HC Deb 29 January 1957 vol 563 cc853-62
Mr. Brockway

I desire, Mr. Speaker, to raise a point of order of which I have given you notice and of which I have informed the Ministry of Defence, the Department concerned. Yesterday, I tabled a Question for Written Answer by the Ministry of Defence. I received a reply, which was also circulated to the Press. The reply was to the following effect: Defence expenditure in 1956–57 is expected to be approximately £1,540 million of which about £35 million is extra expenditure due to the Suez crisis. The total would be £1,620 million before taking account of United States aid and German support costs. That was the Written Answer which was given to me in reply to my request for a Written Answer. It was circulated to the Press. It appears widely in the Press today. It appears in the leading news page of The Times and it has gone all over the world. Yet when HANSARD, the OFFICIAL REPORT, reached me this morning, the last sentence had been omitted. The sentence: The total would be £1,620 million before taking account of United States aid and German support costs does not appear in the OFFICIAL REPORT.

When that happened, I asked you, Mr. Speaker, whether I might raise the matter in the House and I informed the Ministry of Defence. Meanwhile, I received a letter from the Ministry of Defence, who stated: You have, no doubt, already noticed that the reply to your Question"— I am omitting certain words which are irrelevant— differs slightly from the reply which was sent to you. This is due to a misunderstanding in this office, and I wish to apologise for any confusion that may have arisen from our error. That statement was no explanation of the omission of these vital words.

Through your help, Mr. Speaker, I have since obtained further facts. The Official Reporters state that they received a telephone message from the Ministry that the sentence referred to should be omitted, and this was confirmed by the Minister's Private Secretary. The point I wish to raise with you is whether the Ministry has the right to correct an Answer after it has been given to the Member who asked for the Written Answer and after it has been distributed to the Press. Surely, when a Member asks for a Written Answer, and when it is provided to him through the ordinary channels, that is the authentic Answer just as though an Oral Answer were given in the House. The limitation of the right to amend an Answer substantially should, in my submission, apply to a Written Answer as in the case of an Oral Answer.

In any event, if the Ministry was correcting the OFFICIAL REPORT in this way, should it not have informed the Member of Parliament and the Press? Instead of that, however, it was not until this morning that either the Member of Parliament concerned or the Press was informed of this serious deletion from the Answer. I wish to ask you, Mr. Speaker, what conduct a Member of Parliament should pursue when there has been this seeming breach and interference with the official record?

Mr. Speaker

I have made some inquiry into this matter, although I was not aware, until the hon. Member informed us, of the letter which he has received from the Ministry of Defence. This was, of course, a Written Answer to a Question. I find that a revised Answer was supplied by the Ministry of Defence to the Official Reporters, who printed and published it, as they were well entitled to do, but that an earlier draft was sent by the Ministry inadvertently to the hon. Member and to the Press. I am satisfied that no blame attaches to the Official Reporters in this matter. I consider that Departments should take great care that the Answer supplied to a Member and that supplied to the Official Reporters for publication are in identical terms.

Mr. Gaitskell

While thanking you for your statement, Mr. Speaker, may I ask whether it would not be appropriate for a statement to be made by the Government? Two points arise. The Minister of Defence, as we know, is in Washington. Who is acting on his behalf during his absence? Secondly, can we have some explanation of the rather extraordinary behaviour of the Ministry of Defence?

The Secretary of State for the Home Department and Lord Privy Seal (Mr. R. A. Butler)

I have been informed of this matter and of the fact that the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) intended to raise it and I have made some inquiries. I would like to say that no fault whatever attaches to the printers or to HANSARD, who printed the Answer that was sent to them. I have also made inquiries in the Ministry of Defence, by whom I was informed that there was great pressure of work in the office prior to the Minister's departure to America. They very much regret the mistake that was made.

I have considered whether any action would be appropriate on the part of the House, but as this matter has had full publicity, and as Mr. Speaker's remarks will be printed in HANSARD, I do not see that I can make any proposal which would make the matter any clearer than it has been made already. What we ought to do is to accept the apology from the Minister of Defence in his absence and from the Ministry itself and to register in the OFFICIAL REPORT, in which the matter will be officially reported, Mr. Speaker's words; and an apology should be made to the hon. Member for the fact that there was a difference between the original Answer sent to him and the one printed in HANSARD. I think that that is the best way we can deal with the matter.

Mr. Shinwell

Will the Leader of the House be good enough to tell hon. Members why this deletion was made at the last minute? What is the purpose of it? Was there something to conceal? Will he make inquiries of the Ministry of Defence and inform us all about this?

Mr. Butler

I did make inquiries, because I wanted to be quite sure what was the motive behind this. I was informed by those responsible for this action that they thought that the information contained in the shortened Answer would, in fact, answer the Written Question which the hon. Member had put. They therefore amended the original Answer, thinking that that was sufficient information to give in reply to the hon. Member. Whether they made a mistake or not has now been indicated by the apology which has been made. I do not think that we can take the matter further.

Mr. S. Silverman

May I submit to you, Mr. Speaker, with all respect, that the matter is still a little ambiguous? One appreciates that when an apology is offered to the House it normally accepts it, but what is not clear is what the apology is for. What we are concerned with here is the accuracy of the OFFICIAL REPORT. The Minister may well apologise for having sent my hon. Friend the wrong answer, or he may apologise for having sent to the OFFICIAL REPORTERS the wrong answer, but the point which I think does need clarifying is this. When a Minister has given a Written Answer to an hon. Member who has asked for a Written Answer, is my hon. Friend right or wrong in the suggestion that he made to you that that is for all purposes the Answer to his Question precisely as though it had been given orally?

If my hon. Friend is right in that, then it is quite clear that that is the Answer which ought to have been printed in the OFFICIAL REPORT, and that what the Minister of Defence had no right whatever to do was to seek to alter the report of his Answer after his Answer had been given. It is, of course, important to see that the Answer given to the Member and the Answer given to the OFFICIAL REPORT for recording purposes should be in the same terms, but if the matter is left there the question is left in ambiguity as to what is the correct Answer in the first place and what interference there has been with the compilation of the record.

Mr. Ede

Surely the original Answer was initialled by the Minister or by his Parliamentary Secretary. Who initialled the alteration? Was it a Ministerial alteration, or was it an alteration made by a civil servant? It is very important that in these matters we should be quite certain that the Answer given is that of the Minister. This is particularly true of Answers to Questions for Written Answer, because it is a great advantage to Ministers to have Questions for Written Answer rather than for Oral Answer, and it is also a great convenience to the House, because a great many Questions appear on the Order Paper that appear to me to be more suitable for Written Answer than for Oral Answer. If there is to be any differentiation between the Ministerial treatment of the two it may lead to an increase in the number of Questions for Oral Answer. Was this answer altered Ministerially? If so, by whom?

Mr. Butler

Yes, Sir. I can relieve the right hon. Gentleman's anxiety. The responsibility for this rests entirely on the Minister of Defence, who accepts responsibility for the alteration.

Mr. Rankin

But who did the job?

Mr. Butler

There really is no great mystery about this. The hon. Member's Question referred to the estimated amount to be spent on defence during the current year, including supplementary costs arising from the conflict with Egypt and the maintenance of armed forces in Cyprus; and the answer, as truncated, that is, without the last sentence, does give those relevant facts. It was the Minister's second thought that that was a sufficient answer. In fact, the first Answer had gone out with the total figure. My right hon. Friend has made an apology, and I hope that that apology will now be accepted. The first part of the Answer answered the Question.

Mr. Gaitskell

While it may be unreasonable to expect the Home Secretary to explain the mental processes of either officials of the Ministry of Defence or of the Minister of Defence, would not the right hon. Gentleman agree that the best way to clear up this matter is for the Minister of Defence to make a statement on it as soon as he gets back from Washington?

Mr. Butler

I am not in a position to consult my right hon. Friend today, but I certainly think that the right hon. Gentleman's question should be put to him.

Air Commodore Harvey

Will my right hon. Friend say who is the Minister responsible to this House in the absence of the Minister of Defence?

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

We cannot wait all day for an answer.

Mr. Bevan

Surely we ought to have an answer to that question? The Prime Minister gave the impression to the House that a very important change had been made in the relationship between the Ministry of Defence and the Service Departments. The more we have investigated the matter, the more we have discovered that it is a mere facade and that no substantial change has been made. Now it transpires that while the Minister of Defence is absent from the country there is no one to answer for him in the House of Commons and, therefore, no one apparently to initial answers to Questions in the House of Commons except an official of this Department. If, in the absence of the Minister of Defence, a Minister did initial these Answers, perhaps we can be told his name.

Mr. Butler

There is no difficulty about this. I was answering as Leader of the House, first, because I thought that there might be a question of courtesy to the hon. Member who raised the Question, and, secondly, because I was anxious to support Mr. Speaker in relation to HANSARD, who have not made any mistake whatsoever and have printed what they were sent. These are matters concerning the House, and I thought that it was right for me to answer. The Secretary of State for War is to answer for the Minister of Defence, if so desired, and will be dealing with defence Questions tomorrow. So there is really no difficulty about this matter of responsibility.

Several Hon. Membersrose

Mr. Speaker

I think we ought to pass from this matter if the House agrees. [HON. MEMBERS: "NO."] An apology has been made. It is clear that a mistake has been made. I would not stop the House, if it wishes to pursue the matter, but the ordinary custom in this House, when someone apologises for some mistake, is to accept the apology.

Mr. Dugdale

I should like to ask what exactly was the answer to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), Have we been told that, first, the original Answer and then the Answer sent to the Press were initialled by a Minister? Or were they not initialled by a Minister? The fact that a Minister accepts responsibility is quite a different matter. We want to know whether the actual initialling was done by the Minister concerned.

Mr. Butler

I have already said that the Minister himself takes the responsibility. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer the question."] On leaving for the United States of America he asked his Private Secretary to write to the hon. Member for Eton and Slough, who raised this point. In a letter of 29th January, of which I have a copy here, the Private Secretary, explaining the position, said: I wish to apologise for any confusion that may have arisen from our error. I think that that, also, might have been mentioned by the hon. Member.

Mr. Brockway

May I remind you, Mr. Speaker, that I actually quoted the letter to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred? I do not think that it is quite fair for him to suggest that I have withheld it from the House. I quoted it.

Hon. Members

The right hon. Gentleman should withdraw.

Lieut.-Colonel Bromley-Davenport

Is it not a fact that the people of this country could not care less who initialled what? Have we not already wasted enough of our time and of the taxpayers' money? Has not a full apology been made already—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—and can we not now get on with the Orders of the Day?

Hon. Members


Mr. E. Fletcher

In view of the wide publicity that has been given the original and fuller Answer, would the Lord Privy Seal now tell the House whether the full reply was accurate or inaccurate and, if it was accurate, why part of it was deleted?

Mr. Speaker

I do not see how that question can be answered by the Lord Privy Seal. Some time ago the hon.

Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) rose to put some questions to me, but I was not given an opportunity to reply to them. I am quite unable to answer his conundrum as to which should be considered the authentic text of the Answer. That I do not know, and I think that the matter can only be cleared up by a subsequent Question, because I am not responsible for the accuracy of the Answer. Only the Department can tell us that. I think that was the point about which the hon. Member asked me, but there was another one which I have forgotten.

Mr. S. Silverman

If I may say so with respect, that was part of the Question, Mr. Speaker. The point that I had in mind, and which I think my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) also had in mind, was this. Suppose a Minister inadvertently, in answer to an Oral Question, includes a couple of sentences which, on second thoughts, he thinks he might better have left out. It is perfectly clear that he could not then, with propriety, alter the report in HANSARD. The question which, with respect, ought to be considered some time is whether, when a Minister has done exactly the same thing in a Written Answer he ought to be entitled, with propriety, to do what he could not have done if he had given an Oral Answer.

Mr. Speaker

This difference will at once strike the House. In the case of Oral Aswer, the reporters take a note of what is actually said and, therefore, they have a check on any subsequent version of the Answer that may be put to them.

The proper practice for a Minister or any hon. Member, if he wishes to make a correction in the OFFICIAL REPORT, other than a merely verbal one—that is, if he wishes to alter the sense apart from the terms in which that sense has been expressed—is to make the alteration in a separate statement to the House. He should rise and say, "On that occasion I said this in error. The true facts are as follows," and so on. That is the way it is done. But the House will realise that in the case of a Written Answer all that the reporter has is the document. He has nothing with which to check it and is bound to print what he is given.

As to whether a Minister is entitled to alter the text of a Written Answer, to answer that one would have to know the precise facts. I should imagine that he is entitled to alter it at any time up to its transmission to the hon. Member. That is what I should say, hut, of course, mistakes do happen and if a wrong copy of the Answer has been supplied to the reporters I see nothing wrong myself in the Minister's office correcting a mistake of that character. But what I have said—and I hope that it will be observed—is that the reply given to the hon. Member and the reply submitted to the reporters for publication should be identical. I hope that we can now pass on to other business.

Mr. Gaitskell

Is not the point here, Sir, that the authentic Answer in this case must be the Answer given to the hon. Member who puts the Question, and if the Minister decides afterwards that he wants to give a different Answer he ought to come to the House and give one.

Mr. Speaker

I think that that is probably right.

Mr. M. Stewart

Reference has been made to an apology and it appears that an expression of regret has been made to my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway), but surely, if a Minister has given one Answer to the hon. Member who asked a Question and another to the Official Reporters, there is an offence to the House; and there has been no clear making of an apology to the House by the Minister responsible. The Minister is not here to do it, but we are told that the Secretary of State for War is his representative. Could he, therefore, make the apology which the circumstances require?

The Secretary of State for War (Mr. John Hare)

All I can say to the hon. Member is that I will certainly convey to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence the feelings that have been expressed on that side of the House. I am certain that my right hon. Friend will take a suitable opportunity of making a statement on the subject.