Planning Bill

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Clause 46

Obtaining information about interests in land
Robert Neill: I beg to move amendment No. 262, in clause 46, page 21, line 41, at end insert—
‘(2A) The applicant shall pay the recipient’s reasonable costs of complying with the notice.’.
The amendment deals with a fairly simple point. We do not have a problem with the basic concept of a notice being served in the way proposed in the clause, because it is appropriate to obtain such information. However, the applicants will often be large organisations that are very well resourced, and they may well be serving notice to very small organisations or individuals. In fairness, it is not unreasonable for the recipient of the notice to claim back reasonable costs from the applicant in such circumstances. We are rightly trying to front-load much more of the work into the process for the reasons that we have discussed, but it is a question of equality and fairness.
The provision has the potential to be onerous for a private occupier or small farmer whose land is affected, if they have to comply fully with a notice, particularly if there are complications over ownership. In financial terms, there will be no skin off the nose of the applicant for a project of that magnitude when set against the overall scheme of things, but the amendment would do something to redress the balance in favour of the little people. In particular, it would add to the sense of fairness that I am sure the Minister wants to achieve in the commission’s working. I hope that it would not do any damage to the scheme of the Bill.
John Healey: Perhaps it will help to put the hon. Gentleman’s concerns in perspective if I explain to the Committee the type of information that will be obtained. The only type of information that may be obtained using that power is a person’s name and address. In those circumstances, I think that the hon. Gentleman accepts that the costs of compliance are likely to be negligible. It would not be reasonable for the commission to authorise the serving of a notice in circumstances where the applicant could readily obtain the information by other means, such as a Land Registry search. In those circumstances, it would not be reasonable to get them to do so, so I am not sure whether the amendment, which I suspect is a probing amendment, serves a particularly useful purpose.
Robert Neill: Will the Minister assure me that no subsequent regulations will extend the scope of that power beyond searching for the name and address? If he can assure me on that, I will have probed as much as I need and will probably not need to press the matter further.
John Healey: The only type of information that that power can be used for is a person’s name and address. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman the reassurance that he seeks.
Robert Neill: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Dan Rogerson: I beg to move amendment No. 175, in clause 46, page 22, line 17, leave out ‘14’ and insert ‘56’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 263, in clause 46, page 22, line 17, leave out ‘14’ and insert ‘28’.
No. 176, in clause 47, page 23, line 27, leave out ‘14’ and insert ‘56’.
Dan Rogerson: I return to my recurring theme of time scales, which we will probably revisit when we debate subsequent clauses. I am concerned about the imposition of fines. Where there is the potential for a fine to be imposed, we need to look at the length of time proposed. As the Bill is drafted, the time scale is 14 days, but someone could easily miss out if they are on holiday for 14 days. If that were a problem, it would be fair enough if they got a stern letter on their return and had to forward the information, but we are talking about a level 5 fine.
First, for those of us who are uninitiated in the ways of the courts, perhaps the Minister will confirm what a level 5 fine is. Secondly, does he feel it appropriate to fine someone just because they happen to have been away on holiday when the letter landed on their doorstep? I think that 14 days is far too short a period, so our amendments suggest the somewhat more generous period of 56 days. The Minister might feel that that is too long, but perhaps we can reach an accommodation, if he is prepared to examine the matter and return to it at a future stage. That would be welcome, because two weeks is a very short period of time, particularly if people are at risk of incurring a fine.
1.45 pm
Robert Neill: I agree with the point made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall. We have also tabled an amendment, No. 263, on the subject, with the only difference being the amount of time allowed.
Perhaps more than most people, I ought to know what a level 5 fine is, but I must confess that it escapes me for the moment. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman asked me, but I could not tell him, so I did not charge him anything—I am sure that the Minister has the information to hand. My recollection is that a level 5 fine is at the top end of the scale. I agree that that could be thought to be onerous, for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman has set out. If there is scope for accommodation, I commend our figure of 28 days, which is a middle point in the spectrum that is achievable as a businesslike proposition for the Minister.
John Healey: First, a level 5 fine is a maximum of £5,000. Secondly, I do not think it unreasonable to have a minimum time scale in the Bill, and we judge 14 days to be a good minimum. The hon. Member for North Cornwall has bid for a fourfold increase in that amount, and the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has bid to double it, but neither of them made a strong case why the minimum time scale should be increased.
The purpose of clause 46 is to allow the commission the power to authorise a promoter or applicant to serve such a notice on the occupier of the land. Anyone who receives rent for it, manages it, is a mortgagee or has an interest in the land is required to provide the names and addresses of people with an interest. That is the purpose, which is quite narrowly drawn, and not a cause, as far as I can see, for the level of concern expressed by Liberal Democrat and Tory Members.
Robert Neill: I do not disagree with the basic principle, which is perfectly fair, but can the Minister make a strong case why 14 days is the magic figure, as opposed to 28 days or 56 days? Is there any particular evidence or any consistency with other practice that spells out 14 days?
John Healey rose—
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): How about 42 days?
John Healey: I hear 42 days from the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon.
The time scale is a minimum, and the commission can specify a longer time period, if it judges it to be right in the circumstances. Clause 46 relates to the notice period that must be given before a right of entry can be exercised—no more, no less. If hon. Members have a stronger case to put, then I will, of course, listen, but as things stand, for the power that the clause bestows, I do not hear the strength of argument from them that would persuade me that 14 days is not an appropriate minimum. If the hon. Gentleman wants to press his amendment to a vote, I shall ask my hon. Friends to resist.
Dan Rogerson: I did not expect the Minister to be generous on some of the amendments, but he is being particularly stingy on that one.
If we are talking about 14 days, someone might not receive notification for all sorts of reasons—they could have gone on holiday or into hospital, and we have heard about busy times of the year and so on. We can say that 14 days is the minimum and that the maximum fine is £5,000, but, if we think that either end is extreme, we should change the Bill. We have to acknowledge that that minimum time period and the maximum fine may be imposed. We are not necessarily talking about companies or local authorities; we could be talking about private individuals. The time scale and fine are tough things to impose on someone in connection with an application.
We have been having an auction on the number of days, and I am open to suggestions on a more reasonable minimum. However, we need to take seriously the possibility that someone could have a £5,000 fine slapped on them for simply being unable to respond, for whatever reason, within 14 days, which would be overly onerous. A lengthier period would not delay an application hugely, and I cannot see a huge argument against it. I shall withdraw my amendment, but the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst may wish to intervene to say that he wants to push for a vote on his amendment.
Robert Neill: I cannot oblige the hon. Gentleman, but perhaps we will return to the matter. Does he agree that it is uncharacteristically rigid of the Minister not to give way on this and that it would be onerous to catch an ordinary family holiday that falls foul of the provision? A 28-day period would be more reasonable.
Dan Rogerson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for intervening on me at my request. Far be it from me to suggest that rigidity has entered the Minister’s demeanour, as he has spent some time at the Treasury. I hope that he will consider the issue and whether a fine should be imposed on someone for being unavailable for 14 days. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 46 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 47

Rights of entry
Robert Neill: I beg to move amendment No. 14, in clause 47, page 23, line 11, at end insert—
‘(1A) Subsection (1) shall come into force on such a day as the Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument appoint.’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment
No. 47, in clause 179, page 101, line 1, after ‘section’, insert ‘47(1),’.
Robert Neill: The amendment would insert a subsection to which we have referred before. Introducing the measure by statutory instrument would allow time for reflection. We are still not convinced that it is wise to embark upon this course, when we are yet to see the working out of the 2005 rules. Because we have misgivings, and because there is still a lot of uncertainty, we want to allow more time for reflection. The House should have the opportunity to vote before it introduces a procedure that potentially has significant ramifications for the rights of individuals.
John Healey: Quite simply, if the hon. Gentleman wants to see how the 2005 rules work out before putting this part of the Bill into effect, we will have to wait for a number of years. It may not be just the end of this year, but the end of next year before we see the first of the applications under the new rules. If he wants to see the rules work out, we will have to wait a lot longer. Despite his velvet presentation, the amendment would drive a coach and horses through this part of the Bill.
Robert Neill: We need to consider not only the way in which things work in practice, but the need for sensitivity, which the Government should recognise. The right of entry into someone’s home, for example, is a significant interference with their legal rights, such as their rights under the European convention on human rights. The Government are anxious to comply with that convention, which should not be ignored, save on the most compelling grounds. That is why a provision that allows an intrusion into someone’s private property, albeit for justifiable purposes, should not be brought into force without the House being able to vote on it. If it became apparent that there would be a delay in seeing how the 2005 rules work out, we need not wait for that. It is that interference—perhaps I should have stressed that more in my earlier argument—with the rights of the individual that concerns me, but I shall not press the amendment at this stage. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 47 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 48

Rights of entry: the Crown
Dan Rogerson: I beg to move amendment No. 177, in clause 48, page 24, line 16, leave out from ‘land’ to end of line 17.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 178, in clause 48, page 24, line 21, leave out subsections (3) and (4).
Dan Rogerson: I shall be brief, because we have already discussed the difference between Crown land and other land. When I was tabling the amendments, I considered the point that more protection is afforded to Crown land than to the land of private individuals. Therefore, I do not wish to move the amendment officially.
The Chairman: The amendment has not been moved formally.
Clause 48 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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