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Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that one of the recommendations of the planning Green Paper is that planning applications such as he has described should be outlawed. The hon. Gentleman expresses concern on behalf of his constituents about density, a concern that is shared by people up and down the country. Yet we must recognise, especially in urban areas such as my own in London, that we need to increase densities if we are to respond to housing pressures. Was that taken into consideration in the planning inquiry to which the hon. Gentleman refers?

Mr. Lidington: The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that that is a perfectly legitimate line of argument. The answer to his question is yes. The Government's new guidelines about density in brownfield areas were available during the course of the public inquiry and they will be considered by the inspector, no doubt when he comes to draw his conclusions. My point is that these contrary arguments should be resolved through the proper planning process. The action of the Ministry of Defence is subverting, in what I can only describe as an underhand manner, the planning process in which local people had put their trust and to which they had submitted their arguments in good faith.

I believe that the Ministry of Defence would be well advised to withdraw the application that is before the council and accept that the right way forward is to await the inspector's conclusions and then, in the light of his findings, submit whatever planning application may be appropriate for the whole of Aylesbury Vale district. The Ministry of Defence should take into account the inspector's analysis of what a dense development of the site would mean not simply for housing provision but in terms of the impact on other local services such as education and primary health care.

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The third and final subject that I want to bring before the House is the Central Railway project. That, as many hon. Members know, is a private sector scheme to construct a freight line from Liverpool to Lille. Part of its alignment would run along the former Great Central Railway route. As regards my constituency, Central Railway would propose to take over the line operated by Chiltern Railways. The project would adversely affect my constituents in Saunderton, Bradenham, Princes Risborough, Longwick and Ilmer.

Ever since the scheme was mooted, I have been clear that the proposal would be detrimental to the quality of life of the people in my constituency whose homes were near the track. The railway would pass through the middle of the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty and would have an impact on National Trust property near Bradenham and West Wycombe.

When the scheme was first proposed, I thought that it might be a case where I would have to try to balance the competing interests of my constituents anxious about noise and development, and the national interest, which is to encourage rail freight. However, as I came to study the detail, I found the case for the project less and less persuasive. I have never been able to understand Central Railway's assertion that it could somehow raise the £4 billion or more that would be needed to finance the development, yet recoup that money at a reasonable rate of return for its investors, while still keeping charges to hauliers low enough to attract freight off the road and on to its railway line. I do not see how its figures add up.

I have also been influenced greatly by the consistent and clear statement from Chiltern Railways, the passenger operator in my constituency, that Central Railway's proposals as published are incompatible with its current, let alone any improved, level of passenger services. That is why I voted against the Central Railway Bill when it was introduced in 1996.

Central Railway later came back for a second shot. First, it sought an order under the Transport and Works Act 1992, then in January 2001 it asked the Government to support a hybrid Bill to authorise its scheme. For my constituents, the hybrid Bill procedure would have the considerable disadvantage of limiting the right of local people and organisations to argue their case in full before an inspector at a public inquiry.

Where do the Government stand? A recent written answer from the Minister for Transport states that he is not yet persuaded of the case for a hybrid Bill to authorise the scheme, but that he nevertheless wishes to go ahead with a further six months' study, led by the Strategic Rail Authority, to analyse further evidence as to whether the scheme is workable.

My constituents, particularly those whose properties are being blighted by the proposal, are becoming increasingly impatient. The request for a hybrid Bill was made by Central Railway to the Government at the end of January 2001. The Government later asked the Strategic Rail Authority to provide them with an analysis. The SRA commissioned expert consultants to look into the detail. The SRA reported to the Government at the end of last summer. It has taken the Government the months until now to come up with a decision, which turns out not to be a final decision. We cannot even examine the arguments that the SRA and the Government have considered, because both the SRA and the Department for

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Transport, Local Government and the Regions have so far refused to make public the SRA's report to Ministers or the consultants' report on which the SRA based its recommendations.

There has been a recent, very important change. A couple of weeks ago, the Government finally announced their welcome decision to renew for 20 years the franchise for Chiltern Railways—an operator which none other than the Secretary of State described to me in the House as a company offering a premium service. Chiltern Railways, as I said earlier, has consistently taken the view that there is insufficient capacity on the existing line to accommodate both Central Railway's proposed freight service and the current level of passenger services. It says that Central's objectives could be achieved only by building two separate dedicated freight tracks alongside the present Chilterns line, which is not what Central Railway is proposing.

Central Railway has always asserted the contrary. It has said that plenty of capacity exists, and it has adduced a study that it commissioned from the consultants Halcrow in support of its case. However, a letter that I received earlier this week from the managing director of Chiltern Railways sets out his case in trenchant terms. He states that, in particular, Central Railway suggests that

The managing director summarises his case. He states, first, that the train timetables produced by Central Railway in support of its argument

He continues:

The managing director argues that the expansion of passenger services committed to the Government by Chiltern Railways in the new franchise—it envisages a 50 per cent. growth in passenger numbers in the first 10 years alone—

He goes on:

It would be ironic if, in order to support what I consider at present a misguided freight project, and in order to support the laudable objective of getting more freight on to the railways, the Government gave support to a scheme which severely damaged probably the most successful passenger operator in the country, and drove thousands of people into their cars because that efficient, frequent passenger rail service from Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire to London and the west midlands was no longer available to them.

Why is there the need for a further six-month review? Surely the studies of capacity that were carried out in the 16 months while the Government were considering the

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Chiltern franchise renewal provide all the evidence that Ministers need. Finally, if the Minister wants us to have confidence in the good faith of the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, I ask him please to publish the Strategic Rail Authority's report and the consultants' review on which its recommendations are based. I do not see the difficulty for the Government in letting Members of Parliament and, more importantly, our constituents understand the detail of the arguments that Ministers must now consider. Greater openness will breed greater trust and better decisions.

3.59 pm

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): I sometimes wonder why we are all here, but then I remember that we fought a civil war and a revolution centuries ago so that Parliament could keep its eye on the legislature and, above all, on public spending. After all, that is why we had our civil war. Essentially, that is the heart of the relationship between the Executive and the legislature.

As I recall, we won that conflict and that is why you are in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, and why Parliament should, nominally at least, be supreme in the politics of our nation. However, although the principle then was that not a penny should be spent without parliamentary approval, it seems to have slipped somewhat. The Executive have begun to entrench their power. Let us be honest: they have taken over most of the functions that should fall to this House.

What would have happened more than 100 years ago, in a typical day in the House for looking at expenditure? Let us consider 10 May 1966, when Mr. Gladstone was—[Hon. Members: "1866!"] Forgive me—if only.

In 1866, Mr. Gladstone was being held to account about pay for rectors and missionaries in the Canadian colonies. The estimate was £2,513, which is equivalent to about £118,000 today. He had to defend the estimates. During the rest of the day, he had to defend the amount of money for the Indian Department, the governorship of the Cape of Good Hope and the amount going to the Pitcairn islands. One of the greatest political figures ever to grace this House was called to account by Parliament to justify his Government's spending.

Today, the principle of control of supply is only a principle. It has died in practice and is preserved only in the rituals of this House. The Government spend £418 billion on behalf of ourselves and the electors and yet scrutiny of that spending is purely ceremonial in this place. We have all sat here for Consolidated Funds, spring and winter estimates, estimate and Supply days. There is little holding the Government—of any complexion—to account.

In the last Parliament, we spent more time discussing the contents of the millennium dome than the Government's spending plans over the four years. The very terms "Supply day"—at the heart of the conflict in the civil war—or "estimates day" have become something of a misnomer. They are simply an excuse for general debate. They are part of the arcane theatre of Parliament.

Just before Christmas on an estimates day, we nominally nodded through £1 billion in expenditure for culture, media and sport, but the debate was in fact on the world athletics championships. That should not have happened, important though those championships are. On the next day, almost £1 billion was nodded through for

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the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, with an excuse for a debate on waste disposal. Important though that matter is, it is not the heart and soul of the relationship between the Executive and the legislature.

That is not the scrutiny that makes our role here important and legitimate. There is a place for that role in many other legislatures. This place is the odd one out among western democracies. The classic example is the United States, which took the lessons of our struggles in the 17th century far more to heart than we did and, unlike us, has not forgotten them.

The United States created a system based on the separation of powers that made the legislature an equal partner in creating the federal budget. Indeed, many might argue that it is an over-mighty partner, but would that that were the criticism in this House. That is why some presidents have sought the line-item veto to strike out individual items of spending proposed by the legislature, Congress, without wrecking the entire budget. That is a significant contrast to the situation here. In one great democracy, the Executive think that they have too little control over public expenditure and in another, they deny the legislature any real control at all.

There is another significant contrast. The Americans constantly debate their system of democratic control over spending and we do not. As in so many ways, Parliament has acquiesced in a complete take-over of the functions of the state by an over-mighty Executive, controlled by whichever party happens to be in power. There is a long, almost mystifying, list of things that this House cannot do as regards public expenditure and scrutiny. It would amaze our constituents—if they were bothered to take any interest in the matter, or we allowed them access to some of the arcane procedures by which we disguise the process.

First, we cannot ask for money to be added to a Department's budget. We still maintain half of the 17th century formula that the Crown proposes expenditure, even though the second half—that the Commons grants the money needed—has become obsolete. Secondly, we cannot suggest that a Department's budget be reduced without it ending with the farce of a vote of confidence. We cannot suggest that any particular programme or spending on a policy area might be transferred from one Department to another that seems more appropriate. For example, we cannot suggest that the Department of Health should become the lead Department for spending on food policy, or that constitutional and electoral matters should be reassigned to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

Within the estimates for each Department, we cannot suggest that money be switched from one programme or policy objective to another. In the Home Office, for example, we cannot suggest a different mix of spending between policing, crime prevention, community development and victim support, thereby expressing not only a policy view but getting to the heart of how it becomes live by changing the balance in public expenditure. We cannot suggest such a change or, unlike many other legislatures, negotiate a change in partnership with the Executive.

Before making such suggestions, we would need to know how money is assigned to different objectives. In spite of improvements in the presentation of our public accounts, that is still a difficult task not only for us but even for Ministers who are nominally in charge of public spending in particular areas.

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For example, could my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health tell me with any certainty how much his Department spends in a year on preventive medicine compared with hospital care? Without effective scrutiny, can Ministers, let alone Members of Parliament, identify the main beneficiaries—our electors—of public expenditure by their Department? Could my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions tell me how much of his budget serves the needs of different classes of transport user? How much does he spend helping car drivers compared with public transport passengers? How much of his spending benefits inner cities, compared with the suburbs or rural areas? Those questions are barely thought about. The departmental Select Committee thinks about them, but this House, as a Chamber and an institution to hold the Government to account for policy and spending, rarely touches their surface.

Who gets what is the issue at the heart of our democracy, but Ministers, let alone this House, cannot get to grips with it. We spend money or we give it away almost with no idea of where it ends up and that applies to parties of all political persuasions.

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