Written Answers

– in the House of Commons at 3:33 pm on 11th March 1986.

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Photo of Mr Giles Radice Mr Giles Radice Shadow Secretary of State for Education 3:33 pm, 11th March 1986

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance and protection against what I believe to be a deliberate misuse by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury of the system of written questions and answers to spread inaccurate information about the Labour party's spending proposals and about Labour's education plans, in particular.

In a written answer on 3 March, which appears in column 29 of Hansard, the Chief Secretary gave a calculation of the cost of the Labour party's spending proposals for schools. According to footnotes 17 and 18, he purported to be quoting from a press conference which I had given on 16 April 1985 and which was reported in The Guardian of the following day. I did not make the estimate contained in the Chief Secretary's written answer, nor did The Guardian report me as making that estimate. I should add that the Chief Secretary's estimate was five times greater than the proposals for increased spending which I actually made.

Could you advise me, Mr. Speaker, on how we can prevent the system of written questions and answers from being deliberately misused in this way?

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

The hon. Member gave me notice of his intention to raise this matter on a point of order, and this has enabled me to look into it. I have already received a letter from the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) on the same subject, and have replied to it. What I wrote then to the right hon. Member I now say to the hon. Member.

The costing of a party's political programme and the accuracy or otherwise of that costing are matters for public debate. As Speaker, I have no place in that. The hon. Member has complained specifically about the Chief Secretary's costing of the official Opposition's proposals being published in Hansard which, he has said, gives authority to much erroneous matter. There are ample precedents for the policies of Opposition parties to be so costed. I can only advise the hon. Gentleman to make use of the ordinary procedures of the House to call Ministers to account.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Do I understand from your reply that, although you told the hon. Gentleman clearly that this matter was not a point of order, he insisted on raising it as a point of order?

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Not at all. I received a letter from the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook, who has not risen on this point of order.

Photo of Mr Stuart Holland Mr Stuart Holland , Vauxhall

Accustomed as we are to Tory inflation, in that same parliamentary reply the Chief Secretary to the Treasury inflated the Labour party's commitment to the aid programme by 300 per cent. Surely there must be some redress to correct Hansard and to deny the impression given by the Government that the Labour party's programme is inflationary. We are delighted to increase the aid programme, but not on terms dictated by Ministers.

Several Hon. Members:

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Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. We can complete this matter. There are ample parliamentary opportunities to deal with it—for example, during the Consolidated Fund debate later this week. These are not points of order for me.

Photo of Mr Reginald Freeson Mr Reginald Freeson , Brent East

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Although we accept your ruling about debates and exchanges on the costing of Opposition programmes, can you advise us what we can do, not about the costings as such, but about the publication of facts and figures attributed to documents which do not exist? I refer to item 13 in the answer concerned, in which it is stated, for example, that, according to a document published by the TUC, 125,000 new starts will be made in housing, although that figure does not appear in the document.

Several Hon. Members:

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Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. These are not matters for me. I am in no way responsible for the answers that Ministers give.

Photo of Mr Ian Gow Mr Ian Gow , Eastbourne

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not clear that, in so far as my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary may have sinned, he may have underestimated the cost of the prolifigate policies of the Labour party?

Photo of Robert Wareing Robert Wareing , Liverpool, West Derby

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the fact that the Minister is not accountable for the Labour party's programme, costings or otherwise, was it not an abuse of the House to use the facility of written questions and answers? As for the cost of producing that answer, will the Minister now be surcharged and disqualified?

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

As I said in my reply to the original point of order, there are ample precedents for Opposition programmes to be costed.

Photo of Dr Oonagh McDonald Dr Oonagh McDonald , Thurrock

May I ask a question to clarify my mind about the nature and implications of your ruling, Mr. Speaker? Does your ruling imply that Ministers may use the columns of Hansard to give information which is known to be misleading, to both Parliament and the public? Is it not the case that written answers have a certain authority and are used by us in the House as the basis for our arguments and debates, as, indeed, they are used outside the House? What are the implications of your ruling?

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

The hon. Lady is asking me to adjudicate on whether the answer is correct. I have no knowledge of that. I cannot be held responsible, among my many other responsibilities, for answers that are given to questions.

Several Hon. Members:

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Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. I will take only two more points of order, one from each side of the House.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon , Darlington

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wonder, without questioning your judgment, whether you are being sufficiently tolerant to the Opposition. At the time of the last Budget the shadow Chancellor called for an increase in public spending of £5 billion and his colleagues have subsequently called for an increase of £24 billion. Is it not inevitable that the dispute should have spread outside the shadow Cabinet across to these Benches?

Photo of Mr Willie Hamilton Mr Willie Hamilton , Central Fife

How can you, Mr. Speaker, or anybody else prevent the Government from telling lies?

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

I will take the hon. Gentleman on a final point of order, but I cannot be held responsible for answers given in written answers to questions.

Photo of Mr Roy Hattersley Mr Roy Hattersley , Birmingham Sparkbrook

I rise, Mr. Speaker, on a point of order to offer some sort of defence for the Chief Secretary. It is only fair to point out that, out of his 28 items, two are accurate—we propose to increase child benefit, and we propose to help the long-term unemployed.