Previous Section Index Home Page

9.15 pm

The point has been well made about the sort of retrospection that might occur if we were to accept previous White Papers as policy statements. I realise, too, that as the Minister said in a reply in Committee it might take up to 18 months to bring forward the national policy statement. We do not necessarily want a lacuna for all that time. I am not absolutely sure what we have to bridge that lacuna, but no doubt the Minister will respond on that point in due course.

The national policy statement is a vital document. Everybody, in all corners of the House, would agree that it is important. In order to ensure that it is given the utmost legitimacy and the full support of the public, the public must be seen to be deeply engaged at all times in its formulation. I am sure that that is a fairly obvious thing to say, but perhaps it needs repeating.

I concur with what the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington said virtually throughout his speech. I agree with what the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), too, has said in his new clause. I cannot understand why new clause 1 is so unacceptable to the Government: as I mentioned before, “sustainable development” were the words used in the Government of Wales Act 2006, and we are talking about a tighter definition of “climate change”, as explained by the hon. Gentleman.

Politicians today all talk about climate change and say that it is the biggest threat that we face. It should be uppermost in our minds at all times when we deal with legislation and problems. We must always consider climate change and sustainable development. If we were to accept the new clause, that would be a very positive sign. With respect to the Minister, I do not think that accepting it would hamper anybody. It will not tie anybody’s hands—far from it—and it would ensure that we concentrated, as we should, on this major threat to mankind.

As politicians, we often say that the young are disengaged from the political process. In my experience, the young are often not disengaged from the issues of sustainability, climate change and the need for eco-friendly policies. No, they are not; they are probably more attuned than my generation was way back when. I do not know whether such a statement in the Bill would encourage more participation, bring youngsters into the process and make them feel that we are reflecting what is going on out there. We read our newspapers every day—we look at the icebergs melting and at the problems everywhere with pollution, and so on and so forth. It would be a fine thing if we were to accept the new clause, or something similar to it, and put those words in the Bill. It would be a sign that we were serious about what we say about climate change, and that we were not merely playing lip service to it, as some people outside might suspect.

2 Jun 2008 : Column 596

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I might be the last to speak in this debate, so may I congratulate the Government on producing a groundbreaking procedure through the national policy statements? They have been acknowledged as such by Members from both sides of the House. It is good to see the Secretary of State listening to what I think is one of the most important debates that we have had for a long time. I am surprised that there are not more Members present to contribute.

There is no question about the fact that what we are doing today is groundbreaking. The national policy statements will need to be scrutinised by both Houses of Parliament in one way or another. Indeed, it would be folly not to use the expertise in the other place. The Minister needs to think about the parliamentary procedure very carefully. As well as being discussed with the four relevant Select Committees, the matter ought to have been referred to the Procedure Committee because we are making a new parliamentary procedure. The Procedure Committee should have worked out a way forward with the involvement of every Member of this House and of the other House who wished to become involved.

There are lots of issues for the Select Committees to consider. There will be a huge work load. I do not necessarily know whether the Chairmen of the four Select Committees involved have worked out what the work load of producing the national policy statements will be. Even with the Government’s help and even with the Government having produced a draft in the first place, the public consultation must then be considered, and expert witnesses must be taken into account as well.

Some while ago in the debate, I should have declared my interest as one of the four chartered surveyors in the House and one who has practised in the planning field. I therefore know the minutiae of the issues involved and how long some inquires can take. If any of the minutiae is translated into what the Select Committees must do, the Committees have got a shock in store as regards the amount of work they are going to have to do. If the system is to work properly, not only must they produce a national policy statement on the subject that they are considering, but they must consider other national policy statements that have been already issued, because all national policy statements must interlock if they are to work properly with the IPC’s involvement. There is no separating different transport systems or different energy-producing systems. All infrastructure in this country is ultimately interlocking; what we do with one system has an effect on the others.

There is an immense work load. Yes, of course such things must be done in proper detail. I am open-minded about whether there should be a vote on this matter. I can understand the argument for a vote—it gives democratic legitimacy—but the Secretary of State is the person ultimately responsible to Parliament for how the whole IPC procedure works. Indeed, one of the major problems if Parliament has a vote is that I do not know how that review procedure that the Secretary of State can invoke will work. He would be invoking a review of something that Parliament had already voted on. So my inclination is to say that Parliament should scrutinise such things in great detail with whatever method is come up with, but the Secretary of State
2 Jun 2008 : Column 597
should be responsible for producing the national policy statement. That is probably the only way that it will work.

In considering how they will proceed, the Select Committees will need to consider how the private Bill procedure worked in the past. That gives a clue to the amount of work that is involved. Will they allow the promoters to be legally represented, for example? Under the private Bill procedure, that delays the process hugely, because the professionals involved tend to go into much greater and much more technical detail than the laymen involved in the process. The Select Committees will need to look at that very carefully. Of course, those involved will want to streamline the procedure, but if it is too streamlined the legitimacy of the report produced will not be as great as if the matter had been considered in great detail.

The promoters’ position must be considered. For example, let us take BAA and this country’s airports policy. How will the Select Committees deal with BAA’s evidence? What declarations will the companies and individuals involved in the process have to make? Indeed, the members of the Select Committees will need to think about what declarations they make.

We are making groundbreaking rules. The process needs to be expedited, but it must be seen to be legitimate and fair, and as other hon. Members have said the public must have an adequate say in every national policy statement if they are to come out at the end of the process with the legitimacy that they deserve, but that is not the end of the process. In a complicated world things move on very quickly, and I can understand that, at the end of the process, the national policy statements will need to be revised fairly frequently—so the cycle starts all over again. The Secretary of State will have a role in their revision and the IPC can make recommendations on their revision, but Parliament must constantly keep in mind whether its own national policy statement is up to date and still applicable.

The Government still have a little thinking to do on the whole matter. I am sure that the other place, with its acute legal brains, will have a great deal to say on the matter. It is a highly important matter; we need to get it right. I hope that the Government will not rush it. They should put it to the Procedure Committee. We need to think very carefully about the role of both Houses and whether or not we should have a vote and whether the Secretary of State should be the final arbiter in producing the national policy statements.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I had not planned to speak but, unusually, I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown). National policy statements are extremely important and will receive a lot of scrutiny. The Lords is best at doing that sort of thing. The idea that the Secretary of State will make the final decision without a vote in both Houses of Parliament seems utterly wrong. I suggest to her that there is a danger that if national policy statements are not subject to scrutiny in the other place and are not voted on there, she will not have won the argument. We are talking about important national policy statements that should command the support of the whole House. I say to the Ministers present, in good faith, that it is not impossible that in a few months they will be sitting on
2 Jun 2008 : Column 598
the Opposition Benches and will regret the fact that the other place has not been given more of a say on the matters that we are discussing. As I say, unusually, I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend is of course fully entitled to his views, and I welcome any disagreement; that is the nature of the House. However, if he proposes that there should be a vote, he will have to say how this House will retain primacy. Somebody has to make an ultimate decision. If he is saying that national policy statements have to be subject to a vote, at the end of the day one or other of the Houses will have to be supreme. I suggest that it must be this House, and there has to be a new mechanism to enable that.

Mr. Bone: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention, but I am afraid that I disagree again. My argument is that the proposal must command the support of both Houses. Whether this House or the other has primacy is another debate. The idea that the other place should not be given a vote because its Members are not elected does not bear scrutiny, because I understand that the Government’s policy is to have an elected upper Chamber. However, that is a different issue. If there are to be highly important national policy statements, they must command the widest support. If the Government cannot get their way, they need to revise the policy until it commands widespread support in both Houses. It is therefore important that votes are held at the end of the process. Any system that gives power to the Secretary of State is undemocratic.

John Healey: We have had a serious debate on the serious issues covered by this group of amendments. I pay tribute to the contributions that all Members have made this afternoon. We are breaking new ground in the Bill; we are putting in place a set of reforms and a new system that is opening up new territory for us.

I was particularly struck by the contribution that the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) made; it was thoughtful and constructive, and there were points for me, and the Chairs of the Select Committees, to consider. I say to him that the Procedure Committee and the Liaison Committee were brought into discussions, not least because the Select Committee Chairs rightly wanted to consider and consult them. As a Minister, I have taken the view that it is proper for me to have a relationship and discussion with the Select Committee Chairs. It is for them to consult and consider the views of different parts of the House. That is how we have conducted the process to date.

The hon. Gentleman is right that the Select Committees’ work load might be significant as a result of national policy statements, particularly over the next year or two, when the bulk of national policy statements will be produced in draft for the first time. That is one of the reasons why, quite early on, I took the view, in response to the Select Committee Chairs’ arguments, that they needed flexibility to decide how best to deal with each national policy statement that is produced—whether that should be one of the existing four departmental Committees or whether it should be a combined Committee that draws on the expertise, talent and experience from all four.

2 Jun 2008 : Column 599
9.30 pm

Therefore, as I explained earlier, we have, through the Liaison Committee, left the Select Committee Chairs to take charge of that decision. In the end, we are interested in making sure that the scrutiny is strong and that it helps us produce the best possible national policy statements, but the Select Committee Chairs must take into account the potential pressures on their Committee.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: This has been a very good debate. Whatever our disagreements about having a vote, one thing that has come out of the debate is that we should use the expertise of the other place. In his discussions with the Select Committees, did the Minister discuss how that might be invoked?

John Healey: I have some respect for the other place and for the expertise of its membership, but this House has specific departmental Select Committees with the expertise to scrutinise and hold to account the Departments of Government. The other House has nothing akin to that. The other House may choose to debate and vote on national policy statements in the future. That is why we have said clearly that although we will take into account any resolution of either House, we will take into account the recommendations and reports of Select Committees of this House, giving proper recognition to the special expertise that our departmental Select Committees have, which marks them out from the range of different Committees that the other place has established.

I was interested to hear the hon. Gentleman say that he was open-minded on the question of voting. His hon. Friend the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), sitting immediately behind the Front-Bench team, promptly jumped up to say loyally that he was not open-minded on the question of a vote. For those who seriously advocate a vote, there are some significant factors that have not yet been worked through. I shall return to the matter at the end of my remarks, but the hon. Member for Cotswold was spot on when he said in the end that Secretaries of State must be responsible for national policy statements, because national policy statements are just that: they are policy statements and they are the responsibility of Government.

I welcomed the contribution of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) to the debate in the Chamber and in Committee. He said that the public must be fully involved in the new planning system. They will be. There will be opportunities for them to be involved in a stronger, clearer and more systematic way than in the current system. First, the new national policy statements will be subject to full public consultation, with particular provisions where there are location-specific elements to policy statements that will have potential effects in local areas.

Secondly, for the first time ever, there will be a duty on any promoter who wants to submit an application for a major project to contact and consult local communities and local councils before they even submit their application, with the IPC being prepared not even to consider the application unless that is done properly. Thirdly, there will be a protection for the right to be heard in inquiries. Fourthly, planning aid will be
2 Jun 2008 : Column 600
doubled so that individuals and local groups that are short of resources can get the advice and in some cases the support on representation that they require to make their views heard and their point of view tell in inquiries.

Mr. Llwyd: I thank the Minister for the detailed response that he is giving the House.

At the end of the day, the IPC can decide in what form an objector is to give evidence before it, and it can decide whether to allow cross-examination of the proposer. To my way of thinking, that is a little different from what the Minister said, albeit inadvertently.

John Healey: It is not different at all. Everyone will have a right to submit evidence to the commission; they can do that in writing. Everyone will have the right to be heard in an open session if they require that. We seek to put in place specific open sessions for those whose properties are affected by compulsory purchase orders. The questioning will be led by the commission itself, not by lawyers. It will not involve the kind of adversarial, sometimes off-putting, hugely expensive and often lengthy lawyer-driven process in which local voices are normally the first to get lost. We can ensure that the inquiry can be conducted fairly and faster than is sometimes the case in the big inquiries, some of which get bogged down for years.

On the issue of existing policy statements, I say to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy and my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), to paraphrase a former US President: read my words. [Hon. Members: “Read my lips!”] I said “to paraphrase”. I encourage the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy to consult the Official Report tomorrow.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington that I am glad to have his support for national policy statements and his acceptance that the arrangements on parliamentary scrutiny and public consultation, which we have now agreed with the Select Committee Chairs, are an important step forward. However, simply saying that he might wish to abolish the other place is beyond the scope of the Bill and does not answer the concern that the other place may take a different view, if that is equally binding to that of this place, on a policy statement. It is not an answer simply to say that the Parliament Act 1949 is in place; that is used only for legislation.

John McDonnell: Will the Minister give way?

John Healey: Will my hon. Friend forgive me if I do not? I have given way to him so often today, and I want to deal with the other points that have been raised.

It is good to see the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) in his place for this part of the proceedings. I hope that he will accept that his amendment No. 3 seeks to add a level of detail that is not appropriate for the Bill—certainly not before the Government have come to their conclusions following consideration of the specialist advisory report or the recommendations and views of the Health Protection Agency.

Let me give the hon. Gentleman what I hope he will take as a note of encouragement. The appraisal of
2 Jun 2008 : Column 601
sustainability that I have made clear will be required as part of the process for producing a draft national policy statement—certainly before the statement can be designated—will need to consider, as an appraisal of sustainability and not just of the environment, population and human health as part of the social, economic and environmental effects. Furthermore, there is a provision in the Bill that gives the Secretary of State a power to prescribe statutory consultees in secondary legislation. I say to the hon. Gentleman that this is the process and that is the place in which to consider the roles of the organisations in which he has an interest.

Mr. Benyon: I am grateful for those assurances, but will the Minister give me one more? Will he, in consultation with his colleagues in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Department of Health, speed the process along? The issue now has a head of steam. We have a detailed statistic on the risk for children who live close to such facilities. We want progress in co-operation with other Departments, so that we can carry a precautionary principle through to some future conclusion.

John Healey: I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance and I pay tribute to him and the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), who contributed to the Housing and Regeneration Bill. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), who contributed in the same way to the Energy Bill. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), is keen to see this concluded, and I will also do my best to ensure that it is.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) described national policy statements as the basis of the Bill and said that they are right in principle and in process. He rightly said that the Select Committees are reassuring about the fact that they can do a proper job of scrutiny under the provisions that we set out in the Bill. I hope that that is a firm basis for this House to endorse our proposals. I understand him when he says that he has an instinctive attraction to the idea of a binding vote for approval, but he set out, more eloquently than I did, some of the problems and flaws that still exist in that regard.

In response to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), resolutions of either House are designed to deal with debates that may or may not take place in either House on a national policy statement. In the Bill, we frame that as taking into account those debates or the report of a Committee of this House. We mean both but draft it in that way because there may well be no debate or resolution on a particular national policy statement in either House.

Next Section Index Home Page