HC Deb 05 May 1999 vol 330 c953

4.6 pm

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

During last week's debate on clause 2 of the Finance Bill, my hon. Friends and I pointed out that when the fuel escalator was introduced in 1993, United Kingdom petrol prices were among the lowest in Europe. In replying to the debate, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury stated that that was not correct, and that only Ireland and Denmark had higher petrol prices. I challenged her then, pointing out that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) had stated in his Budget speech that our petrol prices were lower than in any other major European country. She replied by saying that figures from the Library supported her case, and that not only was I wrong but my right hon. Friend had been wrong.

After the debate, I tabled a parliamentary question. I have now received the reply, with a letter from the Economic Secretary's office—although it is not signed by the Economic Secretary. In it, she states that she had inadvertently misread the figures, and that, in fact, I was right and she was wrong.

I have attempted to give the Economic Secretary notice of my intention of raising this point of order, but was able only to leave a message on the answering machine in her private office. Of course I accept that she did not intend to mislead the House. However, the issue is not a peripheral one: it is central to the debate on the Government's punitive increases in petrol duty.

Is it in order for a Minister to issue a correction simply through a written answer and by placing a letter in the Library? On a matter of this importance, should not the Minister come to the House and apologise in person?

Madam Speaker

The Minister has taken the correct course of action, in that, on 4 May, she corrected her statement in Hansard. On that same date, as the hon. Gentleman has said, she wrote to him expressing her regret for her inadvertent error. As soon as the matter was brought to the hon. Lady's attention, she took action in two ways—to correct it, and to inform the House by means of the Official Report.