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Wednesday, 13 December, 2000, 18:39 GMT
Prescott hit by rights ruling
John Prescott
John Prescott's powers were hit by the court ruling
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's powers to make the final decisions on planning applications are at odds with the new Human Rights Act, a court has ruled.

The decision is the first major blow struck by a court ruling under the 1998 Human Rights Act against the government.

The Act enshrines the European Convention on Human Rights into British law.

Unexpectedly, the court cleared Mr Prescott - who heads the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) - of acting unlawfully.

The judges said that even though it might be unlawful for a public authority to act in a way which was incompatible with the European convention, that provision did not apply where there was a clash with primary domestic law.

The deputy prime minister "could not have acted differently" as he had complied with domestic planning laws, ruled the two judges, Lord Justice Tuckey and Mr Justice Harrison.

Planning dilemma

Unless overturned on appeal, Wednesday's ruling leaves Parliament with the dilemma over whether to change planning laws.

Nigel Waterson MP: Ruling "legitimises" Conservative stance
One key issue in the case was over Mr Prescott's legal entitlement to call in planning applications himself or whether that had been disqualified by the 1998 act, which came into effect in October.

In four test cases it was argued that Mr Prescott's other ministerial roles, including that of policy maker for national planning regulations, created a conflict of interest.

That meant that people were deprived of their entitlement under human rights legislation to "a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal".

In one case the court determined that a development scheme on an airfield owned by the Ministry of Defence could not be decided by Mr Prescott as the government stood to share in any profits generated by the project, having entered into an agreement with the company involved.

'Far-reaching consequences'

In a statement explaining the ruling Lord Justice Tuckey said: "We have to say that we are not pleased to reach this conclusion which will obviously have far-reaching consequences.

"It is not for us to decide how the system needs to be changed in the light of our decision, although it is obvious that government has been considering the options for some time.

The judges gave leave for an appeal which a DETR spokesman indicated they were considering.

Conservative housing spokesman Nigel Waterson said the ruling "legitimises" Tory calls for a better system "that ensures there is greater continuity, consistency and less politics in the approach adopted".

He said: "Only Conservatives will remove the secretary of state and ministers from planning decisions and allow local people to halt the ongoing destruction of our green fields that we have seen under John Prescott."

A DETR spokesman said: "We are considering the implications of the judgement."

The department would look at the various options, including the possibility of appealing the decision, he added.

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