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3.7 pm

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): The timing of this debate could not have been more significant. Yesterday, we heard a statement saying that we in Parliament are about to clean up our act when it comes to expenses. I thought the Prime Minister made an excellent statement—which had cross-party support, I noticed—about our starting the process of restoring parliamentary democracy and restoring status to this House as the premises in which we will decide the future of our country in a democratic fashion. This is the first test of whether that statement is serious. I appeal to everyone here: this could be the first day of a new process.

This may sound naive, but I want to make an appeal. It is an important decision that we are making today. I do not want to talk just about Heathrow or anything like that; the issue is much more important than that. This is much more important than just an arid planning debate, too. The debate is about whether we were serious about the statements made yesterday, which had cross-party support in the House, and about restoring credibility to parliamentary democracy in this country. I urge Members, Ministers and others to say, “Look, this could be the first day of a new debating fashion. This could be a new way to make decisions in this House.” We could come out of the trenches and start talking about a serious way forward to improve the decision-making processes that will affect the lives of millions of our constituents.

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The discussion that we have had so far has been about how Parliament scrutinises the national policy statements that we have brought forward. I have to say that the debate that has taken place on the scrutiny process has been excellent. To a certain extent it has been on the Floor of the House, but it has largely taken place among Chairs of Select Committees and members of the Liaison Committee. Debate has been limited for those who do not serve on Committees, but as an observer with my nose pressed up against the window, at least I can see that there has been a good debate about how that scrutiny process will proceed.

But Parliament does more than scrutinise. Parliament has to decide. My amendment is about how the Chamber comes to decisions on critically important matters. I understand the criticism that the Floor of the House is not necessarily the best place for scrutiny and sometimes not the best place for decision making, but for some of us it is the only place. It is the long stop of democracy. It allows us to voice our concerns, move amendments and maybe—not often—secure the will of the House to change the mind of Government and others. There is no more important issue than the planning process that we are deciding today.

We are setting up the Infrastructure Planning Commission. Alongside that, we have to a certain extent—I know some believe that others have exaggerated this—curtailed some of the earlier planning processes in relation to individual applications to try to speed the process up. There are some concerns that members of the public, people who are affected, individual organisations, community groups and so on may not have as full a say and right of representation as they have in the past under previous processes. That is a matter for debate.

If there has been some curtailment of the earlier process, it is critical that when we shape the IPC’s decision-making process, we allow the fullest scrutiny and debate, and ultimately democratic decisions. The IPC will be guided by the national policy statements. It will set the parameters for consideration of and decisions on planning applications for major infrastructure projects which will determine the future shape of this country and its physical environment for generations to come. It will affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of constituents and millions of members of our communities. Such projects will include airports, nuclear power stations and major rail developments, most of which are extremely controversial because of their impact on local communities.

National policy statements are not general policy statements, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) pointed out. They are not like the old-fashioned planning policy guidelines. They are more than that. They are in some respects like White Papers, but more definitive. The White Paper on aviation, for example, which was mentioned earlier, was site-specific. National policy statements will set a policy and identify potential sites for the implementation of that policy. They will therefore narrow the decision-making process of the IPC.

Mr. Drew: My hon. Friend is right. A national policy statement will be the basis of any local planning inquiry. It will not be general, like a White Paper. It will contain
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the details that are fought over at any subsequent planning inquiry. That is why national policy statements must be right and fair.

John McDonnell: I agree. That is why the present hybrid situation calls for greater democratic participation by the Chamber.

I am aware of the issues in relation to the quasi-judicial aspects of planning. I have served on planning committees on a range of bodies, including the old GLC, and I have seen the mystification of the planning process through the concept of quasi-judicial roles. I learned the Wednesbury principles by heart, not least because at the GLC we had the Economic League threatening us with legal action almost on a daily basis. That mystifies the process. We are trying to set the parameters of policy making and define them for the IPC, which will set up the processes whereby individual decisions are made.

Setting up national policy statements, agreeing to them and having them designated by the Government as guidance for the IPC is critical. I welcome the role of Select Committees. I accept that it will be an onerous task, but Members of Parliament can demonstrate that they can rise to the task. I urge Members who have been critical of the Select Committee process so far to engage in it. There is potential for more Members to become involved and become more aware, but I agree that the process requires the resourcing of those who will provide evidence to those Select Committees.

I have attended planning inquiry after planning inquiry for years and I do not want to relive my experiences at the terminal 4 inquiry, the terminal 5 inquiry and all the rest. We know how evidence can be presented and shaped effectively by those who are well resourced. Those who may not have the ability to commission a bit of extra research—on respiratory conditions in their area, for example—are swamped by the heavy investment of those promoting a particular project or approach.

There are some Members who do not serve on Select Committees. I cannot understand why—further mystification, perhaps. I was offered a place on the Northern Ireland Committee on the basis that I dropped my opposition to the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill. I reported that to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards for investigation because I thought it was a bribe.

There are a number of us who are not on Select Committees, so it is fundamental that we have the opportunity to participate not only in the scrutiny process but in the decision-making process. A vote makes scrutiny meaningful. We can all scrutinise something; we can all have general opinions about anything, but our constituents send us here not just to have opinions but to decide the policies of this country. That is what my amendment seeks to do.

The amendment suggests that when the Select Committee process has ended, a report is provided to the House. If it is uncontentious and the Select Committee recommends approval, we have a debate for a maximum of one and a half hours, the Question is put and the statement is agreed or not. If it is contentious, and there are recommendations from the Select Committee not to approve the national policy statement, a debate of up to three hours is held, and then we vote on the matter.

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One and a half hours or three hours is not an undue delay in the planning process. It will add legitimacy to any decision on a national policy statement that will influence the IPC’s decision, which will have consequences for decisions on major infrastructure projects affecting our constituents, many of them significantly. If we are not allowed a vote on those matters, that will undermine the legitimacy of the decisions that will eventually arise as a result of IPC considerations and IPC inquiries into individual matters.

Let me give the example of Heathrow in the context of my amendment. Like every hon. Member, I stood for election, knocked on every door in my constituency over the years, and explained my views on particular issues. People voted and I had the honour of being elected to become the voice of my constituents in the House. As a result of a potential planning decision that will come through this process, a number of my constituents will lose their homes. We have debated the matter at length in the House—700 homes could be lost at Sipson, and 2,000 residents could lose their homes. We have another meeting tomorrow night with BAA, and we think the figure is now 4,000 homes, as the Government predicted in the early 1990s, so perhaps 10,000 people will be affected, as well as their homes, schools, churches, the gurdwara and even a road through our cemetery. Those people want to know that they elected an MP not just to go to the House to talk on their behalf, but to participate in this country’s democratic decision-making process that will determine the policy that eventually influences the final decision on whether they lose their homes and communities. That is all my amendment would do. It simply says, “Allow Members to express their views, but then allow them to make the decision.” That is democracy, is it not? Is that not what Parliament is for? Is that not what we all stood for election for?

The argument is that a planning policy statement is different from any other decision, but when the Crossrail project went through the House, we had a Committee that brought a Bill before the House that we could debate and amend, and there was a full and democratic decision-making process. Why can we not just have a simple vote? I am not asking for enormous, lengthy Committee sittings. We have the Select Committee process, and there are relevant Members on those Committees, some with expertise going back many years, who can give us their views. We can listen to their opinion on the matter, the Government can state their argument and, at the end of the day, we can, I hope, come to a decision.

Democracy is at stake. The issue is whether what we said yesterday about restoring the status and democratic credentials of Parliament was what we really intended, or whether it was just words upon the air and another form of spin. The forthcoming vote is one of the most important that we will ever have, because it will decide whether we are serious about restoring democracy. If the Government do not think again, and if we are not allowed the opportunity to vote on this issue, which could be influential and important to so many of our constituents, we will not just do ourselves a disservice, but, yet again, undermine the credibility of the House in the eyes of all our constituents.

3.22 pm

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): It is an enormous pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). Although I do not regard
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myself as a natural ally of his, on this legislation we have been at one, and on the Floor of the House we have regularly fought the battle to try to get a final democratic lock on national policy statements. I suppose that we should therefore congratulate ourselves on one thing—the fact that we were able to do battle on the Floor of the House.

I agree that, following the events of the past few weeks and yesterday’s statements, it is so important for the House to get back its democratic accountability and credibility. This is a great opportunity for the Government to put their money where their mouth is and give back to Parliament some of the legitimacy that they have taken away over the past few years. I was therefore delighted when my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), and constituency neighbour, indicated that we would support the amendment and, if there were an opportunity, go further—although we will stick with what we have for now.

The hon. Gentleman couched the debate in stark terms. There is no disagreement in any part of the House about the need for the national policy statements. We must replace and renew our infrastructure, and it is important that we get on with that work. We have put forward ideas for getting on with it in a practical sense and more rapidly than the current system, but we have always accepted the idea of the national policy statements. We have always been against the Infrastructure Planning Commission, however, because it is fundamentally undemocratic and we want to return to Parliament and to Ministers the responsibility that the British public believe they have to make the final decisions on planning. The hon. Gentleman said that that is the mystique of the quasi-judicial process, and we understand that, but to the British public, the Minister is the person who is responsible for making decisions about airports, roads, harbours, waste facilities, nuclear power stations and wind farms. That is absolutely correct, and the Planning Act 2008 does tremendous harm to the idea of the democracy of the people, because it allows Ministers to pass over to an unelected quango the decision that the British people feel Ministers were elected to make.

Again, it is not often that I agree with the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government. As one who has sat on several Select Committees, I am deeply sceptical about the value of their work, and I apologise if there are people here who are wedded to the idea of them. However, I do not know whether I want the Whips to hear this, because I think that sitting on inquiries into the national policy statements would be a very interesting and worthwhile exercise. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) has not made a note of that statement!

The discussions on how the national policy statements will be examined started on the Floor of the House and continued subsequently. On the structure that has emerged, people think, “Let’s start with it, and see how it grows and whether it works.” It is a good, flexible structure, and I was pleased to hear from the Minister that there seems to be sufficient time both for the public and parliamentary consultations to meld together and for proper scrutiny. Although I understand the point that the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West and
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her colleague the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Transport, made about ensuring that there is sufficient time, I think that the time scale can be adhered to.

However, one little quirk of the 40-day period that the House will have to scrutinise the Select Committee’s report is that it leaves plenty of time for a substantive debate on the Floor of the House so that we can make a decision. If a Committee should come up with a recommendation that the Government like or dislike, quite apart from what any Member likes or dislikes, there will be an opportunity to thrash it out on the Floor of the House and vote on it. If we believe in democracy, we ought to recognise that the decision should be made in this Chamber; it should not be made by Ministers who are unaccountable because they have passed decision-making powers to the Infrastructure Planning Commission.

If, under the new system, a Committee report is debated in the House only because it is at odds with what the Minister or the national policy statement wants, what will happen? There may be no vote, but the House could be united against a national policy statement, such as a site-specific statement on a nuclear power station. This is beyond the bounds of common sense, but should there ever be a proposal for a nuclear power station in the London borough of Bromley, I imagine that people would be united in opposition.

Robert Neill: Hear, hear!

Mrs. Lait: I am grateful to my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour. I am a great supporter of nuclear power stations, but I cannot imagine that anybody would accept that there is an argument for putting one, however good its safety record might be, in the middle of the suburbs. That would not be a logical suggestion, and there would be united opposition to it across the House. However, could the Secretary of State continue with the proposal? Where in the democratic process would the British public stand?

My example is extreme. However, if a Select Committee report came out with a proposition that the Secretary of State did not like, who would have the final say? Where would the British public be in all this?

Mr. Drew: Does the hon. Lady accept that it is not unknown for two different Select Committees to come up with two completely contrary statements, which, obviously, would build on the national policy statements? How would that situation be resolved, unless through this place? A Minister would need help; they would have to make a representation on the Floor of the House, and we might have to resolve the dilemma as a Chamber. Is that not a reasonable supposition?

Mrs. Lait: It is very reasonable. The more one looks at the consequences of this proposal, which involves no democratic vote on the Floor of the Chamber, the more difficulties one sees emerge. I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman.

I do not think that anybody else has brought up my final point. Without a vote on the Floor of the House, there is every possibility that the Government’s objective
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of speeding up the planning system for infrastructure projects will be immediately compromised, because the well-funded lobby groups—many of whose pockets will be deeper than those of the people who want to do the development—could take the projects straight to judicial review.

I do not think that the Minister was present during the public inquiry part of the Planning Public Bill Committee; he was probably engaged in business on the Housing and Regeneration Bill. I should tell him that a number of the lobby groups put it on the record that they would be looking to conduct judicial reviews of national policy statements that had not been subject to a vote in the House. It does not take a lot of imagination to see how long it could take to get the judicial review of a national policy statement through the legal system—bang would go the speeding up of planning applications which the Minister and most of the rest of us want under this new process.

Yet again, I beg the Government please to think through the implications of not having a substantive vote in the House. We all broadly agree on the structure and on how we should look at the national policy statements. However, we want to give them a fair wind, and they will get one only if there is a democratic vote in this Chamber.

3.32 pm

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey) (Lab): I do not intend to detain the House for too long, because my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) admirably enumerated all the reasons why the House should support the amendment in his name and the names of colleagues such as me. Throughout discussion of the Planning Bill—or the Planning Act 2008, as it is now—I said that my starting point was to apply one test: how far did it maintain or improve the existing process in respect of my constituents, of me as their elected representative or of any other member of a community? My view is that the legislation dramatically failed that test.

It would not be appropriate for me to rehearse that debate and I shall resist the temptation, as other Members have. However, there is a democratic deficit. The process that existed previously allowed the public not only to make a case at a public inquiry, but to subject the evidence to cross-examination; that is a fundamental democratic issue, and also one of fairness. There is now a major gap and chasm in the process. My hon. Friend has clearly defined why he tabled his amendment, and one of his reasons for doing so is to try to bridge that chasm.

It has been said on a number of occasions in this debate that national policy statements will be a crucial framework. It is crucial, therefore, that we get them right. Once they are agreed, the die will be cast; they will be the tram lines on which public inquiries and the Infrastructure Planning Commission will run. We know from experience that communities often disagree with specific proposals put forward by developers, and that many of the protests that our constituents make will be overridden by reference to the existing national policy statement that governs the particular planning application or major infrastructure proposal under discussion. That is why we have to get NPSs absolutely right.

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