HL Deb 11 December 1958 vol 213 cc222-32

My Lords, I beg to move the Motion which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That it is desirable that a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament be appointed to consider whether it is practicable to define the extent to which a Private Bill should seek to alter the powers or duties of persons other than the Promoter; and, if it is so practicable, to define the principles on which proposed Private Bill enactments that would alter the powers or duties of such persons should be allowed or disallowed; and to report what, if any, consequential changes should be made in the Standing Orders governing the practice and procedure of the two Houses of Parliament in regard to Private Bills.—(The Earl of Home.)


My Lords, we are greatly obliged to the noble Earl for at last putting on the Paper a Motion which is the result of a debate we had many months ago and which we were promised would come very shortly after the debate. I want to say at once that I fully appreciate the difficulties which the noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, have had, and I am not condemning the noble Earl for the lateness of this Motion, which I accept has been put on the Paper as early as it was practicable to do so. I should like to say a word about the terms of this Motion. I saw it for the first time only late last night and was not able to make any comment on it, or even to consider it until this morning.

The House will remember that this Motion arises out of the debate which we had on the Kent County Council Bill, a very interesting measure in which that County Council sought to incorporate in private legislation a large number of powers which were sought, not on their own behalf but on behalf of a number of their subsidiary authorities. This was in accordance with the general practice that, for instance, a county council might seek powers on behalf of urban and rural districts, or even parish councils. I believe that most noble Lords agreed that it was convenient that that practice should be adopted, but the complaint was made that there was a growing tendency for it to be followed in an increasing form; and by the time the Kent County Council Bill came along they had produced a Bill of some hundreds of clauses which made it very difficult (I am giving the case that was put in that debate) for any Committee to give the Bill the proper and detailed examination which it ought to receive.

It was for that reason that it was eventually decided to reject most of the clauses of the Bill—certainly most of those which were seeking to obtain powers on behalf of subsidiary authorities; and it was as a result of the debate we had that, eventually, an assurance was given that an attempt would be made to set up a Joint Committee of both Houses to go into the whole question. Obviously no one could make a specific promise that such a Committee would be set up, because it depended on the agreement of another place. I hope that I have put the position quite fairly.

I had thought that the Committee was to consider the general policy, the desirability, as well as the practicability, of one authority or body seeking powers on behalf of another. If we accept the view which I think was taken by most noble Lords, that it is a good thing that county councils should be able to seek powers on behalf of, say, a rural district, I agree that there is not much point in asking the Joint Committee to go into it. But I do not understand now that that is wholly accepted. If it had been accepted at the time, a large number of the clauses which were deleted from the Kent County Council Bill would not have been so deleted. They were deleted on the understanding that at present it was not desirable that one body should seek powers on behalf of another.

I want to say a short word on the merits of this matter, because I certainly take the view that it is strongly desirable that they should be able to follow this practice. I should have hoped that the purpose of any Committee set up to consider this question would be to find out how far Promoters of the Bills should be allowed to go, and in what way an abuse of that principle might be prevented. There are some county councils, Yorkshire and Lancashire, for instance, which have a very large number of subsidiary authorities. Where subsidiary authorities seek certain powers it would be very undesirable—and very expensive—if each one had to promote legislation on its own. I believe that it has been regarded for many years as a reasonable thing for a county council to promote such legislation on behalf of its subsidiary authorities.

The whole thing has now been thrown into the melting pot, however, as a result of the proceedings on the Kent County Council Bill, and I feel that it is important to get a decision on whether this practice is desirable, and that the whole question should be referred to the Joint Committee for them to consider whether it is desirable to give one body powers to promote legislation on behalf of another. I do not want unduly to widen the Committee's terms of reference, because I believe there is some urgency about this matter. Before local authorities promote their legislation for next Session they will want to know what they are going to be allowed to do, and whether or not they are to be permitted to have legislation on behalf of other bodies. For these reasons, while accepting the reason for the delay, I must say that I regret it, because it means that this Joint Committee will have to work under some pressure.

A number of my noble friends (and I associate myself entirely with them) take the view that it would be desirable to consider as well the whole question of private legislation and the enormous cost to promote it. I do not want to enlarge on the matter, but it is a very costly thing to promote legislation, and, of course, if it is going to be required that no body should be allowed to obtain legislation on behalf of another, that cost will be tremendously increased. I understand that there was a Committee some two years ago (of which my noble friend Lord Latham was a member as was, I understand, the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, himself), which went into the question of expense. I believe that they came to certain conclusions; but I do not know how far those conclusions have been operated, if at all, or whether the cost of promoting Bills has been materially reduced. I believe that the matter of duplicating documents instead of printing them was involved, but the cost of publishing the proceedings is not the primary item. Perhaps we could be told how far that Committee's Report and recommendations have been acted on and how far they are still matters which it is proposed to deal with in future.

However, my primary purpose in saying a word on this matter is to ask two questions. One is: does the noble Earl who has moved the Motion consider that the terms of this Motion will enable the Joint Committee to consider the question of the desirability of one body seeking legislation for another? And, secondly, can he give us an assurance that, so far as he can influence matters, this Joint Committee will report in sufficient time to affect legislation of these bodies in the forthcoming Session?


My Lords, I believe that I can give a short illustration an reply to the first part of what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, which is very much to the point. When I was a young man I was a member of a club which served caviare for 8d., in the days when you could get good caviare. One day a new member who had discovered this ate a whole pot of caviare and then complained that he was charged 4s. (which was the cost of a pot) on the bill for his lunch, and he made a complaint to the committee. After that the other members ceased to be able to have caviare for 8d. I think that that is precisely what has happened over the Kent County Council Bill.


My Lords, I have heard that analogy with some interest. I am obliged to the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, and, like him, I am glad that this Joint Committee has at last been arranged. He asked me for an assurance that the terms of reference would enable the Committee to consider the desirability of a local authority legislating for other bodies. I would assure him that I was very anxious, and I think we have achieved, that the terms of reference should enable the Committee to consider just that and, indeed, other questions of that sort, such as how far a local authority should be allowed to go and (I think his words were) how could abuse be prevented. I am quite certain that the terms of reference can include those questions. I think that on the further question—the whole question of expense of promotion of private Bills—if the noble Lord opposite would allow me to, I should like to enlist the help of my noble friend the Lord Chairman of Committees to answer, because he is better informed upon it than I am.

3.35 p.m.


My Lords, if I may add a few words to what has just fallen from the noble Earl the Leader of the House I would say, with great respect to the noble Lord opposite, that I think he has himself answered some of the questions which he raised. For example, he dealt with the question of the promise that he said was made that a Joint Committee would be set up. I should like to say a word on that matter, because I think it could rightly be said that if anybody made a promise it was myself. I would point out to the noble Lord (as I think he himself said later in his speech) that, of course, any promise made by a Member of this House of action on the part of another place is really invalid and in fact could not be made. I think that the noble Earl has answered the first of the noble Lord's questions.


My Lords, perhaps I might intervene to ask the noble Lord just to carry the matter a stage further. I find it difficult to understand how, if a Committee is set up to consider the practicability of the question, that also includes consideration of the desirability; or is the desirability assumed? It seems to me that they are two quite separate matters. Before one considers whether a thing is practicable one surely wants to make up one's mind whether it is desirable; and I see nothing in the terms of reference which enables the Committee to consider that. If I am assured that they are going to do so I shall not be too "sticky" about the exact wording, but it is not there.


My Lords, I really think that the noble Lord's fears are unfounded, but I will do my best, nevertheless, to give him an answer to his question. May I first say, so far as it concerns me, that I apologise for the shortness of the time allowed in putting down this Motion, but we have been most anxious to finish the matter before the Recess. If the noble Lord looks at the Motion he will see that it is divided into two parts and that it poses two questions: first, is it practicable; and, second, if it is practicable, then how far should it be allowed. I should like to draw particular attention to the word "should" in the third line from the end of the Motion. So the Committee, as I understand it, after hearing evidence, will first of all decide whether the method of procedure which the noble Lord so strongly advocates is indeed practicable. May I say here, without anticipating too much, that it is by no means certain that it is practicable to the extent envisaged. But assuming that the Committee have first decided that it is practicable, then they are enjoined by the terms of reference, to define the principles upon which proposed Private Bill enactments that would alter the powers or duties of such persons should be allowed or disallowed. I contend that the words "should be allowed or disallowed" give the Committee full power and full scope to report to the House as to whether it is desirable to do this. If they do not, I would certainly try again; but I really believe they do; and I again emphasise the importance of the word "should".

As to the time in which the Committee can report, it is, as the noble Lord will appreciate, extremely difficult to foresee how long this work is going to take. I think that the number of witnesses will probably not be very great; but, on the other hand, I have no doubt that there will be some very important bodies that will wish to give evidence, and as we all know from previous experience, it takes a good deal of time to prepare statements of evidence on the part of bodies which represent branches or divisions all over England and Wales. So we shall have to be patient. I appreciate the noble Lord's anxiety that the Report of this Committee should be available in time for the drafting of next year's Private Bills, which are to be deposited in November, 1959, to feel the impact of the Report. Having got into a little trouble over one promise, I should hesitate very much to give any further promise, and I am bound to say I am not at all sure that they will be able to report in time. I am sure that the House would rather have a full complete and weighty Report than a hurried one which lacked those qualities.

In conclusion, I would say a word about the Joint Committee on Private Bills which, as has been mentioned already, sat about two years ago, and of which I was a member. The Report of that Committee is available. The noble Lord asked what has been done to carry out the recommendations of that Report with regard to the cost of Private Bill legislation. Something has been done. I am not prepared to say that a great deal has been done. The Committee's recommendations on expenses, if they had been fully carried out, would not have resulted in a great diminution of the figure, but I know from experience that something has been done, particularly about the cost of printing Bills, about the question of whether they should be printed or typed and whether Acts of Parliament should be printed on vellum or otherwise. A Committee of your Lordships' House have sat on the latter question and reported upon it.

3.42 p.m.


My Lords, whilst of course accepting without reservation the honesty and belief of the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees, that he thinks the Motion on the Order Paper discharges the undertaking, which on two occasions he gave your Lordships' House—that there should be an inquiry, in the words of the noble Lord "into the principle relating to County Council Bills" (not the practicality: I quote from the OFFICIAL REPORT of July 29, col. 385)—the noble Lord will recall that he had earlier put down a Motion, which was carried in your Lordships' House, in the following terms: In the opinion of this House, the principle that a County Council Bill should not confer on local authorities or on any other authority or persons functions in which the county council has no interest should, pending any further inquiry … and so on. I take it that the Committee which it is intended to set up with the terms of reference as given on the Order Paper is the intended "further inquiry".

It really is difficult to understand how the governing consideration, which is whether a practice that has been in operation for something like thirty-seven years and has been operated, as is admitted by all sides, I think, without abuse, fairly and reasonably and to the great profit, both financial and otherwise, of local government in this country, should be summarily altered, as indeed it was, in the earlier part of this year. To invite the Committee to consider whether it is practicable, before they have considered and made up their mind on whether the practice is desirable, seems to me to be putting the cart before the horse.

Clearly it is practicable. The noble Lord the Chairman of Committees showed it to be practicable this summer. He cut out, or had cut out, of the Kent County Council Bill, the Surrey Bill and I think also the Essex Bill, a large number of clauses which were intended to confer powers upon subsidiary authorities in the three respective counties. It seems to me, with great respect, that there was no great difficulty in finding ways of doing what the noble Lord decided ought to be done earlier this summer. The real problem which is posed, and which was posed in the two debates we had on the subject, is: Is there a case for altering a practice which has been satisfactorily operated to the great advantage of local government for over thirty-seven years?

With great respect—and I have a great respect for the brilliant ability and the urbanity with which the noble Earl leads the House—I would say that the terms of the Motion on the Order Paper in his name really do not discharge the undertaking given by the Lord Chairman of Committees, to which I have referred and the terms of which I have quoted, and I hope that the Motion will be taken back for further consideration so that the dominating question of desirability or otherwise can first be considered.


My Lords, I can speak a second time only by leave of the House, but if I have that leave, I should like to try to allay the fears of noble Lords opposite. May I begin by saying that on the question of time, if it so happens that the Report of the Committee is not available in time for the drafting of Private Bills for next November, then, I apprehend, they will be drafted in the same manner as they have been drafted during the last few years—that is, with the knowledge that some clauses which affect persons or authorities other than the promoters will probably be allowed. It should be borne in mind that there is no hard and fast rule about this in writing and that some clauses have been allowed. I am in a position to say here that in the Kent Bill some clauses that fall into that category were allowed. Your Lordships will remember that in the Motion which I moved last summer, the words "in general" appeared, and I held that they covered the possibility of allowing some of these clauses. The difficulty was that in the Kent County Council Bill the number of such clauses was so much greater than had ever before appeared in a Private Bill. I should say that if this Report is not available, the promoters of Bills will draft them in the manner in which they have been accustomed to draft them during the last few years.


My Lords, before the noble Lord leaves that point, may I ask him if he agrees with the view that some of the clauses were allowed and others disallowed, proving that there was a practical way of dealing with this matter?


My Lords, that leads me to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Latham. He asks: Is there a case for altering the practice? I simply must remind your Lordships of what took place in the debate last summer. The crux of the whole debate, as I put it myself, was: which is the rule and which is the exception? I said that a certain practice was the rule, and that what I called "the Middlesex clauses" were the exception. The noble Lord, Lord Latham, took exactly the opposite view. He said that what I called the exception was the rule, and that what I called the rule was the exception. The argument was not resolved, except in a Division, and I can only say to-day that it would not be profitable to have the same argument on that point all over again. We must leave it at that.


My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that that is precisely the point which the Committee should consider and report upon? Thai is the kernel of the whole issue.


My Lords, I entirely agree with that last point. I contend that without doubt the terms of reference not only enable the Committee to deal with that point but, indeed, invite them to do so.

3.50 p.m.


My Lords, I too can say a few words only with the consent of the House. Assuming, like the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, that I have it, I would merely say that it looks as if we are in agreement as to what we want this Committee to do. We on this side of the House feel uneasy about the wording of the Motion, and we still feel that it does not carry out what we all have in mind. If it were merely a matter between the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, and myself, I should be content to take his word for it and let it go. But I think it is as well that we have the terms of reference right and acceptable. After all, this was an assurance given to the whole House, and I think that the whole House should feel that the terms of reference carry out what we all have in mind. Is there any urgency about this matter until Tuesday? I would suggest that we leave it on the Paper and do not settle it to-day. The noble Earl the Leader of the House might then again look at the terms of reference, in the light of our talks, and we will do that, too. I do not want to put down an Amendment and have a debate on it; that would be most undesirable. Possibly there might be discussion on Tuesday, but it need not be lengthy. In that way perhaps we can get a Motion on which we can all agree.


My Lords, I should not have allowed the Motion on the Paper to be down in my name unless I had satisfied myself, with my colleagues in another place, as well as those here, that it covered the kind of questions which the noble Lords, Lord Silkin and Lord Latham, have asked should be covered. I personally am quite satisfied that it does. However. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, that in an important matter like this we should all feel that that is so; and, therefore, if it is proper and practicable, we can leave it on the Paper. I will have further consultations with my colleagues to make absolutely certain that the points are covered, and we can return to the matter on Tuesday and pass the Motion then.


My Lords, could the noble Earl give me some in- formation? Am I right in thinking that a dissident minority of this Committee would not be in order in producing and submitting a Minority Report?


My Lords, I should like Notice of that question, and perhaps the noble Lord will ask it again on Tuesday. My noble friend Lord Merthyr says that it would be in order, but perhaps that can be confirmed when the Motion is confirmed on Tuesday. If it is convenient to the House, I think the best thing will be for the Motion to be withdrawn and to have it put down again on Tuesday.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.