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Column 486who wants to object would prefer a public inquiry to being given the wondrous opportunity to petition against a Bill promoted by British Rail.
Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham) : Leaving aside the issue of the Kent railway lines, to which I might refer later if I catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, while I agree with what the hon. Gentleman has just said-- basically, that is what we tried to say in the report--before he exaggerates the point, and because the private Bill procedure will face prospective petitioners for a long time to come, does he agree that there are compensating advantages in the private Bill procedure in that prospective petitioners or opponents might stand a better chance before a Committee of four hon. Members of this House, who might be quite sympathetic, than they would before one planning inspector who would report back to a Secretary of State?
Nevertheless, while it might be all right for us to say to petitioners, "You would be better off petitioning," it would be difficult for us to gainsay them if they decided that they would be better off with a public inquiry. In the evidence that was presented to the Joint Committee, it was noticeable that the bulk of those organisations that gave evidence and that were involved in opposing more than one private Bill tended to say that they would infinitely prefer a public local inquiry. Indeed, the first sentence of paragraph 38 of the excellent report states :
"The defenders of private Bill procedure were in the main promoters."
I believe that it was Lenin who said that to some extent one can judge people by their friends. The friends of the private Bill procedure are, in the main, promoters.
We have found recently that at one and the same time a private Bill promoter, who may be seeking to take some protection away from a local community--for example, its right to bring actions for nuisance, a protection which the law has given to the people living there just as it has given it to people living everywhere--is, by using the private Bill procedure, taking away from people their right to be heard in the forum of their choice where they can object to the process of losing their long-term rights. Some of the more objectionable of the more recent private Bills have been objectionable in both their long-term and short-term effects by means of the very use of the private Bill procedure.
I can do nothing other than repeat that there seems little doubt that up to now the private Bill procedure has favoured promoters and disadvantaged petitioners. In my view, Parliament should be much more reluctant than it has been in the past to allow organisations to use private Bills to set aside the law, for that is what private Bills do.
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth) : In the context of those remarks, does my hon. Friend accept--I am not making this point in a purely partisan sense--that in recent years the considerable extent of privatisation, coupled with a number of Bills giving private businesses the rights compulsorily to purchase or to enter private property, has enormously extended the power and the influence of private businesses and that this House should therefore be careful before it allows that practice to be further extended?
Mr. Dobson : My hon. Friend, who has had considerable involvement in opposing several private Bills, makes a valid point. Indeed, my next point follows on almost directly from what my hon. Friend has said. The fact that the promoters of private Bills are nearly always wealthy and powerful organisations, whether in the public or the private sector, makes unnecessary resort to private Bills all the more objectionable. In this Parliament we have been running, in effect, a system in which wealthy and powerful organisations have bought themselves benefits that are not available to most people. They buy those benefits by virtue of having money and access to our procedures. In some cases, they have contrived to use the private Bill procedure to secure, quite literally, one law for the rich-- that is, for the rich organisation promoting the Bill.
Sir Eldon Griffiths : In some cases, statutory companies do not have the option of going to local planning inquiries, but their statutory obligations require them to come to the House. Would the hon. Gentleman be in favour of seeking to repeal all the requirements upon statutory companies to come to the House?
Mr. Dobson I shall deal with that later. If I do not do so, I shall be happy for the hon. Gentleman to remind me.
Those privileged organisations, by using the private Bill procedure, impose substantial costs upon the public purse. It is all right for the hon. Gentleman to say that, when people promote their Bill, they have paid their money and they are entitled to some degree of certainty, but they have not paid the full costs. One of the report's proposals is that the costs that the promoters impose on the public purse should in future be fully recovered from them.
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : Does my hon. Friend recognise also that those promoters impose, in a sense, considerable costs on hon. Members of the House? I know that two of my hon. Friends, who are present today, have sat on Bills and have invested a tremendous amount of time in those Bills, perhaps to the disadvantage of their constituents and other political issues.
Mr. Dobson : My hon. Friend, with his impeccable logic, has almost enunciated my next sentence. I believe that in many ways the most weighty practical reason for trying to curtail the unnecessary use of the private Bill procedure is that those who seek privileges by private legislation impose enormous demands on the time of Members of the House. I remind all my fellow parliamentarians that we serve in the Parliament which, of all Parliaments in the democratic world, already sits for the greatest number of days in a year, for the longest hours and to a preposterous parliamentary calendar, originally decided upon in Victorian times. Compared with practically every other legislature in the world, we are already overdoing it. However, despite those long hours and the large number of days that we work in a year--as the Leader of the House knows to his cost every Thursday--we do not find time to debate all the topics that we, as Members, think should take priority.
By the existence of the private Bill procedure and by us not having a rigorous attitude towards those who wish to use it, we allow ourselves to be forced to find time to debate and legislate, not the priorities that we have laid down, but a series of priorities determined by the private interests of outside organisations.
Column 488For all those reasons--both of principles and of practice--we should take a much more rigorous attitude to would-be promoters of private Bills. They should have to prove the need for what they propose. They should have to prove that what they propose is not just in their interests, but in the interests of the general public. If it is just in their interests and they cannot find a law to allow them to do it-- tough.
At the outset, even if it is in the public interest, promoters should also have to prove that what they need cannot be achieved by other means, however expensive and inconvenient to them those other means might be. I welcome the report of the Joint Committee because, as I understand it, it proposes just such a robust approach to those who want to promote private Bills. I say "as I understand it" advisedly because, although I have studied the report carefully and I have discussed it with people who understand these matters far better than I do, I would not claim that I have mastered all its intricacies. Not only do I acknowledge the tenuousness of my grasp of some of the report, but I am doubtful of the grasp of many other right hon. and hon. Members. My experience in the House is that, if someone says that he understands a procedure, he is the last person to ask for advice on that procedure. That is why I always go to the Clerks.
As the Leader of the House has said, the nub of the Committee's approach lies in its recommendations that a promoter should be required to prove that private legislation is necessary to secure the primary purpose of the Bill and that, where that primary purpose can be secured by other means, Parliament should either not be involved at all or should be asked only to deal with any aspects that specifically require the authority of Parliament. In other words, what happens in future should not be what has happened in the past, where some minor need for parliamentary approval has been used as a stalking horse by the promoters to avoid a local planning inquiry into the primary purpose of their project. That is a most welcome proposal.
My notes, which I wrote before I heard the Leader of the House speak, say, "I cannot see how it could be resisted by anyone." However, I now discover that that aspect of the proposals is resisted by the Leader of the House, partly on the ground, apparently, that we might have great difficulty in deciding the primary purpose of a piece of legislation. That is from a Government who have introduced an immigration law that says that a person marrying someone from abroad has to prove the primary purpose of the marriage.I suggest to anyone with any experience of this world that trying to prove the primary purpose of a marriage is much more difficult than trying to discern the primary purpose of a private Bill.
I believe that, if we set our minds to defining the primary purpose of a Bill, we should not find it very difficult. I hope that we will not see strenuous Government resistance to that aspect of the proposals. If there is strenuous resistance, it will be strenuous Government resistance to the nub of the proposals, as I understand them.
The Committee goes further than that and recommends that, in certain circumstances, where planning considerations are accepted by everyone to be dominant--but there are works which at the moment would require resort to the House--even the works could be dealt with by
Column 489non-parliamentary procedures, where necessary involving public local inquiries. That appears to be a sound approach, too. Much of the history of what might be described as the modern private Bill procedure is dominated by the need for legislative protection for railway promoters and builders against common law actions for nuisance. Railway works are still the single most common reason for seeking to promote a private Bill. I shall leave it to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) to deal with our joint interest in British Rail's deplorable and ludicrous proposals to build Britain's premier Euro-station in a vast, gloomy and horrible cavern underneath the mainline station at King's Cross. Even my minor involvement in helping some of the objectors to the proposals--who have therefore become petitioners-- suggests that our present procedure is not a sound way of going about things. People feel much more excluded and much more mystified by the private Bill process than they do by public local inquiries.
The Joint Committee proposed to change the procedure for railway works to bring them roughly in line with the proposal for road works, in that the promoter of the railway works would draft an order and consult locally about it. The promoter would then submit the draft order to the relevant Secretary of State, who could make, modify or reject the order only after a public local inquiry into any valid objections. On balance, that is probably a good idea. However, we must accept that that means that the promoter of a railway, having secured Government support for it, if there is any parliamentary trouble, is likely to secure the payroll vote--and have everyone else voting for it, too--should that prove to be necessary. For major railway schemes, that may, in some senses, be for the best. If the Government support the Euroline from Dover to London, it would be far better if they made their genuine support clear. In that case they could back the scheme rather than stand behind a door poking sticks and offering buns to the people from British Rail. Currently the Government appear to be urging British Rail to get on with it while ensuring that the Government do not take any of the blame. If we support the concept of reasonable and sensible government, it would be far better for such a Government to say that they believe the project to be right. People would then know exactly with whom they were dealing and on whom they should bring pressure to bear.
The current situation is neither fish, flesh nor fowl. No one is clear about whether the Government are behind the proposed link or about whether British Rail would dare go ahead with it unless they had Government support. I shall not go into all the private letters sent and so on at this time. In general, if the Government support a specific major, local project, it would be better for them to declare that support and to take responsibility, political and otherwise, for it.
Mr. Spearing : I hesitate to intervene, but this is an important point. My hon. Friend may have misunderstood one of the report's recommendations. If we follow paragraph 47 of the report, which deals with the sixth recommendation, does it not mean that, after the planning inquiry on a certain project, it would then go to the Secretary of State of the day who would decide on it? That means that the project would not come to Parliament. Despite the merits of what my hon. Friend has
Column 490said about the current unsatisfactory situation, would he like to leave the decision entirely to the Government of the day?
Mr. Dobson : I believe that important orders that cover substantial geographical areas and so on should be subject to the decision of the House. If we get away from the private Bill procedure and move towards the procedure operating orders we must accept that, once the Government have endorsed a project, it is likely to go through. Anyone in favour of adopting the order procedure must accept the logical conclusion that a project is then more likely to go through than if it had been subject to the private Bill procedure. That may be unfortunate and perhaps it is one reason for rejecting the proposition.
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent) : As far as I know, British Rail has never failed to get a Bill accepted even under the present procedure. To many of us that explains why British Rail presents its proposals in such an arrogant and sub-standard fashion. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, currently, we have the worst of all worlds because a Bill is scrutinised by people who, by definition, know as little as possible about the locality affected? Despite everything, they have little effective opportunity to prevent such a Bill from going through the House.
Those who would prefer the cleaner order approach must accept that, if an order manages to get the approval of a Secretary of State, the chances are that it will get parliamentary support, even if we insert another parliamentary stage into that order. In general, Secretaries of State can reckon on getting things through the House except in odd circumstances. I know that there are examples when that does not happen, but the odds are usually in the Government's favour. At the moment, I wish that they were not.
The Joint Committee also recommends that the order approach be applied to tramways and perhaps to the light transit outfits which want to shove railways down the roads. It believes that the orders presently permitted under the Harbours Act 1964 should be extended to cover a wider range of developments. Therefore, the railway order principle would be applied to other spheres.
The Leader of the House has already pointed out that all the proposals require primary legislation. We believe that if they are acceptable, in principle, to the House, the Government should undertake to introduce the legislation in time for the beginning of the next parliamentary Session.
Mr. Dobson : It would be sound for the Government to consult local authorities and others. The Government, however, may be rather picky and choosy about whom they consult. The right hon. Gentleman was happy to leap to the Dispatch Box and support the abolition of the dock labour scheme without any consultation with the 9,000 people affected. I do not believe that the right hon. Gentleman should issue such cries about consultation at the moment.
Providing the Opposition find the measures, as drafted, acceptable, we would not wish to obstruct them if that is
Column 491the general will of the House. We cannot give carte blanche to the legislation, however, because we never know what the parliamentary draftsmen will come up with. Even when they have been working on something of which I have approved, some of the things drafted have been nonsense. Therefore, we could not let everything go through on the nod.
As there has been so much concern about private Bills, it would not be acceptable for us to make minor amendments to our Standing Orders without changing the primary legislation quickly. That change is necessary if the meat of the Committee's proposals is to go through.
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : I believe that, unless the Government are prepared to look at the whole package, the changes to our Standing Orders are unacceptable. My concern is shared by many groups outside the House. At the moment the whole procedure is weighted in favour of the promoters, but the safeguards in our Standing Orders slow the promoters down slightly. It would be unacceptable to do away with many of the safeguards in the Standing Orders without an absolute guarantee that matters concerning the environment would be subject to a planning inquiry first and subject to the other changes proposed.
Mr. Dobson : My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Currently we have a system of checks and balances--the checks are not substantial and the procedure is rather unbalanced. However, any changes to our procedures would obviously upset that system, especially if the major proposals that require primary legislation do not go through the House.
The Leader of the House has proposed that we should make our own changes, but that we should not start to try to change the law. I am sure that that would be unacceptable to many people who are especially interested in this topic.
I do not want to dwell on the procedural changes at great length. There are many and those that are important to the House impinge upon the rights of Back Benchers who are faced with a private Bill affecting their constituencies or some organisation of great interest to them. We must bear in mind the needs and rights of Back Benchers in this matter. I want to listen to the views of other hon. Members about procedural changes. We should not accept any streamlining procedural changes which would deprive an individual Member, who is concerned about something which affects his or her constituency, of the right to block and, by blocking, gain concessions. That is a vital part of the present procedure which should not be lost. However, I most strongly support the proposal that the new procedures should require the submission of environmental impact assessments in all cases where they are relevant. I am very happy to welcome whole-heartedly the undertakings given by the Leader of the House about Government support for that. I am also keen that, provided Scottish Members want it, that provision should apply to the Private Legislation Procedure (Scotland) Act 1936 orders, as that would provide in Scotland as well as in England and Wales better information and protection for people affected by the works for which authorisation is sought. Subject to the views of Scottish Members, who will
Column 492be more familiar with their procedures than most of us, the Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure is on the right lines when it recommends for Scotland the additional protections for the public and petitioners which are recommended elsewhere in the report. There is only one item about which I take an entirely different view from that taken by the Joint Committee, partly because it has been drawn to my attention by the Ramblers Association. I have doubts about recommendation (7) which states :
"The Highways Act 1980 should be extended so as to permit stopping-up orders"
for rights of way
"to be made on safety grounds in appropriate cases".
British Rail advocated that to the Committee on the ground that the use of high-speed trains made paths across railway lines increasingly dangerous.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) : Would my hon. Friend like to comment on the fact that in my constituency British Rail has not protected a waist-high bridge on which there has already been one serious accident involving a child? Would it not be more incumbent on British Rail to do something about that kind of problem instead before it worries about the effects of high-speed trains?
Mr. Dobson : I am in favour of British Rail trying to make everything safe, and I have sympathy with its desire to make things safe. It is not the walker who makes the situation dangerous ; British Rail does that with its high-speed trains. Instead of stopping up a footpath which has traditionally crossed a railway line, British Rail should build a bridge or dig a little tunnel under the line for people to use. It would not be right to close those paths on the ground that British Rail was making them more dangerous. Those who make things dangerous are obliged to remove the dangers, not to remove the privileges and rights which people have hitherto enjoyed. I very much welcome the report, although I was a trifle disappointed by what is apparently the Government's response as enunciated by the Leader of the House. The Leader of the House said that he is here to listen to hon. Members on both sides of the House. I hope that he will do that. This report was the unanimous product of a very diverse group of people. It may not receive the unanimous support of hon. Members of this House, but its approach will receive considerable cross-party support. I hope, therefore, that the report will be acceptable, subject to a few caveats, and that the Government will get on with facilitating the changes which the Joint Committee unanimously believes are necessary and urgent. I commend the efforts of those who served on the Committee and who have done such a fine job.
Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson (New Forest) : I thank my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for the welcome which he broadly gave to the report and for the kind remarks that he made about me. I also appreciated the way in which the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) received the report from the Opposition Front Bench.
It is now nearly three years since, by resolution, the House indicated its decision to establish a Joint Select Committee and it is now more than two years since the Committee, of which I had the honour to be Chairman,
Column 493started its work. At the outset, I want to thank everyone who served on the Committee for their tireless work. Sadly, two Committee members--Mr. McQuarrie and Mr. Weetch--were not returned at the last general election. I want particularly, on their behalf, to thank the two Committee Clerks, Miss Baker and Mr. Makower, without whom, frankly, the report would not have seen the light of day. We are greatly in their debt. In passing I associate with those remarks Dr. Malcolm Grant and Mr. Ralegh Hancock, who were advisers to the Committee.
As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House explained, there have been other attempts to reform private Bill procedure. The two most notable, and the two which have occurred in the lifetime of most hon. Members, were the Committees in 1930 chaired by Mr. Dunnico and that in 1955 chaired by Mr. Glenvil Hall.
Without in any way detracting from the work of those Committees, their terms of reference were rather more limited than the terms of reference given to us, which were extremely wide. I congratulate and thank in his absence the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Mr. Walker), the Chairman of Ways and Means, who insisted from the outset that the report should provide a wide and thorough examinination.
In this Session of Parliament, there are more than twice as many private Bills as public Bills--58 as opposed to only 28. Even if we include the nine private Member's Bills on the assumption that they are public Bills, there is a marked preponderance of private Bills. Each of those private Bills on average costs the taxpayer £10,000. Therefore, nearly £1 million is provided to allow promoters, who are often extremely wealthy organisations, the privilege of coming to Parliament and, as the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) said, to use hon. Members' time.
This is a big legislative business. It involves hon. Members in long periods of attendance in Committees which are quite unlike Standing Committees, where pairs can be arranged. More importantly, this costs a great deal of money. I was somewhat alarmed when the Society of Parliamentary Agents suggested during our deliberations that raising the figure to what we would now consider a reasonable figure--in other words to recover the £10,000 per Bill which the Bills cost--would somehow put off those who had a legitimate reason for introducing legislation, since we then discovered that on the society's estimate of the costs, an unopposed Bill would cost the promoter £20,000, and an opposed Bill would cost £36,000. So I have a feeling that we may be more or less right. I certainly believe that Parliament must stop providing a voluntary service for organisations that can well look after themselves.
As my right hon. Friend pointed out, the recommendations fall into four separate categories. There are a lot of them--I make no excuse for that. Indeed, there are over 60. This debate will give hon. Members an opportunity to express views on all or some of them. I want to make it crystal clear that, although there are many recommendations, and although they cover various functions, they hang together as a package. While I can see the attraction of singling out the easy bits--those which would not cause too much trouble, or on which action could be taken quickly--that would unbalance the package and, as a result, ultimately destroy it. So I recommend very strongly that this report be seen as a whole, as a single piece, and not as an ill-assorted collection of bright ideas.
Column 494Let us look at the question of the need for private legislation. During the Committee's deliberations there was a point at which some of us had the revolutionary idea that the proving of the preamble should come before the Second Reading. After all, as at least one hon. Gentleman in the House today will know, one can go through the whole procedure on a private Bill, only to lose it by virtue of the fact that the preamble is not proven. The proving of the preamble is at the heart of a private Bill, because that establishes whether the Bill is required, whether it is the only way in which the promoters can obtain the powers that they require. However, we decided not to recommend that alteration, for the simple reason that the Second Reading of a private Bill, unlike that of a public Bill, does not establish affirmation of the principle but represents a vote to allow the Bill to go to a Select Committee for additional examination and discussion. So we left the question of the preamble where it is. But the word "preamble" is at the heart of many of our concerns in respect of the first group of recommendations. We believe that the authorities who are responsible for examining Bills that are brought to Parliament should be particularly firm and scrupulous in ensuring that nothing is brought if it ought to be dealt with under a general Act of Parliament or in some other way.
Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks) : I hope that I have followed correctly my hon. Friend's point about the importance of the preamble. Does he not agree that at the Second Reading stage more attention should be paid to the preamble? Is it not at that stage that some Bills should fall, on this ground?
Mr. McNair-Wilson : My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Indeed, I recall that, within the last 12 months, in a debate affecting my constituency, I drew attention to precisely that point. I was opposing a particular Bill. Hon. Members should recognise that it is the reason for legislation that has to be examined first--almost before we get to whether or not the piece of legislation is actually correct.
Let me draw hon. Members' attention to the Committee's comment on remarks made by my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chairman of Committees, Lord Aberdare, when he was giving evidence on 13 January 1988 :
"The Chairman of Committees admitted that many works bills include things for which approval could be obtained under the general law, as well as things for which only parliamentary approval was possible. Indeed, the element requiring parliamentary approval might be only a very minor element of the whole scheme, in which case the effect would be to allow a small tail to wag a large dog'."
Indeed, it would be possible for a promoter to search for that small tail. I could give an example, but I will not weary hon. Members with it. Promoters could search for the small tail and attach the dog to it, in order to allow a private Bill to come forward. Again in this area, broadly we are talking about works Bills and powers Bills. My noble Friend, in the evidence that he gave to the Committee, had some very important remarks to make about works Bills :
"Indeed, where works are at all extensive or controversial I can see the force in the argument that Parliament is not the most suitable forum for determining whether they should be carried out. If, therefore, there is one area more than another in the Private Bill field where an alternative to Private Bill procedure could be usefully explored it seems to me to be that covered by works provisions."
Column 495This is a very important point. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, I have had a decade's experience of sponsoring British railways legislation. The fact is that most of those general powers Bills relate to comparatively small works, but if works are to be either very extensive or very controversial, my noble Friend's comments should be uppermost in everyone's mind. As was said by so many of those who gave evidence to the Committee, the problem is that, on occasions of that sort, petitioners feel intimidated, and indeed inhibited, in coming to Parliament to give evidence in unfamiliar surroundings, and would be much happier and more secure in the atmosphere of some public inquiry.
That leads me to those aspects of the primary legislative changes to which my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) referred. Here, of course, we are concerned principally with British Rail ; I will deal with the other matters in a moment. I see that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is in his place on the Front Bench. British Rail is a statutory body, yet, unusually, it obtains its powers by private Bill. Of course, we know that there is an historical reason for that. Over the years British Rail has been the biggest single customer for private Bills.
As I pointed out at the outset, there is a very large number of private Bills in Parliament at the moment. Among the 58 to which I have referred, 13 are rail-related--not British Rail-related, but rail-related. Railway building, whether the big projects such as I mentioned a moment ago, or light railways--trams and so on--is certainly a matter of great significance. It has been argued--although it is not an argument that one would wish to examine in great detail--that one of the reasons for the private Bill procedure is that it provides an opportunity, at least once a year, for a general debate on the railway system.
I cannot believe that it is not possible to find another way to resolve that problem. In the changed circumstances of today there must be a genuine argument for bringing railway building into line with motorway building. I understand the comments that have been made about the fact that, once the draft order has been agreed by the Secretary of State and so on, we are into that situation, but, as was pointed out earlier, British Rail has not lost a Bill. There have been problems with Bills, but none has been lost.
Mr. McNair-Wilson : Not yet, but the fact is that the track record so far does not show that people are better off, or more secure, with the present system than they would be in the changed circumstances to which I now want to refer.
Mr. Rowe : Does my hon. Friend not agree that a particularly telling example of the kind of issue to which he is referring is the proposition that British Rail should seek the right to build a station, with a colossal car park, in the centre of an area that every local authority in the locality has argued should not be used for that sort of development? By doing that through a private Bill, it would be able to avoid all the planning procedures which such a massive change in the road system would otherwise involve.
Mr. McNair-Wilson : Without wishing to be drawn into the detail of the King's Cross legislation, I would support my hon. Friend to the extent that, when I came into the Chamber earlier this afternoon, I was handed a letter by my noble Friend Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, who is also the chairman of English Heritage, making precisely that point and arguing that ancient monuments, buildings and the rest are at risk as a result of this procedure. Therefore, the point is well taken.
Our report suggests that we should provide British Rail with an alternative route. It has been suggested that it should have an alternative route now, but as you know only too well, Madam Deputy Speaker, British Rail requires some significant exemptions to be made available to it in order to build its track. It has to have exemption from nuisance and from interference with statutory undertakings and the rest. No general Act of Parliament currently in place would enable it to proceed except in the way that it does.
I can well understand the attraction to British Rail, or any other promoter, of being able not only to seek powers for particular works but to wrap up within the same Bill many additional powers. In a Bill that I sponsored some three or four years ago, the powers of the British Transport police were altered by a proposal slipped in at the end of the schedules.
The second category that the Committee was concerned about related to procedure, on which there were clearly differences of opinion. I said at the outset that this is a balanced package. One of the problems in the passage of private legislation is the failure of promoters to consult adequately petitioners who are worried about the Bill's effect on them. Many problems may not begin to emerge before the Bill is debated.
The report suggests that a clear explanatory memorandum should set out exactly what the Bill seeks to achieve, giving petitioners an idea of what was in the promoter's mind. There could then be a period of consultation before Parliament became involved.
As those of us who follow these matters know, a promoter's statement is made available with a private Bill to Members of Parliament, usually those concerned with a particular Bill. That is a lengthy and detailed document setting out some explanation of the clauses and what the Bill seeks to achieve. We contend that something along those lines should, of necessity, be made available to all when the Bill is deposited, so that petitioners can find out what is in the promoter's mind.
Allied with that document should be a booklet explaining what the private Bill procedure is all about. In the Library are some notes on how the procedure works but, with respect to those who drew up that document, it is, of necessity, fairly slight and limited. Her Majesty's Stationery Office should provide a proper booklet which can be bought by those who are anxious to know how the private Bill procedure may affect them.
Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East) : If such a handbook were published for the benefit of the public, would it lead to a greater demand for private Bills as a result of the public feeling that, having studied it, they wanted to bring forward a private Bill for their own purposes?
Column 497that extent, the private Bill is part of our democratic process. It is a manifestation of the citizen's right to petition Parliament. If one explains it in such a way that a citizen might feel that a private Bill would be appropriate, always remembering the remarks that I made earlier on the need for legislation, it would be doing good rather than harm and would be a sensible addition to our democratic way of life.
Mr. Gerald Bowden (Dulwich) : Can my hon. Friend give me some guidance on a practice that I find rather confusing--that of picking off a project piecemeal? Let me take a hypothetical instance of a promoter who wishes to promote a rail terminal but makes no reference to the route leading to that terminal. Those affected by the route have no locus standi in objecting to the terminal ; so, on a narrow legalistic ground, they are ruled out of order and are voiceless in making their opposition to the terminal known.
Mr. McNair-Wilson : I hear what my hon. Friend says and I guess that he is referring to the King's Cross legislation. He will know, as will the House, that some 280 petitions have already been received and the locus of those petitioners is being examined. I am sure that my hon. Friend's remarks will have been heard by the British Rail board and others and noted. He highlights one of the problems to which I referred a moment ago.
In the second section on procedure, the Committee made a recommendation, largely as a result of a detailed and interesting memorandum supplied by the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central, the Chairman of Ways and Means, on the starting date for private Bills, which is November. It was thought that it would be sensible to bring it back a month to October so that Second Readings could start somewhat earlier. There has been some concern about that proposal for a number of reasons, with which I shall not weary the House, and it has been decided that at best a fortnight, not a full month, could be saved. I cannot speak for other Committee members, but I want to make it clear that, if there were insuperable difficulties, I would be prepared to be persuaded. I think that the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central would agree with that interpretation of the resistance that there has been.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House talked about the carry-over motion. Carrying over from one Session of Parliament to another, or, in the case of a Bill with which I was particularly concerned, from one Parliament to another, distinctly separates the private Bill from the public Bill. The public Bill has to be dealt with within the 12-month Session. That carry- over places tremendous additional power in the hands of the promoter.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) pointed out earlier that British Rail had never lost a Bill. Promoters relying on that carry-over principle will always, in my view and I believe in the view of the Committee, have an advantage over petitioners, if for no other reason than that private Bills are not cheap and it is likely that a rich promoter will stay the course rather longer than a poor petitioner. That is why, in my earlier remarks about increasing the cost of private Bills so that the promoter effectively pays about £5,000 per House, we kept the petitioner's figure at £20, and there is no question of raising that.
Column 498Our suggestion that no more than two carry- overs would normally be accepted is reasonable, bearing in mind that there are those who have already spent time and money, either petitioning or as part of the promoter's group, whom it might not be sensible to require to start the Bill all over again.
Mr. Tony Banks : Is it not a fact that a carry-over motion can be objected to in the House and that the Chairman of Ways and Means will at some stage find time for a debate? So we have it in our power to stop a Bill carrying over to the next Session. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it might concentrate the minds of promoters wonderfully if we turned down a carry-over motion on a future occasion? The King's Cross measure might be a good one to start with.
Mr. McNair-Wilson : The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which relates to my early remarks concerning the assumption that, if private Bills are in existence, they must be right--the point about the preamble and so on--and his intervention is further evidence of the assumption that the carry-over is an automatic advantage which is not normally objected to, an issue to which I shall return. A suggestion in the report to which reference has not been made is that of establishing a private legislation panel of Members. The Committee took evidence from the parliamentary Bar, the members of which are more conversant with private Bills than any individual Member. In its evidence on 2 December 1987, on page 137, it said : "The procedures under which private bill committees operate are in some respects old fashioned, ill defined and unsophisticated. There is abundant scope for reforms which would greatly improve the quality of this part of the decision making process. It has become apparent in recent years that Members of the House of Commons find it increasingly difficult to take part continuously in the quasi-judicial work of the committees ; and thus there is a widening gulf in the quality of the decision making process between the two Houses."
That was stern criticism. It was being said that these Bills are not being properly considered--because Members are not sufficiently interested or because they cannot strike out five or six weeks from their diaries--and, as a result, the decision-making process is threatened. I appreciate that. Indeed, it could be argued that the genesis of the inquiry which the Joint Committee undertook was that at least one hon. Lady was unable to strike out a long enough time from her diary to enable her to attend.
I said in my opening remarks that there was a big difference between a Committee on a private Bill and a Standing Committee on a public Bill. In a Standing Committee, the sides are broadly balanced and there are Whips to arrange pairs and so on, and in normal circumstances a reasonably civilised regime can be established. But with a private Bill we have something more akin to a jury in a court--it is quasi-judicial--and if Members absent themselves from the Committee and it is inquorate and can no longer undertake its work, the corridors of Parliament may be full of silks and other legal advisers, not to mention the witnesses, petitioners and the rest, all of whom are unable to take part in the work of the Committee because it can no longer operate, with the attendant expense and inefficiency to which that must lead.
Column 499to place an even greater burden on Members. My hon. Friends the Members for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) and for Bradford, North (Mr. Wall) gave up a great deal of time recently when dealing with Bills. Would not a panel demand a few Members having to repeat that process of giving up a great deal of their time? While I appreciate that it might be a more efficient way of proceeding, would it be a reasonable request to make of Members?
Mr. McNair-Wilson : I was about to deal with that point. I have long held the belief, having been in the House for 25 years, that many Members in all parts of the House would like to be involved in a job of work apart from the normal day-to-day activity of looking after their constituents, which is their primary job. In other words, there are Members who, if they recognised that a panel considering private Bills had been established, might want to spend some of their parliamentary life in this interesting and important part of the legislative machine.
I hope that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) is not construing my remarks as referring to a press-ganged group of individuals forced on to a panel. That is far outside what the Committee had in mind. They would be volunteers, and perhaps it would be the same route as the Chairmen's Panel and others would follow. If such a panel were established, one would, hopefully, not have the problem of Members absenting themselves, because they would know what they were in for.
We are dealing with a large legislative programme in this Session from the point of view of private Bills. We would have the satisfaction of well- manned committees, and perhaps the Whips and other responsible bodies in all parties could take note of the extra work being done by those Members, and some compensating lightening of the rein might be generally available.
Mr. Spearing : While, for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman advanced, there might be dangers in such a concept, the disadvantages might be overcome if Members made themselves available--just as some do in respect of the Finance Bill--for a year or two for this work and without the consequential rewards to which the hon. Gentleman referred.