Planning: National Policy Statements

Appointment of the Comptroller and Auditor General – in the House of Commons at 1:55 pm on 20th May 2009.

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[Relevant Document: The Fourth Special Report from the Liaison Committee , Session 2007-08, on Planning Bill: Parliamentary Scrutiny of National Policy Statements, HC 1109]

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) 2:02 pm, 20th May 2009

I beg to move,

That the following new Standing Order and amendments to the Standing Orders be made—

A. New Standing Order: Planning: national policy statements

(1) Whenever a proposal for a national policy statement is laid before this House under section 9(2) of the Planning Act 2008 ('the Act'), the Liaison Committee shall report either—

(a) that it has designated a select committee appointed under Standing Order No. 152, or

(b) that it recommends the appointment of a National Policy Statement Committee to consider the proposal.

(2) A National Policy Statement Committee—

(a) shall be composed of not fewer than seven nor more than fourteen members, all of whom shall be, at the time of nomination, members of one 15 or more of the following select committees—

Communities and Local Government

Energy and Climate Change

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Transport

Welsh Affairs;

(b) shall have power—

(i) to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, to adjourn from place to place within the UK; and

(ii) to appoint specialist advisers either to supply information which is not readily available or to elucidate matters of complexity within the committee's order of reference; and

(c) may report from time to time and shall cease to exist either—

(i) if it has reported on the proposal before the designated date, when the relevant national policy statement or amended national policy statement has been laid under section 5(9) or section 6(9) of the Act; or

(ii) if it has not reported on the proposal before the designated date, on the designated date;

(3) A committee designated or appointed to consider a proposal for a national policy statement shall have power, in the course of its proceedings under this order, to invite Members of the House who are not members of the committee to attend, and, at the discretion of the chairman, take part in, its proceedings, but such Members may not move any motion or amendment to any motion or draft report, nor vote nor be counted in the quorum of the committee;

(4) If a committee designated or appointed to consider a proposal for a national policy statement has not reported on the proposal before the designated date, then the chairman of the committee shall report that the committee makes no recommendation with regard to the proposal.

(5) For the purposes of this Order, the designated date in relation to any proposal for a national policy statement is the thirty-ninth day before the expiry of the relevant period defined under section 9(6) of the Act.

B. Amendments to Standing Orders

That Standing Order No. 121 (Nomination of select committees) be amended, by inserting after '(b)' in line 17—

'(i) in the case of a motion to agree with a report from the Liaison Committee to appoint and nominate Members to a National Policy Statement Committee under Standing Order (Planning: National Policy Statements) the motion is made on behalf of the Liaison Committee by the chairman or another member of the committee; or

(ii) in other cases';

That Standing Order No. 145 (Liaison Committee) be amended by leaving out paragraphs (6), (7) and (8) and inserting the following paragraphs—

(6) The committee shall have power to appoint two sub-committees, one of which shall be a National Policy Statements sub-committee.

(7) A National Policy Statements sub-committee—

(a) shall be composed of—

(i) those members of the committee who are members of the Communities and Local Government, Energy and Climate Change, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Transport and Welsh Affairs Committees; and

(ii) up to two other members of the committee, one of whom shall be appointed chairman of the sub-committee;

(b) shall report to the committee on the use of the committee's powers under paragraph (1) of Standing Order (Planning: National Policy Statements); and

(c) may report to the committee on matters relating to national policy statements under the Planning Act 2008.

(8) Each sub-committee shall have—

(a) a quorum of three; and

(b) power to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, and to report to the committee from time to time.

(9) The committee shall have power to report from time to time the minutes of evidence taken before any sub-committee.

(10) The quorum of the committee shall be as provided in Standing Order No. 124 (Quorum of select committees), save that for consideration of a report from a National Policy Statements sub-committee under sub-paragraph (7)(b) the quorum shall be three.

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

The changes in the planning regime that resulted from the Planning Act 2008—in terms of the establishment of the Infrastructure Planning Commission, the role and extent of national policy statements and the ability of the public to make their views known on the proposals—were scrutinised extremely closely during debate on the Bill here and in the other place.

This is neither the place nor the occasion to discuss the merits or otherwise of the Infrastructure Planning Commission, or whether the country should have a new generation of nuclear power stations or an increase in airport capacity. I am sure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you would rule us out of order if we strayed into that territory. Instead, we shall be discussing a motion that is concerned with the process by which Parliament will be involved in scrutiny of the new planning framework.

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Labour, Stoke-on-Trent North

I do not intend to go down the avenue that the Minister just mentioned, but may I point out to him that, in the context of the proposed scrutiny process, there are serious concerns about sustainable development? Can he reassure me that the Sustainable Development Commission will have an input and that corresponding opportunities will be provided for scrutiny by the Environmental Audit Committee, so that we can be certain that whatever the outcome of the establishment of the Infrastructure Planning Commission, sustainable development has been properly taken into account?

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

That is an important question. As was made clear during the passage of the Planning Bill and is made clear in the Act, sustainability must be at the heart of any national policy statement. I shall say more about parliamentary scrutiny shortly. I do not wish to mislead the House, but I seem to recall that the Sustainable Development Commission is one of the statutory consultees and will therefore have the opportunity to play a role in regard to national policy statements.

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Labour, Stoke-on-Trent North

The Minister is being very generous in giving way, and I am grateful to him. Can he also reassure me that the commission will have regard to the future price of carbon when making planning infrastructure decisions?

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

As I am sure my hon. Friend will acknowledge, that will depend on the nature of the national policy statement involved. It may well be that the price of carbon is not particularly relevant. When considering this matter, the House has been clear about the need for a flexible approach in that regard.

The Planning Act, particularly section 9, provides for parliamentary scrutiny of a proposed national policy statement before it can be designated. Timing, in the general sense, is very important. The Government envisage that the Infrastructure Planning Commission will be established and able to start giving advice to potential applicants this autumn, and will be ready to begin receiving applications from the first half of 2010. We need to put the right procedures in place now, so that they are ready for the first statements, which are scheduled for publication for consultation and laying before Parliament later this year. It is important for parliamentary scrutiny of proposals for NPSs to be efficient and timely. Any delay, or ineffective arrangements, will pose the risk of disruption to a demanding timetable of planning reform for major infrastructure.

To ensure that the process of parliamentary scrutiny is effective and efficient, the Minister for Local Government and the Leader of the House began discussions with the Chairmen of the relevant Select Committees when the Planning Bill was going through the House. Discussions have been followed by further discussions between the Deputy Leader of the House—who I am pleased to see is present—and the Chairmen of Select Committees in recent weeks. The Liaison Committee also considered this matter in October last year, and I have found its report incisive and illuminating.

I pay tribute to the hard work undertaken by my colleagues and others, which has strengthened the proposed process. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have made constructive and positive comments, designed to ensure that Parliament scrutinises national policy statements properly and effectively.

When the Planning Bill was first introduced, the Government suggested the establishment of a specific Select Committee to consider national policy statements, whose members might be drawn from the membership of relevant departmental Committees. However, it was made clear during the passage of the Bill that the wish of the House was that it should be for the House itself to decide what procedures were appropriate for each specific NPS. We recognise that that flexibility is vital.

As I said a moment ago, the Liaison Committee also directly considered the matter of parliamentary scrutiny of NPSs, and provided helpful and reasonable suggestions on how the process could operate and be improved. The Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, my hon. Friend Dr. Starkey—who I am pleased to see is also present—feared that the system as then suggested would exclude members of her Committee with responsibility for, and expertise in, matters of planning policy and local government. As one who appeared before the Committee this week to discuss planning policy statements—and I still bear the scars on my back from previous interrogations by it—I can personally vouch for my hon. Friend's wise words. Moreover, the Chairmen of the departmental Select Committees directly concerned perceived the risk that a system in which ad hoc committees were drawn from existing Select Committees would disrupt those Committees' work.

Together with the Chairs of the Select Committees, we developed the process that is proposed in the motion. Parliamentary examination of a national policy statement would take place through one of two routes: designation of a relevant departmental Select Committee to undertake the work, or the appointment of a national policy statement Select Committee. The decision on which option to take would be a matter not for the Government but for the Select Committees, via the Liaison Committee. Part A of the motion creates a new Standing Order setting out the governance and administrative arrangements for a new national policy statement Select Committee, including the number of members, what constitutes a quorum, the Committee's powers to take evidence and its ability to appoint specialist advisers.

It may be helpful if I briefly describe what I expect scrutiny of a national policy statement to entail. As I have implied, the precise details would be a matter for the Liaison Committee and the relevant Select Committee, but we envisage a process along the following lines. The relevant Secretary of State would lay the draft NPS, or draft amendment of an NPS, before Parliament and publish it for public consultation. At the same time, the Secretary of State would specify what is known as the "relevant period" during which consideration of the proposal would take place. We have agreed that this would need to be sufficient to encompass the period of public consultation plus additional time to allow for Committees of either House to report and for debates in this House and the other place to take place if required.

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

Before I give way to my hon. Friend, let me stress that this is an extremely important point, on which I wish to elaborate.

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Labour, Stoke-on-Trent North

I just want to double-check that at that stage in the process the Sustainable Development Commission will be able to give its view, and that that will then be drawn to the attention of the Select Committees or Members looking into the matter.

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

If I can move on to describe more of this process, I might be able to answer my hon. Friend's question.

Chairs of Select Committees and the House in general will wish to be reassured that a Secretary of State will not rush through an NPS via a truncated relevant period, and I will in a moment set out how that will not be allowed to be the case. A draft NPS will be screened by the Chairs of the relevant Select Committees and the Liaison Committee. Under this process, it will be decided which of the two routes for scrutiny to take: a relevant Select Committee or the bespoke national policy statement Select Committee. This body will then meet to agree its call for evidence, which will run in parallel with public consultation. The motion before us makes it clear that the Select Committee may invite individuals and organisations to appear before it to give oral evidence; I think that that point will reassure my hon. Friend that the SDC will, where relevant, be able to give evidence and appear before the relevant Select Committee. I hope I have reassured her on that point.

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Labour, Stoke-on-Trent North

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. The issue is to do with the word "may". I would like the SDC to have the status of a statutory consultee in respect of the views that are sought by different Committees.

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

I have two points to make in response to that. First, it is my recollection that, in terms of all national policy statements, the SDC is a statutory consultee; I will write to my hon. Friend if that is incorrect. Secondly, I hope I am making it clear that it is not for the Government to decide which witnesses are to be provided in the consideration of any particular NPS. The relevant Select Committee, in conjunction with the Liaison Committee, would decide what evidence needed to be provided. It is, of course, open to the SDC to provide, where relevant, written evidence to a particular Select Committee. Therefore, I think there are checks and balances to allow issues and queries with regard to sustainability to be advanced.

Photo of Paul Truswell Paul Truswell Labour, Pudsey

This process will obviously be kick-started by a significant number and range of national policy statements. Are the Minister and Select Committee Chairs confident that they have the logistical capacity to be able to deal with that initial major amount of work?

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

We anticipate there being about a dozen national policy statements. My hon. Friend raises an important point, and one of our key pledges is that sufficient discussion will take place between the Government, the relevant Secretaries of State, the Liaison Committee and the Select Committees to make sure that they are not inundated with work and the necessary logistics and administrative arrangements are provided. We have pledged that additional support will be given to relevant Select Committees to ensure that they can properly scrutinise the NPS process.

Photo of Jacqui Lait Jacqui Lait Conservative, Beckenham

I wish to raise a point of technical detail. Will there be sufficient time for groups who are, perhaps, not professional lobby groups but who are affected by these policy statements to be able to get their evidence together and into not only the public consultation, but the Select Committee, and then for the Select Committee to be able to interview them if there is substantive evidence to take? Will there be a Government guarantee—or will the relevant Select Committee be able to guarantee—that there will be sufficient time for everyone to be able to give clear evidence?

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

I may be wrong, but I seem to recall that the hon. Lady served on the Planning Bill Committee.

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

The hon. Lady indicates that she served on the Committee and she raises the important point that timing is absolutely essential. We have said both throughout the passage of the Bill and now that it has been enacted that we need a national debate on what infrastructure is necessary for this country. Part of that debate is a public consultation, for which there is the statutory 12-week period. Alongside that, it is important that, in parallel, we have rigorous parliamentary scrutiny, and if the hon. Lady will allow me to move on, I will talk about the overhanging period after the public consultation in which the relevant Select Committee can determine the points she raised.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

The Minister's remarks are very interesting. The problem here is that these national policy statements will be overarching and interrelated, and because of the nature of Member involvement they will be interested in a number of different national policy statements at the same time. How will we manage that, unless we allow national policy statement proceedings to last for long periods of time? This point also applies to the various non-governmental organisations that will be interested. They will want to give evidence on a range of national policy statements at the same time. How does the Minister envisage that that will work?

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

I anticipate that the relevant Select Committee would look at the logistics and determine which organisations and individuals to call to give evidence. There should be a coherent strategy to allow that consultation and debate to take place. Let me move on, as what I wish to say next might also help provide clarity on these points.

The Committee may also decide to take evidence in specific locations outside Parliament. It is entirely possible, for example, that a location-specific NPS—the nuclear energy NPS, perhaps, on which I should declare an interest as there is a nuclear power station in my constituency—could identify suitable, or potentially suitable, locations for a piece of infrastructure, and the Select Committee might consider it appropriate to visit some of them.

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 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.

Photo of Jacqui Lait Jacqui Lait Conservative, Beckenham

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.

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

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.

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

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

Photo of Jacqui Lait Jacqui Lait Conservative, Beckenham

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?

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

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.

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

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.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

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?

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

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.

Photo of Paul Truswell Paul Truswell Labour, Pudsey

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?

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

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.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

The Minister was referring to the various consultations that have been undertaken with Select Committees and other matters. He may recall that during the debate in Committee, my hon. Friend 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?

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

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.

Photo of Phyllis Starkey Phyllis Starkey Labour, Milton Keynes South West

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.

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

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.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party 2:26 pm, 20th May 2009

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.

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 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.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

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?

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

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 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.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

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.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

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 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.

Photo of Phyllis Starkey Phyllis Starkey Labour, Milton Keynes South West

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.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

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 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.

Photo of Phyllis Starkey Phyllis Starkey Labour, Milton Keynes South West 2:38 pm, 20th May 2009

I offer the House an apology on behalf of my hon. Friend 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.

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, we've all got far too much to do and we don't 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, "We'd 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 important—I 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.

Photo of Paul Truswell Paul Truswell Labour, Pudsey

I do not think that there has been any suggestion in today's 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 assured—I hope she agrees—that NPSs can be just as important in their impact on the country and on communities as any legislation that we pass in the House.

Photo of Phyllis Starkey Phyllis Starkey Labour, Milton Keynes South West

Absolutely. At the end of my speech, I shall briefly come to the issue about the vote.

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 House's 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.

Photo of Jacqui Lait Jacqui Lait Conservative, Beckenham

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.

Photo of Phyllis Starkey Phyllis Starkey Labour, Milton Keynes South West

I shall leave the hon. Lady's remarks to stand by themselves, as I cannot recall what was said. Only the Minister—not the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Mr. Wright, who is in the Chamber now, but the Minister for Local Government—could 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 building—not in public, because such meetings do not happen in public—to demonstrate that more goes on in the House than what occurs in the Chamber or in Westminster Hall.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

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 colleague—I do not know whether it is right—that the numbers might have as much as doubled in the past few years and that there are too many places. As a result, MPs—even if they are full time and fully committed—have struggled to attend meetings and to do the necessary preparation that makes those meetings so useful.

Photo of Phyllis Starkey Phyllis Starkey Labour, Milton Keynes South West

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 without—I shall choose my words carefully—seeming 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 is—the amendment might alter this, but I do not think that it does—that 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 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 anybody's interests—even those of the individuals or organisations that might be unhappy with the eventual outcome—are 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.

Photo of Paul Truswell Paul Truswell Labour, Pudsey

Will my hon. Friend explain how she feels the amendment tabled by our hon. Friend 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.

Photo of Phyllis Starkey Phyllis Starkey Labour, Milton Keynes South West

I think that my hon. Friend has misconstrued what I was saying. I was referring to the process as a whole, and not specifically to the amendment.

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 authorities—the 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.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 2:52 pm, 20th May 2009

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 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 country's 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 Government's, 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.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test

I am following carefully the hon. Gentleman's line of argument, but does he accept that a national policy statement may be something of a hybrid—a 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?

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

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 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 Minister's 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 people's 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.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

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.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

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 public's 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.

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 Government's motion. That is why I am pleased to see the amendment tabled by 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.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 3:07 pm, 20th May 2009

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.

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 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.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

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 the details that are fought over at any subsequent planning inquiry. That is why national policy statements must be right and fair.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

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.

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.

Photo of Jacqui Lait Jacqui Lait Conservative, Beckenham 3:22 pm, 20th May 2009

It is an enormous pleasure to follow John McDonnell. Although I do not regard 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 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 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 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 her colleague 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.

Photo of Jacqui Lait Jacqui Lait Conservative, Beckenham

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?

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

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?

Photo of Jacqui Lait Jacqui Lait Conservative, Beckenham

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 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.

Photo of Paul Truswell Paul Truswell Labour, Pudsey 3:32 pm, 20th May 2009

I do not intend to detain the House for too long, because my hon. Friend 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.

I had written down the fact that the process that my hon. Friend is recommending is a democratic backstop; he got there first in using that phrase, but I reiterate it. If our constituents, wherever they live, feel individually or collectively that they have been stripped of a right that currently exists, they will look to us, as their elected representatives, to perform that role of backstop, which is why the amendment is so crucial.

Mrs. Lait was right to say that the whole process has opened itself up to judicial review, which will clearly flow from one or more of the documents and applications that come before us. All the arguments have been made in that respect. I think that we will get not only judicial review but more direct action, because the idea that legitimacy is being stripped out of the process will aggravate people to such a great extent.

I do not intend to reiterate the arguments that have been made; I wanted only briefly to reinforce what has been said by so many Members, but particularly by my hon. Friend. I hope that even at this late stage, we will be able to register the view of this House that we ultimately need a substantive vote to legitimise the process, having taken so much legitimacy out of it.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley 3:36 pm, 20th May 2009

Like everyone else, I must begin my remarks by thanking John McDonnell for introducing his amendment, which I hope that he will press to a vote.

Anyone looking in on this debate and reading today's Order Paper could not avoid seeing the complexity of the motion that is before us. They would probably think that common sense had gone out of the window, because although the motion is complex, it entirely misses the point that what the planning system lacks is real democratic accountability. The Government have underestimated the extent of public anger and suspicion about the planning process and the public's lack of trust in the planning process and in those who take planning decisions. In all the years that I have been involved in planning matters, I cannot recall a time when the planning system has been so characterised by confrontation and all-pervading conspiracy theories because of the lack of transparency that occurs in relation to almost any major decision. It would be easy to characterise that as nimbyism, and many do, but that is so insulting to the people and communities who have genuine concerns to raise about large projects. The attitude of the public owes a lot to the lack of democratic accountability in the system at all levels.

The Minister referred to the need for consultation during the process. I have to say to him that, in my experience, the Government's track record on consultation is shot to pieces. People do not trust the consultation process, and I would like to hear whether he has any more ideas about how he is going to put trust back into it. Is it to be based around the sort of consultation that we have seen for some of the regional spatial strategies? In my area, the south-east plan did not go out of its way to involve ordinary people. It involved the great and the good—even some of the great and the good in the county councils and district councils—but it failed to have any resonance at all with ordinary people on the ground. That is why they are so angry. When those plans were published, they contained the very things that they had fought against. In many cases they raised their own money to do that, and not on nimby grounds but for good reasons.

I am a great admirer of Select Committees. I know that I have not been here as long as many Members who are present in the Chamber, but I am on a Select Committee and enjoy its work very much. I particularly enjoy the opportunity that it provides to delve into matters in detail and question Ministers, officials and other experts at great length. However, that misses the point that what people want is the scrutiny and decision making in this House that, as my hon. Friend Robert Neill said, allows a constituent to come and ask us, "How did you vote on this particular issue?"

The Floor of the House is a perfectly proper place for discussions on documents such as national policy statements, because they are not purely planning documents. The description of them in the White Paper, "Planning for a Sustainable Future," states that they will

"provide a clear statement of policy and the nature of infrastructure development necessary to deliver our wider goals of improving people's quality of life, economic prosperity and protecting and enhancing the environment."

There is a planning element in there, absolutely, but there is much more about economic development and the overall picture of development. It is perfectly proper that that should be debated on the Floor of the House and, in fact, I would feel upset if I did not have the opportunity to influence a decision on such a wide issue.

For the reasons that have already been stated, I do not like the Infrastructure Planning Commission. It is one of the most spineless inventions that we have seen in the planning system. As I said in my earlier intervention, over the past few years the planning system has been deliberately moved towards being the delivery arm of Government policy. That is the right direction, because planning does not exist in an isolated world of its own. It is there to deliver whatever the policies of the Government are, and I have no problem with that. I do have a problem with the inconsistency that follows, which means that when it comes to contentious national projects, the Government want to hide behind a whole new structure that takes them out of the picture.

The planning system that we have at the moment is one of the most highly fragmented that I have come across. Bits of planning decisions are taken here, bits there and bits in other places. There is little interaction in the system between national policy statements and the planning policy statements and guidance. I join my hon. Friends in welcoming some form of national policy statement for infrastructure projects, but the debate has moved on. There must now be a big argument about whether it is right for national policy statements to be stand-alone documents or whether they should be included in something much broader that establishes an overall policy framework for the country, priorities within that and the tools and means of delivering it. If the Minister wishes to have an example of how that might work, let me point out that whenever I talk to planning consultants, they start to go weepy-eyed and enthusiastic about what the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly are doing to turn their planning systems around and to provide a structure in which things can be seen in the context of what those Governments want to achieve.

My hon. Friend Mrs. Lait was absolutely right to highlight the risk of judicial review. The Campaign to Protect Rural England website has already listed the main reasons why one would be able to take something to a judicial review. Although the CPRE qualifies that with a statement that

"In general, the use of judicial review should be considered very much as a last resort as it is risky"— it might have added "expensive"—I submit that it would not put four detailed reasons on its website if it were not encouraging people to use them. So we already have a good example of how that would work.

There is a good argument for accountability and debate in Parliament generally, rather than in a Select Committee alone, as the Government propose. I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst that, although the amendment does not go as far as we would like, it is a good step in the right direction, which I would be pleased to support.

Photo of Alan Simpson Alan Simpson Labour, Nottingham South 3:45 pm, 20th May 2009

My hon. Friend John McDonnell is right that there could not be a better time for the House to debate the amendment to the proposals for national policy statements. There is a call for a root-and-branch rethink of what Parliament is about—not only how we manage our expenses, but how we accept responsibility for the big issues that affect people's lives and the country's future, and how we hold ourselves accountable in that process. It is also true, as my hon. Friend Mr. Truswell said, that we lost the right in the Planning Act 2008 for the public to hold people to account for big decisions through planning inquiries. There remains the role of the House in holding people to account for the big decisions of state.

Although it is important to build consultation and scrutiny into decision making, and both are necessary conditions of a democratic process, they are not sufficient to define its existence. The third element, which completes the process, is accountability. A great difficulty—and a source of frustration to me during my time in Parliament—is the way in which Parliament has been stripped out of the democratic process because we have farmed out accountability for decision-making responsibilities.

I am sure that the Minister has read the novel, "Catch-22". I invite him to reflect on one of the characters: Major Major. He did not want to be in the army but ended up there because it was a family tradition, and became a major. However, he hated the responsibility for making decisions, so he found a way of surviving by introducing a rule whereby every member of the armed forces was free to consult him and put requests to him at any time, as long he was not there. Only when he was in his office were the doors closed. That was an effective way of not making any difficult decisions. My worry is that Parliament has been reduced to that position. Whenever there were big decisions to be made, we were not there. That would persist under the proposed framework.

Of course, we can have scrutiny and consultations, but when a matter comes before the House, we may, at best, be able to vote on a motion. As every Member knows, that often amounts to voting on no more than whether to adjourn. I am sure that most Members have experienced the great difficulty of explaining to their constituents their monumental and heroic stance in deciding whether to vote to adjourn the debate.

Do we continue with a procedure that will take us nowhere, or abandon it? Such a procedure does not help with credibility; it does not cut much ice when we try to address the issue of the House accepting the responsibilities that go with our standing for election to make decisions about the major issues that affect people's lives. The amendment before us today would restore the House's right to cast a substantive vote. That does not seem a particularly radical proposal: it just says that the House takes itself seriously and that we recognise that there is often an important distinction to be drawn between the interests of the Government and the interests of Parliament. It is Parliament's role to hold the Government to account. The ways in which we do so include the right to have a vote on a substantive motion.

I understand that the quasi-judicial interpretation of planning responsibilities is often wheeled out in an attempt to discourage politicians from interfering in decision-making processes. So too is the argument that, often, an issue will be of such enormous importance that it just has to be decided upon without undue delay. Our proposal would not cause any undue delay at all, but it does accept that the House can, and frequently does, bring to the scrutiny process something that can counteract the inequalities built into the consultation process, however open it may be.

A number of hon. Members have mentioned the fact that huge inequalities of power, resources and influence are built into the planning processes. Those same inequalities are built into the ability to make representations to our Select Committee hearings. One countervailing power that is frequently demonstrated in the House is the ability of hon. Members from all parties to come here remarkably well informed and remarkably unafraid to put the arguments that many of their constituents are unable to muster either the confidence or the resources to put themselves.

Our proposal would be an enhancement of the democratic process. It would give the House the right to define a position that may not suit what the Government want to do. Ultimately, if this House considers itself to be the guardian of democratic processes and part of the arm lock, which requires democratic accountability to be exercised in this Chamber, it is right that we should reserve the right to say no and to tell the Government of the day, whatever Government they may be, that we do not agree with their policy.

A substantive right to a vote on such statements would restore that to the House. It would indicate, at this hugely important point in restoring our democratic credentials for the future, that we are unafraid to put down a marker and exercise the one duty that every member of our electorate assumes that we have when we are elected, which is to come to the House and cast a vote that has a meaning. If we cannot do that, we will be throwing the towel in on our democratic credibility, and at a time when that credibility could barely be lower. I hope that the House has the courage to reclaim this platform, from which we now have to rebuild our democratic credentials, and will support the amendment standing in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test 3:54 pm, 20th May 2009

I do not intend to detain the House long, although I imagine that my comments will probably make me no friends whatever in any part of the House.

As I intimated in an intervention, my difficulty in approaching the motion relates to the status of a national planning policy statement, which will clearly be a hybrid. It will be based partly on what regularly happens at the Dispatch Box when a Minister makes a statement on Government policy, takes questions and sits down, with no vote being taken. Such statements can be prayed in aid, one way or another, in a planning inquiry, even though they are not specifically related to it.

On the other hand, the national planning policy statements that are envisaged will go substantially beyond the point at which they could be regarded simply as a Government statement—they will be much more substantial. In some ways, they will more closely resemble planning policy guidance statements, which also are not subject to a vote on the Floor of the House before they are completed, but which nevertheless go before planning inquiries and play a substantial part in determining the framework of the inquiry. Indeed, people on both sides of the inquiry will refer to parts of the guidance statement to support their case.

I thoroughly support the scrutiny that now takes place. A good job was done in ensuring that, by the time the Planning Bill became an Act, procedures had been incorporated to enable such scrutiny. The motion reflects the follow-on from what emerged in the Planning Act 2008.

There is a choice between the scrutiny being undertaken by either a Select Committee or a Committee set up by the Liaison Committee specifically for the purpose, but I feel that a preference should be expressed. One might say that a Select Committee would normally be asked to scrutinise a proposed document and that, exceptionally, a Committee might be set up for the purpose. At the moment, there seems to be an either/or that is neutral on which option is preferred. Perhaps we should suggest a preference.

Should a Select Committee discuss a planning statement? Because it is a statement, it is extremely unlikely that the Committee would simply say, "No, we don't like the apparent policy behind the statement, so we will not endorse it in any way, shape or form", in order to bring it back to the House. Instead, it would discuss the detail, as in a Bill Committee, and report its conclusions. It might suggest a number of changes to the detail, but it is extremely unlikely—to the point of its not happening—that a Select Committee would fundamentally disagree with the concept behind it.

I therefore have some difficulty with the amendment, which appears to suggest that a member of a Committee could come before the House and say, "No, we don't like the whole idea of the policy," and we would have to debate that and vote.

The question whether a policy is liked seems to go one stage further back. I would value the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister on what is meant by the relevant provision in the 2008 Act. Sections 9(4) and (5) state that if

"either House of Parliament makes a resolution with regard to the proposal...The Secretary of State must lay before Parliament a statement setting out the Secretary of State's response to the resolution or recommendations."

However, if either House of Parliament passed a policy resolution on the proposal, it would not be logical for the Secretary of State simply to lay a statement responding to the resolution, because the resolution would essentially override what the Secretary of State might say about the policy principle behind the planning document being considered by the Select Committee.

Let me provide an example. I support in principle the National Planning Commission dealing with large infrastructure projects and nationally significant planning proposals. I do so partly because I would like a number of issues relating to the development of renewable and sustainable energy to be dealt with speedily and effectively—with proper consultation and discussion, but without the immense delays that we sometimes encounter. I also accept, however, that the same process could speed up development of nuclear power, which I think is a bad idea for this country's energy policy.

We should not forget that the purpose of national policy statements is to inform the considerations of the National Planning Commission. If, before the proposals in either of the two examples I have given had reached the point of being scrutinised by a Select Committee or gone through the Infrastructure Planning Commission's planning inquiry process, the House considered a motion stating that either nuclear power or large-scale offshore wind was a bad idea, that would presumably trump or prevent Select Committee discussion of any statement. Indeed, that consideration is more important than requiring the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament a statement setting out his response to the resolution or recommendations.

The Secretary of State may lay before Parliament a statement on the recommendations of a Select Committee, but if he was laying a response to a resolution that overrode the policy behind the statement, it would be insufficient and inappropriate simply to respond by laying a statement before Parliament. That underlines the hybrid nature of national planning statements. On the one hand, they are a statement of Government policy, but on the other, they are a planning policy guideline—and even if they are a statement of Government policy, they are a statement in the context of a wider palette of policies that can properly be the subject of a resolution before the House to define whether that policy is appropriate. That is an important element in these proceedings. I would be grateful for the Minister's clarification of whether my understanding of the process is accurate.

Notwithstanding all that, the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend John McDonnell underlines an important point about what happens at the end of a Select Committee's scrutiny. When the Planning Bill was introduced, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government stated:

"In addition, if the Committee has recommended that a national policy statement raises issues which should be debated by Parliament as a whole, we will make available time in each House for a debate before we designate it."—[ Hansard, 27 November 2007; Vol. 468, c. 14WS.]

That was a clear commitment, and I should be grateful for, at the very least, a reinstatement of it today. However, I am not sure whether it is sufficient to guarantee debate on the Floor of the House.

The motion should provide for such debate if a Select Committee reports that an issue requires it, rather than someone perhaps providing time for it. I have complete confidence in the bona fides of my hon. Friend the Minister and, indeed, those of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, but I am not necessarily confident that, for all time, everyone will be in exactly the same position. The motion should be amended to ensure that the process of bringing documentation to the Floor of the House for guaranteed debate is followed through.

I have concerns about how a substantive vote at the end of that process is to be interpreted, bearing in mind what I said about a resolution. However, today's debate has drawn attention to a lacuna in how the process might reach its logical conclusion. If we can get that right, we shall have a process that deals with how statements are presented to the House and how they interact with the planning process, and that ensures that proper scrutiny and the voice of the House are taken fully into account.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point 4:07 pm, 20th May 2009

I apologise for not being present at the start of the debate. As I explained to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, I was engaged in specific business for my constituents.

The 2008 Act represents all that is wrong with Parliament today. Had it existed years ago when my predecessor, Sir Bernard Braine, was around, he would not have been able to defend the people of Castle Point from dangerous industrial petrochemical operations on Canvey Island. The people of Castle Point feel that the Act removes their democratic rights and protections. To say that they are deeply worried about the removal of their right to be represented in the House, and the right of their Member of Parliament to defend them again, as I certainly would, is an understatement. In fact, they are deeply angry about the Act, which is why I wholeheartedly support the amendment tabled by John McDonnell. We are indebted to him for his efforts.

There is a school only a few hundred yards from, and indeed some people live only a few hundred yards from, what the Health and Safety Executive described to me in a meeting this week as one of the most potentially dangerous operations in the country. It is a COMAH site—COMAH stands for "control of major accident hazards"—that is operated by Calorgas, which wants massively to intensify its use of the site. The Health and Safety Executive is conducting a criminal investigation into a recent spillage of 163 tonnes of liquefied petroleum gas, which caused an unconfined vapour cloud. Had the cloud met a source of ignition, we would have experienced a Buncefield with bells on—a much greater accident with multiple tank involvement.

That is why, when planning decisions affect my constituents' lives—decisions that can blight their homes and community and affect their schools—they want to ensure that their representative can stand on the Floor of the House, as Sir Bernard Braine did before me, and defend their interests. That is why I will support the amendment.

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) 4:10 pm, 20th May 2009

I thank hon. Members for their incisive contributions, and I wish to respond to some of their concerns.

Essentially, there have been two interlinked themes to the debate. First, there is a wish for reassurance on the relevant period—the time scale for public consultation and, more crucially in this case perhaps, for the House to debate these important matters of national infrastructure. Secondly, there is concern about the role of Divisions, votes and debates as part of the planning consultation process.

Several Members wanted assurance that the Secretary of State will determine the relevant period in consultation with the Liaison Committee and be prepared to extend it whenever necessary. My hon. Friend Dr. Starkey, Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, asked that the period be not less than six months. The relevant period needs to be long enough to incorporate three important underlying elements: the period of public consultation, which is normally three months; the overhang period of four to six weeks after the close of public consultation during which the relevant Select Committee scrutinising the matter will conclude its report; and the crucial further period of six weeks or 40 days in which the Government would—not might—make time for debate if the Committee recommended that that was warranted. In reality, the relevant period would be about six months, but we did not want the motion to impose a rigid time scale because we think it is important for the Select Committee to have flexibility. That third element that I mentioned is crucial: whether there should be a debate and a vote is decided not by the Government, but by the Select Committee.

Let me move on to my second point, on debates and holding Ministers and policy to account.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

Before the Minister moves on, may I make a point? He used the word "normally" in his responses on the previous issue. While I very much welcome the proposal for a 40-day period, there is to be no indication to a Secretary of State on what the overall period should be. I see no objection to setting out a minimum period.

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

There might be an amendment to a national policy statement, or the matter being considered might be relatively minor, and in those circumstances there would be no benefit in having a rigid six-month policy. The time necessary can be determined by liaison between the relevant Secretary of State, the Select Committee and the Liaison Committee, in accordance with an assessment of the importance of the matter being scrutinised. Through providing such flexibility and ensuring that the Select Committee is in the driving seat, we have demonstrated that we consider parliamentary scrutiny to be vital. We welcome that, we want it and we have introduced the motion to ensure that it happens.

Several hon. Members made the point that national policy statements are policy statements and that is, of course, correct. As such, national policy statements are the Government's responsibility. It is the job of the House to scrutinise and challenge, and to hold Ministers to account, and the motion permits that. To borrow the vivid words used by my hon. Friend John McDonnell, the motion allows hon. Members to help to change the Government's mind where that is necessary. None of our proposals would prevent that from happening. Importantly, they provide the flexibility to allow that to happen.

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will not, as I want to move on, and, with the greatest respect, she has not been present for the whole debate.

Given that the motion provides flexibility and the important opportunity for rigorous challenge of Ministers, it ensures that the House has the utmost ability to scrutinise national policy statements in Parliament. On that basis, I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington to withdraw his amendment, and I commend the motion to the House.

Amendment proposed: amendment (a), at end of proposed paragraph (3), insert—

'(3A) If a committee designated or appointed to consider a proposal for a national policy statement has reported to the House its recommendation that a proposal for a national policy statement should be designated as a national policy statement, and a motion is made by a Minister of the Crown to that effect, the question thereon shall be put not later than one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion.

(3B) If a committee designated or appointed to consider a proposal for a national policy statement has reported to the House its recommendation that a proposal for a national policy statement should not be designated as a national policy statement, no motion to approve the proposal for a statement shall be made unless the House has previously resolved to disagree with the committee's recommendation; the questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the motion for such a resolution to disagree shall be put not later than three hours after their commencement; and the question shall be put forthwith on any motion thereafter made by a Minister of the Crown that such a proposal be designated as a national policy statement.

(3C) Motions to which paragraphs (3A) and (3B) of this Order apply may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.'.— [John McDonnell.]

Question put , That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 216, Noes 262.

Division number 138 Appointment of the Comptroller and Auditor General — Planning: National Policy Statements

Aye: 216 MPs

No: 262 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly negatived.

Main Question put.

The House divided: Ayes 265, Noes 212.

Division number 139 Appointment of the Comptroller and Auditor General — Planning: National Policy Statements

Aye: 265 MPs

No: 212 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly agreed to.

Order ed,

That the following new Standing Order and amendments to the Standing Orders be made—

A. New Standing Order: Planning: national policy statements

(1) Whenever a proposal for a national policy statement is laid before this House under section 9(2) of the Planning Act 2008 ('the Act'), the Liaison Committee shall report either—

(a) that it has designated a select committee appointed under Standing Order No. 152, or

(b) that it recommends the appointment of a National Policy Statement Committee to consider the proposal.

(2) A National Policy Statement Committee—

(a) shall be composed of not fewer than seven nor more than fourteen members, all of whom shall be, at the time of nomination, members of one 15 or more of the following select committees—

Communities and Local Government

Energy and Climate Change

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Transport

Welsh Affairs;

(b) shall have power—

(i) to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, to adjourn from place to place within the UK; and

(ii) to appoint specialist advisers either to supply information which is not readily available or to elucidate matters of complexity within the committee's order of reference; and

(c) may report from time to time and shall cease to exist either—

(i) if it has reported on the proposal before the designated date, when the relevant national policy statement or amended national policy statement has been laid under section 5(9) or section 6(9) of the Act; or

(ii) if it has not reported on the proposal before the designated date, on the designated date;

(3) A committee designated or appointed to consider a proposal for a national policy statement shall have power, in the course of its proceedings under this order, to invite Members of the House who are not members of the committee to attend, and, at the discretion of the chairman, take part in, its proceedings, but such Members may not move any motion or amendment to any motion or draft report, nor vote nor be counted in the quorum of the committee;

(4) If a committee designated or appointed to consider a proposal for a national policy statement has not reported on the proposal before the designated date, then the chairman of the committee shall report that the committee makes no recommendation with regard to the proposal.

(5) For the purposes of this Order, the designated date in relation to any proposal for a national policy statement is the thirty-ninth day before the expiry of the relevant period defined under section 9(6) of the Act.

B. Amendments to Standing Orders

That Standing Order No. 121 (Nomination of select committees) be amended, by inserting after '(b)' in line 17—

'(i) in the case of a motion to agree with a report from the Liaison Committee to appoint and nominate Members to a National Policy Statement Committee under Standing Order (Planning: National Policy Statements) the motion is made on behalf of the Liaison Committee by the chairman or another member of the committee; or

(ii) in other cases';

That Standing Order No. 145 (Liaison Committee) be amended by leaving out paragraphs (6), (7) and (8) and inserting the following paragraphs—

(6) The committee shall have power to appoint two sub-committees, one of which shall be a National Policy Statements sub-committee.

(7) A National Policy Statements sub-committee—

(a) shall be composed of—

(i) those members of the committee who are members of the Communities and Local Government, Energy and Climate Change, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Transport and Welsh Affairs Committees; and

(ii) up to two other members of the committee, one of whom shall be appointed chairman of the sub-committee;

(b) shall report to the committee on the use of the committee's powers under paragraph (1) of Standing Order (Planning: National Policy Statements); and

(c) may report to the committee on matters relating to national policy statements under the Planning Act 2008.

(8) Each sub-committee shall have—

(a) a quorum of three; and

(b) power to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, and to report to the committee from time to time.

(9) The committee shall have power to report from time to time the minutes of evidence taken before any sub-committee.

(10) The quorum of the committee shall be as provided in Standing Order No. 124 (Quorum of select committees), save that for consideration of a report from a National Policy Statements sub-committee under sub-paragraph (7)(b) the quorum shall be three.