§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Maclean.]
§ [Relevant document: Report of the Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure (HC625 of Session 1987–88).]4.24 pm
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Wakeham)
Anyone coming across private Bill procedure for the first time could be excused for wondering what this apparently arcane, complex procedure is all about and how it relates to public business. The fact that "Erskine May" devotes some 200 pages to explaining its intricacies only adds to the mystery and many may be put off from involving themselves further. I know, however, that this does not apply to the Joint Committee whose report is before the House. The complexities of the procedure, the fact that it is over 30 years since the topic was last examined and the wider implications of the whole subject—which are not always readily apparent—have not made this an easy task. But this is a really important report and it provides an admirable basis for our debate.
It may be helpful if I say how I propose to proceed. As I have said when various hon. Members have asked me to arrange this debate, I wish to hear the views of the House on the Joint Committee's report. But the House will wish to hear the Government's initial thinking. I have had the benefit of informal talks with a number of hon. Members and that has helped to clarify my thinking on this complex subject. I am not concerned with individual Bills, nor do I want to dwell on problems from the past. With the permission of the House I intend to speak briefly at the end of the debate, but I hope that hon. Members will understand if I do not respond in detail to all the points raised. The complexity of all this means that it is important to reflect very carefully before we introduce any changes.
Before proceeding further, I wish to thank my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) and the other members of the Joint Committee, including those from another place. My hon. Friend brings a unique set of qualities with him. We think of his clear vision, personal charm and long experience in the House. But, above all, he brings an immense knowledge to this subject, including the expertise developed in piloting—if that is the right metaphor—various British Rail Bills through the House.
The report begins with a quotation from "Erskine May":Private legislation is legislation of a special kind for conferring particular powers or benefits on any person or body of persons … in excess of or in conflict with the general law.I note that the Chairman of Ways and Means also used that quotation in his memorandum to the Joint Committee. In any consideration of private Bills and the procedure for their enactment, we should not lose sight of that. The fact that private Bills are for the interest or benefit of one or several persons, a group or some public or private body, means that they may also be to the detriment of others. But it is also clear what private Bills are not. They are not a means of giving any additional powers to the Government. Any Bill that included such provisions would be classified as a hybrid Bill and would be subject to a different procedure.
477 With that consideration in mind I wish to place on record my appreciation of the role of the Chairman of Ways and Means, the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Mr. Walker). I do not think the part played by the Chairman of Ways and Means in private Bills is always fully recognised. It includes supervision of private Bills in this House, appointing the various stages and finding time for opposed private business to be debated. All that has to be done in an impartial way, having regard to both promoters and petitioners, the effect on the time available for public business on the Floor of the House and—it goes without saying—without regard to personal, party or constituency interests. The House is fortunate that it can call on hon. Members such as the right hon. Gentleman who have had a vigorous life in party politics and who hold strong personal views on political questions, but who are able to set all that aside when it comes to filling the posts in our House that depend on utter integrity and impartiality. I know that the House would wish to pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for all that he does in his very distinguished office. I know that the House will understand why he is not with us for today's debate.
Turning to the Joint Committee's report, perhaps I can make two general points at the outset. First, I would repeat the point I made in my written evidence to the Joint Committee, that I welcome procedural streamlining which lessens the demand on Members but retains the essential rights and safeguards for promoters and petitioners. Secondly, on the whole, the existing arrangements have served us very well and we should not lightly contemplate major change, especially where the effect would be to remove or lessen parliamentary control.
The Joint Committee's report is a radical reappraisal of the whole place of private Bill procedure at the end of the 20th century. It challenges many assumptions in a refreshing and valuable way, and if its recommendations were implemented in full, the map of private Bill procedure would be largely redrawn. The report demands the most serious consideration, and the views of the House will be especially significant in that process.
The Joint Committee's recommendations can be conveniently split into four groups. Within those groups, some of the proposed changes could be brought about only by legislation and some only by amendments to Standing Orders, while others might be termed exhortations for a change or improvement in practice.
The first group of recommendations are of general application. They would reduce the range of private legislation by restricting it to matters that could not be handled in any other way, and by diverting matters that could be pursued by other means into those channels. That would apply where planning considerations were dominant and/or where the primary purpose of a private Bill could be achieved by other means.
We sympathise with the wish of the Joint Committee to impose greater discipline on promoters of private Bills, but I suggest that that should not be at the cost of constructing procedures that are too rigid. Every private Bill must contain an averment that the purposes of the Bill cannot be effected without the authority of Parliament. It has, I know, become customary for promoters to include in their Bills a range of measures—some of which require parliamentary authorisation and some of which do not —and thereby present a complete package to Parliament. I can well understand why that should be so: it could be cumbersome, expensive and time-consuming always to 478 insist that two different processes should be complied with. Furthermore, if those different processes came to contradictory conclusions, the promoter might have to start again.
On the other hand, I am well aware of the view that promoters may use private Bills to avoid more expensive and time-consuming procedures, and I entirely agree with the Joint Committee that we should have no sympathy with promoters who simply "try it on". Committees take their duty seriously. The Committee on the recent Hampshire (Lyndhurst Bypass) Bill rejected the Bill, and I have no doubt that parliamentary agents are aware of the implication of that decision.
The Joint Committee also recommended that, when the primary purpose of a Bill can be authorised through other means, those means should be pursued first, leaving Parliament to deal only with the aspects that require parliamentary approval. That proposal marches alongside the recommendation that, where planning considerations are considered dominant, non-parliamentary procedures should be used. Again I see the thought that the Committee is pursuing in its recommendations, but some questions may need to be thought about. Simply deciding the "primary purpose" and determining the "dominant" features may, for example, be matters of subjective judgment, open to dispute and liable to create further delays.
Although action has been taken to speed up inquiry handling times, it remains true that, for a major proposal, non-parliamentary procedures—involving the holding of a public inquiry by an inspector, the preparation of a report and the consideration by Ministers of his decision—can be a very time-consuming process, by contrast with private Bills with similar subject matter. A two-stage process, in which a non-parliamentary inquiry into the "primary purpose" was followed by a private Bill on the secondary aspects, even if it could be made to run smoothly, would inevitably be a long-drawn-out and expensive process. To limit Parliament's consideration to secondary issues could also prove an unacceptable fetter if there were serious doubts within Parliament about the merits of the proposal in principle.
Under the Joint Committee's proposal Parliament would be expected to confine its debate to the narrow subject matter of a Bill, and to abstain from addressing itself to the wider issues already decided by non-parliamentary procedures. While I am sure that this scheme could work well in a number of cases, I cannot help asking myself what might happen if the measure in question were a controversial one. Would hon. Members really keep their own counsel if they had strong views and had been given no earlier chance to express them?
The second batch of recommendations, as I have grouped them, would also include a reduction in the scope of private legislation by the introduction in new primaiy legislation of ministerial order-making powers in respect of various matters relating to railways, trams, highways and harbours to replace the private Bill procedure.
At present, the private Bill procedure is the only way of giving statutory powers for the construction and operation of railway lines of any kind, including trams. If order-making powers on railways were given to the Secretary of State, Parliament would lose its say. The recommendation that railway work should be authorised by an order-making process would require primary legislation. Such a Bill would need to cover not only new 479 order-making powers for British Rail and London Regional Transport Bills but the modernisation of 19th century legislation to deal satisfactorily with the increasing number of light rapid transit schemes that are expected to come forward over the next few years. Consultations would be necessary with the local authority associations on whether local authorities should be empowered to deal with some of the matters now dealt with in private Bills. Other interests, including the operators, would also have to be consulted.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will be willing further to consult those concerned if these proposals for legislative change have the clear support of the House. This would, however, be very major and complex legislation and we would need to be satisfied in detail that the alternative arrangements would represent an improvement. Private Bill procedure is, after all, a tried and tested way of dealing with schemes.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
What concerns me at the moment is that I am not altogether sure if the Lord President is just rehearsing the arguments for and against. Will he be giving us a clear indication of the Government's intentions and attitudes rather than giving us the argument on the one hand and the counter-argument on the other? He must know that, if this is to be a 'take note' debate for the Government, the report has been out since October 1988 and this debate could have taken place, as some of us urged, much earlier. The Lord President is making interesting points. Wherever possible, will he indicate firm Government support for or opposition to the various recommendations?
§ Mr. Wakeham
The hon. Gentleman must just listen to my speech and form his own conclusions at the end. On the first batch of recommendations that I mentioned, what I said was, I thought, clear and precise and to the point. I said that the Government had some reservations about them. If, however, it were the clear view of the House that we should proceed, the Government would seek to consult all the outside people who have a major say or whose views are important and who would need to be consulted before we decided to bring forward extremely complex legislation.
That is a perfectly reasonable point of view to adopt. The hon. Gentleman will have the chance to make his own speech in his own way if, Madam Deputy Speaker, he catches your eye, but I should have thought that a perfectly reasonable view for Government to take in a debate on the Adjournment at this stage.
Recommendation 7 addresses the procedures for stopping up highways. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is already considering proposals to amend section 116 of the Highways Act 1980 which governs the procedures for stopping up all-purpose highways. The proposal also affects the stopping up of footpaths and bridleways under section 118 of the 1980 Act and he will be consulting my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment on that. I am glad to say that, provided all goes well, we should be able to accept this recommendation, but it will have to await a suitable legislative opportunity.
Recommendation 9 proposes that the purposes for which harbours orders may be made under the Harbours 480 Act 1964 should be broadened and that section 62, which allows powers to be obtained either by order or by private Bill, should be repealed. Clearly, this would require primary legislation and, as with railways, we need to be sure that new arrangements will work. My right hon. Friend will be willing to undertake appropriate consultations if the House generally favours that change.
If I could take stock at this point, the first and second groups of the Joint Committee's recommendations, taken together, would sweep out a large proportion of what currently comes before the House as major private business and direct it into routes outside Parliament. That would undoubtedly have some advantages, but the business so displaced from the House would almost certainly proceed at a slower pace. I have mentioned a number of points where I think that the practical working of the Joint Committee's scheme might bear further thought and I have also made it clear that my right hon. Friends will be prepared to consult in greater depth if that reflects the wish of the House. I hope that the House will agree that this is a constructive and sensible approach to a very far-reaching set of proposals.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)
One of the strongest recommendations for removing Bills from the private Bill procedure concerned local government Bills. The spate of jumbo Bills that we have considered has more or less come to an end, unless there is to be another reform of local government, but, even then, there may be nothing like the number of Bills that we have had to consider in the past.
Would this not be a good opportunity to remove the vast majority of local government Bills from the private Bill procedure and ensure that in future primary Government legislation enables local authorities to do various things? Surely that would be better than the use of the private Bill procedure. It was absolutely crazy that, in the case of the west midlands, Merseyside and Humberside, we had to debate the hours that take-away shops could be open, as well as massage parlours and processions. What was needed was national enabling legislation.
§ Mr. Wakeham
I see the force of the hon. Gentleman's point, and I shall listen with interest to what he has to say.
I have referred to our general approach to the matter. Before I leave that part of the report, however, I should like to emphasise the value and the importance of the private Bill procedure, both to the promoter and to the petitioner. It imposes a discipline on promoters, but offers them a reasonable degree of certainty and a fairly predictable timetable. It gives petitioners, both public bodies and individuals, the opportunity of a fair and sympathetic hearing befor a Committee of this House and of another place. I am aware of the care and trouble Private Bill Committees take to ensure that this is so. Any Member can raise the case of an individual on the Floor of the House as the Bill proceeds. Not least, it ensures that the eventual decision is taken by Parliament.
§ Mr. Wakeham
I think that I ought to make a little progress. Every hon. Member will have an opportunity to make his contribution.
§ Mr. Smith
I am grateful to the Leader of the House. I do not wish to interrupt his flow, but he suggested that in his view the private Bill procedure gave a fair crack of the whip to petitioners against a Bill. That is certainly not the experience of my constituents who are seeking to petition against British Rail's proposals for King's Cross. They find that the procedure for making their democratic voice heard is arcane, difficult, expensive and extremely frustrating.
§ Mr. Wakeham
That is typical of the way that we should not proceed. I was talking about the experience of the past 30 years or so. The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) is currently engaged in a matter which concerns his constituents. He is saying various things that are certainly the subject of considerable argument. In my experience of these matters, by and large petitioners have had a pretty reasonable crack of the whip. I recognise that the hon. Gentleman may not agree, but I shall make my speech in my own way and then I shall listen to him.
§ Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)
Does the Leader of the House agree that the general burden of evidence to the Joint Committee, whose report we are considering, from individuals and organisations who have petitioned in the past, was that, roughly speaking, they found the procedure to be as described by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith)? That is why they would prefer public local inquiries.
§ Mr. Wakeham
I quite understand that the people who want a change in the procedure give evidence to committees and those who are satisfied with the procedure are probably not so moved to give evidence. That does not mean that those who give evidence are wrong and those who are quitely acquiescent to the system are right. Parliament has to take a balanced view, listen to the arguments and reach a conclusion. I am perfectly entitled to put my view that, over the years, by and large, petitioners receive a fair hearing before Parliament. It is not a procedure which I would abandon lightly without being sure that the alternative would be better, and I consider that to be a reasonable view.
The third group of recommendations deals with matters of detail and procedure, and I can say at the outset that we support very many of those proposals. There are, however, some proposals on which we would wish to express doubt or qualification, and it may help if I set them out now.
On recommendation 10 I must make it clear that the relevant Government Departments keep the case for public local authority legislation under regular review and look for the opportunity to introduce miscellaneous provisions Bills as the need arises and as opportunity permits. But such Bills have to compete for a place in the legislative programme and their very nature means that they are susceptible to amendment and thereby take up valuable time on the Floor of the House.
On recommendation 16 the Government agree that a private Bill should normally be expected to complete its progress within one Session, or two at most, but we should 482 be reluctant to see the incorporation of any formal restriction to this effect in Standing Orders, and we are glad to note that the Committee took a similar view. There may be sound reasons for a carry over beyond two Sessions and, if I may say so, bodies which promote a Bill before Parliament—and pay for it—are entitled to expect a decision provided that they themselves have not been unduly dilatory or obdurate.
A further aspect of the carry-over procedure is the proposal in recommendation 18 that Bills should be carried over a Dissolution not by means of a portmanteau resolution in the dying Parliament, but by revival motions, moved separately for each Bill, in the new Parliament. That could, however, lead to the possibility of an extra Second Reading-type debate on every carried-over Bill, and I cannot help wondering whether that would be an effective use of our time.
There are three recommendations—Nos. 20 to 22— relating to the blocking of Bills. I can see the argument for the recommendation that an hon. Member should be required to give reasons for opposition, but there may be practical difficulties. If hon. Members were obliged to give reasons, the Chair might be required to make some difficult judgments about the sufficiency of the reasons advanced, in order to prevent such motions from degenerating either into a standard all-embracing formula or a precis of a Second Reading speech.
We also have doubts about the proposals to abolish the procedure for oral objection and to require a Member to obtain the support of at least five other Members in blocking a private Bill. Would it really be fair to restrict in these ways a single Member who wished, for example, to raise a genuine constituency point?
In recommendations 50 to 52 the Joint Committee also proposed in respect of special procedures orders that if a petition of general objection is referred to a Joint Committee, and the Joint Committee finds in favour of the petitioners, the Government ought not to overrule the Committee by means of a confirmation Bill. I think that the constitutional position here is rather more complex than the recommendation implies. I have no doubt that the House would always want to pay particular attention to the report of a Joint Committee, but ultimately it must be for Parliament itself to take the decision.
If I have dwelt on those detailed procedural recommendations about which we have reservations, I am sure that hon. Members will understand that I have done so because I felt it right to explain our reasoning in view of the time and effort which the Joint Committee devoted to its consideration.
§ Sir Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)
As my right hon. Friend has identified the recommendations under House of Commons procedures with which he is not happy, do I take it that he is content with the rest?
§ Mr. Wakeham
My hon. Friend interrupts me as I am proceeding with my speech. I know that it is very exciting, but if he can contain himself I shall do my best to explain about the others. My next sentence begins, "For the rest".
For the rest, we are broadly content with the remainder of recommendations 11 to 39 affecting England and Wales, and would be happy to leave them to the decision of the House. That means that we would, of course, accept the various recommendations which suggest improvements to, or encourage the development of, current Committee 483 practice, the proposed simplification of the arrangements for fees and the suggested amendment to Standing Orders to allow remaining stages to be taken immediately after a debate on consideration.
In view of current interest in environmental matters I should particularly like to say a few words about recommendation 13, which is that the House should incorporate environmental impact assessment into private Bill procedure. As with many of the Committee's other procedural recommendations, it will be for the House to decide whether to amend Standing Orders as proposed by the Committee. But in this case the Committee envisages procedures under which the Department of the Environment and other Departments would determine whether environmental assessment is, in fact, necessary and would later report on the environmental statements which promoters would be required to submit to Parliament.
Requirements for environmental assessments have already been introduced for projects that are approved under statutory procedures to comply with the European directive on environmental assessment. The directive does not apply to projects approved by specific Acts of national legislation, which include private and hybrid Bills. However, the Government have said that they will ensure that for Bills that they promote, relating to projects to which the directive would otherwise apply, such assessments are undertaken. We are therefore in favour of the concept of environmental assessment in appropriate cases and we support the Joint Committee's recommendation. In particular, we are willing for Government Departments to undertake the functions envisaged for them in that recommendation. We are therefore ready to consult about the way in which those aspects of the recommendation that would affect procedures outside Parliament can best be implemented.
The fourth group of recommendations deals with private legislation procedure in Scotland. The practical difficulties involved in implementing the Joint Committee's proposals to limit the range of private legislation apply as much to Scotland as they do to England and Wales. The burden that private legislation procedure imposes on Members is usually much less than for Bills relating to England and Wales, and actual working experience is that the distinctive Scottish inquiry procedure gives opportunity to objectors to put their case. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State believes that there is no strong case for change in Scotland but he will study closely any views expressed by Scottish Members.
The detailed Scottish procedural points—recommendations 41 to 49—are largely acceptable. The proposal to set a 12-month time limit is acceptable as the expected norm, but we would not wish to formalise that by amending the relevant legislation. The spirit of the recommendation can be implemented without legislation. The proposal that a confirmation Bill should be referred to a Joint Committee only where there are grounds for believing that the inquiry by commissions was inadequate is acceptable, but it would require legislation, and we shall have to wait for a suitable opportunity.
In concluding, I emphasise again my wish to hear the views of the House. This is an important and far-reaching 484 report which recommends major changes in the range of private legislation. I have set out some practical difficulties in some of the recommendations, the advantages of the present system and the flexibility that it allows. In particular, the private Bill procedure should not be sold short in any comparison with non-parliamentary procedures. I have indicated that many matters of detail and procedure will have our support, if they are acceptable to the House, and I have explained some of those on which we have reservations. I should add that, if there were general and wide-ranging agreement on a number of the detailed procedural recommendations, I should be glad to see what could be done to implement them in time for the next Session.
§ Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)
Before getting involved in the intricacies of the Joint Committee's proposals for changes in the way that both Houses of Parliament should deal with private Bills, I should pay tribute to a number of people. The first, Madam Deputy Speaker, is my and your right hon. Friend, the Chairman of Ways and Means, who rightly decided, after years of growing dissatisfaction among Members of both Houses, and also among many people involved in promoting or in trying to obstruct the promotion of private Bills, that something should be done and that the time was ripe for a full review of the procedures. The right hon. Gentleman is to be congratulated on grasping the nettle.
Next to be congratulated are those valiant seekers after truth, the seven hon. Members of this House and the seven Peers who served on the Joint Committee, which met on over 30 occasions and heard a vast amount of detailed evidence on extremely complex matters. Above all, we should pay tribute, as has already been done, to the hon. Member for the New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) who chaired every one of those sessions. Stakhanovite tendencies, which are probably still looked on with favour even in the perestroika version of the Soviet Union and here, are shown by people who do that amount of work on our behalf. Everyone owes them a debt of gratitude for all the work that they have done.
I also pay tribute to the members of the Joint Committee for the report, although that tribute should more properly go to the clerks who drafted the report. It is not a long report. I thought that I could browse through it on a train journey and get its general drift, but at the end of the 56 pages I found that I needed to go back to page 1 to find out what page 56 was about. It is an extremely concise, well written document. The only trouble is that all its concepts and complexities are of high density. It is an excellent report but it is hard going. Our method of dealing with private Bills is complex and consideration of ways to change those procedures is even more complex and demanding, but the Committee tried to do that job.
Having paid those tributes, I think that I should set out what I see as the principles and the practical considerations that might best guide our response to an excellent report and also colour our view of private Bills in general, now and in the future. I am not a lawyer, but we hear a lot about the rule of law. A basic concept of the rule of law is that all laws should apply to everybody, that we should all be equal before the law, that the obligations of the law should fall on everyone and that the protection of the law should be available to everyone. One book that I 485 consulted on this matter gave another interpretation of the concept of the rule of law—that all should be treated alike and thatunfair discrimination must not be sanctioned by lawbecause that in itself would be contrary to the rule of law.
The general nature of our laws in this country is exemplified by the fact that most are to be found in what are classified as public general Acts whereas private Bills, seek to confer on individuals or organisatons powers that are over and above those that are available to individuals or other organisations. In some cases, for the benefit of the promoters, a Bill takes away the protection that Parliament has given people through a public general Act or even that the common law has provided. At one and the same time a private Bill can bestow benefits on those promoting it while taking from other people the legal protection that they previously enjoyed. We must bear that in mind when we are considering the concept of private legislation.
A further objection to private Bills is that some promoters have resorted to using them to take from people who object to what they are proposing the rights that Parliament has given to those objectors to challenge such proposals at a public local inquiry. Nearly everybody who has had to go through the business of being a petitioner against a private Bill regards the forum of a public local inquiry as infinitely superior in almost every way to having to petition against private Bills.
Private Bills are relatively cheaper for promoters but they are relatively more expensive for those who wish to object. On the other hand, while a public local inquiry may be expensive for the promoters who must be present all the time, a public local inquiry gives the objector whose objections may be fairly limited the opportunity to make his objections and then disappear. In addition, as many public local inquiries are, indeed, local, people in Northumberland or in Wales do not have to traipse down to London, or get someone else to traipse down to London, just to register their objections. There are many ways in which ordinary people regard public local inquiries as superior to the idea of having to petition against a private Bill.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
While I support my hon Friend's thesis in general, does he agree that it presupposes that there is adequate planning machinery, especially strategic planning machinery in the area of any project? However, does he also agree, in contravention of what the Leader of the House said, that one of the problems of private Bill procedure in the House is that the locus standi in terms of parliamentary procedure is almost certainly narrower than any inspector would impose at a local inquiry, which tends to be wide-ranging and seeks to be very fair?
§ Mr. Dobson
I agree with all my hon. Friend's points. I was disturbed at Prime Minister's Question Time today when I heard the Prime Minister say, in response to a question about the railway lines from the Kent coast to London to facilitate the establishment and running of the Channel tunnel, that she would not accept that the private Bill procedureis inferior to a public inquiry.I feel fairly confident that nearly everyone in Kent, in Dulwich, in Peckham or even in my area of King's Cross 486 who wants to object would prefer a public inquiry to being given the wondrous opportunity to petition against a Bill promoted by British Rail.
§ Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)
Leaving aside the issue of the Kent railway lines, to which I might refer later if I catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, while I agree with what the hon. Gentleman has just said—basically, that is what we tried to say in the report—before he exaggerates the point, and because the private Bill procedure will face prospective petitioners for a long time to come, does he agree that there are compensating advantages in the private Bill procedure in that prospective petitioners or opponents might stand a better chance before a Committee of four hon. Members of this House, who might be quite sympathetic, than they would before one planning inspector who would report back to a Secretary of State?
§ Mr. Dobson
Yes, that is true, especially if the inspector would be reporting back to the current Secretaries of State. I can see all sorts of disadvantages in that respect.
Nevertheless, while it might be all right for us to say to petitioners, "You would be better off petitioning," it would be difficult for us to gainsay them if they decided that they would be better off with a public inquiry. In the evidence that was presented to the Joint Committee, it was noticeable that the bulk of those organisations that gave evidence and that were involved in opposing more than one private Bill tended to say that they would infinitely prefer a public local inquiry. Indeed, the first sentence of paragraph 38 of the excellent report states:The defenders of private Bill procedure were in the main promoters.I believe that it was Lenin who said that to some extent one can judge people by their friends. The friends of the private Bill procedure are, in the main, promoters.
We have found recently that at one and the same time a private Bill promoter, who may be seeking to take some; protection away from a local community—for example, its right to bring actions for nuisance, a protection which the law has given to the people living there just as it has given it to people living everywhere—is, by using the private Bill procedure, taking away from people their right to be heard in the forum of their choice where they can object to the process of losing their long-term rights. Some of the more objectionable of the more recent private Bills have been objectionable in both their long-term and short-term effects by means of the very use of the private Bill procedure.
I can do nothing other than repeat that there seems little doubt that up to now the private Bill procedure has favoured promoters and disadvantaged petitioners. In my view, Parliament should be much more reluctant than it has been in the past to allow organisations to use private Bills to set aside the law, for that is what private Bills do.
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)
In the context of those remarks, does my hon. Friend accept—I am not making this point in a purely partisan sense—that in recent years the considerable extent of privatisation, coupled with a number of Bills giving private businesses the rights compulsorily to purchase or to enter private property, has enormously extended the power and the influence of private businesses and that this House should therefore be careful before it allows that practice to be further extended?
§ Mr. Dobson
My hon. Friend, who has had considerable involvement in opposing several private Bills, makes a valid point. Indeed, my next point follows on almost directly from what my hon. Friend has said. The fact that the promoters of private Bills are nearly always wealthy and powerful organisations, whether in the public or the private sector, makes unnecessary resort to private Bills all the more objectionable. In this Parliament we have been running, in effect, a system in which wealthy and powerful organisations have bought themselves benefits that are not available to most people. They buy those benefits by virtue of having money and access to our procedures. In some cases, they have contrived to use the private Bill procedure to secure, quite literally, one law for the rich—that is, for the rich organisation promoting the Bill.
§ Sir Eldon Griffiths
In some cases, statutory companies do not have the option of going to local planning inquiries, but their statutory obligations require them to come to the House. Would the hon. Gentleman be in favour of seeking to repeal all the requirements upon statutory companies to come to the House?
§ Mr. Dobson
I shall deal with that later. If I do not do so, I shall be happy for the hon. Gentleman to remind me.
Those privileged organisations, by using the private Bill procedure, impose substantial costs upon the public purse. It is all right for the hon. Gentleman to say that, when people promote their Bill, they have paid their money and they are entitled to some degree of certainty, but they have not paid the full costs. One of the report's proposals is that the costs that the promoters impose on the public purse should in future be fully recovered from them.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett
Does my hon. Friend recognise also that those promoters impose, in a sense, considerable costs on hon. Members of the House? I know that two of my hon. Friends, who are present today, have sat on Bills and have invested a tremendous amount of time in those Bills, perhaps to the disadvantage of their constituents and other political issues.
§ Mr. Dobson
My hon. Friend, with his impeccable logic, has almost enunciated my next sentence. I believe that in many ways the most weighty practical reason for trying to curtail the unnecessary use of the private Bill procedure is that those who seek privileges by private legislation impose enormous demands on the time of Members of the House. I remind all my fellow parliamentarians that we serve in the Parliament which, of all Parliaments in the democratic world, already sits for the greatest number of days in a year, for the longest hours and to a preposterous parliamentary calendar, originally decided upon in Victorian times. Compared with practically every other legislature in the world, we are already overdoing it. However, despite those long hours and the large number of days that we work in a year—as the Leader of the House knows to his cost every Thursday—we do not find time to debate all the topics that we, as Members, think should take priority.
By the existence of the private Bill procedure and by us not having a rigorous attitude towards those who wish to use it, we allow ourselves to be forced to find time to debate and legislate, not the priorities that we have laid down, but a series of priorities determined by the private interests of outside organisations.
488 For all those reasons—both of principles and of practice—we should take a much more rigorous attitude to would-be promoters of private Bills. They should have to prove the need for what they propose. They should have to prove that what they propose is not just in their interests, but in the interests of the general public. If it is just in their interests and they cannot find a law to allow them to do it—tough.
At the outset, even if it is in the public interest, promoters should also have to prove that what they need cannot be achieved by other means, however expensive and inconvenient to them those other means might be. I welcome the report of the Joint Committee because, as I understand it, it proposes just such a robust approach to those who want to promote private Bills. I say "as I understand it" advisedly because, although I have studied the report carefully and I have discussed it with people who understand these matters far better than I do, I would not claim that I have mastered all its intricacies. Not only do I acknowledge the tenuousness of my grasp of some of the report, but I am doubtful of the grasp of many other right hon. and hon. Members. My experience in the House is that, if someone says that he understands a procedure, he is the last person to ask for advice on that procedure. That is why I always go to the Clerks.
As the Leader of the House has said, the nub of the Committee's approach lies in its recommendations that a promoter should be required to prove that private legislation is necessary to secure the primary purpose of the Bill and that, where that primary purpose can be secured by other means, Parliament should either not be involved at all or should be asked only to deal with any aspects that specifically require the authority of Parliament. In other words, what happens in future should not be what has happened in the past, where some minor need for parliamentary approval has been used as a stalking horse by the promoters to avoid a local planning inquiry into the primary purpose of their project. That is a most welcome proposal.
My notes, which I wrote before I heard the Leader of the House speak, say, "I cannot see how it could be resisted by anyone." However, I now discover that that aspect of the proposals is resisted by the Leader of the House, partly on the ground, apparently, that we might have great difficulty in deciding the primary purpose of a piece of legislation. That is from a Government who have introduced an immigration law that says that a person marrying someone from abroad has to prove the primary purpose of the marriage.I suggest to anyone with any experience of this world that trying to prove the primary purpose of a marriage is much more difficult than trying to discern the primary purpose of a private Bill.
I believe that, if we set our minds to defining the primary purpose of a Bill, we should not find it very difficult. I hope that we will not see strenuous Government resistance to that aspect of the proposals. If there is strenuous resistance, it will be strenuous Government resistance to the nub of the proposals, as I understand them.
The Committee goes further than that and recommends that, in certain circumstances, where planning considerations are accepted by everyone to be dominant—but there are works which at the moment would require resort to the House—even the works could be dealt with by 489 non-parliamentary procedures, where necessary involving public local inquiries. That appears to be a sound approach, too.
Much of the history of what might be described as the modern private Bill procedure is dominated by the need for legislative protection for railway promoters and builders against common law actions for nuisance. Railway works are still the single most common reason for seeking to promote a private Bill. I shall leave it to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) to deal with our joint interest in British Rail's deplorable and ludicrous proposals to build Britain's premier Euro-station in a vast, gloomy and horrible cavern underneath the mainline station at King's Cross. Even my minor involvement in helping some of the objectors to the proposals—who have therefore become petitioners—suggests that our present procedure is not a sound way of going about things. People feel much more excluded and much more mystified by the private Bill process than they do by public local inquiries.
The Joint Committee proposed to change the procedure for railway works to bring them roughly in line with the proposal for road works, in that the promoter of the railway works would draft an order and consult locally about it. The promoter would then submit the draft order to the relevant Secretary of State, who could make, modify or reject the order only after a public local inquiry into any valid objections. On balance, that is probably a good idea. However, we must accept that that means that the promoter of a railway, having secured Government support for it, if there is any parliamentary trouble, is likely to secure the payroll vote—and have everyone else voting for it, too—should that prove to be necessary. For major railway schemes, that may, in some senses, be for the best.
If the Government support the Euroline from Dover to London, it would be far better if they made their genuine support clear. In that case they could back the scheme rather than stand behind a door poking sticks and offering buns to the people from British Rail. Currently the Government appear to be urging British Rail to get on with it while ensuring that the Government do not take any of the blame. If we support the concept of reasonable and sensible government, it would be far better for such a Government to say that they believe the project to be right. People would then know exactly with whom they were dealing and on whom they should bring pressure to bear.
The current situation is neither fish, flesh nor fowl. No one is clear about whether the Government are behind the proposed link or about whether British Rail would dare go ahead with it unless they had Government support. I shall not go into all the private letters sent and so on at this time. In general, if the Government support a specific major, local project, it would be better for them to declare that support and to take responsibility, political and otherwise, for it.
§ Mr. Spearing
I hesitate to intervene, but this is an important point. My hon. Friend may have misunderstood one of the report's recommendations. If we follow paragraph 47 of the report, which deals with the sixth recommendation, does it not mean that, after the planning inquiry on a certain project, it would then go to the Secretary of State of the day who would decide on it? That means that the project would not come to Parliament.
490 Despite the merits of what my hon. Friend has said about the current unsatisfactory situation, would he like to leave the decision entirely to the Government of the day?
§ Mr. Dobson
I believe that important orders that cover substantial geographical areas and so on should be subject to the decision of the House. If we get away from the private Bill procedure and move towards the procedure operating orders we must accept that, once the Government have endorsed a project, it is likely to go through. Anyone in favour of adopting the order procedure must accept the logical conclusion that a project is then more likely to go through than if it had been subject to the private Bill procedure. That may be unfortunate and perhaps it is one reason for rejecting the proposition.
§ Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)
As far as I know, British Rail has never failed to get a Bill accepted even under the present procedure. To many of us that explains why British Rail presents its proposals in such an arrogant and sub-standard fashion. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, currently, we have the worst of all worlds because a Bill is scrutinised by people who, by definition, know as little as possible about the locality affected? Despite everything, they have little effective opportunity to prevent such a Bill from going through the House.
§ Mr. Dobson
I apologise if I have not made it clear that that is my view.
Those who would prefer the cleaner order approach must accept that, if an order manages to get the approval of a Secretary of State, the chances are that it will get parliamentary support, even if we insert another parliamentary stage into that order. In general, Secretaries of State can reckon on getting things through the House except in odd circumstances. I know that there are examples when that does not happen, but the odds are usually in the Government's favour. At the moment, I wish that they were not.
The Joint Committee also recommends that the order approach be applied to tramways and perhaps to the light transit outfits which want to shove railways down the roads. It believes that the orders presently permitted under the Harbours Act 1964 should be extended to cover a wider range of developments. Therefore, the railway order principle would be applied to other spheres.
The Leader of the House has already pointed out that all the proposals require primary legislation. We believe that if they are acceptable, in principle, to the House, the Government should undertake to introduce the legislation in time for the beginning of the next parliamentary Session.
§ Mr. Wakeham
Does the hon. Gentleman consider that we should have consultations with local authorities before we do that?
§ Mr. Dobson
It would be sound for the Government to consult local authorities and others. The Government, however, may be rather picky and choosy about whom they consult. The right hon. Gentleman was happy to leap to the Dispatch Box and support the abolition of the dock labour scheme without any consultation with the 9,000 people affected. I do not believe that the right hon. Gentleman should issue such cries about consultation at the moment.
Providing the Opposition find the measures, as drafted, acceptable, we would not wish to obstruct them if that is 491 the general will of the House. We cannot give carte blanche to the legislation, however, because we never know what the parliamentary draftsmen will come up with. Even when they have been working on something of which I have approved, some of the things drafted have been nonsense. Therefore, we could not let everything go through on the nod.
As there has been so much concern about private Bills, it would not be acceptable for us to make minor amendments to our Standing Orders without changing the primary legislation quickly. That change is necessary if the meat of the Committee's proposals is to go through.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett
I believe that, unless the Government are prepared to look at the whole package, the changes to our Standing Orders are unacceptable. My concern is shared by many groups outside the House. At the moment the whole procedure is weighted in favour of the promoters, but the safeguards in our Standing Orders slow the promoters down slightly. It would be unacceptable to do away with many of the safeguards in the Standing Orders without an absolute guarantee that matters concerning the environment would be subject to a planning inquiry first and subject to the other changes proposed.
§ Mr. Dobson
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Currently we have a system of checks and balances—the checks are not substantial and the procedure is rather unbalanced. However, any changes to our procedures would obviously upset that system, especially if the major proposals that require primary legislation do not go through the House.
The Leader of the House has proposed that we should make our own changes, but that we should not start to try to change the law. I am sure that that would be unacceptable to many people who are especially interested in this topic.
I do not want to dwell on the procedural changes at great length. There are many and those that are important to the House impinge upon the rights of Back Benchers who are faced with a private Bill affecting their constituencies or some organisation of great interest to them. We must bear in mind the needs and rights of Back Benchers in this matter. I want to listen to the views of other hon. Members about procedural changes. We should not accept any streamlining procedural changes which would deprive an individual Member, who is concerned about something which affects his or her constituency, of the right to block and, by blocking, gain concessions. That is a vital part of the present procedure which should not be lost.
However, I most strongly support the proposal that the new procedures should require the submission of environmental impact assessments in all cases where they are relevant. I am very happy to welcome whole-heartedly the undertakings given by the Leader of the House about Government support for that. I am also keen that, provided Scottish Members want it, that provision should apply to the Private Legislation Procedure (Scotland) Act 1936 orders, as that would provide in Scotland as well as in England and Wales better information and protection for people affected by the works for which authorisation is sought. Subject to the views of Scottish Members, who will 492 be more familiar with their procedures than most of us, the Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure is on the right lines when it recommends for Scotland the additional protections for the public and petitioners which are recommended elsewhere in the report.
There is only one item about which I take an entirely different view from that taken by the Joint Committee, partly because it has been drawn to my attention by the Ramblers Association. I have doubts about recommendation (7) which states:The Highways Act 1980 should be extended so as to permit stopping-up ordersfor rights of wayto be made on safety grounds in appropriate cases".British Rail advocated that to the Committee on the ground that the use of high-speed trains made paths across railway lines increasingly dangerous.
§ Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
Would my hon. Friend like to comment on the fact that in my constituency British Rail has not protected a waist-high bridge on which there has already been one serious accident involving a child? Would it not be more incumbent on British Rail to do something about that kind of problem instead before it worries about the effects of high-speed trains?
§ Mr. Dobson
I am in favour of British Rail trying to make everything safe, and I have sympathy with its desire to make things safe. It is not the walker who makes the situation dangerous; British Rail does that with its high-speed trains. Instead of stopping up a footpath which has traditionally crossed a railway line, British Rail should build a bridge or dig a little tunnel under the line for people to use. It would not be right to close those paths on the ground that British Rail was making them more dangerous. Those who make things dangerous are obliged to remove the dangers, not to remove the privileges and rights which people have hitherto enjoyed.
I very much welcome the report, although I was a trifle disappointed by what is apparently the Government's response as enunciated by the Leader of the House. The Leader of the House said that he is here to listen to hon. Members on both sides of the House. I hope that he will do that. This report was the unanimous product of a very diverse group of people. It may not receive the unanimous support of hon. Members of this House, but its approach will receive considerable cross-party support. I hope, therefore, that the report will be acceptable, subject to a few caveats, and that the Government will get on with facilitating the changes which the Joint Committee unanimously believes are necessary and urgent. I commend the efforts of those who served on the Committee and who have done such a fine job.
§ Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson (New Forest)
I thank my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for the welcome which he broadly gave to the report and for the kind remarks that he made about me. I also appreciated the way in which the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) received the report from the Opposition Front Bench.
It is now nearly three years since, by resolution, the House indicated its decision to establish a Joint Select Committee and it is now more than two years since the Committee, of which I had the honour to be Chairman, 493 started its work. At the outset, I want to thank everyone who served on the Committee for their tireless work. Sadly, two Committee members—Mr. McQuarrie and Mr. Weetch—were not returned at the last general election. I want particularly, on their behalf, to thank the two Committee Clerks, Miss Baker and Mr. Makower, without whom, frankly, the report would not have seen the light of day. We are greatly in their debt. In passing I associate with those remarks Dr. Malcolm Grant and Mr. Ralegh Hancock, who were advisers to the Committee.
As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House explained, there have been other attempts to reform private Bill procedure. The two most notable, and the two which have occurred in the lifetime of most hon. Members, were the Committees in 1930 chaired by Mr. Dunnico and that in 1955 chaired by Mr. Glenvil Hall.
Without in any way detracting from the work of those Committees, their terms of reference were rather more limited than the terms of reference given to us, which were extremely wide. I congratulate and thank in his absence the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Mr. Walker), the Chairman of Ways and Means, who insisted from the outset that the report should provide a wide and thorough examinination.
In this Session of Parliament, there are more than twice as many private Bills as public Bills—58 as opposed to only 28. Even if we include the nine private Member's Bills on the assumption that they are public Bills, there is a marked preponderance of private Bills. Each of those private Bills on average costs the taxpayer £10,000. Therefore, nearly £1 million is provided to allow promoters, who are often extremely wealthy organisations, the privilege of coming to Parliament and, as the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) said, to use hon. Members' time.
This is a big legislative business. It involves hon. Members in long periods of attendance in Committees which are quite unlike Standing Committees, where pairs can be arranged. More importantly, this costs a great deal of money. I was somewhat alarmed when the Society of Parliamentary Agents suggested during our deliberations that raising the figure to what we would now consider a reasonable figure—in other words to recover the £10,000 per Bill which the Bills cost—would somehow put off those who had a legitimate reason for introducing legislation, since we then discovered that on the society's estimate of the costs, an unopposed Bill would cost the promoter £20,000, and an opposed Bill would cost £36,000. So I have a feeling that we may be more or less right. I certainly believe that Parliament must stop providing a voluntary service for organisations that can well look after themselves.
As my right hon. Friend pointed out, the recommendations fall into four separate categories. There are a lot of them—I make no excuse for that. Indeed, there are over 60. This debate will give hon. Members an opportunity to express views on all or some of them. I want to make it crystal clear that, although there are many recommendations, and although they cover various functions, they hang together as a package. While I can see the attraction of singling out the easy bits—those which would not cause too much trouble, or on which action could be taken quickly—that would unbalance the package and, as a result, ultimately destroy it. So I recommend very strongly that this report be seen as a whole, as a single piece, and not as an ill-assorted collection of bright ideas.
494 Let us look at the question of the need for private legislation. During the Committee's deliberations there was a point at which some of us had the revolutionary idea that the proving of the preamble should come before the Second Reading. After all, as at least one hon. Gentleman in the House today will know, one can go through the whole procedure on a private Bill, only to lose it by virtue of the fact that the preamble is not proven. The proving of the preamble is at the heart of a private Bill, because that establishes whether the Bill is required, whether it is the only way in which the promoters can obtain the powe:rs that they require. However, we decided not to recommend that alteration, for the simple reason that the Second Reading of a private Bill, unlike that of a public Bill, does not establish affirmation of the principle but represents a vote to allow the Bill to go to a Select Committee for additional examination and discussion. So we left the question of the preamble where it is.
But the word "preamble" is at the heart of many of our concerns in respect of the first group of recommendations. We believe that the authorities who are responsible for examining Bills that are brought to Parliament should lie particularly firm and scrupulous in ensuring that nothing is brought if it ought to be dealt with under a general Act of Parliament or in some other way.
§ Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks)
I hope that I have followed correctly my hon. Friend's point about the importance of the preamble. Does he not agree that at the Second Reading stage more attention should be paid to the preamble? Is it not at that stage that some Bills should fall, on this ground?
§ Mr. McNair-Wilson
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Indeed, I recall that, within the last 12 months, in a debate affecting my constituency, I drew attention to precisely that point. I was opposing a particular Bill. Hon. Members should recognise that it is the reason for legislation that has to be examined first— almost before we get to whether or not the piece of legislation is actually correct.
Let me draw hon. Members' attention to the Committee's comment on remarks made by my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chairman of Committees, Lord Aberdare, when he was giving evidence on 13 January 1988:The Chairman of Committees admitted that many works bills include things for which approval could be obtained under the general law, as well as things for which only parliamentary approval was possible. Indeed, the element requiring parliamentary approval might be only a very minor element of the whole scheme, in which case the effect would be to allow 'a small tail to wag a large dog'." Indeed, it would be possible for a promoter to search for that small tail. I could give an example, but I will not weary hon. Members with it. Promoters could search for the small tail and attach the dog to it, in order to allow a private Bill to come forward.Again in this area, broadly we are talking about works Bills and powers Bills. My noble Friend, in the evidence that he gave to the Committee, had some very important remarks to make about works Bills:Indeed, where works are at all extensive or controversial I can see the force in the argument that Parliament is not the most suitable forum for determining whether they should be carried out. If, therefore, there is one area more than another in the Private Bill field where an alternative to Private Bill procedure could be usefully explored it seems to me to be that covered by works provisions.495 This is a very important point. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, I have had a decade's experience of sponsoring British railways legislation. The fact is that most of those general powers Bills relate to comparatively small works, but if works are to be either very extensive or very controversial, my noble Friend's comments should be uppermost in everyone's mind. As was said by so many of those who gave evidence to the Committee, the problem is that, on occasions of that sort, petitioners feel intimidated, and indeed inhibited, in coming to Parliament to give evidence in unfamiliar surroundings, and would be much happier and more secure in the atmosphere of some public inquiry.
That leads me to those aspects of the primary legislative changes to which my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) referred. Here, of course, we are concerned principally with British Rail; I will deal with the other matters in a moment. I see that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is in his place on the Front Bench. British Rail is a statutory body, yet, unusually, it obtains its powers by private Bill. Of course, we know that there is an historical reason for that. Over the years British Rail has been the biggest single customer for private Bills.
As I pointed out at the outset, there is a very large number of private Bills in Parliament at the moment. Among the 58 to which I have referred, 13 are rail-related—not British Rail-related, but rail-related. Railway building, whether the big projects such as I mentioned a moment ago, or light railways—trams and so on—is certainly a matter of great significance. It has been argued—although it is not an argument that one would wish to examine in great detail—that one of the reasons for the private Bill procedure is that it provides an opportunity, at least once a year, for a general debate on the railway system.
I cannot believe that it is not possible to find another way to resolve that problem. In the changed circumstances of today there must be a genuine argument for bringing railway building into line with motorway building. I understand the comments that have been made about the fact that, once the draft order has been agreed by the Secretary of State and so on, we are into that situation, but, as was pointed out earlier, British Rail has not lost a Bill. There have been problems with Bills, but none has been lost.
§ Mr. McNair-Wilson
Not yet, but the fact is that the track record so far does not show that people are better off, or more secure, with the present system than they would be in the changed circumstances to which I now want to refer.
§ Mr. Rowe
Does my hon. Friend not agree that a particularly telling example of the kind of issue to which he is referring is the proposition that British Rail should seek the right to build a station, with a colossal car park, in the centre of an area that every local authority in the locality has argued should not be used for that sort of development? By doing that through a private Bill, it would be able to avoid all the planning procedures which such a massive change in the road system would otherwise involve.
§ Mr. McNair-Wilson
Without wishing to be drawn into the detail of the King's Cross legislation, I would support my hon. Friend to the extent that, when I came into the Chamber earlier this afternoon, I was handed a letter by my noble Friend Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, who is also the chairman of English Heritage, making precisely that point and arguing that ancient monuments, buildings and the rest are at risk as a result of this procedure. Therefore, the point is well taken.
Our report suggests that we should provide British Rail with an alternative route. It has been suggested that it should have an alternative route now, but as you know only too well, Madam Deputy Speaker, British Rail requires some significant exemptions to be made available to it in order to build its track. It has to have exemption from nuisance and from interference with statutory undertakings and the rest. No general Act of Parliament currently in place would enable it to proceed except in the way that it does.
I can well understand the attraction to British Rail, or any other promoter, of being able not only to seek powers for particular works but to wrap up within the same Bill many additional powers. In a Bill that I sponsored some three or four years ago, the powers of the British Transport police were altered by a proposal slipped in at the end of the schedules.
The second category that the Committee was concerned about related to procedure, on which there were clearly differences of opinion. I said at the outset that this is a balanced package. One of the problems in the passage of private legislation is the failure of promoters to consult adequately petitioners who are worried about the Bill's effect on them. Many problems may not begin to emerge before the Bill is debated.
The report suggests that a clear explanatory memorandum should set out exactly what the Bill seeks to achieve, giving petitioners an idea of what was in the promoter's mind. There could then be a period of consultation before Parliament became involved.
As those of us who follow these matters know, a promoter's statement is made available with a private Bill to Members of Parliament, usually those concerned with a particular Bill. That is a lengthy and detailed document setting out some explanation of the clauses and what the Bill seeks to achieve. We contend that something along those lines should, of necessity, be made available to all when the Bill is deposited, so that petitioners can find out what is in the promoter's mind.
Allied with that document should be a booklet explaining what the private Bill procedure is all about. In the Library are some notes on how the procedure works but, with respect to those who drew up that document, it is, of necessity, fairly slight and limited. Her Majesty's Stationery Office should provide a proper booklet which can be bought by those who are anxious to know how the private Bill procedure may affect them.
§ Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)
If such a handbook were published for the benefit of the public, would it lead to a greater demand for private Bills as a result of the public feeling that, having studied it, they wanted to bring forward a private Bill for their own purposes?
§ Mr. McNair-Wilson
At no point in our deliberations did we look at the possibility of abolishing private Bills. To 497 that extent, the private Bill is part of our democratic process. It is a manifestation of the citizen's right to petition Parliament. If one explains it in such a way that a citizen might feel that a private Bill would be appropriate, always remembering the remarks that I made earlier on the need for legislation, it would be doing good rather than harm and would be a sensible addition to our democratic way of life.
§ Mr. Gerald Bowden (Dulwich)
Can my hon. Friend give me some guidance on a practice that I find rather confusing—that of picking off a project piecemeal? Let me take a hypothetical instance of a promoter who wishes to promote a rail terminal but makes no reference to the route leading to that terminal. Those affected by the route have no locus standi in objecting to the terminal; so, on a narrow legalistic ground, they are ruled out of order and are voiceless in making their opposition to the terminal known.
§ Mr. McNair-Wilson
I hear what my hon. Friend says and I guess that he is referring to the King's Cross legislation. He will know, as will the House, that some 280 petitions have already been received and the locus of those petitioners is being examined. I am sure that my hon. Friend's remarks will have been heard by the British Rail board and others and noted. He highlights one of the problems to which I referred a moment ago.
In the second section on procedure, the Committee made a recommendation, largely as a result of a detailed and interesting memorandum supplied by the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central, the Chairman of Ways and Means, on the starting date for private Bills, which is November. It was thought that it would be sensible to bring it back a month to October so that Second Readings could start somewhat earlier. There has been some concern about that proposal for a number of reasons, with which I shall not weary the House, and it has been decided that at best a fortnight, not a full month, could be saved. I cannot speak for other Committee members, but I want to make it clear that, if there were insuperable difficulties, I would be prepared to be persuaded. I think that the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central would agree with that interpretation of the resistance that there has been.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House talked about the carry-over motion. Carrying over from one Session of Parliament to another, or, in the case of a Bill with which I was particularly concerned, from one Parliament to another, distinctly separates the private Bill from the public Bill. The public Bill has to be dealt with within the 12-month Session. That carry-over places tremendous additional power in the hands of the promoter.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) pointed out earlier that British Rail had never lost a Bill. Promoters relying on that carry-over principle will always, in my view and I believe in the view of the Committee, have an advantage over petitioners, if for no other reason than that private Bills are not cheap and it is likely that a rich promoter will stay the course rather longer than a poor petitioner. That is why, in my earlier remarks about increasing the cost of private Bills so that the promoter effectively pays about £5,000 per House, we kept the petitioner's figure at £20, and there is no question of raising that.
498 Our suggestion that no more than two carry-overs would normally be accepted is reasonable, bearing in mind that there are those who have already spent time and money, either petitioning or as part of the promoter's group, whom it might not be sensible to require to start the Bill all over again.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
Is it not a fact that a carry-over motion can be objected to in the House and that the Chairman of Ways and Means will at some stage find time for a debate? So we have it in our power to stop a Bill carrying over to the next Session. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it might concentrate the minds of promoters wonderfully if we turned down a carry-over motion on a future occasion? The King's Cross measure might be a good one to start with.
§ Mr. McNair-Wilson
The hon. Gentleman makes am important point, which relates to my early remarks concerning the assumption that, if private Bills are in existence, they must be right—the point about the preamble and so on—and his intervention is further evidence of the assumption that the carry-over is an automatic advantage which is not normally objected to, am issue to which I shall return.
A suggestion in the report to which reference has not been made is that of establishing a private legislation panel of Members. The Committee took evidence from the parliamentary Bar, the members of which are more conversant with private Bills than any individual Member. In its evidence on 2 December 1987, on page 137, it said:The procedures under which private bill committees operate are in some respects old fashioned, ill defined and unsophisticated. There is abundant scope for reforms which would greatly improve the quality of this part of the decision making process. It has become apparent in recent years that Members of the House of Commons find it increasingly difficult to take part continuously in the quasi-judicial work of the committees; and thus there is a widening gulf in the quality of the decision making process between the two Houses.That was stern criticism. It was being said that these Bills are not being properly considered—because Members are not sufficiently interested or because they cannot strike out five or six weeks from their diaries—and, as a result, the decision-making process is threatened. I appreciate that. Indeed, it could be argued that the genesis of the inquiry which the Joint Committee undertook was that at least one hon. Lady was unable to strike out a long enough time from her diary to enable her to attend.
I said in my opening remarks that there was a big difference between a Committee on a private Bill and a Standing Committee on a public Bill. In a Standing Committee, the sides are broadly balanced and there are Whips to arrange pairs and so on, and in normal circumstances a reasonably civilised regime can be established.
But with a private Bill we have something more akin to a jury in a court—it is quasi-judicial—and if Members absent themselves from the Committee and it is inquorate and can no longer undertake its work, the corridors of Parliament may be full of silks and other legal advisers, not to mention the witnesses, petitioners and the rest, all of whom are unable to take part in the work of the Committee because it can no longer operate, with the attendant expense and inefficiency to which that must lead.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett
Will the hon. Gentleman explain the proposed panel in more detail? It would seem 499 to place an even greater burden on Members. My hon. Friends the Members for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) and for Bradford, North (Mr. Wall) gave up a great deal of time recently when dealing with Bills. Would not a panel demand a few Members having to repeat that process of giving up a great deal of their time? While I appreciate that it might be a more efficient way of proceeding, would it be a reasonable request to make of Members?
§ Mr. McNair-Wilson
I was about to deal with that point. I have long held the belief, having been in the House for 25 years, that many Members in all parts of the House would like to be involved in a job of work apart from the normal day-to-day activity of looking after their constituents, which is their primary job. In other words, there are Members who, if they recognised that a panel considering private Bills had been established, might want to spend some of their parliamentary life in this interesting and important part of the legislative machine.
I hope that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) is not construing my remarks as referring to a press-ganged group of individuals forced on to a panel. That is far outside what the Committee had in mind. They would be volunteers, and perhaps it would be the same route as the Chairmen's Panel and others would follow. If such a panel were established, one would, hopefully, not have the problem of Members absenting themselves, because they would know what they were in for.
We are dealing with a large legislative programme in this Session from the point of view of private Bills. We would have the satisfaction of well-manned committees, and perhaps the Whips and other responsible bodies in all parties could take note of the extra work being done by those Members, and some compensating lightening of the rein might be generally available.
§ Mr. Spearing
While, for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman advanced, there might be dangers in such a concept, the disadvantages might be overcome if Members made themselves available—just as some do in respect of the Finance Bill—for a year or two for this work and without the consequential rewards to which the hon. Gentleman referred.
§ Mr. McNair-Wilson
I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman says, but if we take the voices in the House today and consider whether individual Members want to serve on the Committee dealing with the King's Cross Bill, we might get a clear sign that not all are greatly enthusiastic to do so. However, some would wish to do so. The Joint Committee's suggestion would not commit any Member to anything particularly difficult. It is an idea that should be examined.
§ Sir John Strutting Thomas (Monmouth)
What my hon. Friend is suggesting seems a feasible proposition, which we might try as an experiment. There is an old saying about volunteers being better than pressed men. I have never been aware of a paucity of supply to join the Chairman's Panel. This proposal is worth an experiment, because the work is time-consuming. I have met colleagues who, unexpectedly, have told me how much they enjoy the work of the private Bill procedure, so, if only as an experiment, it is worth trying it out.
§ Mr. McNair-Wilson
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who exactly describes my own feelings. The Committee was unanimous on that point, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will at least consider the possibility of examining whether such a panel could be established, which will be important in the years ahead.
My right hon. Friend made reference to the recommendation to remove the oral objection procedure. At the start of my remarks, I commented that there should be proper consultation so that no time is wasted. I go further. The point should be reached where a decision one way or another can be made, so that Parliament can move on to deal with other, perhaps more important matters. The oral objection followed by the blocking motion gives an indication to the Chairman of Ways and Means that a Second Reading debate will be necessary. The oral objection gives the first indication that not everyone is happy with the Bill. Subsequently, a motion appears on the Order Paper.
The Select Committee is anxious to remove an almost unnecessary procedure, because the blocking motion can go on the Order Paper anyway. It was suggested that a reason be given in the blocking motion so that the promoter will have an indication of where the individuals concerned felt the Bill had problems. That is all part of signalling what is wrong as quickly as possible, so that discussion can take place and so that one can avoid the minefield of procedural hurdles that currently exists.
I hear what my right hon. Friend says about the individual constituency Member, and it may be that my right hon. Friend will want to consider altering the numbers concerned. However, a blocking motion that indicates what is wrong with the Bill would be in everyone's interest, as it would allow the promoter to take corrective action. That is why we suggest a simple majority for the closure motion. We are all familiar with the existing arrangements, which require 100 right hon. and hon. Members to go through the Aye Lobby, and all the rest of it. Again that is a form of trip wire. Many right hon. and hon. Members know that, with a small private Bill, perhaps taken on a Thursday evening, when there is no particularly contentious business to follow, it is not easy for a sponsor to rustle up 100 right hon. and hon. Members to go through the Aye Lobby. I do not say that it cannot be done, but the Committee suggests that a decision should be reached by simple majority.
The original intention was to ensure that nothing came before the House that could be achieved in some other way. We would prove the preamble to start with, and the business should then be progressed as swiftly as possible so that, if necessary, the Committee could consider the Bill in a thorough and detailed way, with advocates for both parties arguing their case. Procedural trip wires, attractive though they may be, do not serve any useful function other than to make matters generally difficult. I ask my right hon. Friend to consider the suggestion for a blocking motion alongside that for closure on a simple majority.
§ Mr. Moate
As my hon. Friend knows, I support his remarks and his recommendations. However, does he concur in the view expressed by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) that, in removing the trip wires and hurdles, it would be unfair if we did not maintain the balance of the package, which would make it easier for petitioners and objectors, at public inquiries or otherwise, to have their case put clearly?
§ Mr. McNair-Wilson
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the package concept; it needs underscoring the whole time.
I turn to one of the proposals with which my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) is himself closely associated—the Joint Committee option. That option is already available, but it is not automatically drawn to the attention of the parties concerned. In the case of some Bills, it can be a waste of everyone's time to have two Committees—all the second House problems—when, if the parties agree, a Joint Committee could solve all the difficulties. The suggestion is that it should be made very clear to those concerned with a private Bill that the joint option exists. If the parties agree that that route should be followed, the Joint Committee should be used, rather than take up additional time elsewhere.
In drawing to the end of my remarks, I want to comment briefly on matters of no lesser importance, but which are dealt with at the end of the report. I refer, first, to Scottish private legislation. The Select Committee's recommendations are broadly that the procedural changes it proposes should, as nearly as possible, affect Scotland as well. In considering Scotland, the Committee's real difficulty was the view widely expressed by those who gave evidence on that aspect—that the Scottish Office is not always good enough and that information is not always readily available from it.
I understand that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has already taken action on that matter, and that some criticisms have already been dealt with. The Secretary of State for Scotland is rather different from any other, and contact with the Scottish Office is important when legislation is being passed. The report proposes a tidying up of better relations with the Scottish Office, which it feels is particularly necessary.
As to the special procedure orders of 1945, the House will know that they were largely brought into being as a consequence of the need for reconstruction after the second world war. Usually they worked well, but a glaring omission that concerned a number of people concerned the Okehampton bypass. In recommendation 51, the Committee suggests:If a petition of general objection is referred to a joint committee, and the joint committee finds in favour of the petitioners, then the Government ought not to over-rule the committee by means of a Confirmation Bill.I was delighted that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House made special reference to that matter because, with the one exception I mentioned, that procedure works well.
The Committee endeavoured to produce not just a balanced package but one that re-establishes the balance between Parliament, the citizen, the promoter and the petitioner that offers a blueprint for a procedural system that should, with some luck, last as long as those that, have been examined over the past 30 years.
There is no doubt that private legislation will be with us for as long as parliamentary democracy exists. However, there is no use denying that pressures on Parliament today are much greater than they were when I entered the House 25 years ago. We now have European legislation and other matters to consider, and the varying scope of private Bills has increased so substantially that I hope the House finds favour with the report and will accept its recommendations.
§ The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Paul Dean)
It is unusual but not unprecedented for an occupant of the Chair to seek to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, for permission to speak from the Floor of the House.
As the Leader of the House said when opening the debate, the Chairman of Ways and Means has many responsibilities relating to private Bills. It was felt, therefore, that a "Ways and Means view" might assist the House in its deliberations. That is the reason for my intervention.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for the tribute that he paid to my right hon. Friend the Chairman of Ways and Means, who was hoping to speak in the debate. Unfortunately, he is unavoidably absent; therefore, the task falls to me. I believe that my remarks will have the support of the Chairman of Ways and Means.
I join in congratulating the Joint Committee on its wide-ranging report. In particular, as has already been said, the House is grateful to the hon. Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) for his sure hand in guiding the Joint Committee through the complexities of private Bill procedure, as well as the procedues relating to special procedure orders and Scottish private legislation. Under his guidance, the Joint Committee has carried out a major and extensive analysis of those matters.
The Joint Committee was kind enough to invite the Chairman of Ways and Means to give evidence to it twice, and also to involve him in its final decision-making process. Therefore, he had the opportunity to see and, for the most part, to agree with, its final conclusions. Subject to one or two matters, which I shall raise presently, he strongly supported the Committee's suggested changes to the procedures of the House. The Joint Committee has seen fit to adopt many of the reforms that the Chairman of Ways and Means suggested in his evidence.
The House will be relieved to hear that I do not propose to repeat in detail all the points made by the Chairman in his evidence. However, some remarks may be helpful to the House in connection with a number of the proposed changes. As the shadow Leader of the House and the hon. Member for New Forest emphasised, the Committee was concerned about the share of Parliament's valuable time that was taken up by the promotion of Bills on behalf of private interests. That reflects the view held by hon. Members on both sides of the House that the burden of private legislation should be considerably lessened.
There will always be a need for some private legislation, but much could be done to lighten the burden on the House. The Joint Committee's recommendations—set out in part 2 of its report and summarised in recommendations 1 to 10 in paragraph 201—will go a long way to achieve that objective, which is especially desired by those hon. Members who have been closeted in an opposed private Bill Committee for any appreciable length of time.
In addition, the Joint Committee has sought to close an unwelcome loophole in our procedures that has permitted promoters to avoid planning procedures that might expose them to trouble and expense. It is clearly undesirable that the will of Parliament, as expressed in statutory planning procedures, should be evaded by another form of our procedures. I commend to the House the remarks in the report about planning procedures.
503 A major source of disgruntlement among hon. Members about the present procedures for dealing with private Bills is the arrangement for taking opposed Bills in a specially convened Committee of Members who are completely disinterested about the Bill's fate. Sometimes, these Committees' stages can be lengthy, which has resulted in hon. Members feeling that their unwilling presence on a private Bill Committee—a type of Committee which, uniquely in our procedure, they are obliged to attend—takes them away from business in the House that they regard as their primary duty. Some Members find it hard to justify their presence on a Committee dealing with matters related to a part of the country that is probably far from their own constituency. They often preface their complaints with, "I wasn't elected to make judgments on this."
While one might not agree with that view of the duties of hon. Members, I sympathise with it. We live in an age when the local Member of Parliament is expected to take a close and active interest in his or her constituency. Gone are the days when a Member could seek election to a seat on the base of a promise not to visit his constituency.
The First Deputy Chairman
Though we may sometimes envy those more leisurely days, we must never forget that they are past. We may therefore wish strongly to support the Joint Committee's suggestion—to which the hon. Member for New Forest referred, and which should suit modern working practice better than the present system—that a panel of Members should be created from which members of opposed Bill Committees should be selected. They could be selected exclusively from the panel or on the basis of a proportion—such as three panel Members to two non-panel Members on each committee. Service on a new panel of members of opposed Bill Committees might act as an excellent apprenticeship for service on the Chairmen's Panel. That suggestion has already been made in the debate by a number of hon. Members.
Such a scheme would certainly give hon. Members who were interested an opportunity to develop the sensitivity to our procedures and the common sense that are necessary attributes of members of the Chairmen's Panel.
We might also support the suggestion that the number of Members on a Committee should be raised to five, and the rule requiring Members who failed to attend to be reported to the House should be abolished. Those changes, combined with a lightening of the burden of private business, as a result of the adoption of the other recommendations in the report, should go a long way to satisfy the complaints relating to service on opposed Bill Committees.
The only caveat to be registered at this juncture is that the selection of panel members to serve on particular Bills should remain with the Committee of Selection. In many cases, private Bills are fairly uncontentious, but for the sake of those which are highly contentious and hard fought, it would be a mistake to allow the Chairman of Ways and Means, or any other single member, to choose members to serve on an unopposed Bill Committee.
The Chairman of Ways and Means differs from the Joint Committee over recommendation 37, that an option should be offered to parties of a Joint Committee stage, 504 which would cut down costs and time on both sides. That option, the broad aims of which the Chairman of Ways and Means supports, will fail to be taken up in those cases which most deserve the use of the procedure. The proposal should be stronger: we favour a period in which a Joint Committee stage is mandatory.
As has been mentioned in the debate, each year it is necessary to allow private Bills to be carried over from one Session to the next. That is partly caused by, and partly causes, a log jam in private business, and that is inconvenient. The Joint Committee has suggested in recommendations 16 and 17, that only in exceptional circumstances should private Bills be permitted to be carried over for more than two Sessions, and that a private Bill should be expected to complete its progress within a single Session.
The Joint Committee also recommends that requests for carry-overs should not be acceded to unless the promoters can show that they have not been dilatory. I am pleased to tell the House that the Chairman of Ways and Means is careful to ensure that promoters' agents do not expect a carry-over as of right. He expects that most Bills should be able to pass through their stages in two Sessions—rather than one, as suggested by the Joint Committee in recommendation 16.
The House may wish to support the principle underlying the recommendations, which is that Bills must proceed with all possible expedition. We advise the House, however, not to require them to become rules in Standing Orders. The present system works in a flexible manner, allowing the application of the principles to the best advantage of the House. There will always be Bills of great importance, possibly of national importance, which will be fought hard and will require a greater allocation of parliamentary time than would normally be politic. I hope that the House will continue to have confidence in the ability of the Chairman of Ways and Means and his successors to apply a suitable discipline in choosing which Bills may be submitted to the House for its consent that they be carried over. The final choice in each case, of course, lies with the House.
The Joint Committee also considered the position of Bills that are interrupted by the Dissolution of Parliament before a general election. It suggested in recommendation 18 that such Bills should not, as they are now, be carried over by means of a single portmanteau resolution, but should be subject to separate revival motions in the new Parliament. The Committee drew attention to the comparative lack of pressure on parliamentary time at the beginning of a Parliament, and the need for a new Parliament to re-examine the principle behind each Bill.
The Chairman of Ways and Means feels that that idea is unrealistic in its assessment of the Government's willingness to find time for debates on separate Bills, and that it overlooks the fact that Bills not passed by the House of Commons and requiring a carry-over on Dissolution will involve at least an opportunity for debate on Third Reading. In any event, we should keep in sight the basic principle that promoters should not be disadvantaged by events unconnected with the merits of their Bills, such as a Dissolution.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett
Surely, after a general election, when the composition of Parliament has changed, there is a considerable advantage in obtaining a vote on the principle of a Bill as soon as possible. If the vote took place 505 only on Third Reading, would it not be very unfair on the Members who had served on the Committee if, because of a substantial change in membership of the House, the principle was no longer acceptable? Carry-over has the advantage of securing a vote fairly quickly to establish whether the principle of a Bill will carry from one Parliament to the next.
The First Deputy Chairman
I understand the point made by the hon. Gentleman. The matter can be argued either way, and clearly requires careful consideration before any changes are made.
The final point of substance that I wish to raise relates to the proposed requirements in recommendations 20 and 21 that blocking motions should contain reasons for the blocking of Bills, and that "blocks" should be signed by at least six Members. It is difficult to see how a system of reasoned amendments could be policed; presumably the Chairman of Ways and Means or another Officer of the House would be called on either to limit excessively prolix arguments or to judge whether a purely formal reason was good enough.
The Chairman of Ways and Means supports the possibility of some sort of statement in the "block" explaining why the Bill is opposed only in so far as it is a voluntary method of communicating the reasons for opposition to the promoters so that negotiations may start. His objection to a minimum number of names being required before a blocking motion becomes effective is similarly based on difficulty of enforcement and lack of real utility. After all, few hon. Members are so deeply unpopular that they could not find five friends to come to their aid by lending their names to a blocking motion.
Hon. Members may be rather surprised that a speech that started with praise should continue in an apparently rather critical vein. Let me therefore commend the Joint Committee's recommendation 39, relating to fees, and encourage the House earnestly to support its speedy introduction in time for the next Session. The House may also support the view of the Chairman of Ways and Means—not mentioned in the report—that, to save the administrative trouble and expense of pursuing small debts in respect of petitions against Bills, prepayment of the fee should be a condition of a party's being heard before the Committee.
I hope that those points on matters of detail have in no way camouflaged the support given by the Chairman of Ways and Means and myself to the broad principles of the report, and our appreciation of the Joint Committee's work. The Committee came into being because the procedures of the House were seen to be outmoded. Much contained in the report, especially in relation to Committee proceedings, will go far to revolutionise arrangements for dealing with private legislation if the House lends its support to the Joint Committee's proposals. We all look forward with great interest to the contributions of other hon. Members, and hope that a clear green light can be given to the adoption of the best material in the report.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for calling me immediately after the Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means, as it gives me a good opportunity to express hon. Members' views on the work done by the Chairman of Ways and Means, his colleagues and his staff. Some of us are aware of matters 506 with which they must involve themselves; the fact that they work silently and invisibly is a tribute to their activities, and may not be appreciated by others. It also marks the unusual feature of the Chairman or his deputy speaking in the House, and, indeed, the essential nature of today's debate.
We are not involved here with matters of partisan politics or of ordinary parliamentary procedure; we are, I submit, discussing what the future rules of the high court of Parliament shall be. They are not the rules that relate to our public legislation or party political philosophy. Almost all, by their very nature, are outside the normal political battle.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) and his Committee for their careful piece of work. If, at first glance, my comments seem to the hon. Gentleman to be picking apart what he considers a balanced package, I hope that he will understand that that is because I wish to produce—after a few preliminaiy remarks—what I hope is a coherent broader approach that suggests ways of achieving the aims of his Committee, perhaps through an alternative package or at least an alternative concept.
Before I do that, however, let me comment on one or two aspects of private Bill procedure in general. I have been involved in it for nearly 20 years, in many different guises: objecting to Bills, moving instructions to Bills, moving motions to Bills and, finally, serving as Chairman of the Committee considering a controversial Bill, the Hampshire (Lyndhurst Bypass) Bill. Some thoughts have come to me over the years, and I hope that they may be helpful to others.
First, should we not think a little about terminology? "Private legislation" is not private at all; anything that happens in the House, and anything that is legislative, is public. There is also the problem of private Members' Bills, which are not private legislation. Private legislation promoted by public bodies—including, as I recall, the Greater London council—may be in the general public interest, or conceivably in a private interest. Private legislation promoted by a private body may be generally agreed to concern the public interest. We do not do ourselves much good with our terminology.
I suggest, for want of a better solution, that we begin to distinguish between externally and internally promoted legislation, some of which is promoted by the Government and some by hon. Members in their own right. Whether we can find better words for "external" or "internal"— perhaps find some appropriate Norman French—I am not sure, but I suggest that we have a go.
The second aspect, the rights of promotion, has already been touched on by the hon. Member for New Forest. One of the tests of a democracy is who can promote legislation. In this country, theoretically and perhaps practically for matters such as a deceased wife's sister Bill and that sort of thing, any individual can promote a Bill and petition the House that it be passed or that it be not passed—hence the phrase "petitions for Bills". The right is not confined to hon. Members. Compared with the constitutions of assemblies in other countries, our is enormously flexible in this respect, so I would be very wary of restricting, in theory at least, that ancient and proper democratic right.
All of us, but particularly my hon. Friends, are worried about what is regarded as an abuse of that right or an inappropriate use of it, particularly when, by its use, bodies that already possess power or substantial resources 507 can appear to override the rights of individuals. That is where an increasing concern has given rise to many of the matters that we have been discussing.
The abuses or inappropriate uses fall into several broad categories. The first is the proof of the preamble, the averment. We referred to this in our special report on the Hampshire (Lyndhurst Bypass) Bill, HC 650 87/8, where we found that although legislation was required, it was not of the kind that was placed before us. It was the example par excellence of the tail wagging the dog: a Bill in Parliament was required but it was not the Bill that was placed before us.
Another category of concern about the extent of private legislation is where Bills appear to cut out the preliminary procedures that one might expect, particularly in matters relating to strategic planning. King's Cross has been mentioned; it has enormous strategic planning significance. So has a Bill that we may expect next year—I do not know what it will be called; perhaps the high speed British Rail Channel tunnel Bill or Channel tunnel route Bill.
Perhaps I can give an example whose implications are now being realised and which hon. Members may not even have heard of, the London Docklands Light Railway (City Extension) Act 1986. Its passage triggered the whole of the Canary wharf development which will have enormous strategic implications for London and the south-east and will probably spawn its own railway Bills next Session.
The next category has not so far been mentioned. It is where a private Bill can have party political or party philosophical overtones or have economic implications for the country. The North Killingholme Cargo Terminal Bill for the importation of coal for electricity comes into that category. Much more hung on that Bill than the building of a port. I suspect that the Felixstowe Bill had similar implications.
We have, therefore, several categories of Bills between which we may have to distinguish in future as we consider how far the so-called private Bill procedure is appropriate.
Before I return to that point, I want to comment on the whole question of railway Bills. This is where I must disagree strongly with my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), on the balance of considerations that he has reached in respect of these Bills. I take at once the point of the hon. Member for New Forest, that up till now they have not failed to get through, but he and, perhaps, the Committee may have overlooked the hidden, negative factor of the need for a Bill. The fact that there is a need for a Bill may assist in filtering and tailoring the provisions that can be got through. It acts as a silent censor; there is a need to come here, where hon. Members from any part of the country may object because they dislike a level crossing or whatever it may be. I am not, therefore, sure that I would accept that they have not failed to get through as a good reason for saying that we need not have them at all.
I understand that many of the small powers relating to footbridges, underpasses and so on, could be dealt with initially by planning application. That might be an advantage. But if it means that we should say that we do not want railway Bills here at all—which seems to be the purport of recommendation 6 and paragraph 47—I challenge that strongly for another reason, which I will come to in a moment.
§ Mr. Spearing
The hon. Gentleman points the way to something that I should like to say later. Perhaps I may pursue a narrow way for the moment. It was conceded by my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras that transferring to the Secretary of State the final decision on these matters would deprive Parliament of its present long-stop and final powers. I immediately ask if we should, in principle, hand over powers from the legislature to the Executive. In principle, I say that we should not. If we do so, we must consider very carefully the reasons.
The best argument that my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras could advance was that since the proposal would get through in any case, in view of the Government majority, we might as well let the Secretary of State for Transport have the power from the beginning. I cannot go down that road. Given certain suggestions that I shall make shortly, it is an inappropriate recommendation. I am sorry to disagree with the Committee on that matter—
§ Mr. Spearing
I will come to the point in a minute.—particularly in view of the fact that we may be entering a new era of railway building; if the motorways get any more crowded and demand for travel and freight transport goes up, that will be inevitable. We have already seen the beginning of a new era of light railway building. Docklands is a case in point. If it had been a tramway there, rather than a light railway, it should not have gone to the Secretary of State, for reasons that I have already advanced.
So I suggest that we may be doing Parliament a disservice. Given the safeguards that I shall come to in a moment, I am sure that everybody would consider that power should not go to the Executive but should be retained by the House.
§ Mr. Spearing
That is logically the case, but I would hesitate to argue at this stage that Parliament should take more powers to itself, particularly on motorways—that is a motorway that I will not go down. All I am saying is that we should not give up the ultimate powers that we, as opposed to the Government, now possess.
Nevertheless I understand why the Committee made its suggestion. The absence of any widespread and proper inquiry into the strategic implications of a railway is a great gap, which could have been filled by the Executive but which it has, on this occasion, chosen not to fill.
It is much easier for petitioners and objectors to appear before a local public inquiry than to come to this place. I have done both. Members of the public are inhibited from appearing before a Committee, where they see people wearing wigs and gowns. The public are more at ease if 509 they appear before an inspector at a public inquiry where there is greater informality. Ideally, we need a combination of both.
Hon. Members will say that that would take more time. It may. However, if we are to maintain our democratic procedures, we have to pay the price. Time may be one of them. Big interests are often in a hurry, whereas citizens often say, "Let's take time to get it right." Moreover, the locus of those who petition this place against a Bill is very much narrower than their locus when they appear before a public inquiry.
The question that arises, therefore, is how we can combine the democratic safeguards of both procedures. Recommendations 20 to 22 would bring about a change in the procedure. Blocking motions could be used by hon. Members. I am very concerned about recommendations 20 to 22. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) agrees that over the years the powers of individual Members to require a debate have been used. Hon. Members may believe that those powers have been abused. Even if that were conceded—I do not concede it—I do not believe that any diminution of the power of individual Members of Parliament should be accepted without great thought. The individual Member represents individuals outside Parliament. Any diminution of our power to delay private legislation, to require consultation behind the scenes, or to require some form of just and proper concession would lead to the powers of hon. Members being forfeited. Therefore, I am not convinced by recommendations 20 to 22.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett
As I understand the report, all that it is saying is that if we did not follow the procedure at 2.30, when we sit in our places and shout "Object" to the Second Reading or Committee stage of a Bill, we should be able instead to table a motion in the Private Bill Office. I do not mind too much about coming here at 2.30 to object, but it is an arcane procedure. I should have thought that it would be just as easy to table a motion as to come here in person.
§ Mr. Spearing
I apologise if I have misunderstood my hon. Friend, but I thought that reasons had to be given. Recommendation 21 says:Blocking motions should not be effective unless they are signed by at least six Members.Recommendation 22 says:The procedure for objecting orally to a bill should be abolished.I believe that those recommendations will diminish rather than enhance the powers of individual Members. Abolition of the closure by 100 Members would, I believe, benefit the promoter. I am not sure about that, either.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
If my hon. Friend looks at today's Order Paper and the private business after Prayers he will see that, apart from the Associated British Ports (No. 2) Bill and the King's Cross Railways Bill, to which both my hon. Friend and I object, six hon. Members do not object to any of the other Bills. I have no constituency interest in the Hythe, Kent, Marina Bill but it has been put to me that a number of principles are involved and that the House ought to discuss them on Second Reading. According to regulation (21), I should have to find three other hon. Members to add their names to the Hythe, Kent, Marina 510 Bill. That would not be too difficult. It is a bit of a nonsense, like early-day motions. Nevertheless, I do not believe that we should be placed at a great disadvantage.
§ Mr. Spearing
It is a matter of judgment. The British Film Institute Southbank Bill is on the Order Paper and my hon. Friend the Member for Den ton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) is the sole objector. If the rule were to be changed, I suggest that he would be placed at a minimal disadvantage.
I turn to the alternative package approach, which I base on the agreeable recommendation 1. I do not think that the fact that this is the first recommendation is accidental. It says:Promoters of a private bill should be required to prove before the committee on the bill that private legislation is necessary to secure the primary purpose of the bill.I was a member of a Committee when the preamble of a Bill was not proved. The Committee sat for three weeks. That disrupted my life and the lives of my three colleagues. The proceedings lasted for 80 hours. Therefore, I welcome wholeheartedly that recommendation. However, I wonder whether it ought to apply before or after Second Reading. If it applied before Second Reading, it would save people a lot of time.
The hon. Member for New Forest referred to a diversion. I shall take that one step further. Why should we not introduce a perimeter procedure or perimeter fence, or—to use an agricultural analogy—an electric fence: moreover, to mix one's metaphors, an electric fence that, by means of radar, directs people to the gaps? In other words, a greater form of perimeter examination than we have at the moment ought to be put in place to reflect the general will of the House on the type of private legislation that it believes is acceptable.
It must not be just a question of proving the preamble and the averment, and the tail wagging the dog. Perhaps we ought not to accept big Bills with huge implications before certain other procedures have been exhausted. That would be a novelty, as would be the non-acceptance of Bills that have public policy implications which have not been properly debated and defined by the Government or others.
I accept that that would be a radical change, but it would be a development of an existing procedure. Some of the machinery is already in place. Much of it is invisible and much of it is conducted by learned Clerks and their associates. There are the examiners and there is the Court of Referees. At the moment, the court is concerned only with decisions on locus and related matters. The Standing Orders Committee meets occasionally. It deals with the compliance of private Bills with Standing Orders and occasionally it allows an exemption, even if compliance with Standing Orders is shown not to have taken place.
Why should we not develop a code that would mean that a petitioner for a Bill would have to go through a certain number of hoops before the Second Reading Motion is tabled by the Chairman of Ways and Means? The code would have to be agreed according to precedent and it would have to reflect the views of the House. Almost inevitably, it would have to be developed by a Joint Committee of both Houses. The manpower implications might be relieved if it were to be a Joint Committee that assumed the functions of a court. People might ask why that Committee should have such huge powers. But we do that already by giving a Private Bill Committee the power to dispose of a Bill under Standing Orders, unless there is 511 some exceptional procedure. The Bill in which I was involved was sunk by a Committee which was committed by the rest of the House to listen to all the evidence, to consider it in great detail and to make a decision. I suggest that the same principle might be applied to some perimeter body, perhaps multi-functional, appointed by the House to supervise the general procedures relating to private legislation. If that suggestion were developed, at least in concept, it might be able to deal with some of the problems that have been properly identified by the Joint Committee and give cause for hon. Members' complaints.
There would be several advantages to such a system. It would maintain the final powers of Parliament to decide and would not transfer to the Executive any decisions that are currently taken by Parliament. It would maintain hon. Members' individual rights to represent the interests of their constituents, and, therefore, defend the liberty of the subject; properly supervised and worked, it would restrain and perhaps restrict the promotion of private legislation that some hon. Members or the entire House might consider inappropriate to current circumstances.
I hope that, in considering such proposals, Parliament will evolve from its ancient procedures and develop all that is necessary in this place for the common good and the protection of individuals and their liberties.
§ 7.1 pm
§ Mr. Gerald Bowden (Dulwich)
I welcome the report and congratulate the Joint Committee which produced it. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) on his masterly exposition and the clarity with which he set out the problems and the recommendations which might solve them.
Like many hon. Members I was acquiescent to the procedures of the House until I came up against a particular issue which affected me and my constituents directly and personally. It was not until British Rail proposed a recent private Bill with implications that went beyond the terms of that Bill that I realised the inadequacies of the present procedure. My views reflect those of many of my constituents affected by the proposals in the Bill. All right-minded and reasonable people recognise that from time to time individuals have to make sacrifices in the interests of the majority. Most people are prepared to accept those sacrifices as long as they feel that the system under which those sacrifices are made is fair and based upon equity and justice, and, moreover, one in which they have the right to be heard and make their views known. The private Bill procedure and practice in the House is defective on one, two or three of those points.
Recently I have been involved in opposing the King's Cross Railways Bill. As drafted, the Bill is self-contained and merely makes reference to British Rail's promotion of a terminal in north London. I understand that it makes no reference whatsoever to the routes leading to that terminal, but we all know that that terminal would not exist in isolation and would have direct consequences for the routes that lead to it. The Bill implies that other Bills will be brought forward. The very existence of the Bill to establish a terminal at King's Cross predetermines other consequences for the routes which lead to it. Those who are directly affected by it, not only in the King's Cross area, but in south London, south-east London and Kent, 512 all the way to Folkestone, realise that their lives will be changed by a proposal about which they have no opportunity whatsoever to make their voices heard and make their opposition known. That, coupled with the rather antiquated mumbo-jumbo which surrounds so many of our procedures, makes them feel that they are unable to articulate and voice their opposition and they are opposed by those who, through cunning draftsmanship and legalistic strategems, deny them the opportunity to state their opposition.
When they have got over the first legal hurdle of putting in a petition, which seems to require witchcraft spells to make it understandable in its interpretation, they have to appear before a Court of Referees, which appears to interpret their opposition or rule them out of order on very narrow legalistic lines, and they feel that they are being denied basic justice. If our constituents come to the House to voice their opposition to a measure which will dramatically change their lives, their families, their homes and their communities, and have no opportunity to make their voices heard and are ruled out, we have progressed very little beyond the middle ages and it is high time to reform our procedures and make them more responsive and more accessible to those affected by proposed legislation.
I am pleased that the Joint Committee report contains some proposals which appear to alleviate the problems which I identified, relating the principle to the particular. Recommendation 13 states:Each House should incorporate environmental impact assessment".Regrettably, British Rail's proposals for King's Cross and for the route that runs through my constituency show no evidence whatsoever that there has been any environmental assessment of effects on the human environment, the natural environment and the urban environment. The proposals appear to have been cobbled together. No doubt in due course some glossy document will be produced, purporting to address the environmental issues, but that will be a piece of icing, or an afterthought, on the basic proposals.
Another principle which appears to have been overlooked, or to which only lip service has been paid, is consultation. The only consultation which British Rail had before producing its proposals for King's Cross or for the route was a public meeting which in no way could be regarded as consultation. It was merely a confrontation at which the spokesman for British Rail batted a straight bat the whole way, conceded nothing and accepted none of the views that were expressed at the time. People feel that the battle was lost before anything was on the pitch. If we, as Members of Parliament are conniving with and acceding to procedures which leave people with a sense of injustice, it is high time that we changed those procedures and implemented the recommendations in the report.
§ Mr. Moate
I understand my hon. Friend's argument and I am most impressed with his eloquence. We understand the sense of grievance among his constituents, but why does he believe that a public inquiry—the solution that we favour—apart from allowing them a hearing, might produce a more beneficial result from their point of view?
§ Mr. Bowden
My hon. Friend prompts me to address a point that I might have overlooked. There is a feeling that proposals put forward by private Bill follow the salami 513 principle where a slice is taken off here and there individually so that they are not noticed elsewhere. What is proposed now is a Channel tunnel at one end linking us to France and a terminal at the other end where trains will arrive, but there is no discussion about what lies in between. I imagine that British Rail will put forward proposals which treat the route as a whole. From what I can see, under our procedures British Rail could take it station by station. It could pick the route off, cutting the slices even thinner. So what we would have would not be a major planning operation, as it should be, but several mini-plans which together would have a dramatic effect which could not be recognised at the beginning.
As I understand it, the essence of the report is that if a major planning operation affects different areas, it should be treated in its entirety as a comprehensive project and not picked off point by point, which seems to be the procedure now. British Rail's proposal will not only affect the south-east but have implications for the north-east and the north-west, because it will open up the whole country to Europe. People want to see a project in the round and as a whole and not bit by bit.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
May I give the hon. Gentleman another point in answer to his hon. Friend's question? If there were a public inquiry, more people could make their views heard more audibly. Indeed, they would be heard where it matters most. They might be heard by the Prime Minister herself, who could more clearly gauge the degree of public opposition. Nothing concentrates the minds of the Prime Minister and politicians generally more than the clattering down of party majorities that might follow.
§ Mr. Bowden
I will not follow the hon. Gentleman down that path.
Certain questions that are basic and fundamental to the overall proposals that come out in separate private Bills have not been addressed. The first one, which I raised earlier this afternoon and which I make no apology for raising again, is whether it is necessary for every piece of freight and for every passenger coming from the continent to any destination in the United Kingdom to go through central London. That assumption is in the proposals put forward by British Rail, which seems to think that it is good that they should. The House or a public inquiry should ask seriously whether that assumption is right.
A private Bill does not allow at the earliest stage the opportunity to ask such questions. I shall be more parochial, but it is the particular that illustrates the principle. BR proposes that the tunnel proposed in outline should have a spur rising from the ground in my constituency at Warwick gardens and then tracking five or six miles around south and south-east London, over viaducts and bridges and on embankments, through Denmark hill, Loughborough junction, Brixton, Clapham, Wandsworth and Vauxhall before it gets to Waterloo. That is some eight miles above ground which will be rather dangerous, considering the speed of the trains. If one looks at the map and studies existing tunnels, one sees that it would not be beyond the wit of engineers to make a connection from somewhere near London bridge underground to Waterloo, a distance of less than one mile. That is a fundamental point that a public inquiry would winkle out but which would be taken as an assumption in a private Bill. I raise these issues because they illustrate the principle.
514 A further point, that has been alluded to several times in the debate, is that the private Bill procedure should be limited to one Session of Parliament and that only in exceptional circumstances should it roll over. If that were adhered to, there is no doubt that the King's Cross Railways Bill, and any subsequent British Rail Bill relating to the Channel tunnel link, would not fall within that ambit. I refer to recommendation 16 on page 53.
I welcome the report and most of its recommendations; I welcome particularly the two recommendations which appear to address the problems that we see with British Rail's current, rather cavalier promotion of private Bills in relation to the Channel tunnel link.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden) on his speech and on discovering how politically sexy private Bills can be. Certainly they will be with regard to the matter that he has just discussed. It will ring through Parliament for the next year or so. I discovered that political fact somewhat earlier. That is why I volunteered to go on Committees on private Bills soon after being elected in 1983.I believed that it was time well spent, which is not something that I can say about my other parliamentary activities since 1983. No doubt Conservative Members will agree with those sentiments.
I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for the New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson), as a member of his Committee, on the way that he chaired it with great patience and skill. I have already told him that I thoroughly enjoyed being on the Committee. I considered it a privilege. It was another useful learning process. It gave us a chance to examine procedures and issues away from the hurly-burly of the Floor of the House, although there is not a great deal of hurly-burly today. This is a good, constructive debate. When one gets involved in sharp political exchanges, there is a great deal of heat but little light is revealed. In the work that I did on the Joint Committee I found that being on the Select Committee on Procedure and on the Standing Orders Committee was a useful complement. May I again say that I thoroughly enjoyed the work and was grateful for the opportunity to serve on the Joint Committee.
The debate is most welcome but I still feel that it is belated. The report was published in October 1988.1, with others, have pushed the Leader of the House at business questions on many occasions to say when we would have a debate. His answers, always courteous, were to the effect that the Government were studying the report and ware considering their response. It was commendable so to do because it is a big fat report with a lot of good reading in it, but it would have been a reasonable response from the Leader of the House if the debate had enabled us to vote on something.
I had to leave the House for part of the speech of the Leader of the House. I should like to find out from him whether a date has yet been fixed for a substantive, executive debate when we can vote. That is the important thing in the end. Many of us spend much time and energy on Committees which bring forward considered recommendations and then there is only a take note debate and the House does not have an opportunity to say how it feels by voting. The Leader of the House said on several occasions that he would let the House express its decision.
515 That can be done only by voting. When will we be allowed to vote? I have tried to resist becoming over-cynical or suspicious in the House—
§ Mr. Banks
I take the point. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) says, it is something that one should not do. I am trying to be as generous to the Leader of the House as I can, but I always listen closely to the advice of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover.
I am forced to conclude that the delay is because the Leader of the House and, therefore, the Government do not want these recommendations in situ prior to the Kent Bill coming before the House in the next Session.
§ Mr. Wakeham
I rise to intervene in a spirit of friendliness towards the hon. Gentleman, because the debate has been interesting. Judging by one or two of the interventions, something that might be called the "Newham question" appears to be emerging. It is clear that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) are miles apart in their thinking about the way in which we should go forward. I shall be interested to see how that debate develops.
§ Mr. Banks
That is certainly not true. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) is disagreeing very much with what the Leader of the House has just said. My hon. Friend and I always go together in the closest possible political and personal sympathy. I assure the Leader of the House that that is as true on this matter as on others.
§ Mr. Banks
I am taking my cue from my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South. I was going to say that perhaps I will read his speech with more interest, but I could not have more interest in what he says. I shall read his speech carefully, but I do not see that we are in any way apart on this matter. In the end, although he and I might have our differences on the various recommendations, they will be differences of only a minor degree and I am sure that we are together in saying that the House must have an early opportunity to vote on those recommendations.
§ Mr. Spearing
I am glad that my hon. Friend has given way, because perhaps I can clarify the matter. His having been a member of the Committee and party, to some extent, to the detailed recommendations, may hide the fact that we are at one in our wish to adjust the procedures for private business towards modern demands. The routes that we may take to minimise the abuses and the difficulties may be different, but those are our objectives. Like my hon. Friend I look forward to substantive changes in the Standing Orders and the arrangements, although I acknowledge that this sort of debate facilitates the changes to be made—and the sooner the better.
§ Mr. Banks
I am sure that I agree entirely with everything that my hon. Friend has said.
516 If we are to set up Select Committees or special Committees, after taking time to reflect and to read the report of the Joint Committee, the House should be given an opportunity to vote. That is all I am saying, but I hope that when the Leader of the House replies to the debate he will tell us when we will have the opportunity to vote.
There will always be a role for private Bills, but, as the report clearly stresses, there have been a large number of private Bills before the House this Session—I believe that the hon. Member for New Forest said that there had been 58—many which have been or are highly controversial. The Committee felt that there was a general desire to reduce the number of private Bills coming before the House and that, as far as possible, some of the more controversial aspects of those Bills should be eliminated. I thoroughly support recommendation 1.
There was a general belief in the Joint Committee, as there is in the House and—just as important—outside the House that private Bills are being used to bypass public inquiry procedures. The most blatant example of that was the Hampshire (Lyndhurst Bypass) Bill. The House should not tolerate that. The Committee has recognised the fact and even before we have a vote the Leader of the House should recognise that the concern is shared by hon. Members of all parties. Therefore, I strongly support recommendations 5 and 13.
Parliament is being used—I stress the word "used"—by promoters to fast-track developments and, in certain cases, to override the great weight of public opinion which is often against the more controversial proposals contained in private Bills. The House is not an appropriate or satisfactory alternative to a planning inquiry when local communities and local amenities are affected by proposals.
The private Bill procedure requires that hon. Members who serve on an opposed Bill Committee should declare that they have no constituency interest. Obviously, that is right, but it could be only a short step removed from their having no interest whatsover. I am not being critical but some hon. Members who serve on a private Bill Committee simply wish to get out of it as fast as they possibly can. Many of us who work on Committees know that the work does not attract the media attention given to work on the Floor of the House. When one serves on a Standing Committee, it is like disappearing into a legislative black hole; but on private Bill Committees, it is like going for a long walk through a desert, never to be heard of again until the Bill finally comes back to the House—and even then no one pays very much attention to it. Although the Bills may be important—I am not denigrating the importance of the issues that are discussed—serving on private Bill Committees will not achieve much for hon. Members who like their work at least to be noted. We must try to sweeten or to give a few temptations to hon. Members who might want to continue to serve—as I do—on Committees on private Bills.
It can be a problem if hon. Members who serve on a Private Bill Committee have only a little if any local knowledge of the issue confronting them. Of course, hon. Members may at least acquaint themselves with the locality by visiting the area affected by the Bill, but frankly, that is no substitute for having some detailed local knowledge similar to that of the local authorities and the local people. Indeed, as far as possible, important decisions should be taken in the areas where the decisions will have the most impact. That is what "devolution" means in political terms. In many ways, private Bills argue 517 wholly against political devolution and decision making. In addition, hon. Members who serve on private Bill Committees often have inadequate expertise in planning matters. Such expertise would assist them to make a proper assessment.
The evidence that has been submitted by the Council for the Protection of Rural England and by the Ramblers Association stresses—and I agree—that it is difficult for local people and communities to voice their objectives within the private Bill procedure. I have chaired a number of Committees on private Bills and agree that it is quasi-judicial procedure which can be intimidating to people who come along to try to represent the interests of their small communities, organisations or even themselves, as they are entitled so to do. It is not just a question of standing up and giving evidence. Individuals or their representatives, who can be amateurs not professionals, can be cross-examined by expensive leading counsel, which is not something that many people find enjoyable. Therefore, the process can be intimidatory and that aspect should be eliminated. I remind the Leader of the House that the promoters of private Bills can afford the most expensive legal representation for the Committee stage. As so often, the more money one has, the more law one can buy. We must be mindful of that fact when we consider the report's recommendations.
Private Bills are even more inappropriate for schemes involving massive infrastructure investment with strategic implications. When there are strategic and even national implications, I do not see how a Private Bill Committee can be the appropriate forum to consider the proposals. Indeed, I do not know whether a Private Bill Committee could be allowed to consider such strategic implications. That will certainly be true of the King's Cross Railways Bill and of the "fast routes through Kent" Bill that we will have next Session.
I join the hon. Members of all parties who believe that these private Bills are back to front. It seems nonsense to have a Bill that decides where the terminal will be before a Bill that sets out the route because the location of the terminal will go a long way to pre-empt the decision on the route. That cannot be good for Parliament and it cannot be good for the strategic transport implications presented by such private Bills.
I believe that such Bills as the King's Cross Railways Bill and the "fast routes through Kent" Bill should be public Bills. If we cannot have them as public Bills, there should be full public inquiries where the strategic implications can be rehearsed.
I am still shocked that the Government have abdicated any responsibility for strategic planning and transportation matters. I was glad to see the Secretary of State for Transport here a little while ago. A couple of weeks ago he came to a meeting of the London group of Labour Members, which I chair. I pointed out to him that I met British Rail and said, "Look, the King's Cross terminal is a matter of strategic importance for London and the south-east." British Rail's response was, "We are not the strategic authority for transport for London or the south-east. We are a commercial transport undertaking. This is a matter for the Government." I then said to the Secretary of State for Transport, "You are, surely Secretary of State, the strategic transport authority." As my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South said, it shocked us that the Secretary of State said, "I am not the strategic authority." In that case, who is the strategic 518 authority? The answer is that there is none, which cannot be good for the future planning of transportation matters in this country.
§ Mr. Spearing
My hon. Friend has illustrated that the opinion of Conservative Members was already prejudiced. My hon. Friend is absolutely in parallel with what I was saying. Does my hon. Friend not understand that the situation in London is even worse? I received recently a written answer from the Secretary of State for Transport saying that he certainly was not responsible for planning public transport in London, but that that responsibility lay with London Regional Transport. That does not fill me with any confidence.
§ Mr. Banks
It appears that the Government, especially the Prime Minister, want to interfere with the daily affairs of everyone—in particular the local councils—but do not want to take the strategic overview. Perhaps that is the nature of the busybody rather than of the person with the imagination to look at something on a broader canvas. For transportation that attitude is appalling. All sorts of disconnected decisions are being taken, which spell disaster, and certainly enormous difficulties, for transportation policy. That appears to be the nature of the beast we are dealing with in government today. It is not good for transportation and will not be good for the country as a whole.
§ Mr. Skinner
Of course, there is another way of looking at it, which is that the Government have their legislative programme anyway. That is chock-bang full of measures that will redistribute the balance of wealth and power in Britain. If, however, the Government wanted to introduce a Bill on transport or the Associated British Ports Bill, they could use the private Bill procedure as an addendum to their own legislative programme. At the same time, they have the added advantage of being able to say when they are passed, "Really, you know, they were free votes." They can say, "Hands off, it's nothing to do with us," but at the same time, in addition to their own programme, they have got through some of the things that they wanted as well. That is why, on that ports Bill, the Prime Minister turned up at 10 o'clock at night in her carpet slippers to vote it through.
§ Mr. Banks
As ever, I agree 100 per cent. with my hon. Friend. I shall be coming on to the second part of my objection to private Bill procedure, which concerns the highly controversial nature of some of those Bills.
On the strategic role of certain private Bills, recommendations 5 and 13 will at least go some way to answering my worries about the way that things are being done at present. They are the ones that will involve a public inquiry and an environmental impact assessment to be attached. That is necessary, because they appear to be inappropriate matters for the Private Bill Committee to consider. If the Committee had to take into account all those other matters, it would only extend the period in which it considers the Private Bill Committee stage. It is onerous enough for Members as it is, without adding more and more to the responsibilities and burdens that they should not have to shoulder, in many cases do not want to shoulder and, as I have said, they do not, perhaps, have the skills to shoulder.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover mentioned the controversial nature of a number of private Bills. At 519 times it is clear that the private Bill is being used by the Government to further their political objectives. Hon. Members must recognise that this makes nonsense of the private Bill procedure. The Felixstowe Dock and Railway Bill and the two Humber Bills are good examples. It was clear that what we were really talking about was the dock labour scheme, the Government's battle with the National Union of Mineworkers and their energy policy. We are aware enough to realise that that is really what was going on.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover said that the Prime Minister turned up in her carpet slippers for the vote on the ports Bill. She did so because she recognised that that Bill was crucial to Government policies. It was dishonest of the Government to push those matters through under the private Bill procedure. It should have been done openly through the public Bill procedure, when they could have openly used their majority and the payroll vote, rather than doing it surreptitiously.
Another convention that is being ridden over roughshod by the Government is that there is now whipping on private Bills. I agree that there might not be any official whipping on private Bills. However, if the Leader of the House were willing to put his hand on his heart—assuming that he could find it easily enough—and say that, when he was the Government Chief Whip, he never became involved or never sent his assistants out to ensure that hon. Members turned up to vote on some of those Bills, I should be prepared to give way. However, I suspect that he would not want to mislead the House by making such a statement.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett
It is done in more subtle ways. One does not put a Whip on the private business, but a three-line Whip is put on an order that comes on afterwards. Then one has done the same thing.
§ Mr. Banks
My hon. Friend is a very sophisticated Member and would make an excellent Whip. Of course there are ways of doing it. Another way of doing it would be to say to hon. Members, "The Prime Minister would consider this to be a particular favour. The Prime Minister would like to see you voting for this Bill. There are a few tricks coming up. Don't forget the new year's honours list is being drawn up at this very moment." As my hon. Friend has said, there are more subtle ways of doing it.
§ Mr. Wakeham
Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that all these tricks have suddenly been learnt since 1979 and have never been thought of before?
§ Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)
Let us put all the cards on the table, because I remember a debate that we had on a Friday concerning an amendment introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) to the Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Bill. The Government whipped in every Minister to vote it down. Normally, we have Ministers only at the Dispatch Box to answer the debate. 520 On that occasion, nearly every Minister was whipped in—no doubt by the Prime Minister—to vote the amendment down.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)
Order. I am sure that the Bill on the disabled was not a private Bill.
§ Mr. Hardy
There is another aspect of the Government's approach to private Bills on which my hon. Friend might like to comment. That concerns the Bills with substantial environmental content, where the Government agencies—the Nature Conservancy Council and the Countryside Commission—petitioned against the Bill and advised the Minister, who is not the Minister with whom they deal and who bears that responsibility, to oppose the Bill. I have seen environmental Ministers, who have received the advice of Government agencies after pronouncing the Government's neutrality, eagerly leading their troops through the Lobby in favour of the Bill.
§ Mr. Banks
They are yet further examples of the way in which the private Bill procedure has moved into areas of great political controversy. It would be far better for the business of the House if, as far as possible, such Bills were taken out of the private Bill procedure and dealt with as openly and as honestly as possible.
I am sure that such problems have arisen in the past, but in recent years they appear to have arisen more frequently, and that is not good for the private Bill procedure. Bills that are controversial for political or environmental reasons would be more appropriately considered as public Bills rather than through the private Bill procedure.
I support recommendation 16 which deals with the carrying over of Bills from one Session to the next. As the hon. Member for New Forest said, the ability to have Bills carried over gives additional power to the promoters. That power presupposes that, merely because a Bill is before the House, it should be carried over on the nod. I believe that it would concentrate the minds of some promoters if we did not accede to the request to carry over such Bills formally. I believe that we should bounce a few back. We all have our favourite candidates; I have already nominated mine, but only time will tell.
When I have chaired Private Bill Committees I have often found that the proceedings have become lengthy because counsel seems to be on a payment-by-word basis. It is assumed that Committee members cannot even read and the papers that have already been put before the Committee are gone through word by word. I believe that the Chairman of such a Committee should make it clear that there is no need to go through the documents and should say, "Look, I am capable of reading. Please pass on."
If the promoter happens to be a local authority I am always aware just how much the whole thing is costing the ratepayers. If the promoter is British Rail, I am aware of the cost to the taxpayer. The corollary to that is how much it costs the poor old petitioner. An individual may come to the House for a couple of days to voice some objection, but is forced to sit through interminable hours of counsel reading through masses of documents. Counsel clock up extremely fat fees and I should remind them that they are paid at a far higher rate than the rest of us. I am anxious to get value for money for the taxpayer and the ratepayer.
521 Recommendation 39 deals with costs. In Committee I pushed hard for costs to the promoter to be substantially increased. The rates we are recommending are only marginal in comparison to the overall costs to be faced by the promoter when paying for a development. When we are talking about mega-million or multi-billion pound projects, £2,500 or £5,000 is the sort of money that developers no doubt carry in their back pockets. If anything, I believe that the Committee has erred on the side of conservatism in terms of the money that we could get out of some promoters.
It is also worth considering the idea of a formal panel of Members appointed to opposed Bill Committees. I listened with great interest to the First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means, who said that serving on the panel could be an apprenticeship for the Chairmen's Panel. We all know that once one is on that panel one is on the way to the Chair of the House and the coveted full-bottomed wig, which is apparently desired by many Members.
I recognise that those who serve on Committees, whether Standing Committees or Private Bill Committees, are the true Stakhanovites of Parliament. Some modest reward should be given to them. I do not know whether that should be a knighthood, a damehood or whatever. If such an honour were offered to me I would renounce it immediately and ask for it to be transferred to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover.
We must recognise the work of members of all Committees—that work is essential to the business of the House. In many respects it is unrecognised and unacknowledged. I found working on the Committee chaired by the hon. Member for New Forest extremely interesting. I find working on private Bills interesting, but I believe that such work would be made far less onerous if we reduced the number of Bills and eliminated those that are politically or environmentally controversial.
The report is good—I am not saying that merely because I was a member of that Committee—and it contains many suggestions that should be implemented. I hope that the Leader of the House will give us an opportunity to vote on the recommendations as soon as possible.
§ Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)
I listened to the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) with great interest. I thought that it was a pity that, given his chameleon-like nature, he could not decide whether he was trying to make a useful and constructive contribution to a sensible debate or whether he would rather have been haranguing a full House with a rowdy and rumbustious speech about building a railway line, with a three-line Whip and Divisions all night.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) on a most remarkable report. I feel rather hesitant in speaking because I have not had the honour of serving on a private Bill Committee. I was listed to do so, but, fortunately for my diary, the opponents managed to settle their differences and the Committee was never called.
For some time I have been trying to introduce a private Bill to help my constituents who have a problem regarding the protection of a covenant dating back to 1934. I note that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Water 522 and Planning is present and he is aware of that problem. My constituents would like me to organise a delegation to visit him about it.
I declare a natural interest in this subject as I am an engineer. It is no accident that the headquarters of the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers are on the other side of Parliament square. I am a fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. I regret that I cannot stay for the entire debate because of a prior engagement at the Institution of Civil Engineers.
The thrust of the report is that the principal purpose of private Bills is to get things done. I support the recommendations for modernising and improving the private Bill procedure. Recommendation 13 relates to the impact on the environment of a particular Bill. I believe that that recommendation, together with the recommendation to publish a handbook to make the complex mystery of such Bills more understandable to the public, will mean that private Bills will be introduced not so much to get things done as to stop things being done.
My constituents are anxious that a covenant which was entered into in 1934 and which was designed to protect some open land from being built on, should now be flouted. Only last week a large national rapacious builder announced his intention to start building within the next few days, despite the existence of the covenant and despite the fact that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State refused to discharge the covenant when asked to do so. In future, constituents will demand a simplified procedure for bringing forward private Bills to protect their interests.
I am doubtful about some of the recommendations, as I believe that they will make it more difficult for people to introduce such Bills. Fees at a minimum level of £10,000 represent such a difficulty. I note that it is recommended that there should be a remission of costs to protect charities. I am not sure how far the Committee considers that protection should go, but perhaps I will get that answer tonight.
Today I received a letter from the Bolton civic trust asking me to raise in Parliament how the covenant could be protected. Would the trust be able to bring in a private Bill and expect to be given remission of the large fees proposed? If that were so I would find it easier to accept that part of the report.
Another part of the report which fills me with horror relates to the rigid timetable. To have only one day in the year—I believe that it is 27 October—to introduce a private Bill is an impossible way to proceed. That is a classic example of a monopolistic bureaucracy, which this House is, coming up against the desires of people to bring in private Bills. People should not be told, "I'm sorry, you've missed the deadline by a few days and you'll now have to wait a year before you can bring in a private Bill to protect your case." I hope that the Committee will consider that point further.
The report addresses the needs of big business. It is clear that big business should have the right procedures to bring forward private Bills properly, and we know that that happens with the railways and the docks. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that we should also make it easier for small groups which in the past have looked to the local authority to protect them. In the case to which I have referred, a covenant needed protection. With regard to that covenant, in 1981 the local authority said that steps had been taken to effect registration so that 523 the agreement would be enforceable. However, counsel for Barratts, which also has interests in Dulwich, has said that its legal advice is that it can flout the covenant. People may look to the council to protect them and then find that the council fails them.
If people are concerned about the strength of a covenant and if they want to rest comfortably in their beds at night, they must know that if there is any doubt they can bring a private Bill through to ensure that the covenant is reinforced by the House. I hope that the Committee will consider that when it further considers the report which I otherwise support fully.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)
I will not follow the course pursued by the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) very far. He showed considerable ingenuity in raising a problem in his constituency. However, the whole advantage of having to present private Bills on one day in the year is that it makes it far easier for objectors to analyse a Bill to see what it involves. I often speak on behalf of the Ramblers Association in the House. If it did not know on which day a Bill was to be presented, it would face a formidable task in obtaining a copy to check whether footpath interests were affected.
One of the most challenging issues for a democracy is to persuade individuals that they should accept personal sacrifices for the benefit of the majority of their fellow citizens or, in some cases, for the benefit of the minority. It is even harder if people are asked to make sacrifices when they know that someone else will make a profit.
Someone may want to build a new power station, running on any kind of fuel, at the bottom of someone's garden. Similarly, a new motorway may cross the corner of someone's back yard or a railway line may cross someone's patio. There may be a new public lavatory on a street corner or a municipal refuse incinerator in a field at the back of a house. There may be a proposal for a gipsy encampment within half a mile of someone's home. In all those cases, I suspect that, if people were in favour of them at all, they would be in favour of them somewhere else and not close to their homes. I wonder whether we can produce any procedure which would convince people that such proposals should go ahead close to their houses.
It is even more difficult to produce procedures which will safeguard the environment against the immediate public and private expediency of damaging it. It would be very difficult to produce any procedure which would convince people that they have had a fair hearing if the decision goes against them. It will be even harder to convince future generations that we have done our planning well when they consider the environmental damage which we have already inflicted on this country.
It is very difficult to find a procedure which is genuinely fair to people who would be disadvantaged by such a decision. I am absolutely certain that the present private Bill procedure is grossly unfair. We should be able to find a fairer and better system.
The procedures are heavily weighted in favour of a Bill's promoter and are heavily weighted against those who want to object, particularly when individuals do not have great resources or find it difficult to raise money to make 524 representations. Anyone who goes down the Corridors and enters the House of Lords to witness the proceedings on the Cardiff Bay Barrage Bill will realise what difficulties are involved.
A very affluent body is promoting the Cardiff Bay Barrage Bill and it has no difficulty in bringing its expert witnesses up from south Wales and engaging Queen's counsel to make the case. However, the individual objectors in the area face the expense of travelling here. When they arrive, they may find that there has been a slight alteration in the timetable, a QC may have spoken longer or shorter than expected or the individual may have come up on the wrong day and may be required to come up again the following day. Such people face many problems. Even the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is almost in despair at having to organise and marshal opposition to that private Bill.
I have seen many private Bills pass through this House since I became a Member in 1974. These have included county council Bills and regular British Rail Bills. We should link waterways Bills with those British Rail Bills, although they do not come up quite as often. Many of those Bills have caused a great deal of environmental damage. In many ways, that legislation has involved the worst side of politics, with blackmail, bribery and many chance occurrences. I recall one Bill which failed by a single vote to gain the majority necessary for a closure. Obviously, no one can plan for that. All forms of jiggery-pokery have occurred in private legislation. That is not new: those political processes have occurred throughout the centuries in connection with private business.
We should remember that private business in the past took up much more time than it does now. The burghers of Northampton worked hard for nearly 10 years to prevent a railway line from going through the town and ever afterwards tried to get the railway line put through the town. Those of us who have studied railway history will be aware that various lords negotiated with the railway companies for their own private stations with guarantees that trains would stop. Only once such concession were granted did the lords allow the railway lines to cross their land.
There is nothing new about the shenanigans that have occurred in private Bill legislation. However, we should change things in this day and age. When the Town and Country Planning Act was passed in 1947, the House should have considered private Bill legislation very carefully and taken out most of the planning elements from the private Bill procedure.
§ Mr. Spearing
My hon. Friend is making a very interesting speech, much of which I agree with. Does he agree that his concept is consistent with the concept that I put forward in my speech—that any private Bill would have to satisfy a Committee of this House that public inquiry procedures had been followed properly? An inspector would probably make a report to the House rather than to the Secretary of State on matters requiring legislation rather than report on matters in the present way.
§ Mr. Bennett
I accept that. I do not think that there is a fundamental difference between my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) and the Committee. The Committee says that a lot less should be 525 done through private Bills. My hon. Friend says almost that his total case is based on the first recommendation and that the others are subsidiary. The Committee says that the first recommendation is the most important and that the others follow. I do not think that there is a great deal of difference. My fundamental point is that this proposal for reform should have come with the new planning legislation after the second world war.
I welcome very much the work that the Committee did, and I pay tribute to the Chairman and the other members. However, I stress that what they have produced is a package. If all their proposals were implemented, most of the groups outside with which I have contact would be very happy. But those people would be very disappointed if only some of the proposals were implemented. If we were to get the balance right by reducing the number of environmental Bills, planning Bills, and things of that kind, the other changes to Standing Orders would be acceptable. But those changes would be totally unacceptable if the recommendations and those that follow from them are not right.
That is why I found the Government's response extremely disappointing. It suggested, almost, that this whole report could be buried for some time and that perhaps they would pick out two or three little points as a sop to the Committee and to the House. That would be totally unacceptable.
The Leader of the House referred to the sovereignty of Parliament. He seemed to suggest that if we were to go down this planning road we would get rid of the sovereignty of Parliament. In the case of the Channel tunnel, the railway line through Kent, and the King's Cross issue, the Government should have introduced legislation setting out the principle that there would be a Channel tunnel and a high-speed link, and that there would be either a London terminus or, as I prefer, a terminus much nearer the midlands to ensure that the whole country would benefit. Those principles should have been set out in Government legislation, and there should have been an inquiry to establish the route. In that way various people could have put forward the alternative arguments.
As I understand it, the King's Cross Railways Bill is a total farce. The London terminus will be established, and the tunnel will be under construction, so two points are set, and the piece between has to be filled in. No one could imagine that the route will be via Manchester or Belfast. As the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden) made clear, his constituents will not be able to appear as objectors to the King's Cross Railways Bill, because they are not, as I understand the Standing Orders, directly affected. Of course they are not directly affected. I am not quite sure what will happen to the people of Newham, who would like to argue that Stratford should have been chosen instead of King's Cross. I am not sure whether those people will be entitled to appear. By a very strict and narrow interpretation of the Standing Orders, they have nothing to do with King's Cross.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
I can tell my hon. Friend straight away that the promoters, British Rail, have challenged the locus of Newham borough council. The matter went before the Court of Referees, which found against Newham. We will not be able to petition against the Bill 526 unless we can attach an instruction at Second Reading, which is something that I intend to do. Paragraph 101 of the report says:Proceedings over locus standi are uncommon. In the House of Lords, 36 challenges to locus standi have been recorded since 1950; in the House of Commons, the Court of Referees has considered only 11 cases since 1977.British Rail is making up for lost ground: it has challenged over 150.
§ Mr. Bennett
I understand that. All that I am suggesting is that using the private Bill procedure is ridiculous. What we ought to have is a planning inquiry, at which people could argue for an alternative route and alternative termini. When the inquiry has been completed—some people suggest that the recommendations should be made to the House; others that the recommendations should be made to the Minister—orders, or a short Bill, could go through the House implementing them. That is the procedure that should be adopted.
I do not believe that by accepting the report the House would be giving up any sovereignty at all, and I am disappointed that the Leader of the House made that point.
In an intervention, I stressed to the Leader of the House that he should make very sure that there would be no more jumbo Bills. Recommendation 10 is extremely important—that Government Departments do not use private legislation as a short cut for provisions that they have failed to get through the Cabinet legislative committee.
It seems to me important that carry over motions should be debated at the start of the new Parliament. A new group of Members must be able to pass judgment as quickly as possible on the principle. I welcome the proposal concerning environmental impact. It is extremely important that it should be implemented.
I welcome the reforms—so long as we get them in balance. If there are no local government Bills, if the new procedure for British Rail Bills and others introduced by the waterways authority and if planning matters can be dealt with by planning inquiries, it seems to me that the other changes are acceptable.
On the question of having six names, it has been pointed out that at least one Bill has only my name on it. That is the requirement at the moment, but, if necessary, I think I could find five Friends in the House to add their names. Then I could start to argue. There is one thing that causes me to hesitate. On occasions I have put my name on the block and then started to talk to other people, who add their names. If eventually I accepted that a deal has to be done and I have to take my name off, I might find that others have stronger resolve than myself. So that creates a few difficulties.
On the question of 100 Members having to vote for a closure, the real question is the extent to which the Government whip the business. This has been referred to in an exchange. The days named for private business procedure are an amazing affair. I am told that the Chairman of Ways and Means has total discretion and can choose exactly for which day business is put down. Afterwards, the Government have the choice whether to put an order down and use the Whip. Sometimes, a private Bill arrives, and there is nothing after it. One thinks that that is a hint from the Government that they do not mind if it disappears, and a hint from the Chairman of Ways and Means that he does not mind if it disappears. On other 527 occasions the Chairman of Ways and Means picks a night when he is pretty confident that there will be other business either that day or the next. It is a very interesting process.
I do not think that it makes a lot of difference if we move to a simple majority for the closure if it reduces some of the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring, particularly if the rest of the package were implemented. I suspect that, if we were to vote on the principle, there would be more chance of people coming and listening to the debate on a private Bill and voting on its merits rather than as a result of pressure from behind the scenes such as, "It does not matter what you do tonight. Don't take any interest in the debate, but please be here at 10 o'clock for the vote." I would not object to that so long as it is part of the package.
The Committee recommends that there should be five Members instead of four. I have always felt that, in equity, it is not a good idea to have four people hearing evidence, because the Chairman, in return for performing his duties, gets two votes. At the moment chairmanships are supposed to alternate. The Opposition get one, and next time the Government get it. Obviously in the case of Bills that are party political, the order in which parties occupy the chairmanship makes an awful lot of difference.
I have been trying to find out what really happens and how easy it is for promoters to manipulate their Bill so that it comes in such a position in the queue that they get a Chairman who might be sympathetic to their case. That is another of those mysterious processes that go on in the House. I shall not go into that, but I want to know what will happen if we move from four to five members. Will there always be three Government and two Opposition members or will selection still be on a fairly random basis, and who will be the Chairman? If the Government have an in-built majority and always provide the chairman that would be going a little further than I would wish. I want more information on that.
I welcome most of the other proposals, but I want to reiterate the point already made by my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) on behalf of the ramblers who object strongly to the proposal for the closure of public footpaths on the basis of safety. At present, under highways legislation and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, people can move for the diversion of a footpath where necessary on safety and other grounds and for closure where a footpath is not used. It is a little much for British Rail to say that it wants to close footpaths on the basis of safety. I do not want people to be injured, but since British Rail is creating the problem it is reasonable that it should find some way of getting under or over a crossing by an underpass or a bridge unless it can demonstrate that the crossing is not used. If people do not use it, legislation exists to close it and British Rail does not need this statutory power. It is not an acceptable ground for British Rail to argue that, because it has speeded up trains or carried out other engineering work on the line, a crossing is not safe. That is my one strong caveat.
I end by emphasising that if all the measures are recommended by the Government for implementation, I will go along with that. But if the Government want to pick out only one or two measures which further swing the balance in favour of the promoters, I shall ensure that those proposals are fought line by line.
§ Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)
Thinking about the debate today reminded me of some lines that I always remember with pleasure, although perhaps I should not, spoken by the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) when he was the newly appointed Secretary of State for Employment:I seem to recall that the right hon. Gentleman was the father of the Industrial Relations Act. The Queen's Speech proposes to repeal that Act. Never was a father so impassive in the face of the prospective slaughter of his pride and joy."—[Official Report, 18 March 1974; Vol. 870, c. 688.]Many of us remember that debate with pleasure.
I had feared that today something which many of us feel some pride in might be slaughtered, perhaps not openly and blatantly, but by some subtle parliamentary means. I have a sense of parentage, albeit with a large number of other strange bedfellows, and a sense of pride in the report that emerged.
I do not wish to be repetitive or platitudinous, but this is the only chance that we have to put on record our appreciation. I want to record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson), the Committee's Chairman, who was outstanding and to whom we all owe a great debt of gratitude. In particular, I want to take the opportunity to place on record my compliments to the Clerks of the Committee, particularly Mr. Andrew Makower and Miss Elizabeth Baker. It allows one to say again just how well served we are in this House by the remarkable Clerks. Mr. Makower and Miss Baker were of the highest standard, combining a great deal of knowledge and intellect with charm. They had a skill of pilotage without appearing to do the steering. Those are remarkable qualities that are not always present in all one's colleagues, at least until they reach the Chair or become Patronage Secretary.
It was a great pleasure to serve on the Committee. Many hon. Members have said that it is a pleasure to serve on private Bill Committees. That is true and it was a privilege and pleasure to serve on this Committee. It has been fascinating to hear how many other people have brought an expertise and objectivity to our discussions today, and that is the point that I want to begin on.
The Committee was as impartial and objective as such a diverse Committee could be. We did not start off with any preconceptions and many of the conclusions that we have put before the House were arrived at by a logical process of listening to the witnesses. We came to some major and radical conclusions which have received almost overwhelming support from the House, and I hope that they will be accepted in that light.
It has been suggested that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was somewhat negative, but that is not fair. He expressed an open-minded approach to some of the major propositions. He said that he would listen to the debate, and it is significant and heartening that virtually every contribution, coming from some significant sources, has virtually endorsed the whole range of the proposals. By significant, I certainly mean the shadow Leader of the House. Endorsements from the Opposition Front and Back Benches are of great importance. It is even more significant to have the immensely welcome contribution of the First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means, which was encouraging, positive and helpful and should give a fair wind to many of the proposals.
529 If my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House had any doubts beforehand about the fundamental issues, I hope that he will take on board the opinions that have been expressed and come back with positive action, which means votes, much sooner than would otherwise have been the case. My right hon. Friend was most open-minded and helpful. Nevertheless, we are making some radical proposals.
I do not wish to go over the whole report. Other hon. Members can pick out individual matters. I want to restrict myself to the key issues. The first objective is the need to remove from the House many matters which, in the light of modern planning procedures, should not be in Parliament at all. Secondly, I want to deal with some of the more procedural matters and, thirdly, to deal with the tantalising matter of King's Cross and the rail link which is so crucial to our debate. In some ways it is regrettable to relate such general procedural proposals to highly controversial issues. It is said that hard cases make bad law and we should be careful. On the other hand, it is useful to test what we are discussing against real life issues which bring home to our constituents and hon. Members who might not otherwise be listening to our debate the realities and importance of the private Bill proposals.
Let me start with the objective of removing from our parliamentary procedures matters that we describe as public works Bills which would be better dealt with outside the legislature. The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) exposed the real nature of the argument. The Committee came down clearly in favour of the public inquiry procedure. My position on that is clear, particularly in relation to the Kent problem of today. We said that the public inquiry route is better than the parliamentary route; that applies to those highway matters which come before Parliament, railway matters, harbour matters and tramways and other related matters.
The hon. Member for Newham, South clearly expressed his anxiety that Parliament would be losing some power over major planning decisions. We do not try to control through the legislature most of the major planning decisions that affect our constituents, and none of us would want to. Logic says that we should apply those planning rules to other matters, such as the railways, and in our report we produce a clear, precise and practical set of proposals that would take those matters back into the planning domain.
That would require primary legislation. I accept that there is always a queue for such legislation and that it is not a small commitment to ask the Government to introduce legislation of that sort, the ramifications of which could be considerable. But I am encouraged to believe that my right hon. Friend implied that it would be introduced at some stage. He seemed to accept the principle of our suggestions.
We must accept that there will be a loss of parliamentary control over some planning matters; a sacrifice will be made by certain hon. Members who will no longer be able to debate issues into which they used to enjoy getting their teeth. Those matters will leave the House.
The next point to be understood by objectors is that it will not necessarily produce a different or better result, but I believe that the planning inquiry route is the right route and is a better system for objectors. It is certainly a more congenial way of putting one's case. There are not strict rules of locus, so more people can put their cases; it is more 530 democratic. Nevertheless, they will put their cases before just one inspector. He or she will make a report to the Secretary of State and there will be a reasoned explanation of the decision. That will be taken as an Executive decision.
§ Mr. Wolfson
It is said in the report that going down the planning route, as the Committee proposes, is likely to be a much slower process than the present procedure. Will my hon. Friend comment on that?
§ Mr. Moate
I will come to the question of speed. While I believe that the planning route is not only the right but the better route, I do not want people to think that our present procedures are all bad or that private Bills that are going through or will go through before we have changed the system are necessarily prejudicial to the petitioners or opponents of Bills, because there are advantages.
To pursue the point of the King's Cross or Channel high-speed rail link proposal, it is not impossible—we are all speculating—that hon. Members and others who are opposed to the King's Cross proposal might be able to achieve an instruction to the Committee that could change the nature of the Bill. Indeed, they might be able to defeat the Bill. They might certainly be able, through the usual parliamentary tactics, to achieve major amendments to the Bill. It could be argued that none of those would have been available through the planning system.
Equally, if by chance the King's Cross Railways Bill were defeated by the opponents, they might say, "We prefer the parliamentary procedure to the planning system." At the same time, British Rail and the Department, if they were backing it, might say, "What a pity we had the parliamentary procedure. We would have preferred the public inquiry route." It all depends on the ultimate decision, and the sheer satisification of being able to take up more time at a public inquiry is not the be-all and end-all of the system.
Our present system is fair, but it is illogical and these matters should be put into the planning system. The Joint Committee, having examined it, came down clearly and firmly in favour of that proposition. On balance, it would be better for all the relevant organisations outside, as they argued strongly, to go to a planning inquiry.
I have no hesitation in sticking firmly to that proposal and I have no doubt that, had we considered these proposals a year or two ago in relation to, say, King's Cross and the high-speed link, we would now be considering them in the context of the planning system.
The Leader of the House attached great importance to the question of speed and said that the planning procedure would be slower and that would be the price to be paid. I do not think that that is necessarily the case and it seems that the point has been exaggerated. The delays in the planning procedure are not created only by the length of the public inquiry. They are caused as much by the bureaucratic processes before and after it. The inquiry need not be lengthy.
We have new rules that should curtail the excesses that have been experienced as some planning inquiries. There is no fundamental reason why a planning process should not be relatively quick. Who, anyway, is assuming that the parliamentary process will be quick? Judging by the remarks of some opponents, there is no guarantee that the 531 King's Cross Railways Bill will whistle through at a rapid rate. It would not surprise me if that takes as long as any alternative planning inquiry would have taken.
§ Mr. Spearing
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the advantages of the planning inquiry procedure, and I made that clear in my speech. What would he say to the concept that clearing the ground, from the point of view of strategic implications and possibly choice of route at the normal planning stage, should be a precondition of any preliminary procedures in this House, except in the case of a more detailed Bill, the details of most of which would have been thrashed out before it arrived? Would that not achieve the best of both worlds?
§ Mr. Moate
I would have to consider the hon. Gentleman's proposal carefully before being able to respond. Perhaps he will forgive me, therefore, if I do not respond now.
The report says that, whatever is recommended, nothing can detract from the Government's power to handle big planning matters of national importance in any way they choose. I stress that, because whatever procedures are laid down in this House, the Government of the day, of either complexion, might say that a power station, an airport or a railway line is of such significance that—whether it be by hybrid or private legislation or by special development orders—there are various other routes open. In other words, at various times a Government could decide that matters of such strategic importance should come before the House. Had these recommendations been in place, even on the high-speed link, the Government might have said that the only way to get it through would be to bring it to Parliament.
We have produced a practical and logical set of proposals. They will be for the benefit of the House as a whole and I hope that hon. Members will grasp this nettle, to borrow a phrase from the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). If we do not grasp it now, in years to come Parliament will bitterly regret not having taken an opportunity to reconstruct our approach to private Bills that should last us well into the next century.
I will deal briefly with some of the procedural points that are part of the package. I agree with those who have said that it would be wrong to expect hon. Members to give up some of their powers—the opportunities for guerrilla tactics to stop Bills that they do not like—unless they are satisfied that the package adds up.
I hope that the Government business managers will see this as a package—it cannot all be delivered in one piece of legislation—will accept the general objectives, and will introduce primary legislation and the necessary procedural changes to allow what we propose to take place. Only then would it be right to expect hon. Members to give up, for example, the verbal blocking and the need for 100 hon. Members to vote for the closure. I agree with the hon. Member for Den ton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) that, if we took away that need to obtain 100 for the closure, particularly if, at the same time, we made it harder for proposers to carry over a Bill, we might get a genuine debate, because the only requirement would be to achieve a clear majority with 40 hon. Members being present and voting. It would remove an obstacle, but let us not pretend that it would be easy for the proposers.
532 I welcome the statement by the First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means that he thoroughly recommended not the option of a Joint Committee of both Houses for an experimental period but that he thought that it should be a requirement. Having taken a Bill through a Select Committee of one House, it does not make sense to repeat that procedure in the other. That practice was described by one witness as boiling one's cabbages twice. Another referred to it as taking two bites of the cherry. It does not make sense to have a duplication of Select Committees. The Joint Committee proposal is logical and makes sense, and I hope that it will be accepted. If one makes the Joint Committee only an option, it is unlikely to be used by anyone to whom it is inconvenient. I hope that we can, for an experimental period, make a Joint Committee a requirement. I feel sure that we shall benefit as a consequence.
As to the Kent high-speed rail link, I declare an interest as a Member for a Kent constituency. However, I am not directly affected by British Rail's proposal, although I could be directly affected by the proposal for an alternative route through my constituency. Come what may, we are going to have the private Bill procedure in respect of that rail link, the Joint Committee's proposals were brought out without a specific route in mind. Ironically—this makes one realise how quickly events have caught up with us—the report comments:In any case, long stretches of new railway line are at present uncommon.It is ironic that that statement was made, but that we are now confronted by one of the most highly controversial rail routes of all time.
Whatever our preference may have been, we are on the private Bill route. Speaking personally, my preference was for a public inquiry that embraced the Channel tunnel itself, the rail link, and the link's termini. I wish that some of those who are now complaining the loudest had voted against the Channel tunnel when it was proposed. They did not say then that we should think of the environmental consequences and of the rail link that would be a consequence of the tunnel. However, that is history.
Today I cannot see any conceivable way of persuading the Government to hold a public inquiry. Therefore, we must make the best of the existing procedures, which offer immense opportunities to petitioners to bring their protest to the House and to secure major changes to the Bill. One should also remember the disadvantages of a public inquiry, which generates options and blight across a much wider area. A public inquiry might be presented with four or five main routes, as well as a range of alternative routes, that would be under consideration for six months, a year or even two years. We currently have the advantage that there is only one proposed rail link route, that the whole county is not blighted—and neither are other areas, if one extends the argument—but we have certainty instead. An extended inquiry would delay a decision, and cause massive uncertainty and a great deal of anxiety.
We are, I hope, moving towards the public inquiry system. Assuming that it has the Government's support, that system must be better. The sooner that we adopt it, the better it will be for all concerned. However, for the moment we must make the best use of the procedures that we have.
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)
The first part of my speech will not strike a discordant note, but its conclusion may do so. I begin by joining the tributes paid to the hon. Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) and to his Committee. The House is indebted to them for their substantial work. I also listened to the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) with great interest. I do not intend remarking much on Kent or on the Channel tunnel, although I suspect that we shall have substantial opportunities to discuss the line of route soon, and at rather greater length.
I am, in common with my hon. Friends, eager to see the proposed changes and the implementation of the whole package in the Joint Committee's report. However, I have reservations about three recommendations. Unlike the hon. Member for New Forest, I am anxious about the question of the simple majority. My belief is that the basic motive behind that proposal is a desire to accelerate consideration of private Bills.
The House is not always wise to accelerate its consideration of Bills. The Felixstowe Docks and Harbour Bill lasted for an unconscionable time between 1985 and 1987. I made long speeches on that Bill, as did several of my hon. Friends, at peculiar hours in the early morning. But as we neared the 50th hour of debate, the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths), who sponsored the Bill, began offering concessions. They may not have amounted to a great deal, but had we not kept the debate going, we should not have obtained them. It is possible that the Orwell estuary would be a poorer place if excessively speedy progress had been made with that Bill.
The House must take care, and right hon. and hon. Members give up hours of their time when they would probably be better off in bed. We must bear in mind the fact that, in addition to the convenience of the lawyers and the interests of commercial undertakings, we are under an obligation to care for the individual who may not have adequate resources to care for himself. We ought to care also for the environment, and I am particularly pleased with the report's reference to environment impact assessments, which right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House will welcome.
Environment impact assessments have been undertaken in recent years in respect of a number of private Bills. The hon. Member for New Forest will recall that a considerable amount of environmental information was available to right hon. and hon. Members concerned about the Hampshire (Lyndhurst Bypass) Bill. I even knew how many species of insects there are to be found in the 32 acres plot in contention. As to the Orwell estuary, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds identified not only the breeding species to be found there, but their numbers, together with a considerable amount of other information that was purveyed to the House at rather greater speed than some right hon. and hon. Members would have liked.
We have been given a great deal of environmental information about certain private Bills. All we have now is a promise that assessments will be made. There is no commitment to ensuring that environmental interests notified and presented in assessments will be reflected by the Bill. No guarantee is given that adequate compensation will be paid for any damage that is done.
We welcome the insistence that environmental assessments will be made, but in the absence of a guarantee 534 that any assessment will be made meaningful, a number of right hon. and hon. Members remain justifiably suspicious.
My final anxiety relates to the obligation of a right hon. or hon. Member to attend a Private Bill Committee. A few years ago, such an obligation would have been very reasonable. I shall not labour the point, but some right hon. and hon. Members represent constituencies suffering appalling economic needs, and they could not honourably give a commitment to attend a debate or Committee of the House that is to take place several weeks or months hence. Right hon. and hon. Members do not know whether there will be yet another industrial or colliery closure, or some other form of bankruptcy and ruin in their constituencies. I would not be prepared to enter into such a long-term obligation, and I feel certain that many right hon. and hon. Members representing the industrial areas of the north of England will be anxious about giving such an obligation when the crying need of their constituents, as of mine, may require them to devote their energies, and to ensure their presence, elsewhere.
I shall mention an issue that may not be mentioned in the report. Some of us have expressed concern about two controversial Bills—the Associated British Ports Bill and the North Killingholme Cargo Terminal Bill. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford, North (Mr. Wall)—who may seek to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker—and for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Dunnachie) who served on the Committees on the two Bills. They were unable successfully to introduce an amendment to the Associated British Ports Bill, even though the matter—as I think all Conservative Members recognise—was very contentious. It was so contentious that the European Community would not give grants for the project.
The matter was contentious because it meant that large numbers of jobs in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire would be lost. It was also contentious because it seemed to embody an idiotic approach to energy policy and to destroy industrial capacity, making our balance of payments deficit much greater. However, my hon. Friends were unable to amend the Bill in Committee because they were in a minority. Therefore, the Bill would not be debated on Report. A number of us were very concerned about that.
I raised the matter in the House some weeks ago, because I had a large number of amendments to table in my constituents' interests. However, when I looked at "Erskine May" and checked with our Clerks, I found that there could be only a Third reading, at which hon. Members would be able to present insubstantial verbal amendments. We would not be able to present written amendments, which might have protected thousands of jobs in our area, allowed us to talk about the problems of the unsafe mining industry in South Africa and maintain our saner energy courses. None of those amendments would have been, or will be, possible. That is the single extra rule which needs to be changed, in addition to the commendable ones that are already proposed in the package.
The North Killingholme Cargo Terminal Bill will proceed to the Report stage because, due to the efforts of my hon. Friends, one amendment was accepted. It is interesting that there are two Bills for two closely adjacent ports, but one will be subject to detailed and lengthy debates on amendments, and the other will not. The promoters of one of those Bills will feel badly done by. I 535 am not actually suggesting that we should have a great deal of sympathy with the Bills' promoters. I have very little sympathy with them because it was an abuse to send hon. Members on free trips to South Africa to ensure that they took a slightly rosier view of the Bill than they otherwise might have done.
§ Mr. Spearing
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his detailed exposition of the importance of the two Bills. As both Bills contained matters of great public importance, were they not unsuitable for private legislation?
§ Mr. Hardy
My hon. Friend is right. I do not dissent from the view that the private Bill procedure was inappropriate in those cases. I made that point clear in a long speech during the debates on one of the Bills. Unfortunately, we have got them, and one of them may not have been properly considered as a consequence of the inadequacy of the present rules.
I shall not take up much more time because several other hon. Members wish to speak and I have made my point. I shall end with another tribute to the hon. Member for New Forest, who has brought to the House a valuable report, which will serve Parliament well for a long time to come. In the interests of the community as well as the individual, the Government must accept the report in its entirety and ensure that the changes that it produces are not embarrassed or blocked by party calculation. On this matter, the will of the House and the need of the nation are similar.
§ Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)
I should like to follow the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) with my own broad and warm support for the conclusions of the Joint Committee—that is no mere formality on my part as I am sure it was not for other hon. Members. I join other hon. Members in expressing my warm appreciation to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) and the members of his Committee on a job extremely well done.
The private Bill procedures as has been clearly shown in today's debate, are much in need of a radical overhaul. This is a timely moment for that to be done, given the major and controversial private Bills which are with us and are likely to be with us soon. The House owes a considerable debt to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest and the members of his Committee.
Hon. Members are divided on this matter but the division does not run between the red stripes on the Floor of the House but between those hon. Members who have practical, first-hand experience of the use of private Bill procedures to drive through controversial or unwelcome developments in their own constituencies, and those hon. Members for whom that particular experience is purely theoretical.
We very much appreciate the open-mindedness of the Leader of the House in his opening speech. If his constituency of Colchester, South and Maldon was threatened with having a private Bill being driven through by the private Bill procedures, to dump nuclear waste in landfill sites, he might be a trifle more sceptical about the rights of objectors under private Bill procedures than he was in his opening remarks. Those of us who have such 536 direct constituency experience know that these procedures leave a lot to be desired in giving proper rights of objection to our constituents.
I shall focus on an area which is of concern to us in Kent, south-east London and my own constituency of Tonbridge and Malling—the crucial interaction of private Bill procedures with the planning process. Although we all have planning decisions which we do not like in our own constituencies from time to time, most of us would accept that, by and large, the planning procedures operate well. They are generally perceived to be operated fairly because they have a strong local content, a strong devolution locally to elected representatives and a strong and easy means of participation and consultation with the people who are likely to be most closely affected by them on the ground.
The great weakness of the private Bill procedures, and the scepticism and fear of them locally, is that for major and highly contentious developments such as a high-speed railway line through green fields, those local people who would most expect to be consulted, have procedures explained to them and be given a genuine opportunity for making their objections felt, find that the traditional means of their involvement in the planning process have been taken away from them. Instead, they are left with a new process, removed from them locally, which makes it difficult for them to participate practically in the process. That is the nub of the problem. I believe that the Committee is entirely right to try to ensure that that does not happen in future, and that for major controversial applications we revert more to the normal planning processes.
It is an illusion that the private Bill procedure gives local people the same rights that they would have in the normal planning process. I do not think that those affected by controversial decisions made in the private Bill procedure would endorse such a view. A Select Committee charged with such a responsibility is bound not to be able to provide as much time as an inspector working full time in a public inquiry; it will not be able to go into the same detail.
Opportunities to object directly to Select Committee members are very limited. Elected local representatives have no direct involvement in the decision-making process: they are cut off from it completely. As for parliamentary representatives, although those with direct constituency interests can make their views known on Second Reading and on the Floor of the House, they are debarred from participation in the Committee's proceedings.
On 13 April, my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport answered a question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Medway (Dame P. Fenner) about the possibility of British Rail's promoting a private Bill for the high-speed line. He said:Objectors have the opportunity to petition against the Bill to Select Committees of both Houses of Parliament, who have the power to amend the Bill in response to the petitions received. This provides an appropriate mechanism for objections to British Rail's proposals to be considered if they have not been resolved in consultations prior to the Bill's introduction."—[Official Report, 13 April 1989; Vol. 150, c. 648.]I disagree. In my view the Select Committee procedure is far from being an appropriate mechanism for the hearing 537 of objections, and for giving people confidence that their views are being seriously assessed. I strongly endorse recommendation 5, which states:In principle, in cases where planning considerations are dominant, all works proposals for which private Bill approval is presently required should instead be authorised through non-parliamentary procedures involving the holding, where necessary, of a public local inquiry into objections.Our sceptism in Kent about the private Bill procedure is reinforced by our experience with the Channel Tunnel Bill. Let me make it clear that I am in no way criticising Members on either side of the House who served on that Bill; they undoubtedly did all that they could to assess the project. The fact remains, however, that the Bill went through the whole private Bill procedure and was ultimately approved by the House on the basis of one totally fundamental and incorrect statement made by British Rail. That statement was that there were no plans to build a new railway line through Kent. As a result the Bill was passed with little difficulty, but had there been a public inquiry I do not believe that British Rail's bland statement would have withstood the rigours that such an inquiry can involve.
I very much hope that considerations will be given to a public inquiry procedure in future for such Bills, particularly for a high-speed line Bill, and that in that instance the inquiry could be held in Kent and south-east London. The Bill would be presented in the normal way: I accept that British Rail could not obtain all the statutory powers that it would need to construct such a line through the normal planning process, and would need wider powers which can be conferred only through parliamentary legislation and the private Bill procedure. I feel, however, that British Rail—and, indeed, my right hon. Friend and hon. Friends in the Department of Transport—would be well advised to dovetail with the normal private Bill procedure a means of holding a full inquiry in Kent and south-east London.
The process will not be credible locally if the Select Committee members hold a few meetings in Kent and a few in south-east London—as happened with the Channel Tunnel Bill—return to Westminster and then produce their report. The fact is that, with the best will in the world, Members of Parliament cannot devote enough time to performing the sort of local inquiry job that is necessary on such occasions. A properly staffed inspector is needed, who can provide a service eight hours a day, five days a week, listening to all objections and evalutating them.
I believe that a Select Committee should be empowered to establish such an inspector to carry out a public inquiry, within a period defined by the Committee. Such an inspector must have the time and resources to report back to the Committee. That, I believe, can be done without prejudicing the basic timetable for a high-speed line Bill. I have taken to heart what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate). There can be no question of giving an inspector the opportunity to hear representations on a variety of alternative routes: that would bring back the serious blight problem from which we in Kent have escaped. There is, however, a sensible role for such an inspector to play.
In the case of the high-speed line, the inspector would make his report only in the context of the particular route that British Rail proposes. That would not only ensure that the House carried out its proper functions in relation to private legislation, but provide a new dimension in 538 which those affected by such proposals could have their objections heard in a local framework. They would present oral or written evidence, and the report would be submitted to the Select Committee here. Such a combination of procedures could, I think, deal with the deficiencies highlighted in the Joint Committee's report.
A specific feature of the high-speed line proposal directly affects my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), who was here earlier in the debate. That is the possibility of the construction of a new station on a green-field site in the mid-Kent area, the so-called Mid-Kent Parkway station. That is solely a planning matter; it is not integral to the high-speed line. It is a straight development proposal, not very different from any other large development proposal—for instance, an industrial or commercial proposal for an out-of-town shopping centre or an industrial trading estate, the kind of proposal that is dealt with every day of the week by planning authorities.
I would go further than the Committee: I think that such proposals should be dealt with very firmly, and always, through the local planning system. There is no case for a Committee of the House to be involved in a development which would be an optional extra for this high-sped line. I hope that it will not form any part of the British Rail Bill and that it will be dealt with exclusively through the normal planning process.
I was heartened by paragraph 21 of the memorandum that the Lord President presented to the Joint Committee, which it considered in its proceedings of 16 December 1987. He said:The Government recognises however that on occasion the planning aspects of schemes of the type described in paragraph 19 can be very significant and controversial. In one or two exceptional cases over the years, the Government has used its influence, directly with the promoter, to secure the consideration of the planning aspects of the scheme at a public inquiry under the Planning Acts. In appropriate cases, it would be prepared to do so again, or in extremis to ask Parliament to block the Bill".I very much welcome that statement. The Government should regard the high-speed line Bill as an appropriate case. They should recognise that such a Bill will be a uniquely controversial and contentious piece of legislation, and they should use their influence with the promoters to ensure a public inquiry, within defined limits, on certain aspects of it.
§ 9.1 pm
§ Mr. Pat Wall (Bradford, North)
This take note debate on the Joint Committee's report on private Bill procedure is very much a matter for old parliamentary hands and for those well versed in the intricacies of parliamentary procedure, so it is with some trepidation that I intervene in the debate.
I welcome the general content of the report. I can see the problems arising from the growing number of private Bills before the House. I am also aware of the controversy among hon. Members and the public in general over the amount of lobbying and the number of consultants in the House at present. As has already been demonstrated, the vast majority of private Bills are concerned with private interests and, although I accuse no one of anything, they may lead to many attempts to influence hon. Members on behalf of commercial interests.
As a member of a Committee considering a private Bill from October to the beginning of February, I could see 539 that problems caused for ordinary petitioners on private Bills when it came to the cost of travel to London, the expense of overnight accommodation and, above all, the time taken up.
I would like to speak from my own experience of a Committee considering a private Bill and to begin with a quotation from the report of the Joint Committee in paragraph 32 at the top of page 14:"Private bills are not in the opinion of the Committee an appropriate system for authorising works of purely local significance. The Committee would regard the transfer of power from Parliament in these cases not as a substantial constitutional shift, but as a logical step in a pattern of historical development and a necessary response to modern requirements.While I agree with that statement, it does not necessarily follow that anything that is of much wider national significance ought to be the subject of a private Bill. I was a member of the Committee that considered the opposed private Bills, the Associated British Ports (No. 2) Bill and the North Killingholme Cargo Terminal Bill. Such was the complexity and political nature of the Bill that, at the conclusion of its consideration of the No. 2 Ports Bill, the Committee felt it necessary to present to the House a special report.
I would like to read from that report—it may unfortunately be a little boring—two paragraphs to make my point. The first is paragraph 20:The Committee decided unanimously that if the petitioners' assessment of the amount of coal likely to be imported through Immingham proves correct, then the consequences for the British coal industry could be, to use the word employed by Counsel for the Coalfield Communities Campaign, 'horrendous.' Those consequences might include the closure of as many 15 collieries, the loss of 15,000 jobs, the permanent sterilization of energy resources, and 'knock on' effects on local communities across Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and South Yorkshire. The Committee is aware of the dangers of allowing the import of coal on this scale, and is very sympathetic to the petitioners in the case they made concerning this".I have read that not because I want to go into the details of the Committee's discussion, but to emphasise that this private Bill Committee of four hon. Members was concerned with issues of enormous national significance. It was concerned with the not insignificant effect of imports on the balance of trade. It was concerned with the whole question of energy policy, which has been the subject of great debate in Select Committee. It sat at a time when the privatisation of electricity generation was being discussed. The Bill has also markedly affected the long-standing agreement between the nationalised Central Electricity Generating Board and British Coal on contracts for coal-fired power stations. It has greatly affected the job prospects and economies of a large part of the Midlands and Yorkshire.
These are tendentious national issues and, when it comes to the relationship between the Government and the mining communities, issues of real passion.
I was struck by the fact that the First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means said, correctly, that hon. Members who serve on private Bill Committees must do so in a completely disinterested way. It is impossible for any hon. Member coming to the House as a political animal, 540 representing a political party, to be completely disinterested when debating national policy and controversies of such a nature. It shows that this sort of matter should not be the property of a private Bill Committee.
This was the feeling of all four members of the Committee on which I served, two Conservative Members and two Labour Members, and I would like to quote from the report because it makes the point a little more clearly:The petitioners' arguments put the Committee in a position of great difficulty. In effect we were invited to make a strategic decision affecting United Kingdom energy policy, and one which affects also Britain's general policy on trade, because it relates to whether protectionist measures are justifiable to safeguard the interests of an important sector of British industry. We do not consider that this is an appropriate decision to be taken by a small committee consisting of four backbench MPs, three of whom are serving in their first Parliament. It is a great burden of responsibility to place upon a private Bill committee. There has been no technical breach of private Bill procedure, but we do consider that that procedure has been stretched to its limits by the various arguments advanced before the Committee. The decisions on energy and trade policy we have been invited to take are, in our opinion, national decisions which are the ultimate responsibility of the national government.We had two Bills before the one Committee. As the procedure is that the chairmanship of Bill Committee goes alternately to the two major parties, it meant that both Bills were considered under one chairman, who had a casting vote. This meant a built-in majority for the Government in the Committee. There were no objections. I am not suggesting that there was any impropriety, but it is regrettable that such a controversial issue was handled in that way.
I have been a Member of Parliament for about 22 months. When I reached the third month of sitting for three days a week on the Bill—representing, as I do, a constituency with the lowest rates of pay in Britain and with more than its fair share of social deprivation, which involves a large burden of correspondence and case work—I began to feel that my initials were "M.U.G." and that my surname had been changed to "Naive." I understand now why so few hon. Members volunteer to serve on private Bill Committees, particularly Members with large caseloads.
Only four Members serve on those Committees. The quorum is three. I am glad that one of the recommendations is that the quorum should be changed. It meant, in my case, that if one member of the Committee was not present I could not indulge my craving for nicotine. That may have been good for my health, as a nicotine addict. However, it also meant that the normal human function of going to the lavatory became a major issue if one member of the Committee was absent. Bewigged ladies and gentlemen were being paid enormous sums of money an hour. Even a five-minute visit to the gents meant that one was probably depriving them of several hundreds of pounds in fees. That is nonsense.
I support the increase in the number of members to five. Enormous pressure is put on the Chairman. He has the casting vote, in certain circumstances. A Committee of five members would be much fairer and much more reasonable. However, I should be prepared to support the recommendation only if it meant that the 3:2 majority, particularly on controversial Bills, alternated, just as the chairmanship alternates now. If it meant a built-in Government majority, few Opposition Members would be prepared to sit on such Committees.
541 We sat for the longest time for many years on a private Bill. At the end of our deliberations we thought that we might get into "The Guinness Book of Records." However, I foresee that the King's Cross development and the Channel tunnel will lead to the deletion of our names from that book, even before it is printed.
§ Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks)
I support what all hon. Members have said about the main thrust of the report. It is comprehensive and detailed. It highlights the fact that our present methods of handling legislation have become increasingly out of date and unsatisfactory. That is not surprising, bearing in mind historical development of the private Bill procedure at a time when few, if any, of the present planning procedures were in place. I hope that the fact that the recommendations have been so strongly supported will encourage my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to seek their rapid implementation.
Recommendation 1 reads:Promoters of a private bill should be required to prove before the committee on the bill that private legislation is necessary to secure the primary purpose of the bill.It is important that we should limit the number of private Bills and that on Second Reading greater attention should be paid to whether it is correct that the Bill ought in fact to be before the House.
I support those hon. Members who argue strongly in support of recommendation 5, which relates to planning considerations. There is a strong argument for taking private Bills, where there is a dominant planning element, out of the planning procedure.
I also support the view that an easily digestible handbook on private Bill procedure ought to be made available. It is difficult for the general public to understand parliamentary procedure. The report suggests that Members of Parliament need a handbook. It should also be made available to the public. It must be written in plain English that can be easily understood.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) referred to the fears of the public if they come as petitioners before a Committee on private Bills. The aura of this place, the limited facilities for doing any work here as petitioners and the difficulty of coming to Parliament are obstacles in the way of petitioners making their case adequately, compared with their position at a public inquiry that is held locally, in familiar surroundings and on familiar ground. People feel more confident in those circumstances.
That is not to imply that our current procedures cannot be turned to good account. I do not intend to refer to Kent in great detail, since other hon. Members have referred to this. I accept that we shall have to deal with the high-speed link within the present legislative framework. There are many ways in which the Bill could be delayed. Hon. Members can put pressure on the promoter of the Bill, British Rail, to make concessions so as to meet the general concerns of our constituents.
The radical proposal of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Mailing deserves to be fully considered by the Government. He has suggested that the Committee that deals with petitions against the high-speed rail link should be provided with greater resources. The final decision will ultimately be made by the House. However, my right hon. Friend has suggested that an inspector should conduct a public inquiry within a time 542 scale established by the Committee. That would go a long way towards providing a better opportunity for petitioners to air their concerns and for the very real worries of all those who are likely to be affected by the high-speed rail link, and by similar important legislation, to be expressed with confidence.
The public demonstrations against the rail link in Kent and the problems that will arise because of people's fears are partly due to the fact that the public are not familiar with the private Bill procedure. Very few Members of Parliament are familiar with the procedure. That point is clearly made in the report, and it has been referred to in the debate. The existing framework allows the fears of the public to be well aired, but it does not inspire confidence. In supporting the thrust of the Joint Committee report, I realise that such changes will take time, but they need not take very long if the Government and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House are prepared to put their full weight behind the changes which I believe to be long overdue.
§ Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)
I apologise for having been unable to be present for much of the debate this afternoon, but I listened very carefully to the speech of the Leader of the House, and I was disappointed in the Government's apparent lack of sympathetic response to many of the recommendations in the Joint Committee report.
The Joint Committee report addressed a number of problems which are evident in relation to private Bills submitted to the House, especially private Bills of a highly controversial nature. I am becoming ever more familiar with the niceties of private Bill procedure. For the first time in a number of years, a private Bill relates to very specific matters which will have an enormous impact on my constituents—the King's Cross Railways Bill. The forces ranged against local people in voicing their protest against British Rail's plans, in trying to understand private Bill procedure and find out how to petition against British Rail's proposals, in facing objections to their locus standi as petitioners and in trying to find their way around the current complex and daunting private Bill procedures have been something of an eye-opener.
I wish to pick up a point on which I had a brief exchange with the Leader of the House. He seemed to imply that in his view the present procedure was fair between petitioners and promotors, but I cannot agree with him. The present system is heavily biased in favour of the promotors of a Bill and against the petitioners. I ran provide one or two examples that relate specifically to the King's Cross Railways Bill.
That Bill will destroy an entire neighbourhood in my constituency. If implemented, it will demolish a considerable number of homes and destroy a considerable number of businesses. It will knock the stuffing out of a community that has been under threat for 10, 15 or 20 years and has been painstakingly rebuilt by local residents. It is a precious flower that is about to be trampled, and the people of King's Cross do not want that to happen.
Quite justifiably, they are anxious to make their views known in the most effective way they can about British Rail's absurd proposals for a vast underground international station at King's Cross. Understandably, many of them decided to petition. Leaving aside the sheer 543 difficulty of petitioning—the petition has to be in a particular form of words in a particular format and it has to be submitted on a particular day—there is a specific deadline which is not publicly advertised and which they have to find out by contacting their Member of Parliament or the Private Bill Office. Having submitted their petitions against the Bill, many of them have encountered objections, not directly from British Rail, but from the agents acting for British Rail who are challenging their locus standi as petitioners.
I shall give just one example of the absurdity of that. Many of my constituents who live in Northdown street, which is immediately adjacent to the site for the proposed railway station, have submitted petitions. It appears that the agents acting for British Rail have accepted the locus standi of virtually all the petitions from Northdown street, but they have objected to the locus standi of one petitioner who lives in the middle of Northdown street, surrounded by other petitioners whose locus standi has not been objected to by the agents acting for British Rail.
I do not want to trespass beyond the limits of the debate, but it seems to me that a private Bill procedure that allows petitioners to face that sort of difficulty cannot possibly be right.
§ Mr. Speaker
Although the hon. Gentleman can legitimately draw attention to this sort of thing, it is rather wide of the debate and he should not take us too far along this line.
§ Mr. Smith
Of course I shall accept your guidance, Mr. Speaker. I raised the issue merely to illustrate my point that the procedure for petitioning is extremely difficult, daunting and complex for people who wish to object to a private Bill.
In claiming that the private Bill procedure was even-handed between petitioners and promoters, the Leader of the House said that, in his opinion, the recommendations in the Joint Committee report would make life very difficult for the promoters of Bills. He said that it would be much more time-consuming, expensive and difficult for promoters if they had to go through normal planning procedures on planning matters.
Surely that is the nub of the point. It is my contention that if British Rail wants to carry out a considerable amount of work in the south-western corner of my constituency at King's Cross, if it wants to change the face of the neighbourhood and if it wants to decide a major transport issue about the best location for an international train station, those are matters that should be considered at greater length, in greater detail and by a more democratic procedure than is possible under the present private Bill procedure. If that means that British Rail has to take more time about it and has to do the job better than it has hitherto given evidence of doing in relation to King's Cross, so much the better.
544 For the Leader of the House to argue that we should not accept more proposals of the Joint Committee because they would make life more difficult for the promoters of private Bills is not good enough. In many respects, life should be made more difficult for the promoters of private Bills. Life is too easy for them. The sloppy way in which British Rail has hitherto made its decisions in relation to King's Cross bears out that point.
§ Mr. Dobson
Does my hon. Friend agree that British Rail has been sloppy, or devious, in that it has submitted to the House its Bill to dig rather than build a station at King's Cross in such a way that it can successfully challenge the locus standi of Members all along the line intended to connect that station with the Channel tunnel, and also in such a way that it has even excluded works at King's Cross associated with the Euro-tunnel, which means that those works will have to be the subject of part of its second Bill? Does he agree that that salami tactic would be impossible at a public inquiry?
§ Mr. Smith
My hon. Friend is right. I suspect that he and I will shortly be making common cause on that Bill. He will know better than I, because it is on his side of the constituency boundary, that the residents of Acton street and Swinton street in the immediate vicinity of King's Cross have already received approaches from people acting for British Rail, seeking to prepare material for another private Bill which is due to be tabled in the House in six to eight months' time, and which will relate to work directly relevant to the works contained in the private Bill currently before the House. As yet, we do not know the details of those works. It is absurd that we are talking about a private Bill whose ramifications we cannot discuss until another Bill is tabled in the House, some 12 months after the initial proposal.
The inadequacies of the private Bill procedure when addressing such detailed and important planning matters are all too clear. I cannot agree with the argument of the Leader of the House that we cannot accept that part of the Joint Committee's report because it would make life more difficult for the promoters of private Bills. It would make life more difficult for them, but it is important that that happens, because life is too difficult for petitioners and too easy for promoters at present.
§ Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)
I have been listening carefully to my hon. Friend's remarks. He can correct me if I am wrong, but is he saying in effect that, if the second part of the report is not accepted, the gross inequality because of resources between promoters and petitioners will continue, and that in some way it is fair that that gross inequality should continue to exist?
§ Mr. Smith
The Leader of the House seems to be saying that he is not prepared to accept some of the earlier recommendations in the Joint Committee report, which would take out of the private Bill procedure many of the planning issues that I object to being included in the procedure—the Joint Committee agrees with me—but he is prepared to accept some of the later recommendations which will make the procedure in the House for private Bills smoother, quicker and easier. By saying that, the Leader of the House has dangerously unbalanced the careful package that the Joint Committee put together.
The Joint Committee wants to exclude the planning issues from the private Bill procedure in the House, but as 545 a counterweight wants to make it easier to get the things that should be part of private Bills through the House in a more shipshape fashion. The Leader of the House seems to be saying, "Let's drop all the proposals for taking planning issues out of this procedure but let's speed up the procedures none the less"—which, to my mind, might result in the worst of all possible worlds. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) has raised an extremely interesting point.
§ Mr. Spearing
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out the essential balance incorporated by the Committee—and by the hon. Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson)—to which I accede, but does he agree that, even if that balance were incorporated, Bills such as those referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy)—such as the North Killingholme Cargo Terminal Bill and the Associated British Ports Bills—might still get through because, while they do not necessarily involve planning, although they might incidentally, they involve matters of considerable public policy that should be dealt with in another way than through private legislation?
§ Mr. Smith
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. At the moment, two major issues that can come within the content of private Bills are not appropriate for private Bill procedures. The first are planning issues, which should be dealt with by public local inquiries, and the second are issues of public policy, such as those relating to the energy policy of the country, or to whatever else is relevant to the Bill. Such issues should not be subject to the private Bill procedure. Instead, they could be subject to primary legislation in this House and be preceded by a Select Committee report. There are other and better ways of addressing major public policy issues than the private Bill procedure.
The initial response of the Leader of the House to this excellent Joint Committee report—I congratulate all those involved in producing it—has been deeply disappointing. He has missed the considerable number of good points in the report, and he believes too much in the fairness of the present system. He has failed to take account of the inadequacies of the private Bill procedure to deal with planning matters or with major public policy issues and he has failed also to take account of the desperate need for this House to sort out better ways of dealing with such matters than those we have at the moment.
§ Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)
Next month, I shall have been a Member for 10 years, during which time I have taken a close interest in private Bills for various reasons. Like other hon. Members who have spoken in the debate, I have found myself at various times passionately seeking to oppose private Bills and in recent times I have found myself passionately seeking to sponsor two private Bills which are currently before the House in one form or another, and which have been referred to several times in the debate.
In addition, although I have not had the opportunity of serving for as long as the hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Wall), I have served for a considerable time as a member of a Private Bill Committee. In fact, I have served on two such Committees. Therefore, I come to the debate from every angle and you will recall, Mr. Speaker, 546 that in previous debates on private Bills you will have seen me rise and then sit down an hour or two later when I have been seeking to oppose certain private Bills.
I hope that my few words will bring to bear the benefit of some experience and, at the outset, I should declare an interest because I am seeking to promote the Associated British Ports (No. 2) Bill and the North Killingholme Cargo Terminal Bill.
The private Bill procedure has served reasonably well during the 10 years that I have been a Member of the House. I have lost some and I have won some. I have opposed some private Bills that have subsequently received the Royal Assent. I may have the opportunity of being able to move the Third Reading of one private Bill but it may be that I will be unable to move the Third Reading of the other. Obviously, it will be for the House as a whole to decide whether the Third Readings are given and it will also be for the other place to decide whether the Bills should be proceeded with.
I do not want to dwell too much on the specific Bills for which I have a responsibility, except to say that I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Bradford, North. It is a great stress and strain on any hon. Member who is selected by the Committee of Selection to serve on a private Bill. I have been in the hon. Gentleman's circumstance, but not for the same length of time.
I was unable to participate in the Private Bill Committee, because I had an interest, but I sat in the Public Gallery for many of the deliberations and I readily place on record the fact that it must have been a considerable strain to the four hon. Members who served from October last year until March of this year on the two Bills concerned. I accept that there is probably a case for considering the Joint Committee's proposals regarding the quorum and the size of the Committee. I imagine that it must have been difficult for the hon. Member for Bradford, North and his colleagues who have demanding constituencies, and who are active in the House in other ways, to give all the time that they would wish to all their other duties.
I am worried about one approach that appears to be envisaged by the Joint Committee, which is the feeling that there should be a transfer to ministerial control of some of the policy decisions that are sometimes implicit in private Bills.
One of the great joys that I relish as a Back Bench Member is the opportunity, when considering private legislation, to play some direct role in the outcome of that legislation. I am concerned about the prospect of transferring yet more decisions to ministerial control, with all that that implies in terms of party discipline and votes. I am not sure that there is much pressure to curtail parliamentary involvement or transfer subjects that have been handled in Parliament to ministerial control. I do not believe that there would be any obvious advantage in doing so or that there would necessarily be any greater safeguards. I would argue that Back Benchers with an assiduous ability and knowledge of parliamentary procedure can do a great deal either to promote or frustrate the passage of a private Bill. There is a strong argument for keeping such matters within the direct scrutiny of Parliament, rather than leaving them to Ministers and local authorities.
For the two private Bills in which I have a direct constituency interest, I would submit that, if the proposals of the Joint Committee were to be accepted in full, it would 547 have been possible for the projects to come to fruition much more easily. As the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) made clear in an intervention in the speech of his hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) if only local authorities had been involved in giving planning permission for the Associated British Ports (No. 2) Bill and the North Killingholme Cargo Terminal Bill projects, the procedures would have been easier. I know that both the Humberside county council and the Glanford borough council were in favour of the proposals that had been submitted to the House by the promoters of both those Bills.
Recommendation 9 says:The permitted scope of Harbour Orders under the Harbours Act 1964 should be broadened, so as to allow general powers to be included and a wider range of development to be authorised. S.62 of the 1964 Act should be repealed.The Joint Committee refers the House to paragraph 60 of its recommendations.
I argue that that recommendation, coupled with the suggestion that, where possible, local authority planning powers should be used more, would, in the instance of the two private Bills I have mentioned, have enabled those proposals to be put forward by the promoters much more easily. Hon. Members, such as the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) and his colleagues, have legitimate and genuine concerns about those two Bills.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, although the local authority might have been inclined to give planning permission easily, the Secretary of State always had the power to call in those projects and, therefore, to set up an inquiry? Had a proper public inquiry been held, it would have probably taken as long as consideration of the private Bills in Committee.
§ Mr. Michael Brown
I accept the general thrust of the hon. Gentleman's remarks.
Those private Bills were deposited before the House in November 1987. On the assumption that the Chairman of Ways and Means might name the day for the Third Reading of the Associated British Ports (No. 2) Bill during this Session, it is more than probable—even if the House grants the Bill a Third Reading and even if it gets a Third Reading in the other place—that it will be 1990, at the earliest, before the Bill is given the Royal Assent. I would be distressed if a public inquiry procedure took three years.
In the case of the two Bills mentioned, I believe that recommendation would lead to the House being bypassed to a greater extent. That would reduce the ability of the hon. Member for Wentworth and his colleagues, who have a legitimate interest in following the passage of those Bills, to raise relevant matters in public debate. It would also deny them the chance to delay and scrutinise those Bills.
§ Mr. Spearing
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that even if the planning inquiry had been called in—that would have been wise and necessary before a short-circuiting Bill was presented; I deplore that procedure—the second element of public policy and purpose, which is of even greater concern to my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), would not have been covered? Therefore, does he agree that, because of that, even if the planning matters had been dealt with sufficiently—they were not—it was inopportune to produce the Bills?
§ Mr. Brown
There is a philosophical divide between the hon. Gentleman and myself.
We are entering an era in which private enterprise will have a much greater role to play in our national economy. In the 19th century, at the height of the industrial revolution, private projects were the engine of industrial development. Private capital was the driving force behind the creation of the railway system. Therefore, it was inevitable that the private Bill procedure grew and grew in the 19th century.
During the latter part of the 20th century, more private ventures are being launched and they are the engine of further industrial development. As industrial development is underpinned by private enterprise, which is responsible for the new great development of our industries, docks, harbours, railways and the light transit projects, it is natural that more private Bills should be put before the House. They are a natural reflection of the industrial development currently taking place and they are no more than a repetition of what took place in the 19th century.
§ Mr. Wall
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for his kind recognition of the work carried out by the hon. Members who sit on the Committees on the Bills which he is sponsoring. The general thrust of the hon. Gentleman's argument is that a private Bill should be seen as an opportunity for a Back Bencher to make a major contribution to issues relating to national policy. Can that not be seen from the opposite point of view? The Government have an opportunity through the back door with the private Bill procedure to extend their legislation, particularly with regard to the two Bills referred to by the hon. Gentleman, the privatisation of weights and measures and other Bills relating to local transport systems.
§ Mr. Brown
I am not sure whether I would argue that. I can think of many examples over the past 10 years where I have been on the other side of private Bills when it has been possible to frustrate a private Bill's passage.
Much of the Joint Committee report is commendable. However, it would involve our giving up many of the powers available to hon. Members to play a part in the decision-making process of the economic and industrial activities of this country. We should be cautious before we give up that valuable procedure.
§ Mr. Wakeham
I said at the start of this debate that I wanted to hear the views of the House, and I have not been disappointed. I mentioned the complexity of the subject, and that too has been demonstrated. I am grateful for the comments by right hon. and hon. Members. They have been thoughtful and helpful. Apart from the difficulty in responding to them all in the time available, they require more detailed and considered reflection. In particular, I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) for his masterly exposition of the Joint Committee's thinking. I want also to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Sir P. Dean), the Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means, for giving us his views.
Several hon. Members stressed the need to consider the report as a total package, not as a menu from which a selection might be made. I expressed our reservations about several of the major recommendations, but I also 549 indicated the willingness of my right hon. Friends to consult on the issues which would involve primary legislation. I know that they will study the report of this debate carefully. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has heard much of this debate and I am grateful to him for that.
However, with the best will in the world, even if that leads to legislation, that legislation could not be brought forward in the near future and if the House wished to treat the recommendations as a package, the procedural recommendations for which there is general support would have to await that legislation. I am not sure whether the streamlining of procedures is necessarily for the benefit of promoters. It is also for the benefit of the House. I note also that some hon. Members share our reservations about certain of the procedural recommendations, such as those concerned with blocking Bills and carry-over motions. The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) was among those who appreciated the problems which could arise if control over rail schemes were removed from Parliament. In brief, I think that it will be very difficult for the report to be taken as a total package.
There are some procedural matters on which there would appear to be general agreement. If, after studying this debate, there seems to be a reasonable package of measures which can be put together, I will discuss that through the usual channels and with the Chairman of Ways and Means and see what might be done in time for the next Session. I cannot give the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) a date on which the House will be able to vote on these issues until those discussions have taken place. I am sure that in this, as in so much of our procedure, it is best to try to proceed on the basis of agreement.
Many hon. Members have espoused the cause of the petitioners and have made great play of the complexities and costs of the present procedure. They have even gone so far as to suggest that the balance of advantage lies unfairly with the promoters. That was the theme of a number of speeches, but several of the procedural recommendations—I am thinking particularly of those relating to costs and guidance—will help. I have already spoken of our reservations about other recommendations which would have worked against petitioners' interests. A specific point was that petitioners were disadvantaged by having to travel to London. But Private Bill Committees do have power to sit locally. Indeed, that was done in the case of the Channel Tunnel Bill. At the end of the day, the remedy lies in the hands of hon. Members who sit on those Committees.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett
In the case of the Cardiff Bay Barrage Bill, which is in the House of Lords at the moment, clearly it would be in the interests of many people in Cardiff who want to make representations about that Bill if the Committee were to sit in Cardiff. Bearing in mind their Lordships' other duties which have to be carried out in this building, that would be extremely difficult. In the case of the North Killingholme Cargo Terminal Bill and the Associated British Ports (Hull) Bill, it would have been very difficult for the four members to spend a great deal of time taking evidence locally.
§ Mr. Wakeham
I am not saying that it would be easy or that it would be appropriate, and I am certainly not commenting on what goes on in the House of Lords—I have more sense than to begin to do that. I am saying simply that there is power to sit locally and that, on some occasions, that could be helpful. It is a factor that was not mentioned earlier in the debate, and it is right that I should mention it. I am sure that, even within the existing procedures, petitioners could be helped better to understand the processes and to present their case more effectively.
Much has been said during the debate about the superiority of the planning process over the private Bill procedure. On the face of it, the arguments sound attractive, but I am not convinced. The inquiry process on a major project involves the preparation and submission of a packaged scheme to a planning authority and thence to a Government Department, as a precursor to the inquiry stage of consideration. Once an inquiry has been arranged, voluminous evidence is produced and exchanged between the parties prior to the inquiry, but once the inquiry has opened, there is subsequently little if any room for negotiation leading to amendment of the proposals. The system is far less flexible in respect of precisely those major schemes where maximum scope for negotiation and compromise ought to be in operation.
Moreover, an inspector, in considering what evidence is relevant to the eventual decision, is heavily constrained by existing Government planning and related policies. These are not matters which he has discretion to override in his recommendations. If he were to attempt to do so, it is unlikely that the relevant Minister would be happy to agree to it.
Several hon. Members—perfectly understandably—took the opportunity to refer to King's Cross. I do not quarrel with that at all. I do not intend to consider the merits and issues of this particular case, nor would it be right for me to do so. However, I recognise the passion and force with which hon. Members have pursued it. My right hon. Friend has heard much of the debate and will, I know, read the report with great interest and close attention. I think that this debate has shown that this is an important subject, and not one to be dismissed as an obscure procedural matter on the periphery of matters of real concern. The topics with which private Bills deal are matters of real concern to those who promote them and those who object to them. They are matters of concern to Parliament, and we shall return to the subject.
§ Mr. Alan Howarth (Lord Commissioner of the Treasury)
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion, by leave, withdrawn.