HC Deb 06 February 1945 vol 407 cc1988-91
Mr. Silkin

I beg to move, in page 4, line 9, after "them," insert: afford to any person making an objection an opportunity of appearing before and being heard by a person appointed for the purpose by the Minister or, if it appears to the Minister that the matters to which the objection relates are such as to require investigation by public local inquiry, Clause 5 provides for the licensing planning committee making the proposals for various types of licences, planning removals, and for surrender. It provides, further, that when no objection is made, the Minister may confirm the proposal, either with or without modification, but in any other case … that is, if any objection is made, then the Minister shall, before confirming the proposals, cause a public local inquiry to be held. In my view, that condition is too wide. It compels the Minister to hold a public local inquiry whatever the nature of the objection may be, whatever the point of the objection may be, whether the objection is frivolous, whether it may be made in any other way—the Minister is bound to hold an inquiry if an objection is made. The person objecting, according to the wording of the Clause, may have no locus in the matter at all; a person from John o' Groats may object to a licence being given in Birmingham or London and, if he does object, the Minister is compelled to hold an inquiry. I submit that is ridiculous and that the Minister ought to have some discretion in the matter. Let us consider the type of objection that might be made. It might be the type of objection which the Noble Lady the Member for the Sutton Division of Plymouth (Viscountess Astor) might make. She objects to all licences. She could, if she were sufficiently well-organised, give notice of objection to every single licorice throughout the country—

Viscountess Astor

I would not be such an idiot.

Mr. Silkin

—and my right hon. Friend would be compelled to hold an inquiry in every case. Obviously that is not the purpose of this provision. There might be an objection on the ground that the premises are not suitable. That is a matter which would normally, and under this Bill, be dealt with by the licensing justices. Nevertheless, if the objection were made, my right hon. Friend would be compelled to hold a public inquiry. It is not my intention to point out objections. Indeed, in the observations I made on an earlier Clause, I expressed the opinion that it was desirable that the public should have full opportunity for expressing their views about the provision of licences.

3.15 p.m.

This Amendment is not designed to remove from the public any right of objection, but to remove from the public the right to an automatic public ideal inquiry every time an objection is made for any purpose whatever. It will still be an obligation on the Minister to consider every objection and hear every objector, but if he made up his mind that the objection was frivolous, or not a matter for which a local public inquiry was necessary, he would have the right to say that he would deal with the matter in some other way. There is a precedent for this provision in the Town and Country Planning Act, 1944, and a further precedent in the Housing (Temporary Provisions) Act, 1944, which remove the obligation to hold a public inquiry for two years. Therefore, if my right hon. Friend accepts the Amendment she would not be creating any difficulty or awkward precedent.

There is another point, and it is that it may well happen that the subject matter in connection with the granting of licences may have already been dealt with in a previous local inquiry. This Bill deals specifically and particularly with war damaged areas, and it may well happen that the Minister of Town and Country Planning may have held a public inquiry in connection with a war damaged area, in which the question of licences in general may have been raised. There may have been an objector specifically on the licensing point, and to be compelled to hold a second public inquiry, possibly on the very same point, will not speed up the working of this Measure. I hope, therefore, that my right hon. Friend will see her way to accept this modest and reasonable Amendment, so that we can get on with the Bill.

Mr. McKinlay

I hope the Minister will not accept the Amendment, because it is too simple, too ingenious. If I understand the position, it will leave absolute discretion to the Home Secretary to determine what, in his view, is an objection to an inquiry. To leave to the Home Secretary the right to determine whether an objection is trivial or not is wrong. If I may say so without offence, heaven help some objectors if they have to deal with the kind of persons who have held the office of Home Secretary in the past. There should either be an inquiry or not, but it is dangerous to place this discretion in the hands of one man.

Miss Wilkinson

In spite of the fact that the two hon. Members who have just spoken have put forward diametrically opposed points of view I think I may be able to satisfy them both. The speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Mr. Silkin) has been most helpful. He has called attention to a very real difficulty. It is not good to be compelled to go to the expense and trouble of holding an inquiry, at which there may be not only frivolous but a highly organised series of objec- tions to defeat the Measure by sidewinds, as it were. We are in agreement with the general purport of my hon. Friend's speech, which is to reduce the number of occasions on which it will be necessary to set in motion the somewhat cumbrous machinery of a public inquiry. I want to assure my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbartonshire (Mr. McKinlay) that while it is true that under the proposed Amendment, which we shall accept, objectors may be heard by only one person, that person will be specially appointed, and it will not exclude a public inquiry being held. It will apply to a full hearing of all objectors and will enable individual objections which do not raise matters of principle to be dealt with quickly and expeditiously. We think it would be in harmony with the general proposals of the Bill, and after consultation with the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, which also takes this view, we feel we can accept the Amendment. It is obvious that if an objection has substance and backing no Home Secretary will say that the matter is frivolous or has no real substance. If he does there is always the remedy in this House, where the matter can be raised and ventilated. It is to nobody's interest to make the Bill so cumbrous that it will not work quickly in this awkward transition period.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendments made:

In page 4, line 10, leave out "objections," and insert, "objection."

In 4, line 11, leave out "holding the inquiry," and insert: before whom the objector appeared or the person holding the inquiry, as the case may require."—[Mr. Silkin.]

Clause 5, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.