HC Deb 03 June 1986 vol 98 cc835-71
Mr. Speaker

Before I call the Lord Privy Seal to move the motion, I should inform the House that I have not selected either of the amendments on the Order Paper.

May I also remind the House that the motion is a procedural motion on whether the Standing Orders relating to private business should be dispensed with in the case of the Channel Tunnel Bill and on the earliest date for presenting petitions against the Bill? This is not an occasion to canvass the merits of the Bill, which can be fully debated during its Second Reading on Thursday.

10.34 pm
The Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Biffen)

I beg to move, That in the case of the Channel Tunnel Bill the Standing Orders relating to Private Business, so far as not complied with in the respect mentioned in the Report of the Examiners of Petitions for Private Bills relating to that Bill [28th April], be dispensed with and the Bill be permitted to proceed; That in the event of the Bill being read a second time, the earliest date which, in any motion for the committal of the Bill to a Select Committee, may be specified as the date by which a Petition against the Bill must be presented in order to stand referred to the Committee shall be 17th June. The motion before us tonight would provide for the progress of the Channel Tunnel Bill. As such, it deals with a narrow but highly significant procedural point which has come up rarely over the past 40 years or so.

In these unfamiliar circumstances, I hope that it will be helpful to the House if I begin by saying a few words about the nature of the Bill, and about the Standing Orders referred to in the motion. I then propose to explain briefly why the Bill was considered by the Standing Orders Committee. Lastly, I intend to address the reasons why the Government believe that the Standing Orders should he dispensed with in this instance.

As was the case with earlier legislation dealing with this subject, this Channel Tunnel Bill is hybrid. This means that while it is a public Bill, like any other Bill introduced by a Government, it may in certain respects affect private rights. There is nothing intrinsically unusual or controversial in a hybrid Bill. The House will recall that this Session we have already debated and passed without undue disruption or delay what is now the Museum of London Act 1986, which was hybrid.

What hybridity does mean, however, is that during the Bill's passage it must do more than go through all the stages of a public Bill both here and in another place. Additionally, it must meet certain of the requirements for consideration by Parliament of a Bill affecting private interests. These are set out in the Standing Orders relating to private business.

These Standing Orders are based on the annual cycle for presentation and deposit of private Bills. For this reason, they are set out within clearly defined time disciplines. These require that those seeking to promote a private Bill must present their petition to do so and deposit the Bill in the Private Bill Office on or before 27 November. They must also give notice to affected parties directly, and more generally by placing advertisements in newspapers for two successive weeks on or before 11 December. Those who seek to petition against a private Bill must present their petitions on or before 30 January, following the Bill's deposit some eight weeks before.

This structure for giving notice and for petitioning is designed to help potential petitioners and to ensure that they may have an opportunity of expressing their views effectively, but the structure is not immovable or rigid, and provided that petitioners' rights are protected, its requirements may, on occasion, be waived.

This may be done as follows. If a Bill has failed to comply with the relevant Standing Orders, the Clerks who act as Examiners of Petitions for Private Bills must report to the House any non-compliance, and the matter is then referred to the Standing Orders Committee. This Committee, under the Chairman of Ways and Means, may judge it appropriate to dispense with the Standing Orders which have not been met if this is found to be in the public interest and not unfair to potential petitioners.

I have been referring to private Bills, but the Standing Orders Committee may also have a role in relation to compliance with Standing Orders by a hybrid Bill, since it has a private element. Standing Order 224 relating to private business provides a procedure by which the Examiners decide whether a Bill is hybrid and Standing Orders 4 to 68 should therefore apply to it. These Standing Orders deal with the deposit of the Bill and the giving of notice. If their requirements have not been met, the Examiners must report any non-compliance with them. As when a private Bill has failed to comply with the Standing Orders, the matter then goes to the Standing Orders Committee.

Manifestly, the Channel Tunnel Bill has not been able to meet the date-related provisions of these Standing Orders. On 20 January my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for Transport said that legislation would be introduced this Session as soon as possible. Again, the White Paper, which the House approved by 268 votes to 107 on 10 February, stated that it was the Government's aim to bring forward legislation in the spring of this year, as we have done.

It was clear that if we were to carry out our intention which had been approved by the House there would be no possibility of the Bill's being able to comply with Standing Orders as far as dates for deposit and giving notice were concerned. Instead, the Channel Tunnel Bill was given its First Reading on Thursday 17 April, and notice was given in newspapers the following day.

I should add that no difficulty has been made about the form in which the Bill was deposited, or about the form in which notice was given to interested parties and in the newspapers. It is only in respect of date that the Bill could not meet the requirements of Standing Orders.

In the light of this non-compliance, the Bill was duly considered by the Examiners and their report was referred to the Standing Orders Committee. The Committee felt that it should be for the House to determine whether Standing Orders should be set aside in this instance. Its report to the House, therefore, stated that the Committee declined to make a recommendation as to whether the Standing Orders ought to be dispensed with, and believed that the matter ought to be decided by the House.

Of course, we accept and respect the decision of the Committee. The Channel Tunnel Bill is an unusual, if not unique, piece of legislation, involving both a major measure of public policy and a range of private interests.

I suggested earlier that this was an unusual debate. Just how unusual is evidenced by the thin field of precedents in this area. To find a precedent for the Standing Orders Committee referring a Bill to the House for a decision one has to go back to the London County Council Tramway and Improvement Bill in 1920. More generally, there are few recent precedents for the Standing Orders Committee considering hybrid Bills. None the less, I am sure the House will wish to take into account the precedents which exist.

In the period since 1953, four late Government hybrid Bills were considered by the Standing Orders Committee. The most recent of these was the Winfrith Heath Bill in 1957. All four Bills had failed to meet the date-related provisions of Standing Orders. In all four cases Standing Orders were dispensed with and the Bill was able to proceed. I should add that there is no record—at any rate in this century — of Standing Orders not being dispensed with in these circumstances in the case of a hybrid Bill.

Valuable though precedent is as a guide in this unfamiliar area, the House, I am sure, would not wish to proceed except on the basis of fair arrangements for those who might wish to oppose the Bill's effects on them. The Government believe that those whose interests may be affected by the Bill should have an opportunity to marshall their arguments effectively, as they would have if affected by a private Bill.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

Will the Leader of the House confirm that the alternative timetable for petitions suggested in the amendment tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends would still allow the Bill to complete its passage within the 12-month period from then during the next Session of Parliament, and that therefore there would be no constitutional or procedural reason for regarding that as an invalid alternative timetable to allow the Bill to proceed?

Mr. Biffen

I think that it would significantly impede the Bill. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that that is precisely the matter that may come up on the committal procedure on Thursday. Therefore, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will excuse me if I do not pre-empt the debate that will take place then.

In the case of a private Bill, the period for petitioning would be from 4 December to 30 January—about eight weeks. In the case of this Bill, the period would have run from 18 April. The House will note that as part of this motion the Government propose that the latest date by which petitions against the Bill should be required should not be earlier than 17 June. This is to ensure that again there will have been a period of about eight weeks for the petitioners to prepare their case. I believe that this indicates that, far from seeking to stampede this Bill through the House, the Government are concerned that before the closing date the petitioners should have had a time broadly equivalent to that prescribed in Standing Orders.

Furthermore, there can be no likelihood that those who might be affected by the Bill can be unaware of what is planned. Those most concerned will have received direct notice. Those with a more general interest will have seen the advertisements in the newspapers. The general publicity which the plans and their proposed timescale have been accorded since the announcement of 20 January and even earlier has helped to ensure that these will not have been missed. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State has held a number of meetings with organisations concerned, and the Department of Transport has issued a leaflet explaining how to petition against the Bill's effects.

In conclusion, I seek support for this motion on the basis of precedent and of fair provision for petitioners. The arrangement proposed is necessary to allow both the Bill and petitions against it to proceed in an orderly fashion, in accordance with what the House has already approved.

10.45 pm
Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

The House will be grateful to the Lord Privy Seal for his description and elucidation of hybrid Bill procedures. Despite an uncontroversial presentation of his case, the House should be reminded that we are discussing the Government's latest manoeuvre to push through the Channel Tunnel Bill and to curtail the time available to those who oppose it to present their manifold objections and to mobilise the growing concern outside and inside the House at what the project involves.

As the Lord Privy Seal has reminded us, following the publication of the Channel Tunnel Bill the examiners of private Bills were asked to examine the Bill and to ascertain whether it conformed to the standing orders relating to private business. On 28 April the examiners reported: that in the case of the above named Bill … certain Standing Orders relating to private business are applicable thereto and have not been complied with in respect of the time prescribed by the Standing Orders for the giving and publishing of notices and the making of deposits. Since the examiners found that the Bill had not complied with standing orders, the issue was referred to the Standing Orders Committee under the chairmanship of the Chairman of Ways and Means. Its remit was to consider whether in this case the standing orders should be dispensed with, and the Bill allowed to proceed.

Having heard informal evidence from the hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken), the Committee received statements from the Government agents for the Bill and from agents acting for the Dover Harbour Board and Sealink Ltd., supporting a petition against dispensation of the standing orders. The agents presented their case with substantial verbal statements and were cross-examined by the Committee at its hearing on 20 May. At the end, as the House will know from the special report from the Committee, which was available yesterday, the Committee was evenly divided on the question put to it, and the Chairman declined to use his casting vote. Therefore, the Committee concluded: That, in the case of the Channel Tunnel Bill, the Committee declines to make a recommendation as to whether the Standing Orders ought to be dispensed with and believes that this matter ought to be decided by the House. That is an extraordinary event because the last time a Standing Orders Committee failed to reach a decision on a request for the dispensation of standing orders was in 1920.

Having failed to obtain the Committee's consent to the dispensing of the standing orders, the Government have tabled this motion in which the Leader of the House seeks to enlist the support of the Government's whipped majority for dispensation. No one who has read the Committee's special report can fail to understand why that Committee was placed in such difficulties and why it refused its consent. Although the Committee, in its report to the House, does not explain the grounds for its determination, "Erskine May" sets out the principles and general rules by which the Committee is guided. I quote from "Erskine May": broadly speaking the Committee takes into account three questions; first, whether it is in the public interest, apart from that of the promoters, that the Standing Orders should be dispensed with; secondly, whether the promoters have been negligent and, thirdly, to what extent the parties other than the promoters will be adversely affected. According to the general view which it may take of the whole of the circumstances, the Committee will report either that the Standing Orders ought not to be dispensed with or that they ought to be dispensed with and parties be permitted (subject or not subject to any conditions) to proceed with their Bill. From the exchanges that took place in the meeting of the Standing Orders Committee on 20 May, it is reasonably clear that the main concern of the Committee and its members was the public interest and the adverse effects the issue would have on parties other then the promoters. That the Committee should have been faced with those difficulties in coming to a decision is, at root, the major criticism to be made of the Government's handling of the whole issue of the Channel tunnel.

The Channel tunnel is by far the biggest civil engineering work ever contemplated in this country or, we are told, anywhere in Europe. It will have profound effects on the environment, not just in the Cheriton area but in the whole of Kent. It will have major impact on the location of industry and services in the United Kingdom, with a strongly adverse tilt against Scotland, Wales and the northern regions. It will directly affect the Channel ports, the sea ferries and the merchant navy. Its construction raises major questions of safety, security and control.

Yet, in spite of these and other factors, there has been no public inquiry into the project. It is as though the planning legislation of the past 40 years never existed. All that we have had is a report of the Select Committee on Transport and two debates in the House of Commons. The major decisions, both to establish a fixed link across the Channel and to approve the rail link scheme of the Channel Tunnel Group have been taken solely by Ministers and officials in London and Paris.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

The right hon. Gentleman has made a powerful point in saying that Kent will be disadvantaged. As a Kent Member, I entirely agree. Kent will be disadvantaged for a period by the activity involved in building the tunnel. The right hon. Gentleman went on to say that Scotland will be disadvantaged by Britain being more closely linked to Europe. He said that because he is anti-Europe. He has fought against Europe throughout his parliamentary life. He should not bring that into this debate.

Mr. Shore

Whatever my personal and private views — indeed, my public views — are about Europe, the argument in this case is whether the contentions that have been put forward and the fears expressed should be subjected to an independent and impartial inquiry instead of being shoved down the throat of the British Parliament in the way that they have been so far.

Public inquiries are essential to democratic decision-making. That has been accepted by successive Governments since 1945. Public inquiry procedures, which were thought essential for terminal 4 at Heathrow, for Stansted last year, for the PWR reactor at Sizewell, and for hundreds of lesser projects, have been jettisoned for the one project which towers above all others in national significance. Instead of a public inquiry in which national and other interests could be fully tested and instead of a debate on a special development order in which the House could, with full information, give its considered vote, we have had a peremptory exercise of prerogative power—the treaty signed with the Government of France at Canterbury on 12 February. Now the Government are bent upon steamrolling the Bill through the House of Commons.

The motion before us, if passed, will dispense with the standing orders relating to private business, and the Second Reading will proceed on Thursday of this week. The motion goes on to say: That in the event of the Bill being read a second time, the earliest date which, in any motion for the committal of the Bill to a Select Committee, may be specified as the date by which a Petition against the Bill must be presented in order to stand referred to the Committee shall be 17th June. That is the earliest date. But surely that is misleading, for we have on the Order Paper a further motion in the name of the Secretary of State for Transport, which states: that there shall stand referred to the Select Committee any petition against the Bill presented by being deposited in the Private Bill Office at any time not later than 17th June. So 17 June turns out to be both the earliest and the latest date, which is a most remarkable piece of contradictory draftsmanship for two separate motions from two different Ministers.

But the important point is that 17 June lies just 14 days ahead. Just how rapidly the Government hope to push through the consideration of the Bill became plain in the discussion that took place before the Standing Orders Committee on 20 May on the note of the Government agent's timetable. The Government expect the Select Committee to take no more than six weeks to complete its report—before the end of July. They then expect to get it through Standing Committee in the overspill period, by the end of October. It will then of course go through a similar procedure in the House of Lords and, according to the Government agent, receive the Royal Assent in around April 1987.

In our view—and it was the view strongly argued before the Standing Orders Committee—this timetable is disgracefully short. While it is true that the Bill was published in April and Standing Orders relating to newspaper advertisements and notices to owners of land and the deposit of documents were adhered to, we believe that there should be at least six weeks for petitions to be prepared. That is why, next Thursday, we are proposing the amendment that the date should be 17 July and not 17 June.

But more important than that is the whole procedure for hearing petitions by the Select Committee in the case of a hybrid Bill. Under normal procedures—normal, that is, since 14 February 1949—Erskine May says that unless the House has given any instruction or indication to the contrary, the Second Reading considered to remove from the promoters the onus of proving the expediency of the Bill". I stress the words: unless the House has given any instruction or indication to the contrary". That is precisely why we have today tabled an amendment to the motion of the Secretary of State for Transport on Thursday, in the following words: and that in the proceedings before the Select Committee the obligations upon the promoters of the Bill of presentation and proof shall conform to the procedures followed in Private Bills". In short, the onus of proof would, if our amendment was accepted, fall upon the promoters of the Bill and not on the petitioners against it.

Clearly that is a procedural option that the House could, and should insist upon. In support of that quote from the evidence given to the Standing Orders Committee by Mr. Durkin, the agent for the petitioners. It is important to stress, as he did, that he was speaking not only for Dover Harbour Board, and Sealink but also for European Ferries, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the Transport and General Workers Union, the National Union of Seamen and the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers. As Mr. Durkin said: this is a most exceptional, if not unique Hybrid Bill, as the Secretary of State for Transport put it on the 9th December 1985 and is reported in Hansard Column 642: 'the project is most unusual both in its scale and in that it will be financed wholly in the private sector'. Sir this Bill is really more private than public. If it is enacted and put into effect, it will permit one set of private persons, including foreign bankers, to enrich themselves considerably at the expense of other private persons — such as the ferry operators and their employees and those who work at several ports such as Dover and Folkestone. He concluded: in my submission the Bill should be treated, as nearly as possible, as a private Bill and those whose interests would be adversely affected by it should be given as ample an opportunity to object to it as they would in the case of a private Bill. As the House knows, in the case of a private Bill, even when a Second Reading has been secured, the onus of proof remains upon the promotors to persuade the Select Committee that the proposals are in the public interest, and that damage would not be unnecessarily inflicted upon other private interests involved.

The amendment that we have proposed for Thursday would ensure at least a far more searching examination of the proposals for a fixed link than would otherwise be possible. But this is only a second best—a compromise. It would be far better if the House refused to give the Channel Tunnel Bill exemption from the requirements of standing orders. It could be introduced again properly in November. The intervening period could be used for further studies, debate and negotiations in relation to the most important project of this century. I therefore recommend the House to reject the motion before it tonight.

11.1 pm

Mr. Leon Brittan (Richmond, Yorks)

In considering a matter of this kind, there are two dangers. On the one hand there is the danger of being bogged down in procedural niceties, or being lured into them, and on the other hand there is the danger of allowing one's prejudices or very strong views about the central nature of the project or the fundamental existence of the parliamentary procedure to affect one's view of what we are debating tonight.

The essential point that we ought to be debating is whether it is fair to dispense with the normal protection provided by Standing Orders in a matter of this kind. More broadly still, does the procedure as a whole that would flow from what we are being invited to do tonight enable those with anxieties about the problem, or who are opposed to it and wish to put their case, to put that case properly and have their case considered properly?

Generally, the case for proceeding in this matter by way of a hybrid Bill is persuasive and reasonable. I do not think that it is fair to castigate it as steamrolling the project through. It is wrong to say that the Government are not enabling the matter to be considered fairly by proceeding in this way. A procedure of this kind should and can provide ample opportunities for objections to be considered, and as full and ample opportunities as any other means of proceeding. That is so — it is an important and crucial proviso—where there is adequate time for objectors to prepare and put their case. Even the most enthusiastic supporters of the project must concede that many people are passionately opposed to the project, either as a whole or particular aspects of it, on environmental grounds and because of what they believe it will do to certain parts of Kent. Those who take that view must have the proper time to prepare their opposition and present it.

Many of those people live in Folkestone. Nobody has watched over their interests more keenly and been more concerned that Parliament should have a proper opportunity to hear what they have to say than my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). His position within the Government may have prevented him from speaking about these matters on the Floor of the House. As one who has been a member of the Government until comparatively recently, I can assure the House and my hon. and learned Friend's constituents that it has positively assisted him to make sure that what his constituents think and feel about the matter can be properly considered in Government and in Parliament. Indeed, my hon. and learned Friend has been extremely active in the constituency. On this coming Saturday he will be holding an all-day surgery at which he will advise his constituents who wish to put forward objections in a petition on how to do so.

Naturally, I have discussed this matter with my hon. and learned Friend on a number of occasions, and as a result I have come to the conclusion that, although generally the procedure that the Government have worked out is fair, it does not, as at present envisaged, give quite enough time for the individual petitioner to put in his petition. That is why with my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) I have tabled the amendment that we shall be debating more fully on Thursday. I make no apology for referring to it tonight, because the principle in it is central to what we are considering today, which is whether it is fair to proceed as the Government are commending.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Rees) has asked me to show his support for the amendment, as he unfortunately cannot be here today because he is on parliamentary business overseas, and others of my hon. Friends have also shown their support for the approach reflected in the amendment. It adds only a short period to the time for petitions, but I happen to believe, and the support given to me by a number of my hon. Friends who are personally concerned with this matter leads me to take the view that it is a reasonable belief, that that extra time is crucial for the individual petitioner.

There is no doubt that the corporate petitioners—the big boys—have had ample time to consider their case and will be able to put their petitions in the period envisaged by the Government. However, it is not unreasonable to ask for the ordinary petitioner—the individual—that extra time represented by the change from 17 June to 27 June.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, when he winds up the debate, and although the substance of the matter will be debated on Thursday, will be able to show the Government's attitude to my amendment. I know that a number of hon. Members considering today's debate will watch with anxiety for any sign that my hon. Friend feels able to make. If he is able to smile on the amendment and show that the Government will consider it sympathetically, I know that the attitude of many of my hon. Friends towards the procedure that my hon. Friend is proposing will be materially and favourably affected.

I feel that the Government are proceeding in a way that gives an opportunity in principle for the objectors to put their case forward to be considered. However, the time envisaged is not sufficient, and I hope that it will be possible for the Government to agree that the suggested small amount of extra time will not prejudice the decision that they are seeking to make. If they do, that will be seen to be a reasonable concession to those who are asking for the right to come to Parliament to put their point of view as forcefully, as clearly and as effectively as they can.

11.8 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

The right hon. and learned Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Brittan), speaking on behalf of the hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the right hon. and learned Member for Dover (Mr. Rees) and others made a speech that smacked of contrivance. I do not say that critically, but it must be manifest to all those who looked at the Order Paper that between now and Thursday there are three options.

The first is the option suggested by the Leader of the House—that is the starting point of the negotiation—that the end of the period for receiving petitions should be a mere 12 working days from now, on 17 June.

There is the option outlined in the amendment in the name of my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself, which suggests that the appropriate date is 29 July, 54 days, or nearly eight weeks, from the date of Second Reading, if it is granted by this House on Thursday. There was not much time to table this amendment as the Government's motion went down in the last hours before Parliament rose for the late spring recess.

The third option, advocated by the right hon. and learned Member for Richmond, Yorks, suggests that the date should be shifted backwards from 17 June to 27 June. That would provide a period of 22 days from Second Reading, if it is granted on Thursday.

The issues of principle go beyond the issue of specific dates. It is right that we should separate our views about the substantive issue—to be debated on Thursday—and today's debate on the procedure. The Government attitude to consultation is demonstrated by the fact that they are willing to provide for debate on today's motion and, in the expectation that it is approved, two days later set down the motion that the Second Reading be debated. That suggests a somewhat sceptical view about the right of the House to reject the Government's motion today. I recall the Leader of the House's reply to me in business questions just before the House rose when he said that should the House defeat the motion tonight the Government would think again about the timetable for the Second Reading.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

The hon. Gentleman must be under no illusions. If the procedural motion is defeated tonight, the Second Reading will be discharged and cannot be considered again this Session.

Mr. Simon Hughes

The hon. Gentleman is right. I was implying that the Government were generous enough to make that concession only and no more. We would prefer a reasonable intervening period to separate this debate from the Second Reading. The Government accepted that the House has a right, if minded so to do, to reject the Government's motion tonight.

This issue is important procedurally because of the enormity of the substantive issue before the House. The right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) was correct when he said that we are debating what is, in all probability, the biggest civil engineering project ever seen in Europe. The introduction of the Bill in April suggests that the Government are proceeding very hastily. To the people of Kent and many others, that smacks of the steamroller approach. It completely disregards the right of individuals to put their case. The Government rejected the call for a public inquiry. Therefore, the timetable should accommodate the fact that there is to be no public inquiry and to allow the maximum opportunity for those concerned, in accordance with precedents, to make their case.

It is most important that the timetable should allow sufficient time. Our views are clear, and our two amendments dealt with two matters—the timetable and the procedure. Our duty is great. The House is aware that the Standing Orders Committee made no recommendations to the House and was tied in its vote as to what should happen—whether the House should disregard the rules. The rules and precedent are clear. The precedent is cited in the special report of the Committee at page X. paragraph 9, which refers back to the Channel Bill introduced in the 1973–74 Session.

That Bill was read a Second time on 5 December 1973 and petitions against the Bill were ordered to be deposited by 15 January 1974. That was a period of almost six weeks, and the Select Committee which considered the Bill first met on 14 May 1974, which gave the petitioners more than five months in which to deposit their petitions.

If the Government are minded to make concessions, as they were invited so to do by the right hon. and learned Member for Richmond, we suggest that the appropriate period should be in accordance with precedent, and that from Second Reading people should have about eight weeks in which to exercise their rights to present petitions and for them to be considered. If the Government made that concession, and 29 July was the final date, it would provide a perfectly adequate period for consultation and negotiation in accordance with the normal rules and precedence in the House, and it would allow the Bill to be proceeded with—transferring it between one Session and another under the normal rules—debated in this House and the other place during next Session, and be completed in time for the matter to go on to the statute book without risk to the project, but with the great additional advantage that the people of Kent and those who have proper environmental and other anxieties would have had an opportunity to put their case.

This is a unique hybrid Bill, and it is all the more important that a proper timetable be allowed so that people can make their views clear.

The second matter that should concern hon. Members is the way in which the Bill proceeds from now on and the way in which people are allowed to assess the arguments. So far it has been accepted that the Government will present their case, but they have refused to accept that there should be any cross-examination on that case at the beginning. It is practically difficult to allow people to know how best to question, argue against and deal with the Government's view when that view has not been tested and the potential weaknesses in some of their arguments have not been discovered.

It would accord with normal private Bill procedure to provide an opportunity to cross-examine the Government at the beginning, so that not only can their case be heard, but it can be tested before the petitioners have the opportunity to give their evidence. That is especially important because, despite the fact that the Bill was read the First time in April and the newspaper advertisements were placed, there has been considerable delay in providing some information.

The Minister of State, Department of Transport will know that letters have been written by anxious people and organisations to his Department and to the Department of the Environment complaining, for example, that maps were ready for the first time only on 16 May and making it clear that the impact study on Kent will not be ready until a date as yet unspecified. In the 1970s, at least a similar document and the proper environmental assessments were available before the Committee stage on that Bill was due to proceed. Other essential background information is so far unavailable.

The Committee chaired by the Minister of State and including representatives of Kent county council and the district councils of Kent, which meets in private and excludes the press and the public, has been unable to establish its exact role and what effects the consultation process will have, if any, on the result, so people in Kent and beyond are being expected to work in a vacuum because of the speed with which the Government are proceeding with the Bill.

My colleagues and I hope that the Minister will not simply fall for the blandishments of the right hon. and learned Member for Richmond and advocate the compromise solution of principle on behalf of his right hon. and hon. Friends. We hope that he will accept that the precedents should be followed and that the full period of eight weeks should elapse as suggested by my right hon. Friends and myself. At the end of that period there should follow the appropriate period for consultation and negotiation.

Mr. Crouch

I was interested in the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the period for consultation. Has he considered the exact number of days that can be given to the consideration of the private aspects of the Bill by the Select Committee? Is he aware that the Bill can be dealt with not just on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursday mornings and afternoons, but on Monday mornings and afternoons as well?

Mr. Hughes

I am aware that the scope for those considering the Bill, the nine people if the recommendation is accepted, is open ended and that they will have substantial opportunities on many days of the week and, as I understand it, if necessary, thoughout the recess—although there will practical difficulties about that—to take evidence and deal with the Bill.

The most important issue which I hope that the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) will accept, is that, because this is the most substantial Bill of its type, the balance that the House is striving to achieve between the public interest and the fairness to those with a private interest must be achieved. The best test and argument for that would be to follow the precedents and establish a period between now and the rising of the House for the summer recess to allow the matter to be completed in the next Session, as many hon. Members would wish.

I hope that the Government will realise that it is their haste and refusal to accept the anxieties of those who have valid and considerable concerns to present by way of petition to the Committee which is causing difficulty and disrespect. The Government could accommodate people's interests and proceed in accordance with precedent and thus chart a right course for the Bill. We hope that, rather than proceeding without taking into account the concerns that have been properly expressed, they will follow precedent and will accept our advice and permit the proper and maximum period of eight weeks from this week before they proceed to the Committee stage of this nationally important legislation.

11.22 pm
Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

I am opposed to this motion, as it seeks to short change the people of Kent and to deny them the fair play that they have been struggling to achieve ever since the Government launched on this rash and rushed adventure with the Channel tunnel.

The obscure argument tonight about the Standing Orders cloaks a real flesh and blood gut issue, and that is the need for simple justice. I argued the case for the people of Kent before the Standing Orders Committee last month, and I shall argue it again tonight. At that time the case was derided by the enthusiasts of the Channel tunnel as some form of time-wasting device. I hope that those who said that will reconsider and withdraw their remarks.

Obviously the case has serious merit. If it did not, the Standing Orders Committee would not have been deadlocked in a tied vote. In passing, I should like to pay tribute to the Standing Orders Committee for its scrupulous fairness and courtesy in giving me the opportunity to come before it. Incidentally, I make no criticism of the Chairman of Ways and Means for his decision not to use his casting vote. In the circumstances, that was probably the correct thing to do. As a result of that deadlock, the issue now returns to the House and leaves me the task of repeating my plea for justice, which I believe would best be upheld by a strict application of the Standing Orders of the House.

I shall not argue the issues of the Bill—there will be plenty of time for that on Thursday—but before I zero in on the technicalities of the argument about our Standing Orders I want to spend a few seconds on the human fears and anxieties which lie behind such issues as the petitioning dates and the violation of Standing Orders Nos. 4 to 59.

It is now well known that the Channel tunnel is the biggest civil engineering project ever seen in Europe, approximately the equivalent of building three or four London airports in a small and overcrowded corner of east Kent. Only a vague impression can be gained of the enormity of this project from the cold print of 118 pages of the Bill, but the sweeping powers of compulsory purchase. the closure of some 50 footpaths and bridleways and the changing of some 70 roads, the destruction of woodlands and damage to sites of special scientific interest and the massive building programme of £3 billion worth of new railways, motorways, trunk roads, marshalling yards, terminals and tunnels can be seen there. Those schemes look grandiose enough on paper, but they take on the horrific form of a monster to the inhabitants of the small coastal towns and villages where they will hurt most.

Those communities will also be hurt by the permanent job losses that they will suffer. Estimates of the net loss of permanent jobs range from the Government's perhaps optimistic White Paper forecast of 3,000 permanent jobs lost in Dover and Folkestone alone, while at the pessimistic end of the scale the London stockbrokers Phillips and Drew report that some 30,000 to 40,000 jobs will be lost in what they call a bloodbath in the ferry towns; not just the Channel ports, but as far away as Hull, Immingham, Harwich, Felixstowe, Portsmouth and Plymouth.

Whatever the accuracy of those various forecasts, the one thing that is certain is that although there may be financial gains in the project for the big business promoters, many humble individuals and businesses stand to lose from it. There will be loss of jobs, property, business, environment, peace and quiet and quality of life. All the people who will be losers have rights. It is those rights and the fair protection of them by Parliament through our established procedures that are at the heart of the argument tonight about Standing Orders.

Why do so many people fear that their rights are being trampled on? Unfortunately, the Government have now consistently given the impression that they are in some sort of headlong rush to accelerate the Bill through Parliament on a wholly unrealistic and unfair timetable. That impression. despite many warnings, must have been reinforced by this week's parliamentary agenda. We have this late night motion now, followed by a breathtakingly presumptuous assumption of the House's decision this evening, because already the Second Reading debate has been tabled on Thursday, and then we have another late night sitting on the committal motion immediately after that. The Government are certainly in a hurry.

Also in a hurry are the promoters—the consortium. The other day I heard some remarks by the Channel Tunnel Group chairman, Lord Pennock, who, in the "World at One" on 8 May, said: I have 32 banks around the world seeking to lend us £3.5 billion, and if Parliament goes on mucking around like this waiting and waiting it will be a year before the Bill receives the Royal Assent next March. I certainly wouldn't put money into it if I was a Japanese banker or an American banker or a banker in Brussels when I feel that all this mucking about is going on. That attitude says something. It says that the rights of the ordinary citizen are in danger of being crushed by an unholy alliance between greedy foreign business men and impatient Government business managers.

That brings us back to Standing Orders, which, after all, are here fundamentally to preserve rights and which, among other things, set down a timetable to preserve rights; for example, a timetable of dates on which newspaper advertisements must be published in order to give proper notice of people's rights and ability to be able to petition.

To illustrate my point of what has gone wrong, let me ask hon. Members to imagine themselves in the position of a man who lives in my constituency, say in a village such as some of those around Canterbury——

Mr. Crouch

They are nowhere near my hon. Friend's constituency. He should stick to his constituency.

Mr. Aitken

I fear that the disease of irascibility has been passed on from Lord Pennock to my hon Friend. There are villages such as Wingham and Preston in my constituency which are on the edge of Canterbury, and the point that I seek to make if my hon. Friend will contain himself is simply this: imagine somebody living in one of those villages who wishes to petition against the Bill. He fears that his job connected with the ferries in Dover or Ramsgate could be in jeopardy and wishes to petition for certain safeguards to preserve his livelihood. The first date on which an advertisement appeared in his local paper, the "Canterbury Times"——

Mr. Crouch

It is the Kentish Gazette.

Mr. Aitken

It was referred to in the Minister's reply to a question. The advertisement placed in the local Canterbury paper——

Mr. Crouch

It is the Kentish Gazette, which dates back to 1768.

Mr. Aitken

Just about as long ago as people started to argue about this tunnel.

The date on which the advertisement appeared was 28 April. If Standing Orders had been observed, the advertisement would have been placed in December. April 28 is a significant date, because that is the date on which the Examiners ruled that Standing Orders had been violated. That is the date on which I first wrote to the Chairman of Ways and Means complaining that unfair practices had been going on at breakneck speed which denied some of my constituents their rights. On the following day I sought and received a ruling from Mr. Speaker which confirmed that the Standing Orders of the House had been broken. I drew attention then to the Government's own draft timetable, which had been published for local authorities. That timetable said that 2 June was the closing date for petitions, that the Select Committee would begin its hearings on 17 June and would finish them on 24 July.

I ask the House to imagine the feelings of an ordinary person in one of those villages around Canterbury. The first day on which he learns in his local paper how to petition, he simultaneously learns that it will all be over by 25 July and that the House will have dealt with the whole matter. The publication of that timetable caused consternation and confusion in Kent. People were asking questions like: will the Government give us a fair hearing? Will we get adequate time for petitioning? Will the Government stand by the spirit and the letter of their assurances on petitions?

We need to look closely at the assurances given by the Government to the House. The assurances date back to the report of the Select Committee on Transport on the fixed link in, I think, November of last year. The Select Committee concluded that because of its scope and size the only realistic precedent among hybrid Bills for the present Bill was the Channel Tunnel Bill of 1973–74, and it urged the Government to follow the generous ground rules established under the hybrid Bill procedure by Mr. Anthony Crosland, the then Secretary of State for the Environment.

I should like to quote from paragraph 27 of the Select Committee's report. It says: At the beginning of the proceedings on the Channel Tunnel Bill 1974 Counsel for the Secretary of State for the Environment stated that the Secretary of State was 'most anxious that the Petitioners should have all reasonable opportunity to put forward the points which concern them, providing that such points can properly be taken in proceedings of this nature. That being so, the Secretary of State has decided … to take no formal objection to the locus of any of the Petitioners.' The Committee recommends that this precedent be followed, that the fullest possible latitude again be allowed to petitioners and that all those whose petitions conform to the basic requirement of relevancy be allowed to be heard. The former Secretary of State for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), evidently studied both the Select Committee's report and the previous Channel Tunnel Bill example carefully, because he promised that he, too, would uphold the rights of those affected by his Bill by following the precedent of the previous Channel Tunnel Bill. My right hon. Friend said in the House on 9 December 1985: The Select Committee recommended that we should follow the precedent of the 1974 Channel Tunnel Bill. We shall."—[Official Report, 9 December 1985; Vol. 88, c. 645.] He then went on in a column of Hansard to amplify the point that it would be as fair and as generous as possible.

Any citizen reading the words set out in Hansard, and reading them again in the White Paper, where they are amplified still further, would draw three conclusions. First, he would conclude that the Government would lean over backwards to make sure that objectors and petitioners were given all the time and opportunity that a reasonable person would need to prepare and present his case; secondly, that no objection would be made against any bona fide reasonable petition on grounds of locus standi; and thirdly, that the Government would stick scrupulously to the precedents laid down by the previous Channel Tunnel Bill.

What, exactly, were those precedents? First, the previous Bill started its passage through the House at the very beginning of the 1973–74 Session, being introduced on 20 November 1973. All the preliminary matters, such as the arrangements with the tunnel building consortium, the treaty with France and parliamentary approval of the White Paper, had been dealt with in the 1972–73 Session of Parliament after extensive debates in both Houses. An HMSO report on the tunnel's economic and social impact on Kent, known as the Kent impact study, had also been published in April 1973–a document of great assistance to petitioners.

Secondly, the previous Bill kept meticulously to Standing Orders in terms of registration dates, the placing of advertisements, and so on. It was never out of time, nor did it in any way violate standing orders. Thirdly, the previous Bill allowed the public and the people of Kent six weeks of petitioning time between the date of Second Reading, 5 December, and the last date for petitions, 15 January.

The House should note the contrast between the six weeks' petitioning period set as a precedent by the previous Channel Tunnel Bill and the 12-day petitioning period offered by this Bill. In plain language, the previous Bill gave the public and petitioners fair play and a fair hearing. No one from Kent, as far as one can tell from the available records, complained that he was inadequately informed about his rights or that the petitioning period was unfairly short. Today, those general complaints are widespread.

In addition, there are four specific complaints which I think should be brought to the attention of the House tonight, not least because they are good examples of rights which the refusal of a dispensation from Standing Orders could protect.

The Council for the Protection of Rural England, which is concerned, as are many local ramblers associations, about the disappearance of footpaths under the provisions of the Bill, has argued, not only that the petitioning time is too short, but that the text of the Bill is meaningless without accompanying maps. It says that in order to petition against the Bill it must have prints of those maps. It made this point to the Department of Transport many weeks ago, and the Department agreed to supply such maps to petitioners. However, those maps were supplied only on 14 or 15 May, and the Council for the Protection of Rural England asks for adequate time to prepare and submit petitions relevant to those footpath maps, bearing in mind that its starting date for work on those petitions is 14 May.

Secondly, the Thanet district council complains that it cannot petition effectively against the Bill until the Kent impact study has been completed. The need for an impact study has been accepted by the Government, through the findings of the Mitchell committee, headed by the Minister of State. At the time of the previous Channel Tunnel Bill the Kent impact study was published as an HMSO report on 24 April 1973, 10 months before the closing date for petitions, but this time the Government have said that the Kent impact study cannot be ready, even as an initial or interim report, in time for the Select Committee's hearings. The Thanet district council says— and so do others, in my view justifiably—that this is unfair and that it breaks the precedent set by the 1974 Channel Tunnel Bill.

Thirdly, an organisation called ACTS — Against Channel Tunnel Schemes, a group of residents from all parts of east Kent, claiming 20,000 members — complains that it cannot petition effectively because the Mitchell committee and the Channel Tunnel Group keep changing the road routes and other matters from what has been set down in the Bill. To illustrate this point, I quote from the East Kent Mercury of 15 May: Mr. Mitchell agreed that the tunnel project details were changing and that it was not yet known exactly what it would involve. 'You can't complain when changes are made to the plan so that improvements can be made' he said. The road pattern at the Folkestone terminal site could be revised so the road out of the site is nearer to Folkestone. 'We don't know what the final plans will be but this could take the pressure off Newington.' What ACTS, the residents' group, says is that it cannot petition effectively against the road pattern of the Folkestone terminal and other routes if the Mitchell committee announces that those road routes are being changed from what is said in the Bill, but does not give chapter and verse of those changes.

Lastly, many individual petitioners from all over Kent and, for all I know, in other parts of the country, say that they have had difficulty in finding out how to petition. People are not familiar with this procedure. They say that they have been confused— I understand that—by the publicity given to this dispute about Standing Orders and that they still have no clear idea whether the Bill is on, or off, or what the delays will be. These people need more than 12 days in which to get in their petitions. The limiting of petitions from a starting date of 5 June until an ending date of 17 June is an obvious piece of short changing and sharp practice, because it is designed to keep individual petitions down to the bare minimum.

Whether it is these detailed and specific complaints that I have been going on about, or whether it is a more generalised grievance about a headlong rush, my submission is that in order to give petitioners the fair play that Parliament should insist upon, the Channel Tunnel Bill of 1986 must follow exactly the same precedents as the Channel Tunnel Bill of 1973–74. That, after all, is no more and no less than what the former Secretary of State for Transport promised in his speech to the House on 9 December.

The only way to guarantee that those precedents are followed is for the House to refuse to grant the dispensation which the Government are requesting. The effect of that refusal would be to delay the private element in this hybrid Bill for about four months. There would be great benefit for the public and for the reputation of Parliament in such delay.

I have heard only one argument in favour of granting the dispensation — apart from the argument of expediency—which is that the Government could not have avoided breaking Standing Orders because they could not register or advertise the Bill until after signing the treaty with France and reaching agreement with the Channel Tunnel Group. My answer is that that problem could easily have been avoided. It is a problem of the Government's own making.

The Government should never have contemplated their present wholly unrealistic timetable, which has involved announcing the Channel fixed link go-ahead, seeking bidders, evaluating those bids in less than 35 working days, deciding the winner, publishing a White Paper, obtaining parliamentary approval for that White Paper nine days later, signing the treaty with France, introducing a Bill, getting a Second Reading for that Bill, inviting petitions, setting up a Select Committee, and then—if we are to believe the Government's published timetable in draft—completing the Select Committee's hearings, all in less than 12 months could never have been done, and it should not have been attempted. The Government could have followed the precendents of the previous Bill and achieved all the preliminaries in one Session of Parliament and begun the hybrid Bill in the next Session. That should have happened, and that will happen if the House refuses the dispensation.

At the end of the day, the argument about Standing Orders comes down to whether the House thinks the Government have been fair and have honoured the letter, or even the spirit, of their promises to follow the precedents. I am cynical enough to see it as almost inevitable that the unholy alliance of business men and business managers to which I referred should seek to juggle dates to accelerate the Bill for reasons of mercenary expediency or the convenience of the Whips' Office.

There is here a deeper issue of principle on which Parliament as a whole should take a view. Why expose Parliament to the charge of foul play when, for the sake of, say, 28 days of extra petitioning time nobody in Kent or anywhere else could resonably claim that anything untoward or unfair had been done? The petitioners are simply asking, "Please, may we have a little more time? After all, you promised that when you said you would stick to the previous Channel Tunnel Bill precedents. The Standing Orders require it, so please give the individual petitioners more time."

If the Government's majority is used to steamroller the petitioners and defeat their plea for justice, two consequences will flow. First, the petitioners and the people of Kent will be made more angry. About 500 people in the Thanet towns represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, Ncrth (Mr. Gale) and I are now preparing their petitions. They are in an angry mood, and justifiably so. House of Commons Select Committee hearings will become more difficult if angry people complain about being short changed on petitioning or preparation time.

Secondly, if the rush continues, then, as frequently happens when individual rights are unfairly denied, the House of Lords will be invited to play its traditional role as a constitutional umpire. The Lords Select Committee proceedings will be more protracted so that the justice denied to Commons petitioners is given to those petitioners by the Lords, with a fairer petitioning and hearing process.

What the Government think they will gain on the Commons swings by a little sharp practice with the timetable will be lost on the Lords roundabouts as a result of fairer constitutional procedures being adopted in another place. I urge the Government to show some sense and sensitivity. I hope that when replying to the debate the Minister will at least bow to the sensible compromise proposed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Brittan). If not, I urge the House to reject the motion.

11.44 pm
Mr. Stuart Holland (Vauxhall)

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) has referred to the precedents for public inquiries on projects of major national importance such as the Heathrow terminal 4 and Stansted in the field of transport, or Sizewell in nuclear power. I submit that the case for a longer petitioning period and, indeed, the case for public inquiries concerning various aspects of the Bill is important to how we vote in relation to the issue before the Standing Orders Committee.

For example—and we shall be addressing ourselves to such issues on Second Reading, and I appreciate that that will be the pertinent point at which to raise substantive matters—part III, schedule 1, the Bill has a couple of pages and several paragraphs concerning the impact of this project on the environs of Waterloo station and the railway in that area, since the Government have opted for Waterloo as the single terminus for traffic in the London area. The House should seriously consider precisely what has happened in that local area in relation to other public inquiries where this Government, not simply previous Conservative Governments, have allowed public inquiries to take place. For example, in the immediate vicinity of Waterloo, a major struggle was fought by local groups which are having difficulties in knowing how to petition on this Bill and was won by Them over property companies which wanted to develop major office complexes in the area.

It would have been open to a Secretary of State to seek to steam-roller—whether it was the Heron company or Greycoats Commercial Estates — the issue of giving approval and disallowing further public inquiries into this matter. In fact, the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), allowed yet a further public inquiry. The inspector was able to take evidence on a scale concerning the impact on the local environment that simply will not be possible under the petitioning process considered in the timetable for this Bill.

Even allowing for the integrity and the physical stamina of Members, no Standing Committee or Select Committee, whether it worked all night, all day or all week for all the time allotted it, could allow as effective an examination of each main item in the Bill as could public inquiries on the individual items of the Bill. Take, for example, the case that I have just cited of office development versus community housing. Finally, the inspector, having taken evidence at a length and in detail comparable to all the evidence that the Standing or Select Committee is likely to be able to take in relation to all aspects of this Bill, recommended to the Secretary of State that planning permission should be granted either for office development or for community housing. By this time, the arguments put in the public inquiry had registered, improbable though it may seem, on the property companies themselves.

I make a direct analogy with the reference that the hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) has made in relation to banks and financial interests asking themselves whether it is commercially viable for them to invest in a project such as the Channel tunnel. Despite the dismissal of the case by the property companies at the time of the argument that technical progress and automation in the office was reducing the relative demand for office space, dispersal of offices outside London meant that many companies were moving their headquarters and that there would not be a sufficient market for office development in the Waterloo area. By the time that the public inquiry had gone through, the final property company, Greycoats Commercial Estates, decided that the case argued by the community—equivalent in this case to petitioners—was valid, and decided to withdraw its application for the site, despite the fact that the Secretary of State had given planning permission for it to go ahead.

That shows that our democracy is not simply a parliamentary democracy in Parliament. We should be proud of our democracy as a plural democracy reflecting local government and increasingly, through the planning inquiry procedures to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney referred, allowing people in local communities to feel that their voices and their arguments can be heard. The public inquiry process is not simply a ritual of individuals giving evidence to people who will dismiss it. The public inquiry system has an excellent track record.

Mr. Keith Speed (Ashford)

The hon. Gentleman has said that the public inquiry system has an excellent track record. Would he comment on the failure of the public inquiry system in trying to solve the problems of the M3 and the Winchester bypass which have been going on now for 13 years?

Mr. Holland

No doubt the hon. Gentleman will agree that there is a difference between having an excellent track record in hearing the case that people put and seriously considering it, and suiting the aspirations of every individual applicant or group of applicants in each and every case. The point that I am making is that the range of issues raised in the Bill is so wide that the petitioning process cannot adequately meet them. With reference to the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch), I say that not as an opponent of co-operation with Europe because I am an advocate of such co-operation, nor as an opponent of the Channel fixed link, because I support such a rail link.

In opting for Waterloo as a single terminus — I appreciate that this is mainly a Second Reading issue—and then justifying ex post the case, the Government are steamrollering not only the local community but also fundamentally the viability of the project.

One of the issues that we shall want to address in the Second Reading debate is the dispersal of traffic rather than its going to just one terminus in London, so that if one cannot get on a train in Barcelona and go through to Blackpool, at least when one gets on a train in Brussels or in Paris, one can go to all parts north of London.

The petitioning process is not long enough in relation to the parliamentary questions which hon. Members have put in the House and to which they have not obtained adequate answers, and often no answers at all. For example, concerning the impact on the area of Waterloo as the sole terminus, I put down more than 30 parliamentary questions to the former Secretary of State for Transport. In the majority of his answers he simply referred me to British Rail. He refused to answer the points on the Floor of the House.

I have now referred myself to British Rail, and two so-called consultation meetings have taken place with British Rail this week and last week. I and others in the local community have been putting similar questions. What has happened is interesting. The Minister could not answer the questions and British Rail cannot answer them either. For example, a Mr. Malcolm Southgate, whom I in no way wish to malign because he is doing the best possible job granted that he has no answers to give to most of the questions, and who is the Southern region manager responsible for the Channel fixed link traffic in the whole of the south-east, said earlier this evening at a so-called public consultation that he does not believe that the relative pros and cons of the project and its impact have yet been weighed up as they will affect Waterloo.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Order. It is difficult to relate the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the procedural motion. They would be more appropriate to the Second Reading of the Bill on Thursday.

Mr. Holland

I submit that they are directly relevant, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because the very persons who were with me at the consultation are those who wish to petition on the Bill. I take directly the point made by the hon. Member for Thanet, South that they do not know as yet on what proposals they are petitioning in the first place.

Just as the hon. Member for Thanet, South has said that road systems in Kent are being changed during the process of the Bill so that protesters do not know whether they should be mobilising their protests against route A versus route B, similarly in the case of Waterloo and its so-called consultation process we are getting changing answers from week to week from British Rail management, to whom the Minister referred me as the Member representing that area.

This relates substantively to petitioning, because where does responsibility lie? The project is changing. For example, last week, in the consultation process, we were told nothing about planned dispersal of traffic. This week we are told that the planned dispersal of traffic is to be great. One of my constituents said tonight that he does not know whether he should be petitioning against the use of Waterloo as the exclusive terminal or outlet for traffic. In one evening British Rail has simply declared that it will disperse a lot of traffic. It anticipates dispersing about I million passengers via Ashford and several million passengers to all parts north via other routes. It is not clear to my constituent, as a potential petitioner, how much traffic will pass through Waterloo in the first place. My constituents are in difficulty in addressing the issues because the Bill is a moving target. They have no faith in the current procedural process.

The Minister will not answer my questions but refers me to British Rail. On behalf of my constituents I put the issues to British Rail. Again the ill-fated Mr. Southgate from British Rail said tonight that he is sure that the House of Commons will ensure that all the relevant facts will be brought out fully, with a very full and thorough examination of the points made by those who want to raise them—in other words, petitioners.

Where does the responsibility lie? Can the House really be satisfied that the kind of issues which individuals or groups wish to raise — in fact it would be groups because individuals are likely to be ruled out of the petitioning process—will be adequately heard, far less met, by the petitioning procedure? If hon. Members are honest with themselves, they will be frank and say that the petitioning procedure is inadequate.

On Second Reading various amendments to the Bill will be tabled by my right hon. Friends and myself. However, petitioning is not a serious process of providing due remedy for grievances in the sense of enabling groups or individuals to put their case, and I hope that the House will consider that when it votes tonight.

11.58 pm
Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

I should like to comment on two of the arguments presented tonight. The first, to which I shall return, is that of my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken), which has been consistent throughout the discussion. The second is the charade presented by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). Having been so well represented by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the electorate of Folkestone will not be taken in by the Liberal party's Johnny-come-lately attempt to jump on the bandwagon any more than the electorates of Dover or Thanet are likely to be beguiled by the machinations of a party, the Euro manifesto of which wedded itself firmly to the Channel tunnel project. That is the case unless the so-called alliance would now like to say that it is opposed to the Channel tunnel project in its entirety, as some Conservative Members are. I hope that that point will be taken by the House and by those who are genuinely and seriously affected in north-east and east Kent.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gale

The hon. Gentleman has had a great deal of time to make his point and I should like to pursue my argument.

Mr. Hughes

There has never been any doubt that my colleagues have always been in favour of a Channel fixed link—a rail-only fixed link and a proper consultation process about how that should be achieved.

Mr. Gale

I am grateful for that clarification and I trust that the alliance's commitment to the Channel tunnel project will appear prominently in the Folkestone press. As there are no names from the other half of the so-called alliance to the amendments I assume that they are, as usual, reserving their position firmly on the fence.

Many of my constituents are passionately concerned about the effects of the project will have on their lives and livelihood. I live in a north-east Kent village and I can confirm that my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South accurately and admirably represented the views of the people living there. Those people and many of my constituents will wish to make their extremely strong views forcefully known through the procedures that this House is expected to afford them. They look to the House to protect their rights. Many of them have already been further angered unnecessarily by what they regard as gerrymandering of the proceedings and in the knowledge that a road network which they have sought to have improved for many years has been neglected while billions are to be spent elsewhere. Opposition Members refer to road systems being changed daily, and that is true. Unhappily, the one road system in north-east Kent that needs to be changed to a dual carriageway is being entirely neglected to such an extent that Kent county council approved a single carriageway footbridge over it.

I do not intend to rehearse the arguments that we shall raise at great length on Thursday night, but my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Brittan) and my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South have tabled for Thursday night an amendment seeking to give the people of north-east Kent a proper opportunity to use procedures in which they are in no way well versed, which will take them time and for which they must be granted time.

It has already been said that the time granted appears to be not 12 days but one day because the earliest date on which petitions may be deposited is also the latest date, given that the motion before the House states that the earliest date on which motions may be deposited is 17 June and the motion to be tabled on Thursday indicates that that is the last day on which motions may be deposited. Whether or not that is the case, it is clear that my constituents and those of my hon. Friend must have proper time in which to prepare and lodge their cases.

As this is a private Bill we look to the Leader of the House to protect not only the interests of the Back Benches but of ordinary petitioners. do not believe that Thursday is sufficiently early for that commitment to be given. It must be given to the House tonight.

12.5 am

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

I have been accused by my dear colleague my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) of being irascible. The whole question of linking Britain to Europe is so profound and has been considered for so many years that one can get a little irascible when hon. Members, members of the public and even one's constituents, dig in their feet against Britain linking itself to Europe and trying to go forward to another century. That is what makes me irascible.

I do not want to trespass on the speech which I shall make not at some length, but at great length, on Thursday night. However, I am concerned at the impossibility of British citizens and people such as parliamentarians, politicians, Ministers and Back Benchers being able to make up their minds about anything. I am also concerned at how hon. Members can make up their minds and how, in a parliamentary democracy, people can be heard. I have listened to the speeches that have been made tonight. All hon. Members referred to the need for people to be heard and for sufficient time to be given so that they can be heard. I respect everything that hon. Members have said.

The reason for my irascibility against the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore), who led for the Opposition, is that I do not believe his motivation. His motivation is anti-Europe. I respect the right hon. Gentleman. I have listened to him in the past say, passionately, that we should have nothing to do with Europe. I happen to like the right hon. Gentleman, but he is passionately against Europe. All hon. Members differ in their views from time to time, but we know that the right hon. Gentleman is passionately against Britain being linked to Europe. I believe that, because of his passion that Britain should not be linked to Europe, he is seeking to trip up the Government. That does not apply to other hon. Members. It certainly does not apply to the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes).

I could not help feeling, as the hon. Member spoke frequently about defending the interests of the people of Kent, that quite a few hon. Members from Kent could have done just as well. In a way, he was himself tripped up by my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale), who said that he appeared to be deserting his party a little by suggesting that he would want to trip up the Government tonight. His party is wholeheartedly in favour of the tunnel and the fixed link, and wholeheartedly supports my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) who, occasionally, must represent his constituents with a silent voice.

Mr. Robert Hughes

I remind the hon. Gentleman of the debate we had on the White Paper. At one stage the Liberals argued vigorously in favour of a public inquiry and, at the same time, the leader of the Liberal party said, in Kent, that he did not believe that a public inquiry was feasible.

Mr. Crouch

In some respects, everything that is said about the Liberal party is so liberal these days that I do not think anyone can understand just where it stands on some issues. It is digging up paving stones, and is trying to make more pavement policies out of them. That was how the speech tonight by the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney struck me.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South was right when he spoke of Lord Pennock, who is now the chairman of Euro-Tunnel, who complained of the prospect of Parliament mucking about with the Bill by wasting time listening to complaints. He had to get on with getting the finance arranged and satisfying the engineers, the planners, the draughtsmen, and so on. He felt that if we debated the matter we might delay all that activity and might even frustrate it by preventing him getting the money. He was entirely wrong to suggest that Parliament mucks about when it considers problems and tries to represent the interests of its Members' constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South and I agree absolutely on that. We are not mucking about tonight. and we shall not be mucking about when we consider the Bill in Committee as a hybrid Bill, and look at both the private and public aspects of it.

I am one of those who believe it necessary to have a fixed link, but that is not our concern tonight. Our concern is that there should be fair play, and that the voices of individuals and corporate bodies should be heard if they feel that their interests are jeopardised by this major project. After all, it is agreed that it is the greatest engineering project of the century. In many ways it is comparable to the great development of the railways that took place during the last century. Brunel, for example, spent 14 days in Committee arguing his case for building a railway to Bristol.

In those days the Private Bill Office was a vast series of offices, because there was so much private legislation initiating those great achievements of the 19th century. We shall now do a great thing this century, but we must also do something to protect individuals who feel disadvantaged. Many of my constituents feel that I have let them down because I am in favour of Europe. Perhaps in the short term I have let them down. After all, I will bring bulldozers to Kent to develop the road, dig the tunnel and carry away the soil. As we know from when the M25 was connected to the M4, that is not a pleasant sight. It took several years to make that connection, and it was just the connection of two motorways. The Channel tunnel is a much bigger project.

Of course people will be disadvantaged financially, environmentally, socially and even economically. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Brittan) argued persuasively and offered the Government a very reasonable compromise. As one who has supported the Government through thick and thin on this issue, and who does not have the support of his colleagues from Kent, I must say that my right hon. and learned Friend's compromise would be much fairer to those who want to be heard. Only a little more time is involved. My right hon. and learned Friend has not tried to trip up the Government tonight. In a way, who could blame him if he had tried. However, he has been very reasonable and fair, and has asked for just a little more time.

Back Benchers have a duty not just to their constituents but to Parliament and to the public. We should ask the Government to take into account the history not only of great engineering projects but of Parliament in defence of people's rights. They should listen to us when we say that we want more time, and that they are rushing the Bill a bit. Even if they do not think that they are rushing it, the people of Kent think that they are. Consequently, they must provide a little more time. If they do so, they may win the hearts or even the minds of those in Kent who are so strongly opposed to the idea. I do not believe that the Government would then jeopardise their intention to go ahead with the project.

12.13 am
Mr. Keith Speed (Ashford)

I agreed with just about everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) said. This issue goes to the heart of the sensitivities of people in Kent, around Waterloo, and in other parts of the country. Whatever our views may be about the link—and my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) has never disguised his wholehearted opposition to it—we are determined that individuals, and, say, small parish councils, who fear that their property or livelihood may be affected, should be all important at this sensitive stage.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South made a powerful speech, part of which I agreed with and part of which I did not. He prayed in aid the procedures that we went through about 13 years ago on the previous Channel Tunnel Bill. Modesty forbids me from saying that I was the Minister at that time and introduced the Bill on Second Reading. However, I must remind my hon. Friend that his analogy with the present Government is not fair.

A key part of that scheme, which would have gone down like a lead balloon if it had been included in these proposals, was the high-speed rail link. It was not part of that Bill. The issue was not even addressed on Second Reading, as I remember very well because I moved the Second Reading. I do not consider that we are comparing like with like.

Having said that, I should declare an interest as a director of the Folkestone water company, which would be affected by the link. The company is likely to be petitioning on the Bill. That brings me to the heart of my brief remarks. I do not think I am revealing any secrets by saying that a board meeting last week prepared the company to petition and to instruct parliamentary counsel. The company will be going ahead, as a successful small to medium-sized company can do.

Frankly, I am not too bothered about the Sealinks, the Dover Harbour boards, the Folkestone water companies and corporations of that kind. I am very concerned about individuals, not all of whom are from Thanet, with the greatest respect. They are in Folkestone, Ashford and Canterbury, Sevenoaks and other parts of Kent, and in London too, around Waterloo station, and no doubt in other parts as well. I am concerned about the people for whom even the thought of these legal terms and the question of petitioning is not clear.

I had a telephone call from a constituent only a few days ago and he and I were at cross purposes because he was thinking in terms of the petition that is presented to Parliament in the normal way. I had to explain to him that we were not talking about that. These are complicated matters. This underlines the importance of being not just generous but over-generous in the time that we give individuals for petitioning when the Bill receives its Second Reading on Thursday, as no doubt it will.

Certainly my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Brittan) gave an excellent and clear exposition of the real and personal issues that face us in this debate. His amendment, which I understand will be called two days hence, goes to the heart of the matter. The amendment stands in his name and in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South. I have added my name today.

I would go a little bit further than 27 June. It would be a sign of the Government's sensitivity and good intentions if the Minister could assure the House tonight that they would certainly go at least as far as that date, and that their approach to petitioners, especially parish councils, individuals and those whom I call the small people, in the best sense of that word, would be, so far as it is in their power—clearly some of the power will rest with the Select Committees—sensitive and generous in relation to time, powers or information. We owe our constituents no less than that. I think that the Government would emerge with considerable credit if they were to approach the matter in that light.

12.19 am
Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)

I endorse and welcome all that has been said about giving petitioners more time, but my objection to the motion before us tonight is much more fundamental than that. "Erskine May" tells us, under the heading of "Petitions for Bills deposited after time" at page 937 that petitions should accordingly be confined to matters of urgency". I understand that a Channel tunnel project was debated first in about 1750 and that projects of one sort and another have been attempted for at least a century.

I cannot understand why suddenly, in June 1986, this has become such a matter of urgency that the House should be asked to set aside Standing Orders, unless there are perhaps matters of which we are not aware—chat the finances are so precarious and the political situation so delicate that it is vital that we introduce the Bill at this stage.

Mr. Bernard Conlan (Gateshead, East)

The hon. Gentleman must recognise that a treaty was signed between the French and the British—that is the urgency.

Mr. Moate

I shall come to those matters soon. However, in terms of the procedures of the House, setting aside Standing Orders is a step that no one would take lightly—I am sure that the House will not—or without due consideration.

Some feel passionately in favour of the Channel tunnel project. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) put it much more as a matter of ideology than as a matter of transport communications. I respect his position, but I hope that he and every other proponent of this measure will recognise that all those people who are directly affected by the measure, particularly those in Kent who face the harsh reality of the construction works, as opposed to those elsewhere in the United Kingdom who see this as a political ideal, must be afforded every opportunity to petition and to present their case. What are a few weeks or months weighed against one's home, livelihood or farm land?

I hope that we shall all be generous, whatever our view—we are all a little schizophrenic on such a project—and that we shall allow ample time for debates, inquiries and cross-examination. I also hope that, in debating procedures as we are tonight, we recognise that, whatever the merits of the proposition, in setting aside the Standing Orders, we are discussing something of fundamental importance in our constitution.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House clearly distinguished between the private and public elements of the hybrid Bill. The fact that Standing Orders lay down that private Bills should be Introduced by 27 November is not just some quirk of some bureaucrat who drew up the rules. They are there for a purpose. The privilege of introducing a private Bill should be conceded carefully by the House. The position in the queue is of great importance. We should not lightly accord any individual or private corporation privileges, especially the privileges of private legislation, nor lightly allow them to dispense with Standing Orders and gain those privileges much later in the Session.

As regards the private element in the Bill, we are now proposing to do that. By the nature of the legislation we are conferring on private individuals and corporations the right to substantial profits, and they will make those profits — rightly of wrongly — at the expense of individuals whose lands might be compulsorily purchased. We have to consider carefully how we set aside private legislation procedures. They are there for a purpose.

One of the great privileges of private legislation is that it can overturn one of the fundamental defences of opposition, as it can in practice, be carried over to the next Session. That is at the heart of the matter here, because that is one thing that cannot be done with a public Bill. In this respect, we have here a major act of public policy. Thus, as well as being a major private Bill, it is a major public Bill, introduced by the Government. By using the hybrid procedure, the Government are doing something that the House would not normally allow them to do. A major Government Bill introduced so late in the Session would not normally have a chance of getting through in the time available.

If the House passes the resolution, which I suspect that it will, it will be saying to the Government, "We shall allow you to suspend the rule and carrying over the legislation into the next Session." That is denying the House one of the fundamental weapons of opposition. It is a virtually open-ended procedure which allows the Government to get their legislation through regardless of the weapon of time which is usually available to the House. The Government are using a private hybrid Bill to achieve their public ends. This is a fundamental issue. I am not saying that it is wrong. It has been done before, but it is a serious matter.

Why is it so important that we should set aside procedures in June because the Government wish to do it? The hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Mr. Conlan) said that it is because we have signed a treaty with France. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South that the Government created that predicament. I believe that it is more important that the investigative procedure and the public inquiry procedure should be upheld than that an act of the Executive should be taken for granted by the Legislature. I do not believe that the treaty is of paramount importance.

My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury automatically assumes that anyone who opposed joining the Common Market is against links with Europe, and I wish to put that in perspective. This is not an ideological matter but a matter concerning transport links. There are hundreds of links with Europe, maritime links and they are very efficient.

Mr. Crouch


Mr. Moate

My hon. Friend may say no, but I think that he will find that there are efficient and substantial maritime links.

It is proposed that we should engage upon a major building project which will have a dramatic effect upon Kent and other parts of the United Kingdom. Normally there would be extensive public inquiry procedures which would allow individuals to put their cases. That inquiry procedure has been set aside. I can fully understand why. I can well imagine the supporters of the project saying that it would not see the light of day if a long public inquiry was initiated. That does not make it right but I can understand the reasons.

The fact that we have the hybrid Bill procedure and the Select Committee procedure is not due to the generosity of the Government—they had no choice. It is not up to the Government to lay down the timetable, as they have sought to do, for the Select Committee. The House should be concerned that the Government are trying to suggest how the Select Committee should conduct its affairs. Once that Select Committee has been appointed I trust that, as worthy Members of the House, they will not be dictated to by the Government.

The idea that the matter can be dealt with in a few weeks is unacceptable. I do not know how the Chairman will be selected and it will not be an enviable task. I can recall a Committee which I chaired which dealt with a crematorium. That issue alone took 23 sittings, over a period of some months. If an issue of that nature can take that long, I suspect that more than a few weeks will be spent on the Channel tunnel.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)

It is ludicrous.

Mr. Moate

I suspect that that view was shared by some of the members of that Committee.

Given the size of this project and the rules of the House, I hope that the Select Commitee appointed will be jealous of its rights. I hope that it makes sure that all the petitioners are given an adequate hearing. The matter should not be rushed. It will be discussed in the next Session and beyond, and frankly, the promoters of the scheme must accept that. There are many people in Kent and elsewhere who wish to petition and they must be given that right. I would prefer this motion to be withdrawn and the legislation introduced at the beginning of the next Session. Thus the legislation could be taken in a proper way. The Government are attaching an urgency to the matter that could deny many potential petitioners the right to be heard. One cannot tell whether the project will go through; the track record is not encouraging for the Bill's supporters. I suspect, judging from experience, that we shall not see a Channel tunnel in our lifetime — [HoN. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] I suspect that that is so. One need only consider the precedents. They have all failed so far, and I suspect that this one will, too.

What is more important is that the Government should be seen to respect the rights of the people who are affected by the project. That should have priority, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State will at least concede the point about providing more time for petitions. However, I should much prefer the motion to be defeated tonight or withdrawn.

12.30 am
Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks)

The hour is late and I shall not detain the House for long. The common theme addressed to Ministers in the debate so far, whether by those who prophesy doom and gloom for the project. those who wish the procedures of the House to delay the Bill for some time or those of us who support the fixed link, is, "More time, gentlemen, please." We want more time on behalf of our constituents who may not have the clout to deal with the big battalions of Government at the pace that Ministers have, unfortunately, given the impression they wish to follow.

I support the urgency with which the Government have tackled the development of the fixed link, and I said that in welcoming the statement made in the House on the day when the treaty was signed. Britain can no longer go through the extraordinarily tortuous and long-drawn-out proceedings of public inquiries on such international projects, but we must consult those who will be most directly affected by the building of the fixed link, and possibly affected negatively by it, for all the positive benefits that it will bring to the nation. People in Kent will be adversely affected in many cases, although there will be benefits, too. Their position can be safeguarded by ensuring that full time and opportunity are given, especially to the small man, to gather together his forces, to get hold of the difficult process of handling parliamentary procedure and to bring those petitions to Parliament, which, as many hon. Members have said, is the guardian of people's right to be heard.

My support for the Channel tunnel fixed link will continue to depend on my being assured by Ministers—I hope that the assurance will be repeated tonight—that adequate time will be given. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State with responsibility for the Channel Tunnel Bill, who has already become closely involved with councillors in Kent, will assure us that he will be responsive to the pleas made by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

12.34 am
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Some of the speeches tonight have added to the confusion that has already been spread by many newspapers about the complexity of the procedures through which our petitioners must go. With many hon. Members, I have made some inquiries, and, like my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate), I believe that it is important to remember the following points.

The first is that no Hybrid Bill Committee has ever been instructed by the Government or by any one else as to when to complete its consideration. It would be improper for that to be attempted. Secondly, it is for the Committee to determine whom to hear, when to hear them and where to hear them. I understand that the Committee will choose, for example, whether it will be for its convenience and that of its petitioners to go to Kent to meet groups of petitioners. The third matter about which it is most important to reassure my constituents and others is that the Committee can allow petitioners to state the heads under which they will present the petition, but will give them time to address the details under those heads. That will set at rest some of the anxieties that have been engendered by the information that the Government from time to time change the routes of roads. It appears to be enough for the petitioners to say that they intend to raise the matter of a route, and if that route is changed between the entry of the petition and the hearing of the petition, it will be for the Committee to decide whether to allow them to address themselves to that route.

All these points make it clear that the Government cannot and should not have control over the timetable. I must tell my hon. Friend the Minister of State that I join many of my hon. Friends tonight in stating that in presentation and in practice it is unnecessarily clumsy to have shortened to this extent the time in which petitions may be entertained when we have a procedure stretching ahead of us the end of which we cannot foresee. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will tonight give the reassurance that many of us have sought.

12.37 am
Mr. Bernard Conlan (Gateshead, East)

We are not discussing the priciples of the Bill. That will come later in the week. We are now discussing whether the procedures of the House shall be so determined as to enable the petitioners to have sufficient time to petition against the Bill.

I support the construction of the fixed Channel link. However, I am not too sure that sufficient time is being given to ordinary people to petition against the Bill. Sealink and others will have briefed their counsel and they will have sufficient resources. They will know precisely what they ought to do to petition against the Bill to protect their vested interests. I am not too sure that the ordinary people, whose houses and environment will be vitally affected by the Bill are able sufficiently to understand the procedures under which they should advance their interests. I believe that a strong case has been fully presented by the hon. Members who represent Kent constituencies. The petitioners should have more time than is envisaged by the Government.

As I understand it, the time for petitioning will be very restricted indeed. That is unfair and unjust. As I argued in the Standing Orders Committee only a couple of weeks ago, there should be an extended period in which the petitioners can argue against the principles of the Brill, which they think affects their vital interests.

It might be too late to argue this, but I would ask the Minister tonight to say, as the Members representing Kent have been arguing, that petitioners must have an extended period in which to petition against the principles of the Bill.

12.40 am
Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Like almost every hon. Member who has spoken tonight, it is not my intention to delay the House for long. We have had from almost hon. Member who has spoken tonight, except, I think, the first three, the promise that speeches on Thursday night after 10 o'clock will be somewhat longer. That is a taste of what is to come. I am not sure whether they were threats or the casting of a fly delicately in the water in the hope that the Minister would take it and concede some of the amendments to the committal motion.

The argument has to some extent hinged round whether the date for petitions to be submitted is sufficient to allow people to put their petitions and to be ready for them, and so on. However, I want to address myself to one or two other points. First, "Erskine May" is clear that if this procedural motion is not carried tonight, under the Standing Orders the hybrid Bill is automatically discharged and cannot be resubmitted in this Session. It would then have to be resubmitted with or without changes at the beginning of the next Session. That is the case unless the Government are so determined to push the Bill through quickly that they interfere with those basic Standing Orders. Parliament, having a will of its own, is perfectly entitled to set aside the Standing Orders if it so desires. I do not think that the Government would go to such extraordinary lengths, but that is a possibility.

If the Government had taken our advice in December last year and had a public inquiry, the genuine, passionate and articulately expressed concerns of those hon. Members from Kent, who have mainly spoken tonight from the Conservative Benches, would have been met in full. There would have been plenty of time for everyone to put their case, without unnecessarily protracting matters, to make sure that people had a clear idea of where they were going. The wishes and desires of hon. Members from Kent would have been properly accommodated had a public inquiry been granted.

The Government are suffering from what I call the 140 syndrome. They genuinely believe that because they have a majority of 140 they do not have to think through their policy or its consequences or take any account of the procedures of the House of Commons. It is a pity that the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) has gone on to other things. I was going to use the word "decamped", but having been transferred by the Prime Minister is perhaps not decamping. However, the right hon. Gentleman is responsible for the difficulty in which we now find ourselves. If he was not negligent, he must have known right from the beginning that the Standing Orders could not be complied with. We have had two full debates on this matter. As the report of the Standing Orders Committee makes clear, Mr. Gamon for the promoters pointed out that on several occasions in the debate on the White Paper the Secretary of State stated his intention to bring forward a hybrid Bill early in the year. I sat through the whole of these two debates and read the White Paper carefully, and at no time did the then Secretary of State ever say, "Of course, in order for this procedure to be carried out, we, the Government, draw attention to the fact that we cannot meet standing orders and will have to ask the Standing Orders Committee to give this concession." It would have been far better for that to be done in an open way rather than leaving it to the examiners to certify that the Bill was out of time and then to send the matter to the Standing Orders Committee.

There was some surprise and even irritation that the Standing Orders Committee was finding it difficult to come to a decision. The Committee was put in an extremely invidious position. I agree with the Leader of the House that this is almost a unique Bill. It is certainly a Bill of great importance and will have a much wider impact on the public and on our economy than probably any other private or perhaps even public Bill introduced this century. The Government are taking a momentous decision and they ought to play the game properly in terms of the time scale and the standing orders.

It is not just the dates on which some mechanical processes have to take place according to standing orders that are important. The amount of time people have to understand what is proposed for their areas is also important. A number of hon. Members from Kent and my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxall (Mr. Holland) made the point about how difficult it is to get information, even now after the hybrid Bill has been published. The matter is about a period of discussion, consultation and of knowing what is before us. I remind the House that it was only on 20 January this year that the successful promoter was named. We seem to have forgotten it was a competition among promoters. We have known only since January exactly what scheme was chosen. I shall not repeat at any length the doubts expressed in the debate that the assessment of each of the bids was carried out in an extremely short time. Everyone concerned has had this timetable compressed and I do not know why such a timetable has been brought forward for the commencement of the work.

The hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) spoke about the tetchiness of Lord Pennock. I do not propose to go into that or to go into the principle of the matter. We should remember that we are speaking not of a project that is expected to return its capital cost in a short time, but about one that is expected to draw its revenue, its capital return and its profit over the period of 50 years. I find it inconceivable that a period of six months can really affect the viability of a project involving some 32 banks worldwide. That argument does not stand up.

The Government have got themselves into this mess and, whether they like it or not, they are being portrayed as riding roughshod over people's opinions and driving an important matter through at short notice. How did the Government get themselves in this mess? We can all speculate on that question, but I simply wonder whether the Prime Minister in her discussions with President Mitterrand got carried away or was seduced by his Gallic charm, and that is why we got this timetable of completion within 12 months. The Government have made a virtue out of this being private venture capital. I shall return to that later because to some extent this debate is paling into the committal motion, and I do not want to expose all the shots in my locker. I am sure no other hon. Members wants to do that either.

The Government ought to have given a reasonable period for discussions. There was no need for them to suspend standing orders. They could quite properly have allowed decent planning and consultation and could have brought in the Bill next November. There would have been widespread if not total approval at that later stage for trying to set fairly tight mechanical deadlines. I hope the House will not approve this motion.

12.50 am
The Minister of State, Department of Transport (Mr. David Mitchell)

My right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal, in opening this debate, set out, with his customary clarity, the parliamentary practice on the application to hybrid Bills of Standing Orders on private business. The precedents of this House on the matter are clear enough. No hybrid Bill has been refused dispensation on the ground of being late, while many have been granted dispensation in these circumstances. But the key question before the House tonight is whether the introduction of this Bill late in the Session has put petitioners at any significant disadvantage.

I ask the House to compare the normal pattern for a Bill announced in November with the Channel Tunnel Bill on this occasion. If we take the normal pattern, as in Standing Orders, promoters file for their petition by 27 November. That means that they have then announced what they are about. They deposit the Bill by 4 December, which is one week later. Promoters notify the affected parties directly in newspaper advertisements by 11 December. That is one week later. Petitioners must present their petitions by 30 January, which is eight weeks after 4 December.

In this case we announced the Bill on 20 January. We published the White Paper on 4 February and in it we stated the intention to legislate this spring. We deposited the Bill on 18 April, just over 12 weeks later, and the promoters, our parliamentary agents, notified the affected parties within days—all complete under a week—with newspaper advertisements by 27 April.

If we compare the situation under the normal procedure — from an announcement to the close of a petition period, nine weeks, and from the notification of advertisements a period of eight weeks—in this case there were 21 weeks from the announcement to the time of petitions closing, and 8½ weeks instead of eight weeks for the period after the advertisements had been placed. Therefore, I believe that the House, looking at it dispassionately, will see that no petitioner has been disadvantaged by the proposed proceedings, and the big petitioners certainly have had ample time, since they knew from the end of last year that they should start to get ready with their major petitions.

A number of hon. Members, in particular the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken), referred to the 1973–74 precedent. They are correct in saying that the House decided on that occasion that the closing date for petitions should be six weeks from Second Reading. That allowed petitioners eight weeks from the date of introduction of the Bill in which to lodge their petitions — rather less time than the minimum period specified in the motion that has been debated tonight.

The fact that the Select Committee did not meet until May on that occasion was due to an intervening general election. I am sure that the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey and my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South would not want that to be taken into account on this occasion.

Companies that have petitioned against dispensations of course would prefer there to he delay. If possible, they would like the delay to be irreparable. But it will not be lost on the House that the two companies that have petitioned for delay in this case are commercial competitors of any fixed link. But what about the others? What about the landowners in the area who would like the uncertainty to he cleared up? What about the unemployed who would like the orders to go to engineering industries — indeed, to Thanet? Some of the large number of unemployed people in that area would like these jobs to go to that area.

I shall write to my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) about the earliest and latest dates, but I am able to reassure him that the position is not as he believes it to be. As for the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South about maps, detailed plans showing all relevant features, including, for example, footpath closures, were available for public inspection at the offices of the county council, the district councils and certain parish councils on 18 April, one day after the introduction of the Bill. I hope that that is thought to be reasonable.

The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey wants the Government to state their case to the Select Committee before the hearings begin. We shall be stating our case in the Second Reading debate on Thursday. That will be the occasion for the major presentation of the case, and it will be the major opportunity for the highest tribunal in the land to consider the principle of the Bill. In addition, a statement will be made at the commencement of the Select Committee's proceedings.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South complained about difficulties for petitions. It must be almost unique for a Government to produce a leaflet telling people how to make their voices heard and how to mount a campaign against the Government's proposals. Those leaflets have been circulated widely throughout the relevant parts of Kent.

Some of my hon. Friends complained about changes in the layout of the terminal. If, having heard the views of local people, the promoters and the Government did nothing, there would of course, he complaints. Having made the changes that have been sought, there can hardly be complaints on that score.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Speed) spoke of little people and several others, including my hon. Friends the Members for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) and for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson), expressed interest in the amendment down for Thursday's business in the names of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Brittan) and my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South. That has been attributed to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry—and I have never known a Member to be more effective in representing his constituents without actually speaking in the Chamber. I cannot anticipate Mr. Speaker's selection of amendments for Thursday, but I have sympathy with my hon. Friends' views and I see the merit of their approach. I hope that, with that assurance, the House will approve the motion.

Question put:—

The House divided: Ayes 283, Noes 87.

Division No. 202] [1 am
Adley, Robert Burt, Alistair
Amess, David Butcher, John
Ancram, Michael Butler, Rt Hon Sir Adam
Arnold, Tom Butterfill, John
Ashby, David Carlisle, John (Luton N)
Aspinwall, Jack Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Atkins, Rt Hon Sir H. Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (W'ton S)
Atkins, Robert (South Ribble) Cash, William
Atkinson, David (B'm'th E) Channon, Rt Hon Paul
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N) Chope, Christopher
Baldry, Tony Churchill, W. S.
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Batiste, Spencer Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Colvin, Michael
Bellingham, Henry Conway, Derek
Bendall, Vivian Coombs, Simon
Benyon, William Cope, John
Best, Keith Couchman, James
Bevan, David Gilroy Cranborne, Viscount
Biffen, Rt Hon John Critchley, Julian
Biggs-Davison, Sir John Crouch, David
Blackburn, John Currie, Mrs Edwina
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter Dickens, Geoffrey
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Dorrell, Stephen
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.
Bowden, A. (Brighton K'to'n) Dover, Den
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Dunn, Robert
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Durant, Tony
Bright, Graham Dykes, Hugh
Brinton, Tim Edwards, Rt Hon N. (P'broke)
Brittan, Rt Hon Leon Eggar, Tim
Brooke, Hon Peter Emery, Sir Peter
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes) Evennett, David
Browne, John Eyre, Sir Reginald
Bruinvels, Peter Fallon, Michael
Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon A. Favell, Anthony
Buck, Sir Antony Fletcher, Alexander
Bulmer, Esmond Fookes, Miss Janet
Forman, Nigel MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire)
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute)
Forth, Eric Maclean, David John
Franks, Cecil McLoughlin, Patrick
Fraser, Peter (Angus East) McNair-Wilson, P. (New F'st)
Freeman, Roger Madel, David
Fry, Peter Major, John
Galley, Roy Malins, Humfrey
Gardner, Sir Edward (Fylde) Malone, Gerald
Garel-Jones, Tristan Maples, John
Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian Marlow, Antony
Glyn, Dr Alan Marshall, Michael (Arundel)
Goodhart, Sir Philip Mates, Michael
Gow, Ian Maude, Hon Francis
Greenway, Harry Mawhinney, Dr Brian
Gregory, Conal Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Griffiths, Sir Eldon Mayhew, Sir Patrick
Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N) Mellor, David
Grist, Ian Merchant, Piers
Ground, Patrick Meyer, Sir Anthony
Grylls, Michael Miller, Hal (B'grove)
Gummer, Rt Hon John S Mills, lain (Meriden)
Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom) Mitchell, David (Hants NW)
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Hampson, Dr Keith Moore, Rt Hon John
Hanley, Jeremy Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes)
Hannam, John Morrison, Hon P. (Chester)
Hargreaves, Kenneth Moynihan, Hon C.
Harris, David Neale, Gerrard
Haselhurst, Alan Nelson, Anthony
Hawkins, C. (High Peak) Newton, Tony
Hawksley, Warren Nicholls, Patrick
Hayes, J. Norris, Steven
Hayhoe, Rt Hon Barney Oppenheim, Rt Hon Mrs S.
Hayward, Robert Page, Richard (Herts SW)
Heathcoat-Amory, David Pawsey, James
Heddle, John Percival, Rt Hon Sir Ian
Henderson, Barry Pollock, Alexander
Hickmet, Richard Porter, Barry
Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L. Portillo, Michael
Hind, Kenneth Powell, William (Corby)
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm) Powley, John
Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling) Prentice, Rt Hon Reg
Howard, Michael Price, Sir David
Howarth, Gerald (Cannock) Prior, Rt Hon James
Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldford) Proctor, K. Harvey
Hubbard-Miles, Peter Raison, Rt Hon Timothy
Hunt, David (Wirral W) Rathbone, Tim
Hunt, John (Ravensbourne) Renton, Tim
Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas Rhodes James, Robert
Jackson, Robert Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Jenkin, Rt Hon Patrick Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey Ridsdale, Sir Julian
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N) Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm
Jones, Robert (Herts W) Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)
Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith Robinson, Mark (N'port W)
Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine Roe, Mrs Marion
Kershaw, Sir Anthony Rost, Peter
Key, Robert Rowe, Andrew
King, Roger (B'ham N'fieid) Rumbold, Mrs Angela
Knight, Greg (Derby N) Ryder, Richard
Knowles, Michael Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Knox, David Sayeed, Jonathan
Lamont, Norman Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Lang, Ian Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Latham, Michael Shelton, William (Streatham)
Lawler, Geoffrey Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Lawrence, Ivan Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh) Shersby, Michael
Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark Silvester, Fred
Lester, Jim Sims, Roger
Lightbown, David Skeet, Sir Trevor
Lilley, Peter Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Lloyd, Ian (Havant) Soames, Hon Nicholas
Lloyd, Peter (Fareham) Speed, Keith
Lord, Michael Speller, Tony
Luce, Rt Hon Richard Spencer, Derek
Lyell, Nicholas Spicer, Jim (Dorset W)
McCurley, Mrs Anna Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
MacGregor, Rt Hon John Squire, Robin
Stanbrook, Ivor Walker, Bill (T'side N)
Stanley, Rt Hon John Wall, Sir Patrick
Steen, Anthony Waller, Gary
Stern, Michael Wardle, C. (Bexhill)
Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton) Warren, Kenneth
Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood) Watson, John
Sumberg, David Watts, John
Taylor, Teddy (S'end E) Wells, Bowen (Hertford)
Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman Wells, Sir John (Maidstone)
Temple-Morris, Peter Wheeler, John
Thomas, Rt Hon Peter Whitfield, John
Thompson, Donald (Calder V) Whitney, Raymond
Thornton, Malcolm Wiggin, Jerry
Thurnham, Peter Winterton, Mrs Ann
Townend, John (Bridlington) Winterton, Nicholas
Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath) Wolfson, Mark
Tracey, Richard Wood, Timothy
Trippier, David Woodcock, Michael
Trotter, Neville Yeo, Tim
Twinn, Dr Ian Young, Sir George (Acton)
van Straubenzee, Sir W. Younger, Rt Hon George
Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Viggers, Peter Tellers for the Ayes:
Waddington, David Mr. Robert Boscawen and Mr. Carol Mather.
Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Walden, George
Adams, Allen (Paisley N) Home Robertson, John
Atkinson, N. (Tottenham) Hoyle, Douglas
Beckett, Mrs Margaret Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh) Hughes, Simon (Southward)
Bermingham, Gerald Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Bidwell, Sydney Leadbitter, Ted
Blair, Anthony Lewis, Terence (Worsley)
Boyes, Roland Litherland, Robert
Brown, Gordon (D'f'mline E) Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Caborn, Richard Lofthouse, Geoffrey
Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M) McDonald, Dr Oonagh
Campbell, Ian McKay, Allen (Penistone)
Campbell-Savours, Dale McNamara, Kevin
Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y) McWilliam, John
Clarke, Thomas Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Clay, Robert Maxton, John
Clelland, David Gordon Michie, William
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Neilist, David
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S) O'Brien, William
Conlan, Bernard Patchett, Terry
Cook, Frank (Stockton North) Pendry, Tom
Corbett, Robin Pike, Peter
Corbyn, Jeremy Prescott, John
Crowther, Stan Raynsford, Nick
Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly) Rowlands, Ted
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'l) Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Deakins, Eric Silkin, Rt Hon J.
Dewar, Donald Skinner, Dennis
Dormand, Jack Snape, Peter
Dubs, Alfred Soley, Clive
Eadie, Alex Spearing, Nigel
Eastham, Ken Strang, Gavin
Evans, John (St. Helens N) Thompson, J. (Wansbeck)
Ewing, Harry Wallace, James
Fatchett, Derek Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Faulds, Andrew Wareing, Robert
Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn) Welsh, Michael
Fisher, Mark Williams, Rt Hon A.
Forrester, John Winnick, David
Foster, Derek Wrigglesworth, Ian
Foulkes, George Young, David (Bolton SE)
George, Bruce
Godman, Dr Norman Tellers for the Noes:
Hamilton, James (M'well N) Mr. Frank Haynes and Mr. Don Dixon.
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Holland, Stuart (Vauxhall)

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved, That in the case of the Channel Tunnel Bill the Standing Orders relating to Private Business, so far so not complied with in the respect mentioned in the Report of the Examiners of Petitions for Private Bills relating to that Bill [28th April], be dispensed with and the Bill be permitted to proceed; That in the event of the Bill being read a second time, the earliest date which, in any motion for the committal of the Bill to a Select Committee, may be specified as the date by which a Petition against the Bill must be presented in order to stand referred to the Committee shall be 17th June.