Clause 28 - Determination of appeal: time limits

Civil Aviation Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 6th March 2012.

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Photo of John Woodcock John Woodcock Shadow Minister (Transport) 11:30 am, 6th March 2012

I beg to move amendment 39, in clause 28, page 18, line 40, leave out ‘24 weeks’ and insert ‘12 weeks’.

Photo of Linda Riordan Linda Riordan Labour, Halifax

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 40, in clause 28, page 19, line 32, leave out subsection (9).

Photo of John Woodcock John Woodcock Shadow Minister (Transport)

I have two more probing amendments, both of which address time scales.

I hope the Minister will use amendment 39 to explain why the Competition Commission is to be given 24 weeks to make a decision on an appeal, when an appellant has only six weeks to submit an appeal after the CAA makes a decision, as set out in paragraph 1(1) of schedule 2. The amendment would shorten the period given to the commission. If the Minister does not want to accept the amendment, I hope she will explain why the commission is currently slated to get quadruple the time that an applicant will receive to make a decision.

Amendment 40 probes subsection (9), which gives the Secretary of State the power by regulation to modify the time periods set out for appeals in respect of licence condition decisions by the CAA. I hope the Minister will be able to set out the steps she thinks she will be able to take to ensure that that power does not create uncertainty for all parties involved.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers The Minister of State, Department for Transport

As I hinted during discussions about previous amendments, the time limits have been designed to provide certainty to parties throughout the appeals process and to provide for timely determination of appeals. Again, as with other aspects of the appeals mechanisms, we have based many of our proposals on other regulatory systems.

The appeals process in the Bill is based on the Electricity and Gas (Internal Markets) Regulations 2011. Under that regime, the Competition Commission must determine an appeal against a price control decision within six months and an appeal against any other decision within four months.

We support the prompt resolution of an appeal and believe that 24 weeks is an appropriate period within which to expect the Competition Commission to determine an appeal. We want appeals to be dealt with in a timely manner, but that must be balanced against the practicalities of the time needed to ensure that justice can be done and a decision taken properly and appropriately.

If amendment 39 were accepted—I am grateful for the indication that it is a probing amendment—there is a risk that full consideration would not be possible within the shortened time period, and that we would end up with poorer-quality decision making as a result. Judicial review would be a possibility as well. The Competition Commission has confirmed to the Department for Transport that it thinks that 12 weeks would be too short a period to consider evidence from the party, test the evidence and reach a well-reasoned and robust determination. The possible impact on justice could have obvious consequences for fairness.

The shadow Minister asked about the distinction between the CC’s 24-week process and the six-week deadline placed on appellants, but we need to consider the six-week deadline in the round. He himself called for care to be taken not to make the appeals process overly complex, too long or too expensive. We think a degree of strictness is important in relation to time limits—not too long, and not too short.

Although the six-week timetable is potentially demanding for appellants, the CAA is under obligations to consult on licence conditions before making its determination, so groups that want to appeal, such as airlines and so on, have a significant amount of visibility about the terms of the licence condition well before the clock starts ticking on the six weeks. It is not as though appellants start from zero and have to put together their entire appeal in six weeks. In reality, they will have known for some time the proposed content of the licence, as a result of consultation.

If the CAA decides to make a big change to the licence condition on which it has consulted, it will often be obliged to consult again. We must consider the six-week deadline in the context of where it appears in the process overall and of the other safeguards that the Bill provides to ensure that potential appellants are treated fairly.

I return to the specific concerns about the 24 weeks. It would have practical consequences if we were significantly to constrain the time available for the CC to make its decisions. There would be a risk of further appeals and judicial review applications, protracting the process in a way that I am sure Opposition Front Benchers would agree was not attractive.

The 24 weeks is part of the package of proposals put together after extensive debate with stakeholders and designed for appropriate balance between a timely and efficient process and one that enables airlines effectively to hold the CAA to account and defend passengers’  interests. The amendments, like others that we have discussed, could destabilise that balance. Indeed, some concern has been expressed that the time limits in the Bill are overly strict, so I cannot see a cogent case for shortening the time limits as the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness proposes.

The hon. Gentleman asked, in relation to amendment 40, what constraints or care the Government would take to ensure that the power to produce delegated legislation under the clause would not cause unnecessary uncertainty. As I said, I think that we have the right balance in the appeals process package as a whole, and I am confident that the time limits that we have proposed are workable and right. However, it makes sense to retain the option to amend them via secondary legislation, as provided for in subsection (9).

As we want this legislation to last, we feel that it would be prudent to retain some flexibility to adjust those time periods if experience proved that that would be desirable. The Competition Commission agrees that that is a useful power for the Secretary of State to have and appropriate for secondary legislation. Enabling the Secretary of State to modify the periods of time specified in the clause eliminates the need to use primary legislation should processes change and experience prove that a change to the appeal time limits is necessary.

Of course, in making such decisions, the Secretary of State would take care and would be subject to the ordinary parliamentary processes that are applicable in relation to secondary legislation, and, where necessary and appropriate, would undertake consultation as well. I do not think that that would inject unnecessary or unacceptable uncertainty into the framework set out in the Bill. I hope that the shadow Minister has received reassurance on the time limits.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 28 ordered to stand part of the Bill.