HC Deb 02 May 1974 vol 872 cc1450-8

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Stodart (Edinburgh, West)

The objections by a small community to the laying of a new runway at Edinburgh Airport have become in many ways well nigh what is described as a cause célèbre. The interest in the matter has been far from confined to my constituency, to Edinburgh itself or even to Scotland. The fact that the BBC's "Man Alive" series devoted over half of its recent 50-minute programme to events at the airport is evidence of that.

I am anxious that the Minister of State should have time to deploy his answers to what I shall say. Therefore, I shall not go into the whole of the case apart from picking out certain episodes in what has been a long saga and relating them to the Parliamentary Commissioners' recommendation that the Scottish Development Department should consider whether it might not be a case for making a substantial and exceptional award of expenses to the objectors.

The pressure for a new runway at Edinburgh went on all through the 1960s, and it will be found in HANSARD of 31st January 1968 that the Under-Secretary of State to the Department of Trade and Industry said that current plans included a new runway.

It is conclusive that as a result of that statement three letters were sent off in February 1968 from Cramond. Two were sent from the Cramond Association to the British Airports Authority and the Scottish Development Department. The third was from the Cramond Kirk Session to the Scottish Development Department. Each asked for particulars of the proposals and suggested its own alignment of the runway.

The British Airports Authority replied saying that it had passed the letter to the Department of Trade and Industry. In fact, that Department never replied. The Minister of State will know that that matter was severely criticised by the reporter in the course of his inquiry. The Scottish Development Department replied by saying, in a fair paraphrasing of the situation, that objections could be lodged when the proposals were advertised.

On 15th April 1971 the British Airports Authority applied formally to the local planning authorities. On 6th July the period for the lodging of objections closed and 350 objections were lodged. It is only fair to say that none was lodged either from the Edinburgh Corporation or from the Midlothian County Council.

On 1st November 1971 the public inquiry was opened, and it lasted until 3rd February 1972. Many months later, in November 1972, the report was issued. The British Airports Authority's plans were rejected on the grounds of danger to the people of Newbridge and of excessive noise both for Newbridge and Cramond. Even the alignment suggested by Cramond to swing the runway away from that community was rejected on the grounds of excessive noise and of danger to the people of Newbridge.

That report was issued in November 1972, and on 26th January 1973 the then Secretary of State issued his decision in the form of a letter which concluded that In the public interest and notwithstanding increased noise disturbance for some, the British Airports Authority proposals must be approved. The present policy on the sharing of expenses in an inquiry of this kind is very long established. Expenses are awarded in only two cases. First, if an attempt is made to acquire compulsorily someone's property and that person objects successfully, he gets his expenses. Secondly, if a party to an inquiry behaves, in the words of the statute, "frivolously, vexatiously or unreasonably", those suffering from that behaviour may get their expenses from him; otherwise each party pays his own. There is no question of anyone behaving in such a way at this long and expensive inquiry. The British Airports Authority on the one hand and my constituents on the other hand argued their case constructively and with complete and absolute responsibility.

The Parliamentary Commissioner is not an arbiter or an umpire. His rôle is to investigate allegations of maladministration as a result of which citizens feel that they may have suffered injustice. Ministers are not obliged to follow the Parliamentary Commissioner's recommendations; the responsibility for the administration of their Departments remains in their hands. But—here I speak as someone who has held a fair amount of departmental responsibility—a Minister must have very good reasons if he decides to reject a recommendation made by the Parliamentary Commissioner in a report which has attracted—nobody can deny this, I think—such widespread attention.

At this point I must comment on what was said by the noble Lord the Minister of State, Scottish Office in the House of Lords on this point yesterday. He said that the Parliamentary Commissioner recommended not that an award of expenses should be made but only that the Secretary of State should consider whether such an award might be made. This is an exercise in semantics which I hope neither the Secretary of State nor the Minister of State will pursue because I do not think it is worthy of them.

The Parliamentary Commissioner states in paragraph 99 of his report: I do not question the general policy about the payment of expenses, and I accept that the decision not to make an award to the Runway Joint Committee is based on that policy. I am aware, however, that the Council on Tribunals, whose recommendations were prayed in aid by the Scottish Development Department, do envisage that there may be exceptional circumstances in which third parties may be awarded expenses: they have not defined them beyond one illustration which does not apply here, but I know from other investigations I have carried out that the Council have not meant the illustration to represent the only kind of case that might deserve exceptional treatment. And although an inquiry might well not have been averted even if the Cramond Association proposals had been fully considered in advance by the Department of Trade and Industry and the British Airports Authority, I doubted if the Committee would have had reason to incur expenses on the scale they did if there had been an opportunity for them to make their ideas known earlier. In all the circumstances of this particular case I have invited the Scottish Development Department to consider whether there might not be a case for, exceptionally. some substantial contribution towards the committee's expenses. I cannot believe that the noble Lord or the Minister of State can in their hearts regard this as other than a recommendation that an exception to the rule should be macle in this case.

The Parliamentary Commissioner felt that the expenses rule should be broken and that a substantial award should be made on two grounds. The first was that the objectors' expenses might not have been so great if they could have put their ideas forward sooner. That takes us back to the abortive correspondence of 1968. The second was that, in the absence of replies to those letters, it is not an answer to say that alternative proposals could have been put forward later. The recent Government White Paper "Land Resource Use in Scotland" recognises that people should not have that task put upon them.

There is a third point that is worth considering. One of the major points in the inquiry was noise, and on this the reporter said at page 93, paragraph 22, of his report: I obtained very little assistance from the expert evidence on noise problems adduced by the British Airports Authority. The limited nature of the investigation, arising from what I am satisfied was an incorrect view of the criterion to be applied for educational establishments, meant that no study had been made of a very important part of the problem. The remainder of this evidence while no doubt academically correct, gave little assistance in understanding the practical implications of the various proposals. In contrast, the expert evidence for the objectors appeared to me to be based on a more thorough study of the particular problems which I must consider. That expert evidence, which convinced the reporter, was obtained at great expense to my constituents.

Mr. Gordon Campbell in his decision letter had refused expenses but on 7th February this year. after the Parliamen- tary Commissioner had reported, he wrote to me as follows: The payment of expenses to the runway objectors is not without difficulty, but I am giving the most careful and urgent consideration to the matter. To the Chairman of the Runway Joint Committee on 18th February he said: I have noted what you say about the Committee's willingness to supplement the arguments for their application, and I will bear this in mind. The Secretary of State has repeatedly told us in the House of all the problems which confronted him when he resumed office early in March, and he has referred to the many skeletons that were left in the cupboard. I must in all fairness pay him a tribute and say that he considered this matter urgently. A letter to the Runway Joint Committee Chairman within three weeks was evidence of that, and he has assured me in a letter that he gave very careful thought to all the factors involved, but he has totally rejected the Parliamentary Commissioner's advice. I hope he will telt us why he has done that.

The last thing I want, and I hope that the Minister shares my view, is that citizens should be totally discouraged—indeed, I would go so far as to say warned off from using their rights to object, provided that they use them responsibly. If that happened, it would put far too much power in the hands of the executive.

If the Minister is afraid of creating a precedent, let me try to help him by pointing out that the Parliamentary Commissioner has found exceptional reasons for him to act exceptionally. It would not be strictly accurate for me to say that the objectors won their case, because the reporter's word—rightly in my view——is not the final one. The ultimate responsibility for what in many circumstances may be the national interest must lie with the Government. The objectors, did, however, succeed in their attack upon the British Airports Authority's proposal so far as they were allowed to participate in it, with the result that the reporter rejected that proposal completely.

If the Government, having appointed a reporter of impartiality and great distinction—a matter for which we in Scotland can take credit since the appointee was a man high in the legal profession—feel obliged to overrule his findings because things touching upon the national interests so demand and in this case these interests were said in the decision letter to be better communications at the earliest possible date—surely it is only fair that the nation should pay.

10.17 p.m.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Mr. Bruce Millan)

The concluding words uttered by the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Anthony Stodart) would take us a good deal beyond Turnhouse, but I recognise the force of his remarks. I also recognise the extremely moderate but skilful way in which he presented his case. I agree with many of his points, although unfortunately I do not feel that there is a case for the Secretary of State for Scotland to reconsider his decision in this case.

This matter has raised strong feelings not only in the hon. Gentleman's constituency but much further afield, since it raises some of the most difficult questions of public inquiries of this sort—and, intrinsically, it was a public inquiry of considerable importance.

At the outset I should put one or two facts on the record and perhaps repeat in my own words some of the matters mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman. It is worth remembering since there is much public misunderstanding on the point, that the reporter did not recommend the adoption either of the BAA's proposals or the proposals put forward at the public inquiry by the objectors. What the reporter suggested was that the runway alignment and the question of an airport for central Scotland should be further considered.

The second matter which it is worth putting on record, which I believe the right hon. Gentleman accepted, is that in these decisions the ultimate responsibility to make the decision lies with the Secretary of State. There is a good deal of public misunderstanding about this matter, and the suggestion is sometimes made that if the Secretary of State turns down a reporter's recommendation somehow or other that is undemocratic. I would take the opposite view that the ultimate democratic safeguard is that these matters lie finally for decision with a Minister in this House. In any event, the right hon. Gentleman has accepted that.

The third point is that the then Secretary of State, at the time of the original decision in January 1973, turned down the payment of expenses on the basis of the well-defined policy which the right hon. Gentleman has outlined. There was no case for the Secretary of State, in line with long-established policy, to award expenses to the objectors.

The real crux of the matter comes in the light of the report of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. My right hon. Friend considered the report, the implications of it and the passages which the right hon. Gentleman read to the House. The decision which he reached eventually was not reached lightly. It took into account the full circumstances of the case, especially the report of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration.

With a number of exceptions, all really incidental in character though important, the Parliamentary Commissioner found that there was no maladministration by the Scottish Office or the other Government Departments involved. Again this has to be stated because there is a good deal of public misunderstanding about this as well and a tendency to say that, first, the objectors convinced the reporter of their case, which was not strictly true, and secondly that they then convinced the Parliamentary Commissioner only to find at the end of the day that everything was simply set aside.

The Parliamentary Commissioner looked at the various proposals put to him that there had been maladministration, and he exonerated the Departments from the charges of maladministration.

There was a criticism of two passages in one paragraph of the decision letter of the Secretary of State of January 1973. In my view that criticism was justified. However, I do not think that it basically altered the situation. There is also the question of the passage in the Parliamentary Commissioner's report where he referred to the situation before the proposals were publicly formulated—that is to say, between 1968 and 1971—and to the correspondence which the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned. But on the generality of the matters with which the Parliamentary Commissioner was asked to deal and dealt with exhaustively and at length. the Departments were exonerated from maladministration.

Nevertheless, the Parliamentary Commissioner, even if he did not make a definite recommendation, gave an invitation to the Secretary of State to consider very seriously whether expenses should be paid in this case. He had two main reasons for doing this. The first was that the original representations made in 1968 were not answered adequately at the time. Nevertheless, as the Parliamentary Commissioner himself pointed out in paragraph 107 of his report, the normal procedures were strictly followed. He said: I am satisfied that, during the planning period which preceded the submission of the applications relating to the new Turnhouse runway, the normal procedures were strictly followed…that the reactions of the local communities were not directly tested before the statutory procedure was started does not mean that the DTI/British Airports Authority would have reached a different conclusion about their proposals…". Later, he says that the groups affected are left with an understandable feeling that they could have put forward useful suggestions at a time when they could, at least arguably, have influenced the proposal". That is one leg of the argument.

The second leg is that in developing these alternative proposals the objectors involved themselves in considerable expense. We must take these points against the generality of the case that I have mentioned: first, that the normal procedures were followed, and secondly that there was no maladministration by any of the Departments involved. Many of the charges that were given a good deal of currency about the behaviour of the Ministry of Defence, apart from the Departments most directly involved—the Scottish Development Department and the Department of Trade and Industry—were demonstrated to be unfounded.

Therefore, the real question is whether the "understandable feeling" that objectors had—that if they had had an opportunity of considering matters earlier they might have influenced the proposal—is in itself sufficient to set aside what would be an ex-gratia payment according to the normal rules for paying expenses in a case of that kind.

There would be considerable difficulty in doing that because, as the Parliamentary Commisisoner said, in such a case the decision will almost inevitably leave some party or interest dissatisfied". It is very difficult to determine criteria by which it would be possible to distinguish this case and perhaps a few other exceptional cases from time to time from the normal situation in which decisions "will almost inevitably leave some party or interest dissatisfied". This is a real problem. I do not disguise from the House that a decision of the kind asked for in this case could set for the Government, as I think my predecessors would have agreed or admitted, difficult precedents. One would then be faced with many cases in which to consider whether the normal rules should be set aside because of special exceptional circumstances in the case in question.

The question of alternative proposals and the cost is not a satisfactory guide. Indeed it was the previous Government's policy, and it is ours, to adopt procedures which would not and should not involve objectors in the expense of producing alternative proposals.

Mr. Anthony Stodart

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is most unusual for a planning submission to go to the Parliamentary Commissioner?

Mr. Millan

It may be unusual, but it is open for any Member of Parliament, on behalf of any of his constituents in a case in which objectors may be dissatisfied with the Secretary of State's decision, to put the case to the Parliamentary Commissioner. I suggest that if in this case expenses were awarded there would be many cases going to the Parliamentary Commissioner. That would be a matter for Members of Parliament, but it is an an example of the precedent that this case would be likely to involve.

For these reasons, taking the whole generality of the case, because the way that the case was handled by the previous Secretary of State has not been demonstrated to involved maladministration, and considering the possible precedent which would follow from this case if we were to set aside the normal rules that successive Governments have found to work adequately in these difficult cases, can see no prospect—

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock 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 half-past Ten o'clock.