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Thursday, August 15, 2013

A matter of etiquette

As a member of the Welsh Assembly I am very used to working within the rules of debate. In fact there are several booklets kept by the Presiding Officer's chair containing all the rulings made by holders of that post since 1999, including what is and what is not acceptable language.

I was interested therefore in this article in the Telegraph outlining some of the traditions and rules of the Houses of Parliament. Some of these are fairly modern, others date back to another age, so much so that one wonders why they continue with them.

Chief amongst these is astonishing fact that MPs are being supplied with snuff at taxpayers’ expense. The paper says that the powdered tobacco, which is traditionally taken through the nose a “pinch” at a time, is kept by a doorkeeper in a wooden snuffbox with a silver-plated lid at the threshold to the Commons chamber:

A background paper on the customs and traditions of Parliament, published by the House of Commons Library, said snuff was the only form of tobacco allowed in the vicinity of the Commons, where smoking has been banned for more than 300 years.

“Snuff is provided, in recent years at public expense, for Members and Officers of the House, at the doorkeepers’ box at the entrance to the Chamber,” the document stated.

Although the briefing said that “very few members take snuff nowadays”, a handful of MPs are believed to have continued to use the supply.

According to a freedom of information request, published on whatdotheyknow.com, the Commons pays about £6 for a tin of snuff about once every two years. The tobacco is bought from Parliamentary officials’ “petty cash”.

Apparently, this perk was disclosed in a background briefing, provided to MPs “in support of their parliamentary duties” last week:

The document also details how MPs must handle relations with each other inside and outside Parliament and the rules which must be observed during debates.

Commons Speakers have banned the use of words deemed “unparliamentary”, which have included “blackguard”, “coward”, “guttersnipe”, “rat”, “stoolpigeon” and “traitor”

Certain activities are also deemed to be out of order during debates, such as carrying briefcases and reading newspapers, magazines or letters. Mobile phones and other electronic devices must be set to silent mode in the Commons.

Apart from the occasional sip of water “to ease the voice”, eating and drinking are not permitted. The document noted that this was “in contrast to what must have happened in previous centuries, when visitors observed Members sucking oranges and cracking nuts”.

At the end of each sitting, when the House “rises”, two doorkeepers in the Commons simultaneously shout “Who goes home?”

This is believed to date back to the time when members would join together in bands to cross the “dangerous unlit fields” between Westminster and the City of London, or to share a ferryboat homewards on the Thames.

Contrary to popular belief, dogs are “not generally allowed” in the Commons, unless they are guide dogs. There is “no truth” in the claims that King Charles Spaniels are exempt from the ban, the paper warned.

Parliamentary dress codes have changed substantially over the centuries. Tall hats were once essential and would often be left on a seat in order to reserve a member's place, on the grounds that the wearer was certain to return because he could not contemplate leaving without it.

The custom led some MPs to bring two hats to Parliament with them in order to ensure that they could reserve a seat without needing to remain in the Palace.

Men were required to remove their hats before speaking during a debate and are still not permitted to address the House whilst wearing a hat, although women are exempt from this rule.

During the daily procession of the Commons Speaker through the Palace of Westminster to the chamber, a police officer will shout "Hats off strangers" as an instruction to members of the public to remove their headwear.

It is little wonder that some members think they have gone back in time on entering the House of Comnmons.
well if you decide to have a crack at getting into Westminster in 2015 (Swansea West) you may be able to get yourself some snuff for free
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