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I am delighted to endorse that contribution from my right hon. Friend, who, as a former Minister in this field, has had to make some pretty difficult decisions on occasion. The areasand there are a couple of
themwhere wind farms have proved popular have been areas where local people have recognised that they can reduce their fuel bills dramatically.
The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) is right to suggest that planning is essentially about mediation, but mediation sometimes fails when differences are irreconcilable, as they might be in relation to wind farms in my constituency or, for that matter, the right hon. Gentlemans constituency in part of the Thames area. However important are the consultation processes that help to smooth the way to the achievement of a national consensus, subjecting the national policy statements to a vote in this Chamber would give them the imprimatur of the democratic Assembly of this country. Will the Secretary of State confirm that that will not happen?
Hazel Blears: I do not propose to rehearse the debate held on the first day of Report. The matter was well ventilated then, and following a vote in the House it was decided not to proceed in that way. In those terms, democracy has spoken.
The right hon. Gentleman would be the first to acknowledge that these are issues concerning policy. I believe that we are going further than any other legislation of which I am aware by enabling that policy to be subject to debate and proper scrutiny, including Select Committee scrutiny, in a way that has never been possible in the past. I ask the right hon. Gentleman, who is a fair person, to reflect on how far we are shifting the Bill to try to strike the right balance and provide mediation in the right way in very difficult circumstances.
We consider speed and efficiency to be important, but that is not our sole objective. We also think that our proposals will lead to better-quality decisions. The big, nationally significant infrastructure projects are sometimes uniquely complex, and also involve major technical questions. The Heathrow application involved seven different consent regimes and 37 different planning applications. It was incredibly technical and complex. We need to ensure that the members of the independent
planning commission have enough relevant expertise and knowledge to get to grips with some of the issues, and also that they have a background in community engagement and understanding of issues that are important at local level. We do not want them simply to be technical people, removed from matters that local people consider important.
I understand that the national frameworks for aviation will be site-specific. Am I right in thinking that decisions affecting people living near Heathrow, or Gatwick in my case, will be made before responsibility is transferred from here to the new quango?
The third reason for our proposals is that there will be more clarity and transparency in regard to the different roles involved. At present Ministers could be the people who determined the policy, the promoters of a scheme and, at the end of the process, those who made the decisions. I do not think that that is a good arrangement. Having this clarity by setting the policy up front through a national policy statement and then having the IPC look at individual decisionsand then in some cases for there to be a small ministerial interventionis a good bit of architecture in terms of achieving the checks and balances referred to. There will be a clear separation.
The second set of amendments addresses where a decision might be taken by the IPC but then be subject to confirmation by the Secretary of State within six months. Some people think that provides an alternative approach to the IPC simply being a recommending body. I do not think that that is so, because requiring the Secretary of State to confirm IPC decisions means in effect that Ministers are taking the decisions themselves. In order to get to the point of being able to decide whether to confirm a decision, it is necessary to review everything that has gone on, so there is still the position [ Interruption.] Well, I am glad we have consensus on that. I do not need to go into the terminology and tautology of those amendments. They would add to uncertainty, and they might be even worse than the original set of amendments, which would have turned the IPC into a recommending body. That would undermine transparency as well. We will, therefore, oppose those amendments.
On improving accountability, there will be clear policy statements and a power of intervention. That is already in the Bill. My discussions with Members have led me to believe that many people have not understood that the Bill as currently drafted includes the power for Ministers to intervene in certain circumstances, not only on national security and defence, but, for example, where the national policy statement does not cover a
specific issue. The Minister can either decide to review the national policy statement or to take the decision. Again, where circumstances change or there is new evidence, the Minister can say, The NPS doesnt bite, and therefore I intend to make the decision. That is important, because the terms on which our debate has been conducted have almost been that there is absolutely no point at which Ministers can intervene at all, and I want to make it clear that that is not the case.
The Bill also includes provisions that make the IPC accountable, and that make it give reasons for its decisions and ensure that they are clear. I know, however, that people still have concerns; there has been vigorous debate in Committee. I therefore propose some changes to address those concerns, which I want to put on the record. I have had extensive discussions with Memberscertainly from the Labour Benchesand they have expressed their views constructively, and determinedly, because they feel that these issues are important to themselves and their constituents.
First, I make a commitment that the national policy statements that cover nuclear power stations and airport developmentthe two most contentious forms of development covered by the Billwill be location-specific. The national policy statements will not only cover the national need but will also say that development is likely to take place in certain areas, and it is unlikely to take place in other areas where, simply, it would not be suitable. As far as we can, we will make those location-specific. That is important, as it further constrains the ability of the IPC to take these decisions without reference to a politically determined framework that has been the subject of debate and scrutiny by the Select Committee and of public involvement.
Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey) (Lab): As national policy statements may well turn out to be very prescriptive, by the time individual inquiries start at local level, local people might find that the die is already cast on many of the issues covered by them. Will my right hon. Friend therefore spell out in greater detail the extent of public consultation on national policy statementsthe length of time and the process that will be followed?
Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend will know that the phrase in the Bill is quite open regarding the consultation that should take place. I am happy to confirm that it will include consultation with the public. That will vary with each NPS, as some will be on big issues that are locationally specific, so different people are likely to be interested, while others will be more general and will not raise peoples concerns. The question is whether the consultation is appropriate and proportionate, and gives people who are concerned the right to have a say. There is the absolute intention on the Governments part to ensure that the country has a debate about these big national issues. Whether Opposition parties like it or not, they have to be faced. If this country is to have an energy supply, the right transport network and aviation, those issues need to be pursued. We cannot put our heads in the sand: we must have that debate with the people.
Secondly, the Government have already proposed that the chair of the IPC should be subject to pre-appointment scrutiny by a Select Committee. The Government have now agreed to extend that pre-appointment scrutiny to the deputy chairs of the IPC. I know that that was a concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), who is at this moment chairing her Select Committee, and I am delighted to be able to address it.
Thirdly, there will be a requirement for the IPC to provide the Select Committee with reports on particular subjects that concern the Committee. Fourthly, the Government have agreed that the relevant Select Committees should be able to call the chair of the IPC before them to explain not just the overall performance of the organisation but particular aspects of decisions. I hope that it will be acknowledged that that is a significant shift in terms of accountability.
Finally, and most importantly, I can give a commitment that the Government will carry out a review of how the IPC is working two years after its establishment. The Government have also agreed to table amendments in the other place so that if that review reveals problems, they can in future extend the grounds on which Ministers can intervene to remove decisions from the IPC and take the decisions themselves. This new amendment will ensure that if this system is not working, Ministers have a safety valve to widen the basis on which they can take decisions in future. That is a significant addition to the Bill and this is a very strong package of measures that, taken together, will strengthen democratic accountability. Labour Members have pressed hard for better democratic accountability in the new system and I am grateful for their constructive engagement.
The right hon. Lady has just made the important statement to the House that aviation and nuclear decisions will be site-specific. That effectively freezes in aspic from this moment onwards decisions on those sites until the national policy statements are made. Can she tell the House how long she expects the statements to take so that applications on aviation or nuclear sites can be considered by the IPC?
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is perhaps not fully aware of the provisions of the Bill. The process through which the IPC will take decisions does not come into effect until there are designated
national policy statements that have to go through the process. Until that point is reached, the existing planning system will continue to operate. If he looks carefully at the Bill, he will see that there is provision for the transition process that existing statements must undergo to become designated national policy statements. I suggest that he study the Bill in a little more detail, because it sets out the position.
John McDonnell: The Secretary of State has just said that she has made a significant announcement about the two-year review. May we have some clarity about how that review will be undertaken, who will undertake it, where it will report, whether it will be reported to the House, and whether any recommendations for further legislation will be voted on in the House as a result?
Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend raises a range of detailed issues. My announcement today was that there will be a review that will be supported by a regulation-making power, which will mean that we do not need primary legislation if we decide at that point that we have to widen the intervention power. I am sure that there will be plenty of opportunity to debate the detail of that issue, but as I have said, we will bring forward those proposals in the other place as the Bill goes through. That is a strong package for democratic accountability.
Hazel Blears: No. If I agree to give way to the hon. Gentleman, who is always charming and never churlish, I will get in trouble from the hon. Member for Cotswold, so I am afraid that I cannot do that at the moment.
I want to deal with the publics right to be heard, because it has been the subject of various amendments, too. I have been very disappointed by some of the campaigning outside the House, which has led the public to believe that the provisions in the Bill will somehow squeeze out the publics right to be involved. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Under the new system, the public will have at least three opportunities to get involved. They will be able to get involved with the formulation of the national policy statement and with the issues of what the country needs and where it should be on aviation, power and all those big subjects. They will be involved when a promoter brings forward an application, which is a wholly new right that does not exist under the current system, and they will be consulted about the application before it is even considered. They will have a third right to be heard during the examination in public, and they will be able to make representations and to be represented if that is what they want.
Hazel Blears: I shall give way in a moment. I am just going through the three points. The public will be involved in the national policy statement, before the application is brought forward and at the examination in public. There will be a possible fourth area of involvement when a specific issue is considered by the independent planning commission, and there will be a right to be heard. I defy any Member of the House to say that that is not a significant package of public involvement in the British planning system.
Mr. Llwyd: As a lawyer, the Secretary of State will realise that the best test of any evidence is cross-examination. The commission will decide whether an objector has the right to cross-examine a proposer. That will be absolutely at the discretion of the commissionand that is dubious and worrying. I ask the Government to reconsider. I see that there are four stages, but why leave the veto in?
Hazel Blears: I do not accept that it is a veto, and neither do I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Yes, I am a lawyer, and I have seen many cases in which cross-examination has not necessarily been used simply to test evidence. In inquiries that take three, four or five years and are dominated by highly skilled but also highly paid lawyers, the cross-examination of individuals can often be intimidating and an extremely distressing experience. I have no objection to an inquisitorial system that seeks out the truth. I do not accept that in every circumstance cross-examination is the best way to get to that truth. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Bill does not oust cross-examination. It can take place, but I do not accept the hon. Gentlemans premise that cross-examination is always the best way to get to that information.
Mr. Llwyd: There is a veto if the commission decides that cross-examination is not appropriate. In Committee, the Minister for Local Government made the point that the commission will have overall control of that inquisitorial process, as judges do nowadays. It will decide how things are managed, and it will intervene at times to prevent a long drawn-out affair and unnecessary cross-examination. I cannot understand the Governments thinking.
Hazel Blears: Equally, I cannot understand the hon. Gentlemans concerns. It is always appropriate to set rules about how inquiries should be conducted, with guidelines as to how matters should be explored, and what the time scales should be. I do not accept that cross-examination is the holy grail when it comes to testing evidence and arriving at the truth. He will know that legal systems around the world take a different, more inquisitorial approach. The aim with planning inquiries is to balance various parties interests, and the commissions ability to ask questions in an inquisitorial process may well lead to better results and information than could be achieved otherwise. The trouble with the sort of predetermined process that is the alternative is that people dance around trying to make the best argument, but do not uncover the truth and the best evidence. I counsel the hon. Gentleman against that.
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