Select Committee on Procedure Second Report

Corrections to the Official Report

The Problem

1. Ministers provide Parliament with a great deal of information. They answer both oral and written parliamentary questions. They make statements on the floor of the House and in writing. They contribute to debates of all sorts. Inevitably there are occasions when some part of that information turns out to have been mistaken. When such mistakes occur, Ministers are under an obligation to correct them. The House's resolution on Ministerial Accountability states:

It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.[1]

The Ministerial Code places a similar requirement on Ministers:

it is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.[2]

2. In this short report we are concerned only with the procedures and mechanisms by which Ministers may correct inadvertent errors which they accept they have made. We do not intend to make any change to the procedures by which Ministers are held to account for deliberately misleading the House. We are separately conducting an inquiry into Written Parliamentary Questions in the course of which we will consider the procedures for the answering of questions and what opportunities should be available to Members to pursue answers with which they are not satisfied.

3. We have addressed this matter in part at the instigation of the Leader of the House, Rt Hon Jack Straw MP. He wrote to our Chairman proposing that we should consider the establishment of a separate corrections page in the Official Report (Hansard).[3] But that letter was not the start of the process. The matter had been raised with us by Mr Andrew Selous MP in December 2005.[4] We had followed it up in correspondence with the then Leader of the House. It was in response to that correspondence that the Leader of the House wrote to us in January this year. We took up his proposal and consulted the relevant House authorities. We received their response in March.[5] We are grateful to them for the work they have done in identifying the key issues. This report builds on their memorandum.

4. There are currently five ways in which written corrections can be made. These are described in full in the memorandum from the Editor of Hansard and the Principal Clerk, Table Office (referred to throughout the remainder of this report as 'the Memorandum'). In summary they are—

  • A letter to the Editor pointing out a minor error which does not alter the meaning of the passage and which is then corrected in the Bound Volume of Hansard.
  • A pursuant answer. This method (which can only be used to correct an error in the answer to a parliamentary question) requires the agreement of the Table Office and is restricted to 'relatively inconsequential matters of fact (figures and dates).'[6]
  • An 'inspired' question, tabled on behalf of the Minister and which provides an opportunity to correct an answer previously given or a statement previously made.
  • A letter to the Member to whom the original incorrect information was given explaining that an error was made and giving the correct information. A copy of the letter is also placed in the Library. The correction is recorded in the Library information system (PIMS), but there is no record of it in Hansard.
  • A written ministerial statement. This is the most immediately transparent method of correction, although, as we discuss below, even this does not provide the clear link between the original error and its correction which we would ideally like to see.

5. There is, as far as we are aware, no authoritative guidance on which of these procedures would be appropriate for specific categories of error. Mr Selous in his original letter to our Chairman drew attention to the differing practices of two government departments which had made similar errors.[7] Furthermore, because there are several available options, there is no simple way of discovering whether a correction has been made. Corrections which are made by means of a letter sent to the Member and placed in the Library are not generally available to anyone outside the Palace of Westminster.

Our proposal

6. We agree with the proposal of the Leader of the House that there should be a separate corrections page in Hansard. The Memorandum sets out what would be the practical arrangements for such a page. It also poses three questions for our consideration:


7. The letter from the Leader of the House focuses on errors in ministerial 'written (and possibly oral) answers.'[8] It is clear that the vast majority of cases which Members raise with Mr Speaker relate to the answers to questions. Corrections by way of pursuant answers can of course only be made to errors in earlier answers. But errors can be made in other contexts, such as statements and speeches in debate. The Memorandum suggests that a corrections page should include:

written and oral answers, including those given in response to statements and urgent questions, written ministerial statements, and anything said by a Minister in that capacity in the Chamber or Westminster Hall.[9]

We agree with this approach. If the House is to establish a dedicated page for corrections, its scope should not be artificially restricted to a few specific types of proceeding. Indeed we would go further. We believe that, if a Minister makes an error in a general committee and does not have an opportunity to correct it in the course of that committee's proceedings (for example, because the committee is a public bill committee and consideration of the bill is completed before the error is noticed), the error should be corrected by means of the corrections page.

8. The Memorandum also argues that the corrections page should include corrections to answers 'made in an official capacity by those non-ministerial Members who answer on behalf of various statutory bodies—for example, the Church Commissioners and the House of Commons Commission.' The purpose of any corrections page should be to ensure that, if an error is made, there is an open and well-understood procedure for its correction and for the publication of that correction. It is likely given the nature of parliamentary business that the majority of errors will be made by Ministers. The provision of accurate information in respect of policies and actions is, of course, a key component of ministerial accountability to Parliament. But where other Members have a similar responsibility to provide accurate information, they should be subject to similar requirements as to the correction of inadvertent errors. We agree with the Memorandum that corrections from non-ministerial Members who have formal responsibilities to answer in the House on behalf of a body should be included in the corrections page.


9. The obligation on Ministers to ensure that the information they provide to Parliament is accurate is set out in the Ministerial Code and in the House's resolution on ministerial accountability. Ministers take this obligation very seriously. Considering the amount of information involved, significant errors are rare. Corrections are not an everyday occurrence. The Memorandum suggests that the publication of corrections might be held back to a specific day of the week. This would provide a predictable time when Members could check for any relevant corrections.

10. We understand these arguments of convenience, but we do not believe that the consequence would be consistent with the obligation which the House places on Ministers to correct any error 'at the earliest opportunity.' Some errors, once spotted, require urgent correction. They may for example be relevant to a matter or to legislation which is currently before the House. We therefore propose that corrections should be published as soon as they are received. This would introduce a small element of unpredictability, but if the corrections are to have a separate section in Hansard with their own column numbering, they will not be difficult to find and their presence will be indicated in the list of contents on the back of each daily part.

11. In our view this should be sufficient to ensure that Members are aware of any relevant corrections. An additional possibility would be for Hansard to email all Members whenever a correction is published. However, many corrections are very minor (for example, where they are to specific figures in lengthy tables of routinely provided data). Members receive very many emails and we do not wish to add unnecessarily to the congestion in their inboxes.[10]


12. The Memorandum suggests that each correction should reproduce the texts of the original question and answer, or the original passage from debate, followed by the text of the correction.[11] We agree. A correction should be free-standing. It should set out what the original error was, in what circumstances it was made (e.g. in reply to a written question), and how it is being corrected. There should be a clear cross-reference to the error itself. We discuss cross-referencing further in paragraphs 16 and 17 below. The correction should be headed by the name of the Minister by whose authority it is being made, as for written ministerial statements.

13. Errors can come in many different forms. Corrections may be similarly various. But a corrections page should be used only for corrections. It should not be an occasion to provide new information, however closely related to the original proceeding. Neither should it be used to rehearse the arguments which may have given rise to the original error. Currently pursuant answers have to be cleared with the Table Office to ensure that they are used only for the narrow purposes for which they are intended. This is a relatively informal procedure which, in our view, causes little inconvenience to either the government department or the Table Office. We believe that it would be sensible to extend this procedure to all corrections to be made using the new procedure.


14. The Memorandum set out five categories of correction. The first of these is to a minor error where the correction does not alter the meaning of the passage, and where the error 'normally, but not exclusively' has been made by the Official Report. These corrections are made silently in the Bound Volume and the version of the Hansard on the website is altered when the Bound Volume is published. We do not believe that this category of error needs to be included in a corrections page, as long as the alteration remains editorial rather than substantive. Where the correction is to an answer, it will be good practice for the Minister also to inform the Member who asked the question. We are content that the arrangements for the correction of this category of errors should remain unchanged.


15. One of the principal purposes of a dedicated corrections page is to make it easier for Members and the public to find where an error has been made and what the correct information is, but this must not be achieved at the expense of the Member whose original question or intervention gave rise to the error. At present corrections made by letter are sent to the Member concerned as well as to the Library, as are pursuant answers. It is essential that this practice is carried forward to the new arrangements. Ministers must ensure that the Member, whose question or intervention gave rise to an error which is to be corrected in the corrections page, is informed of that correction before its publication in Hansard.


16. A corrections page operating as we have proposed would provide a clear link from a correction to the original error. It would not, however, provide the complementary and equally important link from the error to the correction. The Memorandum proposes that, in the electronic version of Hansard, 'Hyperlinks would be inserted between the original text where it originally appeared and the corrections section.'[12] We welcome this proposal, but we would like to go further.

17. The Bound Volume is the long-term authoritative version of Hansard. It is normally published some months after the period it covers. Most inadvertent errors are identified within weeks, if not days, of being made. In the vast majority of cases it should be possible also to insert a cross-reference from the error to the correction in the Bound Volume.


18. The Memorandum notes that the introduction of a corrections page will require new software which may take some weeks to develop. There may also be some additional costs both from the publication of the page itself and as a result of introducing hyperlinks for cross-referencing in the electronic copy. These will need to be properly quantified. Accordingly we propose that the corrections page should be introduced from the start of the next session of Parliament, which is likely to be in November 2007.


19. We recommend that a dedicated corrections page be introduced in the Official Report (Hansard). It should be used for all corrections to inadvertent errors of fact made by Ministers and other Members who provide information to the House in an official capacity. Very minor corrections which do not alter the meaning of the original text may continue to be made editorially by Hansard. The corrections page should have its own column numbering and suffix.

20. This procedure should replace the use of letters placed in the Library, pursuant answers, 'inspired' questions and written ministerial statements. As with written ministerial statements, all corrections must be made in the name of a Minister (or other Member, as appropriate).

21. The corrections page should be used for corrections to errors made in the Chamber, in Westminster Hall and in general committees, where there is no opportunity to correct them during the proceedings of that committee.

22. Corrections should be published at the earliest opportunity.

23. The Member who asked the question or made the speech or intervention which gave rise to the error should be informed of the correction before it is published.

24. Each correction should be free-standing. It should set out what the original error was, in what circumstances it was made (e.g. in reply to a written question), and how it is being corrected. There should be a clear cross-reference to the error itself. It should not be used to provide new information or to continue an argument. The Table Office should check all corrections before publication for compliance with these rules (which are set out in more detail in paragraphs 12 and 13 above).

25. As well as cross-references from the correction to the error, there should be, wherever possible, cross-references from the error to the correction. These should be by hyperlink in the electronic version.

26. This procedure should be introduced from the start of the 2007-08 parliamentary session.

1   CJ (1996-97) 328. Back

2   Ministerial Code 2007, paragraph 1.15. Back

3   Ev 1 Back

4   Ev 1 Back

5   Ev 2 Back

6   Ev 2 Back

7   Ev 1 Back

8   Ev 1 Back

9   Ev 3 Back

10   See Administration Committee, Second Report of Session 2006-07, Information and Communication Technology Services for Members, paras 116-118. Back

11   Ev 3 Back

12   Ev 3 Back

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