HC Deb 10 April 1968 vol 762 cc1535-43

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [28th March]: That Standing Committee C be discharged from considering the Bill and that the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House—[Mr. Maxwell.]

Question again proposed.

10.28 p.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

Perhaps in a slightly more congenial and relaxed atmosphere we can pass to this business. In view of the exemption proposed by the Government and accepted by the House we can deploy our arguments at leisure, though I hope at not too great length, in exploring the mind of the Government as to why this special privilege is being extended to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Maxwell) relating his Private Member's Bill.

I have nothing against the hon. Member for Buckingham and, for all I know, I have nothing against his Bill; but I have considerable reservations about giving special facilities to a Private Member's Bill when I see so many other worthy Measures attempting to proceed through the House and falling victim to the many ups and downs of our procedures. I am not sure why the hon. Member should be singled out, but I hope that by the end of this discussion we shall discover the reason.

I am sure that we are all in favour of clean air. We want cleaner air, cleaner food, cleaner books and cleaner newspapers. But how to do it and whether the House should give special facilities in particular cases is a matter of some doubt.

There are already a considerable number of Amendments down for the Standing Committee stage of the Bill and we are now asked to give facilities for the Bill to come back and be considered in Committee of the whole House. Before giving our vote in this matter we should consider whether the Amendments which we are asked to consider in the House, because presumably they will be the same as or similar to those in the Standing Committee, are of a wrecking or obstructive nature, are of a worth-while and exploratory kind, or are perhaps inspired by the Government. On looking through them I think all will agree that they are a varied selection coming from a wide variety of sources. One particularly, new Clause No. 3, would appear to be directly at the inspiration of the Ministry of Transport—

Mr. Speaker

We are not in Standing Committee or in Committee of the whole House on the Clean Air Bill. The hon. Member can argue only why the Bill should not be taken in Committee of the whole House.

Mr. Cooke

I just wished to acquaint the House, if it was not already acquainted, with the fact that there are a large number of Amendments, with which the House would be likely to be faced if it allowed the Bill to go to Committee of the whole House, as the Motion asks that it should. I will not, of course, go any further into the nature of the Amendments, except to say that they are not all of a constructive kind by any means. I see that the last line of my notes says we could not possibly discuss them now, and I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Speaker.

However, we are entitled to know why we are being asked to take the Bill in Committee of the whole House, and whether the same situation would occur in Committee of the whole House as would have occurred in the Standing Committee, because it would have been a Standing Committee of private Members on a Private Member's Bill. I think we are entitled to hear from the Patronage Secretary, whom I see in his place—or his deputy whom I see beside him, with a number of other Ministers—whether they would propose to allow the Bill facilities on the Floor of the House and in Committee of the whole House, and whether the Whips will be on or off. I think we are entitled to an answer before we go any further with our proceedings. Will there be a free vote of private Members participating, or is this to be an occasion when the Government take over a Measure, put on the Whips, and see that the Bill gets through because of their admittedly dwindling but still substantial majority? I pause for a moment in the hope that the Patronage Secretary or his deputy will leap to his feet to give us an answer to that question.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury and Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Silkin)

I can give an answer to the hon. Gentleman, I think fairly reasonably. The Government are not concerned with the merits or demerits of the Bill. Their reasons for looking rather warmly on the Motion are primarily reasons which I would hope o give in a short while.

Mr. Roy Roebuck (Harrow, East)

Is my right hon. Friend speaking as Member for Deptford, as Patronage Secretary, as Chief Whip, or Deputy Leader of the House?

Mr. Silkin

I think I may be allowed to say that on this occasion I was asked in my capacity as Patronage Secretary, not in my capacity as Deputy Leader of the House.

Mr. Cooke

I am sure we would ask the right hon. Gentleman in any one of his many capacities in order to get the answer we require. He said he was looking warmly on the Motion. He looks warmly on almost everything we ask him. I have never seen him scowl in the House, though sometimes he seems to be the victim of the wiles and influences of his colleagues, and some rather unpleasant things have happened as the result of his actions in the House, though perhaps he did not intend them to be so, when some of us have found our speeches or debates truncated as the result of his activities. At any rate, I am delighted to hear that I have succeeded in my intervention and to know we are going to have an explanation from the Deputy Leader of the House or the Patronage Secretary or the right hon. Member for Deptford.

There is only one last observation I want to make. It would appear that this Motion is put down late at night on the last day before a well-earned Recess when it might possibly have slipped through unnoticed by the House, and perhaps it is the intention of the Government that the further proceedings on the Bill should slip through unnoticed. I do not know. We should like to know whether it is really a Government Bill, because it would be helpful to know whether the Government will in future produce a series of "certificated" Private Members' Bills, so, if a private Member who was low on the list chose to take a beatifully drafted Bill from a Government Department, he would be assured of Government help. This might result in many worthy Measures reaching that Statute Book, but it might mean that the Government got their business through in the guise of Private Members' Bills, to which, no doubt, my hon. Friends would object. At least we would know where were were. The present system, with some Bills smiled upon and some frowned upon, is unsatisfactory.

I should be out of order in reading out a long list of Measures which I hope would receive Government help, but if this one is to be so favoured, why not that of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) dealing with areas of special scientific interest? Why not—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Eric Fletcher)

Order. The hon. Gentleman was quite right to say that he would be out of order in reading out or referring to these other Measures.

Mr. Cooke

Even fortified by that assurance that it would not be out of Order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will not do so, because I have a list of about a hundred, and do not want to weary the House—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member misheard me. I said that he was quite right in saying that he would be out of order in referring to these other Bills.

Mr. Cooke

I will only add, then, that there is a Bill of mine to which I hope that the Government will give as much help as they have given to this one.

I hope that we will have this system of certificated Bills, which has been done unofficially before. On one occasion, I drew sixteenth place in the list and some of my legal friends assured me that if I took up something to do with fatal accidents—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member is still out of order.

Mr. Cooke

So even a retrospective reference is out of order.

The whole matter of Private Members' Bills is a bit of a sham and it would help if the Government came clean and said whether this will be a Government Bill or not, because we should like to know.

10.38 p.m.

Mr. Robert Maxwell (Buckingham)

I know nothing of certificated Bills and this Measure was not suggested to me by the Patronage Secretary or anyone else in the Government. I represent a constituency with considerable air pollution problems. Buckingham and North Bucks is the centre for fletton bricks and there is a major works in my constituency. There is the prospect of the new city of Milton Keys and the problems of water pollution and housing provision for London, all of which are causing considerable deterioration in my constituents' quality of life. This is why I chose this subject for a Bill.

I am extremely sorry that the Opposition have, for weeks, been blocking this Measure by procedural means, having regard to the fact that the Clean Air Act, 1956, for which London is extremely grateful because it brought all the smogs and fogs to an end, was an all-party Measure. So is this Bill, yet, for some inexplicable reason, week after week, although Her Majesty's Official Opposition assured me that they had no objection to the Bill, they have nevertheless put up stooges like the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) to come and shout "Object".

These are deplorable tactics, and then to come here, like a little quisling, and read the lessons to the Patronage Secretary is unbelievable—

Mr. Douglas Dodds-Parker (Cheltenham)

On a point of order. Is it in order to call an hon. Member a quisling?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The word "quisling" is unparliamentary and should be withdrawn.

Mr. Maxwell

I withdraw it unreservedly.

Mr. Robert Cooke


Mr. Maxwell

I will give way when I am ready. In any event, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman deserves my giving way to him.

I do not consider it necessary for me to speak at great length in support of the Motion. I merely wish to point out the various excellent reasons why it would be appropriate for the Bill to be removed from Standing Committee and committed to a Committee of the whole House.

Clean air—and I am delighted that the hon. Member for Bristol, West at least agrees with me about this—is a matter that commands the general good will and support of almost everybody. It is not—or it certainly should not be—a matter of party politics. It is 12 years since the Clean Air Act, 1956, came into force. One of the more memorable events which led up to that Act was the great London smog of 1952. More than any other single factor, it was that which perhaps united public opinion in a determination that something effective had to be done to ensure cleaner air in our great cities.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member cannot go into the merits of the Bill. He can only consider the desirability of removing it from Standing Committee and committing it to a Committee of the whole House.

Mr. Maxwell

I am just coming to that, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

As is well known, excellent progress has been made throughout the country, but London in particular is out ahead in the matter of smoke control and clean air. The Clean Air Act laid the basis of the progress that has been achieved in the past 12 years. It was not a harassing Measure. I merely gave effect to what everybody wanted—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I do not think the hon. Member could have understood my Ruling. I said that it was not in order to discuss the merits of the Measure. He can discuss only the desirability of removing the Bill from Standing Committee and committing it to a Committee of the whole House.

Mr. Maxwell

The 1956 Act had all-party support and, as a matter of—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I must ask the hon. Member to omit those passages from his notes which refer to the merits of the Measure and to address himself to the limited Question before the House.

Mr. Maxwell

I will do that, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

As a matter of practical Parliamentary business, it is extremely important that the Bill should not be left in Standing Committee. It so happens that the Divorce Reform Bill falls to be taken before it in Standing Committee C, and this is likely to take a long time to be considered. There is, therefore, a real risk that the Clean Air Bill might not be reached in Standing Committee. This would be a great pity and also a nuisance, since the Bill would have to be reintroduced—and, from a purely procedural viewpoint, much valuable work already done by Ministers, hon. Members and officials would either have to be done twice or at least would have to go into cold storage until we could get things going again.

Mr. Robert Cooke

I intervene merely to make it perfectly clear that, as I said, I am not against the Bill. I am against the idea of it receiving special favourable treatment. If the Patronage Secretary will say that other Bills similarly placed will get equally favourable treatment and will be smiled upon by the Government, my hon. Friends and I will feel happier about the Motion. We are, therefore, not against the Bill but the way in which it is being handled.

Mr. Maxwell

On the other hand, the Bill is eminently suitable for consideration in Committee of the whole House. Its provisions are few, clear and straightforward and it commands the widest support. It would do something that needs doing. We all agreed that when we gave the Bill an unopposed Second Reading on 16th February. If we did that, why should we now run the risk of it not being reached in Standing Committee? That would indeed be an illogical fate for a short, much-needed, popular, sensible, uncomplicated Measure against which no hon. Member had a word to say less than eight weeks ago.

10.44 p.m.

Mr. Douglas Dodds-Parker (Cheltenham)

As the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Maxwell) said, all hon. Members are in favour of clean air. A great deal of work has been done in Parliament in the few years during which I have been an hon. Member to ensure the cleanliness of the air. However, in view of the befouling of the air in the Chamber, brought in by the hon. Member for Buck Ingham, I urge that his Bill remain in Standing Committee.

10.45 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury and Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Silkin)

During the past few years, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have from time to time been fortunate enough to catch your eye. My speeches on those occasions have not always earned universal approbation, but at least they were brief. In my new capacity the least I can do is to endeavour to ensure that that good rule is maintained.

I think it might be helpful to remind the House of the arrangements that were made experimentally for Private Members' Bills this Session. In the past it was usual to allow 10 Private Members' Bill Fridays, six for Second Readings and four for Bills which had made greater progress. This Session the House agreed to add six further days for Private Members' Bills. This made 16 Private Members' Bill days. The House also agreed that these 16 Fridays should be divided into eight days when Second Readings have precedence and eight days when Bills which have made greater progress have precedence. A certain amount of congestion in the one Standing Committee, Committee C, where private Members' business has precedence, has resulted from this decision. This congestion has become worse congested because of the number of Bills which, against the normal run, require, or are likely to require, more than one sitting. As a result, some of the eight Fridays which should have been devoted to Bills which have made greater progress have not received the expected flow of Bills awaiting their later stages, while at the same time there is a growing queue of Bills in Committee C.

In order to help to ease this congestion, we could hardly resist the one solution which would deal with both of these problems at the same time, namely that Bills in Standing Committee C should be recommitted to Private Members' Bill Fridays. Of course, this is a matter entirely for the House. When I said that the Government look warmly upon it, I meant that they look warmly upon a Motion designed to reduce congestion among Private Members' Bills. The alternative, if the House decided otherwise, whereby even more Bills obtained Second Reading and had no chance whatever of reaching their later stages because they would be committed to an already congested Standing Committee, seemed to us not to bear very much sense.

The experience of this Session, and it has been an experiment we have undertaken, will clearly require us to consider in respect of 1968–69 whether we should revert to the previous decision of 10 Bill Fridays and 10 Motion Fridays, or some other possible division, or whether to continue the experiment in the hope that perhaps more than one Standing Committee may be set up in which Private Members' business has precedence.

Committee upon Friday, 3rd May.