Previous Section Index Home Page

There are, however, two real problems. In an intervention, I asked the hon. Lady whether she was really saying that a Conservative Government, if we ever have one, would give up to an unelected second Chamber the right to decide whether their policy
2 Jun 2008 : Column 589
statements went through. Would the Conservatives give an unelected second Chamber a right of veto? She can say so today because she is in opposition, but if she ever occupies a seat on the Treasury Bench she will probably come to a slightly different view. Governments tend to do that, do they not? Once people get into power, they do not much like the idea of giving in to a body that is unaccountable.

That brings me to another, quite important point. When my constituents talk about parliamentary accountability, they mean holding me to account because they elect me. They do not mean holding to account some Members of the House of Lords, because they know that that cannot be done. There is a fundamental problem here. In principle, the hon. Lady is right and the House ought to have some ability to take a view on national policy statements, but surely the House should not be put in a position whereby it could find its view on a national policy statement being overridden by the other place, with no right under the Parliament Acts or any other measure for the wishes of this House to take primacy in that argument.

The hon. Lady has to untangle this one because there is a real problem here. Would we in the House seriously vote to set up a situation whereby we could vote for a policy statement only to find that nothing would be agreed because a veto had been given to the other place?

Mrs. Lait: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He has provoked me. I had been sitting here thinking, “I am not going to be provoked.” He has produced the solution, which of course is the Parliament Acts. They give the House of Commons primacy.

Mr. Betts: I understand that the Parliament Acts operate only on legislation. I may be wrong about that and someone with more experience of these matters could correct me, but these measures are not legislation as such. They are orders and there will be no right to use the Parliament Acts.

Mrs. Lait: I do not want this to turn into a dialogue, but the hon. Gentleman may remember that my comments were along the lines of my accepting that my proposal is not perfect and that a method would have to be found for us to create a new, unique process. Within that, we could build in the Parliament Acts.

Mr. Betts: In due course we may arrive where the hon. Lady would like to be, where I would like to be, and where I suspect Ministers want to be. The essential problem, which she has just identified again, is this. While it is not beyond the wit of man or woman to devise a solution, does she think it possible for us to propose in the Bill—perhaps it is not possible, because it would amount to a fairly fundamental constitutional change—application of the Parliament Act to orders, and establishing an arrangement whereby the process of approval for national policy statements ultimately gives the wishes of this House primacy over those of the other place? Would Members of the other place be likely to vote for a clause to that effect? The answer is that they probably would not, and trying to push the proposal through could delay the passage of the entire Bill.

2 Jun 2008 : Column 590

I believe that the hon. Lady is arguing that when we come to discuss again—in, I hope, the not-too-distant future—the relationship between this House and the other place, we should begin by discussing not how the constitution of the other place should be constructed and who should be a Member of it, but what are the powers of this House in relation to those of the House of Lords, which House has primacy, and whether that primacy applies to orders as well as to legislation. That is an important and interesting argument, but I am not convinced that tacking it on to a clause in the Planning Bill is the solution. If a solution could be found that satisfied the law officers who are advising us, I would probably vote for it, but I suspect that the hon. Lady’s amendment does not do that, and I think she accepts that it does not really work in the context in which it probably ought to work. I therefore do not feel that I can support the amendment, although I instinctively share her sentiments.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): I wish to speak to my amendment No. 3. The Minister and members of the Committee will recall that I raised the issue of extremely low-frequency electromagnetic fields in Committee. As I said then, the Draper report, funded by the Department of Health and published in 2005, found that children who had lived within 200 m of high-voltage power lines since birth had a 70 per cent. higher risk of developing childhood leukaemia. The Government have received recommendations for action on the issue from the Health Protection Agency, from the Government’s own stakeholder group SAGE—the Stakeholder Advisory Group ELF EMF—and from those involved in the cross-party inquiry on childhood leukaemia and EMFs last year.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), who could not be present for the debate, has given a lead. Recently, along with members of Children with Leukaemia, he met the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), who stated—as he has stated elsewhere—that his Department, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Department of Health were considering proposals for precautionary measures to be introduced this year. Those measures are likely to involve either the issuing of information to the public and planning authorities, or planning controls restricting the building of houses very close to high-voltage power lines.

The Bill provides for the expansion of essential infrastructure, such as high-voltage power lines, and for the fast-tracking of planning approval for such projects. I believe that it should also provide for the introduction of precautionary measures. If the Government introduce planning controls applying to the building of houses and schools near power lines, the IPC must be able to implement planning controls on new power lines near houses and schools.

As we know, for we have debated it at tortuous length, the Bill also provides for the creation of national policy statements on infrastructure. If the Government are not prepared to accept an amendment allowing the IPC to consider EMFs and health concerns in its decision making, I want to receive assurances that high-voltage overhead transmission lines will be the subject of a national policy statement.

2 Jun 2008 : Column 591

Amendment No. 3 would simply require the Secretary of State to consult on potential health risks arising from national planning policy during the drafting of national policy statements. I have deliberately left the wording vague. No doubt civil servants advising the Minister have expressed the fear that he may be required to consult all sorts of weird and wonderful organisations that are worried about energy fields and the like. Actually, we leave it to the Secretary of State to designate the organisations that he or she feels are “appropriate” to consult on the risks to health arising from the national policy statement.

Many closely involved with this matter, such as the excellent pressure group Children with Leukaemia, are concerned that the proposed system will allow much less consultation and opportunity for representation from members of the public, as the IPC will be given only six months from the initial meeting to take evidence and another three months to deliberate. The IPC can decide what subjects are relevant to the discussion at the evidence sessions and can explicitly exclude subjects that are deemed to be covered by a national policy statement, which of course could include health.

9 pm

Obviously this is an extremely emotive issue for families and I ask the Minister to consider the implications for families and parents when a new proposed high-voltage power line or large transformer station is to be placed within close reach of housing or a school, as the understanding of the risks involved increases. This is an opportunity to address those concerns and to put a precautionary principle in the Bill. I ask the Minister to share his thoughts and an up-to-date assessment of where these negotiations are going in his Department and the two others that I have mentioned. I ask him also to give some comfort to the House that the Government are taking the matter seriously and are addressing a matter of great concern to a great many people. How he responds will determine how I proceed with the amendment.

John McDonnell: I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on his amendment. As an aside, the proposal is relevant because, within 20 years, we will be on the edge of a tipping point on climate change, which will be potentially irreversible. That is why it behoves us, on every relevant piece of legislation, to emphasise the issue of climate change. That is what the amendment does and, for the life of me, I cannot understand why there is any opposition to it whatever. I welcome the opportunity to vote on it.

I have a number of problems with the Bill, but the one area where I did not have problems—it was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts)—was the concept of national policy statements. I support them overwhelmingly. I encourage the idea of democratic involvement in the development of a policy statement that then becomes policy, and then advises those making planning decisions. Everyone who has served on a planning committee in the past knows the difficulty of understanding some of the policy diktats that have come from central Government and how they
2 Jun 2008 : Column 592
were ever developed, in many instances. This proposal clarifies the process, and I welcome the idea of publishing, publicising and consulting on the statements.

On parliamentary scrutiny, I would prefer sequential involvement—consultation followed by the Committee—but I accept the compromise reached. We will see how it works. I hope that we will have a commitment to a review, which would then be brought back to the House after a period to see whether the system was working effectively. That review should be undertaken by Committee Chairmen but then reported back to the House.

I do not understand why, at the end of the process, the House cannot have a vote. It is constitutional sophistry to say that these are policies and not legislation. We have a vote on a policy statement; it is called the Queen’s Speech. There is a precedent. To give these statements credibility, they need the democratic stamp of approval, and what better than a vote of this House? Credibility is important. If these policy statements are driven through this House without a vote, we will find even more protestors on the roof of Parliament trying to exercise their democratic rights to tell us that we are not doing our job.

On the question whether the other place has a veto, if it were up to me we would abolish the other place in the first instance, but that is another debate. However, as long as the other place has a role in the determination of legislation, I see no problem in it having a role in the determination of policy as well. We all know that the Parliament Act is implemented very rarely. The issues are bounced back between us and we eventually arrive at a compromise.

On those points, I wish the debate would move on to examine how we can resolve the issue of the process. I do not understand the provision referring to

I echo what the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) says; I do not know what “makes a resolution” means. Does it mean that an early-day motion is tabled? Does it refer to a Committee resolution? Is a negative or affirmative procedure of this House involved? We need clarification on that matter, to assure us that we have some democratic role in its final determination.

Mr. Betts: Does my hon. Friend accept that there is problem? I hope that we could eventually find a way whereby we could resolve any conflict on orders that might arise between this House and the House of Lords, but the legislation process to which he referred is about the two Houses examining how different amendments that are moved in one place and not the other can eventually be reconciled. The problem with these orders is that there is just one vote on them; they are not amendable orders, so there is no process for resolving a situation where one House votes one way and the other House votes the other.

John McDonnell: I accept that, but I still think that the issue of principle can be resolved by negotiation in that sense, and that even if it involves facing down the other House, so be it. I would welcome the opportunity to involve some amendment process in these documents, but that is not being afforded to us in this debate. I regret that that was not raised in more detail in Committee.

2 Jun 2008 : Column 593

I tabled a specific amendment with regard to the adoption of existing policy statements as new policy statements, and I think that we have been given further clarity on that. I used the example of the aviation White Paper because that was the example that the Minister used in January. At that point in time, he was expressing the concern of the House that in some way the aviation White Paper would be bounced overnight—to use his expression—into a national policy statement. Let me put my understanding of what we have heard from the Minister tonight on the record, and if he does not intervene on me, I shall take that as tacit consent. I understand that if any existing policy statement has not satisfied the measures being introduced in this Bill for future policy statements—thorough consultation, a sustainability assessment, parliamentary scrutiny and then some form of resolution of this House, whatever that might be—it cannot therefore be accepted as a policy statement.

The Minister then said that any existing proposal has therefore to be determined under the existing procedures. Let us consider the example of aviation, which I take at random. Such a proposal would thus have to be based on the policies set out in the existing aviation White Paper. If that is the case, may I put on record the fact that the aviation White Paper is considerably out of date now? Many of us believe it was inaccurate when it was published in the first instance. Things have moved on, so any Government would be in jeopardy of considering a decision about the expansion of Heathrow airport—again, I use a random example—on the proposals set out in the aviation White Paper. Given that we know that the issues have moved on and the factors that brought about that White Paper are no longer relevant, it would be unreasonable to take any decision based on that existing policy statement. Therefore, any future decisions about aviation should be based on a national policy statement that starts afresh.

Lembit Öpik: As I have made clear, I am quite a big supporter of aviation. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Ministers do not really need to be too afraid of the proposal, because they could work in partnership with the aviation sector? It knows very well that the writing is on the wall and that it will have to work to consider the environmental consequences that he is describing in terms of emissions and other considerations. The problem is that as long as the Government refuse to engage with aviation on the environmental agenda, aviation will not feel considerable parliamentary pressure to operate responsibly in this regard.

John McDonnell: That intervention is incredibly helpful; I do not know how the hon. Gentleman will fit that into tomorrow night’s concert, but I look forward to hearing the lyrics. [Interruption.] I thought that I would get another plug in for him. The essential point that I am trying to make is that this legislation, which I fully and wholeheartedly support with regard to national policy statements, sets a rigorous standard of process for engagement with the wider general public, the various other statutory bodies and the interest groups. A definitive statement on policy will then be arrived at, and the IPC can use it to guide its decisions.

Any process by which we tried to pre-empt that and bounce in an existing statement without due process
2 Jun 2008 : Column 594
would undermine the whole system and be open to challenge. We cannot use existing White Papers as a stopgap or to justify major infrastructure decisions because they are so out of date. It would be better to await the development of proper NPSs before any major infrastructure decisions are made. In that way, we would arrive at legitimate decisions that may achieve popular support.

I obviously have concerns about the development of Heathrow, but that is not the only issue. There are genuine concerns across the piece about the development of NPSs from existing statements without due process. I shall list the organisations that have expressed concern about the clause in question, which I have tabled an amendment to delete. Those organisations include the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Civic Trust, Friends of the Earth, the National Trust, the Ramblers Association, the Woodland Trust, the Campaign for Better Transport, the Wildlife Trust, the Council for National Parks, Plantlife International, the Geoconservation Association, the Enough is Enough organisation, AirportWatch and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I do not know of a greater and wider coalition that has come together on an environmental issue. Those organisations represent millions of our constituents who are anxious about this process. They want to see due process take place and to be involved in the development of NPSs, which would give them credibility.

There is potential for a new planning process based on real engagement, which could build up once again the credibility of planning. It could also meet the Government’s criteria for expeditious decision making. On the basis of the assurances that we have been given and the Minister’s tacit consent to the statements I have just made about my beliefs about the Government’s position, I shall not press my amendment to a vote tonight.

Mr. Llwyd: Following on from what the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) has just said, I wish to refer to an exchange that I had with the Minister in Committee. I referred to clause 11, which states:

which address the consultation leading up to the policy document. So that is a worry. It is also apparent that if a statement issued before the commencement is designated as an NPS, the Secretary of State is not bound to take into account the consultation carried out in connection with the statement. Those are contradictory and bad, but could happen under the Bill as it stands. Matters are not as comfortable as the hon. Gentleman seemed to think.

I know that the Minister did his best to explain the position, and I am not being critical of him, but this issue is of great concern. The public have to be involved in the process from the beginning. After all, we are legislating for a brand new system for large-scale developments, and if the system is to stand the test of time the public must feel, and must be, fully involved in the process. It is no use having consultations with all and sundry to the exclusion of those who should have first say.

2 Jun 2008 : Column 595

Let us not kid ourselves: the Bill is designed to hurry through bad neighbour developments of the type listed in clause 13 (a) to (o)—all potentially bad neighbours. The need for public scrutiny is thus higher than ever it was for general planning legislation.

Next Section Index Home Page