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Railway Finances (Written Answer)

Volume 595: debated on Monday 10 November 1958

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May I ask you, Mr. Speaker, whether you have any statement to make in reply to the question I put to you last week concerning the statement by the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation on the British Transport Commission?

On Thursday last, at the end of Questions, the hon. Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies) raised with me the question of a Written Answer by the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation to a Question put by him. This Written Answer had appeared in the OFFICIAL REPORT the day before. The Answer stated that the Minister was circulating both a Report from the Chairman of the British Transport Commission and his reply thereto. In fact, the Answer did not contain the Minister's reply. I find that what happened was this.

The Editor of the OFFICIAL REPORT was told by the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation, on Wednesday morning, that there was an Answer coming which was rather long and containing tables of figures. The Editor asked for an advance copy of the Answer and this was sent to him. He then considered it and suggested to the Ministry a rearrangement of the tables to facilitate printing. This was agreed to and the advance copy was sent to the printers so that they could start setting up the type at once.

This advance copy did not contain the Minister's reply. A duplicate copy containing both the Report and the Minister's reply was sent to the OFFICIAL REPORT later in the day but the staff on duty, thinking that the whole matter had been in the printers' hands for some hours, took no further action. However, the error was detected and an erratum, giving the Minister's reply, appeared in the next issue of HANSARD. It will appear in its proper place in the bound volume.

Having read the Answer, with its tables of figures, I do not think that it could conveniently have been given as an answer after Oral Questions. As to whether it should have been published as a Command Paper, that is a matter of opinion dependent on the Minister's judgment of the relative importance of the subject. I can find no Ruling as to the length of the material circulated in the OFFICIAL REPORT, but I have known many long statements besides this one, although this was a long one.

The hon. Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones) raised the question of a graph which formed part of the Report of the Chairman of the British Transport Commission. A footnote to the original Answer stated that this had been omitted. We have never included graphs in the OFFICIAL REPORT. The reason for this is the great speed with which the OFFICIAL REPORT is produced. I am told that it would take at least 48 hours for the printers to make the block necessary for a graph. I understand that copies of the graph were made available in the Library.

May I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for having looked into this matter and for your reply? May I ask whether you would not agree that in view of the muddle there was over the printing and the omission of the most important reply of the Minister to the Chairman's report, and the fact that certain graphs in the report could not be published in HANSARD, it is clear that this was a misuse of HANSARD, and that it would have been far better if the Minister had published this as a Command Paper? In view of your statement, may I ask whether the Minister will not now reconsider his decision and publish the Answer as a Command Paper?

Finally, may I suggest that it is most inconvenient to the public that in view of this muddle they will have to buy two copies of HANSARD to get the reply of the Minister with the Report from the Chairman, and even that will not be complete? I still suggest that this information should be published as a White Paper.

That, of course, is not a matter for me, but so far as the OFFICIAL REPORT was concerned in this —it was not the whole trouble—I should like to apologise to the House for this omission, as I am responsible for the OFFICIAL REPORT. On the general question, I can only say that I naturally deprecate long statements in the OFFICIAL REPORT, however they get there. I suggest to hon. Members and to Departments that if they are ever in doubt about what form a statement circulated to Members should take it would be useful if they had a word with the Editor of the OFFICIAL REPORT. He is very experienced in these matters and is anxious to help hon. Members and Departments as well as he can.

May I ask the Leader of the House whether, in view of this situation, your statement, Mr. Speaker, and the facts, he would arrange with the Minister to publish the whole matter in a White Paper?

The Secretary of State for the Home Department and Lord Privy Seal
(Mr. R. A. Butler)

I had not been aware of this matter before the interchange took place in the House. I shall certainly discuss this with my right hon. Friend and give any consideration I can to the request made by the right hon. Gentleman. I cannot give any undertaking now, but I will certainly look into the matter.

May I ask, Mr. Speaker, whether your explanation shows that there is no reflection whatever on the Editor of the OFFICIAL REPORT and that all this is due to lack of decision on the part of the Minister?

The Editor is personally not responsible in any way, nor culpable in any way. He properly took the step of asking for an advance copy of this statement so as to get it to the printers at once. The subsequent happenings of this affair were rather out of his control.