Offence trigger warnings for Hansard spark criticism amid free speech fears

Concerns are raised at Westminster over the alert feature, with accusations it is ‘a clear breach of centuries of convention’.

Nick Lester
Thursday 16 June 2022 17:12 BST
(PA) (PA Wire)

A move to include offence trigger warnings on the official parliamentary record has been criticised at Westminster, amid fears it could have a chilling effect on what members say.

Concerns over adding the alert feature to Hansard online were raised across the Lords, with accusations it amounted to “a clear breach of centuries of convention” on free speech at Westminster.

The upper chamber heard the measure stemmed from a proposal by the House of Lords Inclusion and Diversity team.

A key complaint raised by peers was the lack of consultation and that approval had not been sought of the House.

Tory former Cabinet minister Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (House of Lords)
Tory former Cabinet minister Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (House of Lords) (PA Archive)

Peers have previously hit out at attempts to silence them after raising concerns in Parliament over housing transgender prisoners in women’s jails, leading to them being contacted by a Westminster watchdog following complaints.

This was despite them being covered by parliamentary privilege – a right dating back more than 300 years that allows them to freely express their views in the upper chamber.

Criticising procedural changes being made without prior consultation or agreement, Tory former Cabinet minister Lord Forsyth of Drumlean said: “For example, only today, I learned that there is a proposal to have trigger points in Hansard where what members say may have been considered to have caused offence, and so someone would put something in to that effect.”

He was supported by fellow Tory peer Lord Cormack, who said: “Far too much is happening in this place without proper consultation.”

Labour former Cabinet minister Lord Reid of Cardowan said: “Only a few months ago, it was brought to our attention that the way these things were being handled, as regards contributions by members, was in clear breach of the Bill of Rights and the conventions on freedom of speech for parliamentarians that had stood for several hundred years.”

He added: “This is not a peripheral issue. It is the central issue of the role of parliamentarians and their right to speak as they see fit, provided that the chamber itself is content with it.

“It cannot be right to have some sort of trigger point system – presumably based on artificial intelligence – setting up an alarm when something is said that is deemed not to be right by others outside this House. It is in clear breach of centuries of convention.”

Liberal Democrat Baroness Walmsley said: “I think backbenchers would like to know about these trigger points. I had not noticed that they were there.

“Backbenchers would need to know what the criteria are, because people would always want to avoid them.

“There needs to be total agreement about the level of offence that would contravene one of the points.

“Perhaps the House might decide to accept such a trigger point, or perhaps it might not.”

Responding, Senior Deputy Speaker Lord Gardiner of Kimble, who chairs the Lords Procedure and Privileges Committee, said: “All I can say is that I have heard about the trigger points proposal, but it has not been put to me formally and, if it was, I would express concern about it.

“Let me be very clear – I had heard of this, but there has been no formal request for the Procedure Committee to look at it.

“I would look with very close scrutiny at any proposal which in any way interfered with your absolute, given rights to express opinions in this chamber.”

Lord Forsyth said: “Perhaps I can just read him something on improvements to Hansard online: ‘Hansard enhancement work is scheduled for the end of this year and includes adding a feature to Lords Hansard and Commons Hansard online that alerts readers to potentially offensive language within the content. This comes from recommendations made by the House of Lords Inclusion and Diversity team.’ Would he undertake to look at this?”

Lord Gardiner said: “I have just been passed a note. Our Services Committee, of which I am not a member, saw this and basically said no. I am very interested in seeing that script.”

Lord Forsyth told the PA news agency: “My complaint is that the diversity committee of the House of Lords should not be interfering with free speech in the chamber.”

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in