HC Deb 24 November 1970 vol 807 cc367-71

Order for Second Reading read.

10.14 p.m.

The Minister for Local Government and Development (Mr. Graham Page)

I beg to move. That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill seeks to remedy one of those unfortunate lapses which are bound to occur from time to time in the observance of the procedures of Parliament. It is not the first time that this has happened, and I dare say that it will not be the last, that the omission of some step in legislative procedure has thrown doubt on the validity of legislation, in this case supporting legislation, namely, two Statutory Instruments.

As the House knows, when a parent Statute gives to the Minister the power to give birth to law by means of Statutory Instrument, it will describe the breed of Statutory Instrument. I need not describe all the breeds of Statutory Instrument which can pass through the House. I will describe only those with which we are concerned in the Bill. They are, first, the Statutory Instrument which does not need to be laid before the House at all; secondly, the Statutory Instrument which requires to be laid before the House but in respect of which no further parliamentary procedure is necessary; and thirdly, the Statutory Instrument which requires to be laid before Parliament and against which hon. Members may table a Prayer for its amendment. In the case of Statutory Instruments which have to be laid before the House, the Statutory Instruments Act, 1946, requires that they should be laid before they come into operation.

In 1965 and 1967, the Government of the day were not advised otherwise than that the Statutory Instruments with which we are concerned were of a kind which did not require to be laid before Parliament. It is now agreed on all sides of the House that they were of the kind which required to be laid before Parliament and, furthermore, that they were of a kind which ought to be subject to parliamentary procedure by way of a Prayer for annulment. By that, I am not suggesting that these Statutory Instru- ments should be annulled. However, hon. Members should have had an opportunity to initiate a debate upon them in the House.

This House appoints a Select Committee on Statutory Instruments, of which for many years I had the honour to be chairman. Since this Indemnity Bill has been presented to the House, I have been teased by hon. Members on both sides for letting two Statutory Instruments through the Select Committee without their being laid before the House. On behalf of the Committee, I must refute that rather jocular allegation.

At the time that these Statutory Instruments were made, the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments was not permitted to look at any Statutory Instruments other than those which had to be laid before the House. In 1965, there were two occasions similar to the present on which it was found that Statutory Instruments which ought to have been laid before the House had not been, and this was reported to the House. Following upon that, I asked that the Select Committee should be allowed to look at all Statutory Instruments, whether or not they required to be laid before the House. The terms of reference of the Select Committee were altered in November, 1967, and since then Statutory Instruments which do not require to be laid before the House have been put before the Committee.

This is not an error that is likely to occur again. In 1969, the Committee spotted one of these Instruments and quickly saw that it was laid before the House within a month of its being made. Under our present procedure, it is unlikely that the same sort of oversight will occur in future as occurred with the two Instruments with which the Bill deals.

In none of the previous cases that I have mentioned was it considered necessary to have an Indemnity Bill. Private rights were not affected. However, in the case of these town planning orders, private rights may be affected. I do not want to scare anyone, but many planning permissions granted by the Greater London Council over the past five years may be invalid.

It is rather a complicated explanation of the situation, but perhaps I might put it briefly in this way. Under Section 24 of the London Government Act, 1963, both the Greater London Council and the London borough councils are local planning authorities. This sort of dual personality in planning responsibility is resolved in the Act by saying that the Minister may make regulations as to the planning applications to be dealt with by the G.L.C. or the boroughs respectively.

That is what was done by these two sets of regulations. They deal with a number of important planning matters, some of which are directed by the regulations to be dealt with by the G.L.C. Others, these regulations direct, are to be referred to the G.L.C. if dealt with by the boroughs.

Therefore, if these regulations are invalid, a wrong procedure has been adopted over planning applications for some years. It has been discovered that, to say the least, there is a doubt as to whether these regulations are valid.

The Section of the London Government Act gives the power to make the regulations and on the face of it, it is quite clear. They need not be laid before the House when they are made, but there is a pitfall further back, in Section 29(6), which introduces a Section of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1962, which itself makes it necessary for regulations of this kind to be laid before the House and to be subject to the negative procedure—that is to say, to make it possible for the House to debate them upon a Prayer tabled by any hon. Member.

In those circumstances, by these cross-references betwen the London Government Act and the Town and Country Planning Act, these regulations should have been laid before the House, subject to the negative procedure. We will all agree with this. They are the kind of regulations, dealing with important planning matters, which should come before the House and be debated, if any hon. Member wishes.

Unfortunately, that is not quite the end of the story. This provision, which made it necessary for these regulations to be subject to negative procedure, was provisionally repealed in the Town and Country Planning Act, 1968. Fortunately, that repeal has not been brought into operation yet, because it was inserted in the 1968 Act only for the purpose of the new forms of planning in the Greater London Council and the London boroughs, which have not come into full operation yet. Therefore, without any damage, it is possible to remove that repeal in the 1968 Act of the provisions relating to town planning regulations of this sort.

The Bill says succinctly what I have said in a much more long-winded way and it conveniently recites the short history of the position in its first few lines. Clause 1 indemnifies the Minister of Housing and Local Government and all others who had a duty to comply with Section 4 of the Statutory Instruments Act, 1946, and I assure the House that the then Minister of Housing and Local Government and his officers in the Department committed no legal offence. However, if a person had acted on invalid planning permissions, it is possible that a civil claim could arise against the Minister and his officers; and it is right, in these circumstances, that the House should indemnify both Ministers and officers against any such claim.

Clause 1 also provides that the regulations shall be deemed to have been laid before coming into operation. Of course, they were laid only on the 10th of this month and not before they came into operation respectively in 1965 and 1967. However, the way to put this right is to deem them to have been laid on 10th November, 1970, before the regulations came into operation.

Clause 2 prevents the negative procedure in the House relating to the regulations being removed when Schedule 11 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1968, comes into operation.

Fortunately this is a nice, short Bill. There cannot be any dispute about the fact that it is proper for the Government to introduce an indemnity Measure in this case. I say again that it has not been necessary in several other cases—in fact, I think since the early 1950s—to bring in an indemnity Bill to put right Statutory Instruments which may have slipped some step in procedure.

In this case, where private rights were concerned, it was proper for us to inform the House and to introduce the Bill. I hope that the Measure will receive the approval of hon. Members.

10.28 p.m.

Mr. John Silkin (Deptford)

The whole House is grateful to the Minister for his clear and lucid exposition of what is a very complicated position. We are grateful, too, for the knowledge which he gave us and for explaining that it is unlikely that this rather complex and difficult situation is likely to arise again.

On a personal note, it seems a curious irony of history that he was Chairman of the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments when I was the Government Chief Whip. Both of us were rather interested in altering the terms of reference of that Select Committee. Justice in this case may have come late, but it is certainly seen to be done. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall not advise my hon. Friends to oppose the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Hawkins.]

Committee Tomorrow.