HL Deb 28 February 1984 vol 448 cc1172-8

3.52 p.m.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, with permission, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport. The Statement is as follows:

"I very much regret to have to tell this House that Sir Michael Giddings, the inspector nominated by the Lord Chancellor and appointed by the Secretary of State for the Environment and myself, has withdrawn. This was as a result of the harassment he and his family have undergone. In his letter of resignation he describes how for several months he has been plagued with telephone calls, how callers have sought various means of speaking to his wife, the receipt of hundreds of letters at his private home, some addressed to his wife, two deputations at the house over Christmas, the receipt of a parcel of excreta, trespassers in his garden, and the breaking of a window. The police have been in regular touch and have taken the special steps sought by him in relation to his home. He has told me that while he has no doubt that he could carry the inquiry through, he is not prepared to see his wife further distressed or alarmed. He therefore feels he must withdraw.

"The Government totally condemn such tactics of intimidation and domestic harassment. They are clearly intended to subvert the statutory processes established by Parliament to protect the interests of the public. In 1978, when announcing the abandonment of the previous Archway inquiry, my predecessor likewise had to tell the House that it had been subjected to a campaign of disruption. The object of any inquiry is to provide a full and fair hearing of all the arguments in the case at issue, and behaviour designed to suppress this is an attack on the rights of the community as a whole.

"A new inquiry will be set up as soon as possible, with a new inspector nominated by the Lord Chancellor. He has in mind nominating a senior lawyer. Tactics of harassment to prevent a proper hearing of the issues at stake will not be allowed to prevail.

"Setting up a fresh inquiry means that the time and money of many people will have been wasted as a result of these actions by the few. I have conveyed to Sir Michael Giddings my deep regret at the personal attacks on himself and his family that they have had to endure".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the Minister for repeating what is a very serious Statement, and, at the outset, from these Benches we wish to join in sending sympathy to the inspector, Sir Michael Giddings, and to his wife and family. What is described in the Statement is appalling, and we wholeheartedly join in the condemnation of the activities that have been set out. It is disgraceful that anyone performing a public duty of this kind should be subjected to such treatment as is outlined in the Statement, and that the inquiry procedures should be violated in this way.

However, without commenting on the merits or demerits of the proposals, may I ask whether it is not a fact that under this and the previous Administration earlier inquiries have been bedevilled by a failure to produce a very important consultants' report? Time has passed since the original proposals were put forward, and is it not essential to take account of new circumstances? Therefore, I would urge that the Secretary of State should arrange to present to the new inquiry an up-to-date report to take account of any effect on the original proposals that has come about by the development of the M.25 and the lorry bans at weekends and evenings which have been imposed by the GLC, and which we understand have brought considerable benefit and have been much appreciated by the people in the area.

I wish to ask another question. What arrangements will be made to compensate those who have suffered loss of earnings and other costs in attending to give evidence at this and the previous abandoned inquiry?

Lord Wigoder

My Lords, I can only deepen the gloom with which the Statement has been received. This is not an isolated occasion. The Statement itself reveals that in 1978 the previous Archway inquiry had to be abandoned. Is it not a fact—and I know that the Minister will be able to confirm this—that just round the corner there has been a closely associated inquiry into the widening of the North Circular Road at East Finchley? That has had to be abandoned on two occasions within the last two years, each time because the protesters had so misbehaved themselves that the inspectors felt obliged to resign because their health was suffering. Is it not a fact that it is very largely the same group of individuals who have been interrupting the two inquiries? Is it not perfectly clear that they have set themselves up as a carefully knit, tightly organised group of skilled protesters determined to dislocate every inquiry which they feel disposed to attend? But not only are they doing that: they are also frightening ordinary citizens from attending the inquiries and putting forward their own views.

Is it not the position that each of the two inquiries are into proposals which were first made about 10 years ago? Can we really tolerate in a democratic society a state of affairs in which perfectly simple proposals—and I do not comment on the merits either way—cannot be determined for such a long period entirely because of the self-seeking activities of a small minority?

I know that the noble Lord the Minister will agree that not only has Sir Michael Giddings suffered harassment outside the inquiry but inside the inquiry, too, obstruction has taken place, and will not the Minister consider whether perhaps the law dealing with this type of behaviour at public inquiries has become a little fragmented among various Acts; whether it is not entirely clear; and whether there is some confusion in certain areas as to whether it is for the police or the inspector to initiate proceedings to prevent this kind of obstruction? In those circumstances, will the noble Lord consider looking at the whole area to see whether we can improve matters in such a way as to prevent this kind of appalling disruption?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, and to the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, for their expressions of concern to Sir Michael Giddings and his family and, indeed, for their condemnation of the matters giving rise to this Statement which, as both say, is extremely serious and extremely disturbing. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, asked whether reports on previous inquiries should be produced to augment the inspector's report. I can say that all matters that have happened previous to the abandonment of this inquiry will be carefully considered by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. My right honourable friend will decide whether these should be made public. But the Statement says that a further inquiry will be set up, and it may be injudicious to prejudge, by the advancement of some further information, at this stage.

So far as the M.25 and lorry bans are concerned, surveys are certainly being undertaken. The results of such surveys will be made available before the next inquiry takes place. That matter could therefore be considered. As to costs, I can tell the noble Lord that the department will invite claims for costs from all qualified objectors and letters to the objectors will tell them how these claims may be sustained. The noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, asked whether the harassment was by the same group that has interfered in three previous inquiries. It is a fact that we believe that it is indeed the same group. It is also true that this inquiry stemmed from a report in 1956. The first inquiry, of course, happened some years ago. This is the third to have been abandoned.

The noble Lord asked me specifically about what is popularly called the East Finchley inquiry. Noble Lords may not be aware that that inquiry finished in December last year. The inspector's report is awaited. The noble Lord would not therefore expect me to say anything about that specific inquiry. I understand, however, that the third inspector at that inquiry was similarly harassed. If this is true, it is to be deplored. The noble Lord asked me whether we would be reviewing the procedures. These are laid down by statute. If we find, on further inquiry into this abandonment and other events, that the procedures are not entirely satisfactory, they will of course be looked at, and the Government will make sure that appropriate action is taken.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, may I clarify the first question that I put to the noble Lord? I was not asking so much that reports of previous inquiries should be made available. My information is that requests at previous inquiries for the very important report of the consultants to be presented to the inquiry were refused. I was asking whether consideration could be given to making sure that it is presented at any new inquiry.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord if I misunderstood. I think he is probably referring to the Scot Wilson Kirkpatrick report on the A.1 through Hampstead Garden Suburb. He will know that objectors pressed for its publication some time ago, but, at the time, Ministers took the view that even with a strongly worded disclaimer it would cause considerable blight throughout the area. They refused publication then. The matter was put before the ombudsman in 1976. In 1977 he reported, and cleared the department of accusations then made. Subsequent requests for publication have been made and have been refused for much the same reasons. However, other events have taken place, notably the construction of the M.25, and the fact that this development is not now so crucial to the Archway inquiry. My right honourable friend is considering right now whether it would be in the public interest to release that report.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, is it not time for wider consideration to be made if it be the case that the present powers are impotent to deal with this intolerable interference with a public right, namely, to attend and to be able to present evidence before a public inquiry? These inquiries are essentially for the benefit of the public. In these circumstances, if the facts alleged are true—they are asserted to be true by the Government—is there not now an urgent case for considering extending the provisions of contempt of court to the proceedings before these tribunals? That power already exists in relation to tribunals held under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, but not, apparently, to these tribunals. Can the Government therefore give urgent consideration to this matter?

Furthermore, what is the relevance of the various provisions of the Public Order Acts in this field? Are we entirely impotent in this situation? If so, should not urgent action be taken to remedy it, if necessary, by an urgent change in the law?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord opposite will, of course, know that the inquiries are governed under two sets of rules, the Highways (Inquiry Procedure) rules and the Compulsory Purchase by Ministers Inquiry Procedure rules. Certainly if these are found to be lacking in the light of recent events, then the Government will take measures to give further support. So far as the protection—it is this that I think concerns us this afternoon—where the inspector is concerned, when a new inspector is appointed, we shall certainly take steps to ensure that all possible protection is given to him. The best protection, of course, would be for everyone concerned, the public and objectors, to dissociate themselves wholly from such behaviour and to work together to see that it does not happen again. The public inquiry procedure is set down to ensure that all legitimate and proper objectors have a proper place in which to raise those objections. Whether or not the existing powers under the Public Order Acts are sufficient is perhaps debatable, but I can tell the noble and learned Lord that those Acts are currently under review.

Lord Thorneycroft

My Lords, will the noble Lord consider that there is probably a feeling on all sides of the House that not much more evidence is required that the present procedures have already proved inadequate and that this gives rise to a very serious matter of public policy? Will he draw the attention of the Home Secretary, the Lord Chancellor and others to our anxiety in these matters?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, while accepting the sentiment behind the expressions of my noble friend Lord Thorneycroft, I have to say that there are innumerable inquiries up and down the country that have not given rise to this kind of behaviour. It is, in fact, only in London, and, as I said earlier in response to the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, we believe that it is the same group that is causing this disruption. I think therefore that the matter has to be kept a little in perspective—

Lord Elwyn-Jones

Oh, do not excuse it.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

Nevertheless, I shall certainly convey to my right honourable friends the concern that has been expressed in the House this afternoon.

Lord Elystan-Morgan

My Lords, on any view this is disgraceful conduct? which strikes at the very root of the rule of law, and even if there were no further instances what has happened already is a very serious matter. May I raise two matters with the noble Lord the Minister? First, since it seems that half the problem is disruption in the face of the tribunal itself, will he bear very much in mind the point made by my noble and learned friend Lord Elwyn-Jones and consider whether a quasi-judicial tribunal of this nature should not have the same power to refer to a judge of the Queen's Bench Division—as can happen in the case of a county court or a tribunal of inquiry suffering contempt in its face—information relating to that particular contumelious conduct. Secondly, I wonder whether the Minister can give some indication to the House as to how many abandonments of tribunals there have been in respect of such misconduct as this in the past 10 years.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I very much regret that I am not able to tell the noble Lord how many abandonments there have been in the past 10 years. I can tell him that there have been three in very recent times sufficient to cause concern in government because the causes have always been the same. I am sure the noble Lord will accept from me that I am not sufficiently qualified to make the kind of comparisons that he has done. May I, however, just assure him most sincerely that I will ensure the point that he has expressed will be brought positively before my right honourable friends.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, the noble Lord the Minister will have realised by now how united the House is in asking for action on this matter. Can he inform the House how far police inquiries have gone—if, indeed, they have been made—into investigating the origins of the people concerned in this matter? Also can he say whether or not the police have been informed that on the next hearing of this inquiry their presence is very much to be seen?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, yes, I accept very sincerely from the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, the concern which has been expressed in the House this afternoon. I cannot tell him, however, how far police inquiries have gone relating to the origins of the people concerned; this would be very much a matter for the police. In so far as any action by the police is concerned, again, I am sure he will recognise that I am not able to tell the House what the police propose to do. With regard to the future, I have little doubt that the police will take what steps are considered necessary to ensure proper order at the inquiry.

Lord Ingrow

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that this evil is not confined to London, and that a similar but lesser evil took place in the Aire Valley Inquiry a few years ago? In that case prosecutions were brought and some convictions secured. Would he therefore inquire more widely in order to see the other areas which have also been affected?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I was not aware of the disruption in the Aire Valley Inquiry to which my noble friend refers. I take the point that he makes, and I can only repeat that the evident concern of your Lordships will be brought before my right honourable friends.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, can I have clarification on one point? If the objectors are able to ask for compensation for work lost, is there any way of distinguishing the people who are causing the trouble, most of whom will be objectors? I shall be very sorry to see them being paid for work lost.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am sorry but I did not hear the last part of the noble Lord's Question.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, if objectors are able to claim for compensation for work lost, as the people who have wrecked the party will mostly be objectors, is there any way of distinguishing them from genuine objectors so that they do not get compensation for what they have done?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, in so far as any claims for costs are concerned, they will have to be made to a certain set of criteria, and objectors will be told that. I do not think that I can promise that there could necessarily be differentiation in the case of a legitimate claim.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that whatever may be the strength of opinion in this House, the gang—or gangs—who brought off the considerable coup of expelling the inspector will be holding a celebration party tonight, and that in lawlessness nothing succeeds like success? Will he recognise that this is a very serious matter and a public challenge to law and order, and the Government can do something about it?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I feel that anybody who succeeds in upsetting an upright and respected man and his family, who is conducting his duties in a quasi-judicial manner, and who can find success in his withdrawal from that office, can hardly be expected to celebrate. I have said on more than one occasion during the course of this exchange that the Government treat this matter seriously. I hope that the words I have used this afternoon express to noble Lords in all parts of the House the concern of the Government—and, indeed, the further concern in my receipt of these expressions from all sides of the House.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, can the matter be referred immediately to the Law Officers of the Crown? I am sorry to have to suggest this to the Minister, who is doing his best with a difficult scene; but this merits examination soon by the Law Officers of the Crown. If I may say so, we are slightly dismayed at the thought that little has been done in this grave situation.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble and learned Lord is dismayed that so little has been done. So far as his first and perhaps rather more pertinent question is concerned, I have said that I will—and I repeat I will—before this day is out convey to my right honourable friends the expressions of concern which have been made in the House.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, knowing the area very well, may I ask my noble friend very briefly where the inquiries are held? It does seem to me that if the inquiries are held where people can be apprehended for bad order, then it would be more beneficial, and it would help all round if the inquiries could be held in a slightly more judicial atmosphere than they are at present. I should like to know where exactly the inquiries are held now.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, at the pre-inquiry meetings the inspector establishes where and how the inquiries will be conducted; whether they shall be during the daytime; whether they shall be in a large hall; whether manuscripts shall be published and whether the inquiry proceedings shall be held in the evenings. All this is within the authority of the inspector himself.