HC Deb 24 July 1968 vol 769 cc574-6
Mr. Roebuck

On a point of order. I seek your Ruling and guidance, Mr. Speaker, about a matter concerning the correction of errors in Ministerial Answers, the nature of which I have indicated to you. I have also given notice to the Minister concerned, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy, and to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

May I draw your attention, Mr. Speaker, to column 95 of today's OFFICIAL REPORT? The following words are printed at the foot of the column: DR. DAVID OWEN,pursuant to his reply [OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th July, 1968; Vol. 768, c. 83], states that in relation to the Services families clinics in Malta doctors were not included in the quoted medical and dental complements."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd July, 1968; Vol. 769, c.95.] That somewhat circumlocutory sentence conceals a not insubstantial error of fact at column 83 of the OFFICIAL REPORT for 10th July. This, it would appear, has come to light only as the result of further Questions by me printed in column 93 of today's OFFICIAL REPORT.

Is it in order for Ministers to correct factual errors in the way described, or, indeed, in any way, without the permission of the House, or without an appropriate explanation to the House? If such a procedure is not forbidden by rule, is there any custom or convention which should be observed about such matters and, generally, about the manner in which corrections should be made? It might be helpful if I indicated that I received no intimation from the Minister that this correction was to be made— [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—and that I have been told, since taking the matter up with my hon. Friend's office, that a further error has come to light.

Erskine May appears to be silent on many aspects of this matter. However, a similar case was submitted to the arbitrament of Mr. Speaker Morrison, in 1957. On that occasion, perhaps by a coincidence, the Ministry involved was the Ministry of Defence. The matter was raised by the then hon. Member for Eton and Slough, and in the course of his observations Mr. Speaker Morrison said: 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 …'".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th January, 1957; Vol. 563, c. 860.] That case is not on all fours with the one I am putting to you, Mr. Speaker, but I submit that the spirit of Mr. Speaker Morrison's statement should apply; and I seek your guidance and Ruling on the matter.

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice, on this busy morning, that he intended to raise this point of order.

The hon. Gentleman complains that in column 95 of today's OFFICIAL REPORT, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy has inserted a correction to an Answer which he gave to the hon. Gentleman on 10th July. That was a Written Answer.

I must point out to the hon. Gentleman and the House that it is a fairly general practice for Ministers who wish to supplement an Answer to a Written Question to do it in just this way. I would imagine that the precedent to which the hon. Gentleman referred concerned the correcting of something that had been said in the House. It occasionally happens that a correction of a Written Answer is made in this way. No doubt if a matter was of grave importance, the Minister would seek another way of making the correction.

I must, therefore, tell the hon. Gentleman that in my view this matter does not contravene any rule or practice of the House and is not, therefore, one in which I can help him. If, on the other hand, he is troubled about the manner and matter of the substance of the reply, then he must take that up with the Minister concerned.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy (Dr. David Owen)

Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Roebuck), I would like to apologise to my hon. Friend both for the original mistakes in the Written Answer of 10th July and for any apparent discourtesy.

The mistakes arose in the line of communication between myself and Malta, for which I take full responsibility. I sought to correct the mistakes at the earliest opportunity. I wrote a letter yesterday to my hon. Friend explaining the situation, but, unfortunately, the letter was delivered to the Letter Board only this morning, and I apologise for that. I sought to follow the convention of the pursuant Answer, for which there are precedents, the latest being 26th February, 1968, and again I apologise both to my hon. Friend and the House for any discourtesy.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Roebuck


Mr. Speaker

Order. I would hope that, in view of what has just been said, the matter will now be closed.