HC Deb 13 May 1971 vol 817 cc669-79

6.0 p.m.

The Minister for Local Government and Development (Mr. Graham Page)

I beg to move Amendment No. 2, in page 3, line 4, leave out from 'section' to second 'at' in line 5 and insert: Which— (i) authorises the making of discharges of water'. If it would be convenient to the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may we discuss Amendment No. 3 with Amendment No. 2?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)

I think that it would be for the convenience of the House, unless there is any objection, to discuss, with Amendment No. 2, Amendment No. 3, in page 3, line 9, after '1949', insert: ', or (ii) specifies such a place as a place at which water to be discharged in pursuance of the order is to be abstracted or impounded,'.

Mr. Page

The House will remember that Clause 1 (1) of the Bill authorised the Secretary of State to make an order authorising the discharge of water into any inland waterway or underground strata, and that that kind of order is not, by the Bill, subject to any Parliamentary procedure, unless it relates to a national park or to an area of outstanding natural beauty. If it does so relate, then, by Clause 2(4)(a) it can come before Parliament on a Prayer that it be annulled. I said "if it relates to a national park or an area of outstanding natural beauty"; that is to say, where water is taken from or discharged into such a park or area. As printed in the Bill now before the House, the paragraph was not wholly free from doubt. It was agreed on both sides of the Committee that there was no intention to apply the negative procedure in Parliament solely because the water originated far, far away in some national park or area of outstanding natural beauty, but that we wanted to cover the case where the point of discharge of the water was in the park or that kind of area, or the point of abstraction or impounding of the water was in the national park or the area of outstanding natural beauty.

Both points would have to be stated in the order, that is to say, in the order made by the Secretary of State. He would have to set out the point of discharge and the point from where the water was being abstracted before in due course being discharged.

In saying that, I call attention to paragraph (2)(b) and (c) of the Schedule, which sets out what should be in the notice and, therefore, in the draft order which comes before the Minister. So we shall be able to see, from the draft order, the point of discharge and the point from which water is abstracted which is eventually discharged.

In the main, we shall be dealing with reservoirs in connection with these orders, and if the reservoir is in a national park or an area of outstanding natural beauty, no matter where the discharge is, discharging inside or outside a park, the negative procedure will apply to that order. Also, if the reservoir is outside the national park or the area of outstanding natural beauty and the discharge is inside, the negative procedure will apply, if the Amendments are accepted.

To make clear what the Amendments would do, perhaps I may read them into subsection (4) of the Clause, so that we can see that it covers the points that I have been trying to make. If the Amendments are accepted, subsection (4) would read as follows: The power to make orders conferred by the preceding section shall be exercisable by statutory instrument, and— (a) a statutory instrument containing an order under that section which—(i) authorises the making of discharges of water at a place which, on the date when the order is made, is within a National Park or an area of outstanding natural beauty within the meaning of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 or (ii) specifies such a place as a place at which water to be discharged in pursuance of the order is to be abstracted or impounded, shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament. That covers the desire shown on both sides of the Committee to make certain that there were no ambiguities about the Clause and that the House would have an opportunity of debating those occasions when the discharge order affects national parks or areas of outstanding natural beauty.

Mr. R. H. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)

I should like to ask my hon. Friend whether this is quite fair. At the Committee stage he said: I should like to consider whether, if the affirmative procedure were given under subsection (4) in these cases relating to national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, one might have to define the cases a little more narrowly so that the trivial cases … would have to be excluded so that we only dealt with the cases, such as my right hon. Friend has mentioned, on which one might expect that there would be a Prayer."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee D, 30th March 1971; c. 84.] If my hon. Friend is to accept Amendment No. 4, I quite understand that this is consistent with the undertaking given during the Committee stage, but as he has not yet put his name to the Amendment I am, rather naturally, a little suspicious.

The wording which we are now seeking to change was introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, in another place when he, in response to pressure, gave this particular concession regarding the Statutory Instrument with the negative provisions. Some of us, for reasons which I shall talk about on a later Amendment, regarded that particular procedure at present as inappropriate.

If my hon. Friend will not agree to the affirmative procedure, these Amendments are not necessary and are contrary to the undertaking that he gave. There was no general agreement on the Committee that the wording proposed in the other place was insufficient. The wording that my hon. Friend has chosen to- day might bring a certain amount of confusion into the matter, because whereas the Schedule and the original Clause talks about when water is "taken", he has now introduced the phrase "abstracted at a place." Presumably, to be terminologically correct, it would be abstracted "from a place." My hon. Friend should be satisfied, if he means to restrict this to the negative procedure, with the wording his colleague introduced in the other place. If it is a minor matter there will never be a Prayer. There will be a Prayer only when there is considerable feeling about a river authoity's proposal.

I ask my hon. Friend to give an assurance that he is not going contrary to the statement he made in Committee on 30th March when he limited any idea of changing the wording of the Clause to a change from the negative to the affirmative procedure. It goes too far to say that the Committee agreed to that change. It agreed to the change conditional on the change in procedure.

Mr. Denis Howell (Birmingham Smallheath)

Unlike the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton), I wish to express my appreciation of the action the Minister has taken to meet what I thought was the consensus of the Standing Committee. Those of us who served on the Standing Committee will recall that the words originally were water taken wholly or partly at a place The argument advanced on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends and on behalf of the water industry and of local authorities was that there could be a case where water originated in Wales or in some other place of outstanding beauty but because a reservoir had been built in Manchester, Bristol or some other place at a spot where there was no outstanding beauty to be taken into account, under the terms of the Bill as originally drafted the Clause would apply a restriction to those operations, not because that was the point of outstanding natural beauty, but because the water originated elsewhere.

That was clearly unsatisfactory. In Committee the Minister undertook to consider the point. The form of wording produced in the Amendments vastly improves the Bill and gives great satisfaction to the water industry and local authorities. These Amendments will have the support of this side of the House.

Mr. Graham Page

May I, by leave of the House, reply to this short debate? My recollection of the date about the ambiguities or anomalies in the Clause is the same as that of the hon. Member, for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Denis Howell). We wanted to exclude cases where water originated at some considerable distance and to concentrate on matters affecting national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty.

I think that we now have the wording right. It is correct to use "at". That word was used in the original Clause. We wish to concentrate on the point where the abstraction is made.

I said in Committee that it might be necessary, particularly if we were changing the form of parliamentary procedure, to distinguish between the trivial cases and the more serious cases. It has not been possible to make that distinction. It remains possible under the Bill for a Prayer to be laid against even the most trivial case, and that could be debated under the negative procedure.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: No. 3, in page 3, line 9, after '1949' insert;', or (ii) specifies such a place as a place at which water to be discharged in pursuance of the order is to be abstracted or impounded,'.—[Mr. Graham Page,]

6.15 p.m.

Mr. Turton

I beg to move Amendment No. 4, in page 3, line 9, leave out from 'shall' to 'House' in line 10 and insert: 'not come into effect unless it has been laid before Parliament and approved by each'. In Committee we had a wide-ranging debate on this point and my hon. Friend the Minister undertook to consider whether we could not make a change from the negative to the affirmative procedure. Great advantages would flow if we were able to make that change, particularly in view of what is happening to Prayers in the House of Commons.

The Select Committee on Statutory Instruments considered this matter and made this statement in paragraph 14 of its recent Report: Your Committee do not consider that the present practice of the House regarding instru- ments subject to negative procedure and general instruments is satisfactory. Until fairly recent sessions, it was the practice of the House that time was found for a debate in the House on all Motions praying that statutory instruments be annulled; if for any reason time could not be found within the 40 days praying time, it was the convention that time would be found for a Motion in similar terms to be debated (these Motions are called 'out-of-time Prayers'). Captain Crookshank, when he was Leader of the House, stated: I guarantee that every time a Prayer is put down if I cannot arrange a debate within the 40 days I arrange for an 'out-of-time' Prayer outside the 40 days. The Special Report continues in this way: In recent sessions the practice of the House has changed. It is now not uncommon for Prayers to remain undebated either 'in time' or 'out of time'. The position has become increasingly serious. In Session 1967–68, out of the 57 notices given, only 21 were debated within the 40-day period. In the following Session 48 notices were given; 31, or over half, were debated within the period of 40 days. I am told that in succeeding Sessions the position has got even worse.

The aim of both sides of this House and of the other place is that when a national park or an area of outstanding natural beauty is involved in a reservoir scheme there should be an opportunity for a debate to be held in both Houses if Members so wish. The present Leader of the House made this statement when giving evidence recently before a Select Committee: Where an Opposition expressed a desire for particular Prayers, my experience was that when I asked for them they were nearly always granted. But for private Members he agreed: There is a real problem here, that the issues raised in negative Orders do not have opportunity for debate. Clearly it will be most unsatisfactory it, there being a demand by others than the Opposition for a debate on matters concerning national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, there is no scope for a debate in the House on the Prayer.

The position in the House of Lords is peculiar. The rules of orders for Prayers are different from those here, and I feel sure that one reason which may be making my hon. Friend more obdurate than usual is his view of some of the ramifications of the special procedure in the other place. Except for Prayers on local government boundaries, no Prayers have been debated in the other place for the last five years. The other place does not have any Standing Orders procedure for Prayers. The only occasion that I can find of a debate on a Prayer was on one relating to local government boundary revision.

We are faced here with a great difficulty. I appreciate the difficulty raised by Standing Order No. 216 of the other place, under which there is a system for Petitions against Affirmative Resolutions. I appreciate the difficulty, which undoubtedly faces my hon. Friend, that that might involve the employment of counsel and having something like a repetition of the Private Bill procedure which hon. Members do not want to see again, because it is an expensive procedure and often a lengthy one, but we should, in this debate, ask for an assurance, either from my hon. Friend, or from the Leader of the House that, when a Prayer is put down against a proposal for a reservoir to be built in a national park or an area of outstanding natural beauty, time will be found for a debate on the Floor of the House, and not merely if the request for a debate is backed by the Opposition.

It may be that the Prayer will be on a matter on which the Opposition do not feel strongly, but on which there is strong feeling throughout the country. To give an example, it may be that the Opposition of the day would not have wished to put down a Prayer on the Swinicombe Reservoir in Dartmoor, but certainly a mass of objectors wanted that Prayer to be debated. Equally, the question of Farndale was not one with which the two Front Benches were concerned, but a mass of people who want to conserve the beauty of the country felt very strongly about it.

It is clear from what my hon. Friend said on the previous Amendment that he is not friendly to this Amendment, but I hope he will assure me that if we stick to the negative procedure and do not adopt my Amendment and have the affirmative procedure, he will arrange that if a Prayer is put down, time will be found to debate it in this House.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Acton)

When the Father of the House puts forward the kind of Amendment that we have before us, it behoves us to look at it very carefully, I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's knowledge, and his reasons for putting forward the Amendment, but I suggest that there is an important principle which he did not mention, which is the distinction between the affirmative and the negative procedure.

If, as the right hon. Gentleman suggests, we have the affirmative procedure, it appears to me that we are being asked to agree to something that is special. We are being asked to look at it, but if we have the negative procedure, it is a check on something that is normal.

As I understand it, one of the purposes of the Bill is to transfer some of the complex arguments that there are on this kind of question away from this Palace to a locality where people can find it more convenient to attend, and where wider topics can be mentioned in a slightly less formal atmosphere. Then Members of this House or of the other place can, if they wish, put down a Prayer as a check. To do it the other way round would require affirmative procedure to be followed every time, which would result in complicated discussions akin to those we have at the moment.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the procedure in the other place. I think that I should perhaps quote from the current edition of Erskine May, which outlines the procedure mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman because, where there is a Petition, the Special Orders Committee can go further. Erskine May says on page 571: Where such a further inquiry is recommended the Select Committee consists of five Lords named by the Committee of Selection and conducts its proceedings as if it were dealing with a Private Bill. In other words, we are back to the sort of procedure which I feel sure most hon. Members wish to avoid.

It is for those two reasons that I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman, whose views I respect for many reasons. I do not think that we should accept the Amendment as it stands.

Mr. Denis Howell

I endorse the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing). In every way it is not appropriate to have the affirmative Resolution procedure in respect of these Bills, but I have some sympathy with the case made by the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton). I think that the Minister is faced with a dilemma, because he is not responsible for the procedures of the House or its timetable. Nor is he responsible for providing opportunities for hon. Members to debate Prayers.

I ought to make it clear that I have no authority from the Opposition benches to talk about procedural matters and time-tabling, but it would be wrong not to acknowledge that the right hon. Gentleman has a point of some substance when he says that if hon. Members wish to pray against an order they should have the opportunity to do so, whether the order is within the time scale or not, and the interesting references made by the right hon. Gentleman to the remarks of the late Captain Crookshank are extremely relevant.

The Minister cannot be expected to take on board responsibility for this matter as laid down in the Amendment. His job is to find the right answer to whether we have the affirmative or the negative procedure. The Minister cannot be expected to go further than that, but I join the right hon. Gentleman in asking him to take the matter up with his colleagues, and particularly the Leader of the House, to see whether we can solve the dilemma which the right hon. Gentleman has so fairly expressed.

6.30 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page

As I said on the previous Amendment, normally orders under the Bill will have no Parliamentary procedure at all. But if they relate to areas of outstanding natural beauty or national parks, the Bill provides for the negative procedure. The Amendment would substitute the affirmative procedure for those orders affecting national parks or areas of outstanding natural beauty. It would then be necessary for the Government to find time for a debate on that order, otherwise the order would not be effective.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) said that he thought that I was unfriendly to his Amendment. I am unfriendly to it in a purely parliamentary respect. I have great sympathy for his point. The whole purpose of accepting in another place what is now in Clause 2(4) of the Bill, the negative procedure for those orders, was to ensure the possibility of debate of those orders in both Houses or in one House as Members might choose.

We cannot, under present procedure in this House, ensure that, if an order is subject to the negative procedure, it will be debated or will even have the opportunity of being debated in this House. That occurs by a combination of the law that the negative procedure applies for a period of 40 sitting days after the order is laid and our rule of procedure that Prayers shall not continue after 11.30 at night.

We could ensure by the affirmative procedure that the order would be debated in this House, but in another place the affirmative procedure sets on foot processes which are very similar to Private Bill processes. Indeed, the whole purpose of the Bill is to relieve the parties concerned from any such process. The House of Lords Private Business Standing Order No. 216 provides that any orders which come before that House for affirmative resolution can be referred to the Special Orders Committee in that House, before which Petitions can be made and heard in exactly the same way as if that were a Private Bill Committee.

This is what we hope to avoid under the Bill. If we have the affirmative procedure applied in another place, we are back to square one. The Bill will have served no useful purpose in removing the expensive and long procedure of a Private Bill Committee.

My right hon. Friend asked whether I could give an assurance that, if the negative procedure remains applicable to these orders, there will be the opportunity of debating a Prayer in this House. Of course, I cannot give that, because I might be giving an assurance that the whole procedure of the House would be disrupted by an enormous number of Prayers being tabled.

Mr. Turton

Are there to be a great number of reservoirs in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty?

Mr. Page

I was not necessarily referring only to such orders. As the figures which my right hon. Friend read out showed, there are no reservoir orders on the Order Paper at the moment, but the House was unable to take all the prayers. It merely boils down to this: the rules of the House will operate all right so long as one plays the game, but if one tries to disrupt the rules it is a very easy thing to do. If one puts many prayers on the Order Paper, it is impossible for any Government or any Leader of the House or any usual channels to promise that every prayer will be debated. So I am afraid that I cannot give that assurance.

But I am sure that our debates on this subject have highlighted the position and shown particularly the concern of this House for these orders; if Prayers are laid against any order of this sort, I am sure that any Government or Leader of the House will give great consideration to them.

This does not mean that I hope that there will always be opposition to reservoirs just because they are in national parks or areas of great natural beauty. When properly planned, located and landscaped, reservoirs can greatly enhance the beauties of the parks and these areas and can make a great contribution to the happiness of the people by providing a most enjoyable form of recreation. It is a positive policy of this Government that the natural beauties of our country shall be available to the people. That involves not mere conservation but improvements as well, and reservoirs can be improvements.

It is right that, on any occasion when a Member wants to bring a subject before the House, it should be brought before the House. I hope that the words which have been spoken from both Front Benches and back benches on this Amendment, both now and in Committee, will convince any Leader of the House that these are the sort of orders for which he must make time available for debate. I cannot give any undertakings about it: I can only express my very strong hope that any Leader of the House will do that in future.

Amendment negatived.

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