HC Deb 30 April 1986 vol 96 cc947-9 4.13 pm
Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to raise a point of order on the Channel Tunnel Bill, of which I have given you prior notice.

The Government, through the Department of Transport, have recently circulated to Kent district councils on the consultative committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West (Mr. Mitchell), Minister of State, Department of Transport, a public document entitled, "Channel Tunnel Timetable". That document, of which I have sent you a copy, purports to set out the future parliamentary timetable of the Channel Tunnel Bill in meticulous detail and in a way that has certainly not been disclosed to the House. In particular, that so-called timetable gives several precise dates of legislative events and stages in the House and the other place. For example, it states that the Select Committee will hold its proceedings from Tuesday 17 June until 24 July.

I submit that that is not just a misguided piece of parliamentary clairvoyance, but a display of Government arrogance—it will be interpreted as such—that has already been greeted with consternation in Kent and by Members of Parliament for constituencies there.

I think that the whole House is aware that there is already concern in Kent at the way in which some of the Bill's scrutiny has been rushed through within a short time. As a result, the people of Kent place great reliance on the hybrid Bill procedure, which allows them to petition the House and, for the first time, to obtain a fair hearing for their grievances. They hope that Parliament will do what the Government have so far failed to do, and will scrutinise the Channel tunnel project with thorough and proper procedures.

Unfortunately, the Department of Transport's published timetable may create the impression that the Select Commitee will be yet another fixed rush job and that Parliament will just dance subserviently to the Government's tune and keep to the Government's timetable. As the guardian of the rights of constituents through their elected representatives, Mr. Speaker, may I ask you to rule on the following points?

First, is it in order for a Department to issue a public document giving the parliamentary timetable on a Bill that has not yet even had its Second Reading? Surely that is a contempt of the House. Secondly, will you reassure the House and the people of Kent that no timetable has been imposed by the Government on the Channel Tunnel Bill, and that such a power rests only with Parliament? In particular, will you emphasise that the sitting arrangements and timings for a Select Committee are decided by the members of that Committee, and will you take note of the view that any attempt to rush through a Select Committee's hearings on a Bill of this magnitude in six weeks would be highly unusual, if not irregular?

Finally, will you confirm, Mr. Speaker, that the Channel Tunnel Bill, far from being at full speed ahead, is already marooned by other procedural snags of the Government's own making? Is it not the case that the hybrid parts of the Bill have already been judged out of time by the Examiners, and that the Bill can now proceed only if the Standing Orders Committee takes the controversial step of granting it an official dispensation?

Will you use your good offices to ensure that some second thoughts are given to the Bill by the Government and the usual channels in order to ensure that better parliamentary manners and a greater degree of fair play and fair hearing is shown to my constituents and others whose interests are affected?

Mr. Speaker

I thank the hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) for giving me notice of his point of order, as it has enabled me to go into the matter in some detail.

The hon. Gentleman is correct in stating that the Examiners of the Petitions for Private Bills, to whom the House referred the Bill on 18 April, reported on Monday that, in the case of the Channel Tunnel Bill, the relevant Standing Orders have not been complied with. The Examiners' report has therefore been referred in the usual way to the Standing Orders Committee.

As to the other points that the hon. Gentleman raised, I need say only that progress on the Bill, and the time spent on it, are entirely matters for the House, not for me.

Any informal timetable or other document circulated by the hon. Member in charge of the Bill must be a matter for him. A formal timetable or guillotine could be imposed only by the House.

As the House knows, this Bill is a hybrid Bill, and will follow well-established procedures. If the Standing Orders Committee allows the Bill to proceed, and if the House decides to give the Bill a Second Reading and commits it to a Select Committee, it will be for the Chairman and members of that Committee to decide on the times and duration of its sittings.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The House will be grateful to you for that ruling, which meets some of the anxieties raised quite properly by the hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken). But the matter goes a bit further than that. All hon. Members will want to know where on earth the document came from and what involvement the Secretary of State for Transport had in its preparation. Such timetables are not simply manufactured out of thin air. If the Secretary of State for Transport has been involved, I very much hope that the Leader of the House, who is in his place, will convey to him the anger felt on both sides of the House over his consent to its publication. If the Secretary of State is involved, we expect an early statement from him on the matter.

Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I thank you for clarifying the position? The position of my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) in relation to the Channel Tunnel Bill is well known. I support the concept of the tunnel and the Government's approach, but I also share the concerns aired by my hon. Friend, as it is essential that my Kent constituents should feel that their very real concerns will be properly considered by the House, as you have outlined, Mr. Speaker, and by, in particular, the members of the Select Committee.

Mr. Speaker

I do not think that I need add anything to what I have said. I hope that I have made the position clear.

Sir Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead and Highgate)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As the document has been referred to, will it be made available to the rest of the House, so that hon. Members may see the wording used and whether the interpretation put on it by hon. Members fits with the actual wording?

Mr. Speaker

I do not know anything about the document. It is a matter for the Government. I understand that it is an unofficial timetable from some hon. Member concerned with the Bill, but I do not know anything about it.