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Council House Sales (Written Questions)

Volume 974: debated on Monday 26 November 1979

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

I wish to raise a point of order, Mr. Speaker, of which I have given you notice and which relates to a report in The Guardian newspaper this morning about the leakage of a Government document on the costs of the sale of council houses.

At the end of July I asked the Secretary of State for the Environment a series of written parliamentary questions about the costs arising from the Government's policy on the sale of council houses. There are two questions in particular to which I would draw attention. I asked the Secretary of State:
"if he will publish a table in the Official Report giving the estimated number of local authority tenants who have been tenants of any authority for a period of one year, two years, three years and for each year up to 20 years and for those who have been tenants for more than 20 years."
and also
"what information on the sale of council houses he collects from local authorities or other sources; and if he will make this available in the Library."
To both questions I received the following reply from the Minister for Housing and Construction:
"The information is not available in this form."—[Official Report, 26 July 1979; Vol. 971, c. 466.]
In The Guardian this morning it was reported that an official paper prepared by senior civil servants at the Department of the Environment showed that for every property sold by the end of the century losses could range from £8,535 and £2,735. The article stated that the report
"provides a profile of the council-house buyer."
The average council house buyer is shown not to be a young couple but a family man of 40 seeking a 25-year mortgage.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will now put a point of order that I can answer.

I was coming to the point, Mr. Speaker. The report also states that the paper showed that the Government could have provided immediate information on the financial aspects of council house sales.

My point of order is that the report to which The Guardian story refers was, I understand, written before the parliamentary questions that I put down were answered. The answers that I was given were at best inaccurate and, in my judgment, misleading. I ask, Mr. Speaker, whether it is in order for a Minister to answer in an inaccurate and misleading manner questions that are tabled.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) for telephoning my office and telling me that he would raise this point of order, which enabled me to make some inquiries. It now appears that in respect of two of the questions the answers that I approved in writing were not those that subsequently appeared in Hansard. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman and to the House for the slip that occurred. With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I will reproduce the answers that I originally approved in writing and publish them in the Official Report.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I do not think that we have ever heard a stranger reply than that. Admittedly the reply was honest, but for the Minister not to add anything beyond the fact that his own answer was altered is remarkable. Will he please explain what happened after he approved the answer?

What happened was exactly what I have told the House. The answers that I approved in writing were not those that subsequently appeared in Hansard, as a result of an administrative slip-up.

With respect, it is unheard of, when a Minister has approved an answer in writing, for it to appear in a different form. Was it the Editor of Hansard who altered it? If not, who did?

Order. Right hon. and hon. Members know that I was on my feet. I was simply asking for order. I call the Leader of the Opposition.

I am much obliged, Mr. Speaker. I do not wish to trespass on your generosity on a point of order. I think that you would agree that what we have heard from the Minister is without parallel in this House. As he intervened on a point of order, the Minister owes it to us to explain who altered his answer—without his authority—which then appeared in Hansard.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I cannot add to what I have already said. The answers that I approved were approved in writing and, obviously as a result of an administrative error, the wrong answers were sent to the hon. Member. Obviously we shall make inquiries within our Department to see how that happened. I have apologised to the House and the hon. Member, and I cannot add to that.

Order. We have had points of order that I cannot answer, and points of order are always addressed to me. Because it was the Leader of the Opposition I allowed him to extend his point of order after the Minister's statement. I am trying to think what possible further points of order could come to me as a result of that.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The issue, as I understand it, is that at the beginning of every Session the House passes a sessional order providing that if anyone tampers with witnesses to the House he is guilty of high crime and misdemeanour. That is a matter for the House. What the Minister said—it was quite unprecedented within the experience of most hon. Members here—is that a civil servant changed the answer that he had approved for delivery to the House, thus tampering with information that the House was entitled to receive. It is not for the Opposition to try to find out what goes on in the Department, but it is for the House, in the person of yourself, Mr. Speaker, to find out how it was that a civil servant interfered with a ministerial answer and denied the House the information that it should have had.

I undertake to make inquiries into this matter to see whether there is anything that I can do to help the House. I shall make a statement in the near future.

May I give notice that, subject to your statement, Mr. Speaker, I may wish to raise this matter as a breach of privilege?

Order. That is not necessary, and, indeed, it is irregular now. Under the rules of the House, of which the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) is a master, he knows that he should put that in writing.

See also column 1107