HC Deb 19 March 1970 vol 798 cc652-72
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harry Gourlay)

Before I call the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Michael Hamilton) I remind the House that it is out of order to raise on a Supplementary Estimate the whole question of policy involved on an original Estimate unless the increase in new money is substantial. Nor can savings be discussed. The subject the hon. Member is to raise is covered in Class VI, D.4, which shows a decrease of £84,000.

5.25 p.m.

Mr. Michael Hamilton (Salisbury)

We are proud to have in my constituency, Stonehenge. It is unique and the most visited ancient monument in Britain. Its origins are shrouded in mystery.

I do not know where the Minister is and whether he intends coming to reply to this debate. This Government have now succeeded in creating a second monument within the constituency. This also is quite unique and its origins are equally shrouded in mystery. Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I have your help before continuing by asking that the Minister in charge of the Department should be present?

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Reginald Freeson)

The hon. Member should be aware of the facts. In fact I am from the Department concerned.

Mr. Hamilton

I offer the Parliamentary Secretary my apologies. I was expecting the Minister who has been handling this matter to attend.

Mr. Freeson

To get the matter clear on the record, I should explain that my hon. Friend the other Joint Parliamentary Secretary would normally be handling these matters of planning but he has been ill and has been away from the Department for a little time, and still is.

Mr. Hamilton

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clearing up a misunderstanding.

An old friend of mine was visiting the area in Wiltshire recently. We saw the cathedral and we lunched together at the Red Lion. Afterwards we drove out to enjoy the view from the top of Dean Hill. He pointed out some work in progress beneath us and asked what it was. I said, "That is chalk quarrying." He said, "But why on earth have a chalk quarry here? Do you not have any planning in Wiltshire?" I said, "Yes, indeed. We have a very good planning authority, but this was the Minister's decision." He asked, "But why should chalk be quarried here?" I told him that it was very special chalk and that he was standing on holy ground, that more than 200 alternative sites had been considered previously and that the sooner my friend learned that there was all the difference in the world between chalk and chalk the better.

"But what is so special about this particular chalk?" he asked me. I told him that I did not know the answer, that I had asked the Minister, that the Minister knows but the Minister is not prepared to tell me. I told him that the excavating company had offered to tell me but that its offer was conditional and that therefore if I had accepted I should not have been able to tell my friend anyway.

"This is very curious," said my friend. "Is there no one who can tell us?" "Well," I said, "There are over 100,000 people living in this constituency. There are two men both of them known to me, good friends, who work in Salisbury and who know the entire story." "Then let us go and see them at once," said my friend.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman but the Chair is in a difficult position. This is not the normal Consolidated Fund Bill. This is a Consolidated Fund Bill dealing with the Supplementary Estimates and hon. Gentlemen must relate his remarks to the increased expenditure. On this Estimate which the hon. Gentleman is discussing there is a decrease. He is obliged under the rules of the House to show that there is an offsetting increase in the Estimates so that he may be in order in debating the subject. I find it difficult to relate his remarks to the rules of order.

Mr. Hamilton

What I am primarily concerned with is the preservation of the countryside. I am happy to take note of what you say, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think you will find as I continue with my speech that we will come closer to the point that I am illustrating, namely a most astonishing question of the preservation of the countryside within my constituency.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

As I have already indicated in my previous Ruling, on a Supplementary Estimate we cannot discuss the policy contained in the original Estimates. We can only discuss on the Consolidated Fund Bill now before the House the reasons for the increases in the Estimates. We cannot discuss the general policy. If the hon. Gentleman can relate his remarks more to the specific Estimate perhaps we can proceed.

Mr. Hamilton

I welcome your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The last thing that I wish to do is to detain the House in any way. If I can put forward to your satisfaction the need for increased expenditure to preserve the countryside would you be satisfied?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Again, the Chair is in a difficulty in applying the rules of the House. It is necessary, under this Consolidated Fund Bill, to indicate that there is an offsetting increase arising from the decrease in the Estimate before the House. In page 191, in the Supplementary Estimate D.4 headed "Grants for Preserving and Improving the Countryside", the hon. Gentleman will observe that there is a decrease in the Estimate of £84,000, which is before the House. I must again emphasise that an hon. Member is not allowed under the rules of procedure to discuss a decrease in the Estimates unless he can show that there is an offsetting increase.

Mr. Christopher Chataway (Chichester)

Further to that point of order. The eighth subject for discussion tonight, which has been withdrawn, but which was allowed by the Chair, specifically referred to the decrease in these Estimates. I understand that it has been withdrawn because the hon. Gentleman who tabled it has been satisfied that the decrease has a perfectly honourable explanation—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Perhaps I could assist the hon. Gentleman. The fact that a subject has been placed on the list does not in itself signify that the matter is in order for discussion.

Mr. Hamilton

I am exceedingly anxious to remain within the rules of order. Do you wish me to demonstrate, in what I am saying, that more money should be spent on preserving the countryside or that less money should be spent?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It is not for the Chair to suggest to the hon. Gentleman what his speech should contain. I am in as much difficulty as the hon. Gentleman. I can only apply the rules of the House. I repeat that he is required under the rules of procedure to indicate, as a result of the decrease which has taken place with this Estimate, that there is an offsetting increase in another sub-head of the same Estimate.

Mr. Chataway

Does it have to be an increase within the current year or would it be open to my hon. Friend to argue, as he might do, that to make this decrease now means that there will be increases in future, resulting from activities in his constituency?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It can only apply to the Estimates ending on 31st March this year.

Mr. Hamilton

Would it not be best to proceed and if you have any unease, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I hope that you will not hesitate to pull me up again. We will see if we can clarify matters in that way.

I was explaining that my friend and I were looking over the valley and my friend was puzzled. He said, "Let us go and see these men at once. You surely cannot sit here and do nothing while the valley is destroyed". I explained that these two men would happily have a drink with us, but that both are sworn to secrecy on oath, that they are men of honour and that for the rest of their mortal lives they are bound by this Government to secrecy. "This becomes curiouser and curiouser," said my friend. "You ought to raise the matter in the House of Commons".

I told him that I had already done so but that the Government were perfectly content with things as they stood. "But what sort of pantomime is this?" he asked me. "This is still a democracy, we have not reached 1984 yet. Your job here is to know about local problems and to safeguard your constituents at Westminster. You will have to let the Prime Minister know about this". Again I explained that I had told the Prime Minister about it, but that he was perfectly content with things as they are. "But this cannot be true," said my friend. "A giant company with its machines comes over 100 miles into Wiltshire and you do not even know why this valley was selected. Ministers of the Crown are a party to a conspiracy of silence. Surely this sort of thing does not happen in 1970? What about Mr. Heath or that new Ombudsman?"

Here again I explained that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexley (Mr. Heath) was Leader of the Opposition and that no doubt the day would come when he would be in a position to iron out many of our difficulties. I explained that this case was unique in that no planning inquiry had ever before been held in secret, that there were no precedents, no guide lines and no rules and that the Ombudsman's main function is to intervene when rules have been broken. Thus my friend returned to London a very puzzled man.

I make no apology for returning today to the problems of Grimstead. On the only previous occasion when I raised this matter in the House the Minister was very sympathetic and tolerant and was good enough to welcome the possibility of a further exchange of views at a later date. Much water has flowed under the bridge since then. We have entered European Conservation Year. Moreover the Government, maybe in a mood of contrition, have published a splendid document headed "Participation in Planning"—I rather liked that! There have been a number of developments.

Lest anyone should imagine that the Grimstead affair is some storm in a provincial teacup, perhaps by way of introduction I could remind the House that, in the Minister's words, … the workings will have inevitably some effect upon the landscape and the life of the community."; that excavation is permitted to go down 160 feet; that the company now own an area in this valley a good deal larger than Hyde Park and finally that the Council for the Protection of Rural England believes: … that the beauty of this lovely stretch of rolling countryside will be largely destroyed—no matter how thoroughly the restoration after chalk working may be—if most of the area were to be excavated and left as a depression. English China Clays Ltd. is one of Britain's great companies. It is of the highest standing; it earns valuable foreign currency; it employs more than 11,000 people. It has been established 50 years. That much is accepted, and needs no repetition.

After the exchange in the House last July the chairman of the company saw fit to write to his shareholders—some 20,000 of them. He did not send me a copy, and there was no cause for him to do so. He began by referring to my speech and continued with the phrase, I should like to know the facts. I did not resent the implication. To the contrary, I mention the matter now because I welcome the fullest information being given to shareholders about a company's activities. Admittedly, it struck me at the time that a verbatim report of my brief speech and the Minister's very clear reply might have been included with his letter so that the owners of the company might more easily form an independent judgment. However, the great point is that the shareholders have been told of the company's arrival in Wiltshire.

I lay no claim to being a professional businessman. But I was fortunate in first becoming a director of a public company as long ago as 1947. That company has now been established 100 years, and I am associated with another which has been established for 250 years. It has always been my experience that shareholders welcome information and that their interest ranges far more widely than merely over the size of the forthcoming dividend. I should be very interested to know one day how far the proprietors of this great enterprise are happy with what is being done in their name—the securing of Britain's first planning inquiry in secret, the objection raised by their company to the presence of the only expert witness, and so on. Perhaps one day I shall send out a questionnaire such as the Minister and I and other hon. Members often receive. It is possible, I suppose, that those who attach great importance to good will would prefer a policy which saw chalk worked in a less lovely setting and Wiltshire's green valleys left in peace. Be that as it may, I am delighted that the shareholders should learn about Wiltshire, and my quarrel today is not with the company.

There is widespread unease on the question of the authority under which the hearing was held in camera. The Minister took legal advice, but lawyers are fallible, like the rest of us. I suggest that the advice was not correct. We are told that in law there is no bar to such proceedings. I accept that, but the Minister would agree that it is a peculiarly weak defence. There is no bar to a great many things, yet I can think of many actions not specifically debarred by law to which the Minister, like me, would react most sharply if any Government were to carry them out. Could he elaborate a little more on this point? It is not mere chance that through the years such action has never been contemplated or sanctioned before. The Minister will have seen that in another context my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Epsom (Sir P. Rawlinson), a former Solicitor-General, said on Tuesday of this week that he found it wholly objectionable that the Government should give the Commercial Court powers to sit in private. In yesterday's Press a leading article said: This should be beyond argument. It is fundamental to the British concept of justice: that it should not only be done, but be seen—and heard—to be done. There has been a rather painful misunderstanding about the visit to the Ministry before the inquiry was held. Perhaps the Minister would clarify that this afternoon, because the explanations to date are not satisfactory. Confusion arises because the Minister is on record as stating that the company was not told at that meeting that it could have in camera proceedings, and that such a decision must depend entirely on the discretion of the inspector at the time. But the Prime Minister is on record as saying: Because of the secret nature of the process, they the company— sought the Minister's agreement to holding part of the inquiry in camera and it was decided that in all the circumstances it would be right to deal with their inquiry in this way. He also referred to the undertaking about the in camera proceedings which was given to the company before the inquiry. This confusion has given rise to considerable feeling, and it is best disposed of quickly. Either the Minister is wrong or the Prime Minister is wrong. An explanation from the hon. Gentleman this afternoon would help a great deal.

My third point is that Lord Brooke of Cumnor—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It is with some reluctance that I again intervene in the hon. Gentleman's speech. I have given him a considerable degree of latitude. His speech would be more in accordance with a debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill on the original Estimates but certainly not on these Supplementary Estimates. Perhaps he can bring his speech to a rapid conclusion unless he can make a specific reference to the Estimates before the House.

Mr. Chataway

Might it be the case that the chain of events which my hon. Friend is unfolding would, in his view, require expenditure to improve the countryside before 31st March this year? My hon. Friend obviously takes a very serious view of what has been done to the countryside in his constituency. Therefore, I believe that he would probably argue that additional expenditure is required in the current year to offset decreases referred to in the Estimates.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Perhaps in that context the hon. Gentleman may continue.

Mr. Hamilton

I am most grateful both to you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Chataway). The most grievous damage is being done to my constituency, and urgent attention is needed to put it right.

There is no more respected former Member of this House than Lord Brooke of Cumnor. He asked in October whether … there was any opportunity at all for the objectors to bring geological evidence to rebut the evidence which was given on behalf of the company in secret? If there was not, there must be something wrong with the procedure."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 13th October, 1969; Vol. 304, c. 1208.] Here again there is confusion. Was there such opportunity, or was the procedure wrong? It must be one or the other. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can help us by removing this confusion.

Fourth, why did the Minister, having alerted his inspector to the fact that application was to be made for in camera procedures, take no steps to alert the other parties? He had four weeks in which to do so and yet no formal notice whatsoever was given. The company—all credit to it—did take some action here although it was not its responsibility. It put through a telephone call to the clerk of the local council; but the Minister did nothing.

I cannot help feeling that warnings should have been given beforehand In order that a defence might be prepared. The Minister must, after all, have appreciated that such procedures have never taken place before in planning history and if he made a mistake then I am sure h.! would be the first to admit it. If he did not make a mistake then, I ask myself whether it is worth hon. Members of this House travelling to their constituencies to attend planning inquiries with no certainty before they start their journey whether, when they get there, they will be admitted. Here, again, there is a degree of confusion, as I believe the Minister will agree, and I should welcome a comment on it.

Perhaps I may here pay tribute to the Council of Tribunals. It would have been spared great trouble had this case never arisen. It is currently holding discussions with the Ministry to ensure that guide lines are established and that confusion this scale is never repeated. The Council has my blessing. I believe that its task is well nigh impossible. It is like trying to unscramble an omelette. I also pay tribute to the Parliamentary Commissioner. His patience and industry are unlimited and I acknowledge it; and as a back-bench Member, I am grateful to him.

The House will remember that when the Minister made his decision to allow quarrying he withheld from publication the confidential section of the inspector's report. I suggested to the Parliamentary Commissioner only recently that details of the secret process for which proceedings, in camera, had been sought, were no longer secret when the Minister made his decision. I considered that the Minister had failed to satisfy himself, before giving his decision, that the confidential information to which he was a party had not already been published. A week or two ago the Parliamentary Commissioner replied. I summarise his reply, I hope fairly; and if not, the Minister must correct me. The Parliamentary Commissioner said: I have examined copies of the patents taken out by the company in several continental countries. … From my inquiries it appears that information about the Belgian and Dutch patents did indeed become available in Belgium and the Netherlands before the Minister's decision was published on 6th September 1968. Copies of the Dutch patents … were received in the National Reference Library in this country a few days before that decision was published. He goes on—I wish to give a balanced summary—to say: I am not prepared to criticise the Minister for not further deferring his decision while inquiries were made into the possibility of foreign publication at the stage when, many months after public inquiry, the Minister was satisfied as the result of the prolonged examination of the planning and technical aspects that he should allow the company's appeal. Finally, he adds: I note, moreover, that one piece of information made available to the inspector and the Minister which concerns the application of the process rather than the process itself is not referred to in the continental patents which I have examined. This information is stated in the Ministry's file to be of crucial importance. What is the significance of all of that? Here again, perhaps, the Minister will help us. At least a hint of daylight seems to filter in here. I note with interest that the Parliamentary Commissioner is qualified and competent to examine and to comment upon an immensely complex and technical document. Indeed, it seems that the secret process about which we heard so much is not secret after all.

I have been helped by the Parliamentary Commissioner to identify it. Perhaps I should have tumbled to it earlier. If I read the facts aright, details of the process lay on the table for the world to read before the Minister made his decision to allow quarrying to proceed. It is the application of the process which remains secret but I sense, nevertheless, that a certain additional ray of light has been allowed to enter. I am afraid I sense, too, that the situation becomes more and more farcical. The Minister will agree with me that it is only a question of time before finally, the secrets are leaked; it may be this year, it may be next year.

I ask myself, what happens then, when these secrets leak? Will there be an op- portunity to challenge the evidence, and if so, might we not get on with it now? But if not, have we entered an age in which a Minister's decision, right or wrong, sound or unsound, may never be challenged? Supposing the Minister were to make a decision based on evidence which was subsequently found to be unsound. Do we live with that decision or are we allowed a chance to rebut the evidence? I should welcome a little help on this point, too.

I come to a point of more fundamental administrative importance. It is neither right nor proper that I should comment here on the merits of applications now pending. The fact remains that applications are expected which will modify or extend the present situation; and here is my point: who is to consider and to pronounce upon such applications? If a local planning committee is to do so, is it competent when its members are as much in the dark as I am? If this had happened to the Minister in his constituency, if some installations or mining operation had been allowed there and local people had not been allowed to know why, surely in their state of half-knowledge it would be a flagrant injustice to expect them to decide what changes should be permitted to the installation.

The essence of planning should be that all the relevant facts are known. Not one member of any local authority in Wiltshire was present at the secret proceedings. They were, all of them, shown the door; and it therefore follows that once a Minister has become a party to secrets he must live with them; and in that knowledge only he can decide on a further application. Once Whitehall crosses this bridge, as it has done at Grimstead, it must be Whitehall and only Whitehall which can decide on future modifications. The man from Whitehall knows best. Nobody else is allowed to know anything. This is a new and inescapable principle. Will the Minister confirm that I am correct.

I am approaching the end of the story, but there are other points that worry me. The Minister will agree that Governments come and Governments go. Let us suppose that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexley were to move to Downing Street. Must Whitehall continue to administer the Dean Valley? Will the Minister confirm that the file which contains these secrets is to be burned by senior civil servants and, if so, would an inquiry need to be set up to rediscover them, or is the file to be handed on to an incoming Administration? Is that new Administration bound to observe the same vows of secrecy? I am puzzled, and would appreciate help about what happens to these secrets. It is as if a D-notice had been imposed upon the Dean Valley. Where does this tragi-comic farce lead us? How unwise can a Minister be in plunging into such uncharted waters?

There is to be a cement factory in Parliament Square—hush, no questions may be asked; the soil has special qualities. There is to be opencast mining in St. James's Park—hush, no questions may be asked; it is in the national interest. There are to be steel mills by the Serpentine—hush, no questions may be asked; this is the technological age, and our balance of payments depends on it. This is not fantasy; this is reality; an exact parallel. There are moments when I nearly despair, but at least one does what one can, and hopes that gradually the ripples will spread and that the enormity of the injustice done to my constituency will be remedied.

6.2 p.m.

Mr. Christopher Chataway (Chichester)

I do not wish to intervene for more than a few moments. The whole House will have a sense of unease about the story that has been unfolded by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Michael Hamilton). On the face of it, it is extraordinary to hold a public inquiry that is in whole or in part not public; it would seem to be a contradiction in terms. I know that this is not the first occasion on which the House has considered this matter. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to deal with the specific questions that were put to him by my hon. Friend, and will perhaps look at the whole case with a fresh eye.

First, the House can still not feel satisfied that it is right to have a public inquiry that is in part held in camera. This is a disturbing innovation. Secondly, is my hon. Friend right in suggesting that there is still confusion as to exactly what was said to the Government before the inquiry opened? Was an undertaking given to the company that part of the evidence would be heard in camera, or was it not? Thirdly, my hon. Friend has today produced evidence that the secret process was, apparently, no longer secret at the time when the Minister's decision was made public. If this is in fact so, it would seem reasonable to argue, as my hon. Friend has argued, that the evidence that was submitted in camera should now be available for cross-examination. There must come a time when the process is no longer secret and when the public should be able to judge the weight of the evidence that was put forward.

I think the whole House will admire the tenacity with which my hon. Friend has sought to safeguard his constituents' interests in this matter. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will also say something about the broad background against which my hon. Friend has raised this matter. As you have reminded us, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the grants for the improvement of the countryside show a decrease this year. The decrease arguably may result in an increase of expenditure in another direction, since these grants are designed to improve and to safeguard the countryside.

We all understand that the workings of the Countryside Act were bound to be slow in getting off the mark. Local authorities have to set up new machinery, to produce rolling programmes of forward work, and have to be able to see continuity of work before appointing staff. None the less, there is a shortfall of £80,000 in the commission's expenditure which the House is considering today. The work of the Countryside Commission has got off to a much slower start than had been expected and hoped for. In the view of the Parliamentary Secretary, is there a prospect of more rapid progress now being made?

Mr. Freeson

I understand that the subject to which the hon. Gentleman is referring, and which I should be happy to debate with him on a more appropriate occasion, is one that was placed on the Order Paper for later debate and subsequently withdrawn. I have been called to the Despatch Box today to speak on a particular issue with which I am concerned, and the hon. Gentleman is digressing from the issues that were placed before me by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Michael Hamilton).

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I was about to intervene in the speech of the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Chataway) because he was again transgressing the rules of order inasmuch as he was discussing a reduction in expenditure. It is clearly laid down in Erskine May that in a Consolidated Fund debate covering Supplementary Estimates it is not in order to discuss a decrease in the Estimates. That is absolutely clear.

Mr. Michael Hamilton

May I be allowed to point out that, as the Minister will be able to confirm, I have been in touch with the Countryside Commission on the specific case to which the Minister has referred, and there are letters from me on the file.

Mr. Chataway

I respect your Ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I have no sympathy for the Parliamentary Secretary. When a subject appears on the Order Paper as "Grants for the Improvement of the Countryside", I assume that he will come to the House with views about grants for the improvement of the countryside, and that he will not be surprised if these matters are raised.

There is concern, whether or not it is shared by the Minister, about the workings of the Countryside Commission and about the schemes that are supposed to be getting off the ground for country parks, tree planting and parking areas. In view of your Ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will content myself by asking the Parliamentary Secretary whether there is an early prospect of the Countryside Commission being given the resources which it was apparently agreed in 1967 should be made available to it for carrying out an agreed programme of work. The Chairman of the Countryside Commission made it clear in January of this year that in 1967 the agreement—

Mr. Freeson

Are we debating the issue which has been withdrawn, or the issues raised by the hon. Member for Salisbury, which I am waiting to deal with?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

We are debating the subject raised by the hon. Member for Salisbury, and no doubt the hon. Member for Chichester will restrict his remarks to that particular subject.

Mr. Chataway

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The subject, as you have made clear, and as the House knows, is "Grimstead revisited—Grants for preserving the countryside". On an occasion when the House has an opportunity, though in a limited way, of referring to the matter of grants for preserving the countryside, I am anxious to know whether or not we may expect that the progress that was originally envisaged will shortly be attained.

6.10 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Reginald Freeson)

May I content myself by saying that I meant it when I said that if I were called to the Dispatch Box—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will ask for the leave of the House.

Mr. Freeson

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if called upon to do so, I should be glad to debate the issues which have been introduced by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Chataway), particularly bearing in mind that the record of this Government in the last few years far surpasses that of any previous Government in regard to town planning, the preservation of amenities in the countryside and similar matters. However, this is not the occasion to cover those matters, and I propose to confine my remarks to the issues put to me by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Michael Hamilton). To go further than that would be to risk taking up the time of hon. Members who wish to take up other subjects in this series of debates. I find it regrettable that these other matters should have been raised by the hon. Member for Chichester—

Mr. Chataway

On a point of order. I should like to ask for your protection, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You have been kind enough to suggest to me and my hon. Friends the means by which we could have brought wider matters into the discussion simply by showing that the reductions here have resulted in increases elsewhere, and it would not have been beyond my capacity to do that. I hope that I may be safeguarded against the kinds of attack in which the Parliamentary Secretary is now indulging.

Mr. Freeson

If the hon. Gentleman wishes to pursue that subject, and I welcome his interest, may I suggest that he has had the opportunity, like every other hon. Member, to put his name down for the Ballot and, if successful, to choose a subject for discussion.

To turn to the subject raised by the hon. Member for Salisbury, I should like to say at the outset that I know the district he represents very well. It is some time since I was in Salisbury, but I have a great love for Salisbury and the whole of the surrounding area. I have many fond memories of the area, and I hope in the not too distant future to go back to see it again. I have spent many hours walking over the Plain and visiting some of the ancient monuments in the district. Indeed, I remember to my surprise uncovering a Roman road that was not marked on the map. That is the sort of conceit in which one indulges when one knows a piece of countryside quite well. Therefore, with my love of the area I respect the hon. Gentleman's tenacity on this issue, even though I do not accept the rather bogey-like language he used in his criticisms, implied or specific, of the Minister's involvement in this matter.

The position briefly is that there was a discretion on the part of the inspector holding this inquiry to take part of the evidence in camera. It is not a decision by the Minister. The only advice given by the Ministry was that there was no legal bar to this procedure and that the inspector was free to make the decision within his discretion. The inspector used that discretion.

I realise that there was some misunderstanding over subsequent correspondence—it was somewhat telescoped in phraseology—which passed between the hon. Gentleman and the Minister and, indeed, the Prime Minister on this matter.

The main point at issue is the decision which was taken on the planning appeal made by English China Clays Limited against a refusal of permission for the winning and working of chalk from a site about half a mile to the south of East Grimstead, near Salisbury. I know that area personally.

The appeal went to local inquiry in June, 1967. Earlier, a representative of the appellant company had called at the Department to seek procedural advice about the possibility of certain evidence of a commercially confidential nature being heard in camera. The only advice he was given was that there was no bar to part of the inquiry proceedings being heard in camera if the inspector conducting the inquiry should so decide in the exercise of his statutory discretion. I have the Statutory Instrument with me in case there is specific reference to it.

Mr. Michael Hamilton

I am grateful for all the Minister has said, and I appreciate it. On the point about this being in camera, those present at the proceedings were sworn to secrecy about the information they had heard, and they had very little alternative but to accept the situation. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman would accept this.

Mr. Freeson

If proceedings are held in camera, it is implicit that confidentiality should be preserved. This ties in with further observations I wish to make later in regard to the Minister's position and about the report that was made, including that part of the report based on the passages heard in camera of the evidence.

Following the inquiry and the receipt of the inspector's report, which included a separate report in confidence on the in camera proceedings, a long and exhaustive test was carried out of the company's confidential claims under the instruction of my colleague the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, who would have been present today had he not been sick. This test was undertaken in consultation with the Government Chief Scientific Adviser and the Director of the Institute of Geological Science. Samples of chalk taken by the Department's geologists from several sites in southern England were tested in the company's laboratory under the supervision of technical officers from the Government Chemist's Laboratory, the Stationery Office and the Department.

The investigations supported the company's claim that the quality of the chalk in the appeal site was crucial for the company's purposes and that similar material had not been found to be available in adequate quantities elsewhere. The Minister then decided to allow the appeal in respect of part only of the site. about 10 acres, and his decision was given on 6th September 1968, limited to a period of five years.

The hon. Gentleman subsequently made representations to the Minister and to the Prime Minister on behalf of his constituents in respect of this appeal in several letters from 1st May, 1967, and a statement of his views on the company's proposals was at his request read at the opening of the local inquiry into the appeal. He later asked the Minister to make available to him the record of proceedings heard in camera so that he should have the opportunity to commission his own independent examination of the technical evidence submitted to the appellant company. The request could not be acceded to because the in camera evidence was given to the Minister's inspector in confidence and the company was and is, entitled to expect that confidence to be respected on the terms in which it was accepted.

There may be arguments about whether there should be such a discretion. I am not making arguments one way or another. Hard cases make for ill-feeling in this kind of situation. Given the discretion which was in the hands of the inspector to allow in camera proceedings which implicitly means confidentiality, it would he wrong in practice, in principle and in morality for the Minister then to proceed to release the information which had been given in camera to his own inspector, acting independently on his behalf.

With the greatest respect to the anxiety and the hard feelings that the hon. Gentleman has had about this case, some of the language that he used and his conjuring up of terrifying visions of the Minister stepping into the whole of planning and taking rights away from people was gravely unfair, however strongly the hon. Gentleman feels about this case. I know that the Minister, like me and my colleague who handles planning matters specifically, has considerable interest in countryside, planning and amenity matters as well as statutory responsibility.

It was for this reason that the request could not be acceded to. The hon. Gentleman pursued his objections with the Parliamentary Commissioner and the Council on Tribunals, neither of which found against my Department administratively in its handling of the case. The hon. Gentleman referred in passing to the Adjournment debate in July of last year when he raised the matter. Since that debate, he has continued to express his views and misgivings about in camera proceedings in correspondence with the national Press and in Questions to the Prime Minister in which he requested the setting up of an inquiry into the whole matter. That request was not acceded to.

The general question of admission of in camera proceedings at future local inquiries into planning appeals is being currently discussed between the Department and the Council on Tribunals. This in itself reflects the recognition of the seriousness of the matter in principle and in practice. It may be that it could have been pursued at an earlier date, but this was the first case of its kind in which an inspector used his discretion in this way. I am in no way being critical of the inspector, because he made the best judgment that he could. It is the anxiety that was expressed which has resulted in these discussions being pursued.

I recall that the hon. Gentleman referred to other matters which are now coming to light over the future of developments of this kind in the valley concerned. I confirm that there have been two further planning applications by a subsidiary company of English China Clay Limited to the local planning authority. The Minister proposes shortly to call these in for his own decisions. Although it is not for me to say what those decisions are likely to be, I hope that this decision will at least meet with satisfaction.

Mr. Michael Hamilton

When the Minister calls in a planning application, does it automatically follow that there is a public inquiry, or does an inquiry depend on the number of objections and upon other factor?

Mr. Freeson

It does not follow automatically. It depends on the nature of the case. I will take further advice on that. If the hon. Gentleman has not already received a formal notification of this in correspondence, there is one on the way to him. If he wishes to pursue the matter further to establish the procedure, we shall be glad to deal with it on a departmental level with him.

One of the applications concerns the provision of a railway siding adjoining the chalk site at East Grimstead, and the other is in connection with a proposed processing plant at Quidhampton, near Salisbury, which would draw supplies of raw materials in part from the East Grimstead site. As both proposals are sub judice, I cannot be expected to comment on them—

Mr. Speaker

I hesitate to curtail the Minister but my predecessor curtailed other hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. I understand that the Estimates he has chosen show a decrease. We cannot have debate on a decrease. We are debating on the Consolidated Fund to provide extra money in the Supplementary Estimates.

Mr. Freeson

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I am replying as best I can to a case which was argued at some length, and I shall do my best to conclude as quickly as I can. I am trying to confine myself to the basic points put to me rather than going wide of them.

Coming back to the particular case which gave rise to the debate, stringent conditions were attached to the 10-acre site for which planning permission was granted, and it is important that I should place them on record in view of the concern expressed by the hon. Gentleman. The conditions included provision for the necessary reclamation and after-treatment of the site. The enforcement of these conditions is not for the Minister but for the local planning authority. There have been suggestions from time to time that restoration funds and the like should be introduced. I believe that this has been pursued by the hon. Gentleman, and he touched on it during this debate. These suggestions have been examined, but the kind of comparisons with other workings which have been treated in this way are not in line with the kind of case with which we are concerned.

While much detail has been gone into about the case, we ended up with some general observations. I shall not go into the observations about St. James's Park, the riverside embankment or what might happen in Parliament Square. These are bogeys, and they might have been better raised by the hon. Gentleman with a smile on his face than in all seriousness.

Planning conditions generally should cover restoration of the site after working, with responsibility resting with the firm or individual to whom permission has been granted. In practice, fill may not be available to restore land to its original level. It may be necessary to require that only a quarry floor should be left tidy or that a wet pit should be suitably landscaped. Local planning authorities can take enforcement action to ensure compliance with conditions. For some time, the local authority association have been representing that enforcement action is difficult for local authorities, and they have been invited to provide evidence of any general difficulties. Any evidence produced will be carefully considered. We are concerned with the preservation of the countryside, even in such hard cases as have been raised today.

Where land has been abandoned after mineral working and it is not possible to require restoration, there is the possibility of reclamation with a 50 per cent. Exchequer grant under Section 9 of the Local Government Act, 1966. More generous grants, up to 85 per cent., are available for land in development areas, and 75 per cent. in the case of land in national parks. The National Coal Board, in areas where it is appropriate and where it has been operating, is responsible for the restoration of land where it has undertaken opencast coal operations. There is no doubt that in recent years, whatever criticisms there were earlier, it has been doing a first-class job Once again there is the distinction that only one body is concerned, and restoration in this case does not raise the problems associated with other minerals.

The point that I have been making is that we are concerned not only with the sort of individual hard case which has been raised today, but with the issues which the hon. Member for Chichester sought to raise, as a result, I imagine, of not being able to do so later in the course of today's proceedings.

I hope that I have indicated that, if nothing else, we are concerned about cases of this kind. We are not the bogeymen which the remarks of the hon. Member for Salisbury may have suggested. We make the best use possible of planing procedures to meet the needs of areas of this kind.