HC Deb 20 February 1992 vol 204 cc536-8
Mr. McLoughlin

I beg to move amendment No. 86, in page 5, line 8, at end insert 'unless that provision gives effect to modifications of the proposal which have themselves been approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament passed on a motion moved by a Minister of the Crown'.

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 85, in page 5, line 8, at end insert— (5A) Where the findings of any public inquiry held under section 11 of this Act are inconsistent with the proposals approved by a resolution in accordance with this section an order shall not be made unless a draft of it has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.'.

Mr. McLoughlin

Amendment No. 86 would enable the Secretary of State to invite Parliament to vote for a new resolution relating to a scheme of national significance in circumstances where he wanted to modify the order in such a way that it would conflict with the terms of the original resolution approved by Parliament. Although we would expect that to be a rare occurrence, we think that circumstances could arise when—probably following a public inquiry and in the light of the inspector's subsequent recommendations—the Secretary of State would want to make changes to the order which were not wholly consistent with the terms of the resolution.

As clause 9 is currently drafted, it would be impossible for the Secretary of State to make those changes, even if there was a broad agreement that they were desirable or necessary, without starting the whole authorisation process from the beginning. We think that that is too inflexible and could militate against good decision-making, because the Secretary of State might be tempted to turn down desirable modifications in the interests of making progress with the project.

The amendment would mean that the Secretary of State would be able—subject to Parliament's approval to a new resolution—to modify the order in a way which properly reflected the outcome of the inquiry and the inspector's recommendations. However, before going back to Parliament, the Secretary of State would have to proceed in accordance with the procedures in clause 13(3). That would involve notifying every person who would be affected by the modifications to the scheme and giving those persons an opportunity of making representations to him.

In certain circumstances—for example, where new statutory objectors insisted on a right to be heard—the public inquiry would have to be reopened to examine the proposed changes. It might also be necessary for the applicant to prepare a supplementary environmental statement. The Secretary of State would almost certainly want to publish the Inspector's report at the same time as he announced that he was minded to make changes to the order.

Assuming that the Secretary of State was satisfied, following the outcome of further consultations, that the amendments should be made, he would table a new resolution, which would be debated in each House. He would also arrange for all relevant supporting documents to be deposited in Parliament. The timing of the debates would be a matter for the business managers but would have to allow Members of this House and the other place sufficient time to have read the additional material, including the inspector's report, and to have received representations from the public.

I hope that the way in which we have moved forward meets some of the concerns expressed by members of the Committee, and that the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn) will not press amendment No. 85, on the basis that our amendment achieves what he wants but does not fetter the Secretary of State's discretion.

Mr. Fearn

I am afraid that I must still press my amendment No. 85, because I wish to release public inquiries from the straitjacket which seems to surround them, even with the amendment tabled by the Government. That straitjacket will be worn if clause 9 is unamended.

Many organisations, such as the Council for the Protection of Rural England and the National Trust, are concerned that clause 9 has reversed the procedure recommended by the Government in their consultation paper. They believe that Parliament would have inadequate information on which to base its considerations. Since detailed objections will not have been heard, Parliament will be in no position to judge the reasons for public decisions or concerns. What is even more serious is that it is inevitable that, once Parliament has blessed a project in principle, the terms of reference of any public inquiry will be severely constrained. That will give rise to frustration on the part of objectors and to limitations on the scope and value of any public inquiry.

The danger is that public perception of the impartiality of public inquiries will be affected. Such inquiries command public confidence because inspectors are seen to be genuinely impartial and feel free to make recommendations which have radical or minor significance.

The Secretary of State has recognised some of the difficulties by moving his amendment, but that does not go far enough. Under my amendment, if a public inquiry makes a recommendation which is inconsistent with the original recommendation passed by Parliament, the Secretary of State must bring the matter back before both Houses for approval, even if the draft order is consistent with the original resolution. In other words, Parliament will have the opportunity to debate and vote on the scheme again when in full possession of all the facts and evidence and has knowledge of public opinion.

I listened intently to what the Minister said about his amendment, but it does not go far enough. My amendment will put the matter right.

Mr. McLoughlin

I do not see what point the hon. Gentleman's amendment would serve. If Parliament has already agreed in principle, I see no point in Parliament agreeing to it again. Parliament should be consulted if there is a major change, but it should not be asked to confirm something to which it has already agreed.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

In certain circumstances, the situation could change. There could be a general election and a different Parliament might be involved. That would make it a different issue. [Interruption.] If the Whip, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick), wishes to intervene, I shall be happy to give way. If he wants us to stay here a long time, I shall also be happy to oblige. I point out to him that I moved an amendment very quickly, and I could move another series of amendments quickly. However, if the Whip wants to prolong the debate by making such interventions from a sedentary position, I shall oblige by continuing to talk.

Mr. McLoughlin

The hon. Gentleman has said that, if a general election takes place or if there is a change in the political circumstances, Parliament might want to review the matter. I take that point, but it would be open to the Secretary of State not to make the order.

Mr. Bennett

It would be left to the Secretary of State to decide to make the order, but I am sure that the Minister is well aware that issues such as this do not necessarily divide the House on party political lines. What divides hon. Members who are more interested in conservation from those who are not sometimes depends on whether they represent urban or rural constituencies.

If the public inquiry is to have the chance to air the issues, and if we are concerned about the democratic process, those on the inquiry will not only try to influence the inspectorate, but they should also try to influence the whole country. If strong arguments emerge at that inquiry, Parliament may want to take them into account.

The Minister has a dilemma with the Bill. All we can do is see how in practice it will work. I suspect that, sooner or later, Parliament will give approval to something as a result of initial consideration, and an inquiry will be held and various points will be starkly brought out. The Minister, believing that Parliament has already approved the matter, will want to give the go-ahead. However, if Parliament were tested, it might decide that as a result of the public inquiry, circumstances had changed.

Amendment agreed to.

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