HL Deb 21 May 1982 vol 430 cc935-40

2.40 p.m.

Lord Sandford

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. Despite the title, the matters that this Bill deals with are more generally known as public local inquiries. Indeed, the huge majority of such inquiries are heard in public and the evidence produced in the course of them is available to the public. But there has in the past been discretion to the inspectors who conduct these inquiries to hold some part of them in camera. That is a power which has been very rarely exercised and we understand from the Official Report of another place in May 1972 that it is Government policy that inspectors should in future not accede to requests that they should hear evidence in planning inquiries in camera.

However, my honourable friend Mr. Michael Hamilton, the Member for Salisbury, had an experience in his own constituency 15 years ago, in 1967, in respect of an area known as East Grinstead which led him to the conclusion that that position was not satisfactory and he has introduced this Bill the purpose of which is to confer, by law, on the Secretary of State alone a very much more limited power—limited by subsection (3)(a) and (b) and subsection (4)(a) and (b)—specifically to direct that only certain matters covered by those subsections in the circumstances cited there, shall not be made public and that that can only be done in respect of a particular inquiry. There is no general discretion available, either to the Secretary of State or to inspectors, that any other part of any other inquiries should ever be other than in public for any other reason.

To get the matter in perspective, perhaps I should remind your Lordships that in the course of a single year there are some 400,000 applications made to the planning authorities. Of those, some 16,000 go to public local inquiries. The case with which this Bill seeks to deal has only occurred on three occasions ever, since planning has been in force. On those occasions commercial confidentiality was pleaded as a justification for the proceedings to be held in camera. One was at East Grinstead in the constituency of Salisbury in 1967 in respect of the extraction of chalk of some special characteristic; another was in 1969 in respect of the extraction of potash in solution from a mine near Whitby in the Yorkshire Moors Park; and the third was at Windscale in 1976 in respect of the processing of nuclear fuel.

When the Bill introduced by my honourable friend went into Committee in another place, the Department of the Environment sought to maintain scope for commercial confidentiality to be used as a justification for seeking for some parts of some public inquiries to be held in camera. That proposal was resisted successfully by a committee in another place and the Government have not pursued that approach.

In my view, the proper attitude to take in this matter of commercial confidentiality is that expressed in 1961 by Lord Kilmuir, the then Lord Chancellor, in respect of an application for ironstone workings. On that occasion he said: it must be for the applicants to weigh the risk of disclosing information to their competitors against the advantage to be obtained from its disclosure ".—[Official Report, 13/4/61; col. 645.] That is quite clear; I am sure that that is the correct ruling. It should not be fudged; it should not be circumvented. In the past, but only on those few occasions, it has been done by administrative practice. My honourable friend has persuaded his colleagues in another place that Parliament should decide to stop it, and that is the sole purpose of this Bill. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Sandford.)

2.46 p.m.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, it is with great pleasure that from these Benches—and my colleagues are with us in spirit even if they are not here in the flesh—I rise to support the Bill. Although it is quite a small Bill, it was so well explained by the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, when he moved it that much time and trouble will be saved by our not needing to go over it all again.

It is extremely important that inquiries of this nature—indeed, inquiries of almost any nature where the bars are not necessary as they are in this case—should be held in public, so that there is never any feeling that things are being hidden or that secrets are being stashed away, and people know and also participate. It was interesting reading the proceedings in another place to see that the honourable Member who introduced the Bill has for long lived with this very strong motivation to get the law changed as a result of a case with which he was concerned in his constituency. I think that it is quite right to have the caveat in subsection (4) which relates to national security, but I am not quite sure about paragraph (b): the measures taken or to be taken to ensure the security of any premises or property". I am not quite sure exactly what that means. Does it mean keeping them safely under lock and key? Quite what does it mean? I am not quite clear about that.

The Bill will obviously be very quickly on the statute book because it had the support in another place of all parties and I am quite certain that it has the support of all those of all parties or no party in this House. At this stage on a Friday afternoon, I simply want to welcome the Bill, wish it well and thank the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, for bringing it forward to this House.

2.49 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, I think that everyone's thanks are due to Mr. Michael Hamilton for having introduced this Bill in another place and also to the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, for taking up the good work here. Mr. Hamilton's hard work on this particular issue, stemming from his experience with the Wiltshire case many years ago, has been unremitting and I think was topped with one of the most interesting Second Reading speeches that it has been my pleasure to peruse, reading, as it did, at times as part of a rather nasty thriller. The secrecy which was involved in that case and which has finally landed up in this Bill was, indeed, most unfortunate.

Some considerable thanks are also due to the Government for finally seeing the point and for helping in producing a new first clause which undoubtedly is more effective, which they introduced in Committee in another place. I think that less thanks is due to them for their attempt—which thank goodness failed; it was not a very full-hearted attempt—to introduce the possibility of a reservation on the question of commercial secrecy. The noble Lord, Lord Sandford, has already quoted the proper doctrine on commercial secrecy, but it does not stop commercial interests from time to time trying to put a blanket of secrecy around a large number of subjects. When we were dealing with the clauses regarding what secrecy was to govern waterboards I think it was pointed out that even when the information was published in water board documents, if you were a commercial spy it would probably be easier and less expensive to send frogmen down the waterways to take extracts of the effluence than to wade through all the documents.

This measure undoubtedly is an improvement. It is a Bill on the right side. I have only one minor point that I should like to make at this stage. I am never entirely happy that the "say-so" on reservations—the matters which can be heard in camera—should be entirely in the discretion of the Secretary of State. There is a great deal to be said for the suggestion made by the Stevens Committee when it reported on mineral workings and the investigations into them. I should like briefly to quote what the Stevens Committee said in Section 16.19. They said: Moreover, it seems inevitable that any application to give evidence in camera is very likely to arise in the context of a proposal where the arguments are otherwise finely balanced, and which is already the subject of public controversy. Whatever decision may be taken by the Minister concerned at the time is bound to be unpopular with many people, and it will be difficult for the Minister to establish that his decision is an impartial one based on the facts, which ex hypothesi cannot all be disclosed. In these circumstances it has seemed to us that there might be merit in a procedure which provided that the decision as to whether or not an in camera hearing should be permitted in any particular case should be taken as a result of a more judicial process…". The Stevens Committee went on to suggest that that process should in fact be a fairly rigorous one, one that would be expensive for the applicant, who would there- fore not resort to it lightly. That would have the advantage of removing, what is liable to be an emotional issue from the political to the judicial forum, and would provide adequately for the interests of all parties not only to be served but to be seen to be served". That is not a major point in this Bill; but in any Bills which deal with this type of matter, with public inquiries and seeing that justice is seen to be done and, where the Secretary of State undoubtedly has some kind of interest in what is going on, it is probably a good thing if a judicial process can be introduced, instead of having just the Secretary of State's "say-so". This is a matter which should be considered. It is one which should be considered in any Bills dealing with subjects of this kind, but it is a minor point in relation to the Bill as a whole.

The Bill itself does not deal with anything which is a very great problem. It has already been said that there have been only three cases in which this point has emerged. But it is right that we should have this Bill, and all thanks are due to the Members of both Houses who have brought it forward. The members of the Liberal Party undoubtedly support it wholeheartedly.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I join in thanking my noble friend Lord Sandford for his balanced introduction of the Second Reading of the Bill. I also add my tribute to my honourable friend the Member for Salisbury, to whose determination and persistence over 15 years we owe the appearance of this measure today. I should make clear that the Government in no way oppose the Bill. Indeed, the Government attach great importance to the principle of the Bill; that is, that planning inquiries should be held in public, and in that they are following in the footsteps of previous Administrations.

The position in law at present is that while local inquiries under the planning Acts are frequently referred to colloquially as public inquiries, there is no specific right for the general public to be present. Generally, rights of appearance under the Acts are confined to the principal parties directly concerned in the substance of the case going to inquiry. Those parties will usually be the appropriate local planning authority on the one hand and the applicant, appellant or statutory objector on the other. The statutory procedural rules also confer rights of appearance on certain other parties.

However, a right of appearance for certain parties does not mean that under the present law one or more of the sittings of the inquiry could not be held in private. On the contrary, successive Governments have taken the view that under the present law, the inspector has the discretion to hold proceedings in private should he consider it necessary or desirable to do so. As we have heard, that discretion has been exercised extremely rarely since the inquiry in 1967 which was the cause of so much deep concern to my honourable friend. And in 1972 the discretion was circumscribed administratively by the Government of the day undertaking that in future inspectors would not accede to requests that they should hear evidence in private at planning inquiries. That has meant that in practice a private sitting of a planning inquiry has been possible only with the express agreement of the Secretary of State. Furthermore, previous Govern- ments have undertaken that the procedure to be followed at a private sitting shall be the subject of consultation with the Council on Tribunals.

Those administrative constraints have been carefully observed by successive Governments, and indeed have been observed by this present Government in the current inquiry at Canvey Island into the possibility that the methane gas terminal might have to be discontinued. There, it has been necessary to authorise the inspector to hold a private session to hear evidence about security matters. That authorisation has been given by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, and the procedure for the private session has been discussed and agreed with the Council on Tribunals.

I repeat, however, that private sittings have been extremely rare over the years. That that has been so is evidence of the determination of successive Governments to uphold the principles to which the noble Lord, Lord Franks, lent his name—of openness, fairness and impartiality in public inquiries. Those are principles to which this Government strongly adhere. But the fact that there have been rare cases of private hearings, and that there is one now currently in hand, reinforces the Government's belief that there has to be some provision in this Bill for such cases. It was those rare cases that were in the Government's mind when they tabled their amendment to the Bill in another place.

Essentially, that amendment had the effect that, while oral evidence at inquiries must be heard in public and documentary evidence must be open to public inspection, the Secretary of State may direct the hearing of evidence in private if he believes that the disclosure of information would be contrary to the national interest by affecting national security adversely, or by harming the security of premises or property. It is that latter provision that is of interest in the context of the Canvey inquiry. If this Bill were already law, it would he possible to invoke the provision, quite rightly, for a private hearing of the security issues at Canvey. However, in that context, I should add that the term "the national interest" is a stiff test which means that privacy will never be able to be lightly invoked.

The Bill represents a reaffirmation in statutory form of the important principle that the proceedings of planning inquiries should be public. It is a principle to which Governments of both main parties have subscribed and to which this Government give their wholehearted support. But at the same time, the Bill allows for the very exceptional case where privacy is essential. That makes the Bill a thoroughly commendable working instrument, and the Government are therefore very content that it should be read a second time.

2.59 p.m.

Lord Sandford

My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate and for the welcome they have given the Bill. It was useful that my noble friend Lord Avon was able to give an example of the need to have the exception that has been incorporated in the measure, and I hope that served to illustrate the kind of case about which the noble Baroness was asking. I shall read, if I may, the re- marks of the noble Lord on the Liberal Benches on the point that he raised. I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, was claiming that the point involved an amendment to the Bill; nevertheless, it is of interest in connection with it.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.