HC Deb 02 December 1994 vol 250 cc1511-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wells.]

2.30 pm
Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen)

I am grateful for this Adjournment debate. There is no doubt that the section of the M3 that is being constructed through Twyford down in Hampshire is among the most controversial ever to be constructed.

More than 20 years were spent in trying to identify a route around, under and finally through the top of Twyford down. With the pattern of roads that had been established by the mid-1980s, it was inevitable and, indeed, essential that some proper link be established between the M3 and the M27. As a Member of Parliament representing Southampton, I fully recognise that. I have always believed, and believe today, that less destructive alternatives were available.

As the impact of the current route on the beauty of the downs and the Itchen valley and the destruction of sites of special scientific interest and archaeological sites became widely known, the outcry grew. More than any other road scheme, Twyford down came to symbolise in the minds of many people all that was wrong with the Government's roads policy. In the words of Lord Justice Dillon in the Court of Appeal, it is not very surprising that there are many people who deplore the decision and who regret that Twyford Down should be defaced by a motorway. In the circumstances, it is also not surprising, in a democracy, that some people should have thought of holding peaceful protests or peaceful demonstrations against the construction of the motorway along the selected route over Twyford Down".

Twyford down attracted many different people from all parts of the country and all types of background to participate in a variety of protests. The great majority took part in symbolic peaceful protests around and on the site. In my experience, the majority of people who take part in any demonstration of that sort say the same thing, "I never thought that I would find myself doing something like this." The freedom to protest is not one that most people use most of the time; only when a particular event or issue that matters deeply to us hits us, are we finally moved to respond. For that very reason, that freedom is fundamental and must be protected.

Of course—I do not want to avoid this point—other protesters went further. Some sought to delay construction by passively obstructing the work; others, going beyond what I could regard as reasonable, damaged construction equipment. For a democratic society, direct action poses a dilemma. I do not believe that the decisions of a democratically elected Government can, or should be, lightly thwarted by direct action, no matter how altruistic or well-intentioned, or how correct their criticism of Government policy. That would simply give power to the most determined and not the most representative.

On the other hand, we should understand the sincere and honest passions that motivated some people to participate in that action. In any case, the response to protest must be measured and appropriate. Even those who commit direct action have the right to be treated appropriately. The Government simply cannot say, "These people are causing a problem, so we are entitled to do anything we feel like to stop them."

I believe that the response, both to the peaceful non-disruptive protest and to the direct action protest, was neither measured nor appropriate. First, Twyford down was, as far as I can establish, the first time that widespread surveillance was carried out on British people by private detective agencies acting on behalf of the Government. Secondly, the Government have played a direct role in the retention of private security guards who used violence against protestors. Thirdly, the Government are now pursuing, at taxpayers' expense, a punitive legal action against people who allegedly took part in protests of the most innocuous and innocent form.

Brays detective agency was hired, for what turned out to be a cost of more than £250,000, to take photographs of protesters and to serve papers on them. As far as I can establish, that scale of surveillance has never been undertaken by any Department. The privatisation of surveillance and snooping should therefore have been approached with great sensitivity and care—but far from it.

There are no guidelines, either in the Department of Transport or in the Government, as to the use of private detective agencies. I asked the National Audit Office to investigate the hiring of Brays, and the Comptroller and Auditor General confirmed to me in a letter dated 18 October that expenditure on Brays was allowed to grow from an initial £836 allowed within delegated authorisation to £250,000.

Expenditure reached nearly £100,000 before a proper written contract was let—albeit then without competitive tendering. It was only after I had tabled parliamentary questions about contracts that any formal contract was let. The Comptroller and Auditor General concluded: Whilst the Department felt they had to respond quickly to the escalating protest action it is still important for them to follow authorised contract procedures … in this case, however, the Department neither established a contract when the scope of the work changed from a one-off action to an on-going surveillance operation, nor held a competitive tender exercise once they recognised the extent of the work involved. The rules of the Department were not followed.

The National Audit Office was clearly not initially convinced that expenditure on Brays was even legal. The Comptroller and Auditor General wrote to me, saying: there were no special guidelines in place on employing private detective agencies; our financial auditors have looked into whether this expenditure should have treated as novel and contentious, and therefore subject to Treasury approval. I understand that the Treasury has now ruled that the expenditure was allowable, and there I suspect that the issue will remain unless it is challenged in the courts.

I must say that I doubt whether Parliament has ever knowingly voted money to the Department of Transport for such a use of private detective agencies. I hope that we can be told what the role of Ministers was in the affair. Were all the decisions taken by junior civil servants rattling around out of control, or were Ministers involved in the decisions on the surveillance? If so, which Minister took the decision to use Brays in this role, to overrule normal contracting procedures and to spend £250,000 of public money? I hope that the Minister for Railways and Roads can tell the House the answers.

Brays' performance for £250,000 appears to have been incompetent, inefficient and a threat to civil liberties. Of 76 writs issued, more than half have been to people who were identified not by Brays but by Hampshire police. Many writs have not been served, leaving some people unaware that they are the subject of legal action. I know of a well-documented case where repeated attempts to issue a writ against an individual were dropped only when a solicitor successfully challenged Brays' identification.

That raises an important question. If one individual has been wrongly identified, how many others may have been? How many files are held, on whom and in what form, and to what other uses will that inaccurate information be put? There were no guidelines covering the work of Brays, and no effective safeguards either.

I understand that Brays has written to protesters saying that it would deny them access even to computer records under the Data Protection Act 1988, as they form material likely to be the subject of court action. I do not believe that the holding of inaccurate records by a private company paid for by the taxpayer can be treated lightly, and certainly not with the cavalier approach to civil liberties, proper contracting procedures and financial controls shown by the Department of Transport. Why has no Minister ever introduced even the most basic safeguards over Brays' activities?

Those who took part in direct action also met a private security firm, Group 4. The protesters tried passively to block the construction of the road and must, therefore, have expected to be removed with some necessary force. However, it is clear that the force used by Group 4 went way beyond what was acceptable.

A solicitor who visited the down on 9 December 1992 wrote: On attending the site and in the company of the Observer film crew, one of my clients was severely manhandled by five Security Officers. This client was deliberately poked in the eye by one of those men. The writer immediately informed the surrounding Security Officers of her presence and requested the Officer to release her client forthwith. She was ignored and our client was subject to further bodily assault. On another occasion, it is claimed: two women were admitted to hospital … with serious injuries. One was unconscious on the Down for thirty minutes following strangulation by private security officers who again refused to release our client even though she was very distressed and had been vomiting as a result of an assault". Let us be clear: the protesters were attempting to delay the construction of the road, as far as anyone could tell. Although many people supported their motives, to others—those who want the road to be constructed, and certainly the Department of Transport and the contractors—they were a blessed nuisance. However, that does not in itself justify such excessive force.

We do not yet, I hope, live in a society in which all rights are suspended because someone commits what was, at the time, a civil offence. If the Department of Transport wishes to use private security agencies to implement its policies, it must take full responsibility for ensuring that those agencies function within reasonable guidelines and controls.

Although the contractors retained Group 4, that company's employment was agreed by the Department of Transport. All the extra costs of its activities, which amounted to some £2.5 million, were paid by the Department. Group 4, like Tarmac, has close connections with the Conservative party. Was the Group 4 contract subject to competitive tendering? What measures did the Government take to control its expenditure and ensure that its activities were appropriate?

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the whole issue is that the Department of Transport is pursuing a punitive and vindictive action for damages of more than £2 milhon against 76 protesters. As I shall attempt to show, many of these protesters were involved in the most innocuous and reasonable actions but now face personal ruin. The action is being pursued in spite of the fact that, in all but a handful of cases, the protesters obeyed entirely injunctions against them to desist from trespass or any other form of protest on the site. Those who did break the injunctions on what they regarded as a point of principle were, I understand, gaoled, which is what the law requires.

The pursuit of further legal action for damages has nothing to do with preventing these individuals from protesting—they have done what the court ordered—but everything to do with intimidating others in the hope that they will not take part in any form of protest.

The legal action now means that people who have taken part in the most innocuous activities are being sued for damages. The same is true of people who do not know even that they have been the subject of an injunction and who have not been near Twyford down since the injunctions were served and of people who have complied with the terms of the injunctions in every respect.

My constituent, Maggie Lambert, is a mature student of photography with an ambition to become a photo-journalist. She was on Twyford down on several occasions to photograph the down, the construction work and the demonstrations as part of a student project. She successfully challenged parts of an injunction which implied that she had supported and been involved in direct action. In the Court of Appeal, Lord Justice Mann said: There is nothing in the evidence to suggest Mrs. Lambert was present at some disturbing scenes other than as a mature student of press photography". However, as the Court of Appeal upheld the injunction against trespass, Maggie Lambert is still a party to the claim for damages.

Mr. David Plumstead, described by Lord Justice Dillon as a man of mature years", went to the down once. He went in what Lord Justice Dillon described as respectable but trespassing parliamentary company". That company was myself, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) and the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). It seems to have occurred to someone of above average intelligence in the Department of Transport that serving injunctions on three hon. Members for addressing an assembly of free British citizens on an English hillside on a sunny spring Sunday afternoon might be a bad idea. Mr. Plumstead, who does not enjoy that protection, and who went there only on that one Sunday afternoon, finds himself confronted by the same claim for £2 million.

Jane Child was, according to her injunction, on the down for 15 minutes. She was arrested on that occasion but, subsequently, she received a payment of £4,500 compensation for wrongful arrest. She, too, finds herself still the subject of that claim for damages.

Michael Halford, a professional man, attended one day when direct action and violence from the security guards occurred. He had noticed that, in the absence of what he calls "respectable observers", the police seemed to have less 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 only 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 of 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 come 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. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

Would the undertakings include one not to take part in any further peaceful demonstrations? If that were so, it would be an outrageous condition.

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.