HC Deb 03 February 1955 vol 536 cc1274-7
Mr. Wyatt

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday, on Question No. 31, addressed to the Under-Secretary of State for Air, I asked a supplementary question which ran as follows: Can the Under-Secretary say whether the Javelin will be fit for operational service when it is with the squadrons, as it is known that the Hunter is not yet fit for operational service? Would he not agree that the Royal Air Force has no modern fighter fit for operational service at all? It will be within the recollection of the House that the Under-Secretary of State for Air began his reply with the following words: I am dealing with the last point on a later Question. It is not quite true. In HANSARD this morning I found that, instead of those words being printed, the following words had been substituted: I am dealing with the last points"— in the plural— on a later Question. They are not correct."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd February, 1955; Vol. 536, c. 1083.] The alteration of the answer to my supplementary question, including the use of the words "They are not correct," is clearly meant to indicate that there was no truth in my suggestion. This is contrary to what the Under-Secretary of State actually said.

I have inquired of the Editor of HANSARD how this happened. He informed me that a secretary to the Under-Secretary of State for Air had been allowed by the reporter concerned to make the alteration. [HON. MEMBERS: "0h."] He added that, unfortunately, this was not noticed by any of the subeditors. He confirmed that the actual words recorded by the HANSARD reporter were the ones that I have said that the Minister used. I do not blame the reporter; I understand that he was under some pressure. I understand that the Editor of HANSARD proposes to issue an erratum with HANSARD tomorrow.

I am drawing this matter to your attention, Mr. Speaker, and to that of the House, because it seems to me to raise an important matter of principle. Here is a case in which an official of a Ministry, under the instructions of his Minister, has attempted to water down a significant and damaging admission by that Minister and to make it look like something quite different. May I have your Ruling upon this point, Mr. Speaker?

The Under-Secretary of State for Air (Mr. George Ward)

I think I can explain this matter quite shortly. The hon. Member for Aston (Mr. Wyatt) asked me a supplementary question yesterday—which he has already quoted. I thought that he was making three quite separate points—the first concerning the Javelin, the second concerning the Hunter, and the third concerning the operational state of Fighter Command. I dealt with the first point, about the Javelin, in my answer, and I meant to indicate that I would deal with the other two points later. As the hon. Member has pointed out, HANSARD quoted it as "point," but it seemed to me that it would be clearer if it read "points." If the hon. Member were going to make only two points and not three, however, he is quite right, and the word should be in the singular, and I have no objection to that.

The substitution of "not correct" for "not quite true" was an effort to avoid any suggestion of offence to the hon. Member, but I appreciate that a slightly different meaning could be attached to "not correct," and I am quite content for the OFFICIAL REPORT to revert to the original phrase. If the House considers that anything improper has taken place, I take full responsibility and offer my apologies to the House.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member for Aston (Mr. Wyatt) was good enough to draw my attention to this matter this forenoon, and I have looked into it as well as I have been able to in the time at my disposal. What he says is quite right. The reporter did accept this correction, and I ought to state, for the guidance of the House and everybody else concerned, what is the rule of the House in this matter. Hon. Members are permitted to—and frequently do—correct the transcripts of the reports of their speeches. It is permissible to make a correction which improves the grammar, the syntax or, indeed, the clarity of what was actually said in the House. But let there be no mistake about the rule of the House in these matters. It is not permissible to make alterations in the transcript which materially alter the sense of what was said.

Having heard both sides in this matter, I think that in this case there was an error. If a reporter is in doubt—and there is sometimes a narrow line between what is an alteration affecting the expression, on the one hand, and an alteration which affects the sense, on the other—it is his duty to consult a sub-editor, or, if necessary, the Editor himself. That is the rule of the House in these cases. I find that the reporter accepted on his own responsibility a correction which was offered to him.

Perhaps I may explain to the House, in conclusion, that the reporter, who is an old and valued servant of the House, is, unfortunately, absent today, because he has temporarily succumbed to the prevailing malady of influenza. I have no doubt that the germ of that complaint, which must be presumed to have been then incubating within him, affected his judgment in that particular instance.

I have said what I have said for the clear guidance of the House in these matters. It is a clear rule that is laid down. I think the House will agree that those who report our debates serve us, on the whole, very well.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Attlee

May I take it from that Ruling, Sir, that, if a Minister feels that he has given an incorrect statement in answer to a Question, his proper course would be to get up and make the alteration on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Speaker

That is so, and I would make it perfectly clear, if I may, that the rule is precisely the same for Ministers as for other hon. Members of the House.