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Nuclear Security

Volume 977: debated on Thursday 31 January 1980

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

May I raise a point of order, Mr. Speaker, of which I gave you notice this morning and on which I have talked to the office at No. 10 Downing Street and to the Editor of Hansard and which I believe is of significance in principle to all hon. Members?

It is known to some hon. Members that I have been asking a series of questions concerned with nuclear security leaks from the joint centrifuge project at Almelo, Holland, and the consequences of these leaks, generally called the URENCO Khan incident, for the development of a Pakistani or Islamic nuclear weapon—hardly a trivial matter.

On Tuesday 29 January, in columns 1122 and 1123 the Prime Minister answered a question of specific substance, of which she had the usual fortnight's warning, on the URENCO security position. When I examined what she had said in print in Hansard, I had the impression that it read rather differently from what I had understood the Prime Minister to say in the House, to which I had listened intently.

I therefore went to the sound archive unit in Norman Shaw South, where I had the most courteous and prompt attention from Mr. Philip Farlow and the head of the unit, Mr. Morgan. For the usual 25p fee they gave me a cassette of what the Prime Minister had said, which I have given to the Clerk to the House in case you find it convenient to listen to it, Mr. Speaker.

In at least six instances the Prime Minister's replies to myself and to my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) were different from the recorded cassette in wording and in the various degrees of emphasis, and in one other instance there was a material difference. The Prime Minister did not say:
"We tried to secure undertakings from the Government of Pakistan that they would not transfer any nuclear technology anywhere else."—[Official Report, 29 January 1980;Vol. 977, c. 1023.]
According to the cassette, she said: "We do try…".

The implication of the Hansard report was that the Government had actually tried and failed on a specific occasion. According to the cassette, this is not the meaning, and another question I had devised would not have been put on a false basis.

We are all indebted to the Hansard reporters for the wonderful job they do in tidying up our grammar and, frankly, I understand that, cassette or no cassette, sound broadcasting unit or no sound broadcasting unit, there has to be a certain editorial discretion by Hansard. Like others, I do not know what I would do without the assistance of Hansard quite often when it comes to grammar and, candidly, had some change occurred in, for example, some obscure amendment to yesterday's National Heritage Bill, I should not be raising the issue.

On the other hand, the answers to Prime Minister's Questions can be very sensitive, and is it not desirable that what any Prime Minister says at Question Time, warts and all, should in fact be reported in print? In particular, when the question is not an open question about her day's diary but a very precise question on a narrow topic of which she has been given warning and on which it is surely proper to try to interrogate her, should not special care be taken to put in print what the Prime Minister of the day actually said?

Frankly, I am of the opinion in this instance that both the Hansard reporters and the Prime Minister's private secretaries who check her answers in Hansard acted in good faith, but it is precisely because there appears to be an absence of skulduggery on this occasion that I think that it is a good time for you, Mr. Speaker, to reflect on the issues involved and possibly to make a statement at your convenience, and perhaps for the Prime Minister to make her views known at her convenience on the reporting of her answers at Question Time.

I submit that this is a subject of some consequence to all Members.

Order. I have a considered reply to give to the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell), who submitted his point of order this morning. Perhaps the hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) will wait and see what my reply is.

First of all, there is quite a simple reply: yes, there was a mistake in Hansard. The shorthand writing has been examined and there was a mistake in copying. It is a simple, human error that has happened before and I have no doubt at all will happen again. But I have already made it clear to the House that I am not going to accept the BBC recording as in any way a check upon Hansard. I am going to be guided by our Hansard reporters, on whose integrity we all rely and who will write down what they hear. Otherwise, as I have explained to the House before, some distant microphone could pick up a remark that the rest of the House does not hear and it could land us in exceedingly great difficulty.

But I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the necessary correction will be made in Hansard.