HC Deb 01 April 1968 vol 762 cc107-13

Standing Order 95, line 7, at end add—

(2) Without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing paragraph, where any society, association or other body, sufficiently representing amenity, educational, travel or recreational interests, petition against a bill, alleging that the interest they represent will be adversely affected to a material extent by the provisions contained in the bill, it shall be competent to the Court of Referees, if they think fit, to admit the petitioners to be heard on such allegations against the bills or any part thereof—[Mr. Carol Johnson.]

Question again proposed.

7.1 p.m.

Mr. Carol Johnson (Lewisham, South)

It might at first seem a little strange that the time of the House should be taken in discussing what seems to be a minor procedural matter and, moreover, one which is related solely to the Private Business of this House. But, as I shall show, the point raised by the Amend- ment is of some importance and it is in the public interest that it should be ventilated. Moreover, one must realise that the change which I propose and consider to be necessary can only be made by this House.

My task this evening has been considerably eased by the fact that I learned earlier today that Her Majesty's Government are disposed to lend a sympathetic ear to the proposed Amendment. Having heard what I have to say, I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary may be able to say a few words in support.

What the Amendment seeks to do can be put very shortly. It is to ensure that voluntary societies like the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, the Commons Society, the Ramblers Association, the Youth Hostels Association and other non-commercial bodies representing broad sections of the general public shall in appropriate cases continue to have the right to petition against Private Bills and Special Procedure Orders. I use the phrase "continue to have" advisedly. Many right hon. and hon. Members have in recent years served on Private Bill Committees and are familiar with these types of petitions.

Of many examples in recent years I refer to two in which I was involved: the City of London Bill of the Session of 1961–62 concerning certain Clauses relating to Epping Forest, which was petitioned against by the Commons Society; and, more recently, the Greater London Council (General Powers) Bill, 1966, which contained provisions relating to Hainault Forest, to which both the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and the Commons Society objected, and which was also the subject of a Petition. It is interesting to recall that in both those Measures the Petitioners succeeded in their objections.

The two examples which I have quoted were Private Bills, but for the past 20 years or so the same considerations have applied to Special Procedure Orders, and Parliamentary Agents, as well as Government Departments, in addition to right hon. and hon. Members of this House, have acted on the assumption that amenity and other interested bodies have the same locus standi for petitioning under Special Procedure Orders as they enjoyed in respect of Private Bills.

There is just one technical matter to which I should draw the attention of the House, so that right hon. and hon. Members may follow what I have to say. Whilst in the case of Private Bills questions of locus standi and, therefore, the right to petition are determined by the Court of Referees, in the case of Special Procedure Orders the decision is made jointly by the Chairman of Ways and Means and the Lord Chairman of Committees of the Lords. That, I think, sets the scene for the event which has led to the tabling of the present Motion, an event which caused surprise in many quarters concerned with this sphere of legislation.

In 1967 a number of amenity bodies, including the Commons Society, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, the Ramblers Association, the Youth Hostels Association and the Dartmoor Preservation Association, petitioned against the North Devon (Meldon Reservoir) Water Order, which had been made in 1966 under Special Parliamentary procedure. On this occasion the locus standi to petition against the Meldon Order was denied to the bodies mentioned, though at the meeting at which this was done they were not represented and had no opportunity, therefore, of putting forward arguments why the Petition should be admitted.

That decision certainly seemed contrary to what was considered to be the well-established practice in such cases, and it was explained in another place by the Lord Chairman on 4th April, 1967. I will quote two extracts from his speech which I think quite succinctly put the basis for the Ruling which he had given. He said: Whenever the locus standi of an amenity society has been challenged by the Promoters of a Bill in the House of Commons it has been disallowed by the Court of Referees. It is because their locus standi has not been challenged in this House that amenity societies have been able to petition against such Bills as the Tees Valley and Cleveland Water Bill … They are able to appear against the Bill because, in effect, the Promoters allow them to do so. Later, dealing with the different considerations which apply to Special Procedure Orders, referring to the Standing Orders of the House of Lords, which are similar to the Standing Orders in the House of Commons in this connection, he said: They"— that is the Standing Orders— limit locus standi to cases where the Petitioners can show injurious affection, and Petitioners must be a large number of the local inhabitants of the area affected by the Order. A few lines later he said: The only case in which an amenity society could be granted a locus standi to petition against a Private Bill would be if the society represented the inhabitants of the area, the whole or any part of which was alleged to be injuriously affected by the Bill. That is to say, the Petition would have to be that of the inhabitants speaking through the society, and not the Petition of a society, such as a national society, which happened to include in its membership some of the inhabitants."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 4th April, 1967; Vol. 281, c. 951–2.] When one comes to consider the relevant Standing Orders relating to Private Business in the Commons the only justification that could be advanced why amenity and similar bodies are not covered and protected is because of the very narrow legal interpretation of the word "interest". Standing Order No. 95 permits locus to bodies sufficiently representing any trade, business or interest", but the Ruling which I have mentioned—that is, the interpretation that it may be limited only to the inhabitants of a local area and that a national society may not take advantage of it—shows that the word "interest" has been interpreted as meaning the interest of a commercial business or trading nature. Thus, the present Standing Order has been interpreted to mean that a body representing a property interest can be heard by way of petition, but national bodies, representing a wider public or amenity interest, cannot. This decision raises a matter of vital importance not only for the amenity societies to which I have referred, but many other non-commercial bodies. I should mention that no problem arose in respect of the Meldon Order, for it was first withdrawn by the Government, a new Order was laid, and, in respect of that, the promoters agreed not to challenge the petitioners' locus standi.

But the general position is left in a most unsatisfactory state and my Amendment is designed to put matters right by restoring the previously accepted practice. Unless Standing Order No. 95 is amended, national societies will in future only be able to petition if, in the words of the Lord Chairman the promoters allow them to do so. One may agree or disagree with the views of voluntary organisations who petition, but at least their activities have meant that relevant issues connected with Private Bills or Special Procedure Orders have been argued out before an appropriate Committee either of the House or of another place. Indeed, it is probably true to say that Ministers in many successive Governments have often paid tribute to such bodies, and have recognised that they provide a corpus of responsible and informed knowledge reflecting aspects of the public interest which it is desirable—indeed in many cases essential—should be brought to the notice of Parliament.

That, then, put quite shortly, is the case for the Amendment. If approved, it will restore to bodies representing amenity, educational, travel or recreational interests the undisputed right to petition this House. If not approved, promoters of Bills and Special Orders will, in effect, be given the right to deny such petitioners audience before this House and its Select Committees by challenging their locus standi.

I have only one further point to make, and that is to reassure hon. Members that the change proposed is not likely to open the door to wholesale petitions. The number of cases in which petitions are presented is small in relation to the total number of Private Bills and Special Orders. This is so for two reasons. First, because petitioning Parliament is a costly business. Secondly, because the societies to which I have referred have a high sense of responsibility, and undertake it only after the most serious consideration, and when they think it important that Parliament should be made aware of all the issues involved. Unless they can do so in appropriate cases, something important to the welfare of the community will, I fear, be lost.

7.14 p.m.

Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

I shall not detain the House for more than a few moments. I think that we are grateful to the hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. Carol Johnson) for what he has said. There are a number of Private Bills coming forward to do with highways, motoring, parking meters, and so on. I was on the Portsmouth Corporation Bill, and I was surprised to learn that national bodies such as the A.A. and the R.A.C. had no right to appear, but appeared by grace of the Examiner.

I represented that to the hon. Gentleman, and he allowed me to suggest to him that we should add the words "travel or recreational amenities" to the Amendment to the Standing Order. If accepted, it will allow such bodies as the A.A. and R.A.C. to appear as of right before Private Bill Committees. I support what the hon. Gentleman said. If these words are added, the motoring interests will be able to appear as of right when they are affected by Private Bills.

7.15 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Arthur Skeffington)

Perhaps it will be convenient if I indicate the Government's views about the Motion moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. Carol Johnson) which seeks to make a change in the Standing Orders, and to clarify the position of amenity societies.

I am conscious of the fact that this is really a matter for the House of Commons, but I think the House would like to know that the Government have no wish to see amenity bodies refused appropriate hearing in legitimate circumstances. Indeed, speaking as I do for the Ministry which perhaps has more to do with amenity societies than any other, I should like to place on record our great appreciation of the essential work which they have to do in dealing with a whole variety of matters which are almost inevitable in the development of a modern society.

The Government have no desire in any way to frustrate these serious bodies from having the appropriate opportunity of putting their case. The Government therefore do not wish in any way to oppose the Motion. My only point—and this is a point of tactics rather than of substance—is whether sufficient time has run since the change was made, to which my hon. Friend referred, to make this further change. But this is a matter for the House, and I do not desire to oppose my hon. Friend's proposition.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Amendment to the Standing Orders relating to Private Business hereinafter stated in the Schedule be made:—

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