HL Deb 17 February 1959 vol 214 cc259-72

2.37 p.m.

Debate resumed (according to Order) on the Motion for Second Reading moved on Thursday, 5th February, by the Chairman of Committees.


My Lords, perhaps at the beginning of our consideration of this Bill it might help your Lordships if I made a short statement. Then, if there is to be any further debate, I would suggest that perhaps noble Lords who have already spoken on the Bill might have the leave of the House to speak again this afternoon. The statement I am going to make will, I hope, save us the necessity for any lengthy debate.

Your Lordships will remember that. when the Second Reading of this Bill was rather unexpectedly challenged here last Thursday week, the Lord Chairman of Committees informed the House that he could not then say whether the Bill would be opposed, because there was still a day to run of the period during, which Petitions could be lodged. He advised the House, therefore, to adjourn the debate so that the House could be informed whether the Bill was opposed or not. The Lord Chairman has now informed me that a number of Petitions have been lodged against the Bill and, therefore, that any apprehensions your Lordships may have felt and expressed the other day, that the Bill would not have been thoroughly examined from every side before it returned here for its Third Reading, are now groundless.

Further, perhaps I might take this opportunity of assuring your Lordships that, when we are dealing with the Second Reading of the general run of Private Bills, we are simply carrying out the procedure necessary to send a par- ticular Bill upstairs for examination in detail by a Select Committee of the House. If it is opposed, the Promoters of the Bill and those who oppose it will be heard before the Select Committee to support their respective points of view on the proposals in the Bill, and both sides are represented by counsel. In sending the Bill to a Select Committee, your Lordships take no responsibility whatsoever for it on its merits at this stage. Your Lordships' House reserves full power to deal with its merits, if it so pleases you, when the Bill returns from the Select Committee, who, as I have said, will have had before them all the local evidence to assist them in coming to their conclusion upon the Bill, and in advising your Lordships upon it. Erskine May specifically states that when a debate takes place in your Lordships' House on the Second Reading of a Private Bill the House has, in recent years, invariably upheld the principle that, as a general rule, the decision of the Committee on the Bill should not be prejudiced by the discussion on the Second Reading.

I hope that, with that assurance, your Lordships will now agree to the Second Reading of this Bill without further debate, or without lengthy debate, upon it at this stage. I think the point which your Lordships will appreciate is that, in sending it to the Committee, we do not in any way pronounce upon the principle, but retain our full rights to accept or reject it, as we wish, upon Third Reading.

2.40 p.m.


My Lords, we are very much obliged to the noble Earl for the statement that he has just made, which gives a certain measure of reassurance to those of us who had apprehensions, not only about this Bill but about the procedure generally. In the case of this Bill, now that there are five Petitions, I am quite satisfied that it will receive full examination, and that all the possible objections to it will be considered; and I have nothing more to say. However, it is not quite right to say that this Bill was opposed on the last occasion it was here. It was introduced, as noble Lords will remember, without a word of explanation, and it would have gone through without another word from anybody but for the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Merrivale, happened to have become acquainted with the contents of the Bill and expressed certain doubts and apprehensions about it: and, he having expressed them, some of us who knew the Swansea-Mumbles Railway expressed similar apprehensions. At the same time, I myself was rather concerned with the fact that if we passed the Second Reading we might be committing ourselves to the principle of the Bill, and that it would then be difficult, if not impossible, for the Committee—especially in the state of our knowledge at that time, there being no Petitions against the Bill—to do anything in the way of its rejection.

That point, of course, does not now arise in regard to this Bill, but the general difficulty may still arise. We are still in the position that normally, when these Bills come before the House, we know nothing about them, and—though I am not attaching any blame to the Chairman of Committees at all—usually they are introduced without a word of explanation. A Bill goes through without any word from anybody. It might be controversial, and if we knew the contents we might want to say something about them.

Though I do not think that this is the occasion for developing this point, at the same time I feel that we ought to consider whether a more satisfactory procedure cannot be evolved which would acquaint your Lordships with the contents of these Private Bills and put your Lordships on notice either that they may be controversial or that they may con-thin something which is worth examining. I do not know whether this could be done by way of a Committee of the House. I do not profess to be dogmatic about this matter, but perhaps we could do something equivalent to what is done already in the case of Special Orders. When these Orders are before the House we are told that they are or are not "in accordance with precedent", that the Special Orders Committee have no comments to make; or that a proposed Order involves, or does not involve, a question of new principle, or something of that kind. In this way noble Lords who read the Reports of the Special Orders Committee are put on notice that there is something that we ought to examine more closely.

If this particular Bill goes through on Second Reading to-day—as it will do so far as we are concerned—perhaps at some stage we might have some discussion about whether a procedure could be evolved to meet the case of noble Lords who want to follow up Private Bills and comment on them, where there is anything they think fit for comment. I believe that that would be for the improvement of the procedure of the House.


My Lords, I should like to support the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, in his request that some procedure might be evolved to meet this point. At the same time I should like to underline one of his remarks—namely, that we owe a great deal to the noble Lord the Lord Chairman of Committees for his scrupulous explanation, and for making it perfectly clear that he had no particular line to take other than that of getting this Bill through your Lordships' House. There is another point that I should like explained, in case it may arise. The noble Earl the Leader of the House said that if a Bill is opposed it goes to the Committee, and that therefore all details are ventilated in every way. I do not think that the noble Earl made it quite clear whether your Lordships' House are provided with these details when the Bill is not opposed.

2.47 p.m.


My Lords, I would support the two noble Lords who have spoken in appealing to the noble Earl the Leader of the House to consider this matter further. As your Lordships will remember, on the last occasion I was one of those who supported the line of the noble Lord, Lord Merrivale, to whom we are grateful for his inspiration. I then expressed great concern at the closure of the oldest passenger railway in the world without a word being spoken about it in your Lordships' House; and, so far as we knew then, without any objection being likely in Committee. The Lord Chairman told us on that occasion—and he was perfectly correct in what he said—that there had been no Petitions lodged against this measure, and that twenty-two hours had to elapse before the final moment arrived for the tendering of Petitions. As a matter of fact, a few minutes before the twenty-two hours had elapsed, five Petitioners put in Petitions. From what I gather, this is the practice of the Parliamentary agents: they wait until the hour has practically struck, until practically one minute before the hour, before depositing their Petitions. This is a piece of "gamesmanship" on their part, but it is inconvenient to your Lordships' House. And I feel that on the last occasion, if we had known that Swansea Corporation and four others were going to deposit Petitions, that naturally would have relieved to some extent our whole anxiety. I think that it is undesirable that the House should not be in possession of facts of that kind before your Lordships have to make up your minds on Second Reading.

It occurs to me that it might be possible for your Lordships always to have a statement on these matters from the noble Lord the Lord Chairman of Committees. It may be said that of course there can be Petitions. But I would point out, first of all, that Petitions may be lodged only by people who have a sectional interest or a particular private interest: they are not looking at the matter from the point of view of the public welfare as a whole. Secondly, Petitions may be withdrawn—and often are—after they are lodged. Thirdly, people who would like to put in Petitions may not care to face the expense of so doing. For all these reasons, I do not think that the House ought to rely on private individuals or local authorities to put in Petitions. I think that it is our responsibility, and that is another argument for having a short résumé of the situation from the Lord Chairman when he speaks on Second Reading.

We are grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Home, for what he has said about the extent to which the Committee are bound by the passage of the Second Reading of a Private Bill, because I think that Erskine May is not at all clear on this point—indeed, it hardly says anything about it. It does not say in so many words that the passage of a measure by your Lordships' House does not bind the Committee. All it says is that the Committee need not take great notice of anything we may say here. That may, or may not be a polite thing to say, but it does not seem to me to clear up the general question of whether, after we have passed the Second Reading of a Private Bill, the Committee can ignore that and treat the Bill as if we had never done anything of the kind. When we pass the Second Reading of a Public Bill, the principle is settled, and in Committee we deal only with points arising out of the passage of the Bill. We have entirely different criteria with regard to Private Bills, so far as I can gather. The position has not been clearly established in the past. I listened carefully to what the noble Earl the Leader of the House said, and I do not think that it is clearly established even to-day. But it is a matter which all of us should have established in some way or other, so that we can be sure that we are doing our duty in the realm of private legislation, as we try to do it in the realm of public legislation.


My Lords, speaking with deference before the Lord Chairman and subject to anything on which he may correct me, may I ask whether it is not the case, as has often happened in your Lordships' House before, that when a Bill of this kind is referred to a Select Committee some noble Lord moves a recommendation to the Committee to consider certain aspects of the Bill; and, whether that recommendation is carried by your Lordships' House or not—and in my experience it is generally not carried, in order not to prejudice the view of the Committee—the Select Committee always do consider the debate and the aspect there moved?


My Lords, when it appeared that there might be a debate on the Second Reading of this Bill, I was asked by the Promoters briefly to put their point of view. In view of what my noble Leader has said, I do not propose to do anything of the kind. I feel, with him, that it is better that, with all the facilities available, both sides should put their case fully in Committee upstairs.


My Lords, there is one point which I do not think has been completely touched on by any of those who have spoken this afternoon. It seems to me that in regard to these Private Bills there are two separate functions that have to be exercised by someone or other. Petitions against a Bill are deposited by those local persons who would in some way be aggrieved if the Bill were carried into law. But there is a quite different set of objections that can be raised against the Bill: objections can be raised by persons who are concerned with the national interest. At one time I sat on what is called the "locus" committee of the other place, where one had to decide whether persons could take an objection against a Bill and they had to produce the locus that they had an individual claim to take up that position. We in this House have to consider the national interest. Let me take a simple illustration. Suppose that there was a tract of ground along the seafront in some part of this country and that it was proposed by an individual person to close it to the public. There might be no local person or local authority who objected to that. Yet it might be strongly against the national interest or it might be against the interests of persons who wanted to have the pleasure of visiting the place and going down to the seafront; or it might be against the interests of the country, from a strategic point of view, that a large part of the frontage of the sea should be cut off. I may be wrong about this case, but it is one that suggests itself to me.

It seems to me that we in this House on Second Reading are facing larger issues which are involved in a Bill, and in Committee the persons who will be rightly heard are the people who have a locus and have an individual interest. Following upon what has been said so clearly and eloquently by some of my colleagues on these Benches, and noble Lords on the Liberal Benches, we should be obliged if the noble Earl the Leader of the House, who I am sure views this question from the widest point of view, would consider whether it would not be possible to make some provision which would enable the House to fulfil what I consider to be a national duty in regard to these Private Bills and which would not conflict with the procedure that is recognised in regard to Private Bills.


My Lords, perhaps I might supplement what my noble friend has just said. The noble Earl, Lord Home, was himself a distinguished Member of the other place. Some years ago I was the Member for the Borough of Leith, and the City of Edinburgh proposed to amalgamate the Borough of Leith with Edinburgh. I moved against that. I worked hard, and I succeeded in defeating the Government—although needless to say I was "steamrollered" shortly afterwards by the Government Whips. But we defeated the Government, and my return for Leith, so long as I wished to sit there, was secured. There was what we conceived to be a local interest; and I still feel that there was much in it. Does the noble Earl say that I should have reserved all that until the Committee had gone into the question of the trams of Pilrig (and he will know where Pilrig is), Leith Walk and so on, and then should have said on Third Reading, despite everything, that I wished this Bill to be rejected? I think this example confirms what my noble friend said about the rights of this House; and it is important that we should not regard a Private Bill as something sacrosanct. A Private Bill is an ordinary Bill, but it has certain effects on individuals who are therefore given the right to petition. I hope that the noble Earl will emphasise that the right of this House on Second Reading is entirely unaffected by what is passing to-day.


My Lords, in view of what my noble Leader and the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, have said. I propose to reserve my comments for Third Reading. However, as a question of principle has been mentioned, I think there is a possibility that this Bill might not have come before your Lordships if education and training in transport in this country were undertaken on a much broader basis so as to cover electric traction. With those few words, as I say, I propose to reserve until Third Reading anything further that I have to say.

2.56 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps I might make one suggestion. I am sure that the rights of the House cannot possibly be affected on the Second Reading. If a Private Bill was introduced which the House felt so adversely affected the national interest that the Bill ought not to go forward at all; or, equally, that it was wholly unsuitable as a subject for a Private Bill, and that all that was contained in the Bill ought to be dealt with either in public legislation or not at all, then on the mere question of principle surely the House would be entitled to throw out the Bill on Second Reading. In another place what used to happen regularly was that all these Bills were put down (I am not greatly impressed by the statement that noble Lords do not know what a Bill is about, because, after all, it is our business to find out what Bills which are brought here are about), and if a Member did not like a Private Bill he said "Object". So long as somebody could be got to say "Object" every day for about a fortnight, then the Speaker had to put down the Bill for consideration on Second Reading, and then there was a debate at seven o'clock on which the whole merits of the Bill were gone into, and the House took a vote on it.

There is also a well-recognised procedure in both Houses, I think I am right in saying, that if someone does not wish to obstruct the passage of the Bill to the extent of moving to have it rejected, and yet feels that some particular matter requires special consideration—it may be a matter with which the parties who are promoting the Bill, or indeed the opponents of the Bill, are not directly concerned, but one of even wider concern—he can move that it be an instruction to the Committee, when the Bill is being considered, that they should pay particular attention to the matter in question. I have even known it to be moved that certain things should not be done, though generally we are inclined to leave it to the consideration of the Committee and to the Third Reading, while giving an instruction to the Committee that they are to pay particular attention to these points. That being the recognised procedure, I suggest, subject to anything that the noble Earl the Leader of the House may say, that the position of the House, as a House, and of everybody in it, is completely safeguarded.

3.0 p.m


My Lords. I should like to support the views of my noble friends on the Front Bench in asking Her Majesty's Government whether they would look at this procedure again. The noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, pointed out that often there are interests which may not be regarded as national, in the full sense, but which are not well enough endowed with finance to petition against a Bill of this kind. I have had particularly good experience of this sort of thing, because for many years I worked in the amenities movement. Organisations, even the more wealthy of them, like the National Trust, which are frequently concerned with Bills of this kind, are seldom in a position to petition against them.

It is true, as the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, has said, that the House can make a recommendation to the Select Committee to look at some particular aspect in detail; and that is an advantage, so far as it goes. But often these Bills get to the Committee without any of us knowing what the contents are. It may be it is our duty to know, but I think it is asking too much. In connection with Special Orders we have, of course, a procedure under which, if they contain anything that is out of way, there is an obligation on the Committee to bring it to our attention. I should have thought that something of the same kind might well have been introduced in regard to these Private Bills. If there is something of interest of a general kind affecting national welfare, or even possibly the welfare of some organisation which is struggling to preserve the beauty or historic interests of the country, then those aspects could also be brought to our attention; and it might be that the Committee could be put under obligation to pay particular attention to those aspects.

3.2 p.m.


My Lords, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, and the noble Lord, Lord Pethick-Lawrence, I would say that I can certainly conceive of issues which raise matters of national interest and that in the case of such a Bill it would be proper and right for noble Lords—indeed, their duty—to raise these matters on Second Reading. The noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, reminded me of the case of the proposed amalgamation of Edinburgh and Leith. It was one of the few occasions, if I remember aright, when I found myself on the same side as the noble Viscount, although I am bound to add, in candour, that when he was translated to a more rarified political atmosphere in the south of England I also thought that that was in the national interest of Scotland.


It was my doing. I resigned from Leith.


It was one of the wisest things the noble Viscount has done. On the general point, although I have not had time to consult with my noble friend the Chairman of Committees, I shall ask him to say a word. I would add only this. For myself, although I think our procedure is sensible, I think it is also sensible to look at it from time to time to make sure that it is the best we can devise. Therefore, if the Lord Chairman is agreeable—and he will say what he feels when I sit down—I would suggest that we get together and see whether our procedure can be improved.

3.4 p.m.


My Lords, may I first of all deal shortly with the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, which was also touched upon by the noble Lord. Lord Chorley. I would first say that in the ordinary way it is, of course, quite possible for any noble Lord who is interested in a Private Bill to become aware of its contents. The noble Earl, Lord Swinton, pointed out quite gently that it is always possible for noble Lords to make themselves acquainted with Private Bills. There is time—although it may not he a very long time—set apart for that purpose.

I should like to say at once that if your Lordships wish, as I rather think you do, that the whole of this question should be looked at, as the noble Earl the Leader of the House has said I should be only too pleased to discuss the matter with any noble Lord who wishes to talk about it. Indeed, I should welcome a discussion on the machinery. I entirely agree with the noble Earl that although the machinery may be working all right, it can always be looked at to see whether it can be made better still.


My Lords, would the noble Lord make it a little more formal than that? He seems to be putting the onus on anybody who wants to come and talk to him. We know that the noble Lord is very approachable; we can always talk to him; but I would much rather that we had it a little more formal. Perhaps the noble Lord would summon a few people together, or select a small Committee.


I will undertake at least this: to initiate discussions after this debate to see whether any good can come of it, as I am sure it can. I will undertake to see whether a more satisfactory procedure is called for—that is, without admitting necessarily that it can be done. But to talk about it, I am more than willing.

The noble Lord, Lord Rea, asked what happens when a Private Bill is not opposed. "What then?", he said. I can assure him, without hesitation, that although a Private Bill may not be opposed, in the sense that there is no Petition against it, it is nevertheless invariably looked at with great care. Every word of a Private Bill is scrutinized, if not by myself, by my department and those who advise me, and it is literally true to say that every word of it is read. perhaps more than once. And, of course, it is dealt with and scrutinised by every Government Department interested and by the Committee on Unopposed Bills. Therefore, I think the noble Lord need have no fears on that score. I would say here that, although there may be five Petitions against this particular Bill, it does not follow that those Petitions will not be withdrawn. A great many Bills which are opposed become unopposed, perhaps, in two months' time.


If the Petitions are withdrawn, is there no Committee stage?


There is still a Committee stage, but it may take a different form.

The noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, raised the question about the date before which all Petitions against Private Bills must be deposited. I do not know how long the date has been in operation, but no doubt it was fixed for convenience's sake, because the House will appreciate that the Private Bill timetable is a matter of rather delicate machinery. It all has to be fitted in, one stage with another, and it has to be done in time in order to enable the Bill to proceed to another place—because we are talking now about Bills which come to your Lordships' House first; at least, I think we mostly have those Bills in mind. Of course, they have to go to another place and come hack to receive the Royal Assent, if it is at all possible, and if the House wishes it, in due time. So the timetable has to be carefully thought out.

It would be possible that in future the Second Reading of a Private Bill should not be set down until after February 6. That has been suggested before now. The only objection is that it would mean a slight delay, and I should like to discuss with the Parliamentary agents just how much effect that slight delay would have. The change would mean an alteration in the Standing Orders, but I can say now that it would be possible. Whether it is advisable, I should like to think about and discuss a little further.

The noble Earl the Leader of the House has referred to Erskine May, and on this question of whether approving the Second Reading does or does not involve the acceptance by the House of the principles of the Bill, I do not wish to repeat what he said. There are, however, one or two words in Erskine May which I should like to underline. I should like, with your Lordships leave, to read these words—and my quotation begins in the middle of a sentence: …the decision of the Committee on the Bill should not he prejudiced by discussion on Second Reading unless the House has come to the opinion that"— and these are the words I want to underline— whatever the local circumstances may be the powers conferred by the Bill should not be allowed to the promoter. "Whatever the local circumstances may be" By that I understand that the House will give a Second Reading to a Private Bill unless, no matter what the local conditions are, it goes so much against the principles of Parliament that it will in no circumstances do it, whatever the local people say and whatever the Committee upstairs may say.

That is, I understand, the position, from which I think it follows that if a Private Bill, as I think is the case with this particular one, does not violate any tradition or principle, then it should have a Second Reading and be sent upstairs. After all, the most that can be said about this particular Bill is that is closes down a railway, which has often been done by Private Bill before. But suppose, if I may give your Lordships an example, a Private Bill was to convert a municipal borough into a county borough. The House might say—I am not saying it would—that that is not the sort of thing it would agree to being done by Private Bill, and, on principle, would throw out the Bill, saying that it must be done by Local Government Act.

I hope I have dealt with all the points that were raised. The noble Lords, Lord Pethick-Lawrence, Lord Stansgate and Lord Swinton, raised the point which I have just tried to deal with about the two functions, the local objections and the national interest. Unless a Private Bill is contrary to the national interest, I would suggest that it ought to have a Second Reading and that if any further points are to be raised by the House they should be raised on Third Reading. May I conclude by saying that if your Lordships want to have a debate on this Bill on Third Reading, I will undertake to provide the fullest facilities; not merely that, but I will also give the maximum possible notice of the date of the Third Reading so that there can be a debate if it is called for.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and referred to the Examiners.

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