asked the Minister of Transport whether he will introduce legislation to ensure that the procedure at hearings in connection with railway closures will allow for the cross-examination by objectors of the representatives of the Railways Board with regard to the financial and other information submitted by the Board to the committee concerned.
The transport users' consultative committees in general determine their own procedure. Committees allow objectors to ask any questions and make any statements relevant to the committee's functions. But it is not their function to consider the financial aspects of closure proposals.
The Central Committee can make recommendations to the area committees about their procedure, and I do not think that any further action is needed.
Would not the Minister agree that it is supremely important that the general public should retain confidence in these public hearings? Is he aware that this confidence is being lost because all the objections are heard, and the railway spokesman replies, but there is no opportunity at these hearings to deal with anything apart from hardship? I am sure that the Minister will agree that if the public are losing confidence he should make some change in the legislation to enable a short preliminary statement to be made by the railway spokesmen.
Those making objections before the T.U.C.C. are really allowed a fair hearing. They can make statements and ask questions, which are relevant to the T.U.C.C. which considers hardship and alternative services under Section 56 of the Act that this House passed, so the question of financial statements is really outside the purview of the T.U.C.C.
I hope that the Minister will look al: this matter again, as there is a growing feeling that this procedure is becoming quite farcical. First, will he make sure that, as the Statute states, the hearing is in public? The only way in which that can properly be done is for the committee to advertise to the public where and when the inquiry is being held. Secondly, the Minister must surely agree that in order to give objectors a proper opportunity, the committee ought to sit in a place and at a time suitable to the objectors rather than to the convenience of the committee. Third, the order in which evidence is taken should be such as to give a fair hearing to the people concerned. Further, will the Minister look into the question of the presence of people who, as I see it, have no right by Statute to be there?
These meetings are held in public. There is no statutory requirement that they should be, but the spirit of the Act is that they should be held in public. In the case of two meetings in Scotland, on 11th October and 18th October, the Press was not formally invited, but all the objectors who had laid objections—and who are, by law, the only people entitled to give evidence to the T.U.C.C.—were individually notified of the hearing, so they were not deprived in any way. As regards the next part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question, I do not think that any committee—and I go right through all their minutes—has ever refused to hear anyone who has said that he was a user of the transport services.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that all those who have attended these committee meetings as objectors or observers are very dissatisfied with the procedure at them? Will he have a complete review of the procedure, instead of allowing each committee to determine its own rules and regulations? Is the Minister aware that there is particular objection to the fact that the Railways Board produces what is often quite contentious information, and that there is no opportunity for objectors to cross-examine the Railway Board's representatives on the information they are putting forward?
If the information put forward at one of these T.U.C.C. hearings is germane and relative to the scope of the inquiry, statements may be made and questions asked—[Hon. Members: "No."]—yes, they can. It depends on the chairman of each committee deciding on the procedure he thinks is right. If questions and statements are irrelevant and prolix, he does not allow them, but it is up to him.
Is the Minister aware that it is precisely the scope of questioning that needs looking into, because many districts where closures are envisaged have become development districts? That leads to shift in population, which means that the consultative committees must be more flexible in their hearings than in the past?
The hon. Member misconceives the function of a T.U.C.C. It has to decide on hardship and alternative services only. If there is any other point than hardship I have asked the local councils to send a letter to me, with copies to the other Departments concerned—on such matters as industrial development, housing estates, and so on.
Will my right hon. Friend look at this again? He knows of the closures announced north of Inverness. Last August, the Secretary of State for Scotland announced that there was to be a Highland Transport Board. Surely these closures north of Inverness should go before that Board, as there are many other factors beside hardship to be looked at.
I Will the Minister clear up an important point? The Act says that the transport users'consultative committees can look into matters of hardship and report to the Minister. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that hardship includes loss of prospec- tive employment in an area? If he agrees that it does, the committees should surely be allowed to consider that point, take evidence on it, and make recommendations on it to the Minister.
It is hardship to the individual user of those particular lines now. Each user knows perfectly well whether there will be hardship for him in a particular closure. He is then entitled to make any representations he likes, and the T.U.C.C. listens to him and makes what judgment it likes. It then comes to me, and the other considerations are taken into account.
The right hon. Gentleman has not answered my point—perhaps he did not catch it. Possible economic developments in an area which may be jeopardised by a closure is surely hardship to the people in the area, because it means they may lose jobs that they might otherwise have had. Is it not, therefore, right that under Section 56 the committees should be able to consider that aspect?
The T.U.C.C. considers travelling hardship to the individual, who can perfectly well assess for himself the likely hardship to him when a line is proposed to be closed, and that hardship is taken into account. I consult my right hon. Friends, the President of the Board of Trade and the Minister of Labour on questions of local employment.