House of Commons
|Session 2007 - 08|
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General Committee Debates
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Alan Sandall, Committee Clerk
attended the Committee
Public Bill Committee
Tuesday 15 January 2008
[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]
The Infrastructure Planning Commission
Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 1, in clause 1, page 1, line 6, leave out or any other.[Mrs. Lait.]
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
Amendment No. 3, in clause 1, page 1, line 8, at end insert
(4) This section shall come into force on such day as the Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument appoint..
Clause stand part.
Amendment No. 46, in clause 179, page 101, line 1, after section, insert 1(4),.
Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I was referring to paragraph 13 of schedule 1. Having looked during the break at the context of that particular provision for arrangements for assistance, it seems likely, although I await the Ministers clarification, that it does not relate to assistance for people seeking to make representations. It is set in with other internal and administrative arrangements of the commission, and I suspect that that paragraph relates to the way in which the commission will be entitled to spend more money and buy in outside advice.
Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): Will my hon. Friend comment on the fact that it could be buying in advice from learned friends to teach them how to cross-examine?
Robert Neill: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her helpful intervention. Underneath the joke there is a serious point. One of the concerns that we will come to late onI shall be careful not to rush too far in front, Mr. Illsleyis the composition of the commission. In the evidence-taking sessions, concern was raised about what sort of advice will be available to the commission. The truth is that there is a tendency, which we will come to in more depth, to denigrate cross-examination, but it requires some skill and expertise and it is important that there be transparency. I will be concerned if this becomes the opportunity for a bottomless pit for substantial sums to be expended,
Finally, there is the interesting question of equality of arms, which is a basic legal concept that is important in the human rights legislation. If paragraph 13 of schedule 1 gives power to the commission, which is carrying out an inquisitorial process to arm itself with substantial outside legal advice, but there is no provision for those seeking to challenge what is happening or to make representations to the commission to avail themselves of like advice, there is yet another route for legal challenge and delay. That indicates how ill-conceived the Governments proposals are.
We are firmly of the view that the clause is ill-conceived. I hope that our amendments clarify the matter. We do not want the clause to stand part for all the reasons that have been rehearsed and for reasons that I have just mentioned.
The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): I admire the gusto with which Committee members are tackling this issue, and their difficulty in holding themselves back from diving into matters that we will consider in detail under schedule 1. I am conscious of your guidance to the Committee, Mr. Illsley.
Clause 1 is relatively limited in scope and basically says that it introduces schedule 1, which contains all the detail that Committee members have mentioned. I will take this discussion as fair warning and considerate early notice of the sort of points that we will discuss later. I only wish that some of my officials were here a little earlier to hear those remarks. Most of them may be in their place now, which is a relief to me if not to Opposition Members.
We had a broad-ranging debate this morning on the nature of the Infrastructure Planning Commission and its principal purpose and potential alternatives, to which I am sure we will return as we consider schedule 1 in more detail. Essentially, amendments Nos. 3 and 46, as the hon. Member for Beckenham said, would require the Secretary of State to lay a statutory instrument before Parliament. They would make this subject to affirmative resolution in both Houses, and would require that before the IPC could be set up. In addition, amendment No. 1 seeks to restrict the functions conferred upon the IPC to those under the Bill, preventing additional functions from being conferred under any other Acts.
I will step back, as the hon. Member for Beckenham attempted to do. Simply amending the rules for other regimes, as we did a few years ago for the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, and sitting back to see how those 2005 changes might work in practice, does not measure up to the task confronting us. That simply does not measure up to the imperative to put provisions in place as part of trying to meet some of the big challenges on climate change, energy, energy supply and security and the economic future for this country.
The reason why I describe the situation in those terms is that we expect to have national policy statements for key sectors, particularly the energy field, produced and in place during 2009. We expect to have
Mrs. Lait: The Minister just said that he expects the first applications for infrastructure projects in 2009. Can he confirm when he expects to have the first national policy statement in place? I cannot think that a planning application can come forward until a planning policy statement is in placecomplete, finished and agreed by the House.
John Healey: I apologise to the hon. Lady if I did not say what I meant to say. I thought I said what I meant to say, which is that during 2009 we expect to have the first national policy statements for certain sectors published and in place. They are likely to be in the energy sector[ Interruption. ] The hon. Lady gesticulates in a rather extravagant fashion to ask me a supplementary from a sedentary position. Whether or not those national policy statements are through this place will depend largely on this placeshe might make the point that it will also depend on how good the drafts are and the work done within the Departments by Ministers and teams of officials. The production of those national policy statements will be a significant test of Government and, perhaps, a bigger challenge to many parts of Government than we have faced before.
That is our intention. We certainly want to get some of those national policy statements in place, if we can, during 2009, at the same time as having the IPC in place and able to take any applications that may flow from, and be considered within, that framework. In a moment, I will come back to the point that flows from the hon. Lady concern.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): The Minister gave us a list of the number of sectors that could be affected and outlined what is a time-consuming process. The special Select Committeeabout which I have some doubts, given the pressure on Members to serve on Select Committees as it iswill find it difficult if it has to deal with a dozen of those planning policy statements. Is there a hierarchy of priority in bringing them forward? The Minister will recall that the nuclear statement last week included the words, We now invite the industry to bring forward planning applications. Is he saying, We want power, but not yet, on a parallel with St. Augustine? What is the hierarchy for bringing forward the statements? There must be one, because there will be many applications and they will be very time consuming, so will he give us an idea of the top three?
John Healey: We dealt with nuclear on last Thursday. I explained that there were some essential building blocks for nuclear, which meant that a national policy statement for it in 2009 was unlikely. However, the Secretary of State said in his statement that, for instance, we want strategic siting assessments to be completed by 2009most likely, in the autumn. That would be an essential building block, of which the national policy statement would form a part.
On the hierarchy, each Department that may have a role in producing national policy statementsincluding the principal Departments of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, and the Department for Transportwill work on policies and, where appropriate, toward their capture as national policy statements. There is no grand Government blueprint for statement hierarchy and pacing; it is not entirely certain how well and quickly that important work will be conducted. Much will depend on the detailed work that we do with interested groups, Department by Department, during the statements production.
The Bill sets out the proposal for the important concept of national policy statements as the foundation for handling decisions about investment in major infrastructure. In this clause stand part debate, we are considering the role of the IPC in making determinations within the framework that the national policy statements will provide. I have said previously that if the IPC is set up to consider applications, it can do so only if there is a national policy statement. In advance of any statement, it would not consider any relevant major infrastructure applications; that would be a matter for the current arrangementsin most cases, involving the Secretary of State.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Will the IPC be consulted about the policy statement, or will it come to the IPC prepared and discussed?
John Healey: I suppose the honest answer is that I do not really know, but as national policy statements are about policy and the IPCs role is to determine applications within the framework of policy, as set by Government through the parliamentary process and public consultation, I cannot see a reason why it should automatically be consulted. I shall come on to the IPCs reporting, but once it is in operation, it will be required to report annually, and the report will cover the decisions that it has arrived at within the framework of national policy statements. It may comment in its annual report on the nature of the national policy statement as a framework for it to determine the applications, which it is charged to do.
Mr. Curry: If the IPC were to be consulted, I cannot see what the legislation will do at all. The Minister says that its whole purpose is transparency and clarity, and to make a decision between policy making and decision taking. If the IPC is consulted, the very process of overlap, which he says he is trying to get away from, will be resurrected, so it does not make sense.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
John Healey: I was about to respond to the intervention of the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon, but he may want to clarify it, so I had better give way again.
Mr. Curry: The timetable that the Minister set out was helpful, and I would be grateful to hear it again. The point is that during the nuclear statement last week the Government invited applications for new nuclear power stations. Is he saying that no application can be made or entertained until such time as a planning policy statement has been through all its stages of approval and is therefore the gospel for the IPC? Or is he saying that applications could come in earlier, but would have to go through the existing planning procedures? That is the key I am trying to get to.
John Healey: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, although I did get the point and the question the first time around. [ Interruption. ] Perhaps he finds it helpful to clarify it in his own mind. The issue is this. All elements of the new system are important, but there may be a period in which some elements are in place, but not all elements, including the national policy statements that have been fully through the process and established. In a situation where no fully fledged national policy statement is agreed and in placeone could use the nuclear example, but it could apply to anythe Secretary of State would take the decision, as now.
If the IPC was already in place in advance of the national policy statement, the IPC would consider that application under the single consent regime. It would not take the decision, but it would recommend what decision to take to the Secretary of State, who would take that decision. Once the IPC and the national policy statement relevant to a particular application are in place, creating the single consent regime and the principal reference point for such decisions, the IPC will consider the application and take the decision in reference to that principal framework. Ifthis is the final possibilitythere is no national policy statement in place and the IPC is not up and running, any application for such a relevant project that may be submitted will be dealt with as now, and determined by the Secretary of State.
Mrs. Lait: I am sorry to labour this point, but I am trying to put myself in the position of one of the companies or organisations that wish to propose an infrastructure development. Has the Minister or have any of his ministerial colleagues talked to any of the potential contractors and asked whether they plan to propose an infrastructure project before the national policy statements are in place? Are they prepared to apply under the current system, or under the amalgamated interim system that the Minister outlined, or will they wait until the national policy statement is completed? Under the terms of the national policy statement, they would have to pre-consult all the local people before they put in the application? I remain confused.
John Healey: With respect, if the hon. Lady wants potential investors and applicants for major projects to be asked that question, she will have to do so herself. I am not in a position to speak for them. However, most of the companies that may be interested in this sort of development or the investments that would be covered by the new system and the role of the IPC are very critical of and frustrated by the current process. They are strongly behind what we are trying to do. They see in particular the value of a clear, single national policy statement and a single consent regime andthis is why she has to ask the question herselfdifferent companies will be at different stages in the process of considering any potential application. She and the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon will know that such applications have a long lead time in corporate terms.
If the hon. Lady speaks in detail to some of these companies or their representative associations, she will find that they welcome rather than reject the sort of pre-application emphasis that the Bill provides, not least because they recognise that, although, as we heard in evidence, it will impose new obligations on them at that stage in the process, it is likely to mean that their application is in better shape before it comes to the IPC. The degree, if not of agreement or acceptance, at least of the sense that people will be consulted and have their views taken into account in how the application is framed before it is considered by the IPC will strengthen the process. I will respond in a moment to the point about risk mentioned by the hon. Members for Beckenham and for Carshalton and Wallington.
Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I am trying to prĂ(c)cis what the Minister said in response to points raised by other hon. Members. The hon. Lady argued that perhaps we should see whether the existing new measures can deliver what we want prior to the creation of an IPC. The Minister said that no application would be considered by that body for a couple of years at least, because we have to wait for the NPSs to be introduced. On that basis, could not the creation of an IPC be delayed until we see whether those provisions are working?
John Healey: I do not want to be too hard on the hon. Gentleman, but that is a typical Liberal view: duck the difficult decision and put it off until a later stage.
John Healey: Yes, and it is unfortunately also characteristic of the hon. Ladys party at the moment, as it is ducking the really difficult decisions. I explained why simply sitting back and waiting for the changes to be introduced, even if they are expanded to cover other regimes, is simply not good enough given the pressures and the imperatives in several important areas. I cannot accept the hon. Ladys argument.
I shall press on, because when the hon. Member for North Cornwall feels the need to prĂ(c)cis what I am saying, it is a sign that I am being too long-winded.
The evidence sessions last week examined the average number of applications that the IPC was likely
The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington apologised and explained that he was unable to join the Committee this afternoon, but I said that I would answer his questions. First, I do not accept the contention of Friends of the Earth that the Bill necessarily undermines the legitimacy of the process.
John Healey: I will give way in a moment, as I want to finish my remarks. In spite of our discussions, Friends of the Earth have not fully considered or perhaps even understood what opportunities there will be for public views and concerns to be heard within the process, or how the Bill strengthens and protects the right to be heard. Secondly, I do not accept Friends of the Earths contention that the Bill will necessarily lead to more direct action against the process for which we are legislating, although that organisation and other groups and interests may object to particular applications and they may demonstrate against them.
Mr. Curry: The hon. Gentleman referred to page 30 of the impact assessment regarding the number of nationally significant infrastructure projects. Will he explain what the decimal point is about?
John Healey: A figure of 0.1 in the table indicates that an application is expected, on average, about once every 10 years. [ Interruption. ] May I turn to the question raised by the Liberal Democrat spokesman and the hon. Member for Beckenham, which is the suggestion that somehow the new process is likely to risk a greater number of and greater exposure to legal challenges? [ Interruption. ]
John Healey: Thank you, Mr. Illsley. I will give way if the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy wants to intervene. He is chuntering away at the moment and I cannot hear what he is saying. [ Interruption. ] I can either give way now or we could return to this matter at a more appropriate stage, later in the Bill.
Mr. Llwyd: The Minister is doing his level best to explain the position, but I am not sure that he is correct that the figure of 0.1 means that there will be one
John Healey: What that figure means is that over a 10-year period, we would expect about nine applications for that category of schemegas and coal-fired electricity generation. I am sorry if Opposition Members are having trouble with the figures, but if they wish to study them, we will return to them in more detail at a later stage.
I turn to the legitimate concern about whether the new system is designed in a way that will leave it open to more legal challenges. We have considered this issue very carefully, as would be expected. We believe that by being more systematic in giving opportunities for views to be registered, by being quicker, by being more transparent and by separating the policy making and the decision making, the new system will not be more exposed to legal challenge. However, any new system takes some time to bed down and is often tested legally when introduced, so I cannot guarantee that there will be a reduction in legal challenges. We can expect legal challenges in the early days as people, understandably, test the system. However, the system will be clearer and we believe that it will produce better applications.
On balance, our assessment of the risk that the hon. Member for North Cornwall is concerned about is that it is likely to be less. Although as an elected politician it grieves me to say so, people mayI put it no more strongly than thatmore readily accept the decision of an independent body set up and conducting its business in the way proposed than a decision of politicians. The general point is that we cannot be certain, but we are confident that the new system will not be open to greater legal challenge. Because of its design, we expect the number and extent of legal challenges to decline, over time.
Robert Neill: Following that logic through, has the Minister considered that we could say that the judiciary is regarded as independentit takes the judicial oath? Why not create a planning division of the High Court to deal with these matters rather than have the complication of the IPC? It is not unknown for High Court judges to preside over planning inquiries. Use that route if someone is needed who is seen to be independent, rather that create this additional bureaucracy.
John Healey: The hon. Gentleman speaks as a lawyer. If he wants to press and develop that point he should table an amendment for discussion.
Mr. Curry: Will at least the chairman and the vice-chairman of the IPC be subject to parliamentary confirmation hearings and parliamentary confirmation of their appointment? That would reinforce their neutrality and status in the public eye.
John Healey: Those are proper matters for Parliament and the arrangements that we set up for parliamentary consideration. That is an interesting point of debate, which should be explored at the appropriate point of the Bill.
I turn to amendments Nos. 3 and 46, and will try to deal specifically with the points raised by the hon. Lady. I have tried to explain, and hope that I have done so, that the IPC is a part of the system that we regard as essential. The Committee, and Parliament more generally, will have ample opportunity to debate the IPC, as we have done this afternoon and will continue to do, and finally to approve it. Given the level of debate and scrutiny for the proposal, I cannot see the case for arrangements that require Parliament to undertake the process again, through a regulation-making procedure at some later point, in order for the IPC to be set up. In the meantime, if and when the Bill is given Royal Assent, we would be unable to proceed and to set up the IPC formally.
The hon. Lady was concerned that the reporting arrangements would just be accounts, or figures. They will not just be accountsthe annual report would also include details of the commissions performance and discharge of its responsibilities. It would include details of its use of some of the powers that it may be given, such as the compulsory purchase order, and it would also contain other issues that could be prescribed by the Secretary of State. I am ready to consider the things that members on both sides of the Committee may consider appropriate for the Secretary of State to prescribe in that report, and the Bill gives us the power to do that. Formerly, the Secretary of State would lay the report because that is how we do our business, but the chair of the IPC could and would be held to account by any Select Committee arrangement that the House decided to put in place. That Committee would be able to question the chair directly on the performance and conduct of the IPC and the content of the report.
Hon. Members will remember the interesting point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough during last weeks sitting. He is a member of what was the Education and Skills Committee, and is now a Committee in one of the new Departments. His point was this: the chief inspector from Ofsted reports and accounts directly to that Committee twice a year. That is an interesting model and I have checked it out. It is done by convention rather than legislation, and functions by the determination of that Select Committee. The process may be open, if it wants, for the future Select Committee to examine. However, Ofsteds formal method of reporting, and the reports laid to Parliament and picked up and scrutinised by the Select Committee are, as I have described, via the Secretary of State, although they are Ofsteds reports.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): That is a very helpful comment. As a member of the Communities and Local Government Committee, I think the Committee will want to consider that matter carefullyas it will the idea of confirmation hearings. Would Ministers be prepared to go that extra step further? Instead of saying that they have a person who they want to appoint and have a friendly chat with, they could say that they are minded to make the appointment, subject to any inquiry that the Select Committee may hold, or any interview with it, and take
John Healey: My hon. Friend tempts me. It rather reminds me of the sorts of debates we had when I was leading the Statistics and Registration Service Bill through Parliament in the last Session.
I am reminded of the strong case for the Treasury Committee to take an active role and interest in the appointment of the chairman of the Statistics Board. Perhaps that is something that we can return to at the appropriate point in the Bill, to look at that proposition in more detail, if my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe wants to develop it.
The hon. Member for Beckenham is trying to restrict the functions of the IPC to those that could be conferred by or through the Bill and no other legislation. The problem with that is that the reference to other Acts is necessary so that we can require the IPC to discharge functions that may arise under other legislation. It is also necessary, and I think all members of the Committee will appreciate this, for future-proofing such legislation, particularly when it is set out in primary legislative terms. For example, the nature of the environmental impact assessment, which exercised a number of Members during the evidence-taking session, is set out under a European directive. It will need to be transposed into UK law and in relation to decisionsat least some decisionsthat the IPC will take. For instance, we may require that there is a duty on the IPC, in considering any applications for which an environmental impact assessment is required under the European directive, to ensure that it is being conducted properly as part of the application. Without the provision we would be unable to do that. I say to the hon. Lady that it is not a provision to try to smuggle in a determination for mission creep of the commission; it is a sensible and essential element to ensure that the IPC can do the job that we require it to do, not just when we set it up in 2009, but for the future.
In summary, the IPC is an important part of our proposals to create a new system for dealing with applications for major investments and major infrastructure. It will help us to reach decisions in a way that is more efficient, speedy and predictable. It will improve the accountability and clarity of the system. It will also reinforce the ability of the public and communities to participate effectively and have their views heard during that process. We have thought long and hard about how the IPC should be set up; how it should be constituted and the functions that it should have. I hope that members of the Committee will allow the clause to stand part so that we can move on to the detailed consideration of the IPC, which of course is not in the clause but in schedule 1.
Mrs. Lait: I am enormously grateful to the Minister. I am sure that he is relieved to have a Bill as exciting as the Planning Bill after the statistics Bill.
I am not reassured about the amendments or the clause. The Minister tried hard to put a time scale on the introduction of the practicalities of the Bill. I shall certainly be taking up his invitation to get hold of the contractors, to ask them whether they have any intention of bringing forward any form of planning application before the national policy statements are in place. I shall be very interested in the answer and, hopefully, at some point I shall get an answer that I can report to the Committee.
I shall refer briefly to limiting the role of the commissioners to the Bill. I understand absolutely the Ministers points about Acts that need changing to create the single consent regime and about future legislation, but the problem is that that is not specified in the Bill. It must be possible to introduce an amendment to ensure that the powers given to the commissioners in the Bill are not retrospective and will not apply to older Acts, because otherwise they could be used in ways that were not originally intended. That is my concern. I am not a lawyer, but it does not take much imagination to work out that our learned friends could raise such concerns in the future.
Furthermore, given our concerns about the time scale, when Ministers want to introduce the requirement for an independent planning commission, a further opportunity to discuss whether it is necessary should be provided. I would like to vote on our amendment providing for a statutory instrument. I am sure everybody has gathered that we think that the clause is unnecessary. I hope, therefore, that we can also vote on clause stand part. I would be happy to vote on amendments Nos. 1 and 3 together, and then on clause stand part separately, although I am not quite sure how that would work formally. I simply want to place on the record our objections to the clause and our support for the amendments.
The Chairman: For clarification, is the hon. Lady asking for three votes on clause 1on amendments Nos. 1 and 3 and on clause stand part?
Question put, That the amendment be made:
The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 11.
Division No. 2 ]
Question accordingly negatived.
Amendment proposed: No. 3, in clause 1, page 1, line 8, at end insert
(4) This section shall come into force on such day as the Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument appoint..[Mrs. Lait.]
Question put, That the amendment be made:
The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 11.
Division No. 3 ]
Question accordingly negatived.
Motion made, and Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill:
The Committee divided: Ayes 11, Noes 7.
Division No. 4 ]
Question accordingly agreed to.
Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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