Standing Committee E
Thursday 11 June 1998
[Mr. John Butterfill in the Chair]
(Except Clauses 1, 7, 10, 11, 25, 27, 30, 75, 119 and 147)
Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells): On a point of order, Mr. Butterfill. I wonder if you could help us, as you were in the Chair on Tuesday. It surrounds the mysterious affair of the missing words of the Paymaster General. It is beyond dispute that the Paymaster General was replying to Tuesday's debate, in which my hon. Friends had spoken. Indeed, that is confirmed by the selection list, which says:
"Question proposed: Mr. Robinson called".
It is a serious discourtesy that he did not appear this morning to answer that debate. Suspicions were aroused this morning in your absence, Mr. Butterfill, that his absence was connected with the fact that today's debate touches on who benefits from the capital gains tax changes, and matters of overseas trusts, both of which are personally embarrassing to the Paymaster General. So it was a matter of legitimate interest to the Committee why, when the Paymaster General was speaking when the Committee was adjourned on Tuesday, he was not here this morning. In your absence, Mr. Butterfill, Mrs. Dunwoody secured a transcript of the tape, which confirmed that the Paymaster General was speaking at the end of Tuesday's debate. However, his words were entirely absent from the Official Report, and we wondered why the Official Reporters had made a most uncharacteristic oversight, or whether they were acting on instructions or on a suggestion from some other person.
We all have respect for you as Chairman, Mr. Butterfill, and perhaps, as you were in the Chair on Tuesday, you can shed some additional light on why those words are missing and when they can be restored, and whether, in your view, it remains a breach at least of the conventions of the House that the Paymaster General is not prepared to answer the debate.
Mr. Alan Johnson (Hull, West and Hessle): Further to that point of order, Mr. Butterfill. Is the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory criticising this morning's Committee Chairman?
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: I am simply seeking information, Mr. Butterfill. This morning, Mrs. Dunwoody said that it was purely and simply an error on the part of the Official Report, and that there was no intervention by any other hon. Member or, presumably, any Chairman of the Committee. That is how it stands, and of course one accepts that from someone speaking in the capacity of Chairman. However, we are seeking additional information from you this afternoon, Mr. Butterfill.
Several hon. Members rose
The Chairman: Order. I am on my feet and I shall respond to that point of order. Hon. Members may raise further points of order when I have finished, but I may be able to clear the matter up to everyone's satisfaction.
The situation was that we had had a long debate on telephonic communications with the Inland Revenue a rather lighthearted debate at the end of which, and before calling Mr. Robinson, I made a fairly lighthearted remark, and said,
"It is good to talk." [Official Report, Standing Committee E, 9 June 1998; c. 712.]
That is recorded in Hansard. I then called Mr. Robinson, who commenced to speak. As he did so, the Division bell sounded. I have checked the tapes on this matter. I have consulted Madam Speaker, the Clerk and the Editor of Hansard, and we have listened to the tapes together. What is in dispute is whether Mr. Robinson uttered words before I said "Order" because, following the Division bell, I said,
"Order. Division in the House."
Immediately after that, the Lord Commissioner to the Treasury, the hon. Member for Coventry, North East (Mr. Ainsworth) moved the Adjournment.
I have checked precisely what was said before I said "Order." I was under the impression that I said "Order" before Mr. Robinson uttered any words. That is not exactly correct. I have therefore agreed with Hansard that the following words of response should be added to the record. The words amount to a few seconds of speech and I shall read them out.
Mr. Robinson, in response to my remark
"It is good to talk." [Official Report, Standing Committee E, 9 June 1998; c. 712.],
"I have no intention of talking this Bill out this evening, but I would respond in the good humour that has been shown on both sides of the Committee by saying that the Inland Revenue as well as the Government".
At that point I called "Order." It was my view, after consulting the Clerk and Hansard, that nothing of substance had been said in response to the debate and therefore that nothing should be shown on the record.
It is also true that Mr. Robinson approached me after the Committee had adjourned and asked whether it would be in accordance with normal courtesies for him to return to the Committee or whether it would be appropriate for Mrs. Liddell to take his place at the next sitting. He wanted to satisfy himself on the normal courtesies. I assured Mr. Robinson, having consulted the Clerk, that the normal courtesies did not require him to return. That decision has been substantiated by further consultations. It took account of the fact that Mrs. Liddell had been present throughout the debate and was in a perfectly competent position to respond at the next sitting.
I do not therefore consider that there has been any deliberate attempt to fudge the record; nor do I consider that there has been a discourtesy to the Committee.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: I am grateful for that explanation. It is a significant correction to what we were told this morning all in good faith. This is not a criticism of you, Mr. Butterfill, but Mrs. Dunwoody said that it was purely an oversight by the official reporters. It is not clear that you, Mr. Butterfill, had a[Mr. Heathcoat-Amory]
word with the official reporters. Therefore, it was not an oversight by the Official Report. We owe it to them that their unblemished record of reporting what they hear and not what they are told to hear remains unblemished.
I am not criticising you in any way, Mr. Butterfill, but I think that that is a most useful and significant correction which fully validates our insistence that we get on the record exactly what happened. We also now hear that there were discussions between the Government and the Chair [Hon. Members: "No."] Yes there were. You, Mr. Butterfill, confirmed that fact. It would have been helpful in this morning's sitting, which you did not attend, if the Government had made it clear that those discussions had taken place.
The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Mrs. Helen Liddell): Further to that point of order, Mr. Butterfill. The statements by the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) are outrageous, especially in view of the fact that Mrs. Dunwoody made it clear this morning that she would return to the Committee in the afternoon once she had an opportunity to investigate the issue properly. The right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends pushed for her to adjudicate on this matter in the course of the Committee when she was not in a position to consult you, Mr. Butterfill, and others.
It is outrageous and against the principles of the House to attack a Chairman of a Committee in this way, especially when the Chairman is not present. I confirm the events as they were explained by you, Mr. Butterfill. As a matter of courtesy, the Paymaster General and I sought the advice of you and the Clerk. We were very grateful for the courtesy that you showed to us, and we are very grateful for the opportunity to explain our position. It is outrageous that there should be such slander on a Committee Chairman and, indeed, on someone who is much respected in this House.
Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks): Further to that point of order, Mr. Butterfill. Is it not the case that the explanation that the Economic Secretary just gave of why Ministers approached the chair last Tuesday could have been given to the Committee this morning? It was withheld from us this morning. If the hon. Lady had owned up to the attempt to lean on the chair this morning, we might have been spared the statement that you, Mr. Butterfill, have had to make.
The Chairman: There was no attempt to lean on me as Chairman in any way. I was approached as to what was the usual courtesy; I was not leaned on, and will never be leaned on by any member of the Committee. If I had ruled that the usual courtesy would be for the Paymaster General to return, he would have returned. But I was able to assure him that the usual courtesy did not require him to return, especially in view of the fact that another Minister who was competent to reply had been present throughout the debate. If another Minister had not been present throughout and in a position to reply, my ruling would have been different.
Mr. Robert Ainsworth (Lord Commissioner to the Treasury): May I ask you, Mr. Butterfill, to consult with your co-Chairman on exactly what was said to the Committee this morning on this matter. Such consultation is necessary to ensure that there is no discrepancy, as alleged by Opposition Members, and to discuss the disgraceful press allegations that deliberate doctoring of Hansard has taken place at the behest of Ministers. The allegations in this morning's Committee were deplorable, and I request that you and your co-Chairman should consider that issue as well.
Several hon. Members rose
The Chairman: Order. This issue has been aired sufficiently. It was not unreasonable for Mrs. Dunwoody to say what she did this morning, as she was not present at the relevant time and therefore not in full possession of the facts. I have made clear what transpired, and I honestly do not think that there is any justification for any further points of order. I hope that I have clarified the matter. If there was any fault it was perhaps mine; I will accept that. It was certainly not the fault of the Hansard writers, the Clerk or members of the Committee. We should now get on with the debate.