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Point of Order

Volume 729: debated on Tuesday 14 March 2023

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. On Wednesday of last week, I initiated a debate in Westminster Hall on the subject of genomics and national security. In the course of that debate, the Minister responding—the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), who has been notified of this point of order—stated that the Chinese genomics giant, BGI Group, had been responsible for several hacking attacks on Genomics England. The next day, on 9 March, a letter of correction was published in the Official Report at column 2MC:

“An error has been identified in my response to the debate.

The correct response should have been…‘There is no evidence of attempted hacking of Genomics England in 2014 from BGI.’”—[Official Report, 9 March 2023; Vol. 729, c. 2MC.]

First of all, that correction was brought to my attention yesterday by a journalist. At no stage did the Minister’s office contact me to make me aware of its intention to correct—or, perhaps more accurately, alter—the record in that way. Can you clarify for me, Mr Deputy Speaker, whether that conforms to the rules surrounding changes of that sort?

Secondly, is this not an abuse of the procedures for correcting the record? It is not a matter of detail, but a flat contradiction of what the Minister said. In Westminster Hall, the Minister was recounting an incident of which he had personal knowledge. There was nothing to correct. The only explanation that I can see is that the company in question, BGI, has got at the officials in the Minister’s Department and that they have buckled to the pressure.

It is, of course, for Ministers and officials to stand up to or buckle to pressure as they choose, but the Official Report belongs to Parliament. Mr Speaker has been robust in other areas in defending the rights of parliamentarians against outside pressures, especially those coming from China. What can you and he do, Mr Deputy Speaker, to bring the same protections to bear in respect of the Official Report?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for notice of his point of order—hence the more detailed response that I am about to give him.

There is a process in place to enable Ministers to correct the record. It requires the original words used by the Minister to remain in the published official record, but a link is added to the letter of correction subsequently provided, subject to the agreement of the Editor of the Official Report. The right hon. Member has put his views about the correction on the record; other readers of the Official Report will be able to draw their own conclusions from the Minister’s original comments and the subsequent correction.

However, the process also requires the Department to inform Members involved in any exchanges that lead to a correction. The Department should have done so in this case, rather than leaving the right hon. Member to hear about the correction from a journalist. I am sorry that that did not happen in this case, and I trust that Ministers will ensure that Members are properly informed in future.

I also note that the Procedure Committee is currently undertaking an inquiry into ministerial corrections. The right hon. Gentleman is welcome to make representations to that Committee about the operation of the process.