HC Deb 05 March 1973 vol 852 cc193-206

11.40 p.m.

Mrs. Barbara Castle (Blackburn)

This evening the hon. and learned Member for Darwen (Mr. Fletcher-Cooke) and I find ourselves in unaccustomed partnership, because the case of Mr. Tom Wood which I am raising involves my constituents but also involves the hon. and learned Gentleman's local authority. It not only concerns the well-being of a particular individual. Both of us are concerned because, in our view, it also raises an important matter of principle: the question whether a Minister should use permissive powers given him by legislation in a way to ensure that natural justice is done.

Very briefly the story, which is a complicated one, is this. Mr. Tom Wood is the road safety officer for Blackburn. In 1968, so excellent was his reputation in his work that the adjoining borough of Darwen asked if he would become its road safety officer too. Darwen was at that time one of the non-county boroughs which, under the Road Traffic Act 1960, was empowered by the then Minister of Transport, now the Secretary of State for the Environment, to make its own road safety arrangements and, therefore, to be granted what is called rate exemption—that is, exemption from the county council precept for road safety work. This is important to the argument which the hon. and learned Gentleman and I are advancing tonight.

Note, however, that the Act also empowers the Minister to withdraw rate exemption when he "ceases to be satisfied", which is the phrase used, with the road safety arrangements which have been made by the exempted authority. So there is a stigma attached to the local authority and to the road safety officer involved when the Minister decides to withdraw a rate exemption which is currently being enjoyed.

As the House will be aware, I was myself Minister of Transport and, as such, I introduced a road safety White Paper in 1967 designed to enlarge, stimulate and develop road safety activities for the whole country. Following that White Paper the Ministry of Transport, quite rightly, started to stir up local authorities to road safety work, and no one welcomed that fact more than Mr. Tom Wood, the road safety officer of my constituents. He heartily endorsed the principles of the White Paper. He studied its proposals conscientiously and worked extremely hard to apply them in his own area.

The Department at that time or shortly afterwards also started reviewing the work of the 400 exempted authorities, non-county boroughs and urban district councils, which had been given permission to run their own road safety activities and, as a result of that review, in March 1971 the Department decided that the road safety arrangements of 119 of those exempted authorities were sufficiently satisfactory to warrant continuation of rate exemption. The road safety situation in the areas of the remaining authorities was considered to be so unsatisfactory that responsibility for it had to be transferred to the county council as a matter of urgency, and it had to be transferred, let it be noted, in April 1972, a few months before the reorganisation of local government which would have led to some regrouping in any event.

One of the authorities so branded as a result of the Ministry's review was Darwen and, because Darwen was branded, it followed that Mr. Tom Wood, the road safety officer, was branded too. In November 1971 Darwen local authority was informed of the Secretary of State's intentions and invited to send comments about the proposal that it should lose its rate exemption. The local authority did so in no uncertain terms. The members unanimously protested against the proposal and asked for details of how its road safety service would be improved under the county council—details which, incidentally, it never received. The local authority also sent to the Department a considerable amount of information about its road safety activities, and on 22nd November offered to supply further information if required. The Department never responded to that offer.

The House will imagine the surprise of the Darwen authority when the next it heard of the matter was in a letter from the Department which reached the town clerk on the very eve of the Christmas holiday when everybody was dispersed. The letter was as follows: The Secretary of State is no longer satisfied with the arrangements made by your Council for road safety. The first that Mr. Tom Wood heard of all this was when the Department of the Environment issued a Press statement on 29th December and he read the headlines in the local newspaper: Road safety arrangements in Darwen and Clitheroe are unsatisfactory. This was said today in a statement issued on behalf of the Department of the Environment. There was widespread comment in our two constituencies about this slur on Mr. Tom Wood and on the Darwen authority. I know that the Minister for Transport Industries has expressed regret at the inept way in which the notification was handled, and so he should, but the issue which I am raising tonight goes much deeper than that.

Although the hon. and learned Member for Darwen and I immediately made urgent representations, it was not until 3rd February that the Minister was able to arrange to see us, and it was then too late. By 31st January the decision to remove Darwen's rate exemption and transfer its road safety functions to the county council had become operative. Every argument that the Department has since used about this matter has been an ex post facto justification of a decision that is now irreversible.

One might ask: if it is irreversible, why are we raising it? I repeat that I am raising it because it is a matter of principle, and I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman agrees with me. We want the Minister to admit, even at this late hour, that natural justice has not been done, because that is the only way by which we can improve the administration in the future.

Why has natural justice not been done? First, at no time before the Department reached this decision was Mr. Tom Wood or the Darwen local authority informed of the specific respects in which the Department considered that its road safety arrangements were unsatisfactory. Therefore, they were given no chance to improve these arrangements if the Department thought that improvements were necessary.

The Parliamentary Commissioner, to whom we referred the case, has described this fact as "unfortunate". Does the Under-Secretary of State agree that it was unfortunate? Does he agree that it is entirely wrong that Mr. Wood and the Darwen authority should not at any time have been informed of the respects in which their arrangements were unsatisfactory?

Secondly, the Minister has admitted that the decision the Department reached was partly based on reports received from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. What this other information was based on, we have not been told and we are not allowed to know. But we are allowed to know that RoSPA regionally was investigating on the Department's behalf and sending in reports. In one respect at least, however, Mr. Wood has successfully established that the information of RoSPA was inaccurate. It was inaccurate, for example, on the number of tufty clubs which he had established in Darwen and Blackburn. I have not time to go into detail about them, hut the tufty clubs are an aspect of road safety work to which the Department says it attaches great importance.

Mr. Wood was able to establish last year that at least part of RoSPA's information was wrong, yet when the Town Clerk of Darwen wrote to the Department in August asking for RoSPA's advice about his authority's actions to be made available to the council so that it could check still further upon its validity, the information was refused. For a man or a local authority to be damned on the basis of evidence they are not allowed to see appears to me to be intolerable.

Thirdly, to add further insult, three neighbouring boroughs, Haslingden, Bacup and Rawtenstall, which have never had a full-time road safety officer and whose safety record is far worse, have had their exemption continued simply on their promise that they would improve in future and discuss certain of the Department's suggestions—a promise Darwen would have been glad to make if it had been given the chance.

I know that the Minister stands on the constitutional position that in criticising Darwen he was not criticising Mr. Wood. But that really is a piece of bureacratic pedantry that deceives no one. The fact is that an unwarranted slur has been cast on one of the best road safety officers in the country, and certainly one of the most devoted. I resent it on the part of my constituents and for the sake of good administration because it is indeed a poor reward to a dedicated public servant, such as Mr. Wood has been. I know that this slur has hurt him very much.

The hon. and learned Gentleman and I referred the case to the Parliamentary Commissioner. Having read his report, Darwen Council passed a resolution asking for the matter to be pursued: with the utmost vigour. It added: that the Department of the Environment be asked for their views on the Parliamentary Commissioner's report, with which the council are amazed and extremely disappointed. I say this in conclusion. The Parliamentary Commissioner in his report concluded that officials of the Department took a genuinely different view from that taken by Mr. Wood about the adequacy of the road safety services run by Mr. Wood in Darwen. Therefore the Parliamentary Commissioner does not find maladministration, though he points out more than once that At no time were Darwen or Mr. Wood given specific details of the inadequacies as viewed by the Department. All I can say is that if such a breach of natural justice is not maladministration in the Parliamentary Commissioner's interpretation of his duties, the only hope of securing fairer administration lies through Parliament.

That is the reason why the hon. and learned Member for Darwen and I are raising this matter tonight.

11.55 p.m.

Mr. Charles Fletcher-Cooke (Darwen)

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) not only for giving me a few minutes of her time, but also for putting the case on behalf of Tom Wood and the Darwen borough council so well and so forcibly.

It is a denial of natural justice. As the Town Clerk of Darwen writes in a letter to me, so simply but so effectively: It would have been much better if the Minister had told us where we were falling down so that we could have put matters right. To be condemned without being told that is abysmal. It is a denial of the first principle of natural justice that no man, organisation or body of people are condemned without first hearing them in their defence. The first that they knew was in the correspondence to which the right hon. Lady has referred in which their exemption privilege was removed.

What makes them so bitter is that neighbouring authorities which had done nothing like as well as either Darwen or Blackburn—nothing at all in many respects—had their exemptions continued because they were quick enough to make promises, whereas Darwen would have been perfectly willing to give the undertakings and would have been in a much better position to do so because it had already gone such a long way along the road safety line.

It is extraordinary that the Department of the Environment should have been in such a hurry to prevent Darwen's voice being raised and in such a hurry to prevent the voices of the right hon. Member for Blackburn and myself being raised. The timetable was very tight. Why there was this hurry no one has ever explained. Reorganisation of all the local authorities in the neighbourhood was due to take place in a few months anyhow. Therefore there was no need for this slur, because the whole matter would have been in the melting pot, as it is now.

The Department still has a lot of explaining to do. It has not explained it to the Parliamentary Commissioner. It has had this constitutional difficulty in the case of the borough council of Darwen, because the Parliamentary Commissioner has no locus standi since a local authority is not allowed to be an aggrieved person. But that does not prevent my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary tonight making a full and frank disclosure, and it seems to me that he ought to do something more by way of an apology than merely repeating the very mild word "unfortunate". It is not unfortunate. It is scandalous.

11.58 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Keith Speed)

The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Darwen (Mr. Fletcher-Cooke) have raised important matters for them locally, for their constituents and for Mr. Wood. I hope in the course of my remarks to answer some of their points and explain the Department's position, especially the position as we see it of Mr. Wood.

First, however, we ought to get matters in perspective. The right hon. Lady drew an accurate background to the situation. Non-county boroughs like Darwen and urban districts can have exemption from county road safety rate if the Secretary of State is satisfied with their arrangements. More than 450 authorities have been granted exemption over the years. But their arrangements have not always kept pace with the developing needs of road safety in modern traffic.

Circular No. 14/69 set out the road safety task and said that in reviewing exemptions the Minister would apply much stricter standards and have in mind the wider concept of road safety outlined in the White Paper "Road Safety—A Fresh Approach" published in 1967. This point was also made by Ministers at the RoSPA Road Safety Congresses in both 1970 and 1971. It is fair to state that local authorities had plenty of warning of the need for improvement and the broad basis on which they would be judged.

The Department reviewed exemptions in 1971 and 1972. The review was based on what local authorities had told the Department of their activities in response to a circular in 1970 and other inquiries on the assessment of RoSPA's regional organisation, which is the Department's agent in the field with close knowledge of local road safety activities, and on the Department's own knowledge and experience.

Nearly 350 authorities were judged to have an unsatisfactory performance, so their counties were invited to offer better arrangements. Seventeen counties did so in 1971–72 and 135 exemptions were withdrawn. Another six counties did so in 1972–73 and 34 exemptions have been withdrawn.

I must tell the right hon. Lady that there is no question of stigma. I hope we can get away from that sort of emotional term. It was a matter of judgment whether authorities' activities were up to the high standards which she started with the 1967 White Paper. I do not wish to use the term "stigma".

This review was planned for some years and was necessary to improve as early as possible the standards of local road safety activity. It was independent of local government reorganisation but is consistent with what happens on reorganisation since, as has been pointed out by my hon. and learned Friend, the Local Government Act 1972 reserves road safety powers to counties and London borough authorities from 1st April 1974.

Darwen, with a population of 30,000, shared a road safety officer, Mr. Wood, and a part-time assistant with the county borough of Blackburn, with a population of 100,000. Only Darwen was subject to the review. The Lancashire County Council's proposed reorganisation offered a full-time road safety officer for Darwen as part of a wider area of 90,000 population, plus backing by a county headquarters staff and resources and a greater rate expenditure per head.

The Department felt that the county proposals promised an improved road safety effort, told Darwen this and invited it to comment. Darwen did not offer any improvements.

The Department has been criticised for not giving Darwen and other authorities a more precise indication of their shortcomings. This has been mentioned by my hon. and learned Friend and by the right hon. Lady.

At that time it was a conscious decision not to enter into detailed discussion with authorities. Certainly authorities knew from the road safety circular 14/69 and from contacts with the Department and RoSPA. They also know that the key to better performance was more resources in terms of both staff and money. Some authorities offered a better performance backed by more resources in both 1971 and 1972 and they were allowed to keep exemption.

My hon. and learned Friend mentioned Bacup, Haslingden and Rawtenstall, places adjoining Darwen, which are cases in point. They had a poor record but they promised to appoint a full-time road safety officer. Having done so, they have kept exemption. This improved on the county proposals in that they have one road safety officer for 50,000 population.

Whatever the justification at the time, we now accept the criticism, supported by the Parliamentary Commissioner, that authorities should have been given a more specific indication of their shortcomings. This was done in the 1972 review.

The Parliamentary Commissioner also criticised the Department for allowing the decision to reach the Press before Darwen had time to tell Mr. Wood, the road safety officer. This point has also been acted on in the 1972 review. Decisions have been notified well in advance of any Press release.

Mr. Tom Wood felt that the Department's decision about Darwen cast a slur on his character. The right hon. Lady said that he was branded. He felt that it gave rise to unjustifiable doubts about his ability and might prejudice his career.

Mr. Wood's position is no different in principle from that of those employed by other authorities which lost exemption. I have already explained that this is a considerable number. But our concern has always been with the attitude of authorities, the resources employed and the range of functions covered, not with individuals.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries wrote to the right hon. Lady on 26th January 1972, saying: I am sorry that you or anyone else should think that a slur has been cast on the reputation of Mr. Wood, the Blackburn road safety officer. He has, I know, done excellent work; and I must emphasise that the changes I am making are purely organisational in character and have nothing to do with the work of individual RSOs. My sole intention is to ensure that the right machinery exists at local authority level to give a fresh impetus to road safety work throughout the country. My right hon. Friend underlined the point when he saw the right hon. Lady and my hon. and learned Friend and subsequently he saw Mr. Wood to tell him personally, and Mr. Wood was also seen by a senior official of my Department.

The Parliamentary Commissioner made a report on Mr. Wood's complaint. He concluded that the Department's consideration of Darwen as part of the review was careful and unprejudiced, was not affected by inaccurate information and took account of Darwen's views.

The right hon. Lady mentioned tufty clubs. I do not want to take up a lot of time on this but in paragraph 24 of his report the Parliamentary Commissioner dealt with them. He stressed that he found that the Department took into account correct information about the number of tufty clubs in Darwen.

I am also pleased to note that the Parliamentary Commissioner said that he cannot think that his"— that is Mr. Wood's— reputation and standing has suffered and that in his view there was no reason why Mr. Wood's future career should have been affected".

I do not believe that the word "branded" is appropriate in this case.

Mrs. Castle

This is not an official secret. If the Parliamentary Commissioner had access to the information, why could we not have access to what RoSPA said so that we could check whether it was correct?

Mr. Speed

It was not a question of what RoSPA said. What the Parliamentary Commissioner took into account was the information upon which the Department had acted, and his statement in paragraph 24 was that we had had the correct information about the number of tufty clubs in Darwen.

Mrs. Castle

How did he know?

Mr. Speed

That is what he said in his report.

I have already accepted the Parliamentary Commissioner's criticism that the Department's decision should not have reached the Press before it reached Mr. Wood. This was extremely discourteous. It was an accident due to Christmas postal pressure. I accept what my hon. and learned Friend said, that this was unforgivable, and I hope that it will never happen again to any individual. I can imagine, particularly at that time of year, the grave effect that it must have had upon Mr. Wood on first reading an announcement of that sort in his local paper. I concede that absolutely and I apologise again on behalf of the Department. We have taken steps to ensure that this sort of situation does not occur again to any individual, so far as it is within our power, but we are, after all, human and we all make mistakes.

One ought to recall the purpose of the review of exemptions. It is to improve local road safety effort by getting more resources devoted to it, whether by exempt authorities or the counties. There is still need for greater effort. From 1st April next year road safety powers will be reserved to the counties and they will have to provide the resources. I take the opportunity of this debate, which is about an individual, to urge those counties which have not yet done so to set up a road safety organisation and all counties to tackle the problems vigorously on the lines laid down by the Department.

This affair has caused considerable distress to the right hon. Lady's constituent, but there is perhaps a silver lining since as a result of this affair we have improved our procedures. We have taken steps to ensure that the authorities to which this is applied in the 1972–73 period are not treated in the same way as Darwen. We have taken steps to ensure that anyone put in this position is treated courteously and properly, and I am sure that that is what the House wishes.

I stress again everything that my hon. and learned Friend said about Mr. Wood. I hope that having had this matter properly raised in Parliament, having seen my right hon. Friend, having had letters from him and, indeed, having read the Parliamentary Commissioner's report, Mr. Wood will feel able, even though the matter may still rankle with him, to continue the good work that he has done for Blackburn and may be doing for Lanca- shire. I hope that he will not have this sort of trouble or anything like it again in the future. I again apologise to him.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past Twelve o'clock.