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Council House Sales (Written Questions)

Volume 974: debated on Tuesday 27 November 1979

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

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement arising from the point of order raised yesterday by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) and the information given to the House by my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction.

My hon. Friend told the House that two answers provided to the hon. Gentleman on 26 July, which appeared in the Official Report, were not those he had originally approved. At the time he was speaking, my hon. Friend had not had a chance to establish how this had occurred.

The facts are as follows. In the last two days before the recess the parliamentary section of my Department, which also serves the Department of Transport, processed 140 answers to parliamentary questions. Amongst these were 11 from the hon. Member for Blackburn. For two of these the answer was the same and in the normal way they were grouped. I should explain to the House that in order to ensure that grouped questions are kept together in all stages of departmental processing the folders are physically tied together. After my hon. Friend had approved the answers to the hon. Member for Blackburn, instead of the two folders for the two questions rightly grouped together being so linked, two other questions, for which he had approved different and individual answers, were also accidentally tied to these folders and were therefore wrongly grouped with them.

As a result of this error the four questions incorrectly received the same single answer as shown in the Official Report for 26 July.

This was undoubtedly a clerical error by my Department and I apologise for it. It was not until yesterday, when the hon. Member for Blackburn informed my hon. Friend that he proposed to raise a point of order, that the error was detected. My hon. Friend thought it right immediately to apologise to the House even though in the time available he had not been able to establish how the mistake occurred.

There is, of course, no question of any blame attaching to the Officers of this House.

I have asked why the orginal error was not revealed by the normal process of checking against Hansard the answer approved by Ministers. I am told that Hansard was delayed at the time. Hansard was not available in my Department until early in August and I believe that the reason why the error was not discovered then was that the House had then risen, we were in the leave period and, in all probability, the group of four questions were tied together and checked only to ensure that the top copy conformed with the Hansard record.

The process of checking is exactly that carried out under the previous Government and there have been no changes in the resources devoted to this important process. However, to ensure that the mistake does not occur again I have given instructions that where a group of questions is checked, each question will be checked individually. I have further asked that all groups of questions answered since May are rechecked.

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, copies of the answers that my hon. Friend had intended to give will be circulated in the Official Report later today.

Order. It was the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) who raised the matter yesterday.

While accepting that reply, may I ask the Secretary of State four groups of questions? First, why was the mistake not discovered before? On 21 August I wrote a long letter to the Secretary of State, together with a memorandum, at paragraph 27 of which I specifically drew attention to the inadequacy of the replies given by his hon. Friend. Did the right hon. Gentleman fail to read the letter? Did his officials fail to take account of the points that I made in that memorandum?

Secondly, is the Secretary of State aware that his statement today clears up the mystery surrounding only one—not two—of the questions to which I referred in the House yesterday on a point of order. I asked 11 questions. Yesterday I referred to two of them. However, I understand that the inaccurate answers to which his hon. Friend referred answered one of the questions that I raised yesterday, and another one. There is still outstanding the answer to the question related to
"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. "
My point yesterday, which still stands, was that the document leaked in The Guardian, which was available in the Department before July, must have contained information that the Minister denied existed. [Interruption.]

Order. The House must give the hon. Member a chance. The hon. Member's questions must obviously relate to the statement that was made today about the mistake in answering.

Is the Minister aware that he answered only one of my points and not the other, and that in respect of the other questions to which I referred, information was available in the Department that I was not given?

Thirdly, is the Minister aware that there was another inaccurate answer that I was given that day? I asked
"what calculations his Department has made as to the financial consequences of the sale of council houses; and if he will make these available in the Library."
The Minister for Housing and Construction replied:
"I must ask the hon. Member to await information in the next public expenditure White Paper."—[Official Report, 26 July 1979; Vol. 971, cc. 465–66.]
That White Paper was published earlier this month, and contains not one word, not one line, relating to the financial consequences of the sale of council houses.

Fourthly, to clear up the mystery altogether, will the right hon. Gentleman now agree to place in the Library of the House the full document that was leaked and published yesterday in The Guardian? Does he agree that only when that happens will hon. Members be able to judge for themselves whether, in respect of each of the 11 answers that I was given in July by his hon. Friend, he was forthcoming and accurate when he denied that information was available in his Department?

I have made inquiries about the document that apparently was leaked to The Guardian and upon which so many of the hon. Gentlemen's questions are based. My difficulty is this: it was a document that was made available, I understand, among the papers of the previous Government and was therefore not available to Ministers in my Department.

However, in answer to the substantive part of the hon. Gentlemen's continued interest in the question of the financing of council house sales, I have given an undertaking that I will produce a range of assessments upon which the House can make its own judgment in expectation of the parliamentary processes associated with the housing Bill which will be introduced later, before Christmas.

I am sure that the House is grateful to the Secretary of State for having come to us so quickly with the second statement. Of course I am sure that the House accepts his version of events. However, he will equally understand that, at least in the metaphorical sense, some of the things that he says are incredible. I press him particularly on the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) that he did not answer. As the erroneous answer was given in July, and as a letter complaining about that answer was received in his Department in late August, why did the receipt of that letter—which referred specifically to the answer that we now know to be wrong—not trigger off the checking that should have been done before?

Secondly, I refer to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn about the substance of the matter—that is, the figures. If the Secretary of State wishes to publish the paper to which he referred, I have the authority of the previous Prime Minister for saying that we will not provide any let or hindrance, why that should not be done. Therefore, I hope that the Secretary of State will respond to that gesture of good will at once by telling us here and now that he is prepared to publish that paper and put it in the Library of the House.

During the debate on mortgage interest rates yesterday the right hon. Gentleman told me that all these figures are available and were available to the previous Administration and to him. If the right hon. Gentleman is genuinely in the mood of penitence, I suggest that he makes amends and shows good faith by producing the figures at once and putting them in the Library tomorrow.

I have tried to explain to the House—let me go through the argument again—the answer to the first point put by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), whose kind and courteous words I appreciate. The letter from the hon. Member for Blackburn, which pursued his own interests in the subject at length and in detail, was answered in terms of the generality of the interest that he has shown. It has always been my intention to make available the full detail of this complex subject in time for the House to consider the issues involved. However, we did not check and recheck the specific questions of the four grouped answers. I have apologised to the House for that. I am sorry that it did not happen, and I apologise again to the hon. Member for Blackburn.

Returning to the interesting offer of the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook that we should be free to publish the document that was apparently available to the previous Administration, do I take it that he is making it possible for us to publish the round of advice on the subject of rents that was available to the Opposition at that time? If Opposition Members want to refresh their memories about the document they are free to come to my Department to do so. Indeed, I believe that I am right in saying that one of the former Ministers in the previous Administration has already asked to visit my Department and, of course, in the normal way, we have agreed he should have access to the documents on which he was working. To that extent the Opposition are free to see the documents that are there.

The last question that the right hon. Gentleman put to me was broadly along the lines that if all these figures are available to the Department why are they not produced individually as specific questions are tabled? The answer is that I believe that it is right for the House, when looking at this matter, to have a total assessment of the figures and a range of options that the House will be able to consider. I must tell the House that the figures that we produce in this context will be a great deal more forthcoming and revealing than any figures produced by the Opposition when they considered the whole question of public sector rents.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that what he has told the House today sounds more like an innocent mistake than a national scandal? Could he give some indication of what extra cost is involved in the new checking process that he told us about?

I very much hope that the description of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley) will be felt to be reasonable in the circumstances. However, it is a mistake, and for that I am obviously responsible to the House. I believe that the additional checking that we shall introduce will be carried out within the existing establishment.

I am very interested to hear that this document was prepared during the time of my own Administration. As it apparently shows that the case that we made when in opposition is accurate—namely, that huge losses are incurred when council houses are sold—I am not at all sure whether it is proper to give the right hon. Gentleman permission to publish it. But certainly I think that we should examine this document, extract the basic facts and let us see who is correct.

The right hon. Gentleman will understand that on this matter the conclusion that one draws depends entirely upon the facts that are fed into the calculation. Opposition Members should see the calculations before they reach early judgments on the conclusions.

Order. I remind the House that we are asking questions on a statement that explains an error that was made clear due to the point of order yesterday. We are not going into the whole housing question now. Questions must be related to the statement.

Does the right hon. Gentleman really think it fair in the first instance to blame the string and then, in the second instance, not to blame the facts but the computer for what he puts into it?

Order. I owe the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) an apology. They are not all points of order—at least, not yet.

I would like your guidance, Mr. Speaker, on whether the question that I want to ask is in order or whether I need to raise it on a point of order. I have received an answer from the Department of the Environment—from Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg, the Under-Secretary of State—

Order. I remind the House that we never refer to each other by name. We are all, officially, honourable men.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment gave me an answer to a question which I know to be totally inaccurate. In fact, it is misleading me and the House. I want—

Order. I can help the hon. Gentleman. He is by no means the first to feel that an answer that he has received has misled him, but that is not a point of order for me. The contents of Ministers' statements are their own responsibility. All I have to do is to ensure that there is fair play. A misunderstanding was revealed yesterday, and it has been explained today.

Is the Secretary of State aware that I received a letter from his Department yesterday evening, which reads as follows:

"Dear Mr. Kaufman, An error has occurred in the written reply to your Question about the Home Ownership Group (Report) given by Mr. Heseltine on Thursday 15 November 1979. The answer should read ' non-civil servants' and not 'none-civil servants'. I apologise for this error and have informed the Official Reporter. Yours sincerely, Miss M. A. Chambers, Parliamentary Branch."
Anyone comparing that correction with the answer given by the right hon. Gentleman will see that the answer is seriously misleading because it implies, in the context in which it is given, that an inquiry that the right hon. Gentleman has set up costs no money at all, whereas the answer, as corrected, shows that that is not so. Therefore the answer is inaccurate and seriously misleading. If what—

Order. It may well be misleading, but that is not a point of order for me. Disagreements between both sides are settled on the Floor of the House. All I want is for the right hon. Gentleman to give me a point of order upon which I can give a ruling.

With respect, Mr. Speaker, I am not raising a point of order; I am asking the Secretary of State a question in connection with this letter, which has come from his office, about a misleading answer.

Order. That letter is not related to the statement that has been made today. I am sorry, but I am not prepared to allow the right hon. Gentleman to continue on that matter. He must table a question if he wants an answer to it. He must not pursue wider issues than those to which the statement referred.

On a point of order. Mr. Speaker. I certainly would not wish to question your ruling, but the fact is that the Secretary of State's statement dealt with the checking processes of his Department. I was about to ask him about the processes of checking in his Department consequent upon his statement and revealed by the letter that he has sent me. I submit that that would be a perfectly pertinent question.

The last part is definitely in order, because it relates to what the Minister said about the checking in his Department. I remind the House that I have a long list of right hon, and hon. Members who hope to catch my eye during the debate on transport.

May I put a question to the Secretary of State? Why did he not realise this error in the process of checking? Secondly, in consequence of the checking process, why did it take 10 days from the date of the answer to discover the error and put it right? Thirdly, why did the Secretary of State, having discovered the error in the course of the checking process, not himself write to correct it, rather than leave it to a junior official in his Department?

Under the previous Government, between November 1978 and March 1979 four such errors occurred in the administration of the Department of the Environment. It did not seem appropriate to me to raise what by any standards would be trivial changes, arising from what were clearly spelling mistakes. I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for revealing that the checking system in my Department works.

Is the Secretary of State aware that following yesterday's exchanges many Back Benchers have become very concerned about the seriousness of the situation and the fact that there may well have been a policy decision on his part or that of his Ministers to alter these questions? That has serious and sinister undertones for the workings of the House. Will he accept that his statement today, part of which appears to be no more than a wriggle out of a situation, does nothing to assuage those fears? In fact it only points to sheer incompetence on the part of his Department. Is he aware that if that is so, I certainly would not want to buy a secondhand house from him?

The hon. Member will understand that it was my hon. Friend's intention to give a much fuller answer to the two questions that were grouped together. That was the intention behind the approval that he gave. The moment that my hon. Friend discovered, albeit late, that there had been a failure to communicate his intended answers, he came to the House at the earliest possible moment to apologise and to explain what had happened.

Will the Secretary of State bring the factual information on the sale of council houses to the House at the earliest possible opportunity, so that we may have adequate time to consider it before the debate on the housing Bill? Also, will he check the other parliamentary answers that have been given by his Department on the questions about available information, and particularly the reply that the Minister gave me on 14 November as to the lack of information on particular points? That information seems very unlikely to be unavailable, in the light of The Guardian article.

I have explained where The Guardian article originated. Of course I accept the hon. Member's suggestion, which coincides with my assurances to the House. I intend to provide a range of information upon which the House can reach judgment about the economics of council house sales.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Secretary of State said that an apology had been given. Yesterday his junior Minister quite gratuitously brought the officers of Hansard into this rather silly and rather sordid story. In fact, they had produced Hansard but the Government had not managed to print it. May we now have an apology for bringing them into this matter?

Order. That was made clear in the statement, and that was why I did not myself give a ruling that anyone in this House was concerned with the mistake in any way.