UK: Don't Pannick - Growth And Infrastructure Bill Suffers Again

Last Updated: 26 April 2013
Article by Angus Walker

Today's entry reports on continuing disagreements in Parliament on the Growth and Infrastructure Bill.

The Growth and Infrastructure Bill contains a series of reforms intended to boost growth and the provision of infrastructure, plus one clause whereby employers can offer employees shares in exchange for giving up some of their employment rights.

The Bill has been through all its main stages in each House of Parliament, but the two Houses must agree the same version of the bill before it can receive Royal Assent.  This final stage is known as 'ping pong' because by now the Bill hardly has any weight and a small breeze can mean it is lost.  Not really, it is because of what can be a rapid exchange of amendments between the two Houses.

40 amendments were made in the House of Lords to the version of the Bill passed by the Commons.  Last week the Commons accepted 38 of them (they were government amendments after all) and rejected two (which weren't).  One was on the ability of local authorities to overrule the automatic granting of planning permission for larger house extensions (among other things) and the other was on the exchange of employment rights for shares.

Last night the Bill returned to the Lords to have another go on these two issues - the Hansard report can be found here.  The government promoted a compromise amendment on the first issue, which can be found here.  Essentially, a mini-consultation with adjoining neighbours is required before planning permission is granted automatically, and if anyone objects, the local authority can only give permission if it considers there would be an acceptable impact on the amenity of adjoining premises.  That sounds as though it will improve neighbourly relations no end.

This amendment was accepted by the Lords in substitution for their own clause without a vote and so that issue has now been put to rest (well, except for implementing it, of course).

On the employment rights clause it was a different story, however.  The government did not table any compromise amendment, but insisted on reinstating the clause in full.  Barrister and crossbencher (i.e. no party affiliation) Lord Pannick, who promoted the original amendment to remove the clause, once again tabled an amendment to disagree with its reinstatement.

At the end of the debate there was a vote and Lord Pannick carried the day, by 260 votes to 191, a majority of 69.  Opposition to the provision seems to be increasing faster than support of it, since when his original amendment to remove the clause was voted on, the result was 232 to 178, a majority of 54.

The Bill returns to the Commons this afternoon.  This time the government has tabled compromise amendments, which can be found here.  The amendments require employers to set out the employment rights being given up and the shareholder rights that would be acquired, and introduces exciting new terms such as 'tag-along rights' and 'drag-along rights'.  The amendments address one of the points at issue in the Lords, namely a lack of clarity about what is being offered, but not the other, namely that people being offered a job are hardly in a position to refuse to give up their rights.

If, as is likely, the amendments are agreed to in the Commons, given the government's majority there of 80, the Bill will have to return to the Lords once more to see if the compromise is agreeable there.  Given that the end of the session is fast approaching and could be as early as this Thursday, the clause's opponents in the Lords  have time on their side.

If the Commons deals with the issue quickly enough this afternoon (an hour's debate has been allowed starting at around 1 p.m.) it is just possible that the Lords will have time to debate it today as well, but it is more likely to be tomorrow.

It would be a shame if the improvements to the Planning Act regime - not least the reduction of special parliamentary procedure - were lost because of this tussle over an unrelated issue.  The government will have to triangulate its determination to press on with losing face and cutting its losses carefully.

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