Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


11.29 am

Lord Astor of Hever asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Taylor of Bolton): My Lords, there has been no change in the relationship between Ministers and commanders in the field.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. In seeking to apportion blame to the commander on the ground, the Minister in the other place quite improperly implied that he had a choice of vehicles. So as not to cast any suspicion of doubt on the commander’s word, can the Minister confirm that he had to use Snatch Land Rover on that occasion as there were no other vehicles? Can she also give the House an assurance that no commander in Afghanistan will again be forced to use Snatch for any operation beyond base perimeters?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, the Minister in another place was in no way attempting to apportion blame. That is not a wise thing for anybody to do, especially when there is always an inquiry into any incident. Ministers provide a wide range of vehicles for deployment in theatre. It is for commanders on the ground to decide which vehicles are suitable for which operations. Ministers have been told more than once by operational commanders that they wish to retain the Snatch vehicle for use in certain circumstances. Indeed, in the Statement made in another place last month, it was pointed out that senior operational commanders consider the Snatch vehicle to be mission-critical.

Viscount Slim: My Lords, the Minister was not in post at the time but is she aware that grave concern has been shown in this Chamber and in Committee at the dilution of the authority and stature of the commanding officers in the military? At this time they need not criticism but support, encouragement, and to be given the right kit for the right job. That is not happening and I ask her perhaps to express a view on it. Is it not wrong that those who have no battle experience and have never had their hair parted by a bullet, for instance, make assumptions about what happens in combat and, in that way, criticise and show distrust of our commanders in the field who are the ones doing the fighting?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, we should all have great respect for those who are doing the fighting, whatever their level. My honourable friend the Minister, in an interview at the weekend, said:

“Our commanders are second to none in their ability to make the right decisions”.

I think that we should acknowledge what he said and should all share in the admiration of those who are working on the front line. On the kit, I know that my ministerial colleagues, and indeed Members of this House and of another place, have visited Afghanistan, have spoken to people on the ground, have questioned

6 Nov 2008 : Column 327

them about the kit, and have been told that the kit that is supplied today is second to none and is, I think, the envy of many of our allies fighting with us in those circumstances.

Lord Lee of Trafford: My Lords, putting personalities to one side, for the Falklands campaign our defence industries were mobilised to deliver equipment to the ports and airfields, working flat out, with payments et cetera to be sorted out later. Last week’s Written Statement on the upgraded Snatch Land Rover for Afghanistan, the Snatch Vixen, hardly conveyed a sense of urgency. It said:

“We have already fielded a small number of these vehicles, and we will be substantially increasing the size of the fleet over the coming year”.—[Official Report, 29/10/08; col. 29WS.]

With every day’s delay possibly meaning the difference between life and death, why is our industry not working round the clock on this and other vehicle orders?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, we have, I think, already fielded 31 Snatch Vixens, and nearly 150 more are in train. Perhaps I should explain that once we buy these vehicles a great deal of work has to be undertaken by industry to upgrade them to get them to the theatre-entry level. That work is done with great speed and determination by companies such as NP Aerospace and Ricardo Special Vehicles. Perhaps I may use this opportunity to say thank you to those in industry, and to the whole team within the MoD, who have been very responsive to the needs of our operational theatres and who have done very well working together to get a great deal of modification to our vehicles and other kit to help protect people when they are out on operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Lord Elton: My Lords—

Lord Soley: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change & Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, perhaps we can hear from my noble friend and then from the noble Lord, Lord Elton.

Lord Soley: My Lords, I do not wish to comment on the individual issue, because that is subject to an inquiry, but is not the general problem that we cannot have heavily armoured vehicles on all occasions? If we do, we play right into the hands of the various insurgent groups who want to divide the NATO and UN troops from the local community. There is a difficult judgment for commanders in the field. Of course it is right that we have hardened vehicles, but we must recognise that challenge.

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, my noble friend makes a valid point. That is one of the reasons why the advice that we have been given is that Snatch vehicles have to be used in certain circumstances, and, as I said, are mission-critical.

6 Nov 2008 : Column 328

Lord Elton: My Lords, my noble friend asked specifically whether there was a choice of vehicles available to the commander in the field in the incident about which he inquired. I did not hear a reply to that question; I wonder whether the Minister will give it to us.

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I said that I thought that it was not helpful to speculate in this House about any individual incident, especially when there is an inquiry into every incident of that nature.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, it is obviously very welcome that better and improved vehicles are being made available to the forces in theatre, but those vehicles will require experience for those using them. Can the noble Baroness assure the House that there are adequate vehicles available for training before the forces go out into theatre and have to use them on operations?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, that is an important point and one reason why the number of vehicles that we have now decided to acquire is so large. It is important that the people who will use the vehicles in theatre can train on them before they leave this country.

Social Security (Lone Parents and Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2008

Medical Profession (Miscellaneous Amendments) Order 2008

Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (Amendment of List of Responders) Order 2008

Armed Forces (Alignment of Service Discipline Acts) (No. 2) Order 2008

Youth Justice Board for England and Wales (Amendment) Order 2008

Legal Services Act 2007 (Functions of a Designated Regulator) Order 2008

11.36 am

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Royall of Blaisdon): My Lords, I beg to move the first six Motions standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the draft regulations and orders be referred to a Grand Committee.—(Baroness Royall of Blaisdon.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

6 Nov 2008 : Column 329

Legislative Reform (Lloyd’s) Order 2008

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Royall of Blaisdon): My Lords, I beg to move the seventh Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the draft order be referred to a Grand Committee.—(Baroness Royall of Blaisdon.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Planning Bill

11.38 am

Report received.

Clause 1 [The Infrastructure Planning Commission]:

Lord Dixon-Smith moved Amendment No. 1:

1: Clause 1, page 1, line 5, at end insert “for the purpose of advising the Secretary of State on decisions made under section (Decisions by the Secretary of State on applications for orders granting development consent)”

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the more that I work on this Bill and consider its gestation, the more I find that it is not in very good order. I am sure that the Government’s consideration of the Bill arose from the definition of a problem. The problem that they identified was that we were suffering because the national planning process, especially where it concerns major infrastructure, was flawed under the present regime and that we needed to do something about that. Then they thought: can we define that? They answered, yes, it is national infrastructure. Then, I am sure, the thinking went: so what do we need to do something about that problem? They then came up with the Infrastructure Planning Commission. The Bill is written the other way round, so we have the mechanism for dealing with the problem before we have defined the problem. I am bound to say that that is a little unfortunate, but there it is; we have to deal with the Bill as it is.

My Amendment No. 1 would make it the purpose of the Infrastructure Planning Commission to advise the Secretary of State on the decisions to be taken on planning applications for national infrastructure problems. This is different from the Bill, which largely makes those decisions the prerogative of the commission. I do not apologise for bringing these amendments back to the House; the arguments that we began to advance in Committee are still vital. I remind the House that, under the existing planning regime, all planning decisions are in effect taken by politicians. At the local-government level, where the vast bulk of planning is done, planning decisions are taken by a committee of the local authority acting as the planning authority, and only the very minor decisions are decided in a delegation process. However, even the delegation process is subject to politicians’ approval.

The departure from this is when an application is called in either because it is nationally significant or because it is inconsistent with approved plans. Then it goes to the national level and becomes the prerogative of the Secretary of State. That political decision-making may have been criticised for the way in which it has been administered, but in general it has lent great strength to the planning system, and although people

6 Nov 2008 : Column 330

might not always agree with the conclusions, by and large they accept them. There are flaws in the Bill, not least the fact that that process is now to be eroded because the decisions are to be taken by a planning commission. We really need to ask why there is a need to depart from a well-tried and proven process.

In earlier discussions, the Minister has made much of the difficulties caused by the present appeal process. In that instance, she is acting in a quasi-judicial capacity. She must have a thorough and detailed review of absolutely everything to do with the application, which may involve a departure from the planning process. In many cases, it almost certainly involves overriding the views of a local authority. However, that is a very different process from the one that we are now discussing, which is a decision-making process not an appeal process. There is a clear distinction.

One of the interesting facets of the Bill is that, in its conclusion, there is no appeal procedure at the end of the process, with the possible exception of judicial review. If I understand matters correctly—I have no doubt that the Minister will tear me to shreds if I am wrong—the judicial review will be relevant really only with regard to process. If the process is correct, there will be no scope for judicial review. The purpose of these amendments and others that we have tabled later in the Bill is not least to try to ensure that the process in the Bill, particularly on decision-making, is so robust that it is not susceptible to the possibility of judicial review. If it is so susceptible, we are likely to lose most of the advantage of expedition, which this Bill is supposed to bring about. That is a very important point.

Amendment No. 1, which would bring the decision to the Secretary of State, is reinforced by Amendment No. 101, which would give Parliament the power to review a Secretary of State’s decision. It would be an order-making power, which could be set aside by a negative resolution by either House of Parliament. Bearing in mind particularly that the parliamentary processes would be subject to a timetable to be established in the Bill, if these amendments are agreed, we would have a much more robust process which would secure the new situation against review.

I find it really difficult. I understand the views of the CBI and major infrastructure providers that Ministers and MPs should be kept out of the planning process. I have a long and bitter experience of the existing system, which too often has provided prevarication, obfuscation and delay at what I would call the ministerial stage. This is not a particularly political point, because it has been going on for a very long time. But we need to realise that we are not discussing an appeal process, but a decision-making process.

I find it humiliating that at the national level we cannot behave and take decisions which are no more than parallel to the decisions we expect members of local authorities to take on a day-to-day basis. We expect them to be efficient and decisive. We criticise them if they do not deal with applications with sufficient speed, which has been a regular problem. It worries me that Ministers in Parliament apparently are not and cannot be trusted to do the same. As politicians at the national level, are we such a different breed that we

6 Nov 2008 : Column 331

cannot behave as we expect others to behave on a lesser scale in their own field? It simply is unbelievable to me. When you consider the scale of some decisions that some local authorities are obliged to take in relation to their size and functions, they are at least as significant as any decision that we are requiring to be made by a Secretary of State with the approbation of Parliament. There is no difference in scale.

While I understand to some degree why the Government have drafted the Bill in this way, it is wrong. The Bill sets out to bring change to the system. There is no disagreement between those of us on this side of the House and those on the Government’s side that the system needs to change. But, if we are going to change the system, we have to realise that Parliament and government cannot stand aside from change. It is part of what is necessary.

I do not need to but I shall, slightly naughtily, refer to the new theme of the President-elect of the United States. We are living through times of change and in an environment, particularly as regards climate change, in which change will become absolutely necessary. Members in both Houses of Parliament will not be immune from the process. I suggest that we begin to think about it quite seriously. Amendment No. 1 and the accompanying amendment would help to bring that process forward. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I do not want to repeat all that I said at the Committee stage, but I will repeat what for us is at the heart of the issue, and that is not only who takes the decisions, but who the public believe does so and who they believe should do so. We have made it clear that we strongly support the model which puts the construction of policy ahead of individual decisions, and that will be a matter for scrutiny and possibly a vote when we come to it later today. But on the second and third questions, the answer is unequivocally that it is for the Government to do so. The public think that the Government take these major decisions, and that they should lie with the Government.

My amendments are more modest than those of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, but if he chooses to divide the House, we will support him. I propose a system of ratification by the Secretary of State of a decision taken by the Infrastructure Planning Commission. I am prepared to acknowledge that the work that goes into considering representations, the local impact statement, the testing of evidence and so on is a matter for the IPC. In Committee the noble and learned Lord, Lord Boyd of Duncansby, said that individual decisions are,

It did not occur to me at the time whether that might demonstrate a lack of faith in the robustness of decisions taken by Secretary of States hitherto—many decisions over a long period—or indeed in decisions that in the future will be taken by the Secretary of State when they do not go through the IPC. We are not proposing the abolition of the call-in procedure whereby something that would remain a local decision is called in by the Secretary of State. It goes through an inquiry process, but the final decision is taken by the Secretary of

6 Nov 2008 : Column 332

State. The noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, said that what we proposed—the Secretary of State at the last stage—was,

But we believe that these big decisions are political in nature.

It was also said that it would be wrong for the Secretary of State to be both judge and jury in the case of a government-sponsored project. As the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, pointed out, those of us who have experience of local decision-making are used to being confronted with a council-sponsored project that has to go through the planning process and where proper planning criteria are applied as well as all the propriety matters. My amendment would not, I believe, amount to reopening these matters. There is a distinction between bringing out the issues going through the whole detail of the process and drawing a conclusion. I believe that it would be both right and possible for the Secretary of State to consider the issues brought out but perhaps come to a different conclusion.

We have heard a great deal about the need to avoid delay—I do not depart from that—but I do not think that requiring the Secretary of State to look at the evidence, consider it with her or his advisers and so on, would amount to the catastrophic delay that is being presented to us. If there is a problem with the Secretary of State being required to take the final decision, how did it come about that the new Secretary of State for Transport was able to publish a decision on the expansion of Stansted Airport six days after his appointment? Perhaps he spent the whole of the six days working on this—I do not know—but it seems unlikely.

I asked a Question about this, framed in less direct language, on 13 October, and I referred to comments made by the Minister. Despite that, the Government did not realise until quite recently that there might be some connection with the Planning Bill and the Question went to the Department for Transport rather than it being connected with CLG. In any event, the Question has not yet been answered. I will be interested if the Minister is able to give an answer today.

Amendments Nos. 4 and 106 would provide for the Secretary of State to require the commission to take back and reconsider the whole or any part of its decision. To us, that is less desirable than the more radical approach but the Secretary of State may well think that the IPC should reconsider, for instance, conditions attached to a decision. But, overall, big projects are political matters and we feel that the Secretary of State should be seen to have responsibility for them.

Lord Williamson of Horton: My Lords, the amendment goes to the heart of the role of the Infrastructure Planning Commission which will be set up by the Bill, and hence to the heart of the new arrangements for handling the planning of nationally significant infrastructure projects as proposed in the Bill. It is a very important amendment. Subject to a number of smaller points—for example, on attention to good design and a list of those who should be statutorily consulted—to some of which the Minister has responded

6 Nov 2008 : Column 333

by tabling government amendments, for which I thank her, I am broadly satisfied with the structure proposed by the Government.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page