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Mr. Wakeham : I shall look into the matter and see whether I can do anything to help, on condition that in the meantime my hon. Friend takes great care in crossing the road, because we do not want a by-election in his constituency.
Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West) : If the Leader of the House cannot persuade the Prime Minister to come to the House to defend her stubborn stupidity in ploughing on with the football identity card scheme, will he arrange for the Home Secretary to make an urgent statement next week explaining how the Taylor inquiry will be conducted? If the inquiry's interim report will be central to the Bill, as we understand it will, a statement from the Home Secretary would tell us whether Lord Justice Taylor knew of today's decision before he accepted the chairmanship of the inquiry, whether he intends to visit other football grounds where tragedies have taken place, including Bradford City, and whether he will make himself available to football supporters in many places throughout Britain and visit clubs in all divisions. It is important that all those points are made clear in a statement next week so that we know precisely how the inquiry will be conducted.
Mr. Wakeham : The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. Leaving on one side for the moment his totally unjustified remarks about my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, he would be the first to complain if my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary came to the House and made a statement on how Lord Justice Taylor was to conduct his inquiry. Lord Justice Taylor will decide how to conduct his inquiry. He has been given terms of reference. I have no doubt that he will do an extremely good job and he does not need advice from the hon. Gentleman or anybody else. He will choose the method that he thinks is appropriate.
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : Is the Leader of the House aware of the great concern about the continuing destruction of the tropical rain forests around the world, in which contributory factors are the economic policies adopted by western Europe and the United States and the pressure put on countries with tropical rain forests by the World bank, the International Monetary Fund and the EC?
Column 472Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange a full debate about this subject and about the serious climatic changes caused by the destruction of the world's rain forests so that this country can make a contribution towards protecting the world's environment rather than contributing to its destruction?
Mr. Wakeham : I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is a serious problem which it would be appropriate for the House to debate. I do not accept his analysis of where the blame lies. The British Government, through the Overseas Development Administration, are doing their best to make a helpful contribution. I should like to arrange a debate, but I cannot promise one in the near future.
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : Is the Leader of the House aware that a Roman site of great significance has been uncovered in Upper Thames street? It is said to be the site of a former Roman governor of London, Julius Agricola. Less than six weeks remain in which to survey the site, under present legislation, before it is destroyed for ever. Will the right hon. Gentleman accept from me that it is a site of great importance? Will he make representations to the Department of the Environment, because it appears that current legislation is woefully inadequate to enable sites such as this to be protected? Will he arrange for an early debate so that we may discuss the preservation of sites of archaeological interest?
Mr. Wakeham : I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern that the remains of one of his distinguished predecessors, a governor of London, should be properly looked after and preserved. I recognise the serious point of his question and I shall refer it to those who can give him a better answer than I can.
Mr. Ashley : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask the Leader of the House to withdraw a comment that he made a short while ago? I asked for funds for the fine work of the Equal Opportunities Commission and the right hon. Gentleman replied accusing me of attacking the commission. He must have completely misunderstood my question. Will he withdraw his accusation?
Mr. Wakeham : I did not think I attacked the right hon. Gentleman in any way. Indeed, I thought I used words which were in support of the Equal Opportunities Commission. But I withdraw anything that I might have said inadvertently. The last thing I would wish to do is upset the right hon. Gentleman.
Points of Order
Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Perhaps you can assist me and other Members in defining the difference between the answer to a quesion and a statement. This afternoon, in answer to a question from the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister took in excess of four minutes, in effect more than 25 per cent. of the time allotted to questions to the Prime Minister. If ordinary Members are to be given an opportunity to ask pertinent and relevant questions of the Prime Minister, it seems an abuse of the process of the House for the right hon. Lady in answering a question to take more than 25 per cent. of the time available.
Column 473question on that matter. We reached question No. 6 today, which is about average for Prime Minister's Question Time.
Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it possible for you to extend injury time if the usual pattern of the House is abused so that Members wishing to put questions may have an opportunity to put them if a long time is taken, even by the Prime Minister, to answer a question?
Mr. Speaker : As I said, we reached question No. 6, which is about average for Prime Minister's Question Time. It is not unprecedented for fewer questions to be reached when a series of questions fom the Leader of the Opposition leads to long answers.
Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You probably know that, for some months, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers have been refusing to answer letters from Members inquiring about entry clearance cases and other matters and that they have been referring them for reply to officials. Since this procedure began, I have been tabling large numbers of parliamentary questions about entry clearance matters, reunifying families and so on. I was alarmed recently to receive a reply from a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister to three such questions telling me :
"In accordance with the recent guidelines on the Handling of Representations by Members of Parliament in Immigration Cases, issued to Members on 14 December 1988, I have referred the question to the Correspondence Unit of Migration and Visa Department of the FCO. The hon. Member will receive a reply from them in due course." Given that Ministers refuse to answer letters from right hon. and hon. Members, it is a bit much for them to refuse also to answer parliamentary questions but to refer them to officials--especially since those questions reveal a catalogue of incredible incompetence and bungling in the Foreign Office, the Home Office and the British embassy in Islamabad. I can well understand why Ministers do not want to answer such parliamentary questions, but can you, Mr. Speaker, persuade them to do so?
Mr. Dobson : Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham), Mr. Speaker. Recently, the Select Committee on Procedure reported on various aspects of disorder and misbehaviour in the House, and on right hon. and hon. Members who exploit opportunities that are open to them but which are in effect an abuse of the House. The Procedure Committee roundly denounced those practices--as you, Mr. Speaker, do, both in the House and when you give radio or television interviews. However, today we saw a clear abuse by the Prime Minister of her position in the House.
Column 474If we are to seek all-party support for upbraiding right hon. and hon. Members who wrongly exploit their position in the House, it must apply to all. Today, you could see from your seat, Mr. Speaker, as I could from mine, that the Prime Minister arrived armed with a two-page statement on the Football Spectators Bill, which she proceeded to read word for word. If that had been done by a junior Minister, you would have pulled that Minister up and called him or her to order.
Mr. Bermingham : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Reverting to your reply to my earlier point of order, I say with great respect that it is not the number of the question on the Order Paper reached that matters, but the total number of questions asked. When a statement is made or a very long answer given, surely it is within your powers, Mr. Speaker, to intervene--
Mr. Neil Hamilton (Tatton) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I can remember, as I am sure you can, when questions from the Leader of the Opposition seemed as though they lasted for as long as four minutes. Opposition Members did not complain then, so what is sauce for the gander is surely sauce for the goose.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) rose --
Mr. Skinner : I believe that I know the reason why the Prime Minister speaks at length in that way. Her long-winded statements always occur on a Thursday. The clue lies in the fact that, on Thursdays, the Prime Minister meets the Cabinet and throws her weight about there. She does what she likes, making long-winded statements to which nobody replies. Then she comes to the House and forgets where she is.
Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Let us be fair about this. I do not raise many points of order, because you cannot see me from your place. When I put my question to the Leader of the House earlier, I thought from the expression on your face that you shared my concern. The Leader of the House said that there will be a mining debate next week. I know all about that debate. However, the right hon. Gentleman misled me in a way, because you, Mr. Speaker, know as well as I do that I shall be unable to raise the problem of subsidence in a debate about pit exits. The Leader of the House is not really being fair to me. I asked for help, and I have not received any. My right hon. Friend left me drowning in the pond.
Mr. Secretary Clarke, supported by Mr. Secretary Walker, Mr. Secretary Rifkind, Mr. David Mellor, Mr. Norman Lamont and Mr. Roger Freeman, presented a Bill to prohibit commercial dealings in human organs intended for transplanting ; to restrict the transplanting of such organs between persons who are not genetically related ; and for supplementary purposes connected with those matters : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow and to be printed. [Bill 119.]
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).]
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.
Column 477With 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
Column 478insist 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 primary 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
Column 479order-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
Column 480Act 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.
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. 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
Column 482be 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
Column 483practice, 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
Column 484report 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
Column 485consulted on this matter gave another interpretation of the concept of the rule of law--that all should be treated alike and that "unfair discrimination must not be sanctioned by law"
because 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 procedure
"is 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