
  • deceptive
  • dodgy
  • drunk
  • git
  • guttersnipe
  • hooligan
  • hypocrite
  • idiot
  • ignoramus
  • liar
  • pipsqueak
  • rat
  • slimy
  • sod
  • squirt
  • stoolpigeon
  • swine
  • tart
  • traitor
  • wart

Any MP using this language is typically asked by the speaker to withdraw their comments, or face being asked to leave the chamber. 

Former veteran Labour MP Dennis Skinner was ejected after calling then prime minister David Cameron “Dodgy Dave” during a debate on the Panama Papers scandal in 2016.

Wearing armour

It has been illegal to wear a suit of armour in the House of Commons since 1313, when the Statutum de Defensione portandi Arma (Statute Forbidding the wearing of Weapons) was passed under King Edward II.

Taking a sword into the chamber is also banned under the statute. MPs are still provided with a loop next to their coat hook on which to hang their swords in the cloakroom before heading in for debates.

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Speaking anything but English

Speeches in the House of Commons can only be made in English, so any MPs who speak Welsh as a first language are out of luck.

Quotations in other languages are allowed, but there is no translation service.

Taking photos

MPs are banned from taking photos or videos in the Commons, and the only recording equipment allowed in the chamber is the collection of fixed TV cameras that film the proceedings.

Photography is banned throughout most of the Palace of Westminster for security reasons, with the only exceptions being the public areas of Westminster Hall, St Stephen’s Hall and New Palace Yard, and in private rooms.


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