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I have been slightly surprised by the initial response of some Members, including some Chairs of Select Committees, to the proposal. They seemed to say, Goodness, weve all got far too much to do and we dont want any more. At a time of enormous debate
about whether Parliament is providing value for money, it ill behoves us as parliamentarians, when we are being given the ability to scrutinise more and a statutory place in the process that involves placing additional burdens on members of Select Committees, to say, Wed rather not, thank you. We would prefer it if Ministers just got on with it in the normal way and we merely debated these things on the Floor of the House. That is not to say that debates on the Floor of the House are not importantI do not want to be misinterpreted in that way. However, as I have said, Select Committees provide a very different environment in which there can be much more detailed give and take and where we can get much more detailed scrutiny.
I think, broadly speaking, that this is an excellent initiative. I welcome the fact that the Government have been trying to give Parliament and Select Committees a greater role and I certainly would not want to be associated with any suggestion that Select Committees should not take on that role. MPs can reorder their work if they think that sufficient priority should be given to matters such as the scrutiny of these statements. If I may make a slightly wicked comment, I do not think that if they were full-time MPs it would be difficult for them to find the time.
Mr. Truswell: I do not think that there has been any suggestion in todays debate that the role of the Select Committee is not crucial. The point is that the Select Committee, like a Public Bill Committee, should scrutinise an NPS in detail and then bring it to the House for a substantive vote, in much the same way as we do with Bills. My hon. Friend should rest assuredI hope she agreesthat NPSs can be just as important in their impact on the country and on communities as any legislation that we pass in the House.
I also want to highlight the welcome way Ministers and the Leader of the House engaged with the Chairs of the relevant Select Committees over this process. As the Minister has mentioned, the proposals that were first suggested were very different from those we have now. At a time when a lot of the publicity about the work of the House is extremely negative, I want to bring into the open the fact that the meetings in the Leader of the Houses office and the to-ing and fro-ing of suggestions and counter-suggestions between Ministers and the Chairs of Select Committees were incredibly constructive. We have finished up with a process that is light years ahead of the one first suggested.
Mrs. Lait: Is the hon. Lady prepared to give credit to the House? On Second Reading of the 2008 Act we put the most pressure on to ensure that the Select Committee structure was much more flexible than the Government originally proposed.
I shall leave the hon. Ladys remarks to stand by themselves, as I cannot recall what was said. Only the Ministernot the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), who is in the Chamber now, but the Minister for Local Governmentcould say what went on in his innermost mind and what
had more effect on him. However, I do not want to take away from other people. I simply want to bring into the open part of the procedure that went on in this buildingnot in public, because such meetings do not happen in publicto demonstrate that more goes on in the House than what occurs in the Chamber or in Westminster Hall.
Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Like the hon. Lady, I think that the work of Select Committees is important and useful, as it provides a form of scrutiny that is not easily duplicated in the Chamber, but does she share my doubt about the number of Select Committee places that there seem to be? I am told by a colleagueI do not know whether it is rightthat the numbers might have as much as doubled in the past few years and that there are too many places. As a result, MPseven if they are full time and fully committedhave struggled to attend meetings and to do the necessary preparation that makes those meetings so useful.
Dr. Starkey: The hon. Gentleman will be reassured to hear that that discussion has gone on in the Liaison Committee. I think that that Committee has expressed the view that it will want to see a review of the number of places on Select Committees. My personal view is that it was a mistake to increase the size of certain Select Committees, since it appears to me that that has put huge stress on the system withoutI shall choose my words carefullyseeming to add unduly enormously to the work of those Committees. Any reduction in the number of places would obviously free people up without our needing to reduce the number of Committees, although there might be some duplication of Committees, too.
I want to remind hon. Members that we are talking about planning documents, which is why my Committee is involved. Members who have been in local councils will know that planning is slightly different locally and at a national level from other matters that are discussed by councils and Parliament. We need to keep that in mind, as it has a bearing on the discussion about whether or not we should have a substantive vote on a planning document. I am sure that the Minister is better apprised of parliamentary rules than I am, but my understanding isthe amendment might alter this, but I do not think that it doesthat there is no statutory requirement for a vote to take place before a statement can be designated as an NPS. I am not quite clear whether the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) would alter that in any way.
I want to reiterate what planning documents are about. They are, of course, about balancing opposing rights and creating sensible land-use policy that meets needs locally, regionally and nationally. In my view, the process has to be seen to be fair and transparent, but it must not be subject to undue delay. I accept that the word undue is very subjective, and of course the process must be long enough to ensure that every organisation and person has a reasonable opportunity to put their point of view cogently. Of course, there needs to be sufficient time for those views to be considered and appraised and for decisions to be taken. However, I do not think that anybodys interestseven those of the individuals or organisations that might be unhappy with the eventual outcomeare served when the planning process is simply dragged out by endless delaying tactics.
At a local level, we all know of the planning blight that descends on an area when a big proposal is in the offing but does not get determined for months or even years, for whatever reason. In my view, we need to ensure that the procedure that we are setting in place will be sufficiently long to allow proper consideration but not so long that it adds to uncertainty and delay. I do not think that that would serve the purpose of the public at large.
There is another reason why I think that we need to be careful about having a procedure that causes undue delay. Many of the big infrastructure decisions that we have to take result from changing views about the importance of tackling climate change. Most of the reordering of our energy infrastructure, including the national grid, is necessary because we have to change the energy sources that we are using and the infrastructure in order to enable us to do that. There is an urgency to those changes that makes it all the more important that we should have a system for decision making that is not unduly lengthy and inefficient.
Mr. Truswell: Will my hon. Friend explain how she feels the amendment tabled by our hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and others would lead to any undue delay? I am slightly perplexed by that suggestion; perhaps I have misconstrued what she is saying.
I have said a lot of nice words about how the process has been arranged, and about the very positive and constructive attitude of Ministers, but on my own behalf and on behalf of my colleague the Chair of the Transport Committee, I want to raise one tiny area of concern. It has to do with the length of the relevant period for an NPS: can the Minister reassure me that Ministers who are determining that period will do so in consultation with the parliamentary authoritiesthe Liaison Committee and the Chairs of the relevant Select Committees?
In addition, might Ministers be willing to extend the relevant period beyond three months if that is necessary to ensure full parliamentary scrutiny? I think that the Minister has said as much already, but I know that the Chair of the Transport Committee would prefer it if the relevant period could never be less than six months. When the Minister responds to the debate, I hope that he will deal with those two specific queries.
Those are the main points that I wanted to make, and I urge my colleagues on Select Committees to seize this opportunity to secure a real and effective voice in the scrutiny of national policy statements. I hope that they will not use excuses about time constraints to prevent their playing a full and proper part in that process.
Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) spoke about the importance of camaraderie in Select Committees, and I am struck by the fact that many people in the Chamber this afternoon took an interest in the consideration of the legislation in Committee and on Report. It is nice to rekindle that camaraderie here this afternoon.
My party has always agreed with the concept of national policy statements. The Minister for Local Government, who took the Planning Bill through Committee, was pleased that the concept met with almost universal approval. There is a determination to get beyond the problems described by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) because, ultimately, delaying tactics achieve a different result only when they delay progress so much that policy changes in the meantime. That may have happened on occasion, but I think that we all want a system that is transparent. The rules of engagement must be clear, both for people who support a proposal and for those who have real concerns about its potential impact, and I think that national policy statements take us closer to that.
It is important that we get the balance right on accuracy. As has been noted, national policy statements will be very significant for industry and our countrys future, and also for communities in which or near which infrastructure projects are to be built. It is therefore crucial that we get the national policy statements right, and spending a little more time on them will ensure that applications can proceed as smoothly as possible. The Government have always talked about the need for speed, but speed is most necessary in the application process. We have a clear idea of how that will proceed, but it is even more important that we get setting the policy framework right. That is why I think that we need to explore the proposals before us in a little more detail.
Setting planning policy is a much more political process than the determination of planning applications. However much people who either propose or oppose developments might like policy to exist for all time, the fact that we live in a democracy means that policy statements may change as a result of general elections or referendums. That is the case because all Governments have their own views about how issues can be resolved.
For example, my party and the Government have different views about the use of nuclear technology in our future energy supply. I know that the Conservative party has a range of opinions on the matter, and it is probably fair to say that the same is true of all parties. A future Administration may adopt a different policy from the present Governments, with the result that the relevant national policy statements might have to be revisited. National policy statements will not be put in place once and for all, or for a period of 10 years, for example, because it is inevitable that things will move on and changes happen.
Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I am following carefully the hon. Gentlemans line of argument, but does he accept that a national policy statement may be something of a hybrida mixture of a statement about Government policy made at the Dispatch Box, and something along the lines of a planning policy guidance note? He has noted that policy can change when the Government do, so does he accept that there may be a tension between a statement setting out Government policy and an NPS, which is quasi-judicial by nature? He has said that national policy statements can be altered by an incoming Government, so does he think that they will be the primary vehicle for such a Government to set out their thinking?
Dan Rogerson: That is clearly a consideration, which is why we should look beyond the short to medium term and acknowledge that changes may occur. Some of the matters covered by national policy statements may become crucial issues of difference between parties and very important at any general election or referendum that might take place as the parliamentary process moves forward.
How will the proposals contained in an NPS be scrutinised, and by whom? Will the House carry out that scrutiny and so have a say in what emerges, or will the process be led by the Government? The Minister for Local Government is on record as saying that the promotion of coherent policy is clearly a role for Government, but I agree with the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) that the NPS is something of a hybrid. While one would expect the Government of the day to put forward a proposal, it is legitimate for individual hon. Members to want to be able to offer input about site-specific concerns that might have far reaching consequences for their constituents.
In passing, I want to say that my party is not convinced that implementing a framework of national policy statements necessitates an Infrastructure Planning Commission. The Government have said that there is a clear distinction between democratic involvement in setting policy and the far more dispassionate and objective process of determining applications. I shall return to that later in my remarks, and for now merely note that the Government are on record as setting out that as their position.
Let me move on to consider the arrangements in more detail. During the Ministers contribution, there was a debate, conducted through intervention, about the time factor. As I mentioned in my intervention on him, it is sensible that there should be a period of 40 days in which the right information can be put before the House. That will follow a Select Committee process that has been far more rigorous, in which the Select Committee will have had the opportunity to consider evidence in more detail.
However, I echo the comments made by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West about whether there is to be a minimum period over which the whole process takes place. I fear that it may call into question peoples confidence in the process, if not its legitimacy, if the Secretary of State, who is ultimately the promoter of the policy, decides what the relevant period is. It would therefore help if there was a minimum period, or perhaps a range of time within which the House might expect consideration to take place. The relevant Secretary of State would determine a period within that range, as was appropriate, in consultation with the Liaison Committee and the Select Committee Chairs. That might help to raise confidence in the process.
There is also the issue of the interaction between the time scale for scrutiny and the consultation process going on in the real world. The Campaign to Protect Rural England has said that it is keen that there should be a period, after the public consultation, when the Select Committee is still giving the matter consideration, so that whatever is fed forward gets through to the Select Committee. That is absolutely right, because it means that the Select Committee can feel confident that it has had access to as much information, and as many of the views of the public, as possible.
Mr. Drew: To be fair to CPRE, it has made it absolutely clear that the process of consultation will both pre-empt and end, as it were, the whole process. That includes ideas such as citizens juries and much wider engagement with the general public. We cannot see the issue as a narrow, focused one; it is much wider than that, and that needs to be put on record.
Dan Rogerson: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; he has put that on record, and I appreciate his intervention. We have had debates in public, including in the House today, about how the House and indeed the political process at all levels are viewed by the public. That is inevitably influenced by how members of the public come into contact with elected representatives, and the publics aspirations for their views to be put forward, listened to and dealt with. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst gave the very good example of the congestion charge as a case in which the public sometimes feel let down by the process. So we must have confidence that any consultation is genuine and as wide as possible, and we must have confidence that it leads to a proper process of scrutiny that allows Members of this House to engage with the process of setting a national policy statement; ultimately, they are the only elected representatives who will be able to do so.
The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) raised the issue of how non-expert witnesses may be supported, which is crucial. When looking at the resources that are made available to Select Committees, we must bear in mind, especially where there are site-specific concerns, that members of the public may be intimidated, however eloquent and well-informed they are about what is going on in their local community, by being called before a parliamentary Select Committee, alongside organisations that are represented by public affairs consultants and lobbyists. Those members of the public need to be given support, too, to ensure that the excellent points that they have to make are put in the best light possible, and explored as fully as they would wish. I hope that the Minister will say how that concern might be addressed.
There is also a question to be asked about the policy background against which members of different Select Committees work. Where a Committee is drawn from the membership of different Select Committees, there should be a broad balance; for example, the Committee chaired by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West, has planning expertise. I have the honour to be on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee; it should have an equal voice, or at least an appropriately strong voice, on a Joint Committee, alongside Committees that have more expertise in dealing with industry and so on, so that we can ensure that there is a balance of views across the piece.
Having expressed those reservations about the system, I point out that the Select Committee process is probably the best way that we have of proceeding. It is established, and Members are used to using it. There is expertise among the House authorities on how to support Select Committees, provide the information and ensure smooth proceedings. Despite my concerns about timing, and concerns that hon. Members have expressed about the work load, I think that the Select Committee process is the best way of proceeding.
Nevertheless, there are deficiencies in the Governments motion. That is why I am pleased to see the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). It gets to the heart of what we discussed while the Planning Bill was making progress in the House. We discussed it again this afternoon. Ultimately, there needs to be a vote. There needs to be an opportunity for Members who have great concerns about an issue connected with a national policy statement to vote; they are elected on the same basis as those Members who serve on the relevant Select Committee. We all have equal legitimacy in this House. We are talking about issues that can affect all constituencies; indeed, they may well affect some constituencies considerably more than others. We may hear a little bit about that later. All Members should have a chance to have a final say. That is why I welcome the amendment tabled by the hon. Gentleman. I hope that he will seek to press it to a Division. My colleagues and I certainly wish to support it.
There is a great deal of work to be done. National policy statements, if handled properly, can make a significant contribution to ensuring that the planning process is more transparent and efficient, and is up to being challenged, as it should be, by the people out there. They may challenge its accuracy and ability to reflect the aspirations of the country as a whole, and the aspirations of local communities. If there are few points at which the democratic process is involved in the part of the planning system that we are discussing, and if decisions on individual applications are to be taken by appointed people, rather than elected people, we should remember, as the Minister for Local Government said in Committee, that it is when policy is set that the democratic voice must be heard. Ultimately, the only way that that can happen is if there is a vote in the House.
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