Previous Section Home Page

Mr. McNair-Wilson : I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman says, but if we take the voices in the House today and consider whether individual Members want to serve on the Committee dealing with the King's Cross Bill, we might get a clear sign that not all are greatly enthusiastic to do so. However, some would wish to do so. The Joint Committee's suggestion would not commit any Member to anything particularly difficult. It is an idea that should be examined.

Sir John Stradling Thomas (Monmouth) : What my hon. Friend is suggesting seems a feasible proposition, which we might try as an experiment. There is an old saying about volunteers being better than pressed men. I have never been aware of a paucity of supply to join the Chairman's Panel. This proposal is worth an experiment, because the work is time-consuming. I have met colleagues who, unexpectedly, have told me how much they enjoy the work of the private Bill procedure, so, if only as an experiment, it is worth trying it out.

Column 500

Mr. McNair-Wilson : I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who exactly describes my own feelings. The Committee was unanimous on that point, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will at least consider the possibility of examining whether such a panel could be established, which will be important in the years ahead. My right hon. Friend made reference to the recommendation to remove the oral objection procedure. At the start of my remarks, I commented that there should be proper consultation so that no time is wasted. I go further. The point should be reached where a decision one way or another can be made, so that Parliament can move on to deal with other, perhaps more important matters. The oral objection followed by the blocking motion gives an indication to the Chairman of Ways and Means that a Second Reading debate will be necessary. The oral objection gives the first indication that not everyone is happy with the Bill. Subsequently, a motion appears on the Order Paper. The Select Committee is anxious to remove an almost unnecessary procedure, because the blocking motion can go on the Order Paper anyway. It was suggested that a reason be given in the blocking motion so that the promoter will have an indication of where the individuals concerned felt the Bill had problems. That is all part of signalling what is wrong as quickly as possible, so that discussion can take place and so that one can avoid the minefield of procedural hurdles that currently exists.

I hear what my right hon. Friend says about the individual constituency Member, and it may be that my right hon. Friend will want to consider altering the numbers concerned. However, a blocking motion that indicates what is wrong with the Bill would be in everyone's interest, as it would allow the promoter to take corrective action. That is why we suggest a simple majority for the closure motion. We are all familiar with the existing arrangements, which require 100 right hon. and hon. Members to go through the Aye Lobby, and all the rest of it. Again that is a form of trip wire. Many right hon. and hon. Members know that, with a small private Bill, perhaps taken on a Thursday evening, when there is no particularly contentious business to follow, it is not easy for a sponsor to rustle up 100 right hon. and hon. Members to go through the Aye Lobby. I do not say that it cannot be done, but the Committee suggests that a decision should be reached by simple majority. The original intention was to ensure that nothing came before the House that could be achieved in some other way. We would prove the preamble to start with, and the business should then be progressed as swiftly as possible so that, if necessary, the Committee could consider the Bill in a thorough and detailed way, with advocates for both parties arguing their case. Procedural trip wires, attractive though they may be, do not serve any useful function other than to make matters generally difficult. I ask my right hon. Friend to consider the suggestion for a blocking motion alongside that for closure on a simple majority.

Mr. Moate : As my hon. Friend knows, I support his remarks and his recommendations. However, does he concur in the view expressed by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) that, in removing the trip wires and hurdles, it would be unfair if we did not maintain the balance of the package, which would make it easier for petitioners and objectors, at public inquiries or otherwise, to have their case put clearly?

Column 501

Mr. McNair-Wilson : My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the package concept ; it needs underscoring the whole time.

I turn to one of the proposals with which my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) is himself closely associated--the Joint Committee option. That option is already available, but it is not automatically drawn to the attention of the parties concerned. In the case of some Bills, it can be a waste of everyone's time to have two Committees--all the second House problems--when, if the parties agree, a Joint Committee could solve all the difficulties. The suggestion is that it should be made very clear to those concerned with a private Bill that the joint option exists. If the parties agree that that route should be followed, the Joint Committee should be used, rather than take up additional time elsewhere.

In drawing to the end of my remarks, I want to comment briefly on matters of no lesser importance, but which are dealt with at the end of the report. I refer, first, to Scottish private legislation. The Select Committee's recommendations are broadly that the procedural changes it proposes should, as nearly as possible, affect Scotland as well. In considering Scotland, the Committee's real difficulty was the view widely expressed by those who gave evidence on that aspect--that the Scottish Office is not always good enough and that information is not always readily available from it.

I understand that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has already taken action on that matter, and that some criticisms have already been dealt with. The Secretary of State for Scotland is rather different from any other, and contact with the Scottish Office is important when legislation is being passed. The report proposes a tidying up of better relations with the Scottish Office, which it feels is particularly necessary.

As to the special procedure orders of 1945, the House will know that they were largely brought into being as a consequence of the need for reconstruction after the second world war. Usually they worked well, but a glaring omission that concerned a number of people concerned the Okehampton bypass. In recommendation 51, the Committee suggests :

"If a petition of general objection is referred to a joint committee, and the joint committee finds in favour of the petitioners, then the Government ought not to over-rule the committee by means of a Confirmation Bill."

I was delighted that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House made special reference to that matter because, with the one exception I mentioned, that procedure works well.

The Committee endeavoured to produce not just a balanced package but one that re-establishes the balance between Parliament, the citizen, the promoter and the petitioner that offers a blueprint for a procedural system that should, with some luck, last as long as those that have been examined over the past 30 years.

There is no doubt that private legislation will be with us for as long as parliamentary democracy exists. However, there is no use denying that pressures on Parliament today are much greater than they were when I entered the House 25 years ago. We now have European legislation and other matters to consider, and the varying scope of private Bills has increased so substantially that I hope the House finds favour with the report and will accept its recommendations.

Column 502

6.18 pm

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Paul Dean) : It is unusual but not unprecedented for an occupant of the Chair to seek to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, for permission to speak from the Floor of the House.

As the Leader of the House said when opening the debate, the Chairman of Ways and Means has many responsibilities relating to private Bills. It was felt, therefore, that a "Ways and Means view" might assist the House in its deliberations. That is the reason for my intervention.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for the tribute that he paid to my right hon. Friend the Chairman of Ways and Means, who was hoping to speak in the debate. Unfortunately, he is unavoidably absent ; therefore, the task falls to me. I believe that my remarks will have the support of the Chairman of Ways and Means.

I join in congratulating the Joint Committee on its wide-ranging report. In particular, as has already been said, the House is grateful to the hon. Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) for his sure hand in guiding the Joint Committee through the complexities of private Bill procedure, as well as the procedues relating to special procedure orders and Scottish private legislation. Under his guidance, the Joint Committee has carried out a major and extensive analysis of those matters.

The Joint Committee was kind enough to invite the Chairman of Ways and Means to give evidence to it twice, and also to involve him in its final decision-making process. Therefore, he had the opportunity to see and, for the most part, to agree with, its final conclusions. Subject to one or two matters, which I shall raise presently, he strongly supported the Committee's suggested changes to the procedures of the House. The Joint Committee has seen fit to adopt many of the reforms that the Chairman of Ways and Means suggested in his evidence.

The House will be relieved to hear that I do not propose to repeat in detail all the points made by the Chairman in his evidence. However, some remarks may be helpful to the House in connection with a number of the proposed changes. As the shadow Leader of the House and the hon. Member for New Forest emphasised, the Committee was concerned about the share of Parliament's valuable time that was taken up by the promotion of Bills on behalf of private interests. That reflects the view held by hon. Members on both sides of the House that the burden of private legislation should be considerably lessened.

There will always be a need for some private legislation, but much could be done to lighten the burden on the House. The Joint Committee's recommendations--set out in part 2 of its report and summarised in recommendations 1 to 10 in paragraph 201--will go a long way to achieve that objective, which is especially desired by those hon. Members who have been closeted in an opposed private Bill Committee for any appreciable length of time.

In addition, the Joint Committee has sought to close an unwelcome loophole in our procedures that has permitted promoters to avoid planning procedures that might expose them to trouble and expense. It is clearly undesirable that the will of Parliament, as expressed in statutory planning procedures, should be evaded by another form of our procedures. I commend to the House the remarks in the report about planning procedures.

Column 503

A major source of disgruntlement among hon. Members about the present procedures for dealing with private Bills is the arrangement for taking opposed Bills in a specially convened Committee of Members who are completely disinterested about the Bill's fate. Sometimes, these Committees' stages can be lengthy, which has resulted in hon. Members feeling that their unwilling presence on a private Bill Committee--a type of Committee which, uniquely in our procedure, they are obliged to attend-- takes them away from business in the House that they regard as their primary duty. Some Members find it hard to justify their presence on a Committee dealing with matters related to a part of the country that is probably far from their own constituency. They often preface their complaints with, "I wasn't elected to make judgments on this."

While one might not agree with that view of the duties of hon. Members, I sympathise with it. We live in an age when the local Member of Parliament is expected to take a close and active interest in his or her constituency. Gone are the days when a Member could seek election to a seat on the base of a promise not to visit his constituency.

Mr. Tony Banks : It might still work.

The First Deputy Chairman : Though we may sometimes envy those more leisurely days, we must never forget that they are past. We may therefore wish strongly to support the Joint Committee's suggestion--to which the hon. Member for New Forest referred, and which should suit modern working practice better than the present system--that a panel of Members should be created from which members of opposed Bill Committees should be selected. They could be selected exclusively from the panel or on the basis of a proportion--such as three panel Members to two non-panel Members on each committee. Service on a new panel of members of opposed Bill Committees might act as an excellent apprenticeship for service on the Chairmen's Panel. That suggestion has already been made in the debate by a number of hon. Members.

Such a scheme would certainly give hon. Members who were interested an opportunity to develop the sensitivity to our procedures and the common sense that are necessary attributes of members of the Chairmen's Panel.

We might also support the suggestion that the number of Members on a Committee should be raised to five, and the rule requiring Members who failed to attend to be reported to the House should be abolished. Those changes, combined with a lightening of the burden of private business, as a result of the adoption of the other recommendations in the report, should go a long way to satisfy the complaints relating to service on opposed Bill Committees.

The only caveat to be registered at this juncture is that the selection of panel members to serve on particular Bills should remain with the Committee of Selection. In many cases, private Bills are fairly uncontentious, but for the sake of those which are highly contentious and hard fought, it would be a mistake to allow the Chairman of Ways and Means, or any other single member, to choose members to serve on an unopposed Bill Committee.

The Chairman of Ways and Means differs from the Joint Committee over recommendation 37, that an option should be offered to parties of a Joint Committee stage,

Column 504

which would cut down costs and time on both sides. That option, the broad aims of which the Chairman of Ways and Means supports, will fail to be taken up in those cases which most deserve the use of the procedure. The proposal should be stronger : we favour a period in which a Joint Committee stage is mandatory.

As has been mentioned in the debate, each year it is necessary to allow private Bills to be carried over from one Session to the next. That is partly caused by, and partly causes, a log jam in private business, and that is inconvenient. The Joint Committee has suggested in recommendations 16 and 17, that only in exceptional circumstances should private Bills be permitted to be carried over for more than two Sessions, and that a private Bill should be expected to complete its progress within a single Session.

The Joint Committee also recommends that requests for carry-overs should not be acceded to unless the promoters can show that they have not been dilatory. I am pleased to tell the House that the Chairman of Ways and Means is careful to ensure that promoters' agents do not expect a carry- over as of right. He expects that most Bills should be able to pass through their stages in two Sessions--rather than one, as suggested by the Joint Committee in recommendation 16.

The House may wish to support the principle underlying the recommendations, which is that Bills must proceed with all possible expedition. We advise the House, however, not to require them to become rules in Standing Orders. The present system works in a flexible manner, allowing the application of the principles to the best advantage of the House. There will always be Bills of great importance, possibly of national importance, which will be fought hard and will require a greater allocation of parliamentary time than would normally be politic. I hope that the House will continue to have confidence in the ability of the Chairman of Ways and Means and his successors to apply a suitable discipline in choosing which Bills may be submitted to the House for its consent that they be carried over. The final choice in each case, of course, lies with the House. The Joint Committee also considered the position of Bills that are interrupted by the Dissolution of Parliament before a general election. It suggested in recommendation 18 that such Bills should not, as they are now, be carried over by means of a single portmanteau resolution, but should be subject to separate revival motions in the new Parliament. The Committee drew attention to the comparative lack of pressure on parliamentary time at the beginning of a Parliament, and the need for a new Parliament to re-examine the principle behind each Bill.

The Chairman of Ways and Means feels that that idea is unrealistic in its assessment of the Government's willingness to find time for debates on separate Bills, and that it overlooks the fact that Bills not passed by the House of Commons and requiring a carry-over on Dissolution will involve at least an opportunity for debate on Third Reading. In any event, we should keep in sight the basic principle that promoters should not be disadvantaged by events unconnected with the merits of their Bills, such as a Dissolution.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : Surely, after a general election, when the composition of Parliament has changed, there is a considerable advantage in obtaining a vote on the principle of a Bill as soon as possible. If the vote took place

Column 505

only on Third Reading, would it not be very unfair on the Members who had served on the Committee if, because of a substantial change in membership of the House, the principle was no longer acceptable? Carry-over has the advantage of securing a vote fairly quickly to establish whether the principle of a Bill will carry from one Parliament to the next.

The First Deputy Chairman : I understand the point made by the hon. Gentleman. The matter can be argued either way, and clearly requires careful consideration before any changes are made.

The final point of substance that I wish to raise relates to the proposed requirements in recommendations 20 and 21 that blocking motions should contain reasons for the blocking of Bills, and that "blocks" should be signed by at least six Members. It is difficult to see how a system of reasoned amendments could be policed ; presumably the Chairman of Ways and Means or another Officer of the House would be called on either to limit excessively prolix arguments or to judge whether a purely formal reason was good enough.

The Chairman of Ways and Means supports the possibility of some sort of statement in the "block" explaining why the Bill is opposed only in so far as it is a voluntary method of communicating the reasons for opposition to the promoters so that negotiations may start. His objection to a minimum number of names being required before a blocking motion becomes effective is similarly based on difficulty of enforcement and lack of real utility. After all, few hon. Members are so deeply unpopular that they could not find five friends to come to their aid by lending their names to a blocking motion.

Hon. Members may be rather surprised that a speech that started with praise should continue in an apparently rather critical vein. Let me therefore commend the Joint Committee's recommendation 39, relating to fees, and encourage the House earnestly to support its speedy introduction in time for the next Session. The House may also support the view of the Chairman of Ways and Means--not mentioned in the report--that, to save the administrative trouble and expense of pursuing small debts in respect of petitions against Bills, prepayment of the fee should be a condition of a party's being heard before the Committee.

I hope that those points on matters of detail have in no way camouflaged the support given by the Chairman of Ways and Means and myself to the broad principles of the report, and our appreciation of the Joint Committee's work. The Committee came into being because the procedures of the House were seen to be outmoded. Much contained in the report, especially in relation to Committee proceedings, will go far to revolutionise arrangements for dealing with private legislation if the House lends its support to the Joint Committee's proposals. We all look forward with great interest to the contributions of other hon. Members, and hope that a clear green light can be given to the adoption of the best material in the report.

6.35 pm

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) : I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for calling me immediately after the Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means, as it gives me a good opportunity to express hon. Members' views on the work done by the Chairman of Ways and Means, his colleagues and his staff. Some of us are aware of matters

Column 506

with which they must involve themselves ; the fact that they work silently and invisibly is a tribute to their activities, and may not be appreciated by others. It also marks the unusual feature of the Chairman or his deputy speaking in the House, and, indeed, the essential nature of today's debate.

We are not involved here with matters of partisan politics or of ordinary parliamentary procedure ; we are, I submit, discussing what the future rules of the high court of Parliament shall be. They are not the rules that relate to our public legislation or party political philosophy. Almost all, by their very nature, are outside the normal political battle.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) and his Committee for their careful piece of work. If, at first glance, my comments seem to the hon. Gentleman to be picking apart what he considers a balanced package, I hope that he will understand that that is because I wish to produce--after a few preliminary remarks--what I hope is a coherent broader approach that suggests ways of achieving the aims of his Committee, perhaps through an alternative package or at least an alternative concept.

Before I do that, however, let me comment on one or two aspects of private Bill procedure in general. I have been involved in it for nearly 20 years, in many different guises : objecting to Bills, moving instructions to Bills, moving motions to Bills and, finally, serving as Chairman of the Committee considering a controversial Bill, the Hampshire (Lyndhurst Bypass) Bill. Some thoughts have come to me over the years, and I hope that they may be helpful to others. First, should we not think a little about terminology? "Private legislation" is not private at all ; anything that happens in the House, and anything that is legislative, is public. There is also the problem of private Members' Bills, which are not private legislation. Private legislation promoted by public bodies--including, as I recall, the Greater London council--may be in the general public interest, or conceivably in a private interest. Private legislation promoted by a private body may be generally agreed to concern the public interest. We do not do ourselves much good with our terminology.

I suggest, for want of a better solution, that we begin to distinguish between externally and internally promoted legislation, some of which is promoted by the Government and some by hon. Members in their own right. Whether we can find better words for "external" or "internal"--perhaps find some appropriate Norman French--I am not sure, but I suggest that we have a go.

The second aspect, the rights of promotion, has already been touched on by the hon. Member for New Forest. One of the tests of a democracy is who can promote legislation. In this country, theoretically and perhaps practically for matters such as a deceased wife's sister Bill and that sort of thing, any individual can promote a Bill and petition the House that it be passed or that it be not passed--hence the phrase "petitions for Bills". The right is not confined to hon. Members. Compared with the constitutions of assemblies in other countries, our is enormously flexible in this respect, so I would be very wary of restricting, in theory at least, that ancient and proper democratic right.

All of us, but particularly my hon. Friends, are worried about what is regarded as an abuse of that right or an inappropriate use of it, particularly when, by its use, bodies that already possess power or substantial resources

Column 507

can appear to override the rights of individuals. That is where an increasing concern has given rise to many of the matters that we have been discussing.

The abuses or inappropriate uses fall into several broad categories. The first is the proof of the preamble, the averment. We referred to this in our special report on the Hampshire (Lyndhurst Bypass) Bill, HC 650 87/8, where we found that although legislation was required, it was not of the kind that was placed before us. It was the example par excellence of the tail wagging the dog : a Bill in Parliament was required but it was not the Bill that was placed before us.

Another category of concern about the extent of private legislation is where Bills appear to cut out the preliminary procedures that one might expect, particularly in matters relating to strategic planning. King's Cross has been mentioned ; it has enormous strategic planning significance. So has a Bill that we may expect next year--I do not know what it will be called ; perhaps the high speed British Rail Channel tunnel Bill or Channel tunnel route Bill.

Perhaps I can give an example whose implications are now being realised and which hon. Members may not even have heard of, the London Docklands Light Railway (City Extension) Act 1986. Its passage triggered the whole of the Canary wharf development which will have enormous strategic implications for London and the south-east and will probably spawn its own railway Bills next Session.

The next category has not so far been mentioned. It is where a private Bill can have party political or party philosophical overtones or have economic implications for the country. The North Killingholme Cargo Terminal Bill for the importation of coal for electricity comes into that category. Much more hung on that Bill than the building of a port. I suspect that the Felixstowe Bill had similar implications.

We have, therefore, several categories of Bills between which we may have to distinguish in future as we consider how far the so-called private Bill procedure is appropriate.

Before I return to that point, I want to comment on the whole question of railway Bills. This is where I must disagree strongly with my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), on the balance of considerations that he has reached in respect of these Bills. I take at once the point of the hon. Member for New Forest, that up till now they have not failed to get through, but he and, perhaps, the Committee may have overlooked the hidden, negative factor of the need for a Bill. The fact that there is a need for a Bill may assist in filtering and tailoring the provisions that can be got through. It acts as a silent censor ; there is a need to come here, where hon. Members from any part of the country may object because they dislike a level crossing or whatever it may be. I am not, therefore, sure that I would accept that they have not failed to get through as a good reason for saying that we need not have them at all.

I understand that many of the small powers relating to footbridges, underpasses and so on, could be dealt with initially by planning application. That might be an advantage. But if it means that we should say that we do not want railway Bills here at all--which seems to be the purport of recommendation 6 and paragraph 47--I challenge that strongly for another reason, which I will come to in a moment.

Column 508

Mr. Moate : Will the hon. Gentleman pursue the logic of his argument --and I am genuinely interested in his answer--to suggest that when a British Rail high-speed link Bill is proposed it will be better dealt with by parliamentary procedure or by a separate public inquiry?

Mr. Spearing : The hon. Gentleman points the way to something that I should like to say later. Perhaps I may pursue a narrow way for the moment. It was conceded by my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras that transferring to the Secretary of State the final decision on these matters would deprive Parliament of its present long-stop and final powers. I immediately ask if we should, in principle, hand over powers from the legislature to the Executive. In principle, I say that we should not. If we do so, we must consider very carefully the reasons.

The best argument that my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras could advance was that since the proposal would get through in any case, in view of the Government majority, we might as well let the Secretary of State for Transport have the power from the beginning. I cannot go down that road. Given certain suggestions that I shall make shortly, it is an inappropriate recommendation. I am sorry to disagree with the Committee on that matter--

Mr. Moate rose --

Mr. Spearing : I will come to the point in a minute.

--particularly in view of the fact that we may be entering a new era of railway building ; if the motorways get any more crowded and demand for travel and freight transport goes up, that will be inevitable. We have already seen the beginning of a new era of light railway building. Docklands is a case in point. If it had been a tramway there, rather than a light railway, it should not have gone to the Secretary of State, for reasons that I have already advanced. So I suggest that we may be doing Parliament a disservice. Given the safeguards that I shall come to in a moment, I am sure that everybody would consider that power should not go to the Executive but should be retained by the House.

Mr. Moate : Again pursuing the logic of the hon. Gentleman's case, if he is saying that the parliamentary sanction is important for projects of this nature, it must surely be extended to major motorway projects and other matters which are currently dealt with by planning procedures.

Mr. Spearing : That is logically the case, but I would hesitate to argue at this stage that Parliament should take more powers to itself, particularly on motorways--that is a motorway that I will not go down. All I am saying is that we should not give up the ultimate powers that we, as opposed to the Government, now possess. Nevertheless I understand why the Committee made its suggestion. The absence of any widespread and proper inquiry into the strategic implications of a railway is a great gap, which could have been filled by the Executive but which it has, on this occasion, chosen not to fill.

It is much easier for petitioners and objectors to appear before a local public inquiry than to come to this place. I have done both. Members of the public are inhibited from appearing before a Committee, where they see people wearing wigs and gowns. The public are more at ease if

Column 509

they appear before an inspector at a public inquiry where there is greater informality. Ideally, we need a combination of both. Hon. Members will say that that would take more time. It may. However, if we are to maintain our democratic procedures, we have to pay the price. Time may be one of them. Big interests are often in a hurry, whereas citizens often say, "Let's take time to get it right." Moreover, the locus of those who petition this place against a Bill is very much narrower than their locus when they appear before a public inquiry.

The question that arises, therefore, is how we can combine the democratic safeguards of both procedures. Recommendations 20 to 22 would bring about a change in the procedure. Blocking motions could be used by hon. Members. I am very concerned about recommendations 20 to 22. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) agrees that over the years the powers of individual Members to require a debate have been used. Hon. Members may believe that those powers have been abused. Even if that were conceded--I do not concede it--I do not believe that any diminution of the power of individual Members of Parliament should be accepted without great thought. The individual Member represents individuals outside Parliament. Any diminution of our power to delay private legislation, to require consultation behind the scenes, or to require some form of just and proper concession would lead to the powers of hon. Members being forfeited. Therefore, I am not convinced by recommendations 20 to 22.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : As I understand the report, all that it is saying is that if we did not follow the procedure at 2.30, when we sit in our places and shout "Object" to the Second Reading or Committee stage of a Bill, we should be able instead to table a motion in the Private Bill Office. I do not mind too much about coming here at 2.30 to object, but it is an arcane procedure. I should have thought that it would be just as easy to table a motion as to come here in person.

Mr. Spearing : I apologise if I have misunderstood my hon. Friend, but I thought that reasons had to be given. Recommendation 21 says : "Blocking motions should not be effective unless they are signed by at least six Members."

Recommendation 22 says :

"The procedure for objecting orally to a bill should be abolished."

I believe that those recommendations will diminish rather than enhance the powers of individual Members. Abolition of the closure by 100 Members would, I believe, benefit the promoter. I am not sure about that, either.

Mr. Tony Banks : If my hon. Friend looks at today's Order Paper and the private business after Prayers he will see that, apart from the Associated British Ports (No. 2) Bill and the King's Cross Railways Bill, to which both my hon. Friend and I object, six hon. Members do not object to any of the other Bills. I have no constituency interest in the Hythe, Kent, Marina Bill but it has been put to me that a number of principles are involved and that the House ought to discuss them on Second Reading. According to regulation (21), I should have to find three other hon. Members to add their names to the Hythe, Kent, Marina

Column 510

Bill. That would not be too difficult. It is a bit of a nonsense, like early-day motions. Nevertheless, I do not believe that we should be placed at a great disadvantage.

Mr. Spearing : It is a matter of judgment. The British Film Institute Southbank Bill is on the Order Paper and my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) is the sole objector. If the rule were to be changed, I suggest that he would be placed at a minimal disadvantage.

I turn to the alternative package approach, which I base on the agreeable recommendation 1. I do not think that the fact that this is the first recommendation is accidental. It says :

"Promoters of a private bill should be required to prove before the committee on the bill that private legislation is necessary to secure the primary purpose of the bill."

I was a member of a Committee when the preamble of a Bill was not proved. The Committee sat for three weeks. That disrupted my life and the lives of my three colleagues. The proceedings lasted for 80 hours. Therefore, I welcome wholeheartedly that recommendation. However, I wonder whether it ought to apply before or after Second Reading. If it applied before Second Reading, it would save people a lot of time.

The hon. Member for New Forest referred to a diversion. I shall take that one step further. Why should we not introduce a perimeter procedure or perimeter fence, or--to use an agricultural analogy--an electric fence : moreover, to mix one's metaphors, an electric fence that, by means of radar, directs people to the gaps? In other words, a greater form of perimeter examination than we have at the moment ought to be put in place to reflect the general will of the House on the type of private legislation that it believes is acceptable. It must not be just a question of proving the preamble and the averment, and the tail wagging the dog. Perhaps we ought not to accept big Bills with huge implications before certain other procedures have been exhausted. That would be a novelty, as would be the non-acceptance of Bills that have public policy implications which have not been properly debated and defined by the Government or others.

I accept that that would be a radical change, but it would be a development of an existing procedure. Some of the machinery is already in place. Much of it is invisible and much of it is conducted by learned Clerks and their associates. There are the examiners and there is the Court of Referees. At the moment, the court is concerned only with decisions on locus and related matters. The Standing Orders Committee meets occasionally. It deals with the compliance of private Bills with Standing Orders and occasionally it allows an exemption, even if compliance with Standing Orders is shown not to have taken place.

Why should we not develop a code that would mean that a petitioner for a Bill would have to go through a certain number of hoops before the Second Reading Motion is tabled by the Chairman of Ways and Means? The code would have to be agreed according to precedent and it would have to reflect the views of the House. Almost inevitably, it would have to be developed by a Joint Committee of both Houses. The manpower implications might be relieved if it were to be a Joint Committee that assumed the functions of a court. People might ask why that Committee should have such huge powers. But we do that already by giving a Private Bill Committee the power to dispose of a Bill under Standing Orders, unless there is

Column 511

some exceptional procedure. The Bill in which I was involved was sunk by a Committee which was committed by the rest of the House to listen to all the evidence, to consider it in great detail and to make a decision. I suggest that the same principle might be applied to some perimeter body, perhaps multi-functional, appointed by the House to supervise the general procedures relating to private legislation. If that suggestion were developed, at least in concept, it might be able to deal with some of the problems that have been properly identified by the Joint Committee and give cause for hon. Members' complaints.

There would be several advantages to such a system. It would maintain the final powers of Parliament to decide and would not transfer to the Executive any decisions that are currently taken by Parliament. It would maintain hon. Members' individual rights to represent the interests of their constituents, and, therefore, defend the liberty of the subject ; properly supervised and worked, it would restrain and perhaps restrict the promotion of private legislation that some hon. Members or the entire House might consider inappropriate to current circumstances.

I hope that, in considering such proposals, Parliament will evolve from its ancient procedures and develop all that is necessary in this place for the common good and the protection of individuals and their liberties.

7.1 pm

Mr. Gerald Bowden (Dulwich) : I welcome the report and congratulate the Joint Committee which produced it. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) on his masterly exposition and the clarity with which he set out the problems and the recommendations which might solve them.

Like many hon. Members I was acquiescent to the procedures of the House until I came up against a particular issue which affected me and my constituents directly and personally. It was not until British Rail proposed a recent private Bill with implications that went beyond the terms of that Bill that I realised the inadequacies of the present procedure. My views reflect those of many of my constituents affected by the proposals in the Bill. All right-minded and reasonable people recognise that from time to time individuals have to make sacrifices in the interests of the majority. Most people are prepared to accept those sacrifices as long as they feel that the system under which those sacrifices are made is fair and based upon equity and justice, and, moreover, one in which they have the right to be heard and make their views known. The private Bill procedure and practice in the House is defective on one, two or three of those points.

Recently I have been involved in opposing the King's Cross Railways Bill. As drafted, the Bill is self-contained and merely makes reference to British Rail's promotion of a terminal in north London. I understand that it makes no reference whatsoever to the routes leading to that terminal, but we all know that that terminal would not exist in isolation and would have direct consequences for the routes that lead to it. The Bill implies that other Bills will be brought forward. The very existence of the Bill to establish a terminal at King's Cross predetermines other consequences for the routes which lead to it. Those who are directly affected by it, not only in the King's Cross area, but in south London, south-east London and Kent,

Column 512

all the way to Folkestone, realise that their lives will be changed by a proposal about which they have no opportunity whatsoever to make their voices heard and make their opposition known. That, coupled with the rather antiquated mumbo-jumbo which surrounds so many of our procedures, makes them feel that they are unable to articulate and voice their opposition and they are opposed by those who, through cunning draftsmanship and legalistic strategems, deny them the opportunity to state their opposition.

When they have got over the first legal hurdle of putting in a petition, which seems to require witchcraft spells to make it understandable in its interpretation, they have to appear before a Court of Referees, which appears to interpret their opposition or rule them out of order on very narrow legalistic lines, and they feel that they are being denied basic justice. If our constituents come to the House to voice their opposition to a measure which will dramatically change their lives, their families, their homes and their communities, and have no opportunity to make their voices heard and are ruled out, we have progressed very little beyond the middle ages and it is high time to reform our procedures and make them more responsive and more accessible to those affected by proposed legislation.

I am pleased that the Joint Committee report contains some proposals which appear to alleviate the problems which I identified, relating the principle to the particular. Recommendation 13 states : "Each House should incorporate environmental impact assessment". Regrettably, British Rail's proposals for King's Cross and for the route that runs through my constituency show no evidence whatsoever that there has been any environmental assessment of effects on the human environment, the natural environment and the urban environment. The proposals appear to have been cobbled together. No doubt in due course some glossy document will be produced, purporting to address the environmental issues, but that will be a piece of icing, or an afterthought, on the basic proposals.

Another principle which appears to have been overlooked, or to which only lip service has been paid, is consultation. The only consultation which British Rail had before producing its proposals for King's Cross or for the route was a public meeting which in no way could be regarded as consultation. It was merely a confrontation at which the spokesman for British Rail batted a straight bat the whole way, conceded nothing and accepted none of the views that were expressed at the time. People feel that the battle was lost before anything was on the pitch. If we, as Members of Parliament are conniving with and acceding to procedures which leave people with a sense of injustice, it is high time that we changed those procedures and implemented the recommendations in the report.

Mr. Moate : I understand my hon. Friend's argument and I am most impressed with his eloquence. We understand the sense of grievance among his constituents, but why does he believe that a public inquiry--the solution that we favour--apart from allowing them a hearing, might produce a more beneficial result from their point of view?

Next Section

  Home Page