Select Committee on Liaison Fourth Special Report


Letter to the Chairman of the Liaison Committee from the Chairman of the Business and Enterprise Committee, 7 October 2008

Planning Bill: Committee Scrutiny of National Policy Statements

Now that the Planning Bill has left the House of Commons, I thought it might be helpful to summarise the discussions which Select Committee Chairmen have had with the Government. I attach correspondence with Ministers to this letter.

As you will recollect, the Bill will establish a new National Infrastructure Commission to decide on major infrastructure projects. In making those decisions, it will be guided by National Policy Statements (NPSs), which will be designated by the Secretary of State. Before designation, the Secretary of State will have to engage in a consultation process. When the Bill was introduced, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said:

To provide the stronger role for Parliament, we encourage the House to establish a new Select Committee with the main purpose of holding inquiries into draft national policy statements in parallel with public consultation. We suggest that this Committee should be comprised of members from existing Select Committees on Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, on Transport and on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

We will consider the Committee's reports together with responses to public consultation and revise draft national policy statements where appropriate, before designating them. In addition, if the Committee has recommended that a national policy statement raises issues which should be debated by Parliament as a whole, we will make available time in each House for a debate before we designate it. [Official Report, 27 November 2007, 14WS].

The Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee was concerned that this excluded members of the committee with responsibility for planning and local government. Moreover, the Chairmen of the departmental select committees directly concerned considered that a system in which ad hoc committees were drawn from existing select committees would seriously disrupt those committees' work. We thought in many cases it would be more appropriate to refer NPSs to individual committees, who already have the expertise needed to deal with them, and would be eager to undertake the task.

The Chairmen wrote to the Minister pointing out that these proposals would have implications for the work and resources of existing committees, and since then we have been engaged in discussions with the Government about how scrutiny of the statements might be handled. I should put on record that although there may still be some differences of opinion between us, the Government's desire for proper committee scrutiny is welcome, and our discussions have been extremely constructive.

The Amendments to the Bill

On introduction, the Bill contained no reference to parliamentary scrutiny, because the Government rightly accepted that it was inappropriate to set out procedure in statute. In our discussions, some of us pressed for the Bill to be amended to make policy statements analogous to Statutory Instruments, and to require the approval of the House before their designation. The Government did not accept that. The Government was however willing to ensure the Bill required the Government to respond to Parliamentary scrutiny. We were concerned about how this could be done without inadvertently breaching Article 9 of the Bill of Rights and exposing Committee proceedings to use in judicial review. The Government took this point, and proposed what is now Clause 9 of the Bill before the Lords (Parliamentary requirements), which states:

1.  This section sets out the parliamentary requirements referred to in sections 5(4) and 6(4).

2.  The Secretary of State must lay the proposal before Parliament.

3.  In this section "the proposal" means—

a)  the statement that the Secretary of State proposes to designate as a national policy   statement for the purposes of this Act, or

b)  (as the case may be) the proposed amendment.

4.  Subsection (5) applies if, during the relevant period—

a)  either House of Parliament makes a resolution with regard to the proposal, or

b)  a committee of the House of Commons makes recommendations with regard to   the proposal.

5.  The Secretary of State must lay before Parliament a statement setting out the Secretary of State's response to the resolution or recommendations.

6.  The relevant period is the period specified by the Secretary of State in relation to the proposal.

7.  The Secretary of State must specify the relevant period in relation to the proposal on or before the day on which the proposal is laid before Parliament under subsection (2).

Whatever the statutory structure, the way in which the House deals with these National Policy Statements will depend on Standing Orders. Our discussions could not result in a procedure for scrutiny which was agreed in every detail, since the final form of the statute cannot be known until Royal Assent, and, once that is clear, the Procedure Committee and the House itself will have views on what is appropriate. However, we did agree some broad principles which it may be useful to make publicly known.

Committee involvement

The Government now accepts that there will be occasions when a single select committee is best placed to scrutinise a particular policy statement. Equally, we understand that these statements will cover a wide range of issues, and that on occasion, a specially constituted committee would be more appropriate. We have suggested that a subcommittee of the Liaison Committee should decide whether a particular policy statement should go to an individual committee or a specially constituted committee, appointed by the House. Such a subcommittee would be appointed by the Liaison Committee itself: it might sensibly consist of the chairmen of the relevant departmental select committees, and two other members of the Liaison Committee to ensure an appropriate political balance. That would mean those most directly concerned could discuss how a particular policy statement should be dealt with, but that wider views would also be included.

Given the cross-cutting nature of these documents, we have made a novel suggestion that even if responsibility remained with an existing committee, Members of other relevant committees would have the right to attend meetings, and take part in evidence gathering, although not to take part in agreeing any report.


We discussed the relationship between the timing of public consultation and parliamentary scrutiny. While ideally parliamentary scrutiny should follow public consultation, we recognise that one of the aims of the Bill is to speed up the planning process for major infrastructure projects. In our discussions, we agreed it would be desirable for parliamentary scrutiny to run in parallel with public consultation, but continue for some weeks after public consultation had ended.


Scrutiny of National Policy Statements would lay a heavy burden on the House and its Committees, and the Government should be careful not to overload the system. We have been assured that there will be informal discussions about the timing of the statements between officials and committee staff and that the Government will seek to understand the constraints on our scrutiny. Clause 9 allows the Secretary of State to designate a period which will in effect determine the time available for parliamentary scrutiny. We hope that before making such a designation, Secretaries of State will consult the Liaison Committee subcommittee, who will be able to advise on the resources available, and other constraints on Committees' time.

Parliamentary Debate and response to the Committee

The Government has committed itself to a debate on National Policy Statements, if a committee so recommends. In Committee, the Minister said:

Thirdly, that Select Committee, or the arrangements that Parliament puts in place, will have the scope,[1] as closely as they wish and in the manner that they wish, to scrutinise and comment on the proposals, and we will then take them into consideration in the finalisation of our national policy statement.

Finally, we have made it very clear, in parliamentary terms, that if the Select Committee—let us call it that for the moment—believes that the matters are important enough to require parliamentary debate, we will make time for that. Of course, there is also the option for Parliament to decide to move to votes if it wishes to do so. (Public Bill Committee on the Planning Bill, Thursday 10 January 2009, c138-9)

My colleagues and I agreed that flexibility would be essential, and that it was quite possible that debate would be very rare.

In our discussions, I pressed for any such debate to take place after a committee had reported, and indeed after the Government had indicated in what ways, if any, a policy statement would be changed before designation. The Committee would then be able to decide whether the Government had responded satisfactorily, and would decide whether to recommend debate, doubtless taking into account both the intrinsic importance of the policy statement, and the extent to which the Government's revisions met its concerns. The House would debate, and possibly come to a resolution on, the final statement of the government's policy.

Clause 9 of the Bill simply requires that before designating a national policy statement, the Secretary of State shall lay a statement before Parliament setting out his response to any committee report or resolution of the House of Commons. It is possible that this would be the only response to a report, and that the House would first see a final national policy statement at the point when it was designated. However, it would be equally possible for the Standing Orders that the Government produces to provide for some kind of intervening process. Colleagues may wish to consider whether this would be desirable.

It may be helpful to set out how a policy statement might flow through the House, with stages in square brackets optional.

Step 1: Government and the Liaison Committee subcommittee discuss the likely timing of NPSs, the consultation periods on those NPSs, and the length of time the House will need to deal with them.

Step 2: Government lays NPS in draft, specifying a relevant period for consideration—public consultation period begins.

Step 3: Liaison Sub-Committee decides how it should be considered. If an ad hoc committee is desired, it is appointed by the House, with the names coming from the Liaison Committee. Otherwise, the NPS is allocated to an existing departmental committee.

Step 4: The Committee charged with NPS decides and announces its terms of reference.

The Committee might feel it is already fully aware of the issues, and want to be extremely restrictive in its approach: it might want to be extremely thorough. Consultation responses, and analysis of those responses, would be made available to the Committee as it proceeds.

Step 5: Committee inquiry and report. The Committee's inquiry continues in parallel with public consultation, but does not report until some time after the consultation closes.

As noted above, it is not clear what would happen after the Committee has reported. The minimum the Bill requires is:

[Step 6: The House debates the NPS in the form in which it was originally proposed.]

Step 7: Government lays statutory response and designates NPS (possibly with amendments).

If it was felt important that the House should see proposed revisions to the NPS before the debate, a variety of procedures along the following lines would be possible:

Step 6: The Government responds to the Committee, indicating whether the NPS is going to be changed, and if so how.

Step 7: The Committee considers that response, and may recommend a debate on the NPS, or simply indicate that it is content with the document.

[Debate on the NPS]

Step 8: Government lays statutory response and designates NPS (possibly with further amendments to take account of opinions expressed in the debate).

Although most work on this will need to be done after the Bill has received Royal Assent, the Bill remains before Parliament, and Lords Amendments may return to the Commons. I therefore ask you to put this letter to the Liaison Committee at it next meeting, so that colleagues can consider whether it is appropriate to release this letter and the attached correspondence to inform further proceedings on the Planning Bill and consideration of the Standing Orders which will come forward after that.

Peter Luff MP

Chairman, Business and Enterprise Committee

1   At the time of the debate, the Government was proposing a Committee drawn from four select committees: Business and Enterprise, Communities and Local Government, Environment Food and Rural Affairs and Communities and Local Government. Back

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Prepared 23 October 2008