§ 11.34 a.m.
§ Lord Sandford
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
§ Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Sandford.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House in Committee accordingly.
§ [The LORD AMPTHILL in the Chair.]
§ Clause 1 [Planning inquiries to be held in public, subject to certain exceptions]:
§ On Question, Whether Clause 1 shall be agreed to?
§ Lord Gifford
I have a point to raise on Clause 1 of this short Bill. The Bill gives the right to the public to attend planning inquiries and to inspect the documents which are presented in evidence to them. I wholcheatedly support that measure. The point I want to raise arises out of this. The effect of the noble Lord's Bill would, I think, be limited if, after the public were allowed to hear the evidence and inspect the documents, they were not allowed to be acquainted with the decision which is made at the end of the inquiry by the Secretary of State concerned and of the reasons for it.
The whole point of admitting the public to any administrative or judicial proceeding is so that the process can be scrutinised and appraised and criticised by the public and their representatives the press, in order to see whether wise decisions are being reached. At the moment, although the Bill gives the right to the public to hear the evidence and read the evidence, there is not a right to know about the decision and the reasons for it. Although sometimes, I am told, the press and public, if they ask for it, will receive a copy of the Minister's decision and the reasons, that is not always the case; there is no right. Sometimes the request for reasons and for a copy of the decision is refused.
I had thought that it might be possible by a short amendment to bring this further matter within the scope of the Bill, but the amendment would have to be quite substantial and there may even be doubt, given the Title of the Bill, whether an amendment to that effect would be in order. Therefore, I hope that perhaps the noble Earl who is acting for the Government on this Bill—I apologise to him for not having given him longer notice than a day of this point—can give some assurance that it is the Government's intention, and the intention of the various departments involved in planning inquiries, that the same principles that apply to this Bill—that is to say, openness to the public subject only to security questions—would be applied when members of the public or the press 411 request to be given information about the final decision which comes out at the end of the inquiry, and the reasons for it.
§ The Earl of Avon
My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, that it is the intention that information about planning decisions and the reasons for them in the form of planning decision letters are always made available, not only to those parties who have a statutory right to receive them but also to the press and anyone else who asks for them. This will continue to be the practice, and we do not feel that there is reason for a statutory provision. In the light of this longstanding departmental practice, and the extreme rarity of any complaints of the kind to which the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, has referred, the Government cannot accept that a need arises to provide a specific right for members of the public and press to receive reasoned decision letters on request. Even if need for such a right were established, arguably it would be more appropriate by amendment of the statutory procedural rules governing many classes of planning inquiry which already deal with details of this kind rather than through primary legislation. I hope that this explanation will allay any fears the noble Lord has.
§ Lord Gifford
I am very grateful to the noble Earl, and I am sure his assurance will be of value to all those who wish to follow public inquiries and who have from time to time, although only in rare cases, been thwarted in their desire to know the reasons for the decision.
§ Clause 1 agreed to.
§ Remaining clause agreed to.
§ House resumed: Bill reported without amendment.