I am writing this letter to respond to the letter you published on Antigua News Room on Friday 22nd May, 2020. Your letter was a response to an article by me captioned “Speaker Sir Gerald Watt was wrong” published in the Observer on 18th May, 2020.
Let me start by categorically stating that the Standing Orders of the Antigua and Barbuda Parliament are the Rules that regulate parliamentary behavior and nothing else. Not Erskine May, not the Rules of the House of Commons in Ottawa, Canada and not the Rules of the Parliament in England. The Parliament of Antigua and Barbuda is given the power to make Rules to regulate its own procedure by section 57 (1) of the Constitution of Antigua and Barbuda. I hope with this postulate that you Sir Gerald Watt QC and I are on the same page as our starting premise. By the way, the name is Erskine May and not Erstine May as you have in your letter.
Sir Gerald you said that in my quote of Erskine May that I only quoted the first three lines of the text on personal explanations and left out most of the learning. Yes, I did. But quoting the entire text would not change the thrust of my argument. I will prove my point and like Sir Gerald will quote the entire text which is as follows:
“The House is usually indulgent with regard to personal statements, and will permit personal explanations to be made without any question being before the House, provided that the speaker has been informed of what the member proposes to say and has given leave. Because the practice of the House is not to permit such statements to be subject to debate, the precise contents of the propose statement are submitted in advance to the speaker to ensure that they are appropriate. The indulgence of a personal statement is granted with caution, since it may lead to irregular debates”.
Sir Gerald please keep in your mind the point that I established at the outset that the Standing Orders of the Parliament of Antigua and Barbuda are what govern the behaviour of the Members of Parliament and nothng else. Yes, the learning of Erskine May can be referred to for guidance, but this is only done where our Standing Orders are unclear or silent on a particular issue. Now, here is where Sir Gerald has fallen into error in his regulation of the conduct of the House, by invoking at the same time in addressing an issue our Standing Orders and Erskine May. You can only apply one not both, and as I have said before the Standing Orders are our law as it were.
Now with respect to No. 20 of our Standing Orders which deals with Personal Explanations it states as follows:
“With the leave of the Speaker, a Member may make a personal explanation at the time appointed under Standing Order No. 13 (Order of Business) although there is no question before the House but no controversial matter may be brought forward nor any debate upon the explanation”.
First, for your information Sir Gerald, if you were fully conversant with Erskine May you would realize that while according to Erskine May a Member who a personal explanation is directed against (in the instant case the Prime Minister) would be allowed to respond to the Member who gave the personal explanation (in the instant case the Opposition Leader) and that would be the end of the debate. No other Member of the House would be able to respond.
Second, for your information Sir Gerald, unlike Erskine May our Standing Orders do not speak to the submission in advance to the Speaker of the contents of the personal explanation. This is required in the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Dominica but that in ours. Once the Speaker in our Parliament is given an idea of what the personal explanation is about, he will then decide whether to grant leave for the personal explanation.
Third, for your information Sir Gerald, you said that our Standing Orders clearly forbids personal explanations “of a controversial nature, which may lead to debate”. Again, there cold not be any debate since our Standing Orders do not allow for such a debate. Now, to your obsession with the issue that the b y matter is of a controversial nature, and the justification being used by you to refuse to grant the personal explanation of the Leader of the Opposition. What was controversial about the matter ofcould the Prime Minister announcing to the nation that he invited the Leader of the Opposition to serve on his Econimic Recovery Committte by virtue of that office? The Leader of the Opposition declined the Prime Minister’s invitation and wished to explain to the nation why he declined and also to debunk the Prime Minster’s claim that he was constitutionally obligated to be invited, and that he was unpatriotic for not serving on the Committee. No law student could possibly conclude that this was a controversial matter. One Member of Parliament made a statement about another Mamber of Parliament, and that other Member wished to clear the air about the statement. What is controversial about that, and especially given the fact that there would be no debate.
Yes, Sir Gerald, you as the Speaker has the sole discretion as to whether to grant a personal explanation. However, I still maintain that the reasons you gave in Parliament to refuse the personal explanation were flawed.
Finally, I will give an example to show where you Speaker Sir Gerald has fallen and forever will fall into error once yuo continue to apply the Standing Orders and Erskine May at the same time. That will only lead to a legal potpourri or pepperpot and thus confusion. Here is the simple example which involves the way in which Members of Parliament should be referred. No 36 (4) of our Standing Orders syas that:
“Members shall be referred to by names of the constituencies for which they have been elected”.
Erskine May says that:
“In order to guard against all appearance of personality in debate, no Member should refer to another by name. Each Member must be distinguished by the Office he Holds, by the place he represents …….”
Now, Sir Gerald you have chided the former Speaker D. Giselle Issac for saying that Members of our Parliament should be referred to by their constituencies. You said that she is stuck in the past. Sir Gerald you are not stuck in the past but rather is stuck between 1844 (Erskine May) and 1967 (Our Standing Orders). The point is our Standing Orders are the law and it is pellucid. Members of Parliament should be referred by their constituencies.
Until our Standing Orders are changed, they remain the guide for parliamentary procedure. Erskine May is used as a touchstone or yardstick when our Standing Orders are unclear or silent on an issue. That is when we apply Erskine May Sir Gerald and not to apply both at the same time. I realize that you have been a Queens Council for upwards of 22 years, but I am sure you would agree with me that no human being is infallible or omniscient. We can all make mistakes. Please be guided Sir Gerald.
Charlesworth C. M. Tabor, B.A., M.Sc., LL.B (Hons) (Lon), L.E.C. (UWI)