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MPs, racist language and the law: a legal expert explains

MPs, racist language and the law: a legal expert explains

UK Parliament, CC BY-NC

Theresa May, the UK prime minister, has suspended the Conservative party whip from backbench MP Anne Marie Morris for using a racist phrase – effectively expelling her from the party, at least temporarily.

Announcing the sanction, May said:

I was shocked to hear of these remarks, which are completely unacceptable. I immediately asked the chief whip to suspend the party whip. Language like this has absolutely no place in politics or in today’s society.

Morris described the idea of the UK leaving the EU without a deal as a “real n***er in the woodpile” when discussing the impact of Brexit on the financial services industry at an event at London’s East India Club, organised by the Politeia think tank. A recording of the event was subsequently published by the Huffington Post.

In a subsequent apology, the MP for Newton Abbot said:

The comment was totally unintentional. I apologise unreservedly for any offence caused.

Putting aside the curious question of how exactly the comment could have been “unintentional”, the case serves as a reminder of the rules on disciplining MPs.

Morris has apologised for her remarks. Twitter

As abhorrent as the phrase is, public use of racist language is insufficient legal grounds for the expulsion of an MP from parliament. According to the Representation of the People Act, an MP will only be disqualified from sitting if they are “found guilty of one or more offences … and sentenced or ordered to be imprisoned or detained indefinitely or for more than one year”. Peter Baker was the last MP to be so expelled from the House of Commons in 1954 after receiving a seven-year prison sentence for forgery.

Past cases

Given therefore that there is no way to dismiss Morris in these circumstances, there have been calls for her to resign instead. Should Morris have been an employee and used this phrase in a workplace meeting, it’s highly likely that her behaviour would have constituted a sufficient reason for dismissal.

For a dismissal to be fair, it has to be for a “potentially fair reason” such as capability, conduct, redundancy, breach of statute or “some other substantial reason”. The use of racist language would obviously fall into the category of misconduct, and as such constitute a sufficient reason to dismiss.

In 2016 the Employment Tribunal dismissed an ambulance care assistant’s claim of unfair dismissal after he was fired for his use of a racially offensive word in a workplace conversation. In this case, the employee defended himself by saying he was using “local street talk” and claimed that in using the n-word, he had not intended to be racist or derogatory.

But the tribunal found it was irrelevant that he hadn’t meant to offend anyone – nor was it relevant that he hadn’t realised anyone else was listening. The fact that the comment was made to white people only also made no difference in this case.

A Sussex police officer was similarly dismissed last year for his use of the same word. A disciplinary panel concluded that:

We will not accept the use of such words used by any staff or officers and there is no place for any such word in a modern police service.

In light of these cases, it seems very unlikely that Morris’ position as an independent MP for Newton Abbot will be sustainable. Her offence is all the more egregious due to her public, representative role, along with the fact that an apology was apparently only made after she was criticised.

Conservative peer Robert Dixon-Smith escaped sanction for his use of the same phrase in the House of Lords in 2008, his excuse being that, “I left my brains behind”.

That was nine years ago. In suspending the whip so quickly from Morris, the Conservative party appears to be treating the use of racist language more seriously than it did back then. It’s hard to imagine the whip will ever be restored to Morris or that the party would allow her to re-stand in any future election under the Tory banner.

But given that the law protects Morris from being dismissed, the question remains, therefore, whether she will take the ultimate responsibility for her actions, and effectively dismiss herself.