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Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Road Traffic Regulation (Special Events) Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable out of such money under any other Act.-- [Mr. Arbuthnot.]
It is clear that the Government did not consult adequately before encouraging the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) to present his Bill. The Rights Of Way Review Committee has been established for a long time-- chaired originally by the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr Spicer), more recently by the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) and now by the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning).
I am sure that, if the Department of Transport had consulted that committee, the problems that have now cropped up could have been avoided ; I am delighted, however, that a fairly hasty consultation has taken place today. I hope that the Minister will confirm that tomorrow he will formally accept two amendments that will be proposed, and that, when he draws up the regulations, he will meet the requirements of ramblers and others who use footpaths.
If we vote this motion down, the Government will have a fairly red face, but the taxpayer will save a small amount ; however, the tour de France-- which is coming to Britain in the summer--will be considerably embarrassed. The Government are trying to rush the measure through to make it possible to close the highway, enabling the event to take place.
That strikes me as admirable ; the worry is that the definition of a highway covers not only tarmacked roads but footpaths. Ramblers fear that it may be used to close footpaths for up to three days, causing them considerable inconvenience. I hope that the amendments will be carried tomorrow, and that that fear will be alleviated as a result.
One or two cynics believe that the measure is much more expensive for the Government than it might have been, because the hon. Member for Hexham was persuaded to take the Bill on board in return for the provision of a bypass. No doubt the Minister will deny that. I will not say that I want a motorway in my constituency in return for my co-operation--although I would be quite pleased if the Government could speed up the Denton-Middleton part of the M66.
I would settle for something much more modest from the Minister. I think that, when the first order is declared to close a road, he should simply ride a bicycle along the road at some speed, proclaiming that the order is in place.
Seriously, I hope that the Minister will confirm that he will ensure that the amendments go through tomorrow, or, failing that, that they will be tabled in the Lords ; and that the regulations will allay the fears of the ramblers and other groups.
There are tentative proposals to widen the M1 to God knows how many lanes between junctions 28 and 32. In Derbyshire and South Yorkshire people do not want that motorway to be widened, so I suggest that the Government could use the £200 million they would have had to spend on it to pay for the Bill, which will enable the tour de France to take place in parts of southern Britain.
I want assurances from the Minister that the amendments will be made to the Bill, and I want assurances about the regulations. What is even more important from the ramblers' point of view, we need assurances that his Department will consult the Rights of Way Review Committee before it introduces highway legislation that affects footpaths. That committee has done an extremely useful job during the 10 or 12 years of its existence,
"the Bill is not expected to result in any significant increase in public expenditure."
However, by passing the money resolution, we shall clearly authorise and give powers to a Minister to spend public money. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) mentioned the tour de France, which is just one major event. Significant costs could arise from the tour, because roads will have to be closed throughout much of our highway network. The legislation does not merely authorise that expenditure, however, as it provides for continuing powers for the Minister, and therefore potentially authorises continuing expenditure.
When Bills are introduced, it is usual for the Government to give some sign of the likely annual expenditure that will result. Will the Minister give the House that calculation ? I realise that the amount might be subject to some variation, but surely his Department has made some assessment of the costs involved ; otherwise, it would not need this money resolution. I hope that he will tell us what expenditure of taxpayers' money will be involved.
Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) : I endorse what my hon. Friends have said--especially the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett). There was a fairly extensive debate on the Bill on Friday, with much filibustering aimed at preventing the debate on women that was to take place later. During the debate on Friday, it was said that the Ramblers Association had made some out-of-place comments on the Bill. Reading Hansard will clearly show that I asked the Minister whether he would fully consider all the matters that that association brought to his attention.
The money resolution allows us the opportunity to press the Minister for a firm undertaking that the amendments tabled in our names, which will be discussed tomorrow
Ms Walley : You are right to draw my attention to that fact, Madam Deputy Speaker. Because of the amount of money involved, proper consultation with the local authorities and with the Ramblers Association is crucial to ensure that the provisions that result from the Bill accord with what was genuinely intended by its introduction.
No one wants to stop the tour de France passing through local authority areas in the south of England. However, we must make it clear that we should not use a private Member's Bill to introduce legislation that should properly be introduced by the Government. I am asking for proper consultation with the Ramblers Association. As my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish mentioned, there is a Rights of Way Review Committee
Mr. Skinner : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It would not be a bad idea if, at this juncture, we considered the possibility of a new Standing Order to the effect that, before a Minister rises to speak, he must utter the words, "I speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."
The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Robert Key) : I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), who is promoting the Bill. I shall explain why a money resolution is necessary. It might be useful to the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) if I begin by setting out what the money resolution is all about.
It is a technical resolution, because the Bill is unlikely to result in any overall increase in expenditure out of votes. It is therefore not possible to guess how much money might be involved, and I shall explain why. A money resolution is required because the Bill will in some cases allow traffic authorities to exercise order-making functions, instead of the police in London or district councils in the shires. The resolution is necessary for the potential transfer of costs rather than any net increase.
It is worth noting that we are considering whether to give traffic authorities discretion to charge commercial organisations for making orders under section 150 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989, which is not possible at the moment. With the exception of the tour de France, most events covered by the Bill have been taking place for many years. I am thinking specifically of the London marathon, a number of carnivals such as that in Notting Hill, the Lewes bonfire party and other bonfire events in southern England. We are discussing transfers, not additional expenditure.
I deal now with the issues raised by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett). My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning) did not find it
Column 510necessary to make representations to us about the Bill, although we should of course have listened carefully had she done so. I understood that ramblers were consulted about the road safety aspects of the tour de France, and it was not through lack of courtesy on our part that they did not make representations earlier than they did. However, as the hon. Gentleman said, we have indeed had constructive discussions today. It is my understanding that we are all of one mind, in the House and beyond, which is good news. I confirm that I accept the two amendments that we have discussed. I have no difficulty with that.
The regulations are a particularly important aspect of the Bill. Of course, the Bill as drafted ensures that traffic regulation for large events such as the tour de France can take place without fear of challenge. It does not seek to amend the position of smaller events, which are dealt with under other powers. As the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish knows, new clause 16B limits the effect of the orders to three days, and states that they cannot be used more than once in any calendar year. I hope that he is reassured.
Consultation is absolutely central to this method of legislating, not only for the tour de France but for other events. The fact that we were delighted to accept the offer of my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham to promote the Bill does not mean that we are sidestepping our responsibilities. It was the quickest and surest way of getting a narrow aspect of legislation on to the statute book. I understand what the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) said, but the most important issue to be covered by the Bill is consultation. As I said on Second Reading, I am minded to require a fairly lengthy period of consultation.
The Bill covers large-scale events, which will be planned well in advance, and early consultation is essential. There are a number of ways in which traffic authorities may be required to give notice of events. We should bear it in mind that it is not the traffic authorities
The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has kindly offered the transport supplementary grant for the county of Derbyshire, as well as the motorway widening money and the other trunk road money from his constituency and county. I shall seriously consider the offer. It would be of enormous benefit, and I am grateful to him for his offer.
Ms Walley rose
Ms Walley : In relation to the money resolution, is the Minister not aware, as we are, from having read the annual report of the Department of Transport which has just been published, that the amount of money from central Government which is granted to local authorities such as Derbyshire will be cut substantially in future years ?
Mr. Key : I am ever grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. However, it means that I am deprived of the opportunity to say how much more money I look forward to saving in the constituency of the hon. Member for Bolsover, but I shall not go into that now.
Mr. Skinner rose
Mr. Skinner : Just to ensure that it is correct, I am talking about money for widening the M1 between junctions 28 and 32. It has nothing to do with other moneys for trunk roads. Get it correct : Ministers should speak the truth.
Mr. Key : I always try to be relevant, and I shall seek to reply to the hon. Gentleman in a relevant way by saying that I note his kind and generous offer of giving up motorway widening schemes in his constituency. I am sure that his constituents will be grateful to him for the effect that that will have on his local economy.
Mr. Bennett : I appreciate the Minister's assurances, but may I take him back to the issue of the Rights of Way Review Committee ? If the Department of the Environment has any proposals which deal with footpaths, it refers them to that committee at the beginning of consultation. The Department of Transport does not seem to realise that highway matters also cover footpaths.
It would be simple to stress to the officials in the Department that they will refer those matters to the Rights of Way Review Committee at the beginning, rather than
Column 512when they find out that some mischief is afoot. That would save the Government considerable expenditure and time in chasing around trying to get it right at this late stage.
Mr. Key : There is absolutely no confusion. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a division of responsibility on rights of way as access to the countryside between the Departments of the Environment and of Transport. The definition of a road and of a highway, with which we are concerned, is one thing, but a byway open to all traffic or a bridleway is a different issue. I take the hon. Gentleman's point. I was going to go down the path of consultation, but I was reprimanded from the Chair, so perhaps we can discuss it at another time.
I am grateful to the House for listening so carefully to the importance of the money resolution. It is a modest measure, which, as I said, is about transferring funds which may be necessary as different authorities are asked to manage traffic for events which are not sponsored by those traffic authorities but for which they nevertheless have a responsibility for the management of traffic. That is about the sum of it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham did a grand job of lobbying on behalf of his constituents for the Haltwhistle bypass. However, that had nothing to do with the issue before us. That bypass was in the roads programme some 20 years ago, long before he was the Member for Hexham. I hope that, in 20 years' time, my hon. Friend will be remembered not only as the Member for the Haltwhistle bypass, but as the Member for the tour de France as well.
Question put and agreed to.
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Road Traffic Regulation (Special Events) Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable out of such money under any other Act.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Robert G. Hughes.]
Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North) : I am grateful for the opportunity to bring to the attention of the House the experience suffered by my constituent Mr. John Craig in seeking custody of his son. I am grateful also to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for being here to reply to the debate and I look forward to his response with great interest.
There are a number of questions that have not been answered to my satisfaction. That is why over the next 10 minutes I shall press especially strongly the case that Mr. Craig has put to me. I hope that I shall receive satisfactory answers at the end of the debate. The breakdown of any marriage and the pain it causes to the parties involved, especially the children, must be matters for regret. Unfortunately, parents who have divorced cannot always agree which of them should retain custody of their children. Decisions on custody matters often have to be taken by the courts after hearing the parties involved, and on the basis of expert advice.
The tragedy is that elementary failures in procedure by Norwich county court and the court welfare service prevented Mr. Craig from securing a proper hearing at all, and have left him seriously out of pocket.
Mr. Craig's case was originally straightforward. In February 1992, he obtained better rights of access to his son, who had remained with his former wife. At his solicitor's request, a court welfare officer, Mrs. Tanner, was appointed to compile a social inquiry report on Mr. Craig's son. A full hearing for Mr. Craig's claim for custody of his son was set for Friday 22 January 1993 in Norwich county court. Mr. Craig's solicitors briefed a barrister, Mrs. Margaret Gee, to represent him. Mr. Craig had to meet the costs of his barrister and solicitor himself, while his former wife was legally aided. I must make one point absolutely clear at this stage. Mr. Craig's solicitors, Howard Pollock and Webb, told the chief clerk of Norwich county court that it would be
"a fully contested action which would occupy the Court for the entirety of the day".
Mr. Craig's counsel, Mrs. Gee, took the view that the case would require a full day, and the barrister representing Mr. Craig's ex-wife, Mr. Wardlow, apparently thought that it would take a day and a half. There can have been no doubt about the length of time that the lawyers expected the case to take, and that was known to the court before proceedings began.
There were two judges hearing civil cases in Norwich on 21 and 22 January 1993. Judge Head and Judge Mellor had cases estimated to last one day listed for 21 January. They were each expected to hear a further one-day case the following day, and one of those was Mr. Craig's. Unfortunately, it became clear that Judge Head's case would overrun 21 January, so he would not be available on 22 January. Judge Mellor was approached by the listing officer on 21 January about the problem, and he took the view that he could deal with both the cases due to be heard on 22 January himself. Unfortunately, his original case was not
Column 514concluded until after 11 am on 22 January. That meant that the case before Mr. Craig's, despite its extremely brief settlement, was not concluded until midday.
Judge Mellor then saw counsel in Mr. Craig's case. Mrs. Gee and Mr. Wardlow, the two barristers involved, applied to the judge for an adjournment to a later date. Both agreed that, because of the delay that had already occurred, the case could not be fitted in to that day's proceedings. Judge Mellor could not sit on the following Monday, and Mr. Wardlow would not be available then either. New dates were therefore agreed --18 and 19 March. Mrs. Tanner, the court welfare officer, was present in the listing officer's room when the new dates were set and agreed, and she agreed that she would be able to attend then to give her report.
That may all appear complex, but it is important that the facts be set out exactly as they have been presented to me in answer to my inquiries. The barristers and solicitors in the case had made it clear that it would not be possible to conclude the case that day, and that was known to the judge and to the listing officer. That is what makes what happened next, and the explanations given for it, so hard to believe.
The outstanding case before Judge Mellor was settled very rapidly and the listing officer, Mr. Crane, tried to contact the two counsel in Mr. Craig's case to reinstate it. Unfortunately, Mr. Craig and his representatives had left the court, so Mr. Crane could speak only to Mr. Wardlow, who declined to agree because an adjournment had already been granted and the other party's representatives had left. Attempts to use the Tannoy system to contact them failed.
At this stage, I want to be absolutely clear on two points relating to the events in question. The first is that Judge Mellor granted the adjournment. It has subsequently been claimed that he had predicted that the other case would be rapidly compromised. Mr. Crane, the listings officer, argued that on 18 March.
My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department referred, in his letter to me on 16 July, to the judge's belief that he would be able to deal with both this case and that of Mr. Craig on 22 January. If Judge Mellor had believed that when counsel appeared before him on 22 January, he would not have granted an adjournment of the case at all. Up to two hours of the court's working day of five and a half hours had already been lost.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. John M. Taylor) : Will my hon. Friend accept it from me that Judge Mellor's decision to take the two cases on the Friday was made on the Thursday before he realised that his own case would overrun ?
Mr. Thompson : I shall pursue my argument to its conclusion and then possibly respond later to what my hon. Friend said. The important point in this case is that the information that I have received as Mr. Craig's Member of Parliament has been highly confusing. The responsibility lies with my hon. Friend to establish the facts. I can only operate on the facts and the understanding that I have been given.
Mr. Crane knew that a full day was needed, yet still tried to argue that the case could have started, even though it could not finish. Indeed, he went further. He claimed that Judge Mellor believed that the court had been misled by a premature application for an adjournment. No one reading
Column 515the evidence from the two firms of solicitors and counsel about the likely length of the case could believe that. The explanations offered by the court administration lacked basic credibility. The failure to hear Mr. Craig's case on 22 January cost him £1,000 plus value added tax in fees to his counsel, apart from his solicitor's bill. Worse still was to follow for him. The hearing on 18 March began on time. Unfortunately, the court welfare officer was absent, despite her commitment to attend given on 22 January. Inquiries to the probation service revealed that Mrs. Tanner was on holiday in Australia for four weeks. It was only on 13 May that a copy of a letter from her dated 29 January announcing her unavailability was provided to the clerk of the court. Mr. Craig had become liable for a further bill of £500 plus VAT to his counsel without the case proceeding any further at all.
The case was reallocated to dates in August 1993. However, because of the delay in hearing the case, Mr. Craig was advised to abandon his claim for custody and seek better rights of access. He was obliged to accept that advice. The courts are understandably reluctant to remove children from one parent's custody when they have been settled for a lengthy period.
Serious questions arise from this case. First, there is the failure of the listing officer to contact Mr. Craig's solicitors on 22 January. That is particularly inexcusable as Howard, Pollok and Webb are a local firm which was already known to the listing officer at Norwich county court. I must stress that, despite that fact, absolutely no attempt was made to phone or fax them on 22 January. Secondly, there is the delay in responding to the complaints of those solicitors. It took the listing officer six weeks to respond to their initial letter of 2 February complaining about the proceedings in January. His explanation of events then was not credible. Moreover, Mr. Crane declined to refer any of those initial matters to the court administrator's office. Clearly, that was obstructive, and only when pressed again did he consent to do so.
Finally, there is the matter of a letter of 29 January from Mrs. Tanner. I have no means of knowing whether it was sent by the probation service to Norwich county court at that time. If it was sent, what happened to it ? Someone must have lost it. What explanation is there for the fact that, if the clerk of the court received a copy on 13 May, my hon. Friend's Department did not know of it on 18 May when it wrote to my constituent's solicitors refusing to pay compensation ? Which officer of the court failed to inform my hon. Friend of the letter's existence before he wrote to me on 16 July again declining to accept liability for the administrative errors that had occurred ?
How was it that my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), a Minister of State, Home Office, was able to write to me on 23 August last year informing me of the letter's existence, but no acknowledgement of its existence was given from Lord Chancellor's Department before 12 November ?
One or more officers of Norwich county court failed to tell the full story. I have no doubt that it was convenient for the county court administrators to be able to blame the probation service for not having informed the court that Mrs. Tanner would be unavailable in March. To ordinary people, it looks like a cover-up.
Column 516Is not the truth that the county court officers at Norwich have been more than economical with the truth because of their blunders ? I said that I felt strongly about the way in which my constituent has been treated, and I am trying to get that across during the debate. The most alarming feature is that no one was willing to accept responsibility for the mistakes that occurred. Norwich county court's listings officer has blamed the counsel in the case for the failure to hear it on 22 January. That is not acceptable or credible, for the reasons given by the Lord Chancellor's Department to Mr. Craig's solicitors in May 1993. The court must rely on the estimates of time given by the parties' solicitors--in this case, one full day. It is on the basis of the fallacious information supplied by the listings officer that compensation has been refused by the Lord Chancellor's Department to Mr. Craig. I hope that my hon. Friend will announce that there has been a change of heart tonight. I am equally concerned that neither the Home Office nor the Lord Chancellor's Department accepts responsibility for the failure to conclude the proceedings in March 1993.
It is not good enough to accept that Mrs. Tanner's letter was sent to Norwich county court, and that no blame therefore falls on Norfolk probation service. If it was sent, Norwich county court should have made the parties to the case aware of it. If the explanation that I received from the Home Office is right, Mr. Craig has been failed by the county court's administrators. The county court appears to prefer to rely on a claim that it did not receive the letter at all. We can all recognise the buck-passing here, which is occurring on a grand scale.
Mr. Craig should have had justice in the courts--instead, he got a shabby deal. All he has received has been a litany of incredible excuses. I hope that tonight he will receive a proper apology, a full explanation and the overdue compensation which he deserves. I look forward to receiving a positive response from my hon. Friend and, once again, I am grateful to him for hearing me out.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. John M. Taylor) : I know how strongly my hon. Friend feels. He has been mhon. Friend for 11 years, and my personal friend for 20 years. I can well understand also the distress that his constituent Mr. Craig feels at the adjournment on two occasions of his application for custody of his son. As a result, he has suffered not only a delay in resolving an extremely sensitive and important family issue, but the wasted legal costs of the adjourned hearings.
My Department is always prepared to consider any reasonable request for payment for such costs. However, there is an extremely important principle to consider whenever requests for payments from public funds are made. That is the duty that I have to the taxpayer to ensure that the financial loss from which payment is sought has genuinely arisen as a result of errors made by departmental staff. In this instance, I do not consider that to be the case.
To explain why, I shall outline the circumstances that led to the adjournment of each hearing, and the reasons for the refusal of Mr. Craig's claim in each case. I beg the forgiveness of the small audience present, and that of the
Column 517perhaps larger readership tomorrow, if there is good deal of overlap between what I have to say and what my hon. Friend said. The first hearing took place at Norwich county court on 22 January 1993. As my hon. Friend said, two judges were hearing civil matters at the court that week, Judge Head and Judge Mellor. On the day before Mr. Craig's hearing, each judge had a single case in his list for which the parties had given a time estimate of one day. On 22 January, two one-day cases were listed, one of which was Mr. Craig's. Thus, there was every reason to suppose that Mr. Craig's case would be heard.
Unfortunately, it became clear during the preceding day, the Thursday, that the case being heard by Judge Head would considerably overrun. That meant that Judge Head would be unable to hear either of the two cases listed for 22 January. On Thursday 21 January, the court listing officer, Mr. Crane, consulted Judge Mellor, who examined the files and decided that he would be able to hear both cases. He instructed that the other case be listed before Mr. Craig's case, as he believed that it was likely to settle.
In the event, Judge Mellor's case of 21 January overran until 11.15 am on 22 January. Then counsel in Mr. Craig's case requested an adjournment, which was granted. Judge Mellor began to hear the other outstanding case, which reached settlement within a few minutes. The listing officer made urgent attempts to locate Mr. Craig and his representatives to see whether they wanted the judge to hear the case after all, but they had already left. The listing officer was right to do that. Mr. Craig's solicitors wrote to the court on 2 February complaining that the list for 22 January had been overloaded. The listing officer did not reply to that letter until 18 March. I apologise to my hon. Friend for that delay, which was clearly unacceptable.
My hon. Friend doubts the version of events given in the listing officer's letter. I agree that the letter was confusing and that the tone in which it was written was unfortunate. Specifically, the listing officer's initial refusal to refer the matter to the courts administrator's office, as requested, was clearly wrong. For that, too, I apologise. However, the fact remains that Judge Mellor instructed the listing officer on 21 January to list both cases before him on 22 January, and he did so.
There are two important principles here. First, in preparing lists, courts have to rely on the time estimates given by the parties. If the estimate proves to be inaccurate, that is not the fault of the court. The president of the family division has recently issued a direction which emphasises the responsibilities of the parties in that matter.
Secondly, there is the fundamental principle of judicial independence. As my hon. Friend will know, the judiciary is entirely independent of Government. That means that neither I nor any of my officials can intervene in individual cases or seek to question or influence judicial decisions. Listing is a judicial function, not an administrative one. The judge decides the list ; the listing officer does his bidding. No blame can be attached to the court for its actions on 22 January.
The second hearing of 18 March 1993 was fixed when the hearing of 22 January was adjourned. The court welfare officer involved in the case was present on 22 January, as my hon. Friend said, and confirmed that she could attend