HC Deb 14 March 1994 vol 239 cc625-8 3.50 pm
Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker, of which I have given you notice. I should like your ruling on a matter arising from the private Bill being promoted by the London Docklands development corporation.

The main purpose of the private Bill is to enable the development corporation to make byelaws covering the use of the former docks and the areas surrounding them. The Bill would give additional powers to the Secretary of State for the Environment relating to those byelaws, and they may seem appropriate for inclusion in a private Bill. However, clause 22 of the Bill would, I think extraordinarily, empower the Secretary of State to dispose of all or part of the assets of the London Docklands development corporation without any further reference to the House.

The most recent published accounts of the London Docklands development corporation show that the value of its assets exceeds £1,200 million. That is an enormous sum of public money which was put into the hands of the London Docklands development corporation under a general public Bill. Surely the power to give away those assets, which belong to the taxpayer, should not be smuggled through in a private Bill. This is not a private matter—it concerns a huge sum of public money.

I want to know why the Secretary of State for the Environment was allowed to include this public matter in a private Bill and how the House can safeguard the interests of the taxpayer.

Madam Speaker

The hon. Gentleman has raised the question whether clause 22 of the Bill is a proper provision to be included in a private Bill. In the past, the Speaker has ruled that certain private Bills presented to the House should not proceed to a Second Reading because their principal provisions involved matters of public policy or conflicted with the general law. That ruling can be found at pages 804–805 of Erskine May.

However, there are precedents for provisions in private Bills giving the Secretary of State powers relating to the transfer of the property and functions of the promoting body—for example, section 10 of the British Waterways Act 1983. I cannot therefore rule that clause 22 of this Bill is not proper to be included. Of course, it is open to hon. Members to argue on Second Reading that the powers are too wide or that the relevant orders should come before the House. There are no petitions against the Bill, and the Bill has completed its passage in the House of Lords. It will be for the Committee on Unopposed Bills now to consider what amendments may be necessary.

Mr. Dobson

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Obviously, I accept your ruling and bear in mind the precedents. However, I am led to believe that the precedent that you quoted did not involve such an enormous sum of money or the possible gratuitous disposal of assets totalling as much as £1,200 million.

I should like to know your views on this matter, Madam Speaker. I understand that the authorities of this House, including the Speaker's Counsel, and those of the House of Lords look at such Bills to see whether their provisions are appropriate. It seems strange to me and to many of my hon. Friends that your advisers and those of the Lord Chancellor did not suggest to the promoters of the Bill that, at the very least, they might have provided in the Bill as originally drafted that such transfers could not take place without the prior consent of the House by a debatable order.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I thank you for your ruling. You may have expected that some hon. Members would refer to the matter during the debate, and it may be that something will emerge from that. Whatever may emerge in terms of the procedures in the House for which the Bill at the moment does not provide, is it your ruling that the Committee on Unopposed Bills can also consider whether, even with the safeguards, such a provision in a private Bill affecting the powers of a Secretary of State who has established the corporation and who has the power to dissolve it is in order in terms of the relationship between private and public legislation?

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)


Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

The hon. Member who is in charge of the Bill wishes to make a point.

Mr. Hughes

I am sorry that I was not here when you began to deal with the point of order, Madam Speaker. I was alerted by your Secretary and by the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). I am the hon. Member who is promoting the Bill. This is a point which has emerged late in the day. Advice has been taken, and will be available to the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) and other colleagues at 7 o'clock when the Bill is due to have its Second Reading. The advice that you have given already will be taken into account, Madam Speaker, and there may be further information available later. I ask hon. Members to be patient. I understand that the issue is important, but the point was neither raised nor spotted earlier. The purpose of the procedure is to give the House a chance to see whether such issues arise.

Madam Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. In reply to the latter point raised by the hon. Member for Newham, South, the answer, of course, is yes. The matter can come before the Committee on Unopposed Bills.

Mr. Terry Dicks (Hayes and Harlington)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I am raising a point of order similar to that which I raised on Friday. There have now been three mortar bomb attacks at Heathrow airport, which is, more or less, in my constituency, and yet I still cannot get an opportunity to get the Home Secretary to appear in the Chamber to make a statement. I understand and respect your decision with regard to my previous point of order. It seems strange that the whole country is talking about the busiest international airport in the world being under threat. Discussions are taking place in the press and among Opposition Members on the lack of security—I do not believe that to be the case—and yet I, the hon. Member who has the airport in his constituency, have no way of raising the matter in the House. I find that deplorable.

Madam Speaker

I believe that the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) wishes to make a similar point.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. May I preface my remarks by saying that I totally understand and fully support your ruling on my request for an emergency debate? I seek your guidance. Sunday's mortar took off from and landed in my constituency, and my constituents therefore rightly expect me to inform the House that the last thing that they want is a knee-jerk over-reaction. The other thing that they would want the House to know is that they have absolutely no intention of being bombed into submission by evil psychopaths. How on earth can they make that view known to the House? Perhaps you will give me some guidance, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

I am grateful to hon. Members for the way in which they have raised their points of order and for the support which they have given to the Chair. Right hon. Members on the Treasury Bench have no doubt heard the strength of feeling which has been expressed today. I think that we had better leave it at that for the moment.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I informed you that I wished to raise a point of order because I am being treated differently from other hon. Members—

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat. I have exchanged correspondence with the hon. Gentleman, and I asked him to see me. He did so, and I hoped to be able to explain the procedures of the House to him. I asked also a senior Officer of the House to try to help him to understand the way in which our procedures operate. I received a letter from him on Friday which I am now reading and to which I shall be replying. The hon. Gentleman cannot raise points of order on those matters. I have taken weeks to try to help him with the procedures of the House.

The hon. Gentleman wrote to me on Friday. He must give me an opportunity to read his letter and reply to it. The matter does not constitute a point of order. I explained that this morning to the hon. Gentleman. Officers of the House have also tried to be helpful. I have given him a good deal of time. My door is open to the hon. Gentleman if wants to see me again. However, unless he understands the procedures of the House, it will be extremely difficult. He is still unfamiliar with them. If he wants to come and see me again, my door is open and I will willingly go through them all with him again.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Mr. Llew Smith

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

Order. I have dealt with the point of order. I am moving on to the point of order from the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash).

Mr. Smith

It is because of the discussions that I have had with you, Madam Speaker, and the assistance from your colleagues that I am raising the point of order. I am discriminated against—

Madam Speaker

Order. There is no discrimination against the hon. Gentleman. I have attempted personally to explain to him the procedures and to do everything that I can to help him. I am still willing to help him if he does not understand. He is unfamiliar with the way in which we proceed in the House. The hon. Gentleman can take up my time as Speaker at any time that he wishes, but he cannot abuse the procedures of the House by raising points of order which are not points of order.

Mr. Cash

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Last Monday, I raised with you a question about the then imminent decision of the Government on the blocking minority rights which arise under article O of the Maastricht treaty. You said that you would consider the matter. I am grateful to you for that. However, the matter is still under consideration. As there has been no debate in the House because of the nature of the instruments in question, will you consider taking a private notice question for tomorrow on the matter? Apparently, the decision has not yet been taken. The decision so vitally affects the interests not only of the House but of the country that we deserve at the least an opportunity to put questions on a statement and to have a debate on the matter.

Madam Speaker

As the hon. Gentleman has already explained, I looked into the matter after he first raised it. If he wishes to put in a private notice question to me tomorrow, of course I shall consider it seriously, as I always do. However, proposals for changes in voting procedures in the Council of Ministers are not founded on European Community documents of the type that are subject automatically to our procedures. Nothing out of order has occurred. If the hon. Gentleman is anxious to secure a debate on the issue, as well as putting in a PNQ to me, he should make his request known in the usual way.

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