§ The Secretaryof State for Transport (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the inquiry into the proposals for the Archway road in north London.
I very much regret to have to tell the House that Sir Michael Giddings, the inspector nominated by the Lord Chancellor and appointed by the Secretary of State for the Environment and myself, has withdrawn. This was as a result of the harassment he and his family have undergone. In his letter of resignation he describes how for several months he has been plagued with telephone calls, how callers have sought various means of speaking to his wife, the receipt of hundreds of letters at his private home, some addressed to his wife, two deputations at the house over Christmas, the receipt of a parcel of excreta, trespassers in his garden and the breaking of a window. The police have been in regular touch and have taken the special steps sought by him in relation to his home. He has told me that, while he has no doubt that he could carry the inquiry through, he is not prepared to see his wife further distressed or alarmed. He therefore feels he must withdraw.
The Government totally condemn such tactics of intimidation and domestic harassment. They are clearly intended to subvert the statutory processes established by Parliament to protect the interests of the public. In 1978, when announcing the abandonment of the previous Archway inquiry, my predecessor likewise had to tell the House that it had been subjected to a campaign of disruption. The object of any inquiry is to provide a full and fair hearing of all the arguments in the case at issue, and behaviour designed to suppress this is an attack on the rights of the community as a whole.
A new inquiry will be set up as soon as possible with a new inspector nominated by my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor. He has in mind nominating a senior lawyer. Tactics of harassment to prevent a proper hearing of the issues at stake will not be allowed to prevail.
Setting up a fresh inquiry means that the time and money of many people will have been wasted as a result of these actions by the few. I have conveyed to Sir Michael Giddings my deep regret at the personal attacks on himself and his family that they have had to endure.
§ Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)
The Opposition offer their full condemnation of the harassment of a public servant who was carrying out his duties and their sympathy for the distress caused to his wife. We agree with the Secretary of State that the object of any inquiry is to provide a full and fair hearing of all the arguments in the case at issue.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that four or five inquiries have been abandoned by different Administrations because of the controversy that they have aroused and the opposition that has been mounted by residents and local authorities, both Tory and Labour, because of the refusal of the Department of Transport, during the terms of office of different Administrations, to meet the demands of the inspectors, including Sir Michael Giddings, that the 1971 consultants' report, which was 144 commissioned by the Department into the environmental effects of the road improvements scheme, should be made available to them?
Will the right hon. Gentleman recognise that by refusing such legitimate information he will be committing a controversial act, and will he reconsider his position? Will he consider going further and recognising, as Sir Michael did in adjourning his inquiry, that new circumstances, such as the opening of the M25, could have a considerable effect upon the short-cut motorway lorries that use the Archway route, especially when account is taken of the major improvement that has been brought about by the GLC lorry ban in the Archway area?
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the time is right for a fresh start by all those involved in a new inquiry, including the Department? Will he agree to commission a new consultants' report into the effects of the scheme, taking into account the M25 and the GLC lorry ban and their effect upon the scheme, and make it available to the new inquiry?
§ Mr. Ridley
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his initial condemnation of what happened. I agree with him entirely that all we seek here is a full and fair hearing of the issues so that the matter can be decided one way or the other, bearing in mind everyone's views and all the evidence available. I believe that this is the third inquiry that has been abandoned. The history of this matter leaves one in doubt as to whether it is possible for the public to express their views about a controversial matter.
The hon. Gentleman raised two points which the last inspector, Sir Michael Giddings, had suggested should be brought forward—the effect of the opening of the M25 and the Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick and Partners report on Hampstead Garden Suburb. Those are matters for the future inquiry. I shall consider doing all that is necessary to ensure that the new inquiry starts with full information. That was not the point of my statement. The point was met by the hon. Gentleman when he agreed that the harassment was deplorable, and I am grateful to him for condemning it.
§ Sir Hugh Rossi (Hornsey and Wood Green)
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for making his forthright statement, in contrast to the action of his predecessor, who used a written answer to announce the abandonment of the last inquiry. I assure my right hon. Friend that the vast majority of my constituents affected by this scheme deplore and condemn the disgraceful behaviour of an unrepresentative group and would wish me to express their deepest regret to the distinguished inspector and his wife for the harassment, humiliation and indignities that they have had to endure for many months. My constituents would want me to wish them well for the future.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that two other inspectors have been forced to retire from inquiries into the Archway road in very similar circumstances, one being caused serious ill health as a result? Is not this intimidation of those acting in a quasi-judicial capacity and the harassment of their families in their homes an attempt to obstruct the course of justice and to prevent open and free discussion of issues of public importance? Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the full rigour of the law is brought to bear on those responsible for these actions?
§ Mr. Ridley
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said, and I entirely agree with him. I shall ensure that his good wishes are passed on to Sir Michael Giddings and Lady Giddings in the way that he would wish.
The inspector in 1976 retired ill after only a fortnight. During that time, there were seven days of sittings when there were various disruptions. In 1977, there were again many disruptions, with people escorted out by the police after considerable abuse of and disobedience to the inspector. There was also a series of letters and telephone calls to the inspector's home, with other harassments such as false advertisements inserted in the newspapers about the sale of his house and car and the delivery of manure and goods to his house. The inspector adjourned the inquiry while further evidence was prepared. The then Secretary of State decided to abandon the inquiry to allow for solutions to be explored. He referred in his announcement to the campaign of organised disruption.
I assure my hon. Friend that in future we will not allow anyone to obstruct the full and fair conduct of public inquiries and that the full rigour of the law will be applied for the protection of such inquiries and their inspectors.
§ Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)
Does the Secretary of State agree that, whatever the frustrations people feel, there can be no excuse for the type of bully-boy tactics he has described? Given the long history of disruption and intimidation in this matter, can he guarantee that any future inquiry will not be subject to the same type of tactics?
§ Mr. Ridley
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support for the proper processes of public inquiries. Measures can be taken, including changing telephone numbers, checking mail, recording telephone calls, special arrangements to alert local police quickly and the physical presence of police on premises when necessary. As soon as the new inspector is appointed, there will be full discussion with him about the arrangements he would like, and they will be laid on from the start.
§ Mr. Peter Fry (Wellingborough)
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on pursuing the matter of the Archway inquiry? In the light of his statement this afternoon, should he not reconsider the basis of such public inquiries? Is it right that public servants should be subjected to the kind of pressure to which the previous inspector has been subjected? Should it not perhaps be for the House to consider the general principle of such major road improvements and leave it to inspectors to consider only the local implications? It would then be the House and not an individual that would be responsible for a major improvement which would avoid the kind of personal injury to which inspectors have been subjected.
§ Mr. Ridley
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I note carefully what he suggests. Whatever we may decide after reconsidering the rules for the conduct of public inquiries into the building of the roads in the way that he suggests, I am sure that he would agree that with the law on public inquiries as it is, it is right that we should now press ahead under the existing law to establish that the people of this area will have the right fully to put their views about the Archway road scheme.
§ Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)
Is the Minister aware that during the final day's proceedings before the Archway inquiry was adjourned—I have the transcript 146 here—the inspector did not, when giving his reasons for adjourning the inquiry, refer to the behaviour of people at the inquiry or outside his house? Secondly, he adjourned the inquiry because he felt that the effects of the M25 motorway on north London should be measured. Thirdly, he adjourned the inquiry because there was united local opposition to the holding of the inquiry and the withholding by the Department of Transport of information which it was ordered by one of its inspectors in 1977 to release. Seven years later it has still been refused.
Is the Minister aware that throughout north London, not just within the Hornsey and Wood Green constituency, but within Finchley, Islington, North and Islington, South. there is total opposition to the principle of building in north London a large motorway which can only bring more traffic in its wake? Is he also aware that many hon. Members are disturbed by his remark about the future conduct of motorway public inquiries? We believe that they should be open. That means that the Department of Transport should provide all the information that it has been instructed to provide in the past.
§ Mr. Ridley
The hon. Gentleman is the only hon. Member who has asked a question on the statement who has not seen fit to condemn the harassment, intimidation and personal attacks which have been made on an independent person who should have been allowed to escape such harassment.
From Sir Michael Giddings' letter of retirement, I am fully aware that the harassment which he and his wife have suffered is the cause of his retirement. I have given details of that in my statement. His retirement has nothing to do with the adjournment of the inquiry. The Government accept the adjournment of the inquiry. As I said, we will produce the necessary figures on the traffic change due to the opening of the M25 and other matters which Sir Michael required to be produced. They will be produced in time for the starting of the new inquiry.
I regret that the hon. Gentleman finds it necessary to argue in the House his case about whether a reconstructed road is needed at the Archway—as he is well aware, it is not a motorway. It would be better argued at the future inquiry. By seeking to make that point here, he is pre-empting the position of people who might hold a view different from his.
§ Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)
My right hon. Friend has said that he is grateful to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) for condemning the harassment. However, what is the use of an Opposition Front Bench spokesman condemning harassment when the Labour party's normal attitude is to foster and foment protests, marches, parades and processions and all the excitable behaviour and bad temper connected therewith?
§ Mr. Ridley
My hon. Friend must be thankful for small mercies. The fact that the Opposition have been officially prepared to put their weight behind the maintenance of the due process of the public inquiry is a small mercy for which I am very grateful.
§ Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)
I join the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) in condemning the appalling threats and attacks upon Sir Michael, but I wonder whether the Secretary of State is 147 aware that many decent and reasonable people in north London — in my constituency in particular — feel passionately deeply about the proposals for the Archway road? They cannot bring themselves to express their feelings in the maner in which a small minority has done, but they wish to have the fullest possible access to any reconvened public inquiry. Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that such access will be available and, in particular, that regular evening sessions will be held so that members of the local community can put a reasoned case to the new inspector?
§ Mr. Ridley
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting a most important point in a most sensible way. I agree entirely that there are strong feelings. There are strong feelings on both sides of the question. The point of a public inquiry is to enable strong feelings to be heard, measured and reported, and I seek only to make sure that the inquiry will function in an orderly and proper fashion. Questions such as when, where, how or why the inquiry should sit will be for the new inspector, when he is appointed, to settle.
§ Dr. Ian Twinn (Edmonton)
I welcome the Secretary of State's statement, but is he aware that the disgraceful and undemocratic behaviour of some objectors to the Archway inquiry, and to the last inquiry too, has not only put local objectors to considerable inconvenience but resulted in the incurring of considerable costs by voluntary groups active at those inquiries? Those people have been put at a severe disadvantage. Will my right hon. Friend also condemn the behaviour of the objectors in that respect?
§ Mr. Ridley
I agree with my hon. Friend. I am sorry that those who took time and trouble to put their case to the former inquiry will now have to do so again. Normal rules on costs will apply, and letters will be sent to individual objectors explaining the details, because abortive expenditure is reimbursable.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)
I associate the Liberal party with the condemnation of the personal attacks on the inspector. Such attacks are not acceptable in any political circumstances. Will the right hon. Gentleman give the House two assurances? First, in so far as is possible, will the police be encouraged to investigate those who have committed criminal offences? Secondly, and more importantly, I hope that whatever the history of intimidation in the Archway inquiry and elsewhere may have been, present and future inquiries will be allowed to continue. I hope that everyone who is interested will be able to put his views, as in the past, and. that there will be no attempt to circumscribe the inquiry process because of the unfortunate and unpopular attacks on inspectors.
§ Mr. Ridley
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The atmosphere of the next inquiry will provide full opportunity for all concerned to put forward their points of view. I have not yet decided whether the Hampstead Garden Suburb report should be put forward to the new inquiry, but I will carefully consider what Sir Michael Giddings said, and I will do all that I can to ensure that the new inquiry is one in which everyone can have confidence.
§ Mr. Robert Atkins (South Ribble)
I was born, bred and educated in the area, and I am still a ratepayer of Haringey. I was a member of Haringey council for some years for a ward adjacent to the Archway road, and so I well understand that this is a long saga.
Is it not a disgrace that the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) has refused to condemn the fact that Sir Michael and other inspectors have suffered at the hands of some of the present comrades of the hon. Gentleman of those who were associated with him in his former incarnation as the Haringey councillor? As a Member of this House, the hon. Gentleman should be aware that the House does not adopt the antics of Haringey council.
§ Mr. Ridley
I agree that, whatever may be the beliefs of the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), he should join hon. Members in believing that such inquiries should be carried out in an atmosphere that is free from harassment.
§ Mr. Alistair Burt (Bury, North)
As one of the two local authority councillors in the borough of Haringey——
§ Mr. Burt
I will give way if the hon. Gentleman wishes to condemn the action. As a councillor for the ward concerned, I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. The electors in my ward will be deeply distressed to hear that yet another inspector has suffered in the way that my right hon. Friend has described. I attended the start of the pre-inquiry meetings, and I can testify to the atmosphere of fear and disturbance created at such inquiries by the antics and harassment of the past.
I urge my right hon. Friend to take seriously the possibility of prosecution if individuals can be found and named who have taken part in the disgraceful actions. They should be brought to book. They disrupt the work of local groups which are trying to make their case in a reasonable way. They disrupt the work of the Department in trying to organise the inquiry. They disrupt attempts to arrive at a fair decision by democratic means. Those who have broken the law and caused such personal distress should be brought to book.
§ Mr. Ridley
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We listen to him with special attention because he knows and represents the area concerned. I hope that the conduct of the next inquiry will be all that he aspires to.
The question of prosecution is not for me, but it is one that the police will consider carefully in relation to past and any future disturbances.
§ Mr. Prescott
After his recent altercation with police cars, we are not prepared to take any lectures about the rule of law from the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel).
The Secretary of State must not allow himself to be blinded by the deplorable incidents that occurred during the inquiry to the legitimate opposition expressed by residents in the area and by the local authorities, including the borough of Barnet — the Prime Minister's local authority. That opposition is based on the argument that sufficient information, including the 1971 report, has not been made available to the inquiry. Will the hon. Gentleman make that report available to the inquiry?
149 In assessing the new inquiry, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will give some thought to ensuring the arrangement of evening sessions so that ordinary citizens may express their views.
§ Mr. Ridley
The hon. Gentleman will live to regret his remark about my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel). I hope that he feels that he owes my hon. Friend an apology.
I have already said that I shall consider all that I can do to lay appropriate information before the next inquiry, but I must make it clear that the purpose of my statement was not to discuss the information available at the next inquiry but to inform the House of the grevious circumstances in which the previous inquiry unfortunately came to an end, with the retirement of the inspector. Sir Michael Giddings had already announced that he would be holding evening sessions, but, as I said in reply to the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), whether the inspector will hold such sessions is a matter for him.