HC Deb 27 March 1984 vol 57 cc141-2 3.32 pm
Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to inform you and the House of a matter of concern to me as Chairman of the Special Standing Committee set up to take evidence under the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Bill, and to seek your advice. The matter gives rise to a complaint against someone in the Lord Chancellor's Department.

On Friday 23 March 1984 the Hansard printers stopped printing the report of our sitting on Thursday 22 March as a result of the "instructions" of someone from the Lord Chancellor's Department. This is a serious matter. On Thursday valuable evidence, both written and oral, was given to the Committee by Lord Scarman and Sir John Arnold of the Family Division, which was to be published.

The first I knew of the matter was from a letter given to me this morning addressed to the Clerk to our Committee from Mr. Morgan, the Editor of the Official Report. He wrote: My attention has been called to the half report of the Third Sitting of your Committee on 22nd March. This half report was made available, I understand, as a result of pressure from the Lord Chancellor's Department late on Thursday. The full version was not available until today. As a result of this episode I have directed the printers in no circumstances to repeat this exercise and to take instructions on the publication of Standing Committee reports only from my office. To proceed otherwise is a recipe for disaster. It is not easy these days for a printer—in this case a subcontractor — if he receives a call from the Lord Chancellor's Department. One never knows who is telephoning him about events. During our Sitting there was some conflict between what the Lord Chancellor said, I understand in another place, and what the President of the Family Division reported to the Committee on Thursday. It was requested that it be cleared up at ministerial level so that the report could be sent to Sir John Arnold to resolve the conflict. I am given to understand that the printer received the request and, because it could not be carried out without stopping printing, he stopped printing without anyone telling him that he must stop printing. However it happened, we had only a half copy of the Official Report. It never reached the Vote Office and today we received the full report.

Government Whips and Ministers have co-operated with me, but I am worried that somebody in the Lord Chancellor's Department, with whatever intention, should contact the printer direct, not through Hansard. The nature of the Special Standing Committee procedure is such that we depend on evidence—and people outside the House as well as right hon. and hon. Members want to read the evidence. It is an excellent procedure, but all Government Departments must be told that they do not control Hansard. The Hansard printers are responsible to this House and to no one else. I ask for your advice, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman raises a very important matter. As the Solicitor-General is present, I think that he should say something.

The Solicitor-General (Sir Patrick Mayhew)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. It may help if I tell the House the result of the inquiries that I have made.

Last Thursday, evidence was given to the Special Standing Committee by the President of the Family Division, as the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) has said. A later witness on the same day told the Committee that there was a disparity on a particular issue between the President's evidence and a speech made in another place by the Lord Chancellor expressing an opinion.

The President had already undertaken to submit a further written memorandum to the Committee in any event, as the right hon. Gentleman said. So that the matter could be dealt with by the President in the course of that memorandum and received by the Committee in time for its final sitting today, I asked that a copy of Thursday's Hansard be obtained as soon as possible and that the President be invited to refer to the relevant passage in his evidence and to deal with the point made by the witness to whom I have referred.

Accordingly, I understand that on Friday morning an official of the Lord Chancellor's Department spoke by telephone to an official of St. Stephen's Press, printers to Hansard, to inquire when copies of Thursday's report would be available. On being told that the report would probably be available at about 6 pm on Friday, he asked whether it would be possible to obtain sooner a proof copy of the transcript of the President's evidence.

The printer's official undertook to try to obtain proof copies from the subcontractors and in fact by 12 noon sent copies to the Lord Chancellor's Department official. No instruction and no request was at any time made for the publication of Thursday's report to be divided or delayed in any way. Nor, I understand, was it suggested to the Lord Chancellor's official that either would occur. In the event, the President was enabled to deal with the matter in a supplementary memorandum which the Committee had before it at its final sitting this morning.

I am sorry that an initiative of mine, taken solely in the interest of putting the fullest information before the Special Standing Committee before its final meeting, seems inadvertently to have led to some unauthorised delay in the printing of Hansard, but this was not requested, intended or foreseen.

Mr. Speaker

I am sure that the House will accept the explanation given by the Solicitor-General. I will, of course, look into the matter and ensure that nothing of this kind happens again.