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Column 1515less regard for ensuring that security guards did not use excessive force against non-violent protesters. In the course of offering himself as a witness to the police about that violence, he volunteered his name and address. He now finds himself being sued for damages. Incidentally, the expensive Brays failed to serve notice on him, either.
As he has said in a statement:
"Legal action is being taken against individuals regardless of whether they were responsible for any damage or at how many events they were actually present. We are being sued primarily because they have our names. In my case I only recently discovered that I am included. It is considered that I have been served with a summons because the Plaintiffs have put up a notice in a field somewhere. I have never seen this notice yet according to reports in the press I can be sued for £1.9 million for damages I have not caused without receiving any notification beforehand. This appears to contravene the very essence of a fair and democratic legislature."
I agree with what he says.
Mr. Stephen Ward--another man of mature years, according to the courts-- attended on days of direct action as a non-participant observer, hoping, as I think he has expressed, that, by recording the actions of security guards, he could help to moderate their conduct. In the Court of Appeal, Lord Justice Dillon declined to quash any injunctions against Mr. Ward. He held--these are my layman's terms, so I hope that I will be forgiven if I do not get it absolutely right--that Mr. Ward, by attending in that role, was a party to the direct action. However, in the High Court, Mr. Justice Alliott said to Mr. Ward:
"Accepting him as a man of honour I hope he will recognise that the best way to avoid violence is to let the rule of law prevail and to ensure that he and all the other protesters act within the law." That is the point. Mr. Ward obeyed Mr. Justice Alliott's urging. He has not broken the injunction. He has obeyed the ruling of the court. The vast majority of the others have obeyed the injunctions against them. Yet he and they continue to be pursued for their share of more than £2 million in damages, when interest is taken into account. That is the real threat behind the Department's pursuit of that action. The Department seems to be intent on creating a position in which anyone who attends a place where someone else has taken direct action, whether or not the person has participated in direct action, or even, as in the case of Mr. Plumstead, on a day when no direct action took place, may find himself or herself the subject of a punitive court action. Even so, some people might ask, should not the Government attempt to recover the costs of actions that they claim have cost £1.9 million, plus interest?
Good public money is being poured after bad. Many of the protesters have no income or assets. Those who do are confronted by heavy legal bills and perhaps the loss of their homes. Any reasonable estimate must be that the Department will not even recover court costs, let alone damages.
By June last year, £216,000 had been spent on legal actions. There have been two further expensive court hearings since. Only a handful of people have been able to challenge injunctions in court. In Maggie Lambert's case, the court costs were £36,000, which could only be met because a third party, her trade union, could afford to fund the action. As each day passes, legal bills to the Department of Transport increase. The taxpayer is not
Column 1516only meeting the Department's costs; some of the people covered by injunctions are legally aided. Each day, the taxpayer's bill for their defence costs increases.
Most alarmingly, the Department of Transport has guaranteed to pay the bills of the two private companies--Tarmac and Blackwell--which are parties to the court action. Why should the taxpayer pay those bills? Because those companies, which are private, profit-making companies, know that there is no conceivable chance of damages being obtained and court costs being covered if they sued on their own account. The taxpayer's money is used to fund a punitive, vindictive and all-embracing action against people who wanted to express their opposition to the destruction of an especially beautiful corner of southern England.
The threat of the action is intended deliberately to dissuade middle-of-the -road, middle-class, middle-income people from associating themselves with, or supporting, more radical campaigners, as they have done in increasing numbers in recent years. It would be quite wrong, using the premise that direct action has taken place, to throw the net so wide that anybody who in any way takes part in a form of public protest against a scheme such as the M3 is faced with punitive legal costs.
I hope that the Minister will say that the case is to be dropped and that the Government recognise the need to re-establish consensus and consent on transport policies. I hope that he recognises the real dangers to civil liberties and freedoms which our people cherish and that he will appreciate what the Government have done. I hope that he will promise that guidelines and safeguards on the use of private agencies will quickly be brought into force and backed by law. 2.49 pm
The Minister for Railways and Roads (Mr. John Watts): I emphasise that the legal proceedings to which the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) has referred and which were initiated by the Department of Transport, arise from unlawful protest action. I was somewhat gratified that the hon. Gentleman drew a distinction between legitimate protest and action that goes well beyond what can be tolerated in a civilised society.
I assure the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I fully support the public's right to protest lawfully about the Department's road building programme or about anything else that we do. We all cherish that freedom. We are all able to make our views known on issues that we consider important, and I do not doubt that many of those who protested about the building of the last link in the M3 have a sincere concern for the environment. I share that concern, as do hon. Members. However, holding such views does not give people the right to stop others engaging in lawful activity. It might be helpful first to explain some of the scheme's history. Mindful of the time, I shall then deal directly with the hon. Gentleman's points. The old A33 Winchester bypass was a pre-war, dual two- lane carriageway. It was extremely congested, carrying far too much traffic. Proposals for a motorway to replace the bypass were first published in 1970. The current scheme for the section between Bar End, north of Winchester, and Compton, to the south of the city, was finally approved by the then Secretaries of State for Transport and for the Environment in February 1990. That section involves the construction
Column 1517of 3.7 miles of dual three-lane motorway and it is expected to carry at least 85,000 vehicles per day by the year 2007.
I am sure that the House will realise that the completion of this final section of the M3, which also forms part of the strategic route from the midlands to the south coast and will serve the hon. Gentleman's port constituency in Southampton, will be widely welcomed by local people who will experience less noise and congestion, particularly in the residential and conservation areas of St. Cross. It will also be appreciated by many motorists.
I recognise that the scheme has attracted a great deal of controversy. It involves a cutting through Twyford down and affects two sites of special scientific interest and two scheduled ancient monuments. However, only some 8.6 acres out of the total of 244.6 acres in the Itchen valley water meadows SSSI and 4.7 acres in the Dongas, which forms part of the 102.5 acres of the St. Catherine's hill SSSI, were required to build the new road. Neither SSSI has been destroyed, as has often been claimed. That was claimed again by the hon. Gentleman.
I have explained that background because I want to demonstrate to the House that all the necessary steps were taken to provide considerable opportunities for objections to the proposals to stop the Department from proceeding within the legal framework before building of the road commenced. However, there comes a point at which it should be recognised that a scheme has satisfied all the statutory procedures and should be permitted to go ahead. Even then, the public may still oppose the proposals and seek to change the Department's mind.
However, the line must be drawn at the unlawful actions that were witnessed on Twyford down. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Malone), through whose constituency the road passes, fully supports the action that was taken to curb the dangerous and unlawful behaviour of protesters which has disturbed so many of his constituents for far too long.
An advance works contract was started in February 1992 to provide haul routes to facilitate the construction. That is now largely complete and traffic started to use the cutting at the end of July. Most of the new road should be opened to traffic as a dual three-lane motorway by about the middle of this month.
In view of the time, I shall now deal with the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. If time permits, I shall then return to other remarks that I had hoped to make. First, he suggested that the Department was in some way vindictive in pursuing legal action and action to recover costs and damages. He knows that the losses suffered through delay and damage to equipment have been substantial. He cited a number of individual constituents' cases. He will understand that I do not intend to comment on individuals whose cases are still a matter for the courts. He knows that a summons for directions was issued in the summer and served by our solicitors, as the next stage in the proceedings. The hearing of that summons took place on 19 September. The Department is now proceeding in accordance with the directions of the court. We will continue to take appropriate legal action that we consider necessary at the time.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether we would drop the action. I am not prepared to concede that. We are protecting the interests of the taxpayer against the unlawful protest action taken by so many people. However, if the defendants in the actions wish them to
Column 1518come to an early conclusion, the hon. Gentleman should advise them to make proposals to settle and give appropriate undertakings about future conduct for our legal advisers and the Department to consider.
Mr. Watts: As I said, I urge hon. Members to advise their constituents to make proposals to settle the action if they wish to bring it to a speedy conclusion. I shall not respond off the cuff on what undertakings we would consider adequate if such proposals were to be made. It is for the defendants to make the proposals and for us to respond to them. Hon. Members have my assurance that we shall not be vindictive in our attitude if reasonable proposals are made. The hon. Member for Itchen referred to Brays detective agency. There is nothing sinister about the matter. As he described--but in rather more colourful language than I would use in sticking strictly to the facts--the agency was employed to serve injunction papers on protesters and to obtain photographic evidence for use in legal proceedings. Although there have been wild claims about spying on protesters, Brays' employees were on land properly owned by the Department and took photographs for the purpose of evidence to use against the people trespassing on site.
The hon. Gentleman said that he had raised the employment of Brays with the National Audit Office. I am aware of that, but I am not a party to the correspondence between him and the NAO. Therefore, it would not be right to comment either on his allegations or on what he predicts will be the NAO's reaction. I am assured that there is no evidence of any financial impropriety in the single-tender contract agreement with Brays. To be effective, action needed to be taken with immediate effect. I have no doubt that the NAO will bring any concerns that it has about the handling of Brays' appointment to the Department's attention. If and when it does so, that will be the appropriate time for the Department to respond.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to Group 4 Security. He will be aware that, under the terms of the contract that we issued for the construction of the road, the contractor is responsible for the security of the site. As trespass is a civil, not a criminal, matter, the contractor needs to employ security staff where he believes that the security of his site is under threat. The hon. Gentleman made a number of allegations about inappropriate use of force by the security service. The instructions given by the contractor to Group 4 were that only minimum force should be used in removing unlawful trespassers. Any complaints of assault or harassment are clearly a matter for the police and not one on which I should reach a judgment.
The hon. Gentleman must recognise that it is not just the scheme for the M3 through Twyford down where there has been unlawful protest action. I hope that he will join me not in condoning, but in condemning, such unlawful action. That is the real measure of the threat to a civilised and law- abiding society.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock.
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