Town and Country Planning (Major Infrastructure Project Inquiries Procedure) (England) Rules 2002

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Mr. Wilshire: I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. At the end of a four-year inquiry into Heathrow, a decision should not take long. Would the hon. Gentleman care to tell the Committee of the length of time that he has in mind for a timetable?

Mr. Foster: I confess that I have not given that question a great deal of thought. However, a period of no more than a month should be necessary, given that the inspector is required to produce a very detailed report with clear recommendations. There will be some occasions on which the Secretary of State will not want to accept all the recommendations, as was the case with terminal 5. Some of us are deeply disappointed that the then Secretary of State did not accept all the recommendations of the inquiry inspector. The time taken on that and on a number

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of other projects was well in excess of what anybody might consider to be a reasonable length of time. As I said off the top of my head, a month is probably more than adequate.

Mr. Wilshire: I want to agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I wonder whether he has ever tried to read the entire T5 report before reaching a conclusion. My guess is that it would take more than a month to read the wretched document; perhaps any length of time should be determined by the number of pages of waffle one must get through.

Mr. Foster: I am reminded of ''Gulliver's Travels'', in which was the proposal that no piece of legislation should contain more words than there are letters in the alphabet. If some of the reports were simplified it would be of great benefit to everybody. The number of trees that are cut down for their preparation is excessive.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): The hon. Gentleman and the Committee will be aware that rule 20, which refers to how long the Secretary of State will have, states:

    ''The Secretary of State shall, as soon as practicable, notify his decision''.

That could mean anything. The hon. Gentleman knows that it took a year and a half for the Secretary of State to make a decision on T5 after an inquiry of four years. That is clearly far too long, but I think that a month is too short. Will the hon. Gentleman speculate what, between one month and a year and a half, the timetable should be?

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman is pressing me rather unfairly since he and I are making the same point: we must tighten up the rules so that the Secretary of State is under the same strict and clear timetable obligations as the inspector and all others taking part in the inquiry. The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that the rules do not specify the length of any particular inquiry; the inspector will decide that, and length can be altered only with the Secretary of State's agreement. However, even within these procedures, it would be wrong to set a precise length for an inquiry without knowing about its particular details.

The hon. Gentleman is pressing me unfairly because each inquiry will be different. The amount of paper for the Secretary of State to consider will vary, as will the degree of controversy. Setting a precise time for all inquiry announcements by the Secretary of State would probably be wrong, but we need tighter rules on the preparation of a timetable for such an announcement.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. I want to stress that that issue is not confined to the very largest projects. A proposal for a waste disposal area in my constituency started its process before the 1997 election and resulted in people effectively being unable to sell their houses during the inquiry and the subsequent consideration. Indeed, we did not have a decision from the Secretary of State until a few months

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ago. That sort of time span is completely unreasonable. Although I take the hon. Gentleman's point about generalities covering all kinds of inquiries, a scale for different types of inquiries would seem to be reasonable.

Mr. Foster: I am delighted that so many hon. Members entirely agree with my point and are pressing me to give a precise time scale, which they are not prepared to do. The hon. Gentleman's specific example strengthens my general point. The requirements being placed on the Secretary of State are not adequate.

It is clear from the interventions that we have had that a number of hon. Members are anxious to get in on the debate, so I shall finish with two questions for the Minister. The first question is relatively trivial, but I ask it because I sometimes fail to understand the thinking of people who draft SIs like this. If hon. Members examine rule 7(13) and (14), they will note that there are a number of differences in the number of copies of documents that different people are required to send in. I fail to understand why there should be such differences, which appear in so many SIs. Paragraph (13) states:

    ''If the local planning authority or the applicant wish to comment on another person's statement of case they shall ensure that within 4 weeks of its receipt—

    (a) 2 copies of their written comments have been received by the Secretary of State; and

    (b) a copy of their written comments has been received by any statutory party,''

However, paragraph (14) states:

    ''Any person, who sends a statement of case to the Secretary of State under this rule, and who wishes to comment on another person's statement of case, shall ensure that not less than 4 weeks before the date fixed for the holding of the inquiry—

    (a) 3 copies of their written comments have been received by the Secretary of State; and

    (b) a copy of their written comments has been received by any statutory party''.

There may be a good reason for that difference, but when I read through statutory instruments—I sometimes use questions such as this to demonstrate that I have bothered to read them—I am often puzzled by odd anomalies. I am sure that the Minister will have noted the difference when he read through the rules and will have a clear answer on why three copies should be sent to the Secretary of State in one case and two copies in the other.

Finally, on a more substantive issue, the rules include a proposal for the introduction, where necessary, of a mediation process, which strikes me as a sensible proposition that may go some way to solving the sort of problem raised by the hon. Members for Spelthorne and for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) about objectors. Mediation would provide an opportunity to see whether differences can be settled outside an inquiry. Where does the Minister see the mediation process fitting in to the overall procedure? Will the mediation process be used at the pre-inquiry stage as well as during the inquiry? The recommendations make it clear that the participants will decide what parts of the mediation process will be made public in the final agreed

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statement, and that only that final statement can become part of the inquiry process. However, it is not clear, from a reading of the documentation, whether that can be used in the pre-inquiry stage and whether the same rules of the confidentiality of the discussion then apply. Given the earlier comments that I made about Lord Rooker, it does not appear that the pre-inquiry investigations have that requirement of secrecy.

Notwithstanding the fact that, in my view, the Government's wider planning proposals are fundamentally flawed, including the proposals on major planning infrastructure projects in the Green Paper, I believe that these rules contain some relatively benign proposals that will help to speed up the inquiry process and ensure that everyone whose voice needs to be heard, will have that voice heard. I hope that the Minister will give us clearer answers on a number of the issues involved here, and comment on the Government's wider proposals in the Green Paper, especially in light of the Select Committee's recent report.

10.56 am

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I, too, congratulate you on assuming the Chair of the Committee, Miss Begg. I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship. I am also pleased to see so many of my colleagues behind me, supporting me.

I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). This is a highly significant statutory instrument, containing 18 pages of closely argued legalese. It determines the whole conduct and probity of public inquiries on some of our most important planning applications and appeals—those relating to large infrastructure projects in this country. We therefore need to consider it very carefully.

I should like to take the Committee through four of the five objections raised by—or mistakes discovered by—the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. Three are just sloppy drafting, but the fourth makes a complete nonsense of this statutory instrument. I give advance notice, Miss Begg, that when I have gone through those four points I shall ask you, on a point of order, to rule on whether this statutory instrument can be proceeded with in this Committee.

I am sorry that the first point is somewhat legalistic. I shall try to take it slowly and I ask the Committee to bear with me in trying to follow what the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments said concerning the starting date in rule 2, for which there are two prescriptions. Rule 2 refers to the date of the

    ''Secretary of State's written notice to the applicant and the local planning authority that he has received all the documents required to enable him to entertain the applications or appeal''

and to the date of the ''relevant notice''. However, the rules do not actually say that the Secretary of State must notify the parties when he has received those documents.

The Department, responding to that criticism from the Joint Committee, came up with this statement:

    ''The Department remains of the view that this is unnecessary as the wording of the definition of 'starting date' itself makes it clear''.

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Well, that does not make it clear. The Department goes on to say that in these rules

    ''there is no explicit requirement for the Secretary of State to give notice of his intention that an inquiry be held.''

Why is there no such explicit requirement? That should be stated clearly.

The Department then relies on the old chestnut:

    ''The Department does not wish to change longstanding wording, where the provisions have operated effectively over many years.''

Our purpose in these Committees is to ensure that the wording is correct and clear. In the third of my four points, I shall say that the precedent is wrong and inadequate. I do not think that the Department can always rely on that wording as an adequate reply.

My second point is clear. If the Committee looks at rule 4(1)(b), and the wording in rule 6(2)(c), it will find that the wording is completely repetitive, so the second paragraph in rule 6(2)(c) is otiose. That is just a small point, but it is sloppy drafting from the Department. I might add that this is not the first time that we have had sloppy drafting and omissions from this Department. In the past, I have raised on points of order the fact that documents related to statutory instruments have not been in the Library. Important impact assessments and vital maps relating to other statutory instruments were not available in the Library when the Department said that they would be. That is sloppiness from the Department, which we cannot continue to condone in these Committees week after week. We have to consider that seriously and put a stop to it. The Department should draft such documents carefully, properly and professionally.

The third of the points raised by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments is that there is no express permission requiring a written summary to be provided. The Department relies on the two previous procedural statutory instruments—one from 1992 and the other from 2000. Interestingly enough, unless it is a typographical error, the Department still got it wrong in the answer that it gave to the Joint Committee. It referred to S.I. No. 1264, whereas it should in fact be S.I. No. 1624. I do not know whether that is a printing error, but if it is the Department's error, and it cannot even get the correction right, what hope do we have?

There is no express provision requiring a written summary, which is important. We have to work out whether people should provide a written summary when giving evidence. There are provisions in the rules as to whether a written summary can be read out. If there is no express provision that a written summary must be provided, the whole procedure is in doubt. When we look at the rules on the issue of written summaries, I have no doubt that clever barristers will not provide a written summary, because they would have to read it out if they did. They will not, so that they have to read out the full proof of their evidence. The Department is in some error in not making that matter clear.

The fourth point is the important one. To my mind, it alters the whole sense of the statutory instrument. I ask the Committee to examine rule 19(7):

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    ''Those persons making written representations or requesting the inquiry to be re-opened under paragraph (5)''—

I stress that—

    ''shall ensure that such representations or requests are received by the Secretary of State within 3 weeks of the date of the Secretary of State's notification under that paragraph.''

If one goes back to the previous page and examines paragraph (5), one finds the following:

    ''When making his decision the Secretary of State may disregard any written representations, evidence or other document received after the close of the inquiry.''

That is a mistake. It should not have been paragraph (5); it should have been paragraph (6). That dramatically alters the sense of rule 19 because paragraph (6) states what happens when people differ with the inspectors and what must be taken into consideration. With that mistake, I do not believe that we can possibly discuss this statutory instrument today. The Department should take it away and rewrite it. We could then examine it in its corrected form.

This is a highly important statutory instrument. People are going to have to live with it. If Parliament is going to perform its statutory role of scrutiny properly, it is frankly wrong that a statutory instrument of such complexity and importance should be discussed in an hour and a half. However, if we are to discuss it, it should be correct. On a point of order, Miss Begg, I ask for your ruling on whether we can proceed.

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