HL Deb 15 December 1976 vol 378 cc924-47

4.33 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, may I bring your Lordships back to the difficult but perhaps rather more dull subject of the need to reform our system of public inquiries about roads. May I say to the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, that I follow him and agree with him absolutely that the sort of disruptive tactics which we have seen at some of the road inquiries are self-defeating and in my view, the wrong way to set about it. But may I say in defence of my noble friend Lord Avebury that I do not believe that the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, heard him aright. He did not agree with those disruptive tactics. What I understood him to say was that he had sympathy with them. I think all of us can understand that.

There is a degree of frustration about the whole system of inquiries. We are having this debate for the second time because a great many people feel that there is a need to be able to debate these things and that the present system of inquiries prevents them from doing so. May I repeat to the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, that the Council for the Protection of Rural England, of which I am the chairman, unequivocally and publicly condemned these disruptive tactics. The noble Lord, Lord Chesham, felt that these disruptive tactics were relatively recent and that they were very often done by militant groups of people not living very close to the particular road. I hope he will think again about that because that does a grave disservice to many extremely distinguished people who have taken part in these inquiries.


My Lords, I really cannot have the noble Lord put words in my mouth like that. I spoke of people deliberately indulging in organised disruptive tactics and I maintain my point that they are not local. I did not condemn in any shape or form, as the noble Lord has had me say, people who have legitimate objections, because I do not, I cannot, and I will not.


My Lords, I think that the very measure of why the noble Lord feels that they are deliberately done by people living far away is because these people arc unable to challenge the policy behind them. Under the inquiries procedure as we now have it, it is perfectly possible to challenge a particular route, but it is not possible to challenge the philosophy behind it. It is the feeling that that philosophy ought to be able to be challenged which has caused people to move into fields, shall we say, further from where they live. But, in any case, surely the whole business about protesting about anything is not necessarily that you only protest on your own doorstep. If you believe in what you are protesting about, you protest anywhere, and rightly so.


My Lords, would my noble friend allow me to intervene? Is he aware that the British Road Federation also send people round to these inquiries, and that I had a letter this morning from a lady who was physically threatened by two representatives of the British Road Federation at an inquiry in the Midlands miles from where either of them lived?


My Lords, that may well be so, and I hope that it will not reach the stage at which we are all throwing stones at each other in this way. But I think that it is not entirely true to say that it is altogether recent. In any case, whether or not it is recent with regard to roads, it has become apparent for a long time that the problem exists in other fields. There is obviously something lacking; there is an inadequacy somewhere in our means of trying to scrutinise those basic assumptions and value judgments which must lie behind any policy. As I say, it is not only in roads. I spoke in a debate in May last when we were discussing the new Water Council and f drew attention there to the fact that, both in water and in electricity, and indeed in regional planning policy itself, it was extremely difficult to get at the facts that underlay the long-term strategy that Government Departments produce.

The difficulty of getting at the policy behind what the Electricity Generating Board does, or any other body of that kind, is exemplified extremely well in a matter of roads. Both the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, and my noble friend spoke about this question of forecasts. Indeed, forecasts of traffic, and so on, are an aspect of these basic assumptions and indeed value judgments on which the Government's long-term strategy is based. At recent inquiries, those forecasts which, as I say, form the basis of policy, have not been open to cross-examination. It is becoming increasingly apparent from all sides that those assumptions must be challenged.

The argument at the moment is that the local inquiry is not the right place to challenge matters of policy, and that policy should in fact be challenged in Parliament. So far as it goes there is nothing wrong with that, but it does not go far enough. First, the supposition is that the Minister in Parliament answers for the Government in those matters of policy. It was apparent in a debate in your Lordships' House in July that the Minister answering for the Government, the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, openly, honestly and rightly admitted that she did not profess to understand the basis of the facts. I was glad she said that because it showed the difficulty of under-standing the basis for the traffic fore-casting methods and extraordinary cost benefit methods used by the DOE to evaluate our road schemes.

Secondly, it is not only the Minister who finds it difficult to answer for the basic assumptions of Government policy; it is Parliament, too. Parliament is not very well designed to extract this kind of in-formation from Government Departments. We do not have the sort of specialist committees that the American Parliament has. In the past, before 1880, we had certain kinds of committee which I believe were able to call for evidence, and we had two attempts at that on suggestions put forward by the late Richard Crossman, but I do not think they were a great success; at any rate they have not been repeated. We have in Parliament bodies like the All-Party Roads Study Group, but, after all, that is an unofficial body and, like the All-Party Conservationist Group, which meets from time to time to hear about various aspects of conservation, so the All-Party Roads Group meets. I do not know how full the work of the Roads Group is, but when the CPRE asked whether they could see them, the CPRE were told that there was no time available for another 12 months. Either they are working very hard on their examination of the underlying assumptions of road policy or they did not want to see the CPRE; I know not which.

At any rate, the machinery in Parliament for trying to elucidate the facts underlying the policy of a Department is extremely difficult to get at, and in my view it is not surprising that we get protests. I am, of course, surprised that the protests should be violent because violent protests achieve less than nothing. However, like my noble friend, I sympathise and understand that they feel themselves entirely frustrated, and indeed the protesting objectors feel, I believe rightly, that the law concerning public inquiries is unjust, particularly when the inspector is not only appointed by the Department but is also briefed by it. Noble Lords who spoke earlier pointed out that this is an unsuitable arrangement. Many suggestions have been put to the Government that it should be changed in some way so as to make certain that inspectors are appointed not quite as judge, jury and advocate in their master's case.

The noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, asked specific questions, which I will not repeat, about the state of play on the Council on Tribunals. I had not even heard of Sir George Leach's appointment on 10th December. My researches on this up to this morning showed that the last thing to be said on the subject was said in July, I think by the noble Baroness sitting on the Front Bench. That itself was some seven months after the Government suggested that the Council on Tribunals should start work on the matter. I could find nothing later than that, but I gather that something has occurred, although obviously there cannot be much state of play. However, I hope it means that the Government intend seriously to do something about the problem. I do not think that a mere reshuffle in the Department of Transport at the DOE will have much effect.

There is one other possible, I will not say solution but avenue which might make it easier to explore what I am trying to get at, and that is the system which is used for the examination in public of structure plans. I mentioned this in an earlier debate, but I cannot remember what the noble Baroness said in reply. I think that probably she did not greatly fancy my suggestion, and indeed I find it difficult to think of any practical propositions. However, I repeat, and most strongly, that there is something really wrong with the legal process by which the public is enabled to challenge Government decisions, decisions which are matters of policy, remembering that policy is, after all, the basic assumptions, the value judgments—the social accounting or whatever one likes to call it—underlying the detailed policy which at the moment we are allowed to challenge. Until we can overcome that difficulty we will have a feeling of grave disquiet on the part of the public in general —both on roads (as to what the electricity generating board wants to do) and on regional planning (again, something which is done with no possibility of challenging the findings)—and while this state of affairs goes on we will have a great many very unhappy people.

4.47 p.m.


My Lords, I rather think that despite the major further cut in capital expenditure on roads which has just been announced, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, will be disappointed in that pending the result of the Government's review we shall probably continue to have some more public inquiries into highways. Perhaps I should mention at this point that my noble friend Lord Molson has informed me that he does not intend to speak in the debate. I hope I can be as constructive as possible pending the review that the Government have now set in hand. I strongly suspect that the problem that has arisen about these inquiries is largely of our own making in Parliament. I entirely agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Henley, said about a good deal of this and I welcome the fact that my noble friend Lord O'Hagan has yet again raised this subject, I think for the third time, so that we may discuss it because Parliament is basically the right place to do so.

What has happened—I have seen this because I have been going to public inquiries for quite a long time and participating in many of them, including inquiries on roads—is that people are becoming much more articulate and better educated and, at the same time, they feel that they are having less and less say in what is done on the national front. Another manifestation of that, I suspect, has resulted in the Scotland and Wales Bill which is now going through another place. This is, I think, exactly the same phenomenon coming out in a slightly different way. One thing that seems to me to be fundamental is that if one is discontented with it, the way not to approach the problem is to go in for disruptive tactics in order to wreck the machinery we have. I absolutely agree with those who have condemned that sort of thing. It seems to me to be the opposite of all that democracy stands for; it strikes at the root of Government by consent and, incidentally, into the bargain it wastes a formidable amount of both public and private money to no avail whatever. So let us see whether we cannot do rather better and thrash the matter out in a more sensible way.

It is, I suppose, inevitable that I should look at the law. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, has criticised it as being inadequate and it seems to me worthwhile reminding ourselves how the situation has arisen. My noble friend Lord Chesham, I believe mentioned that this all turns on the Highway Act 1959. Let nobody think that, in this respect, the Highway Act 1959 was passed in 1959. It was a consolidation Act with some amendments and the procedure that we are talking about goes back a great deal further than that.

The procedure for the inquiries—and let us take the extreme case of the one that is usually the most sensitive, the centre line for a new motorway—really goes back to the days of the beginning of compulsory purchase, when the provision made by Parliament for people to object was confined to those whose property was directly affected, and also to the local authorities which might wish to have a say. Nobody else is a statutory objector. This of course is one of the things that people who complain about the machinery point to and say is wrong. They can say that it is wrong for as long as they like. It is no use protesting at inquiries. It is the law, and the law must be adhered to in this respect until we in Parliament change it. So there is the first thing that we can think about if we wish to. I would, however, just add a word of warning: if we depart from those whose property is affected and the local authorities concerned, I find it very difficult to see another logical boundary line at which to draw the edge of the right statutorily to object. ft may therefore be that that is not the answer because there are other ways of getting over the difficulty.

At any rate, on that legal background there is also this to say to those who arc dissatisfied with the procedures as they appear at public inquiries: please let those who think that the inquiry is illegally set up or is in other ways detective take their complaint to the courts and not try to discuss it at the inquiry. The wretched inspector is in no position to decide upon the matter at all. He will not understand it; he will have no proper legal advice and, even if he had, he would not be the proper tribunal to take a decision. So if certain people think that an inquiry is wrong in some way—that it has been set up inadequately or that the procedural provisions have not been properly complied with—they should go to the High Court rather than complain to the inspector. That seems to me a very sensible first step. The people concerned will get some advice and the court will be able to rule upon the matter.

Now, let us suppose that we are at one of these inquiries. What takes place? The Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Transport, now the Department of Transport, have developed very greatly as regards the amount of information that they are prepared to disclose. There will be a statement by the engineer which will be his proof of evidence. There will be a shortish and fairly general policy statement indicating, for instance, that the Department proposes to adopt high standards of design for its road and also to have regard to the environment and a few matters like that. Then—and this was so even before the days when this was required under the present rules of tribunals of inquiry—there will be deposited and available a great mass of documents. There will be a book setting out the background and a great number of statistics and details; there will be drawings and there will be details about the way in which the figures have been reached. The COBA mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and those sort of calculations will all be available. There will be the basic traffic predictions. These are all things that are available to people beforehand.

Nowadays, as I understand it, the Department accepts the necessity to show that there will be a need for a motorway at all. It also shows that a number of different possible corridors have been examined and that within the one it has chosen there are a number of different routes, one of which it has chosen. It explains why it has done so. So, let us face it, the Department has come a long way from the days in the early 1960s when I used to go to these inquiries. A great deal of information is now available to the public.

The parties convene before the inspector. Here, I believe that it is just possible that we have, surprisingly enough, taken a retrograde step in making the statutory rules. In the old days, the inspector had no legal rules to govern him. In fact, as one noble Lord has said, the rules that have been made really only codify the previous practice and machinery. Nevertheless, they have one separate effect which I shall come to in a moment. The inspector—who is not, incidentally, a member of the Department of Transport —is selected, at least in the cases that I am talking about, from a totally independent panel. He may be the town clerk of some far distant local authority. He may be a senior civil servant who has served all his time in a totally different department. He is a man one would trust, a man of good common sense and considerable patience and sympathy. If he finds that people wish to argue about certain matters that do not seem to him to be within the scope of what he is inquiring about, he will not necessarily stop them, though he will certainly do so if they try to argue about it before he has opened the inquiry. He will not necessarily stop them if they do it within the ordinary rules of good manners and discipline which these things require.

I believe that there have been occasions when massive periods of time have been spent in discussing matters of wide public interest and importance which probably have very little to do with the decision that is to be taken and which are matters upon which the inspector will never be able to make any recommendation because he will not have half the information upon which to do so.


My Lords, the inspector is directed under Rule 6.2 to disallow any question which, in his opinion, is directed to the merits of Government policy. The guidelines, to which reference has been made by the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, set out a list of matters which are deemed to be Government policy and say that the Department's representative must be protected from cross-examination on the merits of these policy issues. So he is kept on a very tight rein.


Yes, my Lords. If the noble Lord will have a moment's patience, I shall come to this in a moment. I know that this is so and I was going to suggest that there is a good reason for it. I shall not go into the details of the whole list. That would be intolerable, but there is a good deal of reason for some of it. Certainly, the inspector will protect the engineer who is giving evidence on behalf of the Department of Transport from cross-examination on the merits of the Government policy which falls within certain categories. But that does not mean to say that he will not allow people to air their views on most of these matters, provided they behave them selves.

There is, however, one point which comes out of the rules: it is that now that the inspector has been given statutory discretion as to who he will hear and who he will not hear, he alone can take that decision. He can no longer be directed by the Department of Transport, whereas I believe that he would possibly have been able to be so directed before. He alone can take that decision. In regard to taking that decision, I rather hoped that this afternoon we might, if only on an interim basis until the review comes to some conclusion, be able to give him some sensible support from Parliament about the sort of things we think he can usefully listen to and allow to be discussed. There are some things which, as noble Lords have said, really and truly cannot be satisfactorily discussed at a public inquiry; the inspector might think that they ought to be left to Parliament to deal with by means that we certainly ought to devise. This really comes down to something akin to what the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, was talking about.

One can think of matters where the decision is quite simple. To take a ridiculous and extreme case, it cannot be satisfactorily discussed at a public inquiry whether all goods and passengers should henceforth be sent by train, by Concorde or by canal, as opposed to road. There are those who would no doubt wish to put forward that point of view, but I, for one, should certainly support any inspector who refused to allow the engineer from the Department of Transport to be cross-examined on that and who was extremely cross if very much time was spent in making submissions on it. But there are much more difficult grey areas where the borderline is more difficult to detect.

On this, I am against the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, as to cost benefit analysis schemes and as to the forecasts of traffic growth and fuel prices made by the Transport and Road Research Laboratory. I will tell your Lordships why. I have on two occasions embarked upon a forensic discussion of a massive cost benefit computer model scheme, and although we have battled our way through to some form of conclusion, with a great deal of extremely experienced help, certainly in my case, from people who understand what on earth it is supposed to mean and to achieve, in my experience there is no end to the disputes to which this kind of thing will give rise. Not only does one dispute the methodology which led up to the computer model being made, but one disputes all the inputs, and one also says that one thinks that probably the machine made a mistake in the process; and on one occasion, my Lords, I have known it to do so. So one never really gets to the end of it at all, more particularly since if one gets to the end of one of these processes, by the time one comes to the next one science has moved forward and there is a whole new step and collection of equipment with which to do battle. That is the COBA thing.

The other disadvantage of it is this. You can measure by means of those kind of things only items of input which can be quantified. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, was criticising some matters, like the extra ability of criminals to get across the Pennines, and there are many other inputs into a true cost benefit analysis which cannot be quantified at all. There again, I have known five or six different methods of dealing with non-quantifiable inputs discussed and cross-examined on at a public inquiry, and all I can say is that it is thoroughly unsatisfactory. It gets nobody anywhere, and it does not make it any easier for any inspector to report.

Let us take fuel prices as another example of what might be unsuitable. I do not believe that the majority of people who attend a public inquiry, whether it is at Winchester, in Archway, or somewhere in Yorkshire, will have as much knowledge about what they think the OPEC countries are going to do as the Government have when they try to compile these forecasts. Nobody may be right. But it is certainly not a matter that it is very easy to thresh out at a public inquiry; at least, it is not very useful to thresh it out at a public inquiry.

Therefore, although I cannot say that I can identify all of them, I should be happy to think that there really are some subject matters which go to the question of public national policy which really ought not to be ventilated and examined or cross-examined upon at a public inquiry. If the Government think anything like the same as I do, it might help inspectors during this interim period to know that there are some people in Parliament who would support them in their invidious, difficult and independent position if they ruled against attempts so to do. In the debate this afternoon we have not succeeded in identifying any of these with a great degree of unanimity, but I suspect that even if we say that we agree that there are some, it will be a help—


My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Viscount again, but in what form could these assumptions be discussed, if not at the local public inquiry? Does the noble Viscount think that the question should be disallowed even if it was directed at the sensitivity of the road traffic scheme to variations in the assumptions?


My Lords, as to the sensitivity, I think that for half a day at the Greater London Development Plan Inquiry I cross-examined two highly qualified technicians on exactly this point, and none of the three of us got anywhere at all, and I think that those who were listening were even more mystified, because, I have little doubt, I was of course asking all the wrong questions. No, that is just the kind of thing that is wholly unsuitable for forensic discussion.

I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Henley, was on very much better lines when he said that it is for Parliament to devise a much more satisfactory system for us to try to discuss these matters here at Westminster. I entirely agree that it is not at all satisfactory at the moment. Flow can anybody expect the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, to get up from the Front Bench opposite and explain with any degree of clarity, let alone with any degree of brevity, what are the underlying assumptions in some of the Transport and Road Research Laboratory's forecasts? No Parliamentarian can do it on the Floor of this House. If there is a genuine demand by the public that these matters should be discussed, we must devise some method of doing it here. That is what I would suggest to noble Lords that we should concentrate upon. Let us agree that there is a need to discuss these matters; I think that there is a need to discuss them. Let us see if we can do something about them here, and let us see if, meanwhile, we can deflect the enormously more diffuse and expensive process of public inquiries away from that kind of area.

I believe that we can do it much more economically, much more satisfactorily, and indeed with a very much greater effect if we do it centrally in Westminster, or indeed in Wales, or in Edinburgh, if that is the case. That is what I should like to go out from this debate; that we in this House, and in Parliament as a whole, should undertake our own responsibilities in this matter. When we have done so, or perhaps even on the basis of promising to do so, let us support inspectors who try to keep these matters within bounds at public inquiries—


My Lords, I rise for a few seconds to ask whether my noble friend would make a submission to the Committee which deals with procedure and similar matters, which is now sitting under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, to look into the very point which he has just raised.


My Lords, I should be happy to do so. It had not occurred to me that I had anything much to contribute, but if anybody thinks that I could then I should be happy to try.

5.6 p.m.


My Lords, I too agree with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, in raising this question this afternoon, is certainly not a vexatious parliamentarian, but has helped to ventilate a matter on which there has been an extremely useful debate. One thing which is absolutely clear is that there is a considerable amount of concern among many people over the question of highway inquiries. I certainly take the view that if people are dissatisfied, if they are worried, if they feel that they are not getting a fair hearing —even in the cases where perhaps they have got a fair hearing but the communication channels have not been good enough—then it is a Government's democratic duty to discover why and to do something about it.

I should like to raise the question, as I see it, as to why there is a current upsurge of feeling at the time about highway inquiries, and I think that noble Lords taking part in the debate have all commented upon this from their point of view. There is a greater awareness of and care for the environment and for the quality of life, and this is quite right and proper, but one finds that it often comes out from the administrative point of view in rather uncomfortable ways. But that is no reason for people not to press their points and to wish to participate. We are also in an area in which we have a great emphasis upon participation. I sometimes think that there is more emphasis on the word than there is in fact on the deed, and we ought at some time to define what we mean here. The open and rather vague right to participation without any clearly defined lines, or without the feeling that the input with which one is concerned will have some definite result, is a fairly useless exercise.

The noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, was quite right when he pointed to the increased standards of education and to the fact that people consider that matters which many years ago they would have thought were for consideration by others and not by them, are now to do with them. All this I believe is quite right. I think that people are looking for a transport policy that makes social and economic sense, that takes into account the geography of the country, the conflicting claims on resources, and the social and environmental needs of individuals and communities. All these things may have a tremendous impact on even the fairly limited area with which we are concerned today. I think it is true that road programmes are rather like Topsy, they just "growed and growed"—


Or shrunk and shrunk!

Baroness BIRK

I think that we are mainly concerned here with the "growed and growed". I would point out to the noble Viscount, Lord Colvillle of Culross, that my name is Birk, not Stedman, but apart from that I agree with him that Parliament—


My Lords, the noble Viscount was referring to what I have said about the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman.


It was a historic incident.

Baroness BIRK

I thought that the noble Viscount was referring to my reply, and I did not wish to place upon my noble friend the responsibility for something that she was not saying.

It is perfectly true—and this has been stressed by many of the speakers in the debate; particularly, again, the noble Viscount, Lord Colville—that Parliament has taken too little interest in the road programme. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, and, in his introduction, the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, based much of their case upon that. Therefore, it does not seem to me to be unnatural that people, in trying to find a forum in which their views on these national issues can be heard, sometimes have to rely on whatever vehicle is available, even though it might not be the right one. I think it is here that the heart of the matter very often lies: that something which was set up for a very good and proper purpose is really being misused because people either feel that they have no alternative or quite genuinely believe that this is where a great many of the issues that they have to raise ought to be heard when in fact it is not the right place at all. But I do not think we should get things out of perspective. The only slightly warm (I will not say heated) exchanges that there have been during this debate have been on the question of disturbances. Disturbances have been restricted—let us be quite realistic—to only a few of the major inquiries. Quite naturally—and I am not criticising the Press or the media for this, because what makes news is news—these disturbances perhaps get inflated and out of proportion.

The third thing is that, as the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, quite rightly pointed out, they do not help anyone, and in fact are completely counter-productive, I think, in the effect that they have. There is a great deal of shouting about rights, but the shouters are in fact denying the rights of ordinary objectors to be heard. Nevertheless, I think what we are all in agreement about (and this is why I think we are all very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan) is that the inquiry system does need looking into. This is absolutely true.


My Lords, before the noble Baroness leaves that point—and it is one which everyone has made in this debate—may I ask her whether she would not agree that it is very unlikely that the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, would have raised this matter on three separate occasions if it had not been for the fact that very strong feelings have been shown by objectors at these public inquiries? Is it not a fact that if the inquiries into the M62 or the M3 had been allowed to proceed without any disturbances at all these debates would not have occurred?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I am not saying that the way in which this manifested itself is not one of the ways in which people show their concern. In addition, there are quite a number of people who in fact write to the Department, get in touch with their MP or take a number of other routes to point to the same problem, and we receive it all in the Department. So there are a number of ways of doing this. I am not quite sure what the noble Lord is getting at. I have said that we are in agreement that something needs to be done. I did not think he was saying that he was in favour of these disturbances when he was challenged by the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, but that he understood what motivated the people. I understand what motivates them, but I am saying, first of all, that it does not help, and if the noble Lord will let me continue a moment I will explain that why I think some of these things occur is because in fact, very often, the people creating the disturbance are doing it on quite a different matter, and one with which that particular highway inquiry is not concerned. I think this is the problem.

What has pleased me very much today is that it is quite obviously not a Party question that we are discussing. Even if we reached agreement on what is wrong, even though we cannot find all the solutions, we would at least have something to put forward to my right honourable friends which I think will be of great assistance at this particular time. It is because we are aware of this that the review is being carried out with the Council on Tribunals. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, I cannot at this moment, unfortunately, say when the review will be completed, but we hope it will be early next year. The report will be published, and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will be making a Statement in the House about it. So far as evidence to it is concerned, written evidence is being taken all the time—written submissions from individuals and from organisations outside the Government—but there is no oral evidence being given.

What we are now getting to, I think—and really this is the crunch of the matter —is that there are in fact two sorts of objectors. This, I think, is the point the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has been speaking on, but I fear it gets a bit mixed up. There are the people that these particular inquiries are designed to serve —that is, those who are genuinely affected by the road—and then there are the others (and here the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, is absolutely right) who do not have any axe to grind about the particular road because it does not affect them personally but who are demonstrating. They may be demonstrating against the general system of roads; they may be demonstrating because they are against any more roads at all—and then we get into the whole area of the railway and road argument—or they may be demonstrating against the Government's whole road policy or, as they consider, the lack of it. The problem is that the inquiries that we are discussing this afternoon are not designed to help people who may have very strong feelings about roads but for whom the local highway inquiry system is not designed. What they have to say may be important, but this sort of inquiry is not the forum.

The noble Viscount, Lord Colville, asked whether, from this debate, we could give any guidance or help to the inspectors. I shall come on to the inspectors in a moment, but one of the things which would help if we could get it across is that people should realise exactly what highway inquiries are about. I come back to the other point, that major issues of transport policy are for the Government to determine and for Parliament to probe; and I think it is very important—and this is also something that my right honourable friend is concerned with at the present time—that ways should be found, when the various committees of inquiry have reported, in which the time and energies of Parliament can somehow be harnessed so that these matters, which are of immense and vital importance, get very much more attention than they do now and so that, at the end of the day, the whole impact of discussion does not just land at the door of the local highway inquiry when, quite frankly, it is almost too late in the day to do anything except make very minor changes.

The noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, asked about the new setup now, with a separate Secretary of State. I think one of the things it does is this. As the Minister in the Department who at the time, when it was with the Department of the Environment, answered for transport and who answers for transport now, speaking personally it does not make very much difference to me; but a Secretary of State for Transport, with a scat in the Cabinet, on the basis that justice should not only be done but also be seen to be done, does show beyond doubt the importance of transport among the social, economic and environmental issues of the day. But I think what is extremely important here is that the former close links between transport, land use, planning and other environmental considerations will be preserved. This is essential.

I think that it improves the situation, perhaps, over the previous one that decisions on trunk road and motorway inquiries will be taken jointly by the two Secretaries of State, the Secretary of State for Transport and the Secretary of State for the Environment. I do not want to go into the whole question of the transport policy review, which is a subject in itself and which we have debated in this House, hut, nevertheless, the policy review which is being conducted on the basis of the consultation document published last April is, I think, very closely tied up, not only with what we are discussing today but with the things which people bring into what we are discussing today although they are really in the other areas of transport. The views sought come from a very wide variety of interests and the Secretary of State for Transport is to publish a White Paper in about six months.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, put the direct question of whether, in the Consultative Document, the question of whether the road is needed should be one of the criteria. This is something I will pass on. in some form this needs to be carefully considered because it is at that point that the whole problem starts. Before leaving that, I must mention that in addition to the annual White Paper there will be as the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, pointed out, the policy review. That, in itself, will provide a wide-ranging opportunity of Parliamentary debate on the broad policy issues. He asked why we could not carry out something like the civil aviation statement of policy guide. This is a public authority and it would seem that it is more appropriate in the case of transport and roads to publish a White Paper. This would serve the same purpose. I agree that one wants a White Paper and statements made in the Houses of Parliament rather than going by—and he is right—the Ministerial speech or Press release.

One of the things we must look at closely—and this has been raised in this House many times—is the various fore-casts on which so much of the case for road building depends. Since these are very technical—and the noble Lord, Lord Henley, was right to stress this—how can people be sure that they make sense? If the method of assessing traffic forecasts is wrong then the assessment of the case for roads must be wrong. The noble Lord who said this I agree with entirely. Therefore, the Secretary of State for Transport has just announced that he is setting up an independent advisory committee on trunk roads and motorways to go specifically into the methods of appraising road schemes. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, was a little unfair to say that it has taken a long time. The Secretary of State for Transport has been in Office for only a few months and he has already set this up. People will be able to give evidence here and the report will be published. A very important element of this will be the examination of our methods of traffic forecasting.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, or the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, asked that the inquiry programme should be halted for the time being. I think that this would be a great mistake because there are hundreds of inquiries that take place smoothly. This would not only upset the road programmes but would damage the economy and cause a great deal of anxiety to individuals who might be affected by the proposed routes. In fact, the Statement that we have heard this afternoon does not mean that preparatory work on the inquiries should be halted even temporarily, although capital expenditure is being cut down. It is even more important with smaller resources that we should make sure that we get our priorities right. So much for the national issues.

What are people entitled to expect from the inquiry itself? I implied that it was too late to make other than minor changes at local inquiries. I was probably diminishing their role rather too much. It is true that sometimes a route is changed significantly and there is a fresh inquiry. Nevertheless, I still think, to be quite clear, that this is quite different from the whole philosophy of whether there should be more roads or a main motorway in that particular area. What people are entitled to expect from the inquiry are facts and forecasts that demonstrate the need for the roads; a fair hearing for their views before an independent inspector; and an assurance that their views are faithfully reported to the Secretaries of State.

There has been a lot of criticism, both here this afternoon and written, that the joint Secretaries of State are judge and jury for their own cause. The inspectors are appointed by the Secretaries of State and it has been argued—and the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, argued it this afternoon—that the inspectorate should be transferred to the Lord Chancellor's Department to demonstrate their independence. It has also sometimes been said that all inspectors should be lawyers so that they can deal with the legal points and match the skills of counsel representing objectors.

All these points we are looking at seriously; but I must point out that, wherever the inspectorate finds itself, I do not think it is going to make any difference, because people must have confidence in the system. Even if the inspectors (who are on the Lord Chancellor's panel but are appointed by the Secretaries of State) came completely under the aegis of the Lord Chancellor, there would still be people critical of them, particularly those who found their objections were not sustained.


My Lords, would the noble Baroness not agree—if she is leaving that point about whether they should be lawyers—that, as a great deal of the advice they give to the Secretary of State is about things like the effect on the environment or engineering matters, almost the one thing they should not be is lawyers; but that they should be surveyors, engineers and people like that?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I was coming to the point about what they should be. If I may take up the point made by the noble Viscount, we start first with the point that the highways inquiries are an administrative process and not judicial. We start from there. The inspector's task is to report and recommend to the Secretaries of State who will take the final decision. This is appropriate because in the case of highway inquiries, the Secretaries of State are not arbitrating between two other parties, as sometimes is the case in planning inquiries, or acting in any judicial role, they are deciding on action which the Government will execute and for which they will be accountable politically. In this sphere I would take the view that the inspectors should come from a variety of professions. Some may be lawyers; but what matters is their calibre, their competence and their professional integrity.

This I think we must get over. They are not employed by the Departments. I think there is a great deal of misunderstanding about this. People genuinely think that they do come from the relevant Department, close the papers on their desks, so to speak, and go off straightaway as representatives of the Department of the Environment or of Transport. This is not so. They are independent people who are already on an independent panel but chosen by the Secretaries of State.

Obviously, there is a need to improve and enlarge the already considerable range of information given to objectors both about underlying policy and the scheme itself. This is another matter being discussed with the Council on Tribunals in the current review. I should like to see—and I do not know the answer myself—that people are both encouraged and interested enough and are held to understand enough about these things to come in on many of these problems at a much earlier stage of the public consultation period. I have been looking through the information given out and the charts and so on. They are extremely well done and well designed. The trouble is—and it is a human failing if you like; or not so much a failing as a normality—that when a matter seems so far away, unless you are particularly interested you do not think about it until it gets nearer and then is almost in the process of being finished. There is probably a case for seeing what we can do about public relations, communication and information to people. If we are going to extend the rights to be heard—and I am throwing this in the air because it is something that will be discussed—we have to decide where we will draw the line. Noble Lords pointed out—and the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, put it extremely well, and I will not spend time on it—that almost anybody can be heard. What people are concerned about is being statutory objectors. There is a certain amount of confusion in this matter.

This is a subject which we could debate at even greater length. Any matter which calls into question the democratic rights of the individual has always evoked—and rightly so—a positive and lively response from this House. I am extremely grateful for the interest which noble Lords have shown, and particularly to the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, for initiating this debate. I can assure them that I will bring to the attention of my right honourable friends, the Secretary of State for Transport and the Secretary of State for the Environment all the points made so that they can be taken into account in the current reviews. Although I am aware that I am not able to give any definitive answers, I think that the usefulness of this debate is very great today because it gives an opportunity for the views that have been expressed and the expertise and information that has been given us to be taken into account. In other words, we are not discussing this at a time when it is too late and decisions have been made; we are discussing it at a time when the whole of transport policy is very much in the process of consideration.

5.32 p.m.


My Lords, we have had a brief but brisk debate. I should like to thank all those who have taken part in it, particularly my noble friend Lord Colville of Culross for his masterly contribution, and the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, for her survey of the present situation which brought us up to date. I shall be brief. There are three ways in which one should approach this problem: discussion of national transport policy is the first one. I was relieved to hear the noble Baroness say that Parliament has taken too little interest in the road programme. I agree with her very much, and I hope that my noble friend Lord Colville will heed the invitation extended to him by my noble friend, Lord Hawke.

My noble friend Lord Hawke and I sit on the Practice and Procedure Committee which has been recently set up. It is the machinery of Parliament for dealing with complex technical documents which is inadequate and is behind some of the worry about highway inquiries. I will not dilate on one of my favourite topics; but I believe that permanent subject committees shadowing Departments—preferably joint committees between two Houses—which can look at these detailed and technical documents that are published and invite those who are worried about them to give evidence, is the way that Parliament can modernise itself to keep pace with the increased complexity of government. It is a way that would be of service to the public in their anxieties about the implications of the road programme if there was a transport committee of your Lordships' House, another place or a joint one to which representations could he made and in which Ministers could explain technical documents with support from civil servants.

There is the matter of regional planning. That fits in somewhere. I am not sure how the economic planning councils, which do not work very well, would cope with transport, but there is a regional element, as my noble friend Lord Colville said. Devolution comes into this. I did not ask the noble Baroness about that today; she had quite enough to deal with. There is a regional as well as strictly local element.

Parliament cannot cope with the regional element. Something has to be devised to deal with that as well. I hope that the noble Baroness will lend her support to the setting up of a specialist committee in this House to examine this question. I was grateful to her for her comments about the role of highway inquiries. She issued an invitation to those who have practical schemes to help these inquiries work better. I do not support those who want to subvert those inquiries. I do not support those who want to change them into something which they could not possibly hope to do. It was most encouraging to hear the noble Baroness say that the Government are considering a variety of procedures to make the inquiries themselves more efficient and more fair in the eyes of the public.

I have only one other remark: I am very glad that I have not been an inspector presiding over an inquiry at which the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and my noble friend Lord Chesham were attending.

My Lords, thank you very much for your attention. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.