We welcome the recommendations of the Wright Committee, not least because many of them were suggested by the Opposition. However, although we are pleased to see the passing of some of those measures, it is deeply disappointing that there has been no further progress. One area where more action is needed is in Parliament's engagement with the public, a point to which I referred earlier. For example, we suggest that citizens initiatives should be introduced: if 100,000 or 250,000 people signed a petition, it should be recognised by the House in some form.
We need to do more to restore trust in this institution. That is why the Conservative party suggests that Parliament should have the power to recall Members between elections. The ultimate power would lie with the electorate; MPs would not be here for the duration of an entire Parliament, but could be kicked out mid-term. We also need to return more control of parliamentary affairs to Parliament itself. That is the larger prize identified in the Wright report, as it would give the House more control of its time and business. That was always the most significant part of the report, but it is the part that the Government, control freakery being deeply ingrained in their very soul, have shied away from. That was mentioned by the hon. Member for Reading, West and by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope).
"We have always said that the Government should find time for debate on Standing Orders so that we can implement the Wright Committee's recommendation and get the Back-Bench Committee up and running at the start of the next Parliament."
It is highly regrettable that, despite regular assurances that it would happen, the Leader of the House has shied away from it. It is telling that she failed to turn up to this debate; at the last minute-late yesterday-it was signalled that she would not be responding to this debate but that her deputy would be here in her stead. Doubtless she did not wish to face her critics.
Martin Salter: I am bitterly disappointed that the motion to enforce the Standing Order is not on the Order Paper. The Leader of the House wanted to come to this debate but was called away by the Prime Minister. I am not in any way slighted by that, and I am listening carefully to what the shadow Deputy Leader of the House says.
In conclusion, this place needs urgent reform. Although there has been some progress, it is highly regrettable that the Government have failed both Parliament and the public in not stepping up to the mark when required. They have failed to implement the most important part
of the Wright report despite the fact that the House wanted them to do so. I hope that the public will make the correct decision on 6 May, and then it will be for others to complete the work of reforming Parliament.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Barbara Keeley): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Fraser. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) on securing this debate. I should like to thank other hon. Members for their contributions to what has been a wide-ranging and stimulating debate.
My hon. Friend has been a Member of the House since 1997. At the start of his contribution, he described the 2005-10 Parliament in very strong terms. His description was disturbing, but we all accept the need for profound change to restore the public's faith in Parliament. I hope that the reforms that we have already put in place and the others that will come will do that. The Prime Minister is expected to announce my party's commitment to reform and constitutional change today, and I greatly look forward to that announcement.
My hon. Friend has served in public life for 26 years; he started out as a councillor in Reading borough in 1984, and was deputy council leader from 1987 to 1996. In the House, he has campaigned against violent pornography, championed many causes, such as Gurkha rights, advised the Minister for Sport on shooting and fishing-I guess somebody had to do that-and been a member of both the Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee and the Reform of the House of Commons Committee. My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that that will be the last time in my reply that I shall mention the Modernisation Committee. He always takes me to task when I refer to the delights of that Committee.
My hon. Friend has championed the cause of the use of the Commons Chamber by the UK Youth Parliament, which I support. I am pleased that the arguments in favour of such a use prevailed. I was astonished by what I heard from the Opposition on the matter, and it took us many occasions to get the measure through. There were some good debates and some very confident performances by members of the Youth Parliament. I hope that the UK Youth Parliament debate can take place again and that the Commons Chamber can be used by other groups. We are considering allowing pensioners to have a Parliament in the Chamber, which would also be appropriate.
My hon. Friend has been speaking up for the trade of politics. Since he has been a Member, he has worked on opening up politics and boosting democracy, which is important. He spoke eloquently about the reform agenda, which was something that he first did in his maiden speech, and I pay tribute to him for his work on that. He was concerned about IPSA's new budget for Members' staff and the fact that pensions have to be paid out of the budget. There is no provision for child care vouchers or for temporary secretarial cover for staff who are on maternity leave or who are sick. Many hon. Members have raised concerns about that, and I will ensure that relevant parts of today's debate are sent to the board of IPSA, because it is important that it understands our concerns. My hon. Friend also touched on IPSA's new rule for travel, which will have an impact on Members of the new Parliament. Perhaps such an issue gives fresh
impetus to the idea of this place returning to normal office hours, which would alleviate the problem to some extent, and I hope that we-if other Members and I in the Chamber are returned-can discuss that in future.
Let me talk briefly about the Wright Committee motion, which my hon. Friend raised. Members will know that there is a business motion today. It would not be appropriate to pre-empt the debate; I should not get outside my particular role, as the Speaker constantly says. Members can make their points in that debate, which is only a couple of hours away, and I hope that they will do so.
My hon. Friend touched on the suspension of the communications allowance. He will know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) led a debate on the subject in which some very powerful arguments were made. On that occasion, I agreed-and I still do-on the necessity and importance of supporting hon. Members who produced constituency reports. In that debate, some Members expressed concerns about the matter, but this issue of standing up for constituents, which sometimes means taking up unpopular stances and causes, shows that it is a factor not just in incumbency, but in helping Members to do their job.
Briefly, the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) referred to the setting up of a child care facility in the House. I know that that has been a contentious issue, but I applaud the a suggestion by the House of Commons Commission. I cannot believe that Members are questioning such a facility; its establishment is overdue and it brings the House into the 20th century-not even into the 21st century.
The hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) discussed reform and, importantly, what the role of an MP is seen to be. Interestingly, I have looked into the matter for my own party and found, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, that parties are increasingly selecting Members
who have a background in politics or the media. Perhaps I should say to him and the other Opposition parties that they should select more women candidates. I was one of the 2005 intake of women MPs. There were 26 of us out of 40 candidates, so we made history coming into this place. My hon. Friends will know that the 2005 intake of Labour women MPs does not reflect the profile that has been discussed-of people with backgrounds in politics and the media. The solution, therefore, is to select more women. I support the view that politics is something that we should do more of, and that it is wrong for it to be infantilised.
The hon. Member for Cambridge, who was elected on the same day as me-5 May 2005-is standing down at the election. He has served in public life since 1987, having been a councillor and council leader in Cambridge before being elected as an MP. I pay tribute to him and wish him well for the future. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West has announced that he will step down at the forthcoming election, so this was his valedictory speech. I should like to congratulate him on his achievements, both in the House and more widely in politics, and wish him well for the future. Looking at one of his blogs last night, I had the impression that we will continue to hear from him. I hope that he will carry on commentating and shaking up politics by telling us how he thinks people in the House are doing. I pay tribute to the work of hon. Members from all parts of the House who will not be standing for re-election at the next general election, including you, Mr. Fraser. I think this is the first time that I have taken part in a debate in which you have been in the Chair, so it is a very brief acquaintanceship, but I wish you well.
As my hon. Friend said earlier of the work that we do: "Someone has to do it, someone has to take responsibility and give voice to the hopes of the people." Hon. Members, including my hon. Friend, have taken that responsibility, made important contributions to the work of Parliament and have represented the hopes and the issues of their constituents. I wish all Members who are standing down well, and say that for those of us who hope to return here, we will take forward the work and the sentiments that have been expressed here today.
Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): May I say, Mr. Fraser, that it is a bittersweet pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, as it is the first and last time that I will have the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship? I am very sorry that you will be disappearing from the House after the election.
It is very good to have the opportunity to raise this subject, even at the tail-end of this Parliament, because it is a subject of very considerable concern to some of my constituents, as I shall explain in a moment, and because it has wider ramifications. I should give the facts of the particular case that I will talk about, which are extremely simple. West Bexington is a very beautiful stretch of coastline in my constituency. It has a remarkable shingle beach that is a particularly nice part of a world heritage coastline. Behind the beach and the coastal path lie a set of chalets, which are the only things that are visible from many angles on the beach. Those chalets are quite small.
In April 2007, a chalet owner at West Bexington put in an application to enlarge their chalet and alter it. As is normal, that application was accompanied by both factual details and drawings. Unfortunately, the drawings did not bring to light, in a way that enabled either the planning officers or the local people to understand what was going on, the relationship between the size of what was being planned and the adjoining chalets on either side.
The drawings suggested, to the uninformed eye and indeed to the more informed eyes of the planning officers, that the chalet for which the application was being made would not be very far off the same size as the chalets next to it, if the application was permitted. Unfortunately, once the works to the chalet were completed-indeed, I think it was clear even from the point at which the works began-it was obvious to all the local people that the chalet for which the application had been made and for which planning permission had been received in April 2007 was by no means of the same scale as the chalets on either side. In fact, it was much larger and visually quite obtrusive.
That led to very considerable objections locally. People felt that they had not been alerted to what was being proposed and therefore that they had not done what they would otherwise have done, which was to object to the change. They felt that the planning officers had not seen what was on offer, so to speak, and therefore that those planning officers had effectively been misled by the drawings. Consequently, they were outraged. Therefore I received a petition from more than 100 local people-given the size of West Bexington, that is a lot of people.
I then engaged in a considerable amount of correspondence about this application over quite a long period with the Minister's predecessors, as well as with other people, including officials, lawyers and representatives of the district council and the parish council. I have also had a number of meetings with local residents about it. As a result of all that activity, what has come to light is that, under the current planning law, if an application is made and permission for what is applied for is given, the permission that has been given is valid, regardless of the fact that the basis on which the application was
made was such as to lead the planning officers and any councillors-if any councillors had been involved in the process-to the wrong conclusions about the scale and nature of what was being proposed.
In other words-to take an extreme example-if I proposed building the Empire State building at West Bexington and I provided a drawing that suggested that it was six feet high and if, by mistake, the planning officers did not look sufficiently closely at the dimensions of the Empire State building and merely looked at the drawing and concluded that I was building something that was 6 feet high and they gave me permission on that basis, then under current English law, as I understand it and as the Minister's predecessors have explained it to me, I would have an undisputed right to build the Empire State building at West Bexington.
I give that ludicrous example simply to point out that there is clearly a problem in this sector of planning. It has visited itself on my constituents in West Bexington in a less exaggerated form than that ludicrous example, but at some other time someone could do something much more exaggerated than the changes proposed at West Bexington and they would still be in the same position of having a valid planning permission on the basis of information that was misleading to the naked eye.
Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): I have stayed on for this debate as I am rather interested in this issue, which I think my right hon. Friend is raising in the national interest. As people have sought advice from the various lawyers and others who are involved in this case, I wondered if anyone had mentioned the words "judicial review"?
Mr. Letwin: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for displaying his usual legal acuity, because it is exactly the question of judicial review to which I now turn. I received responses from Ministers suggesting that judicial review might be the answer in this case. However, I have two questions to ask the Minister about judicial review.
First, why would anyone suppose that the inhabitants of West Bexington, or the inhabitants of any similar village or neighbourhood in Britain, would be able to spend money on a judicial review of a planning decision? Why would anyone suppose that those inhabitants would be willing or able to risk the costs that they might incur in challenging a council that has the taxpayer behind them?
Indeed, is not the whole point of the planning system that it is not in court and that it is a substitute for going to court? If we wanted to have all planning decisions made in court, we would have them all made in court, as some other decisions are made in court. But the point of having planning decisions not made in court is to prevent those types of court costs arising. In fact, at the moment we even have a system of appeals against planning decisions that does not involve courts, so that someone does not have to have very expensive barristers to appeal a planning decision; although people may employ planning barristers at planning appeals, they do not have to have that type of apparatus.
In other words, very considerable efforts have been made to reduce the exposure and liability of those who challenge planning decisions, and clearly if people have to rely on judicial review to contest planning decisions,
they would be exposed to very considerable liability, so the first question I ask the Minister is why does she suppose that anyone would be able to mount a judicial review in these circumstances?
My second question for the Minister is even more important, and it relates directly to what my hon. Friend asked about in his intervention. Why would anyone suppose that a judicial review would be an answer to this question? As I understand the matter, the law is quite clear in this area. If someone has planning permission, they have planning permission; it is a sort of piece of property, as I understand it. Therefore, if someone were able to mount a judicial review-that is, they had the funds to do so and they were willing to undertake the liabilities associated with it-the judicial review might rule that the original decision was unreasonable. Incidentally, the judicial review certainly could not rule that the decision was ultra vires, because it is clearly within the powers of a planning authority to grant planning permission. The only thing that a judicial review could do to rule in someone's favour would be to say that the original decision was an unreasonable one.
However, even if a judicial review were to rule that the original decision was unreasonable, is there any indication, or does the Minister have any legal advice to suggest, that the decision by the judicial review would invalidate the planning permission? If the council was shown to have made an unreasonable decision in granting planning permission, that might have other consequences for the council-I do not know what those consequences would be. I am not all sure, however, that under current English law there would be any remedy for those who objected to the planning permission, because it would still be the case, as far as I can make out, that the permission itself was valid and a piece of property on the part of the person who held it.
I want to press the Minister on those two questions. First, why would anyone in her Ministry believe that judicial review is really accessible to people who are in this situation? Secondly, why does anyone in her Ministry believe that judicial review is an adequate remedy in these circumstances? Finally, I want to make a positive suggestion. There is a very straightforward way of solving this problem and I have already raised it with Ministers in correspondence. I am glad to say that my own party has now taken it up and I hope that we might achieve consensus on the suggestion that we change planning law, so that it follows common sense in this respect.
I think that it is a matter of common sense that if someone applies for something on the basis of information that an ordinary and reasonable person, including an ordinary, reasonable and expert person such as a planning officer, is misled by, any permission that that person might obtain should not be valid. It would not be an enormous change in planning law-it is certainly not as large as some other changes in planning law that I think we need to make-to arrange things so that if I make an application on the basis of drawings or other information that cannot be understood for what they are, even by professionals, then my application, if I obtain it, is invalid.