§ 10.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall (Colne Valley)
I beg to move,That this House is of the opinion that effect should be given to the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure relating to opposed Private Bills.As the House is well aware, a special procedure is laid down when local authorities and other public bodies promote a Bill in Parliament. The Bill has to be deposited by a certain day in November. It has thereafter to be inquired into by two examiners to make certain that the regulations dealing with advertisements and notice to parties affected have been complied with, and copies of the Bill have to be sent to various Government Departments with plans and documents, and also to others. When this procedure is completed, about the beginning of the following February, the Bill is presented to this House for Second Reading.
Normally, Private Bills come to us in batches of three or four at the beginning of the sitting on Mondays to Thursdays. They are not then debatable. It only requires one hon. Member, sitting in his place and completely anonymous, to say "Object" and the Bill cannot be proceeded with on that day. The Chairman of Ways and Means brings the Bill up again on subsequent sitting days and, if the objection to it persists, he has to set it down for Second Reading at seven o'clock on a subsequent evening. That means that the business set down for that day has to be interrupted in order to take the Bill.
This involves local authorities and other public bodies in needless additional expense, because the real objection to any Bill is not in a sense taken on the Floor of the House; it is dealt with upstairs before the Select Committee when persons, organisations and bodies who feel aggrieved can appear, either in person or through counsel, and fight the thing out there. Nevertheless, up to now it has been, and still is, the rule for one hon. Member, who may or may not know quite a lot about the Bill, by the simple use of the word "Object" to hold that Bill up indefinitely. That, I repeat, 1177 means a fair amount of additional expense to those who promote any Bill.
The matter came to a head a year or two ago and, as a result, the then Conservative Government set up a Joint Select Committee of the two Houses. Its terms of reference wereto consider what alterations, if any, are desirable in the practice and the Standing Orders of the two Houses relating to private legislation, having special regard to the desirability of lessening the expense at present incurred.That Committee sat for several months. It had a great many meetings and some very high-powered witnesses were willing to appear and give evidence, including the right hon. Gentleman the Chairman of Ways and Means.
The Committee reported in May, 1955. It made 22 recommendations. The astonishing thing is that although the Report was issued nearly three years ago and although—I hope I carry the House with me here—it affects every hon. Member of this House, we have not yet had any debate upon it. No one to this day really knows what the sense of the House is on any one of those recommendations.
When some of us approached the present Leader of the House to ask whether a debate might be arranged, we were made to feel—I say this deliberately—that our request was unreasonable. In fact, those who saw him felt definitely non-U. when we were in his presence. We came away wondering whether we had asked for something which, quite frankly, was not possible and almost, I was going to say, obscene.
This is not good enough. In matters of this kind it is for the House to decide what procedure it should apply. We felt then, and we still feel, that the House should be given an opportunity to debate the recommendations of this Committee which, as I have said, sat for a considerable time and went into the whole question very thoroughly.
We frequently hear criticism of our procedure, and many people think that some of it is out of date. Recently, following a rather scathing leader in The Times, there has been correspondence in its columns, as I think most hon. Members are aware, and the general feeling seems to be, even amongst hon. Members who have written letters to The Times in the 1178 last week or two, that something ought to be done to speed up the procedure and to bring the way we conduct our business more into keeping with modern times.
It is our view that many of the recommendations made by the Joint Committee, and particularly that which we shall discuss in a minute, would have helped to improve the speed and the efficiency of the House in Private Bill procedure. Although, tonight, we are to deal with one particular aspect of that Committee's Report, there are other recommendations on which at some time the House ought to pass judgment. For example, the Committee made a recommendation for the abolition of town meetings and town polls, which are a public scandal. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Those who followed the Press and read the recent case in Birmingham, where votes cost a good many shillings—
§ Major H. Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)
On a point of order. May I draw your attention, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to the fact that the Motion which we are considering concerns solely the recommendations of the Committee relating to opposed Private Bills. I do not think that town polls or anything else in that context have much to do with the Motion.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Gordon Touche)
The Motion deals with opposed Private Bills. I should not like to rule a passing reference to such matters out of order altogether.
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall
I did not intend to pursue that line. I was using it only as an illustration in pointing out that while, tonight, we are dealing with only one recommendation of the Joint Select Committee, there were others which have not been implemented and upon which, in my view, the House should at some time pass judgment. The House has not yet been given an opportunity to consider the Report at all, including the recommendations about town meetings and town polls, which I think should be abolished and which at present, where-ever they are held, amount almost to a public scandal and involve the ratepayers in considerable sums of money.
§ Mr. F. Blackburn (Stalybridge and Hyde)
I am in some difficulty as to exactly what we are discussing tonight. My right hon. Friend said that we were 1179 discussing only one recommendation, but the Motion on the Order Papers refers tothe recommendations of the Joint Committee.
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall
We are dealing with Private Bill procedure. My hon. Friend has not finished reading the Motion.
In my view, it would have been much better had we discussed the whole Report rather than have a discussion at this late hour on what, after all, is a relatively narrow issue, but the blame for that does not lie on this side of the House. The Government agreed to our having a discussion only on condition that we confined it to the terms of the second recommendation of the Select Committee, to which the Motion refers.
§ Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)
I must confess that this is an extremely novel doctrine—and my name is on the Motion—that the Government, presumably through the usual channels, should agree to the Motion being put down on the Government's notion as to how it should proceed. Surely the question of what is or what is not in order is a matter for you to decide, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and is not to be governed by any rubber-stamp opinion coming through the usual channels.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
It is governed by the Motion which has been put down, and which the House is now discussing.
§ Mr. Henry Usborne (Yardley)
On a point of order. Can you give a ruling on this, Mr. Deputy-Speaker? What we should like to know is whether we are entitled, on this Motion, to discuss the procedure relating to opposed Private Bills. A Private Bill such as we are discussing does not originate in this House. The last one that concerned me originated in Birmingham, and was opposed in Birmingham before it reached here. Are we then entitled to discuss the nature of the opposition to that Private Bill before it actually reached the House?
§ Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)
Further to that point of order. It is, no doubt, not a Private Bill until it reaches 1180 the House, but something or other originates in Birmingham which comes here as a Private Bill, and a Committee which is inquiring into the procedure and practice of the House with regard to certain matters did hear evidence, and report on the question of the opposition to these, shall I say, inchoate Private Bills in the place where they originated—opposition in the form of town meetings and town polls. The Committee took a vote on that matter and came to a decision about it. I would submit that, in the ordinary sense of the procedure relating to opposed Private Bills, we must investigate their birth as well as their future progress: and that to investigate the health of the hen without some consideration of what happens when the hen is born—that is to say, the hatching of the egg—may lead to a misunderstanding and to a certain waste of time. I would suggest that while one no doubt wants to keep the main discussion to the particular points, it would be in order to refer, at any rate summarily, to the question of town meetings and town polls.
§ Mr. Usborne
Would you, therefore, also consider this point, Mr. Deputy-Speaker? If, as you said in answer to my first intervention, this thing cannot be a Private Bill until it reaches the House, can you explain how procedure Joint Committee on Private Bill procedure could have discussed, to the extent of two pages, what was clearly nothing to do with the Private Bill; and since the Motion before us on the Order Paper is to discuss that which the Committee recommended, namely, Clause 79, and includes this, how is it that you can fairly rule this out of order?
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
There was a wider reference than that. The reference related to private legislation, not merely to opposed Private Bills.
§ The Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Charles MacAndrew)
Am I not right in thinking, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that this Motion deals with the recommendations printed in the Report in pages xx-xxiii? It is quite simple. We are just dealing with the recommendations.
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall
If that is so, the Motion covers town meetings and town polls, because the Select Committee make a recommendation about both town meetings and town rolls.
§ Mr. Mitchison
If, in fact, we are entitled to discuss private legislation but not everything about Private Bills, what exactly is the difference between private legislation and Private Bills?
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
The Committee was dealing with private legislation. The Motion before the House relates to Private Bill procedure in relation to opposed Private Bills.
§ Mr. Mitchison
But, with respect, the procedure relating to opposed Private Bills must include the statutory requirements about town meetings and town polls; otherwise, it would not have been within the Committee's purview to consider them, and that is not suggested. Surely it is part of the procedure to get them into being, as it were, in the way in which they are. What is opposed in a town meeting or a town poll, I would suggest, is a proposed Bill.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
The difficulty is that the Committee had rather wider terms of reference than those of the Motion now before the House. But I do not want to be difficult about this matter. Any passing reference to town polls would not be objected to by me.
§ Mr. Douglas Glover (Ormskirk)
May we have the matter clarified? It seems to me that a Select Committee can sit on the method of dealing with Private Bills, and that while part of its recommendation may concern only the procedure of the House other of its recommendations would involve legislation. The question of dealing with town polls, and so on, would involve legislation. Therefore, in our discussion of this matter tonight town polls are out of order, because it would involve legislation to alter that procedure. We are dealing with the procedure of the House as it exists at the moment.
§ Sir Peter Agnew (Worcestershire, South)
It will be within the recollection of the House that, during the last Session, there was a Private Member's Bill dealing with this very subject, called the Promotion of Bills Bill, which was extensively discussed both on the Floor of the House and in Committee, and which failed to secure passage through the House. If we are now to have simply a repetition of that debate, shall we not be out of order? 1182 Taking the terms of the Motion, when it speaks about opposed Private Bills it cannot possibly be deemed to refer to what goes on before a Private Bill reaches the House because, at that stage, nobody knows whether the Bill will be unopposed or opposed. Surely our discussion this evening should refer only to those Bills which are found, on arrival here, to be opposed.
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall
I do not quarrel with that at all, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I am simply saying that, when we had the discussions with the Leader of the House, he agreed that we should have a debate of this kind, and I rather gathered from him—he will correct me if I am wrong—that we should confine it to this particular point which, quite frankly, is one of the main points of the recommendations made by the Select Committee and not yet implemented. I quite agree that town meetings and town polls will need legislation, although they are the subject of one of the recommendations. It cannot be done by any alteration of Standing Orders. The object of the Motion I am now moving, if it has the approval of the House, can be achieved by a change in Standing Orders.
While I have no desire whatever—far from it—to curtail what anyone else may wish to say, subject to your ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I am, for my part, dealing with the one narrow point as to whether the House should continue in future to allow one hon. Member to say, "Object" to a Private Bill when it is brought forward for Second Reading at the commencement of business on any Monday to Thursday in the early part of the year, or whether we should now decide to alter our procedure to prevent that practice and its possible abuse.
§ Mr. E. Partridge (Battersea, South)
On a point of order. May I submit to you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that the right hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Glenvil Hall) is saying now that this matter has not been discussed and, therefore, the opinion of the House is not known. Though he may speak for himself, a great many of us—I would say the 1183 majority—have considered it at great length and know what our views are.
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall
I sincerely hope that other hon. Members have thought about it and have made up their minds. I was not saying that they had not. I was merely saying—if I am wrong, no doubt I shall be corrected—and I believe it to be within the recollection of everyone within the sound of my voice—that the House has not yet had an opportunity to debate this particular Report, certainly not this part of it. We have been given by the Government this opportunity, a very late one, to discuss it and, if possible, to get a majority of the House to agree to the recommendation made by the Select Committee in this particular direction and no other.
Those who have read the Report will have noticed that the number of Private Bills presented in the years 1947–48 to 1953–54 was, on an average, about 40 per Session; and those Members who have looked down the list of Private Bills which presently will reach us will have found that the number is about the same on this occasion. During that time, so we were told by witnesses who appeared before us, an average of about five or six Bills had to be debated at seven o'clock during those Sessions.
Although that may not seem to be many, there is the risk always that every one of the 40, or whatever the number it is, can be objected to. That means that the Chairman of Ways and Means would have to find time and interrupt business at a very congested part of the Session so that the Second Reading debates should be held. We hold the view—and the Select Committee, by a considerable majority, took the view—that that is not right and it is time that that procedure was changed.
The Chairman of Ways and Means, upon whom rests the duty to find time for these debates, was good enough to present a memorandum to the Joint Select Committee. In page 22, paragraph 5, of the Report, he said:The numbers "—that is, on an average, the number of occasions for which he had had to find 1184 time for a Second Reading debate, which was about 9 per cent., during the period with which he was dealing—may not appear to be significant, but with the increasing extent to which successive Governments have pre-empted the time of the House for their own business, the task of making arrangements to ensure that an evening is selected which suits all the interested parties has become steadily more difficult.I should like hon. Members to bear that in mind. It is the evidence of the present Chairman of Ways and Means, who, as we all know, has occupied his high office with great distinction for a long time and has had a vast experience in this direction.
Those Members who are interested will also find that the right hon. Gentleman was good enough to give oral evidence before the Committee. I shall not take up the time of the House by quoting from the evidence he gave, but it came out quite clearly during the time he was before the Committee that it is difficult for any Chairman of Ways and Means to fit in the Second Reading debates when the Government and the Opposition between them, in the early part of the year, have such heavy calls on their time.
It came out quite clearly, not, perhaps, from the evidence of the Chairman of Ways and Means, but certainly from the evidence of others competent to judge, that, I will not say always, but very often, Members say "Object" without any real knowledge of what a Bill contains. Sometimes, of course, most of us are quite aware of what is in a Bill and objections are raised from all over the House, and very properly so, because it is felt essential that a Second Reading debate should take place. It does, however, happen, and we were given evidence that it has happened more often than one would care to believe, that objection is taken without foundation.
I should like to read a short paragraph from the Report of the Committee which deals with this point much better than I could possibly do. It is in page vi of the Committee's Report, as follows:Mr. Abraham, now Clerk of Financial and Miscellaneous Committees and sometimes Clerk of Private Bills in the House of Commons"—incidentally, he has been in the service of the House for forty years—drew the Committee's attention to the view long held by Chairmen of Ways and Means 1185 (including Mr. (afterwards Speaker) Shaw Lefevre and Mr. (afterwards Speaker) Lowther and by otter eminent members (including Sir Winston Churchill when he was President of the Board of Trade in 1909) that the House of Commons is not, on Second Reading, normally in a position to come to a considered conclusion on the merits of a private Bill, because at that stage it has not sufficient knowledge of the issues to form a proper judgment. The Committee are of opinion that there is much to be said for this contention so far as the great majority of private Bills are concerned, although there are obviously some Bills where the issues are fully apprehended from the time they are introduced, for example, Bills seeking county borough status or the extension of boundaries.'These are weighty witnesses. Mr. Speaker Shaw Lefevre was giving evidence on the business of the House in 1854, over a hundred years ago. Mr. Speaker Lowther was giving evidence before a Select Committee on Private Business in 1902, over fifty years ago. If we add to those very knowledgeable witnesses the present Chairman of Ways and Means, who, in his evidence before the recent Select Committee, acknowledged the difficulty, and the right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill), who also took the same view, I think that we have a formidable team, and one to which we should pay some attention.
I think it is permissible—one cannot prove it—to believe that if other Chairmen of Ways and Means and former Speakers of this House had been called to give evidence before similar Select Committees they probably would have come to the same conclusion and given evidence in the same sense.
In page vii of the Report we come to what the Select Committee proposes. It is the suggestion of the Select Committee that I desire to commend to the House. Having examined the evidence some of which I have indicated, it came to this conclusion, contained in paragraph 18The Committee have given considerable thought to this matter. They have throughout been anxious if possible not to suggest any change in procedure which would restrict the freedom now enjoyed by Members to insist, singly if necessary, upon a Second Reading debate on any private Bill. They have, however, reluctantly come to the conclusion that the present procedure can no longer be justified. They believe that it should no longer be permissible for a single Member to block the Second Reading of a Bill at the time of unopposed private business by the simple device of saying Object.' They therefore recommend, subject to the exceptions mentioned below, that Mr. Speaker should in all cases declare the 1186 Second Reading carried unless a reasoned amendment to the motion for the Second Reading stands on the Order Paper signed by at least six Members. They further recommend that this rule should not apply if the Chairman of Ways and Means indicates at the time the Second Reading is first moved that the Bill raises a new and important principle.The Committee then states what the exceptions are. They are two:Bills seeking county borough status or extension of boundaries; Bills promoted by nationalised authorities in the case of which it may be the practice that the Second Reading should provide the occasion for a general debate on the affairs of the authority.To go back, the main recommendation is a reasonable one, and it is one which has obviously had the sanction of Speakers like Mr. Speaker Shaw Lefevre over a hundred years ago when business in the House was nothing like what it is today and when hon. Members had far more time for debates of this kind than we get now.
§ Major Legge-Bourke
Can the right hon. Gentleman say that when it used the words "reasoned amendment" the Select Committee of which he was Chairman had in mind that it would be impossible for any Member, whether or not supported by other Members, to put down an Amendment for complete rejection on Second Reading of a Bill of this kind? Was it to be a reasoned Amendment affecting part of a Bill, or was it considered that it might be possible for Members to reject entirely the Second Reading?
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall
The Committee, of course, makes the suggestion, but it would be for the House either to accept it in its entirety or in part, or to reject it altogether, or to make some other arrangements.
I think that the Select Committee felt that the present procedure was unrealistic and that in modern times, when a Chairman of Ways and Means has so much difficulty in arranging Second Reading debates, procedure should be adopted to prevent capricious objection which has no real feeling behind it and which is sometimes directed towards a Bill about which the hon. Member who objects knows very little.
§ Major Legge-Bourke
I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman is on the point that I am trying to make. Does 1187 he visualise that under the proposed procedure it would be impossible for a reasoned Amendment for rejection of a Bill to be put down by hon. Members entirely without any reasons being given? Would the right hon. Gentleman not agree that it is sometimes rather important that hon. Members should have the power to reject a Bill completely without having to give the reason for so doing?
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall
Again, I can only say that it would be for the House to decide what form an Amendment must take in order that it should be accepted at the Table.
Although I was a member of the Committee and am in duty bound moving the recommendation as it stands, having thought about it since I am not wedded to this form of words. I am not wedded to six as being the quorum for putting down an Amendment and I am not necessarily wedded to the view that the Amendment put on the Order Paper must be a reasoned one, although there is a good deal to be said for the Amendment being one which gives some reason why the Bill should not be given a Second Reading.
However, it would be for the House itself to decide what form the Standing Order should take and what general rules Mr. Speaker should follow when applying the Standing Order. At the moment I am simply moving what the Select Committee decided, and if, tonight, we can get the House to agree to accept the principle I, for my part, am not so much worried about the way it is put into effect. But I feel, and feel profoundly, that the time really has now arrived when it should be impossible for one hon. Member just to say "Object", sitting in his seat and not even standing up, thus causing local and other public authorities a great deal of expense and leading the House to waste a good deal of time and trouble by having Second Reading debates on matters which can best be discussed before a Select Committee upstairs.
I hope, therefore, that although, at first glance, it might appear that we are asking the House to rob itself of a long-sustained right, on reflection most hon. Members will realise that they are not really losing a right. They could still object, but in future they would have to object on proper grounds and in proper form.
§ 10.34 p.m.
§ The Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Charles MacAndrew)
Perhaps I might begin by explaining why I am intervening in the debate. As Chairman of Ways and Means I exercise a general supervision over Private Bills during their passage through the House. In particular, I am given powers under the Standing Orders to ensure that the House considers and disposes of all Private Bills whether objection is taken or not. I would emphasise, however, that I am not concerned with the merits of Private Bills. That is a matter for the House. My only concern is to ensure that the practice and the Standing Order in regard to Private Bills are observed and that the supporters and opponents obtain a full and fair opportunity of putting their cases before the House.
As Chairman of Ways and Means, I should like to express my gratitude to the Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure and, in particular, to the right hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Glenvil Hall), who was Chairman of the Committee. The Committee sat through the best part of two Parliamentary Sessions and made a number of valuable recommendations. The Committee made its Report over two years ago, and since that time a great deal of work has been done by the Officers of both Houses to give effect to many of the Committee's recommendations.
I should like to indicate shortly what action has been taken on those recommendations which touch the responsibilities of the authorities of both Houses. In taking action on these recommendations, priority was given to those which would directly reduce the cost of private legislation. The most spectacular saving has been achieved, by carrying out recommendation No. 9, namely, that duplication of the minutes of evidence taken before opposed Private Bill Committees should, in general, be substituted for printing. The Standing Orders of both Houses were amended accordingly on 21st February, 1956, and the resultant saving to promoters during last Session, when comparatively few Bills were opposed in Committee, was approximately £3,000. In a normal year that amount would be about double.
Smaller savings resulted from a review, in accordance with another recommendation of the Joint Committee, of the 1189 existing arrangements for printing Private Bills and Private Acts; and, following a proposal made by the Officers of another pace and myself, this saving has been divided equally between the Stationery Office and the promoters of Private Bills.
Fees charged by both Houses have been reviewed and synchronised, and modernised lists of agents' charges have now been approved by Mr. Speaker and by the Clerk of the Parliaments.
Finally, I agreed with the late Lord Chairman, Lord Drogheda, that the Standing Orders of the two Houses relating to Private Business should be reviewed by the Officers of both Houses in the sense of recommendations Nos. 17 and 18 of the Report of the Joint Committee, which will, of course, take some time. Recommendations such as those relating to town meetings and polls which need legislation are, of course, no affair of mine.
The actions taken have modernised and serviced the machinery of private business and have made its operations both less expensive and more efficient. I am sure that the whole House will approve of this achievement. However, the proposal which has been put forward tonight, the effect of which is to modify the existing procedure in this House for objecting to private Bills on Second Reading, is clearly more controversial. Indeed, the Joint Committee itself was not unanimous on this matter. Although it adopted without a Division the paragraphs of its Report embodying this proposal, it divided on an Amendment which, if carried, would have had the effect of preserving the existing procedure.
May I remind the House of the exact words of the Committee's recommendation:In the House of Commons, subject to certain exceptions"—this has already been read, but it is very important—Mr. Speaker should in all cases declare the Motion for Second Reading carried unless a reasoned Amendment to the Motion for Second Reading stands on the Order Paper signed by at least six Members; this rule should not apply if the Chairman of Ways and Means indicates at the time the Second Reading is first moved that the Bill raises a new and important principle.The Joint Committee goes on to explain that the exceptions to which it refers 1190 —these are the ones to which the Chairman of Ways and Means would not be called upon to deal with—are Bills promoted by nationalised industries and Bills seeking county borough status or extension of boundaries. Since the war these Bills have given rise to approximately one-third of the debates held on the Floor of the House on Private Bills, and under the Joint Committee's proposals they would still attract the present procedure.
As regards other Private Bills, the Joint Committee recommends that a reasoned Amendment signed by not fewer than six Members should be required to force a debate on the Private Bill unless the Chairman of Ways and Means declares that a new and important principle is raised. I am opposed to this recommendation.
In the first place, it would remove from the individual Member the right to object to a Private Bill. His rights would thus be more restricted in relation to a Private Bill than to a Public Bill, because a reasoned Amendment to reject a Public Bill may be put down by a single Member. A Member's duty to scrutinise a Private Bill is at least as important as his consideration of Public Bills. Erskine May defines private legislation as…legislation of a special kind for conferring particular powers or benefits on any person or body of persons—including individuals, local authorities, statutory companies, or private corporations—sometimes in excess of or in conflict with the general law.If this definition is accepted, it seems wrong to put difficulties in the way of a Member who finds an objectionable provision in a Private Bill. This provision might affect only his own constituency, and even if he found five other Members willing to help him, the Motion which they would be called upon to sign might well deal with a matter in which they were not interested. This would seem to be an undesirable practice.
Again, a Member may have great difficulty in finding five other Members to support him. Under the existing procedure, the pressure of a single Member may oblige the promoters of a Private Bill to alter an objectionable provision; and it seems wrong that a Member should be prevented from exercising his constitutional rights merely because he is unable to find five supporters.
1191 Secondly, the recommendation does not, in my opinion, do justice to the flexibility of the existing procedure. It would be wrong, for instance, to assume that because a Private Bill is objected to at 2.30, an evening debate necessarily takes place. Not all Members may be aware of the close attention with which proceedings on private business at 2.30 are studied by Officers of the House and Parliamentary Agents. The full extent of the opposition to a Bill is quickly identified, and negotiations between the objecting Member and the Parliamentary Agent for the Bill are at once begun. It frequently happens that, as a result of these negotiations, an objection can be settled and the Bill allowed to go to Committee without further objection.
Promoters thus derive benefit from the existing procedure. So do Members. Many Members will have had the experience of being requested at short notice by an outside body or person to look into a particular provision in a Private Bill. The procedure of objecting at 2.30 is a quicker and more convenient method of discharging this obligation than that of collecting five other signatories and giving notice of Motion. Once a Motion has gone down, attitudes tend to harden, as all hon. Members will be aware. I am afraid that if at any stage in the negotiations a Member is required to put down a Motion backed by five other names those negotiations would be less fruitful, and the number of Second Reading debates on Private Bills might well increase.
The right hon. Member for Colne Valley made some play with my evidence. I do not think that he quite did me justice. My point was not to avoid the seven o'clock debates, but the difficulties that I have to keep the Standing Orders. It may appear simple on paper but, as he knows, it is not as simple as all that. The amount of to-ing and fro-ing that I have to do before a seven o'clock debate is nobody's business.
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall
I am sorry if I misrepresented the right hon. Gentleman. My regard for him is so strong that it is the last thing that I would want to do. What I wanted to say was that he had stressed the enormous difficulty that he 1192 has in getting evenings for these debates, and he has now borne out what I said.
§ The Chairman of Ways and Means
That is perfectly true. But this might add to my difficulties and increase the number of seven o'clock debates. Once the matter goes on the Order Paper it is much more difficult, as we all know, to get it agreed to.
My last criticism is perhaps the most important. The Joint Committee recommend that the Chairman of Ways and Means should be empowered to decide whether a Private Bill raises a new and important principle and, therefore, whether a debate on Second Reading is appropriate. But if this procedure were adopted the Chairman would be obliged to concern himself with the merits of Private Bills, and, as I have already pointed out, it is not the function of the Chairman to consider the merits of Bills.
In any case, it is difficult to see how he would decide what was a new and important principle in a Private Bill. Apart from extension Bills, Bills for county borough status and Bills promoted by nationalised industries, almost all the Bills which are nowadays debated in the House are Bills promoted by local authorities. If the Chairman were called upon to decide whether a particular power sought by a local authority raises a new and important principle, the exercise of his discretion would undoubtedly conflict with the non-party character of the office of Chairman of Ways and Means. It could not be avoided.
Under the present system the power to debate a Private Bill lies with the Members, and I am not aware that this power has been abused. It might be suggested that the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg), in objecting to the Second Reading of every Private Bill, abused the procedure, but the hon. Member's ultimate objective was legitimate, even if his methods were unusual. Although the existing procedure is vulnerable, it is preferable, in my view, to the suggested alternative of requiring a Motion to be put on the Order Paper, signed by six Members. For all these reasons, I cannot advise the House to accept this recommendation.
§ 10.47 p.m.
§ Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)
May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether 1193 this procedure is so very unusual? There was, I believe, a precedent which was put to him in Question 286 in page 35 of the Report of the Joint Committee. It was:I am right, am I not, that in our time there has been a group of Members who made a regular habit of objecting to nearly all Private Bills; Sir Herbert Williams used to object to a great many?The right hon. Gentleman's answer was:A great many, not all.Perhaps there is the difference that he objected not to all but only to a great many, whereas my hon. Friend has been even more comprehensive. Otherwise, there was a similarity.
§ The Chairman of Ways and Means
That is true. The late Sir Herbert Williams used to do that in quite a big way, but he was a very energetic man and took a great deal of trouble about it. If I had any criticism, it was that he had a group of people, who called themselves "Active Back Benchers", who knew nothing about them but told me that they would block Private Bills and when I asked them why they said that it was because Herbert Williams had told them to do it.
§ Mr. Mitchison
I want to urge the House to take some action in this matter. The Select Committee spent a very considerable time in trying to reduce the expenses and the time spent by people promoting Private Bills in this House, and, as we have just been told, the majority of those promoters are local authorities. Consequently, if their money is wasted or unnecessarily spent, it affects the ratepayers concerned. The more we can succeed in reducing the expense and the delay, the better service we shall be giving not just to corporations as such but to the people living and paying rates in the places concerned. I was very glad indeed to hear from the right hon. Gentleman that so much had already been done in that direction.
This is not so much a question of direct expense as one of delay, although the delay involves expense. But we were told, rightly, that when this happens the objector is usually identified and negotiations take place, and so on. If the objection is constantly repeated that involves a whole number of attendances.
1194 I suggest to the House that there is a considerable number of Private Bills which cone forward, many of them from local authorities, some from other people, to which no reasonable objection could be taken.
§ Mr. Mitchison
Yes, it is a matter of opinion, but I wonder whether even the hon. and gallant Member would find it possible to object on principle to some of the Bills which at the moment, for instance, are on the list of Private Bills coming forward. Perhaps I do not have as acute a sense of principle as the hon. and gallant Member, but I should find it impossible to object to a number of them, particularly the small ones.
Some are promoted by people other than local authorities, possibly limited companies which are incorporated by charter and which want some reasonable and commercial extension of their powers. I must say that if there is objection to all of them, then I cannot feel that the impression made on either local authorities or the public can be very good. Nor can I believe, to put it frankly, if with some diffidence, that the impression can be one worthy of the best traditions of the House. If we had to defend ourselves on this matter before public opinion, we might find it difficult to do so.
There is no doubt—and let us face the facts and try to be reasonable in this sort of matter—that there have been cases, one or two of which have been mentioned tonight, in which hon. Members have objected to a whole bunch of Bills without having the least idea what was in them. That was said by the right hon. Gentleman the Chairman of Ways and Means himself in his evidence before the Select Committee. I quote from page 34 of the Report. He was asked whether, on…the procedure whereby a private bill becomes objected to, any Member can object on the Second Reading motion?—Yes. Sir.276. He has to give no reason at all?—No, Sir.277. So that you can get purely factitious opposition, or some purpose which may have nothing whatever to do with the Bill?—Yes, Sir.278. By people who never have any intention of putting down a petition or anything of the kind?—That is so.1195 On the following page there is the reference to…a group of Members who made a regular habit of objecting to nearly all Private Bills…There was one hon. Member, unfortunately no longer with us, who used to object to a great many.
I appeal to hon. Members who know what has happened on these occasions not to take refuge in saying that in every case an hon. Member who objects to a Bill really knows to what he is objecting. I am well aware and, if hon. Members are straight about it, they are well aware, too, that a great many objections are made not for that reason at all, or, indeed, for any reason connected with the Bill. Is that quite fair? The fairness to the petitioners, particularly local authorities, has to be considered.
§ The Chairman of Ways and Means
It is only fair to say that while no one was more of a thorn in my side than the late Sir Herbert Williams he always had reasons for objecting. It was not blocking for frivolous reasons, although some of his hon. Friends had no idea why he was doing it; but he knew what he was doing.
§ Mr. Mitchison
Let us leave this person out. From what the right hon. Gentleman said, both as regards his hon. Friends and my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg), he certainly agrees with me that there have been cases in which hon. Members have objected to Private Bills without knowing anything about them.
§ The Chairman of Ways and Means
I supported the hon. Member for Dudley at the end of my speech. I explained that although his methods were unusual he got what he wanted.
§ Mr. Mitchison
I do not think that there is any difference between the right hon. Gentleman and myself on the facts. It is a matter within the knowledge of every hon. Member. I simply appeal to hon. Members to consider what actually happens. If they can assure me that they know perfectly well that everyone who objects to a Bill always knows what he is objecting to, and why, I will accept their opinion in that sense, but I am not sure that many Members will 1196 be able to do so. I take leave to express my own opinion. There are quite a number of cases in which I believe—and some in which I know—that Bills have been objected to for reasons quite irrelevant to the character of the Bills in question.
If that is the position—and it is rather probable when wholesale objection is taken to one Bill after another—it is not a very creditable one. I respectfully agree with the right hon. Gentleman the Chairman of Ways and Means that in this matter one has to balance, on the one hand, the convenience of promoters and fairness to them—particularly local authorities—with, on the other, the rights of hon. Members who may have had short notice; who may know that the Bill is objectionable to the majority of their constituents but may not, at the moment when they first hear of it, he well acquainted with the reasons.
It is a question of balance between the two considerations, but I do not think that the right answer is to say. "We will come down entirely in favour of the present practice", more especially when we have had criticisms, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, from a number of people, some of whom have subsequently held your office, Mr. Speaker; another of them being one of the most distinguished Parliamentarians that have lived in this country for a long time—the right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill)—and all of them taking objection to this practice and, indeed, taking the matter rather further and saying that it happens in the vast majority of cases.
I respectfully agree that a Bill ought not to be objected to on Second Reading in this House, but that objections ought to be taken in Committee. I agree that there are exceptions, but starting with that. I wonder whether it is not possible to take some action.
I make one suggestion, which I made in the form of an Amendment on the last occasion when this matter was on the Order Paper but which, having regard to the character of the Motion and the way in which my right hon. Friend was going to move it, I thought it better not to put formally on the Order Paper on this occasion. It seems to me reasonable that a first objection should be 1197 taken in that way. If there is a case for negotiations; if the hon. Member's constituents or he himself feels that the promoters have not really given the matter sufficient consideration or publicity, in spite of the statutory precautions for that purpose—which are very considerable—it would be reasonable to let him object in that way once, but to allow him to go on objecting without reason given, or possibly for some reason alien to the character of the Bill, is surely too much.
If that is so, what ought to be asked of him? I would not have thought that he ought to be asked to give any detailed reason. If he were to say that he did object to the Bill, and took the trouble to put an Amendment on the Order Paper to that end, I would regard it as better than nothing. I would like him to go a little further and get some support, but if, in the view of the right hon. Gentleman the Chairman of Ways and Means—which I greatly respect—he ought not to be asked to get any support, then let him at least be obliged to put down an Amendment. If he can give his reason I should think that it would be preferable that he should do so. I should have thought that there was no great difficulty in drafting an Order in a form which would enable him either to object generally or, if he had a special reason, to indicate it. Surely there must be very many cases in which hon. Members objecting to a Bill object not to the whole Bill but to some Clause in it or perhaps some principle in it which they feel to be wrong.
§ Mr. Mitchison
I agree, but that is a later stage. We have to reach that stage. If that is to be done, then there is no difficulty about putting something of that sort down at this earlier stage.
All I am suggesting to the House is that, on the one hand, we should be fair to the promoters of the Bill—and I do not think we are being fair to them at present—and, on the other, we should not deprive hon. Members of any opportunity or any right which they themselves would consider it fair to exercise.
I have put forward two suggestions and I will make one further observation 1198 before I conclude. I may be wrong, but I can find nothing definite in the Standing Orders about this practice. There are provisions about times and about unopposed and opposed Bills, but there is no provision which says in terms that all one has to do is to sit here and murmur "Object" loudly enough to be heard. It is not a question, therefore, of amending a Standing Order—
§ Mr. Mitchison
That is exactly what I thought. I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman. This is, therefore, a question of introducing a Standing Order, not of amending a Standing Order. I do not know the history of the practice. It is obviously fairly long standing. How far it is a recommendation and how far it is not is for the House to judge, but what we are asking is a very small concession and, I suggest, a reasonable concession to people to whom we owe a duty and, among others, to hon. Members on both sides of the House who have lately been somewhat critical of the procedure of the House in matters of perhaps greater weight than that which we are considering now.
§ 11.03 p.m.
§ Major H. Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)
I am sorry to delay the House at this hour, for I realise that this subject is to some extent specialised. I am sorry that some hon. Members may find me tiresome in rising to speak now, but I want to say a few words if only because I have had some experience of being Chairman of Select Committees which have considered opposed Private Bills. It so happens that I have had the British Transport Commission Bill in the last three successive years.
Underlying the debate so far has been the fact that, on the whole, hon. Members believe that private legislation of this kind is a good deal less important than Government legislation. I have always been in considerable doubt about that. What I like about private legislation is that, for a change, it enables people to do things instead of enabling the Government to prevent people from doing things which they want to do. To that extent I am always sympathetic towards private legislation.
1199 Turning to the recommendation of the Committee over which the right hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Glenvil Hall) presided with such ability, I am convinced that my right hon. Friend the Chairman of Ways and Means is absolutely right when he says that we should be extremely careful before we impose upon him or his successors the duty of deciding on the merits of a Bill or anything approaching that. It is important we should avoid asking him to decide whether any Private Bill introduced raises a new question of major principle. It seems to me that that would be a dangerous thing to ask him to do if we are to preserve, as I hope we always shall, the complete impartiality of the occupant of the Chair of Ways and Means.
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall
The hon. and gallant Member will recollect that at the end of my speech I indicated that I was not wedded to that part of the recommendation. I moved it only because it is the whole of the recommendation which the Committee made, but for my part I should be willing to drop it, although I may add as a rider that the Chairman of Ways and Means has extremely good advice behind the Chair and it is not necessarily his decision to which he may have to come.
§ Major Legge-Bourke
I appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman himself said, but I also appreciate that in a Committee of this kind there are, obviously, some differences of opinion even though a unanimous report is finally produced. But I think that we should be very careful before imposing on Chairmen of Ways and Means, or on the holders of other great offices of this House, the obligation of deciding upon merits which essentially would, sooner or later, involve party considerations.
A matter very much brought out in what has been said tonight is whether or not it is desirable for an ordinary back bencher to have the right just to say "Object" and so delay the passage of 1200 a Private Bill. The hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) made it very clear that he was not stressing the expense occasioned to local authorities by the delay caused when a Bill is about to achieve its Second Reading. He questioned whether or not it was right to delay the local authorities getting the Bill to the Committee stage. As I understood him, he stressed the delay rather than the expense. I am glad that he did, because I do not think that that expense is really very great.
What I do think is extremely important is that a back bencher should have the right to prevent a piece of legislation that might easily affect his own constituency, if nobody else's, going through without question. That right would be sacrificed if the recommendation was accepted. It would mean that a Member who found a piece of legislation was being introduced that would adversely affect his own constituency would be virtually powerless to do anything about it unless he could get six backers, and I do not think it is fair to expect those backers—who are, in any case, very busy men—to get down to the details of what will happen in the Member's constituency.—
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall
But his own constituency or groups, or whoever it might be within the constituency, would have the complete right to petition, which would be much more effective than the Member making a speech.
§ Major Legge-Bourke
The right hon. Gentleman really cannot have it both ways. If his aim is to save local authorities expense, I would say that it is infinitely less expensive for the Member representing the constituency to get up and say that he objects than it is for the local authority to prepare a petition. To that extent, I would say that it is very important—and the smaller the authority the more important it is for the back bencher to have the right to be able to object to a Private Bill.
There is another important consideration. Every day we get a large bundle of Order Papers, including Questions for the day, and on a separate piece of paper there is the private legislation which has been put down for consideration. Human error being what it is, that legislation sometimes get overlooked, and sometimes at the last minute emergency action has 1201 to be taken. It may be that had there been time, or if the Member had noticed it, he could have consulted the Parliamentary Agents for the promoters. There will be occasions when he will not have time to do that, in which case his only opportunity before the Bill goes to Committee is to say "Object". There are, therefore, many reasons why my right hon. Friend the Chairman of Ways and Means is absolutely right in saying that we should not accept this recommendation of the Joint Committee.
Finally, perhaps I may say that, in my experience at least, instructions on Second Reading are not altogether satisfactory when the Measure comes to the Committee, and I would agree with the quotation produced by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Collie Valley from the evidence submitted to the Joint Committee. It is really undesirable, in general, that the House should arrive at opinions about a Bill on Second Reading before it has heard all the evidence. I realise that there is something somewhat, contradictory in my saying that, but I still think it very important that we should still have that right. Occasions will arise when it is perfectly obvious that there is some matter which should be objected to on principle on Second Reading. If it were successfully carried it might very well prevent the Bill going any further, and that would save money for the local authorities or whoever was promoting the Bill.
If our aim is to try to ensure that local authorities and others promoting Private Bills are not put to unnecessary expense, we shall find, I believe, after taking and weighing carefully all the pros and cons, that less money would, on the whole, be wasted by rejecting the Motion than by accepting it.
§ 11.10 p.m.
§ Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)
I had not intended to intervene in this debate, but since my actions have been, not called in question, but mentioned, perhaps I might explain that my view is that the reform of the procedure of the House should be carried as far as it can be by consent. It is perfectly clear, now that we have heard the views of the Chairman of Ways and Means tonight, that the tide has gone as far forward as it can go at the moment. I would, therefore, think that my right hon. and hon. 1202 Friends would be well advised to call it a day and not press the Motion to a Division.
I do not regret taking the step I did in opposing every Bill, and I say quite plainly that I should do it again if it were necessary. At the moment, however, I believe that the procedure is working much more smoothly than it did. Of course, I do not quite share the old-world view—if I may say it with respect—of the Chairman of Ways and Means; nor do I share the completely old-world views of the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke). When I took the action I did in 1954, it was perfectly clear that there were influences at work in the House operating on Private Bill procedure which not only influenced what happened to a Bill when it came here, but which also influenced people before a Private Bill even got on the stocks. One has only to look at the influence of municipal advertising.
When I adopt a certain course of action, I try to do a little research beforehand. I was convinced that there were influences at work here that were not wholesome in their effect, and I therefore blocked all the Bills in order to focus attention on them and force the Government to do something about it; that is, to set up a Select Committee. That Select Committee has done a very useful job, and the influences to which I refer do not now operate.
I feel that we should be wise to leave it at that. The procedure has been to some extent simplified. The Chairman of Ways and Means is not quite right: I have not got all I wanted. I have got only some of it. But it will do for the time being, and later on, perhaps, we may start again.
In my view, we have gone as far as we can. We should be well advised to leave it as it is. I am influenced by what has been said, that if we adopt a new procedure it might result in greater complication in finding time at 7 o'clock. It might. Therefore, perhaps, we might let it go and see how it works, Of course, if there are further abuses at any time there will be opportunity again for objecting. One of the weaknesses in the thinking of the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely, for whom I have a great respect, is this: he said 1203 that any hon. Member can stand up and object. Hon. Members do not stand up to object; they sit down and object, and in some cases they even get some other "mug" to come and do the objecting. That has happened. The process has not always been one of sweetness and light.
I would go so far as to say that there is no more disgraceful episode in the history of the House of Commons than the operation of the Private Bill procedure during the last 150 years. Great fortunes have been made. Blocking Private Bills has feathered the nests of many. But that is not true today. Reform having gone as far as it can, I am extremely glad I took the step I did. I hope very much that it will never be necessary to do it again, but if it is—well and good: I shall do it.
I have always thought it was the job of the Leader of the House on these occasions to be present and to advise the House. I agree that the present Leader of the House seems to be unaware that the House of Commons is not his personal property but that he is its servant. He has treated the House with scant respect all through the negotiations on this matter, and the fact that he is not present tonight is a piece of gross impertinence.
§ 11.16 p.m.
§ Mr. Henry Usborne (Birmingham, Yardley)
Since this Commission reported two and a half years ago, and since the Government have not apparently bothered to find time to let us debate it in all that time, and then put it on only as second business, I do not think Government supporters have any reason to complain if we take an hour or two of their time at this late hour. One cannot amend the procedure of Private Bills, except with virtual unanimity and agreement on both sides, and it is clear tonight that this Motion as it stands on the Order Paper and as it has been moved, would not get by. I think it could be supported as it is printed on the Order Paper. As printed, it asks the House to accept the recommendations of the Committee—recommendations in the plural. But, as it was moved, it was apparently proposed that only one—a comparatively minor one, dealing with the objection on the nod at 2.30—should be carried or dealt with.
1204 I think that the procedure, in which I have had some part to play myself, whereby a Private Bill is objected to by one person at 2.30, is pretty absurd. But I also think the procedure on Private Bills, from their genesis to their conclusion, is pretty absurd all along the line, and that one cannot really change one element of the procedure in this unless one is prepared to change many others. For example, one of the most ridiculous parts of this archaic procedure is the apparent necessity by which the corporation seeking powers prepares a Bill, has then to put it to the town meeting and, if it gets objected to there, has then to put it to a town's poll where it can be thrown out, as happened in Birmingham a few days ago, when nine Clauses were thrown out by a very small minority of people. If objectors in Birmingham, a small handful—scarcely two per cent.—more than half of whom did not know what they were objecting to, can object at that stage, it seems to me perfectly—
§ Mr. Speaker
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but reading the Motion, I think that it relates to our procedure in this House, and an opposed Private Bill means a Private Bill that has been opposed in this House. At the stage with which the hon. Gentleman is now dealing—the town meeting and the town poll—it is not really a Bill from our point of view; the Bill has not come into existence in a Parliamentary sense. It may be a draft Bill or a proposed Bill, but I do not think it is within the terms of this Motion.
§ Mr. Usborne
I must accept your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, but, after all, the Motion on the Order Paper does say that effect should be given to the recommendations of the Joint Committee. Included in those recommendations, No. 22, is this: "Resolutions should be introduced to abolish town meetings and polls."
§ Mr. Speaker
But the Motion is not on the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure, but those recommendations relating to opposed Private Bills, and I think the words "opposed Private Bills" in this context must be read to mean Private Bills opposed in this House. What we mean by "a Bill in this House" is a Bill that has been introduced in this 1205 House, and not a draft in the hands of a local authority.
§ Mr. Usborne
Of course, Mr. Speaker, I must accept your Ruling, and I will merely say that one of the reasons—and I suppose that I am here entitled to say it—why I think it illogical to wish to remove the right of one hon. Member to object is that it is the parallel of a right which is apparently only quite absurdly granted to electors in the borough before the Bill reaches Parliament. I say, therefore, that until we can get all the absurdities, right from the genesis to the conclusion, changed and amended and the whole procedure altered, it is absurd to try to tinker with one very small part of a complicated and almost unmanageable procedure.
That brings me to another point I wish to make. As things stand today, I think it appears to most people to be absurd, undemocratic and unfair that one person sitting in his seat can say "Object" without very often even being able to say why he has objected other than that some hon. Friend of his asked him to do so. I myself have been responsible for doing precisely that.
Hon. Members will remember that last Session a Private Bill was introduced by Gloucester Corporation to which I and a number of other people objected on a large number of occasions. Finally, as a result of this objection, the Bill was introduced at 7 o'clock on a date which I do not happen to have in mind, and was then thrown out within ten minutes. Very few people, I believe, wished to throw it out. Nobody really quite understood why it was objected to, and those who had objected in the earlier stages merely wanted Clause 109 of the Bill altered. I believe that almost everyone, including the Home Office, was quite prepared to have that Clause altered.
How could one put down a reasoned Amendment to explain why one wanted Clause 109 of the Gloucester Corporation Bill altered? It was a particularly technical Clause involving the installation of oil burners, and very few people understood what it was all about. I happen to be in that trade, and I was informed by the association that the Clause was being introduced into a number of corporation Bills, that it was a totally unworkable instrument, and 1206 would I kindly look at it and try to explain in the House during the passage of such a Bill why that type of Clause was unworkable and why another type of Clause would be better.
I wanted to have an opportunity to explain this to the House, but I have not had it yet. I had to object on a large number of occasions to the Gloucester Corporation Bill in order to try to get an opportunity to make a speech after its Second Reading had been accepted. But I never got that opportunity because, having objected and got the Bill put down for a Second Reading at 7 o'clock, it never got its Second Reading, and I was never able to make a speech explaining why I wanted Clause 109 changed.
I would not labour the matter but for the fact that I must warn the Chairman of Ways and Means that there are two more corporation Bills on the stocks, both containing this objectionable Clause, to which I shall be obliged to object, or, if I am not able to be present at the time, to ask a number of my hon. Friends to object on my behalf. I am going to do this and give the House notice that I am determined to do so, and also that I am not going to try to explain to my unfortunate hon. Friends exactly what it is all about because it is extremely technical. I shall only say to them, "Please will you sit in your seats on a given Tuesday and say "Object", because if we can get it debated at 7 o'clock I shall make a speech and you need not bother to be here. If we can then get it debated at 7 o'clock I will make the speech myself." I take it that there are probably a great many other people who object in that kind of way or get other people to object for them.
§ Mr. Usborne
I do not follow that remark. Surely this matter affects almost every Member's constituency. I understand that the Home Office has it in mind, as a result of the discussions which went on about the Gloucester Corporation Bill, to prepare a model Clause for use in all subsequent Corporation Bills, so that in due course this will affect the whole nation. So important is this 1207 matter, in my view, that I have no reason to be ashamed of telling the House that I shall do my best to ensure that this model Clause is a workable and sensible one.
At the moment, I see no other method than to object as I have described. As a result, the Gloucester Corporation Bill came up at 7 o'clock one evening, and, as I have already said, for no reason that anyone could understand—except that the hon. and gallant Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks Beach) was a little aggrieved because he could not fish in the reservoir in Gloucester—the whole thing got thrown out in five or ten minutes, and Gloucester Corporation lost its Bill for a reason that it still cannot understand.
The whole of this procedure is extremely hard to work and difficult to understand. If there were a change, it would seem to me that a sensible method—I am no expert—would be to contrive a procedure under which Private Bills of this order should always automatically get their Second Reading on the nod and then should go to a Committee where a large number of particularly interested Members could manage to make their objections and criticisms.
§ Mr. F. H. Hayman (Falmouth and Camborne)
Does my hon. Friend realise that there are only four Members on the Committee?
§ Mr. Usborne
That is my point. Unless we can change the arrangement of the Committee which deals with these Bills upstairs so that more Members get onto it, those Members who want to speak will have to occupy the time of the House. Under the present arrangement they cannot get their voices heard where they ought to be heard—
§ Mr. Hayman
Does my hon. Friend realise that a Member on the Committee never makes a speech? He merely listens to evidence. The Committee's Report is never debated on Third Reading on the Floor of the House at all.
§ Mr. Usborne
That is exactly my point. Under the present arrangement Members of Parliament go upstairs and sit as judges or members of a jury. Then learned counsel who are paid high fees 1208 do the job which Members of Parliament ought to be able to do and address themselves to hon. Members. It seems to me to be topsy-turvy. The whole business does not seem to add up or to make any sense at all. I am merely saying that the procedure from start to finish is so rusty and absurd that it needs to be changed root and branch.
I conclude by saying that I do not think the procedure can be changed little by little or piece by piece. The whole thing must be changed fundamentally, and at the same time when that is done I am convinced that the whole concept of the town poll and the town meeting must be scrubbed and abolished. It is complete lunacy and utterly undemocratic, and the sooner we can get rid of it the better.
§ Mr. Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)
Will the hon Gentleman take it from me that the reason why the Gloucester Corporation Bill was objected to had nothing to do with the fishing rights of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks Beach), but that there was a substantial objection to several Clauses of some importance?
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall
Before we come to dispose of the Motion, which in a moment I shall ask the House to permit me to withdraw, may I ask whether it is not possible for the Leader of the House to say something to us? As I said earlier, this is the only opportunity we have had to debate this matter. The debate has been useful. Although the hour is now late and we all want to go home, in a matter of this kind we obviously ought to carry a majority of the House with us if we are to make a change. So far, at any rate, it is quite obvious that we do not carry the Government Front Bench with us, but I should like to commend to the Leader of the House the suggestion made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison), which certainly meets my views and, possibly, also the views of the majority of the House. I will not ask leave to withdraw the Motion at the moment because I understand that the Leader of the House intends to say something to us before I do.
§ 11.32 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department and Lord Privy Seal (Mr. R. A. Butler)
I did not intervene earlier 1209 because the Chairman of Committees had put many of the points with which I as Leader of the House and the Government are in agreement. I remember having a conversation with the right hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Glenvil Hall), and I have actually been out to check the record of that conversation. A full record was kept, but I do not recognise in the record or from the witnesses who were present and whom I have now been able to summon, any allusions to my regarding those who approached me as non-U, as the right hon. Gentleman put it. My whole career has been devoted to a classless society, and I welcome the right hon. Gentleman as a brother in that society.
The hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) was very irate that I had left the Chamber.
§ Mr. Butler
I had some very cherished notes, but I did not wish to prolong the proceedings. That is why I did not address the House earlier. I accept the hon. Member's regret, but I hope that this will mean that he will temper his language on future occasions.
The case put and set out at length in the Select Committee's Report, and particularly in sub-paragraph 7, to which the right hon. Member for Colne Valley referred, is the crux of this debate. There is, of course, some anxiety in some of our minds about the expense and financial burden of promoting private legislation. This burden in the case of a local authority Bill falls upon the ratepayer and, therefore, this is not a matter which one can dismiss without any consideration at all. However, I do not think that considerations of expense and convenience are the only ones that should be present in our minds.
I think it is true to say that from time immemorial, in the tradition and history of Parliament, one dissentient voice in the House has been able to stop certain proceedings. An experiment was made in 1882, when the provision allowing objection to be taken by notice and not by 1210 personal attendance was done away with. As far as Private Business is concerned, one Member has always been required, if he is to be the dissentient voice, to attend and voice his objection in his place. This is an old tradition and one which, I think, we should not lightly let go by. After all, a Private Member is merely saying, when he objects at the time of unopposed Private Business, that he is not prepared to let the Bill have a Second Reading without a debate. This is the sort of right which we should be very cautious of taking away from a Private Member and one which we should preserve to him.
It is, of course, almost impossible—and this is what makes our business so difficult to understand outside this House and makes writing letters to the Press about us so easy—to restrain human nature. We cannot guarantee the motives and ideas which may flow transiently through the mind of any hon. Member when he indulges in this agreeable recreation of objecting to a Private Bill. But there is no doubt that if we were to do away with the privilege we should be taking away one of the principle privileges of a private Member. Therefore, I suggest that the expense and inconvenience should be accepted as a price worth paying for the strict control which individual Members rightly exercise over all the legislation which emanates from this House, be it public or private.
I have only one or two other small points to make. I wish to take the right hon. Gentleman's case as seriously as I can.
It is true that under Standing Order No. 60 (4), for example, the names of six Members must be put down to an Amendment to prevent Scottish Bills being committed to the Scottish Standing Committee, but I would draw the attention of the right hon. Gentleman and the House to the fact that this is not at a time of unopposed Private Business, and it is, therefore, different from the case that we are considering here. The present proposal on the Order Paper, for the acceptance of this provision, places an entirely novel restriction on Private Members, and is one which I could not recommend to the House.
There is one more reason. This is especially so because the same conditions 1211 apply to unopposed public business as to unopposed Private Business, and it would, therefore, be logical for any concession made in regard to the one to be extended to the other. I should certainly be opposed to any proposal to deprive a single private Member of his right to block the passage of Public Bills without debate after the hour of interruption of business, and for similar reasons I consider the proposal before the House unacceptable.
I do not believe that the right to block Private Bills is as often abused as we think. So often when a Member's conduct appears to others to be ill-considered or even irresponsible there are reasons which to him are cogent enough. I should prefer, therefore, that the House should continue to rely upon the good sense of hon. Members in this matter.
That is the conclusion to which we have come. It does not mean that this debate has not been worth while or that the labours of the Committee, which are enshrined in this volume, are wasted. I think it is regrettable that we did not have an earlier debate, but there were a variety of reasons why it had to be postponed. However, we have had a debate tonight, and I shall always be glad to be at the service of the House to carry forward debates on our procedure, and I hope that on other occasions I shall be able to be more constructive than I have been tonight.
§ Mr. Usborne
The whole debate hitherto has been conducted on the assumption, arising from the Ruling from the Chair, that the discussion of what happens to Private Bills before they reach here is not in order. Will time be given in Parliament when those parts of the Private Bill procedure and the 1933 Act can be discussed in the light of the recommendations of the Committee?
§ Mr. Butler
I should not like to give an undertaking tonight, but if the hon. Gentleman and any of his hon. Friends would like to discuss it with me, I should be glad to see them.
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall
Before I ask for the leave of the House to withdraw the 1212 Motion, I should like to make two observations.
First, I am extremely sorry that I made the references which I did to the attitude of the right hon. Gentleman towards us when we went to see him. I regretted them as soon as I had uttered them. I did not entirely mean them. However, at the time we felt a little aggrieved that no opportunity was given us to debate what we thought was something which the House should consider.
Secondly, we shall see whether the present procedure—I admit that at the moment it obviously carries a majority of the House—can exist indefinitely, but I am afraid that for the moment we must leave it there. I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman could not meet us even halfway.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.