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2 May 2007 : Column 1513

Points of Order

12.32 pm

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I should like to seek your advice on how to correct the parliamentary record. This is not the first time that we have heard misleading things from the Dispatch Box, but—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is a new Member and he must be given some— [ Interruption. ] Order. Some hon. Members have been here more than two years and do not know too much either. I am trying to say to him, in order to give him a chance to put his case, that “inadvertently misleading” is the best way to put it, after which we can move on.

Greg Mulholland: This is not the first time that inadvertently misleading comments have been made from the Dispatch Box. The simple reality is that I did not receive an invitation to the ministerial meeting, and, as with the announcement on the children’s hospital, the first that I heard of the matter was in the newspaper, which is how the NHS is being run in Leeds. I seek your advice, Mr. Speaker, on how to change the parliamentary record, and I hope that the Prime Minister will see fit to issue an apology, although we know that he is not very good at that.

Mr. Speaker: I say to the hon. Gentleman and the rest of the House that I am not responsible for what Ministers—Prime Ministers or any other Ministers—say from the Dispatch Box. However, the hon. Gentleman has managed to put the record straight. He has put the matter on the record, and if he says that he was not invited, that is good enough for me.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. When the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon) was Secretary of State for Defence, on 3 November 2003, he told me in the House, speaking on the Iraqi army:

In an interview featured in today’s edition of The Guardian, he is reported to have said, “We certainly argued against”. His assessment was that it had been catastrophic, allowing Saddam—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is a point of debate. The hon. Gentleman has been here long enough to know that there are ways of putting the matter on the
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record—perhaps through an Adjournment debate—but I am not going to allow a point of order on it.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask for your ruling on the matter of sub judice? Both yesterday and today there have been references to the appalling judgment whereby two Libyan terror suspects are not being deported. Is it possible to ask on the Floor of the House why France, Germany and Holland are able to deport their terror suspects, but our courts do not allow us to do so?

Mr. Speaker: My understanding is that perhaps a Minister did say that it was sub judice, but my ruling is that it is not sub judice, and the hon. Gentleman is therefore free to ask parliamentary questions, either written or oral, or to raise the matter on an Adjournment.

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask your advice about a matter of which I have given you notice? Exactly a year ago today, I tabled a written parliamentary question about foreign nationals released from UK prisons who should have been considered for deportation. I received two holding replies and my office has chased the matter several times. I let the Immigration Minister know that I was going to raise this point of order and received some form of reply saying that it was not really a matter for the Minister but for the permanent secretary. A year on, what advice can you give me about ensuring that the Home Office responds more quickly? Specifically, can I bring the permanent secretary to this House to answer, or is it still the tradition of this House that Ministers should reply?

Mr. Speaker: Ministers are responsible for giving answers to this House. I know it is hard, but the hon. Gentleman must be persistent and get to the Table Office. I also put it on the record that, as I have said before, I understand that the Home Office, in particular, has been inundated with hundreds of questions. It is my view that these questions are being put down by researchers who have nothing better to do with their day. If people in Members’ offices inundate Departments with questions—I am not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman does that—that puts the hon. Gentleman’s questions on to the back burner. I ask hon. Members to be careful about inundating the Home Office with questions. The hon. Gentleman must be persistent and keep putting these matters forward on behalf of his constituents. I hope that that is helpful.

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Town and Country Planning Acts (Amendment) Bill

12.37 pm

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): I beg to move,

Unadopted roads are highways that are not maintained at the public expense—responsibility for their upkeep rests on those whose properties face on to them—and they include many older streets.

The welcome growth of new house building since 1997 has significantly increased the number of unadopted roads. As in my constituency, developers often cut costs when building roads, forcing future residents, who may end up liable, to pick up the bill years after they have purchased their property. Although councils can provide moneys to assist residents with maintenance assistance, there is no statutory obligation on them to do so. Many of my constituents live on roads that the council refuses to maintain and for which they cannot afford to pay the upkeep costs.

Under the Highways Act 1980, most roads are maintained at public expense. Usually, roads are adopted by local councils when the building standard meets the required level of quality; roads are usually unadopted when that standard is not met. Although it is obvious that the developer is at fault in many cases, no legislation deals with causation. The Sale of Goods Act 1979 exempts the sale of land from its provisions, so if residents want to prove that responsibility lies with the developer, they must pursue that course through private litigation. My constituents cannot afford to do that.

Unadopted roads therefore remain the responsibility of those who cannot afford them. The highways authority can, under the Highways Act, force residents to make repairs that are needed to “obviate danger to traffic” and, if they will not, carry out repairs itself and claw back money from residents at a later date.

In addition, water companies are responsible for all water leakages above and under the ground, but only on adopted land. That is a further expense that residents must bear if they find that their road is not adopted by the council.

The fact that the position is allowed to exist means that developers can cut costs and leave new home owners to foot the bill. The previous official Government estimate, which is now significantly out of date, shows 4,000 miles of unadopted roads in this country.

The Bill requires greater scrutiny by local authorities at the planning permission stage to ensure that proposed roads through developments are constructed to a standard that allows councils to adopt them. It requires developers to provide for below-ground utilities such as water and drainage. It also extends the remit of the local government ombudsman to cover disputes over the adoption of roads, allowing residents
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a tribunal for their complaints, without having to fall back on expensive private litigation.

The problem in my area is highlighted by the new Gateford estate, which has more than 2,000 houses. It is difficult to work out against whom to litigate even if one has the resources. There is a triangulation involving the water authorities, the developer and the highways authority, and identifying against whom to litigate is impossible. Unless the local authority chooses to take pre-emptive action or the developer chooses to ensure that the roads and utilities are up to standard, there is a loop.

In many modern developments, a plethora of developers works on the same site. Six separate developers are working on the Gateford estate in Worksop. Until I intervened in January, the electricity was not up to the national standard. It required the Member of Parliament to put together a protest to negotiate and get a national electricity standard. Again, that is not covered by statute.

The problems that we experience in my area—flooding, street lights that do not work and dangerous footpaths—apply to every part of the country. We found it especially astonishing that there was no requirement to have a plan for what is underground in the Gateford estate. There is an above-ground plan, but, for a huge new estate built by a plethora of developers, there was no intention—until many hundreds of hours of painstaking work by me, residents associations and the county council had passed—to create such a plan for what is underground.

There are unseen problems—for example, where purchasers were unaware that utilities such as water and sewerage pipes were running under their corner properties but are resistant to remedial action and have a right to block it. My Bill would begin to deal with such problems.

Those problems affect not only the quality of life but house prices. In my area, the price difference between a house that is 15 or 20 years old on an unadopted road and one that is on an adopted road can be £20,000 to £25,000 because of the liability of the householders.

I am delighted that all the pressure from Councillor Fielding, the Gateford residents association and me, ably assisted by my staff, means that Nottinghamshire county council agreed this week to adopt the 50-odd roads on the Gateford estate at its own risk this year. It will adopt the vast majority in the next few weeks and within the next three months to ensure that residents on the estate live as council tax payers with the same rights as everyone else. That local authority is a well managed and well run leading council, which is clearly also forward thinking, but residents should not have to rely on the council taking the risk. That is why we need a statutory change.

Although I commend Nottinghamshire county council and the residents for their work, I call on the Government to consider the Bill, which would improve the position for residents throughout the country. The existing law has almost enticed developers to cut costs and forced future residents, who are largely ignorant of the position until problems occur, to foot the bill. In an era of high house prices, that is often a hidden cost that is not budgeted for on purchase and could lead to severe financial problems for those who try to remedy the situation on their own.

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It is unacceptable, in my view, that a council, having approved a sub-standard development, can turn a blind eye to the problem and force residents to pay for its lack of scrutiny. By introducing new measures that require councils to scrutinise plans more carefully and ensure that roads and drainage are to the correct standard, my Bill will give some protection to residents before they buy. After they buy, it will help them by extending the powers of the local government ombudsman to deal with disputes of this nature. I commend my Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by John Mann, Jessica Morden, Natascha Engel, Helen Southworth, Stephen Pound, Clive Efford, Ms Diana R. Johnson, Mr. Kevan Jones, Christine Russell and Bob Spink.

Town and Country Planning Acts (Amendment)

John Mann accordingly presented a Bill to broaden the remit of the Local Government Ombudsman to include certain disputes arising from planning permission granted by local government authorities to cover below-ground utilities; and to require development plans submitted to relevant local authorities to include provision for below-ground utilities: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 99].

2 May 2007 : Column 1518

Protection of Critical Infrastructure

[Relevant documents: The Tenth Report, HC 41-x (paragraph 8), and the Fifteenth Report, HC 41-xv (paragraph 2), of the European Scrutiny Committe e, Session 2006-07 . ]

12.47 pm

The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Mr. Tony McNulty): I beg to move,

It is right and proper, I think, that there is a European dimension to these matters, but only some of them. I shall dwell in a moment on what the concerns are. Our critical national infrastructure consists clearly of the key components and assets without which essential services cannot be delivered to the UK. It includes energy, food, water, health, emergency services, finance, transport, government and public services and telecommunications.

The Government rightly place great importance on ensuring that our critical national infrastructure is highly protected. The formation in February this year of the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure, which resulted from a merger of the National Security Advice Centre and the National Infrastructure Security Co-ordination Centre, demonstrated our commitment. Being more than simply the sum of its parts, the CPNI provides professional protection advice on all forms of threat to our critical national infrastructure owners and operators.

It is becoming increasingly clear that there exists an extensive network of interdependencies among not just the UK’s critical national infrastructure, but that of our international partners. The loss of critical infrastructure in one country has the potential to have severe effects in another. The loss of power supply can hinder emergency services or transport, for example, and these knock-on effects are able to continue across borders. Following human error, an overload of the electricity transmission system in Germany in November 2006 resulted in some 50 million EU citizens losing power in Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Portugal.

The Commission’s European programme for critical infrastructure protection, known as EPCIP, partly responds to a political call to improve the protection of critical infrastructure across Europe, following the terrorist attacks in Madrid and London. It was agreed at the June 2004 European Council that measures needed to be taken to protect critical infrastructure in the EU.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend accept that there is a significant difference between national matters such as water and sewerage and those that have international significance, such as the transport of energy across borders? The latter might involve nuclear power stations, on which events in neighbouring states could have an impact. Should
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not we focus on matters that are genuinely international, rather than on those that have merely national significance?

Mr. McNulty: If my hon. Friend will bear with me, I will come to that point in a moment. First, however, it is important to explain the contextual background that brings us to where we are today.

The EPCIP communication sets out a voluntary framework, including an EU action plan, support for the national protection programmes, and extensive research funded from the €137 million financial perspective. The draft directive provides the one binding aspect of the programme, establishing a uniform approach to identifying and designating European critical infrastructure and assessing the need to improve protection standards. For this process, the directive considers critical infrastructures to be essential service providers and certain hazardous sites with the potential for cross-border impact. The programme as a whole offers EU-wide benefits, and will therefore also benefit the UK. I will come to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) in a moment.

Events such as the power failure in Germany demonstrate that any country could be significantly affected by incidents in other member states. We need to understand that, with more than 1.6 million UK citizens living in other EU countries and relying on the critical infrastructures of those member states, we have a vested interest in ensuring that there are high standards of protection in those countries as well as our own. We must also bear in mind the broader point about the activities of British business interests in the European Union.

As the motion implies, however, while the Government note the documents, our support for their adoption is subject to the satisfactory resolution of outstanding concerns with certain elements of the directive, which we are trying to resolve through negotiations in the civil protection working group in Brussels. Our concerns include the criteria for defining European critical infrastructure, the absence of the consent clause that appeared in earlier drafts, the security of information provided as part of the protection of national infrastructure, and the imposition of legal requirements for owners and operators to produce operator security plans and appoint security liaison officers.

Our concern about the designation of European critical infrastructure is to ensure, as my hon. Friend has suggested, that only infrastructures that are truly European and critical are designated. Given that this is all about European critical infrastructure, it is entirely reasonable that the infrastructures should be critical and European, but we are having some difficulties with where the documents are at in that regard at the moment. In order to achieve a satisfactory outcome, the Government would like to tighten the criteria for defining European critical infrastructure. For example, we are seeking a definition based on a significant level of impact to Europe that would result from the destruction or disruption of the infrastructure.

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