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The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) expressed concern about the timing. I want to reassure her and the House on that, and the motion addresses this issue. We have given an undertaking that Committees will have at least four to six weeks after the end of the three-month public consultation period to complete their work. This is an important and valuable part of the parliamentary
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scrutiny process. It means that the interval between the proposal being laid and the Committee producing its report will not be less than four months and will usually be longer than that. In practice, the relevant period will therefore usually be about six months, but my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State who will be laying the proposals are fully aware of the need to consult Select Committees about the timing of the scrutiny process at an early stage. I hope that this explanation reassures the House that the process will be timely and focused, but certainly not rushed.

Under the terms of the motion, the Select Committee would publish its report no later than 40 days before the end of the relevant period, which would allow time for a debate in either or both Chambers if the Select Committee recommends one. The Secretary of State would revise the draft NPS in the light of the public consultation, the Select Committee’s report and any resolutions of either House, and then designate the NPS.

Mrs. Lait: Are the 40 days in addition to the four to six weeks that the Select Committee will have, or is the 40 days included in that four to six weeks? I ask that as I can envisage potential difficulties in terms of timing.

Mr. Wright: I apologise to the hon. Lady for not making myself clear. As I said at the start, when a draft national policy statement is published, the relevant Secretary of State will determine the relevant period. That relevant period is the time scale within which this whole process will take place. The reason for the point about the report coming out 40 days before the end of that relevant period is to ensure that there could be a debate in this House or the other place if the Select Committee that scrutinised that NPS thought that that would be relevant, appropriate and worth while. That is an important point.

As I said, there is a balance to be struck in respect of ensuring that we have policy statements in place for our national infrastructure projects that are timely, relevant, focused and thorough, and incorporating both public consultation and, crucially, very rigorous parliamentary scrutiny of the process.

Mrs. Lait rose—

Mr. Wright: I can see that I have not reassured the hon. Lady, so I shall give way again.

Mrs. Lait: This is not so much about reassurance, but arithmetic. There is to be 12 weeks for public consultation, plus four to six weeks for the Select Committee to take evidence plus 40 days in which the Select Committee can make its decision and produce a report to the House and the House can debate it. So 12 weeks plus six weeks plus seven weeks—42 days—means that we seem to be talking about 25 weeks maximum between the Secretary of State laying a national policy statement and a parliamentary debate being held? Is that the total length of time?

Mr. Wright: I seem to recall that in an earlier answer to an intervention, I said that I thought the relevant period would, in general—in the real world—be about six months. I am only a chartered accountant, so I take the hon. Lady’s arithmetic for granted, but I think that is right.

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Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): There is a job going.

Mr. Wright: Given that the previous debate was about the Comptroller and Auditor General, I understand that point.

The six-month period strikes the balance to ensure that we have public consultation and debate and, crucially for this House, that there is appropriate parliamentary scrutiny of the entire process.

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): Did the Minister not feel it appropriate, in consultation with ministerial colleagues and with Chairs of the Select Committee, through the Liaison Committee, to specify a minimum time frame for this process? I can see that the 40-day period is necessary to ensure that anything coming from the Select Committee can be adequately considered by the House, but did the Minister not consider a minimum period for the whole process? An individual Secretary of State will have to consider what the relevant period should be, but will there be a minimum in respect of that decision?

Mr. Wright: No, I think that there needs to be discussion between the relevant Secretary of State, the relevant departmental Select Committees and the Liaison Committee. The point that I have been trying to make to the House is that this arrangement has to be as flexible as possible. We want to give appropriate time for Parliament to scrutinise these incredibly important planning statements. It is incredibly important that as we consider the future infrastructure of this country, in order to allow us to compete in the modern world, we have a public debate on, and parliamentary scrutiny of, what is necessary. We are trying to provide flexibility in the system, and the discussions that my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and others have had with relevant Select Committee Chairs indicate that this flexibility has been provided and that the whole House can be reassured on that.

Mr. Truswell: A few minutes ago, my hon. Friend said that the relevant Minister would review the draft national policy statement in the light of public consultation and the views of the Select Committee. If I recall things correctly, he used the words “resolutions of this House.” Could he be a bit more specific about what he might mean by that? Within what parameters will we be working, in terms of the resolutions of this House, that will influence the final NPS?

Mr. Wright: I am not trying to duck the issue, but I think it is the responsibility of the relevant Select Committee that has examined the evidence, produced the report and determined what the nature of the debate in this House, or perhaps even in the other place, needs to be. The Government are trying to be as flexible as possible in respecting the wishes of Parliament in its scrutiny of this process. Flexibility is key, and allowing Members of this House the opportunity to debate what has been found by the Select Committee investigation is important.

Robert Neill: The Minister was referring to the various consultations that have been undertaken with Select Committees and other matters. He may recall that
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during the debate in Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) suggested to the Minister for Local Government that it would be sensible to have a meeting or discussions with representatives of the Quadripartite Committee, in order to consider some of the issues and difficulties that may have arisen in trying to pull together Joint Committees from various other bodies. Was that followed up? Did such discussions take place?

Mr. Wright: To the extent that I am aware, I am not entirely certain that such discussions did take place. As I said, I think that discussions took place between the Liaison Committee, the relevant departmental Select Committees and the Deputy Leader of the House.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): This might be of help. It is true that there were not direct consultations, but in the discussions that took place between the Deputy Leader of the House and the Chairs of the Select Committees the example—both positive and negative—of the Quadripartite Committee, was heavily drawn on. The Clerks of the Committees, who were advising us, were well aware of the operation of that Committee.

Mr. Wright: I am grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government for that clarification of the position.

Part B of the motion makes a number of consequential changes. It allows the Liaison Committee to set up a new sub-Committee to consider how to scrutinise national policy statements and it provides for a motion from the Liaison Committee to nominate an NPS committee to be treated in the same way as a motion from the Committee of Selection nominating Members to any other Committee.

I hope that the House will agree that the motion sets out significant and innovative arrangements for parliamentary scrutiny, which will ensure that this House—and the other place, if necessary—has a strong say, and is able to have a big influence on national policy statements. I commend the motion to the House.

2.26 pm

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for taking the time to detail the substance of the motion. He is right to say that these are significant and innovative matters. The test, of course, is whether they are adequate and achieve the overall objective—I am sorry to say that that is where he and I are likely to part company.

I promise that I shall not do a re-run of the lengthy scrutiny—the Minister was right about that—in Committee of what became the Planning Act 2008. However, it is sensible to start from the proposition that we are dealing, as he said, with significant infrastructure projects of the highest degree. Something of national significance is almost in the definition “national policy statement”. Against that background, it is hugely important that if such projects are to go ahead, there should, as he says, be a swift and effective system to consider them. On that much we have common ground, which is why the Conservatives are sympathetic towards some aspects of these measures. National policy statements have a real role to play as part of this regime.

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The Minister will know that we part company from him on the desirability of the Infrastructure Planning Commission, in its current form, being the vehicle to deal with this issue. Our reason for doing so is linked to our concern about the proposals in the motion, which is that precisely because of the significance of these projects, it is all the more important that there should be the maximum democratic accountability in the decision-making process and the maximum legitimacy if communities and other groups are being asked to make a sacrifice in the national interest.

If that is to happen, as it sometimes does in the planning process, it is right and proper that people feel they have had a fair crack of the whip in putting their case before a decision is taken. If the matter is really of national significance, it is right that the ultimate decision should be taken in the Chamber of the House.

There is, of course, merit in Select Committees looking at detailed matters, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) for referring to the discussions with the Quadripartite Committee, because that is one of the issues raised to which I shall return. Although I accept that there has been a degree of constructive discussion and movement from the Government’s original proposals, none of the proposals in the motion meets our basic issue of principle: proposals of this kind should ultimately be signed off in a substantive vote following a debate on the Floor of this House. The mechanism by which we achieve that might vary, be it the report of a Joint Committee or a special national policy committee—that matters not. These proposals lack the means whereby every Member can participate in a debate and register their vote. That is the most important issue.

John Howell (Henley) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that since legislation was passed in 2004 the Government have turned planning into the delivery arm of politics? Would he like to speculate on why the Government are so unwilling to allow these major planning decisions to receive the full scrutiny of the House?

Robert Neill: My hon. Friend makes a valid point, and the approach does lack consistency. If we are dealing with matters of political significance, it is right that the House should have that opportunity. I suspect that the concern is that the decisions taken by the whole House might not be convenient for the policy that Government—of whatever party—wish to push through. That is genuinely a mistake, and the best current example is Heathrow airport.

As things stand, the House would have no opportunity for a substantive vote on the proposal to build an extra runway at Heathrow. That would have massive implications not only for the communities immediately affected, which will doubtless be represented later by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), but for many people beyond the area. That is fundamentally wrong, and it sends the wrong message about the attitude of Government, as an institution, to the people on the receiving end of a planning application. If a community such as Sipson has to make a sacrifice for the greater good, there should at least be a substantive vote in the Chamber before the issue is decided.

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Mr. Drew: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a dilemma for an individual Member who may be on the Select Committee considering an NPS and may also have a direct interest in that issue? In one way, that Member might want to be on that body, but if they are, they could have a conflict of interest between representing their constituents and the greater betterment of the process. That issue has not been resolved, but it could be resolved if it came back to the House for a final vote.

Robert Neill: The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. Whatever the Government’s intentions, we are in danger of importing to our Select Committees some of the difficulties with conflicts of interest that we see on planning committees throughout the country.

I have set out my principled objection to the lack of a substantive vote, but various practical difficulties also arise, even with the revisions to the proposals as a result of discussion since consideration in Committee. The proposals before us do not address the conflict of interest that the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) rightly raised. That issue would be resolved by having a debate on the Floor of the House and a vote.

One practical issue is the logistics involved in existing Select Committees having to provide people to man the Joint Committees. I have served on a Select Committee and I know how difficult it is, with Members’ commitments and diaries, to maintain a cadre of Members who attend regularly and gel to conduct detailed scrutiny and examination. It will be much harder if people are drawn away from other commitments to come together on an ad hoc basis and then move on to something else. That will lack the continuity that is the hallmark of good scrutiny. That has certainly been my experience here and when I was a member of the London Assembly for eight years.

Most of the Assembly’s work was scrutiny, and continuity and a certain esprit de corps among members were important to the effectiveness of our scrutiny. Those factors would be difficult to achieve under these proposals. Some Select Committee Chairmen are exercised by the fact that it is not always possible to ensure that enough Members attend, and the Government have made that problem worse by creating Regional Select Committees. We are in danger of Select Committee overload.

We want robust scrutiny by the House, and Select Committees play a vital role in that, but more is not better in this case. More Committees do not create better scrutiny. It would be better to have greater flexibility in timetabling and more open-ended debate without the guillotine being constantly used, so hon. Members would have a say when it counted. Those practical issues have not been properly addressed.

Dr. Starkey: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that much more detailed scrutiny is possible in a Select Committee than on the Floor of the House, even if no time limits are imposed on debate? As a Back Bencher, my experience of attempting scrutiny in debate on the Floor of the House—always supposing that I am called to speak—is that it is nowhere near as effective as what I can achieve as a member of a Select Committee.

Robert Neill: I am not a million miles away from that position, but the hon. Lady has been established as the Chairman of her Committee for some time, and it has
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continuity of membership, so it has exactly the esprit de corps that I mentioned. The sort of Select Committee that is proposed will make it much harder to achieve that. I do not say that there is no role for some Select Committee consideration of proposals, but that should be part of the process, not the end of it.

I hope that the system can be made to work, despite the difficulties, but the key test is whether, following scrutiny by a viable Select Committee, there is an opportunity for a substantive vote on the Floor of the House. The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington does not go as far as I would wish in that regard, but it would provide for the triggering of a vote. If the amendment is pressed to a vote, my hon. Friends and I will be minded to support it. While it does not go as far as we want, it at least seeks to address an important principle that is missing from the proposals.

I shall end by returning to the important point of principle that I mentioned first. I referred to my time as a member of the London Assembly. One of my constituents once asked me, “Bob, how did you vote on the congestion charge?” I had to tell them, “Well, we never actually had a vote on it.” Although it was one of the most significant policy decisions taken by the Greater London authority, the structure was such that it never permitted a substantive vote on the floor of the Assembly. The reaction of my constituent was, “Well, that is potty. What is the point of the Assembly then?” I have a real fear that, at a time of grave concern about the relevance of the House, it is not helpful to suggest that key national decisions should be taken without this House, after scrutiny, having a substantive vote. In the current climate, that is a misreading of what people expect.

If the Government were to come back with proposals that allowed a substantive vote on the Floor of the House, our attitude might be different, but as things stand, we would be minded to support the amendment. The Minister made an articulate and thoughtful case, but it did not address the fundamental issue of accountability.

2.38 pm

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): I offer the House an apology on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), the Chairman of the Transport Committee. She had wished to participate in this debate, but her Committee is meeting now so she has had to leave. On her behalf, I will make one of the points that she wished to make.

I wish to make a few general points about the proposals before the House on mechanisms for parliamentary scrutiny of national policy statements. This is a very positive step, because it provides for parliamentary scrutiny. People argue that that scrutiny will not be as good as it should be, but the principle is excellent. In particular, the principle of using the Select Committee structure to facilitate that scrutiny, and give an expanded role to the members of Select Committees, should be applauded.

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