HC Deb 14 April 1976 vol 909 cc1355-8
4. Mr. Gray

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will review the present system of public inquiries in Scotland.

Mr. Millan

Following an extensive review of inquiry procedures, a memorandum of guidance was issued in February last year. I am sending the hon. Gentleman a copy. I am considering whether further improvements are practicable.

Mr. Gray

I add my best wishes to those that have been extended to the right hon. Gentleman. Will he make a real name for himself at the start by agreeing with me that the whole system of public inquiry in Scotland has lost the confidence of the public? Because of the actions of successive Secretaries of State in overruling reporters' reports, is there not a need for a completely new system in which awards of costs can be made more easily available to those who lodge objections?

Mr. Millan

I think public opinion depends upon what the eventual result of an inquiry is. If a member of the public thinks the result is favourable, he thinks that the system is also favourable. If the result is unfavourable, he does not care for it.

We have made a lot of improvements to cut down the time spent on inquiries without reducing the rights of anyone. But at the end of the day the Secretary of State has to make the final decision, and in the case of the important inquiries in his own constituency with regard to the Nigg refinery the hon. Gentleman was very happy when my predecessor overturned the reporter's recommendation.

Mr. Canavan

Will my right hon. Friend give serious consideration to the request he has received to hold a public inquiry into the administration of the cheap home loans scheme for the officials of the Central Regional Council, bearing in mind the public anxiety about this matter and the admission of what I claimed all along, that a local inquiry would be possible under the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973?

Mr. Millan

Whether a local inquiry is possible is a different question from whether it is necessary or desirable. I know my hon. Friend's strong feelings about this, but I do not think that there is a case for an inquiry into facts which are already established and well known.

Mr. Fairbairn

May I add my good wishes to the Secretary of State upon his appointment?

May I ask him to snuff out a real iniquity in public inquiries in Scotland in that a local or public authority can spend as much of the ratepayers' money as it wants without regard to whether it wins or loses, and the objector, win or lose, has to fork out from his own pocket? This is an iniquity and I ask the right hon. Gentleman to look into it.

Mr. Millan

I know that some of these inquiries are very expensive in lawyers' fees and that sort of thing. One reason why we are trying to get a simpler system is to cut out some of the expense. It is very difficult indeed to accept the principle of allowing costs because, without saying anything detrimental about the merits of cases which objectors put forward, it would add tremendously to the burden at inquiries and would make them much more lengthy and time consuming than they now are.

Mr. Russell Johnston

May I offer my commiserations to the Secretary of State?

Will the right hon. Gentleman at least say that he has not closed his mind absolutely to allowing costs? I know that it is very difficult indeed and that it would possibly proliferate objections if costs were allowed. Nevertheless, this is a genuine problem when people with little finance are faced by the State or possibly local authorities and, while being uncertain whether they will win or lose, will still be forced to pay.

Mr. Millan

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman was the first to strike the right note in his opening remarks.

I agree that this is a serious problem because objectors often feel at a considerable disadvantage compared with public bodies. We have tried to make the procedures at public inquiries less formal. If the hon. Gentleman looks into public inquiries, he will find that the reporters do everything possible to make the individual objector feel able to present his case adequately, even if he is not legally represented. I consider that this is an important step ferward.

Miss Harvie Anderson

In wishing the right hon. Gentleman well in his new appointment, may I ask him to consider putting a limit on costs for both the public authority concerned and for the objector if he is a private individual? Is it not practicable to introduce some limit on both sides?

Mr. Millan

The trouble is that inquiries vary so much in their importance and complexity. What might be a suitable rule for one kind of inquiry might not be suitable for another.

I make the general point that I am anxious that, in the public interest as well as in the interests of individual parties, we should get inquiry procedures which are as inexpensive as possible.

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