Finally, I turn to the issue of the right to be heard. I am not a lawyer, but the one thing of which I am very conscious as a guardian of the liberties of the British people is the right to cross-examination. Sadly, the right to be heard is being used in the sense of people being able to speak in an open forum, not in the sense of the right to cross-examination. The right to cross-examination does not mean that everybody has to cross-examine all the time under all circumstances. However, we exist in a system of common law in which the right to cross-examination stems from mediaeval times. Even to suggest that we take that right away from the British people is to challenge one of the fundamental tenets of the British constitution. I find it breathtaking that, on issues of this importance to local communities, it should be thought that they cannot cross-examine the people who have proposals to develop in their area. I do not wish to import that into our legal system. I therefore hope that
the Government will come forward with a guarantee in the Lords that those who wish to cross-examine can do so.
Mr. Betts: From Second Reading onwards, I have spent a lot of time considering various aspects of the Bill. I have made it clear that I support its main intention, which is to provide a more expeditious way of dealing with planning applications for major infrastructure projects. At the same time, I have expressed several concerns about the initial proposals and have sought to try to improve the Bill rather than to oppose it. I have accepted the need for these matters to be dealt with expeditiously and tried to find a way of ensuring that that is done while bringing more accountability and scrutiny into the process. I must say bluntly to the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) that I have heard her say that she is in favour of finding a more expeditious method, but I have not heard her propose anything that would deliver it.
It is all right for us in this House to pass resolutions and legislation committing ourselves to dealing with climate change, putting forward appropriate targets and perhaps even seeking to improve them, but the reality is that if we do not have a mechanism for ensuring that applications for nuclear power stations and wind farms get through in a relatively short period, subject to all the proper scrutiny that is needed, we will never meet any of those targets.
I have had discussions with right hon. and hon. Friends about the final say in these matters and whether it should be a recommendation or a confirmation process for the IPC, and I have tabled amendment No. 60 and other consequential amendments. It is a difficult issue. My right hon. and hon. Friends have advanced arguments, which we also had in Committee, about whether this is a judge and jury process and whether it creates too much unpredictability. I do not accept either of those arguments. By their very nature, planning applications are unpredictable; otherwise, there would be no point in going through the process of considering them.
However, I have to accept that there are two areas of concern. First, there will be an additional delay in applications, perhaps of a year or more. I have sat with colleagues and looked at the empirical evidence for that. I would say to hon. Friends who have tabled other amendmentsfor principled and proper reasons; I respect them for thatthat I am not sure that merely stipulating a fixed time in which Ministers would have to reach a conclusion is necessarily a satisfactory way of dealing with this. Ministers might well need more time, and if they are not given it, we could end up with a set of different problems.
I accept that the existence of policy statements constrains, in political terms, the planning decisions made, whoever makes them. Therefore, I welcome what the Minister promised on the first day of Reportthat the policy statements will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. Secondly, I welcome the location-specific promise given for the policy statements on nuclear power and airports. At that stage, with parliamentary scrutiny, and with
Ministers taking decisions, real political decisions will be made, not quasi-judicial decisions on where developments happen. That is quite important.
I welcome the process improvements that have been agreed, particularly the commitment to accept new clause 42 and related amendments, which I will want to put to the vote, on the role of local authorities. The commission will have to have a statutory regard to the report produced by authorities that considers views of constituents and an applications relevance to and relationship with the authoritys local development framework. Those measures raise local government to a different level in the consultation, and it is important that the body of elected representatives in an area should have that elevated role. I welcome support for that amendment.
Mr. Betts: I will not respond to that in technical terms. My understanding is that there is currently a deficiency that would not allow people to have that right, which is covered by the new clause. I would have thought that such a change was fairly uncontentious. As I understand it, it would give people the same rights as they have to a public hearing on applications that go to the IPC. There has been a lot of misunderstanding on this matter, and I hope that Ministers will be able to make it absolutely clear that any individual who expresses an interest in an application that goes to the IPC will be able to ask for and get a public hearing, and that none of those matters will be dealt with by written representations in those circumstances.
I explored the matter of potential delay with my right hon. Friends, and we come back to the proposals of the hon. Member for Beckenham concerning Ministers confirmation. I suggested that Ministers could take all the decisions from the IPC and, where there was no contention or they had no concerns, they could fast-track them, but there may be other issues that Ministers might want to take longer to consider. The problem is that if Ministers decided that they had no particular concerns, they would still have to go through a long-winded process of assuring themselves that they did not have concerns. If they did not, a fast-track process might be subject to judicial review, with all the problems that that can bring about.
It might be possible to introduce additional criteria meaning that Ministers could consider particularly contentious applications, but as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State explained, the Bill lists criteria such as cases where there are concerns of national security, where there is no national policy statement or where a policy statement is out of date, or becomes out of date before the application or during the process of considering it. In all those circumstances, Ministers can intervene. If there are other circumstances in which ministerial intervention might be appropriate, I would like to hear about them, because I am prepared to consider them, but I thought that it might be best to
consider what comes out of the practical application of the process. If, during the first two years, there are clear examples of where it would be more appropriate to refer a matter to Ministers, criteria can be developed at the end of the two-year review. This House sometimes has an obligation to be proactive in such matters. My right hon. Friend has said that there will be pre-appointment scrutiny of the chair and vice-chair. Regular reports will be provided to Select Committees, and Select Committees currently request such reports.
There is also a crucial point, which I raised, about accountability. Ministers can be brought to the Chamber to explain decisions about applications and now the chairman of the commission can be brought before any Select Committee. Indeed, the commissioners who make decisions can also be requested to appear before a Committee with the chairman to explain their reasons. If the House is proactive, it will build for itself a body of evidence about how the process is working and whether there are problems, and thus contribute to the two-year review. That is a challenge for us.
Mr. Betts: In the end, we can learn from the process whether we should change it and the policy statements in any way. The policy statements will form the basis of the decisions. If the commission has made a decision outwith the policy statement, it is automatically judicially reviewable. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will confirm that we should make it clear that decisions must be based on the policy statements. If we would be more comfortable referring some matters to Ministers, that can be fed into the two-year review.
The hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) knows that, even in the current circumstances, when a Secretary of State makes a decision on the recommendation of a planning inspector, although the Secretary of State can be brought to the House to explain the decision, the House cannot change it. The position of the House will therefore be no different from that under current town and country planning legislation.
There is a problem with mission creep, which perhaps my right hon. Friend could examine. We set off thinking that there might be 10 to 20 applications a year to the commission. We have now been told that the figure might be 45. Much of that is due to Highways Agency schemes and a view in the Department for Transport that every such scheme should go to the commission. We should reconsider that. Perhaps some Highways Agency schemes of a more local nature could be referred to local authorities or groups of local authorities. That would reduce the need for the commission to consider them all.
I accept that final decision making is difficult. I have tried to consider it in the context of the need for expeditious decision making and better scrutiny and accountability. I know that some hon. Members of all parties feel that we have not gone far enough, and I hope that we will make some progress. The Secretary of States proposals will improve the Bill and I am pleased
that she has agreed to support some of my amendments. I would like clarification of one or two points, and then I am more than happy not to push amendment No. 60 to a vote and to support the measure, with my right hon. Friends assurances.
Dan Rogerson: We are discussing the most contentious aspects of the Bill, as the Secretary of State clearly pointed out. I am delighted that she is here to discuss the measure and to present those aspects this afternoon. I pay tribute to her for doing that, because the Minister for Local Government has handled the measure up to now.
There is consensus in three corners of the House about one fundamental point, which was raised on Second Reading, in Committee and this afternoon: reform of the planning system to speed up and ensure that decisions are made effectively on major national infrastructure projects is required. Some aspects of the measure set out to do that. There is also agreement that national policy statements are a step forward and will help in that process and that a single consent process is a step in the right direction. Indeed, there is agreement on many aspects.
However, the Government have failed to provide an answer about who makes the final decision. It is not fair to say that we can have all those other things without a democratically elected person making the final decision. I believe that that flies in the face of the purpose of the Bill and the Governments comments about local determination. Local member review is about strengthening the hand of locally elected representatives to make the final decision after officers have considered it in the first instance. Most hon. Members would support that.
Amendment No. 339, which the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) tabled, amendment No. 5, which Conservative Front Benchers tabled, and amendment No. 68, which I tabled, would all do something similar. Although we accept that the planning system needs reform and that the Bill contains many helpful steps, the final decision must rest with someone who is accountable, not an appointed quango. Therefore, in common with the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), I am happy to say that my hon. Friends and I will support the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) if he chooses to push his amendment to a vote. Obviously I say that on the basis that he will have the opportunity to do so. Indeed, if he does not press his amendment, let me signal my intention to do so for him, should that prove necessary.
There are a number of other highly significant amendments in the group. I will try to rattle through them as quickly as I can. Essentially, we must get accountability back into the proposals. Our amendment No. 310, which seeks to limit to 40 the number of applications that the IPC can consider, is an attempt to probe the Minister for Local Government. He said in evidence to the Committee that
we can be pretty confident that, unless the proposals in the Bill for what should qualify as infrastructure projects for the IPC changes significantly, the sort of figure that we are talking about40 or 45 on average a yearis what the IPC would be expected to deal with. [Official Report, Planning Public Bill Committee, 10 January 2008; c. 148, Q362.]
larger number of less complex cases.[ Official Report, 31 March 2008; Vol. 474, c. 712W.]
Hon. Members who have been following proceedings on the Bill closely will know that we have returned to the idea of mission creep again and again. To me, that larger number of less complex cases is highly suspicious. Our amendment No. 310 seeks to hold the Government to what we have been told all the way through. I am not convinced that the IPC is the right way to proceed, but if it is, we should at least be able to hold the Government to the assurances that they have given us up to now.
Amendment No. 327 seeks to make the new development consent process contingent on local priorities, although the Secretary of State was keen to point out that a number of the amendments are concerned with existing guidelines and policies. In common with others who have tabled amendments on that basis, I feel that all those processes and duly agreed-upon procedures and policies should be taken into account by the IPC. I therefore disagree with her that such an obligation should not be imposed on the IPC. Any wins that have been had by the local community and by those concerned with environmental considerations or whatever else it might be should not be lost at that point.
Many of my constituents, and I am sure those of other hon. Members, have expressed considerable support for amendment No. 66, which the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) has tabled, which would ensure that people have the right to have their voices heard directly. That is an important issue that other hon. Members raised repeatedly in Committee, as we have heard this afternoon.
New clause 7 seemed to cause the Secretary of State some concern. It deals with independent third-party oversight of consultation and does not really need much more explanation than the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) gave in an intervention, when he asked what confidence people would have in a consultation process carried out by the proposer of a scheme. That is a fundamental flaw in the process. We are talking about a consultation aimed at improving an application, so that when it reaches determination and a more formal inquiry process, a lot of the issues will have been dealt with. However, I am still not convinced that a local community can be confident that the proposer of a scheme will undertake that consultation in such a way that it truly reflects the concerns that have been raised, especially where they fundamentally disagree with what the proposer is trying to construct.
Previously on Report, we sadly lost the chance to strengthen and improve the Bill with regard to mitigating climate change and adapting to its effects. Hon. Members have tabled amendments to make those points again about the key wins that we have already had on planning policy. We must hold the Government to that. Our amendments Nos. 69 and 70 focus on those issues.
I am particularly keen that we discuss an issue that the hon. Member for Beckenham raised through her amendment No. 40, which applies to clause 110. The provision will cause much concern to people outside the House, as it will allow the IPC to set aside legislation that has been agreed in the House if it is in some way inconvenient to the determination that it is making. I think that that is fundamentally wrong. If changes to primary legislation are necessary, this House should
take the decision on them; it should not be taken by an unelected quango, which is gifted that power under the clause. That is utterly wrong.
There are a number of other flaws worth exploring. I am confident that many of the amendments in the groupsadly, we will not have the opportunity to vote on many of them this afternoonwould greatly improve the Bill. Let me respond to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), for whom I have a great deal of respect. Time and again in Committee, he stood up to make the case for improving the Bill. Sadly, in Committee as now, he decided not to press his amendments to the vote, so I was not surprised when he chose not to do so again this evening. His powers of analysis are on the record, but his negotiating skills may leave a little to be desired in the light of the concessions that the Secretary of State outlined earlier.
Certain schemes such as nuclear sites and airport expansions would be considered under the national policy statement site-specific procedure. We have already heard about that; it has clearly been the Governments intention throughout the proceedings. I am sure that Members with constituencies near Heathrow will be concerned that decisions might be taken even further away from local people, who will not realise how crucial it is for them to get involved in the NPS. They will probably be waiting for a local or specific application, not understanding that they need to make their voices heard over the NPS. I doubt whether retrospectively bringing in the IPC chairman to answer questions from Select Committees, will provide much reassurance to people who have had a scheme imposed on their local community.
I am afraid that I am not convinced by what the Secretary of State said, grateful though I am that she has presented herself to the House this afternoon to try to justify the Bill. As I have already said, my party finds accord with many of the Bills provisions, but we are certainly opposed on the issue of the IPC taking the final decision on matters of such importance. We shall therefore support the amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Selby.
Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): I am grateful for the chance to say a few words in support of amendment No. 339. The Secretary of State, for whom I have great regard, described the amendments proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), for whom I have equal regard, as being really useful. I cannot pretend that she will necessarily see my amendment in the same light, but I want to address my remarks specifically to her in order to highlight the two specific merits of the amendment. We on the Back Benches like to listen and learn from what is said by those on the Front Benches; never let it be said that we do not try to do that.