HC Deb 24 November 1999 vol 339 cc727-34

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jamieson.]

10.42 pm
Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

The purpose of this debate tonight is to highlight a growing problem with regard to the openness, transparency and public accountability of public inquiries, and to seek help and action from Ministers to improve the situation. Given the importance of public inquiries to the people of the Essex, I am particularly pleased to see my hon. Friends the Members for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) and for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) in their places tonight.

To understand the problem that is developing at public inquiries, which deal with more and more complex issues, it is necessary to ask what is their exact purpose. Probably the best raison d'être that I have seen in recent times appeared in the comment section of the Essex Chronicle about three weeks ago. It said: Public inquiries should be just that—hearings at which individuals, pressure groups, local authorities and any other interested parties can make their views known on whatever is the subject under review, and understand those of others. It went on to say: Central to this democratic right is the ability to have easy access to all evidence being considered—a right which the media, charged with the responsibility of informing a wider public, necessarily shares. I hope that the Minister wholeheartedly shares those sentiments, particularly as the Queen's Speech, on which we have just voted, states: My Government will introduce a Bill on Freedom of Information. It will give everyone the right of access to information held across the public sector for the first time. I assume that the public sector includes public inquiries, and perhaps the Minister will clarify that when she replies.

To illustrate the problem of access to information presented to public inquiries, I want to use the example of the current public inquiry on the Essex and Southend waste management plan being held in Christ Church, Chelmsford, although I emphasise that that example is not unique, but graphically illustrates the problems developing at controversial and complex public inquiries.

I understand that decisions were taken at the pre-inquiry meeting about the day-to-day running of the inquiry.

Unfortunately, few people knew that the meeting was taking place. Given the massive public interest that the inquiry would generate in Essex because of the controversial nature of its content, I am surprised that the local media were not sent a press release about that meeting. It was advertised by public notices, which in many cases are at best a fairly poor way of drawing attention to issues. I am sure that the Minister, as a member of a Government who rely on spin and news management, will appreciate that it would have been far more satisfactory to have notified people through press releases to the local media.

I understand that it was agreed at the pre-inquiry meeting that four sets of proofs of evidence would be produced. Three would go to the main interested parties and one would be kept on site in a basement office for the press and other interested parties to inspect. A photocopier was also made available for copies to made by anyone who wished to have them. Personally, I believe that these arrangements are totally inadequate. One has to remember that the inquiry is highly controversial and complex. The proofs of evidence run to thousands of pages and, under the existing arrangements, it is not realistic to expect the local media and interested parties to have proper access to the documentation or to be able to photocopy it satisfactorily so that they can follow the proceedings properly.

Despite requests from Stuart Rawlins, editor of the Essex Chronicle, Kathleen Corby, its chief political and local government reporter, and others for greater and easier access to that information, the arrangements have not been changed to make the proofs of evidence more easily and more readily available. That is grossly unfair and a distortion of the process because it inhibits proper monitoring of the proceedings. As the Essex Chronicle rightly points out: Members of the public, exercising a legitimate right to attend the inquiry, can find themselves listening to witnesses being questioned on evidence which is not readily available. That makes a mockery of the process.

Surely in this day and age, with modern technology and the knowledge that the date of the inquiry was set far in advance, the proofs of evidence could have been photocopied, scanned or posted on the internet so that interested parties and the local press could have studied the evidence—both in advance and during the inquiry—to keep on top of what went on each day and follow precisely the evidence being dealt with and discussed on any day on which the inquiry sat. I do not believe that that is unreasonable.

Rather interestingly, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has produced a booklet entitled, "Development Plans—What You Need to Know". It is meant to be, and indeed is, a helpful guide for members of the public, local media and interested parties to how a public inquiry should be carried out, what should be expected of the inspector and access to information for members of the public. Paragraph 44, which deals with the role of the inspector, states that he must decide how to conduct the proceedings to ensure that the inquiry is conducted in accordance with well-established principles of impartiality, openness and fairness. Paragraph 48 states: Objectors and other interested parties may obtain copies of any such written material which could be relevant to their case from the Programme Officer. Technically, because of the way in which the arrangements have been made, objectors to the local waste plan can see the written material—a set of proofs of evidence is kept in a room in the basement of the building in the New London road—but in reality, because of the unsatisfactory process, they are being denied proper and full access to that information. It is not realistic or right for so many objectors and interested parties to have to go to a small room in a basement to look at, or photocopy, such a massive amount of paperwork or to have to try to obtain it from the witnesses themselves. To comply with paragraph 48 of the guidance booklet, complete sets of documents should have been made available to interested parties in advance, given that the date of the inquiry was set reasonably far in advance.

If hon. Members, Ministers or local councillors were deprived of relevant information so that they could not carry out their duties of implementing or monitoring the implementation of legislation, or if they sought to deprive outside interested parties of access to information on our deliberations and those of local councillors and on draft legislation on regulations, there would be considerable anger. We would rightly find that totally unacceptable. We are not deprived of that information, and neither are members of the public who wish to monitor, comment on or acquaint themselves with our proceedings.

Similarly, under the procedures in the House, many submissions can be made on significant and controversial private Bills. There is a plethora of information, and copies of submissions are made available in advance and during the hearings that are held in this place, so that objectors and others can fully understand, monitor and follow the proceedings on the legislation. That information is provided and is put in the public domain. I believe that the same should and must apply at public inquiries, especially at highly contentious and controversial inquiries.

Despite the Minister's written answers to me on this matter on 4 November, I urge her to think again about the immediate issue of the current inquiry in Chelmsford, and ensure that all proofs of evidence are properly produced for interested parties for the remainder of the inquiry. For the future, I urge her to review the procedures and the way in which inspectors determine how they will run inquiries in this area, so that we can prevent the problems that many people experience, including the local media and interested parties who object to the waste management plan. They find it difficult to follow and monitor those proceedings because of the problem of access due to there being only one set of proofs of evidence.

I hope that, on reflection, the Minister will agree that this is the right way forward. In this day and age, we believe in greater freedom of information, greater access and greater participation. When the inquiry is finally concluded and decisions and recommendations are made, we certainly do not want people to feel that they have not been arrived at transparently and fairly because aggrieved individuals who tried to participate in the process were deprived of information to help them to monitor the course of the inquiry.

I am sure that the Minister will agree with me that we do not want a belief to be established that much of the administration of public inquiries is arranged for the convenience of bureaucrats and not that of the general public, whose interests they are supposed to be serving. I urge the Minister to reconsider this matter, and not only rectify the short-term problem of the current inquiry in Chelmsford but ensure that similar complaints are not made in the future anywhere in the country where a highly controversial and complex public inquiry is held.

10.54 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes)

I congratulate the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) on securing the debate, and I want to deal as fully as I can with the issues that he has raised. As he says, I am aware that the future management of waste in Essex is a hotly contested issue for residents. I understand why that is so. That is demonstrated by the fact that just under 10,000 forms were received by the planning authorities in response to the deposit draft, which amounted to more than 22,000 individual objections to specific policies in the plan. I understand the interest generated by the public inquiry into the objections, and the desire of many interested partners for an opportunity to examine the evidence that is being put before the inspector. As the hon. Gentleman said, the public inquiry opened on 26 October, and has sat for 12 days so far. It will adjourn in 11 days, until 5 January, when the final speeches will be made.

The hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has power to intervene in the process at any time before the plan is adopted. Obviously, that means that I cannot say anything about the plan itself. The hon. Gentleman has not asked me to do so, but I wanted to put that on the record.

I want to take up the hon. Gentleman's concerns about the extent to which material submitted in evidence to the public inquiry is being made available. I have heard his points about the situation in Essex, and I have what I consider to be corrections to make. Let me begin, however, by disputing his initial claim that there is growing evidence of problems relating to openness and transparency in the conduct of planning inquiries, and that there is a general problem of access to information. I must tell him, in relation to both the general position and the evidence from the Essex inquiry, that he cannot substantiate his claims. Nevertheless, this is an important issue for Government, and one that we shall examine—but not because there is evidence of problems.

Apart from the objections to which I have already referred, more than 100 written representations have been submitted to the inspector from members of the public and other interested parties, all of which will be considered in evidence. In addition, the main parties—including the consortium of 10 district councils that are opposed to the plan, the Mid Essex Gravel Company and other large companies involved in the waste disposal industry—have submitted lengthy, fully bound proofs of evidence.

As the hon. Gentleman said, it was agreed at the pre-inquiry meeting held on 5 July that the lengthier proofs of evidence would not be read out at the inquiry itself. That means that everyone who attended the meeting was party to the agreement. Instead, it was agreed that summary proofs would be read out to facilitate the process of the inquiry. The hon. Gentleman will know that that is standard practice at major public inquiries.

The summary proofs, the proofs of the waste planning authorities, and the authorities' formal responses to the objections and representations of the main parties add up to a very large volume of paper. I am told that just one set of all that documentation fills three drawers of a filing cabinet. The hon. Gentleman, however, asked for complete sets of documents—the equivalent of three drawers of a filing cabinet—to be made available routinely to anyone on request. There are also various core documents, planning encyclopaedias and sundry other documentation.

Before I deal with the principle of the matter, let me ask the hon. Gentleman to consider this. Quite simply, the photocopying and distribution of all that material to any interested party and the press, as a matter of routine, would be logistically very difficult, and might not be easy to justify in terms of practicality and cost. It is, I think, for that reason that the libraries to which the hon. Gentleman referred are set up at major public inquiries, and are opened to the public some weeks in advance to enable people to gain access to material without necessarily imposing the burden of requiring such large volumes of material to be provided routinely at public expense.

Mr. Burns

May I first acknowledge that the hon. Members for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) and for Castle Point (Mrs. Butler) are present to listen to what is an important debate?

Notwithstanding what the Minister has just said, does she not think that it would be sensible at least to advertise where the room is in the building's basement by having a sign? Apparently, at present, there is no sign and no member of the public knows, unless they have been told, that that room exists—they do not know until they ask someone.

Ms Hughes

I agree in principle that information on both the fact of the library and its whereabouts should be readily available. If it is not, that may explain why the hon. Gentleman has not been to the library to check the facilities and how easy, or difficult it might be to access information there, but I will check on his statement.

In written questions, the hon. Gentleman requested that the inspector conducting the public inquiry be instructed to make the written submissions to the inquiry available to the press and to interested local parties. I should like to explain what has been done since at the inquiry to facilitate such action.

A library of inquiry documents was set up at the inquiry venue from 1 September to enable the public and other interested parties to study the proofs of evidence, objections, representations, core documents and so on. Before that, between 5 July and 31 August, the inquiry library was put together at the offices of the county council at county hall. During that period, initial objections and representations to the plan, and much of the supporting documentation, were available for public inspection and photocopying. I understand that little use was made of the photocopying facility during that time, but that the library at the inquiry venue was in considerable use, particularly in the run-up to the start of the inquiry.

Proofs of evidence were requested by the inspector in two batches. The first, covering the issues in the early days of the inquiry, was to be deposited by the middle of September; the second by 12 October. As I have said, some of the proofs were lengthy and bound, and it was not always possible to make copies at short notice for interested parties who were either unable or unwilling to visit the library. They could visit the library; there was no problem, as I understand it.

Not only were copies of all the material available for scrutiny at the library, but the county council's press officer contacted all the main newspapers and other media outlets in Essex. The press officer sent copies of the inquiry programme and invited requests for information from the press and media, so that additional copies of documents, or copies of relevant extracts that they requested, could be provided.

To date, as a result of that exercise, only one such request has been received—from BBC Radio Essex. However, the offer is still open. Furthermore, I understand that the inquiry programme officer has been able to obtain additional copies of proofs that are coming in from various originators and that those copies are being made available routinely each day to the press attending the inquiry, so the hon. Gentleman's claim that the documents are not being made available and that the inspector and programme officer are not going to considerable lengths to accommodate the requests are not true.

The hon. Gentleman claims that, because of the inadequacies of the photocopying facilities, the local press and interested parties are having difficulty in following the proceedings. I understand that there have been only four requests to the programme officer for bulk photocopying: two from commercial companies, one from Chelmsford borough council and one from the Essex Chronicle. Those requests have been met and no charge was levied for the copies that were produced for the press.

There have been many requests, mainly from the public, for smaller amounts of copying. Copies of 10 sheets of A4 or fewer are, and have been, provided free. There is a small charge for copies of more than 10 sheets. Since the inquiry, nearly 7,000 copies have been run off on the library machine, the vast majority free of charge.

As the hon. Gentleman said, criticism of the photocopying arrangements was expressed in an article in the Essex Chronicle. However, that criticism arose after the reporter turned up in the library and demanded instant copies of documents, and that volume of documents could not be provided instantly. Nevertheless, the newspaper went on to use the experience to make various unsubstantiated allegations about general provision by the library service.

Moreover, to date, there have been no direct complaints from members of the public, either to the programme officer or to the inspector, about the copying facilities or the lack of readily available copies of documents for perusal off the premises.

Mr. Burns

I should like to remind the Minister that the Essex Chronicle reporter whom she mentioned is a highly respected and professional journalist who believes that it has been difficult not only for her but for some of those attending the inquiry to obtain some proofs of evidence and, therefore, to follow exactly what was going on.

I was also slightly surprised to hear that there have been no complaints. There may have been no formal complaints from interested parties, but I am aware of people who have complained vigorously about the difficulty in obtaining photocopies necessary to follow the day's proceedings.

Ms Hughes

I have been fully briefed and believe that the Essex Chronicle has made an issue of the matter, although I do not know whether the issue is based on various experiences or only one experience. However, it is not necessarily valid for the reporter to assume that her feelings on accessibility are shared by many other people. Not only have there been no formal complaints, there have been no direct complaints from members of the public to the programme officer or the inspector about either of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised—copying facilities, and readily available copies to take away.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that a reasonable balance has to be struck. Although it is difficult to understand how there has been an unfair restriction on access to information in this case, I entirely support his general point that the principle of access to information and openness at planning inquiries is extremely important and has to be put into practice effectively.

As the hon. Gentleman said, planning inquiries are public inquiries, and the public and other interested parties must be able to use them effectively. However, in this case, I believe that the inspector has responded to the requests made to him, and has gone beyond what might normally be expected to facilitate dissemination of information. There is certainly no evidence that other than the correct procedures have been followed.

The hon. Gentleman made some important general points. Turning from the specific case in Essex to the general position, let me say that the Department's current guidance on arrangements for public inquiries—to which the hon. Gentleman referred—is published in a separate booklet and is readily available. It explains that, although participants and the planning authority are free to develop their case at an inquiry, the inspector will normally ask for proofs of evidence or other written statements to be submitted beforehand. I do not think that such a request is unreasonable.

If the authority wishes to respond to those objections, it must do so very shortly afterwards and deposit the response in the library. The hon. Gentleman said that people in Essex are unable to keep up with requirements on depositing and responding to objections, and on the general exchange of views. However, the process should be working well. If it is not working well, I should like to have more information about it, as our practice is designed to ensure that it does work well. People have to be able to keep up with developments at an inquiry.

The code of conduct on development plans also states that it is for the inspector to decide how to conduct the inquiry. It goes on to make it clear that it is the inspector's responsibility to ensure that everyone concerned has access to the relevant information.

I should like to say something about an important issue for the future that the hon. Gentleman raised. Our current guidance enables inspectors to achieve the openness and transparency that we want, but we have been considering how the process can be made even easier, because we are very concerned to promote openness and transparency. We are going to introduce measures to promote shorter and clearer plans so that they are more easily understood and accessible. We also want better targeted consultation. We will encourage local authorities to announce publicly a clear timetable for an inquiry and they will be accountable for any slippage. There should be negotiations with objectors ahead of the public inquiry and the inspector's report should be publicly available within a set time. We shall also encourage the prompt adoption of plans. All those proposals will be set out in a revised version of planning policy guidance note 12 on development plans, which will be published in the near future.

Our changes will not curtail the public's right to comment on or object to development plan proposals or to participate fully. They are designed to ensure that inquiries are conducted in a more systematic way so that people's access to information and ability to participate in the process is enhanced.

The hon. Gentleman made some interesting comments about the potential of information and communication technology to facilitate the availability of information during the course of an inquiry—

The motion having been made after 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 eleven minutes past Eleven o'clock.