HC Deb 25 June 1998 vol 314 cc1199-207
Madam Speaker

I have selected the amendment the name of the Prime Minister.

5.5 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I beg to move, That this House supports the Energy Efficiency Bill and the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Bill, as amended and properly scrutinised in Standing Committee; trusts that they can now complete all remaining stages on Friday 3rd July; and urges the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons to re-examine the procedure for Private Members' Bills. This is an opportunity briefly to look at how we handle private Members' legislation. The Leader of the House will agree that there is a widespread view in the House that we need to think about the issue carefully. I hope that, in what will be a comparatively brief debate, we can do just that. Naturally, I look forward to taking the discussions further in the Modernisation Committee. As the Leader of the House will know, I have said in the past that this issue would be high on our priority list, and representations have been made to her from other quarters that that should be the case.

I make no apology for spotlighting two particular Bills that have received considerable cross-party support in the House. One has only to look at the early-day motions signed by Members of all parties in support of those Bills, and at the letters received by organisations supporting the Bills, not least from the Prime Minister in the case of the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Bill, sponsored by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young).

Both Bills are extremely important, and because they have received such considerable support, we make no apology for drawing special attention to them this afternoon. Some may ask, "Why not look at other Bills in that context?" We would answer that, having looked carefully at the Bills at the top of the list, no two others have all the criteria that we consider important.

First, those Bills are totally uncontroversial, as far as we can detect. Secondly, they have received all-party support, including ministerial support. I would be the first to acknowledge the assistance that has been given in both cases by the Government Departments concerned.

Thirdly, and extremely importantly, the Bills have been fully considered in Committee. However, the big change that has taken place—I pay tribute to the Government in a spirit of amicable co-operation, which is my hallmark—is that the Government responded to the motion when we first tabled it by immediately moving to get the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Bill into Committee.

Moreover, with unprecedented speed—unique in my experience—they tabled a sittings motion to ensure that rapid progress was made in Committee on Tuesday this week, with the result that the Bill has completed its Committee stage. That is a direct result of our initiative, and I am delighted by it. It is extremely valuable. It immediately disposes of the view that had been expressed in one or two isolated quarters in the House that such Bills, particularly that Bill, had not received proper scrutiny in Committee. It has.

In addition, we set two further criteria. There is strong public support outside the House for progress on those two Bills, because it is recognised that they would have real benefits. There is an urgent need to make progress on the Energy Efficiency Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) and the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Bill. It is obvious that we shall not be able to complete the process for all private Member's Bills, but we believe that those two Bills deserve the special attention that we have given them, because they meet all those criteria.

In the past, the Government have argued that, if we were to improve or accelerate the process for private Member's Bills, it would set a precedent. I understand that argument: it is often used in the House. I suggest that on this occasion that fear is misguided and misconceived. Everyone agrees—the Government make reference to this in their amendment—that the Modernisation Committee should examine this issue. We cannot have a temporary precedent: that is absurd. Clearly, as soon as the Modernisation Committee was able to turn its attention to this matter, such a precedent would swiftly go. I emphasise the point that hon. Members on both sides of the House and on both sides of the Committee want to make progress on this front.

It has been suggested that this debate is a waste of time because these Bills will get stuck in the other place. If that is so, what was the point of taking the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Bill in Committee on Tuesday? That was a charade, a farce: the Government were just playing to the gallery. Either it is possible for those Bills to complete their passage through Parliament in the current Session or that was a waste of time.

Moreover, what is the point of having a discussion on Friday 3 July if these Bills are doomed to failure because of some absurd Machiavellian plot in the other place. I believe that the process can and should be speeded up, and that that argument is not valid. There is a real chance of progress in the other place. I am assured by people who have a greater knowledge of these matters than I that there are no fundamental objections either to these two Bills or to most of the other private Member's Bills at the top of the list for Friday 3 July.

Our revised motion does not seek to push the House into taking a view that it may find difficult. It does not impose some new mandatory timetable on the consideration of Bills on 3 July. I was surprised by the Government's reaction to our initial rather more forthright motion. It was as if the Government thought that they were the arbiters of how the House should handle its business. The House decides how it should handle its business. The so-called business managers have an extremely important function to play, as do the usual channels, of which I am but a minor part. The House must decide how it wants to make progress on legislation and on other matters. There was a hidden hint of amour propre and false pride in the Government's apparent reaction to the idea that anyone else should come up with suggestions about accelerating important business.

I hope that during this short debate my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon will catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to speak briefly about the merits of the Bill of which he is the promoter, so I do not propose to enter into that discussion. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) will have an opportunity to wind up the debate. All hon. Members—of any party and of no party—have a responsibility to reflect public concern about the way in which we handle our business, including private Member's Bills. There is considerable anxiety among the public, the press and viable and effective organisations. They have a perfect right to express their views on how we handle our business.

Those concerned with the business of Parliament at present feel that the process by which we consider extremely important proposals is inadequate, and that it is our business to improve it. We all need to reflect that anxiety and concern. I hope that the right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), who is here in her capacity, not only as Leader of the House, but as Chairman of the Modernisation Committee, will also reflect those concerns in her response to the debate.

5.14 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Ann Taylor)

I welcome this relatively short debate. In view of the changed motion tabled by the Liberal Democrats, I shall not move the amendment that we had thought necessary. We have no difficulty reaffirming our support for the Energy Efficiency Bill and the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Bill, as amended. We think that the whole House should be able to agree with the terms of the motion. Unfortunately, one or two hon. Members may still intend to object to those Bills on 3 July, but it is important that they should be aware of the strength of feeling in the rest of the House.

The Government are happy to be associated with the Energy Efficiency Bill and the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Bill, not least because we have given the hon. Members involved assistance with drafting, and we are anxious that those Bills should make progress. I see no reason why they cannot make progress if people examine the issues in the cold light of day rather than seek to make themselves noticed through some maverick activity.

I was somewhat concerned, as were some of my hon. Friends, that the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) has chosen to highlight two specific Bills, and has not mentioned any of the other significant measures on the agenda for 3 July. For reasons that will be obvious to the hon. Gentleman, I must mention the Breeding and Sale of Dogs Bill, which he might well have included in the motion. I am keen to see that Bill on the statute book. I receive many welcome letters about it, regardless of any indirect lobbying from other quarters on that issue. Other important Bills will be coming up on 3 July. If hon. Members co-operated, there would be time for several of them to complete their passage through the House on that day. I hope that several Bills will proceed to the House of Lords.

It is difficult to achieve a correct balance of rights on a range of issues. The vast majority of hon. Members are supportive and want private Member's Bills to go through, but one or two hon. Members are able to prevent that and to frustrate the will of the majority. We often have to balance rights. Past attempts to change the procedures for private Member's Bills have often been driven by one particular Bill and one particular interest. If we are to consider changing the procedures for private Member's Bills, we should not take as our starting point what has happened to one particular Bill. Far too often, people's views about changing procedures are prejudiced according to whether they support the Bill in question.

When we get round to discussing procedures for private Member's Bills, we must all remember that the rules for the Bill that we support must be the same as the rules for the Bill that we oppose. We cannot have different rules: we cannot cherry-pick or deal with certain Bills in certain ways. We must establish rules that apply in all circumstances.

The motion mentions the Modernisation Committee, and I am happy—both as Leader of the House and as Chairman of the Committee—to acknowledge that the Committee should look at private Members' legislation in the future. We are involved in other inquiries at the moment, and it will not be possible for us to make progress this side of the summer recess.

The Committee made clear on previous occasions—not least in our first report on the legislative process—that we would want to return to the issue of private Members' legislation at some point. It is appropriate that we should revisit the issue through that Committee, and I hope that we can consult other hon. Members. However, we must have consistent rules for all private Members' Bills; otherwise, we will create more difficulties than we solve.

I hope that we can make progress on many of the Bills on 3 July. The hon. Member for North Cornwall said that some may get stuck in the House of Lords. It is virtually impossible to predict what will happen to any of the Bills, but a good number—which have a high level of support in the House—have merit and would make the law better in a range of different aspects. Private Members' Bills have an important role, but hon. Members can be over-ambitious in what they seek to achieve through them. It is always possible for the Government to help in drafting or providing advice on these matters.

I wish the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) well with his Bill on 3 July, and we will have to see what happens. It is too late to change the rules before then. It would be unwise to change any rules hastily—and, in particular, because of our personal views of any Bill. I hope that the two Bills highlighted by the Liberal Democrats make progress, as I do about a good number of other Bills—such as the Road Traffic Reduction (National Targets) Bill, the Breeding and Sale of Dogs Bill, the Local Authority Tenders Bill and the Local Government (Experimental Arrangements) Bill.

I am sure that the hon. Member for North Cornwall, when tabling the motion, used the two Bills as examples, not as an exhaustive list of the Bills he wanted to make progress on 3 July. We will have to see what happens then. We must come back to the issue of private Members' legislation, and it is appropriate that the debate should take place within the Modernisation Committee. After that, the House will have some time to consider any alterations we might wish to make.

5.22 pm
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

In this wonderful spirit of cross-party accord, I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) and the Leader of the House on the admirable lucidity and brevity of their speeches, which I shall try to emulate.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall has done the House a service in moving the motion—although I was somewhat wryly amused, on looking at my Order Paper today, to see that the motion that appeared upon it was decidedly different from that which had appeared earlier in the week. I can understand why the Leader of the House said that she had no difficulty in accepting the motion and that she would not be pushing her amendment. I certainly have no intention of seeking to divide the House, and I am equally happy to accept the terms of the motion.

It is important that the Modernisation Committee looks at the matters. It would be quite absurd if the Committee, having decided to look at Government legislation, did not turn its attention to private Members' legislation. I sincerely hope that the Committee will do so at a reasonably early date and will come forward with a unanimous report—as it did last year on Government legislation—which commends itself to the House.

I endorse what the Leader of the House said. We cannot have cherry-picking, and we need rules that apply to all Bills. We must remember the rights of minorities also. I wish my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) well with his Bill. I very much hope to see it on the statute book because it would be to the advantage of many people. I wish success also to some of the other Bills mentioned by the Leader of the House.

There is no reason why those Bills should not go through on 3 July, as the right hon. Lady said. All it requires is an economy of words on the part of those who speak and a generosity of spirit on the part of those who attend. If both those qualities are in evidence, the Bills should see their way on to the statute book without greater delay.

Whenever we debate this subject, I should declare an interest. In the 27 years that I sat on the Back Benches, I promoted something like 15 private Members' Bills. I have suffered, as others have done, from having "Object" shouted when I had a measure of enormous importance for the welfare of the nation. A couple of years ago, I co-operated to allow the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill to have an airing. I then had one of my Front-Bench colleagues shout, 'Object,' to a Bill that the then Government were most anxious to see on the statute book. In the end, it got there, but other Bills of mine have been delayed.

If only the House, and the Government of the day, had accepted the Bill on criminal records that I proposed on the one occasion when I drew a place in the ballot, 10 years ago, we would have had a paedophiles register for a long time. We all suffer the rough with the smooth, and sometimes the rough with the rough. Sometimes in this place, as one door closes, another shuts in your face. I have found that on a number of occasions.

It is important that we have brief speeches today—again, that could be a trend-setter. I entirely endorse the remarks of the Leader of the House, and I accept the remarks of the hon. Member for North Cornwall in the spirit in which they were made. It is important that the Modernisation Committee should look at those procedures. It must do so in the round and come forward with proposals which commend themselves to the whole House. The proposals should be so framed as to make the maximum use of time for private Members' Bills.

The Government should consider a self-denying ordinance, and restrict the number of Bills that they bring forward so that private Members have a little more time at their disposal. I see from the frown by the Leader of the House that that might not entirely appeal to her. It is important that proposals are well thought out and that they protect the rights of majorities and minorities. Above all, we must give those truly non-controversial measures—of which the Bill proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire is a shining example—a better chance to get on the statute book. With those words, I am delighted to add my commendation of the motion.

5.28 pm
Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

I understand that one of the keys of this debate is brevity, and I shall gallop through the advantages and provisions of my Bill as swiftly as I can.

The Energy Efficiency Bill proposes that every purchaser, or mortgagor, is told how energy-efficient their property is when they have a survey. The Bill proposes that a rating be made of the property, which is that measure. When one buys a car, one knows how many miles per gallon one can get out of it. The Bill proposes that when one buys a house, one knows how energy-efficient it is. The Bill would inform purchasers or mortgagors of what steps they could take to make their property more energy-efficient. The Bill proposes that the approximate cost of taking those steps, and the approximate pay-back time, be provided.

The Bill has had a lengthy airing in the House—one morning for its Second Reading debate and an hour or two in Committee—and has widespread support. Some 266 hon. Members signed the early-day motion in support of the Bill. If one deducts the payroll vote and those persons who do not customarily sign early-day motions, it can be seen that a significant majority support the Bill. I am grateful to hon. Members for their support, not just for the early-day motion but throughout the passage of the Bill so far.

The Government have supported my Bill. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) and her officials, who have taken considerable time in ensuring that the Bill's drafting is correct. We have also had the time of parliamentary counsel as well as of ordinary officials in the Minister's Department.

I have received many letters supporting my Bill from the public, local authorities and the private sector. There has been much consultation on it, and the Council of Mortgage Lenders has signified to me on many occasions—and as recently as this morning—its support for the Bill.

I should like to give only one, quick example of the benign effects that my Bill would have. Last month, I opened a housing estate at Burwash Common, in Sussex. The developer, Millwood Homes, makes every endeavour to construct energy-efficient homes. Some of its competitors are not so scrupulous or conscientious.

My Bill would highlight the advantages of buying and investing in energy-efficient homes, and it will sort out the wheat from the chaff—homes that have that benefit and have had that investment from those that do not. My Bill is supported by many people in the construction industry. My Bill has the twin advantages of saving individuals money in the medium and long term and of helping to reduce the use of fossil fuels and to save our environment. I hope that time will eventually be found for my Bill to be passed.

5.30 pm
Jackie Ballard (Taunton)

I have only just finished writing my speech—as you may have seen, Mr. Deputy Speaker—but, as I am supposed to be replying to the debate, perhaps that is not such a bad thing.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) said, we have deliberately chosen in our motion to highlight the two Bills that have genuine cross-party support and have had no credible opposition—except for the reaction of a single hon. Member, who I notice is not in his place today.

Although both Bills would very significantly affect the lives of millions of people for the better, I shall speak only to the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Bill, which has been supported by hon. Members of all parties, both Front Benches and a wide variety of organisations representing cabbies and their passengers, not to mention the many hon. Members who signed an early-day motion in support of it. Moreover, before the general election, the Conservatives in another place announced their intention of introducing similar measures if they were to form the next Government.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) on his efforts to keep the Bill moving through Parliament. I am pleased that, at long last, it has finished its Committee stage, when helpful amendments—which were supported by the Minister for Transport in London—were made to it.

In the Bill's Second Reading debate, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire seemed to sum up the mood of the House when he spoke of his opportunity to return to some unfinished business in his former Department. There was almost universal support for the Bill in that debate. However, in his speech, he noted with some foresight: It is always possible that, as this Bill tries to cross the legislative bridge, a parliamentary troll will appear from underneath and gobble it up".—[Official Report, 23 January 1998; Vol. 304, c. 1253.] I did say "foresight", not "Forth" sight—as I should not for one moment suggest that the right hon. Gentleman had in mind the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).

The Bill is a measure of considerable importance to many people, not only in London, but nationwide. My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge)—who would have liked to be in the Chamber for this debate—has presented to the House a petition bearing the signatures of 8,000 people who support the Bill. Furthermore, as I said, an early-day motion supporting the Bill has been signed by many hon. Members.

In a letter to the Suzy Lamplugh trust, the Under-Secretary of State for Women said that the Bill's provisions would increase the safety of women passengers". The Suzy Lamplugh trust, among many other bodies, has been working hard to ensure that progress is made on the issue. I pay tribute to Paul and Diana Lamplugh for their extraordinary energy and effectiveness in working on the matter. They have done much to ensure that it remains high on the agenda.

The Government's position on the issue has been confused. On Second Reading, they announced their support for the Bill. Ministers have spoken out in favour of legislation, but failed to come up with any clearer commitment than the classic fudge about "when parliamentary time permits". We have heard that many times before. Although the Government announced their intention to set up a Standing Committee to consider the Bill, that did not happen immediately. It has now happened—in response to the Liberal Democrat motion that we are debating—and the Bill was passed by the Standing Committee, after two sittings.

The Bill will remove the anomaly whereby London's minicabs are left out of legislation covering all other cabs in the United Kingdom, and it addresses an urgent matter of public safety. Last year, 67 people were assaulted and 18 people were raped in minicabs in London. I am told that the figures are even higher this year. Tragically, only last night, a young woman was abducted and sexually assaulted in a minicab in London.

The Bill would greatly increase the security of many Londoners, not to mention the millions of visitors to our capital city.

Today's debate is not only about two vital pieces of legislation. It is about the urgent need to change the way in which this place works. Perhaps because I have been an hon. Member for only a short time, I do not have the patience of my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall. I share the public's feeling that this place is surrounded in mystery. The public wonder why the Government are reluctant to let hon. Members have time to pass a Bill that has such widespread support, both in this place and elsewhere. They wonder what that says about the Government.

Mrs. Ann Taylor

The hon. Lady said that she has not been an hon. Member for long. Perhaps I could presume to remind her that the Government do not decide how much time is allowed for consideration of private Member's Bills. At the beginning of each Session, the House decides how much time will be available.

Jackie Ballard

I thank the right hon. Lady for pointing that out to me. Nevertheless, in my short time here I have found it difficult to see how the Government have always pursued the House's interests.

What message does preventing the passage of such Bills send to the public about the Government's commitment to modernisation or their commitment to parliamentary democracy? The Government have managed to find time to legislate on matters that were not in their manifesto—such as imposing tuition fees on university students, and taking benefits away from single mothers—but, after 13 months, say that they cannot change the system, to allow the will of the House to be done on private Member's Bills.

Our democracy will not be valued or respected unless the House finds ways to do its business more sensibly. Liberal Democrat Members are pleased to be able today to devote some our time to debate the subject.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

In the spirit of being non-controversial—as the hon. Lady said—will she tell us why the original Liberal Democrat motion mentioned two specific private Members' Bills but did not mention the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We cannot debate a motion that has not been put before the House.

Jackie Ballard

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I did not need help to get out of that situation. As the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) knows, I am a strong supporter of the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill. However, even I would have to admit that that Bill has attracted controversy and has not received the widespread support that the two Bills that we are debating have had. I would have wished it to be otherwise.

As I said, we are pleased to have given some of our time for today's debate. I am also delighted that the Government will not oppose our motion. I hope that, from 3 July, people in London will be able to travel more safely, and that history will record today as the one on which Parliament changed from being the Government's poodle and the filibusterer's paradise to being the home of common sense and genuine plural democracy.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House supports the Energy Efficiency Bill and the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Bill, as amended and properly scrutinised in Standing Committee; trusts that they can now complete all remaining stages on Friday 3rd July; and urges the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons to re-examine the procedure for Private Members' Bills.