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Orders Of The Day

Volume 22: debated on Friday 30 April 1982

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Planning Inquiries (Attendance Of Public) Bill

As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

9.34 am

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

This measure reaches its final hurdle this morning before it leaves the House on its journey down the Corridor to another place, from where I hope it will reach the statute book. It is an appropriate moment for me to express my thanks to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, to the House generally, to the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) and to the ever helpful Clerks of the House. This is no empty formality. There have been moments in the passage of the Bill when the Minister has been unable to conceal his genuine misgiving.

We all would agree on the importance of commercial secrecy. The Minister has been concerned lest this measure placed difficulties in the path of our great commercial concerns. I was a carefree business man for 10 years before becoming a Member of the House and I can understand the Minister's fears even if I do not share them. It is my hope that my hon. Friend's fears will in practice prove to be groundless. I stress to him for his comfort that the Bill does no more than restore to the citizen the position which obtained in practice without exception before a strange precedent was created one morning in 1967 at Salisbury.

I offer to my hon. Friend my thanks for his tolerance, his forbearance and his unfailing courtesy. Also, I wish to thank the House for bearing with this issue for so long. Over the past 15 years there have been no fewer than 12 separate debates on this issue.

If the Bill becomes law, I think that I can claim without immodesty to have achieved half a loaf. Large-scale mineral working came to a beautiful stretch of countryside near Salisbury by virtue of a procedure that will now be outlawed by the Bill. I confess that I wished that particular planning permission to be rescinded. I wished that mining company to be sent packing lock, stock and barrel. I still believe, and will continue to believe, that natural justice demanded it. However, I have failed in that aim and for all time there will be a scar on the landscape as a monument to the shortcomings of Governments of both political parties. However, there is a consolation which I welcome. There remains half a loaf, for with the passage of the Bill we know that other constituencies and other hon. Members will be spared the experiences which we were called on to face at Salisbury.

9.49 am

I join hon. Members on both sides of the House in earnestly congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Hamilton) not only on his good fortune in coming well up in the ballot but on his wisdom in selecting this topic for legislative purposes. He says that the topic has particular relevance to Salisbury. I assure him from my knowledge that the Bill, which we hope to see him pilot successfully through the House, has a wider significance than merely its implications for the Salisbury area, important though they are. All of us welcome what he wishes to do, which will be of benefit to the nation and to all who care for its beauty and appearance.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend on his persistence in Committee. Unfortunately, I was not privileged to serve on the Committee, but I read the reports of its proceedings with great interest. In the proceedings my hon. Friend was concerned about the Government's amendment. He felt that, excellent though it was, it shattered the intention of the Bill because the words "commercial confidentiality" were included in it. By his argument in Committee, my hon. Friend persuaded the Committee to agree with him and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment was wise enough to abandon any intention of expanding the Bill to include the words "commercial confidentiality". The House respects my hon. Friend for the keen and fervent way in which he has pursued his constituency interest.

A moment ago I said that the Bill had national implications. It is therefore right to say that, had I been on the Committee, I would have supported the Government's amendment to extend the exclusion clause. There are commercial occasions every day in industry when confidentiality is desirable if proper business competition is to take place. Like the majority of Members on the Committee, I do not believe that such business confidentiality is undesirable or unnecessary. When all the discussions are exposed to the full light of the public eye, at times there may be occasions when business and commerce could be disadvantaged.

My hon. Friend is piloting through the House today a valuable Bill with important aspects with regard to the Town and County Planning Act 1971. He piloted the Bill successfully through Committee, but I believe that there is a danger of certain instances occurring when the individual's right to privacy could be affected.

I have a constituency case in mind for when the Bill becomes enacted. It concerns a widow with a small area of land who does not want her personal circumstances to be revealed to the glare of publicity, which is always a risk at public planning inquiries. Representatives of the local media and radio are present at such inquiries. However trivial the planning application may be, and however trivial the person's circumstances may be to the public, that person can be upset, particularly if he is of a withdrawn nature and if, as has happened in the past, it is necessary during discussions in public to produce evidence relating to the individual's personal circumstances.

The Bill seems to ignore in a way that it should not the threatened privacy of the individual which we have a duty to protect. To nine people out of 10 their privacy may not matter if they are engaged in a planning inquiry, but a reasonable percentage of people strongly object to their personal affairs being discussed in public. For those people I should have liked to see enshrined in the Bill the right for the proceedings to be taken either in camera or at least with the knowledge that, if those persons wished, they could arrange for their representatives at the hearing to withhold their name and address from public scrutiny.

With those few remarks, I congratulate my hon. Friend on his wisdom in promoting the Bill.

I sincerely thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. I understand his anxiety. To my knowledge, there has never been a single case to date in which a planning inquiry has gone into closed session to protect individual private circumstances such as those that he has in mind. I do not know whether my hon. Friend knows of any such case, but I hope that he will be comforted by the fact that it seems that such a need has never arisen.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, which illustrates the nub of the argument that I was putting to the House. The fact that no such evidence exists as far as I am aware does not mean a lack of desire for a request for privacy during those hearings, but it relates more to the inability of the individual under present legislation to protect himself from the glare of public and media opinion. My hon. Friend is well used to appearing in the media. He always acquits himself as we would like to think we would acquit ourselves if we had the chance. However, to many people who are more withdrawn than him, such as the woman I mentioned, who has recently lost her husband and whose family has grown up and left her, it is a traumatic experience just to answer the door to a reporter or a telephone call from a local radio station.

The privacy of the individual is often the subject of discussion in the House. We are concerned about the threat of computer information banks and electronic and recording devices. I feel that the Bill would have been even more improved if it had contained some small mention of the right to ensure that, in the few circumstances where it may occur, every individual's privacy is accepted and respected by Parliament.

9.50 am

I appreciate very much the point that the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) has made. However, the hon. Gentleman has lost sight of the fact that one appears at a planning inquiry only because of the effect of the application one is making on someone else's privacy. The nub of the issue is how to ensure justice for all concerned while taking cognisance of the important fact that people feel that they do not want to appear in public. I believe that the Bill tries to get this right. As the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Hamilton) has pointed out, there seems to have been no evidence of a problem in the past.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Salisbury on a Bill that stops up a big hole in the dike that was capable of being exploited, not by ordinary people, but by bigger concerns as happened in Salisbury where a case was made much against the interests of people generally in the area. Those bigger concerns were able to present evidence to the inspector who thought it relevant and accepted it. They got away with it.

I was more than delighted when I saw that the hon. Member for Salisbury intended to have a shot at remedying this problem. I am surprised that he succeeded so easily. I pay tribute to the Minister who must have leant over backwards to make sure that everything was right. This is a modest but important Bill. Over the years, it will become more important. Planning inquiries are taking place in relation to ever decreasing areas of land to be developed. One cannot afford to lose control of these areas. It is important that ordinary folk have the right not only to attend planning inquiries but also to have access to all the documents and arguments.

I recall that when I was involved in local government I had to attend public inquiries as an expert witness on behalf of the local authority. I was always taken aback by the lack of knowledge of local people about what was going on. I was concerned by the small number of people who came along to give their views or to listen to the proceedings. It has always been my personal view that people should be encouraged to take a greater interest in planning inquiries within their area in order to familiarise themselves with what is taking place and to bring to bear their own knowledge and ideas.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Salisbury on introducing a Bill that is well worth while. I hope that the measure does not lose its way during its progress between here and another place and back again. I hope, when the Bill becomes an Act, that the hon. Gentleman will feel that it has been a well worthwhile exercise.

9.52 am

I am delighted to be able to say, on behalf of the Opposition, that we are grateful to the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Hamilton) for showing persistence and devotion to a cause that he has espoused and for which he has fought, despite losing more times than he cares to remember, over the past 15 or 16 years. We wish the Bill a good voyage from this House to another place.

The hon. Gentleman was frank enough to admit that the issue from which this Bill arises is done and cannot be undone. But, as he says, half a loaf is better than none. His persistence has led to legislation about which the word "modest" has been used. I would say that its effects will be almost minor in the context of the totality of planning legislation. Although modest or minor, it is, to those affected, crucial and fundamental. Hon. Members are discussing a principle which, until this issue was exposed to the light of day, many people, professional and otherwise, did not believe existed. There had been an assumption that all oral evidence at a public inquiry was given in public. There had also been an assumption that documentary evidence that was submitted was open to inspection.

I wish to pay tribute to the Minister. As the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) has pointed out, the Under-Secretary must have bent over backwards during the progress of the Bill. I believe that he earned the accolade of being a contortionist. To be fair to the hon. Member for Salisbury and his supporters on both sides of the Committee, it is right to say—without disrespect to the Minister, and without impugning his motives or integrity—that we listened to the Minister, but that we wanted included in the Bill words that would be useful to our constituents not merely now but for ever.

There are those who may feel, at the moment, that the Bill is unnecessary. It is likely to be the same people, in years to come, who will point to the Bill and say that it suits their purpose. One never knows, when legislating, whether the people who appear to merit the protection of a Bill, are the same people who will ultimately benefit from it. Enshrined in legislation, when the Bill becomes law, will be not only the right of individuals but the rights of companies—the rights of everyone affected by a planning application. The argument will be heard that the legislation is irritating, time-consuming and even that it could be unnecessary. We are however enshrining in legislation the well-known phrase that what is done must be seen and heard to be done in public.

The Minister was right to try in Committee to find illustrations to set at rest the unease of hon. Members. The number of illustrations that it is possible to plead in aid can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The Minister was right to seek even more exclusions than those contained in clause 1(4). The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. If the legislation proves to be onerous or punitive for an individual, and if the House hears of ways in which the Bill proves to be less helpful than hon. Members thought, I am certain that the Minister will take the opportunity to present to the House amending or fresh legislation.

The hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) has shown that millions of people, perhaps through ignorance, but mostly by default, are unaware of their rights. The Bill provides one way in which their professional advisers—I am talking about a local solicitor who may be approached by a ratepayers' association—have the opportunity of demanding something that they may not previously have been aware was available.

All hon. Members receive petitions and are invited to meetings. We have always acted under the impression that if an issue proceeds to a public inquiry all the factors will come out. The hon. Member for Salisbury pointed out that there are exceptions. His experience was an exception. This legislation will ensure that in future even that exception will be ruled out. The House is grateful to the hon. Member for Salisbury and to the Minister for allowing us to make progress on this modest but crucial piece of planning legislation which should benefit the whole community.

10 am

I rise to my full 5 ft 3 in in order to demonstrate that I am not bending over backwards on this occasion. This is all of me in the vertical.

I am delighted by the tributes made to my modest contribution to this measure, but my first observation on behalf of the Government is, rightly, to offer our sincere congratulations to the promoter of the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Hamilton). Over 15 years and seven debates he has displayed truly remarkable tenacity and endurance in pursuing in the House and elsewhere that which he perceived as a fundamental loophole in the powers affecting the conduct of planning inquiries. I refer, of course, to the discretion which in law the inspector possesses to accede to requests for in camera proceedings.

Although my hon. Friend, during earlier stages of his Bill, showed almost excessive modesty in referring to his supposed failure to move the flinty hearts of successive Administrations in this matter, the fact is that his ardent advocacy played a crucial part in extracting, almost a decade ago, assurances that such discretion would in future be exercised effectively by Ministers. However, he has never been fully satisfied that the loophole was closed by administrative means. It is, therefore, poetic justice that, in his last Parliament, those sprites that inhabit ballot boxes should have enabled him to introduce a Bill which puts a statutory seal on the administrative arrangements.

It is only right that I should outline the current posit ion that the Bill will modify, because we should be precise. The hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shored itch (Mr. Brown) asked what will happen as a result of this measure. Although 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 speaking, rights of appearance under the Acts are confined to the principal parties directly concerned in the substance of the case going to inquiry. Depending on that sort of case, these parties will usually be the appropriate local planning authority on the one hand and the applicant, appellant or statutory objector on the other. However, the position is complicated by the Fact that procedures at some kinds of local inquiry held under the planning Acts are governed by statutory procedural rules. Those rules confer rights of appearance on other parties including, for example, those with an interest in the land who are not also principal parties and various councils which may not be the local planning authority but within whose area the land in question is situated Not all planning inquiries are covered by such rules, although the spirit of the rules is applied by the Department of the Environment nevertheless.

A former Secretary of State, now my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, said on 4 May 1972, in answer to a parliamentary question from my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury:
"It is Government policy that inspectors should in future not accede to requests that they should hear evidence in private at planning inquiries."—[Official Report, 4 May 1972; Vol. 836, c. 199.]
Standing instructions to the Department's inspectorate have reflected that unequivocal assurance ever since.

The Bill now puts into statute the requirement that, subject to certain exceptions, planning inquiries shall be held in public. Oral evidence must be heard in public and documentary evidence must be open to public inspection. That is a substantial statutory achievement and the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch was right to say that it is somewhat surprising that we find ourselves moving towards the statutory position on what has hitherto been a matter of generally observed administrative convenience.

As to the exceptions, the Secretary of State may direct the hearing of evidence in camera only if he believes chat the disclosure of information would go against the national interest by affecting national security adversely or by harming the security of premises or property.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) raised a separate but related point about the privacy of individuals. Under the Bill, the national interest will be the biggest exclusion of the problem of privacy. After all, in the exceptions under the Bill, the Secretary of State could give a direction enabling a private session to take place only if he was satisfied that disclosure of the evidence would be contrary to the national interest. My hon. Friend may have overlooked that, because it is difficult to conceive of many instances where personal affairs could be regarded as a matter of national interest.

We have tried to consider whether there would be a problem with privacy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury said in an intervention, to our knowledge there has been no occasion where personal or private affairs have caused a problem that resulted in a hearing being held in camera. The two most probable circumstances in which information of a personal or private nature is likely to be introduced at a planning inquiry are when a party wishes to use such information in support of his case for or against a proposed development, or, as is more doubtful, when a party makes allegations about the personal affairs of another party in an effort to influence the inspector's consideration of the proposal.

On the specific point of trying to widen the exemption to include personal privacy, my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough, though perfectly correct to raise the matter, should be reassured that the circumstances of a planning inquiry and the requirement under my hon. Friend's Bill for the national criterion to be applied, are such that no individual would find his privacy impugned.

I had in mind the power of local authority housing committees to hold private sessions when housing applications are heard. The reason why they do that is that personal and private details must be made available to the committee, although not to the general public.

I fully accept that point in the administration of public affairs when privacy is sometimes a matter of concern, but with the planning laws, with which we are primarily dealing, the risk is no greater in relation to this Bill. However, my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that local authorities have an important duty to consider the privacy of individuals. No doubt that is an administrative matter to which they should adhere.

The most important issue that arose during discussion of the Bill concerned exemptions. National security or the security of premises or property is a category of exemption that includes proposals for anti-terrorist devices being included in buildings requiring planning permission and for which a planning inquiry may ultimately be held.

I can cite as an example an important energy installation. Mr. Alan de Piro, QC, is currently holding an inquiry into the possibility of discontinuing the operation of the British Gas methane terminal at Canvey. That inquiry arose out of an earlier inquiry by General Sir Richard Ward into the possibility of revoking planning permission for the nearby United Refineries Limited oil terminal. Sir Richard's report was critical of the methane terminal from the point of view of public safety at Canvey.

Objectors to the continued operation of the gas terminal, including counsel for the local authorities and my hon. Friend the indefatigable Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine), want evidence to be given on the danger arising from attempted sabotage at the terminal. Mr. de Piro decided that he needed to hear such evidence to enable him properly to assess all the risks involved in continuing the operation of the plant. Appreciating that such evidence would have to be given in private, the inspector referred the matter to the Department in accordance with previous Government undertakings in the 1970s. The Council on Tribunals is now being consulted about the procedure to be followed at the private session.

In the meantime, the inspector, at the resumption of the inquiry on 27 April, said that the Secretary of State was considering the arrangements for the taking of evidence about security. I trust that my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury, and indeed the House, will find the Canvey situation of interest. After the Bill becomes law, it will be capable of being handled under clause 1(4)(b). Perhaps it would be appropriate to refer here to the fact that we shall be consulting the Council on Tribunals on procedures for dealing with applications for in camera proceedings once the Bill is enacted.

I hope that my hon. Friend will not think it grudging of me if I mention here the amendment that I tabled in Committee relating to cases of commercial confidentiality, and on which, for reasons of which my hon. Friend is well aware, I was unable to convince the Committee. Those who were with us on Second Reading will recall that, although this was a matter which then did not attract much support in the House, there was one stalwart hon. and learned Member—alas, he has now died—who spoke firmly on it——

Order. I hesitate to interrupt the Minister, but this is the Third Reading and we must deal with what is in the Bill rather than with what has been rejected.

I am sorry to trespass, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was referring to my late hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Sir R. Bell), who spoke movingly on that occasion about the problems of commercial confidentiality. The amendment was defeated in Committee and therefore is not relevant to today's discussion except in so far as the Bill as presently drafted refers purely to matters of national security in relation to exemptions put forward through my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Some of the issues that have been considered in the history of in camera proceedings have not had the influence on this legislation that they might have had. One of the few occasions on which confidential proceedings have taken place at a planning inquiry included the Windscale inquiry. That had an important and formative influence on our discussions about whether this was a matter which should be reflected in the legislation.

My hon. Friend and I are satisfied that there is no need for us to be too concerned that the limits as drawn are so tight. The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) said this morning that should the Bill result in substantial difficulties in practice we might have to consider again the question of exemptions. However, I assure my hon. Friend that it is not the Government's intention to seek to move amendments to the Bill in another place, despite the fact that strong representations have been made on this issue by, among others, the CBI and our colleagues at the Department of Industry that such an amendment would be of value. The Bill is now fit to proceed with, I hope, the full blessing of the House.

Although the Government had no hand in the conception of my hon. Friend's Bill, they do not depart in any significant sense from the principle that it seeks to codify in law. As the Bill stands, it represents a reasonable and workable compromise between adherence to the principle firmly held by successive Governments of public presentation of evidence at inquiries and provision for those rare but important occasions when it would be in the national interest—as defined in the Bill—that certain evidence be heard in private.

I hope and believe that the Bill will command a large measure of support from the House. The Government wish it well and are content that it should now be considered in another place.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.