HC Deb 25 February 1971 vol 812 cc1067-78

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. More.)

3.45 a.m.

Mr. Michael Hamilton (Salisbury)

A report has been published this month by the Stationery Office, which reveals that Sir Matthew Stevenson, Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, and Sir Edmund Compton, Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, have both been called in and examined by a Select Committee of this House on an issue which affects my constituency. I should like to thank Members of that Committee for giving up their time as they did. These two distinguished public servants, we now learn, were questioned by Members representing all three political parties on the circumstances in which Britain's first secret planning inquiry came to be held. The activities of Select Committees are, of course, confidential until published, so that it is only now that we learn of this examination.

Both witnesses have reached the end of long and distinguished public careers. If the House considers that they have misjudged this particular case, I would say in their defence that they do no more than sail in the same boat with my right honourable Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. But clearly it is a very leaky craft. The voyage began four years ago with a clumsy mistake by the previous Administration. And since then it has been a long and uncomfortable voyage, patching and improvising in an attempt to keep out the water. After studying this evidence with a clear knowledge of the case, anyone will realise that the longer public investigation is postponed, the greater will be the catastrophe—greater because the additional question will need to be answered, why investigation was so long delayed.

On the first page of the report, Sir Edmund is asked: Did you question the inquiry procedure rules as applied to this case? And he answered: No. I satisfied myself that the Ministry in their turn had satisfied themselves that it was legal. I say that in the third paragraph of my report. Let us be clear. An unprecedented action by Government had been referred by me to the Parliamentary Commissioner for investigation. His rôle is to scrutinise and to pass independent judgment on the conduct of Departments of State. The House might think in this case that the Commissioner would do well at the outset to satisfy himself that this unprecedented action by Government was legal. He did not do so. Sir Edmund continues his reply to this same question: Given the decision to hold this part of the Inquiry in camera, which, as I have said, I thought was reasonable, it did not occur to me that there was a change in the procedure which would have improved the position of the complainants. It did not occur to Sir Edmund. But it did occur to the Council on Tribunals. They realised that safeguards were lacking, and they realised that procedural rules had been inadequate. The Council recognise", wrote their Secretary, that a procedural point of considerable general importance has been raised. Not that the Council was very robust when I referred matters to them. When Mr. R. A. Butler, as he then was, introduced the Bill in this place in 1958, setting up the Council on Tribunals, he referred to the view held by layman and lawyer alike, that the rôle of tribunals in the life of the community had become so powerful that, some continuous supervision is essential if the confidence of the public is to be inspired and the citizen assured that they carry out their duties in accordance with the principles of fairness, openness and impartiality. Not one of those three principles was present at Salisbury. Yet the Council on Tribunals hesitated. Why, I do not know. When the moment came, the bark of this watchdog of our liberties was curiously muted. Fortunately, at least, it pronounced that rules of procedure for inquiries needed a fresh look.

On the second page of the report, Sir Edmund's fellow witness, Sir Matthew, is asked about these same rules: Was it the Ministry's decision that this was a matter for the Inspector, or is this part of the rules or invariable practice? Sir Matthew replies: I cannot speak about practice of a thing which up to that point was unique. As to the details of the rules, I am not really terribly well equipped to answer. But Sir Matthew is not alone in not being terribly well equipped to answer. The House will remember that Lord Kennet, Parliamentary Secretary of Sir Matthew's own Department, was asked in another place, under which section of which Act these proceedings were authorised. "I am sorry", Lord Kennet replied, but I cannot quote chapter and clause"[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 13th October, 1969; Vol. 304, c. 1207–8.] It is difficult to be well equipped if the equipment does not exist. It was on that occasion, I remember, that Lord Brooke of Cumnor, no less, made so clear that there must be something wrong with the procedure. The Select Committee asked Sir Matthew: Should not the public have been warned about the prospect of in camera proceedings? "I am not aware", Sir Matthew replies, and indeed the Inspector so reports, that people were in any doubt … that this point was going to be raised. Sir Matthew was not aware. Sir Edmund was not aware. But Wiltshire was aware. How the Inspector could say that I do not know", a farmer wrote to me, because the first we knew about it was when the appellants asked to go into camera and the Inspector agreed; we were so flabber- gasted that we did not protest as vehemently as we should have done if we had had this prior information. What else does Sir Matthew say on page 2 of the report? He says: the conductor of an inquiry has pretty certainly got to have this power of decision as to whether or not there should be in camera proceedings". The House may consider this an interesting observation. Certainly it is not a view which was shared by Lord Kilmuir who, as Lord Chancellor in 1961, spoke in another place about ironstone working. …it must be for the applicants", he said, to weigh the risk of disclosing information to their competitors against the advantage to be gained by its disclosure."—[OFFICIAL REPORT,House of Lords, 13th April, 1961; Vol. 230, c. 426.] There was no thought in the Lord Chancellor's mind of proceedings being allowed in camera.

Moreover, although Sir Matthew, after the Salisbury episode and when subjected to cross questioning, considers that an inspector has pretty certainly got to have this power", in all the years of planning—and planing legislation has existed since the beginning of the century—we managed very well without this power, until one fine day this unique precedent happened at Salisbury.

Later in the evidence of Sir Matthew is asked: So the Ministry who were responsible for hearing the appeal were also taking responsibility for testing the technical evidence? In the course of his reply, he said two things. The first was that this was a totally independent examination. Yet the House will recall that the examination was carried out under the auspices of the Government chemist. The Government were judge and jury and the sentence was imposed. In the words of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England: The beauty of this lovely stretch of rolling countryside will be largely destroyed. The second thing which Sir Matthew said in reply was: The Minister of Housing has no axe to grind as to whether this appeal will be allowed or not. Yet the House will recall that it was another Parliamentary Secretary of Sir Matthew's own Department, the late Arthur Skeffington, whose death we mourn this week, who told the House: …my technical advisers and trade advisers recommended that in the public interest it should succeed …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th July, 1969; Vol. 787, c. 2339.] On the same page of the Report, Sir Matthew is asked whether a local solicitor present at the in camera hearing could be considered properly qualified to evaluate technical evidence. He replied: Well, of course, here the parties did in fact agree that the technical evidence should be sifted by the Minister of Housing and Local Government. Yes, the parties did agree: there was no alternative. The solicitor and the clerk to the district council sat through a highly technical secret discourse. They understood not a word, their presence was meaningless, and when it was over they could not go out into the street and consult a specialist who might understand or even question what had been said. They could not speak of these things to anyone, least of all their Member of Parliament, nor can they today.

When it was suggested that the Government check the claims which had been made, the only choice open to them was Hobson's choice. Then, after the in camera proceedings and before the Minister made his decision, evidence became available to the world and the general secret emerged from secrecy. There were many closely printed pages. The House might think that the Minister who should have paused to re-open the inquiry so that this fresh evidence might be cross-examined in public, but he did not pause; he pressed ahead with his decision. How can this be explained?

The evidence which came to light was incomplete. Even when it did become known, says Sir Matthew in this Report, .. there was a residual secret element. Yes, there were many closely printed pages and highly technical they were. Sir Edmund Compton, classical scholar, pored over the formulae and the chemistry and found that something was missing. "Some" fresh evidence would not have justified reopening the inquiry; it had to be total new evidence. Even when it had become known, Sir Matthew said, there was a residual secret element.

In the Report, Sir Matthew is asked whether there were further applications on hand. He replied: I do not think that we have further applications to work chalk … These are applications to deal with what is being won from the place about which the original inquiry was. The House may ask the significance of this careful description. My constituents have always believed that, if a Minister bases a planning decision on in camera evidence, any decision thereafter concerning an extension of that permitted activity can be taken by the Minister and by the Minister alone. The Minister has to live with his secrets, and decide matters in the light of those secrets.

Thus, a giant excavating company is admitted to Wiltshire behind this screen of secrecy. There is not one elected member of a local authority in the county today, still less the Member of Parliament, who knows why the company is there. A foot is allowed in the door. A couple of years pass and the company wishes to extend its activities. The door must be opened wider. A processing plant and rail sidings are needed; a further £850,000 is to be spent.

Having outraged local opinion by the first inquiry, the Minister must somehow circumvent a repetition at the second inquiry. A distinction must, therefore, be drawn. To reveal the properties of what is quarried must remain a secret, but to process what is quarried is quite separate and different.

Public participation may be resumed, although questions must not be too pointed. The Minister considered it reasonable in these circumstances, having denied local planners the vital information at the first inquiry, to turn again to those local planners and expect them, still in the dark, to participate in weighing the merits of extending such activities. This explains why Sir Matthew differentiates and says: These are applications to deal with what is being won from the place about which the original inquiry was". Sure enough, six weeks after Sir Matthew had spoken, the second inquiry took place, and a Ministerial decision is awaited. It took place in broad daylight and the charade of this second inquiry was more subtle, but no less apparent, to Wiltshire than that of the first. This second inquiry added insult to injury.

I would like to have dealt with the report in greater detail and to have spoken of the valiant support given by the National Trust, I would also like to have spoken of the meeting at the Ministry before the inquiry, of the exclusion of the only qualified witness, of the former Prime Minister's letter, which he later had occasion to revise, and of the failure by the Minister at that time to understand two clear letters which I had sent to him. But there will be time enough for these things later.

Meanwhile, we know that more than 200 alternative sites were explored before our valley was taken—though the Minister will not divulge to us the location of one of those sites. However, in this darkness we have enough light to understand what has happened. In 1967 the Government blundered into trouble, faulty legal advice was tendered, they were naïve enough to accept it and they never looked to the consequences.

They alerted their inspector that he was likely to preside over the first secret planning inquiry in history, thus loading the dice against my constituents before play began. When the inquiry was over, the Minister of the day found himself on a deteriorating wicket and had to stand truth on its head.

He adopted the stance that anybody who had been brought up to believe that a public inquiry meant an inquiry held in public needed his head examined, that inspectors had always had the power to hold planning inquiries in camera, that warning could never be given of in camera proceedings—because their adoption rested at impulse with the inspector on the spot—that Members of Parliament could never travel to a planning inquiry in their constituencies with assurance of being admitted on arrival and that highly qualified, highly paid expert witnesses could never be summoned to a public inquiry without risk of a wasted journey. This was the shabby fiction which the present Minister inherited. That was the ludicrous defensive myth which the present Minister was unwise enough to adopt. I did all that can be done to stress the danger. On his first day in office I wrote an official letter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State saying: I am profoundly anxious that the new Administration should weight this issue carefully before continuing down the slippery slope. Today the opportunity exists for a fresh look at the problem. If the opportunity is not taken there can only be regret further along the road". The opportunity was not taken. My right hon. Friend was confident that he understood things better.

Today, because two years ago I took this issue to the Council on Tribunals, it lies on the desk of my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor. This gives my constituents new hope of justice. There is no one by whom they would rather see the matter considered, no one more qualified to do it. The House will appreciate that the Lord Chancellor is concerned only with the principle. He has neither power nor responsibility to intervene in Wiltshire. It is not his task to order a public investigation. This falls to the Secretary of State. What then will the Lord Chancellor do? He will pronounce one way or the other. My assessment is that new rules of procedure, sufficient to safeguard fairness and justice, are likely to be so complex as to be unworkable in practice. Two years of study have so far failed to produce a satisfactory code. However, if the Lord Chancellor in his great wisdom recommends new safeguards, which were not present in the Wiltshire case, it follows that what happened in Wiltshire should never have taken place. Alternatively if he, like his predecessor, recommends that secret planning inquiries should not be held, the conclusion is the same—what happened in Wiltshire should never have taken place. In either event, the protests of my constituents are vindicated.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Development for attending this debate at this hour. I presumed to call at his office at the Ministry by appointment before the debate. I have left him only a few brief minutes, and he knew that this would be so. But I think that a few minutes will suffice. I have explained to him that my constituents are concerned with only one point. Has the Secretary of State now decided to order a full public investigation, or does he choose to leave it yet a little longer?

4.8 a.m.

The Minister for Local Government and Development (Mr. Graham Page)

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Michael Hamilton) has been lucky in having the subject of the East Grimstead chalk pit inquiry debated in the House on no fewer than four occasions. I think that this is the fifth occasion. After coming up bingo so many times before, he need not have hogged so many minutes out of the 30 of an Adjournment debate, leaving me so few in which to reply.

My hon. Friend seems to have gone beyond the bounds of determination and into the realms of obstinacy in pursuing this subject not only in the House but before the Parliamentary Commissioner, the Lord Chancellor and the Council on Tribunals. Now he mounts an attack on two civil servants. His attack on Sir Matthew Stevenson and Sir Edmund Compton is wholly unwarranted and wholly unjustified. In the evidence Sir Matthew gave before the Select Committee he dealt faithfully with the events relating to the hearing of part of a planning inquiry in camera, which my hon. Friend emotively called Britain's first secret inquiry. My hon. Friend has quoted evidence given by Sir Matthew and Sir Edmund before the Select Committee in scathing tones, but one cannot alter evidence by the tones in which one quotes it. Those tones were quite inappropriate to the very proper contents of the evidence given by those two eminent gentlemen before the Select Committee.

I say quite firmly that there was no faulty legal advice given in this case. Judges, from lay justices of the peace to Lords Justices of Appeal, are familiar with requests for evidence to be given in camera. Judges use their discretion as to when to accede to such a request. But it has for long been established in the courts that a court may sit in camera when the subject matter of the case would otherwise be destroyed; for example, by the disclosure of a secret process or secret document, and there are innumerable legal cases and precedents to establish that right in the courts.

The court may so decide to sit in camera against the wishes of any of the parties to the proceedings. Inspectors hearing planning appeals are acting in a judicial capacity, albeit in a quasi-judicial capacity, and the procedure at inquiries is such as the inspector shall in his own discretion determine, and that is entirely in accordance with the rules and regulations for holding planning inquiries.

If he determines for good cause that part of the hearing shall be in camera, he is acting perfectly properly in doing so. Surely it is for good cause if he is following the practice of the courts relating to the hearing of cases concerning secret processes.

My hon. Friend seeks a further public investigation, as he has called it, but this seems an incredible request at this stage. After two planning inquiries, five debates in the House, an inquiry by the Ombudsman, who found that there was no ground for complaint, an examination by the Council on Tribunals, evidence before a Select Committee of the House—I am tempted to complete that list by saying "and a partridge in a pear tree"—my hon. Friend asks for a further public investigation. This matter has been investigated ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

If my hon. Friend hopes to obtain by such a public investigation a recommendation that no part of a planning inquiry shall ever be held in camera, I can tell him now that I would not accept such a recommendation. I have no intention of allowing planning procedures to destroy secret chemical processes which may be important national assets. Those who seek to develop those processes should not be prevented from doing so by planning procedures and by being unable to explain the reason why they are making those planning applications to the inspector who is hearing them, unable because they cannot disclose in public the secret process without destroying it. That was the position in this case.

I think that our procedures in planning inquiries should maintain the position that if proceeding in camera will preserve an asset of that sort, the inspector must be able to use his discretion in judging whether the claim to a private hearing is genuine. I want to make it perfectly clear that when we are talking about a hearing in camera, we are speaking of a hearing at which the parties are represented, as they were in this case. All the parties concerned were represented at that private hearing. It was not heard in the absence of any of the parties. It—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Thursday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at a quarter past Four o'clock a.m.