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Column 513principle where a slice is taken off here and there individually so that they are not noticed elsewhere. What is proposed now is a Channel tunnel at one end linking us to France and a terminal at the other end where trains will arrive, but there is no discussion about what lies in between. I imagine that British Rail will put forward proposals which treat the route as a whole. From what I can see, under our procedures British Rail could take it station by station. It could pick the route off, cutting the slices even thinner. So what we would have would not be a major planning operation, as it should be, but several mini-plans which together would have a dramatic effect which could not be recognised at the beginning.
As I understand it, the essence of the report is that if a major planning operation affects different areas, it should be treated in its entirety as a comprehensive project and not picked off point by point, which seems to be the procedure now. British Rail's proposal will not only affect the south-east but have implications for the north-east and the north-west, because it will open up the whole country to Europe. People want to see a project in the round and as a whole and not bit by bit.
Mr. Tony Banks : May I give the hon. Gentleman another point in answer to his hon. Friend's question? If there were a public inquiry, more people could make their views heard more audibly. Indeed, they would be heard where it matters most. They might be heard by the Prime Minister herself, who could more clearly gauge the degree of public opposition. Nothing concentrates the minds of the Prime Minister and politicians generally more than the clattering down of party majorities that might follow.
Mr. Bowden : I will not follow the hon. Gentleman down that path. Certain questions that are basic and fundamental to the overall proposals that come out in separate private Bills have not been addressed. The first one, which I raised earlier this afternoon and which I make no apology for raising again, is whether it is necessary for every piece of freight and for every passenger coming from the continent to any destination in the United Kingdom to go through central London. That assumption is in the proposals put forward by British Rail, which seems to think that it is good that they should. The House or a public inquiry should ask seriously whether that assumption is right.
A private Bill does not allow at the earliest stage the opportunity to ask such questions. I shall be more parochial, but it is the particular that illustrates the principle. BR proposes that the tunnel proposed in outline should have a spur rising from the ground in my constituency at Warwick gardens and then tracking five or six miles around south and south-east London, over viaducts and bridges and on embankments, through Denmark hill, Loughborough junction, Brixton, Clapham, Wandsworth and Vauxhall before it gets to Waterloo. That is some eight miles above ground which will be rather dangerous, considering the speed of the trains. If one looks at the map and studies existing tunnels, one sees that it would not be beyond the wit of engineers to make a connection from somewhere near London bridge underground to Waterloo, a distance of less than one mile. That is a fundamental point that a public inquiry would winkle out but which would be taken as an assumption in a private Bill. I raise these issues because they illustrate the principle.
Column 514A further point, that has been alluded to several times in the debate, is that the private Bill procedure should be limited to one Session of Parliament and that only in exceptional circumstances should it roll over. If that were adhered to, there is no doubt that the King's Cross Railways Bill, and any subsequent British Rail Bill relating to the Channel tunnel link, would not fall within that ambit. I refer to recommendation 16 on page 53.
I welcome the report and most of its recommendations ; I welcome particularly the two recommendations which appear to address the problems that we see with British Rail's current, rather cavalier promotion of private Bills in relation to the Channel tunnel link. 7.15 pm
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden) on his speech and on discovering how politically sexy private Bills can be. Certainly they will be with regard to the matter that he has just discussed. It will ring through Parliament for the next year or so. I discovered that political fact somewhat earlier. That is why I volunteered to go on Committees on private Bills soon after being elected in 1983. I believed that it was time well spent, which is not something that I can say about my other parliamentary activities since 1983. No doubt Conservative Members will agree with those sentiments.
I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for the New Forest (Mr. McNair- Wilson), as a member of his Committee, on the way that he chaired it with great patience and skill. I have already told him that I thoroughly enjoyed being on the Committee. I considered it a privilege. It was another useful learning process. It gave us a chance to examine procedures and issues away from the hurly-burly of the Floor of the House, although there is not a great deal of hurly-burly today. This is a good, constructive debate. When one gets involved in sharp political exchanges, there is a great deal of heat but little light is revealed. In the work that I did on the Joint Committee I found that being on the Select Committee on Procedure and on the Standing Orders Committee was a useful complement. May I again say that I thoroughly enjoyed the work and was grateful for the opportunity to serve on the Joint Committee.
The debate is most welcome but I still feel that it is belated. The report was published in October 1988. I, with others, have pushed the Leader of the House at business questions on many occasions to say when we would have a debate. His answers, always courteous, were to the effect that the Government were studying the report and were considering their response. It was commendable so to do because it is a big fat report with a lot of good reading in it, but it would have been a reasonable response from the Leader of the House if the debate had enabled us to vote on something.
I had to leave the House for part of the speech of the Leader of the House. I should like to find out from him whether a date has yet been fixed for a substantive, executive debate when we can vote. That is the important thing in the end. Many of us spend much time and energy on Committees which bring forward considered recommendations and then there is only a take note debate and the House does not have an opportunity to say how it feels by voting. The Leader of the House said on several occasions that he would let the House express its decision.
Column 515That can be done only by voting. When will we be allowed to vote? I have tried to resist becoming over-cynical or suspicious in the House--
Mr. Banks : I take the point. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) says, it is something that one should not do. I am trying to be as generous to the Leader of the House as I can, but I always listen closely to the advice of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover.
I am forced to conclude that the delay is because the Leader of the House and, therefore, the Government do not want these
recommendations in situ prior to the Kent Bill coming before the House in the next Session.
Mr. Wakeham : I rise to intervene in a spirit of friendliness towards the hon. Gentleman, because the debate has been interesting. Judging by one or two of the interventions, something that might be called the "Newham question" appears to be emerging. It is clear that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) are miles apart in their thinking about the way in which we should go forward. I shall be interested to see how that debate develops.
Mr. Banks : That is certainly not true. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) is disagreeing very much with what the Leader of the House has just said. My hon. Friend and I always go together in the closest possible political and personal sympathy. I assure the Leader of the House that that is as true on this matter as on others.
Mr. Moate : I thought that what the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) was saying was diametrically opposed. Even if that were true, does he agree that that is no reason why the House should not vote on the proposition? [Interruption.]
Mr. Banks : I am taking my cue from my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South. I was going to say that perhaps I will read his speech with more interest, but I could not have more interest in what he says. I shall read his speech carefully, but I do not see that we are in any way apart on this matter. In the end, although he and I might have our differences on the various recommendations, they will be differences of only a minor degree and I am sure that we are together in saying that the House must have an early opportunity to vote on those recommendations.
Mr. Spearing : I am glad that my hon. Friend has given way, because perhaps I can clarify the matter. His having been a member of the Committee and party, to some extent, to the detailed recommendations, may hide the fact that we are at one in our wish to adjust the procedures for private business towards modern demands. The routes that we may take to minimise the abuses and the difficulties may be different, but those are our objectives. Like my hon. Friend I look forward to substantive changes in the Standing Orders and the arrangements, although I acknowledge that this sort of debate facilitates the changes to be made--and the sooner the better.
Column 516If we are to set up Select Committees or special Committees, after taking time to reflect and to read the report of the Joint Committee, the House should be given an opportunity to vote. That is all I am saying, but I hope that when the Leader of the House replies to the debate he will tell us when we will have the opportunity to vote. There will always be a role for private Bills, but, as the report clearly stresses, there have been a large number of private Bills before the House this Session--I believe that the hon. Member for New Forest said that there had been 58--many which have been or are highly controversial. The Committee felt that there was a general desire to reduce the number of private Bills coming before the House and that, as far as possible, some of the more controversial aspects of those Bills should be eliminated. I thoroughly support recommendation 1. There was a general belief in the Joint Committee, as there is in the House and--just as important--outside the House that private Bills are being used to bypass public inquiry procedures. The most blatant example of that was the Hampshire (Lyndhurst Bypass) Bill. The House should not tolerate that. The Committee has recognised the fact and even before we have a vote the Leader of the House should recognise that the concern is shared by hon. Members of all parties. Therefore, I strongly support recommendations 5 and 13.
Parliament is being used--I stress the word "used"--by promoters to fast- track developments and, in certain cases, to override the great weight of public opinion which is often against the more controversial proposals contained in private Bills. The House is not an appropriate or satisfactory alternative to a planning inquiry when local communities and local amenities are affected by proposals. The private Bill procedure requires that hon. Members who serve on an opposed Bill Committee should declare that they have no constituency interest. Obviously, that is right, but it could be only a short step removed from their having no interest whatsover. I am not being critical but some hon. Members who serve on a private Bill Committee simply wish to get out of it as fast as they possibly can. Many of us who work on Committees know that the work does not attract the media attention given to work on the Floor of the House. When one serves on a Standing Committee, it is like disappearing into a legislative black hole ; but on private Bill Committees, it is like going for a long walk through a desert, never to be heard of again until the Bill finally comes back to the House--and even then no one pays very much attention to it. Although the Bills may be important--I am not denigrating the importance of the issues that are discussed--serving on private Bill Committees will not achieve much for hon. Members who like their work at least to be noted. We must try to sweeten or to give a few temptations to hon. Members who might want to continue to serve--as I do--on Committees on private Bills. It can be a problem if hon. Members who serve on a Private Bill Committee have only a little if any local knowledge of the issue confronting them. Of course, hon. Members may at least acquaint themselves with the locality by visiting the area affected by the Bill, but frankly, that is no substitute for having some detailed local knowledge similar to that of the local authorities and the local people. Indeed, as far as possible, important decisions should be taken in the areas where the decisions will have the most impact. That is what "devolution" means in political terms. In many ways, private Bills argue
Column 517wholly against political devolution and decision making. In addition, hon. Members who serve on private Bill Committees often have inadequate expertise in planning matters. Such expertise would assist them to make a proper assessment.
The evidence that has been submitted by the Council for the Protection of Rural England and by the Ramblers Association stresses--and I agree--that it is difficult for local people and communities to voice their objectives within the private Bill procedure. I have chaired a number of Committees on private Bills and agree that it is quasi-judicial procedure which can be intimidating to people who come along to try to represent the interests of their small communities, organisations or even themselves, as they are entitled so to do. It is not just a question of standing up and giving evidence. Individuals or their representatives, who can be amateurs not professionals, can be cross-examined by expensive leading counsel, which is not something that many people find enjoyable. Therefore, the process can be intimidatory and that aspect should be eliminated. I remind the Leader of the House that the promoters of private Bills can afford the most expensive legal representation for the Committee stage. As so often, the more money one has, the more law one can buy. We must be mindful of that fact when we consider the report's recommendations.
Private Bills are even more inappropriate for schemes involving massive infrastructure investment with strategic implications. When there are strategic and even national implications, I do not see how a Private Bill Committee can be the appropriate forum to consider the proposals. Indeed, I do not know whether a Private Bill Committee could be allowed to consider such strategic implications. That will certainly be true of the King's Cross Railways Bill and of the "fast routes through Kent" Bill that we will have next Session. I join the hon. Members of all parties who believe that these private Bills are back to front. It seems nonsense to have a Bill that decides where the terminal will be before a Bill that sets out the route because the location of the terminal will go a long way to pre-empt the decision on the route. That cannot be good for Parliament and it cannot be good for the strategic transport implications presented by such private Bills.
I believe that such Bills as the King's Cross Railways Bill and the "fast routes through Kent" Bill should be public Bills. If we cannot have them as public Bills, there should be full public inquiries where the strategic implications can be rehearsed.
I am still shocked that the Government have abdicated any responsibility for strategic planning and transportation matters. I was glad to see the Secretary of State for Transport here a little while ago. A couple of weeks ago he came to a meeting of the London group of Labour Members, which I chair. I pointed out to him that I met British Rail and said, "Look, the King's Cross terminal is a matter of strategic importance for London and the south-east." British Rail's response was, "We are not the strategic authority for transport for London or the south-east. We are a commercial transport undertaking. This is a matter for the Government." I then said to the Secretary of State for Transport, "You are, surely Secretary of State, the strategic transport authority." As my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South said, it shocked us that the Secretary of State said, "I am not the strategic authority." In that case, who is the strategic
Column 518authority? The answer is that there is none, which cannot be good for the future planning of transportation matters in this country.
Mr. Spearing : My hon. Friend has illustrated that the opinion of Conservative Members was already prejudiced. My hon. Friend is absolutely in parallel with what I was saying. Does my hon. Friend not understand that the situation in London is even worse? I received recently a written answer from the Secretary of State for Transport saying that he certainly was not responsible for planning public transport in London, but that that responsibility lay with London Regional Transport. That does not fill me with any confidence.
Mr. Banks : It appears that the Government, especially the Prime Minister, want to interfere with the daily affairs of everyone--in particular the local councils--but do not want to take the strategic overview. Perhaps that is the nature of the busybody rather than of the person with the imagination to look at something on a broader canvas. For transportation that attitude is appalling. All sorts of disconnected decisions are being taken, which spell disaster, and certainly enormous difficulties, for transportation policy. That appears to be the nature of the beast we are dealing with in government today. It is not good for transportation and will not be good for the country as a whole.
Mr. Skinner : Of course, there is another way of looking at it, which is that the Government have their legislative programme anyway. That is chock-bang full of measures that will redistribute the balance of wealth and power in Britain. If, however, the Government wanted to introduce a Bill on transport or the Associated British Ports Bill, they could use the private Bill procedure as an addendum to their own legislative programme. At the same time, they have the added advantage of being able to say when they are passed, "Really, you know, they were free votes." They can say, "Hands off, it's nothing to do with us," but at the same time, in addition to their own programme, they have got through some of the things that they wanted as well. That is why, on that ports Bill, the Prime Minister turned up at 10 o'clock at night in her carpet slippers to vote it through.
Mr. Banks : As ever, I agree 100 per cent. with my hon. Friend. I shall be coming on to the second part of my objection to private Bill procedure, which concerns the highly controversial nature of some of those Bills.
On the strategic role of certain private Bills, recommendations 5 and 13 will at least go some way to answering my worries about the way that things are being done at present. They are the ones that will involve a public inquiry and an environmental impact assessment to be attached. That is necessary, because they appear to be inappropriate matters for the Private Bill Committee to consider. If the Committee had to take into account all those other matters, it would only extend the period in which it considers the Private Bill Committee stage. It is onerous enough for Members as it is, without adding more and more to the responsibilities and burdens that they should not have to shoulder, in many cases do not want to shoulder and, as I have said, they do not, perhaps, have the skills to shoulder.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover mentioned the controversial nature of a number of private Bills. At
Column 519times it is clear that the private Bill is being used by the Government to further their political objectives. Hon. Members must recognise that this makes nonsense of the private Bill procedure. The Felixstowe Dock and Railway Bill and the two Humber Bills are good examples. It was clear that what we were really talking about was the dock labour scheme, the Government's battle with the National Union of Mineworkers and their energy policy. We are aware enough to realise that that is really what was going on.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover said that the Prime Minister turned up in her carpet slippers for the vote on the ports Bill. She did so because she recognised that that Bill was crucial to Government policies. It was dishonest of the Government to push those matters through under the private Bill procedure. It should have been done openly through the public Bill procedure, when they could have openly used their majority and the payroll vote, rather than doing it surreptitiously.
Another convention that is being ridden over roughshod by the Government is that there is now whipping on private Bills. I agree that there might not be any official whipping on private Bills. However, if the Leader of the House were willing to put his hand on his heart--assuming that he could find it easily enough--and say that, when he was the Government Chief Whip, he never became involved or never sent his assistants out to ensure that hon. Members turned up to vote on some of those Bills, I should be prepared to give way. However, I suspect that he would not want to mislead the House by making such a statement.
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : It is done in more subtle ways. One does not put a Whip on the private business, but a three-line Whip is put on an order that comes on afterwards. Then one has done the same thing.
Mr. Banks : My hon. Friend is a very sophisticated Member and would make an excellent Whip. Of course there are ways of doing it. Another way of doing it would be to say to hon. Members, "The Prime Minister would consider this to be a particular favour. The Prime Minister would like to see you voting for this Bill. There are a few tricks coming up. Don't forget the new year's honours list is being drawn up at this very moment." As my hon. Friend has said, there are more subtle ways of doing it.
Mr. Banks : I am not that naive. I have always been a critic of the overweening power of Prime Ministers and, I might add, of Leaders of the Opposition. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman will catch me out with a question like that.
Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield) : Let us put all the cards on the table, because I remember a debate that we had on a Friday concerning an amendment introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) to the Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Bill. The Government whipped in every Minister to vote it down. Normally, we have Ministers only at the Dispatch Box to answer the debate.
Column 520On that occasion, nearly every Minister was whipped in--no doubt by the Prime Minister--to vote the amendment down.
Mr. Hardy : There is another aspect of the Government's approach to private Bills on which my hon. Friend might like to comment. That concerns the Bills with substantial environmental content, where the Government agencies--the Nature Conservancy Council and the Countryside Commission-- petitioned against the Bill and advised the Minister, who is not the Minister with whom they deal and who bears that responsibility, to oppose the Bill. I have seen environmental Ministers, who have received the advice of Government agencies after pronouncing the Government's neutrality, eagerly leading their troops through the Lobby in favour of the Bill.
Mr. Banks : They are yet further examples of the way in which the private Bill procedure has moved into areas of great political controversy. It would be far better for the business of the House if, as far as possible, such Bills were taken out of the private Bill procedure and dealt with as openly and as honestly as possible. I am sure that such problems have arisen in the past, but in recent years they appear to have arisen more frequently, and that is not good for the private Bill procedure. Bills that are controversial for political or environmental reasons would be more appropriately considered as public Bills rather than through the private Bill procedure.
I support recommendation 16 which deals with the carrying over of Bills from one Session to the next. As the hon. Member for New Forest said, the ability to have Bills carried over gives additional power to the promoters. That power presupposes that, merely because a Bill is before the House, it should be carried over on the nod. I believe that it would concentrate the minds of some promoters if we did not accede to the request to carry over such Bills formally. I believe that we should bounce a few back. We all have our favourite candidates ; I have already nominated mine, but only time will tell. When I have chaired Private Bill Committees I have often found that the proceedings have become lengthy because counsel seems to be on a payment-by-word basis. It is assumed that Committee members cannot even read and the papers that have already been put before the Committee are gone through word by word. I believe that the Chairman of such a Committee should make it clear that there is no need to go through the documents and should say, "Look, I am capable of reading. Please pass on."
If the promoter happens to be a local authority I am always aware just how much the whole thing is costing the ratepayers. If the promoter is British Rail, I am aware of the cost to the taxpayer. The corollary to that is how much it costs the poor old petitioner. An individual may come to the House for a couple of days to voice some objection, but is forced to sit through interminable hours of counsel reading through masses of documents. Counsel clock up extremely fat fees and I should remind them that they are paid at a far higher rate than the rest of us. I am anxious to get value for money for the taxpayer and the ratepayer.
Column 521Recommendation 39 deals with costs. In Committee I pushed hard for costs to the promoter to be substantially increased. The rates we are recommending are only marginal in comparison to the overall costs to be faced by the promoter when paying for a development. When we are talking about mega-million or multi-billion pound projects, £2,500 or £5,000 is the sort of money that developers no doubt carry in their back pockets. If anything, I believe that the Committee has erred on the side of conservatism in terms of the money that we could get out of some promoters.
It is also worth considering the idea of a formal panel of Members appointed to opposed Bill Committees. I listened with great interest to the First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means, who said that serving on the panel could be an apprenticeship for the Chairmen's Panel. We all know that once one is on that panel one is on the way to the Chair of the House and the coveted full-bottomed wig, which is apparently desired by many Members.
I recognise that those who serve on Committees, whether Standing Committees or Private Bill Committees, are the true Stakhanovites of Parliament. Some modest reward should be given to them. I do not know whether that should be a knighthood, a damehood or whatever. If such an honour were offered to me I would renounce it immediately and ask for it to be transferred to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover. We must recognise the work of members of all Committees--that work is essential to the business of the House. In many respects it is unrecognised and unacknowledged. I found working on the Committee chaired by the hon. Member for New Forest extremely interesting. I find working on private Bills interesting, but I believe that such work would be made far less onerous if we reduced the number of Bills and eliminated those that are politically or environmentally controversial.
The report is good--I am not saying that merely because I was a member of that Committee--and it contains many suggestions that should be implemented. I hope that the Leader of the House will give us an opportunity to vote on the recommendations as soon as possible. 7.44 pm
Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East) : I listened to the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) with great interest. I thought that it was a pity that, given his chameleon-like nature, he could not decide whether he was trying to make a useful and constructive contribution to a sensible debate or whether he would rather have been haranguing a full House with a rowdy and rumbustious speech about building a railway line, with a three-line Whip and Divisions all night.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) on a most remarkable report. I feel rather hesitant in speaking because I have not had the honour of serving on a private Bill Committee. I was listed to do so, but, fortunately for my diary, the opponents managed to settle their differences and the Committee was never called.
For some time I have been trying to introduce a private Bill to help my constituents who have a problem regarding the protection of a covenant dating back to 1934. I note that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Water
Column 522and Planning is present and he is aware of that problem. My constituents would like me to organise a delegation to visit him about it.
I declare a natural interest in this subject as I am an engineer. It is no accident that the headquarters of the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers are on the other side of Parliament square. I am a fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. I regret that I cannot stay for the entire debate because of a prior engagement at the Institution of Civil Engineers.
The thrust of the report is that the principal purpose of private Bills is to get things done. I support the recommendations for modernising and improving the private Bill procedure. Recommendation 13 relates to the impact on the environment of a particular Bill. I believe that that recommendation, together with the recommendation to publish a handbook to make the complex mystery of such Bills more understandable to the public, will mean that private Bills will be introduced not so much to get things done as to stop things being done.
My constituents are anxious that a covenant which was entered into in 1934 and which was designed to protect some open land from being built on, should now be flouted. Only last week a large national rapacious builder announced his intention to start building within the next few days, despite the existence of the covenant and despite the fact that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State refused to discharge the covenant when asked to do so. In future, constituents will demand a simplified procedure for bringing forward private Bills to protect their interests.
I am doubtful about some of the recommendations, as I believe that they will make it more difficult for people to introduce such Bills. Fees at a minimum level of £10,000 represent such a difficulty. I note that it is recommended that there should be a remission of costs to protect charities. I am not sure how far the Committee considers that protection should go, but perhaps I will get that answer tonight.
Today I received a letter from the Bolton civic trust asking me to raise in Parliament how the covenant could be protected. Would the trust be able to bring in a private Bill and expect to be given remission of the large fees proposed? If that were so I would find it easier to accept that part of the report.
Another part of the report which fills me with horror relates to the rigid timetable. To have only one day in the year--I believe that it is 27 October--to introduce a private Bill is an impossible way to proceed. That is a classic example of a monopolistic bureaucracy, which this House is, coming up against the desires of people to bring in private Bills. People should not be told, "I'm sorry, you've missed the deadline by a few days and you'll now have to wait a year before you can bring in a private Bill to protect your case." I hope that the Committee will consider that point further.
The report addresses the needs of big business. It is clear that big business should have the right procedures to bring forward private Bills properly, and we know that that happens with the railways and the docks. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that we should also make it easier for small groups which in the past have looked to the local authority to protect them. In the case to which I have referred, a covenant needed protection. With regard to that covenant, in 1981 the local authority said that steps had been taken to effect registration so that
Column 523the agreement would be enforceable. However, counsel for Barratts, which also has interests in Dulwich, has said that its legal advice is that it can flout the covenant. People may look to the council to protect them and then find that the council fails them.
If people are concerned about the strength of a covenant and if they want to rest comfortably in their beds at night, they must know that if there is any doubt they can bring a private Bill through to ensure that the covenant is reinforced by the House. I hope that the Committee will consider that when it further considers the report which I otherwise support fully.
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish) : I will not follow the course pursued by the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) very far. He showed considerable ingenuity in raising a problem in his constituency. However, the whole advantage of having to present private Bills on one day in the year is that it makes it far easier for objectors to analyse a Bill to see what it involves. I often speak on behalf of the Ramblers Association in the House. If it did not know on which day a Bill was to be presented, it would face a formidable task in obtaining a copy to check whether footpath interests were affected.
One of the most challenging issues for a democracy is to persuade individuals that they should accept personal sacrifices for the benefit of the majority of their fellow citizens or, in some cases, for the benefit of the minority. It is even harder if people are asked to make sacrifices when they know that someone else will make a profit.
Someone may want to build a new power station, running on any kind of fuel, at the bottom of someone's garden. Similarly, a new motorway may cross the corner of someone's back yard or a railway line may cross someone's patio. There may be a new public lavatory on a street corner or a municipal refuse incinerator in a field at the back of a house. There may be a proposal for a gipsy encampment within half a mile of someone's home. In all those cases, I suspect that, if people were in favour of them at all, they would be in favour of them somewhere else and not close to their homes. I wonder whether we can produce any procedure which would convince people that such proposals should go ahead close to their houses.
It is even more difficult to produce procedures which will safeguard the environment against the immediate public and private expediency of damaging it. It would be very difficult to produce any procedure which would convince people that they have had a fair hearing if the decision goes against them. It will be even harder to convince future generations that we have done our planning well when they consider the environmental damage which we have already inflicted on this country.
It is very difficult to find a procedure which is genuinely fair to people who would be disadvantaged by such a decision. I am absolutely certain that the present private Bill procedure is grossly unfair. We should be able to find a fairer and better system.
The procedures are heavily weighted in favour of a Bill's promoter and are heavily weighted against those who want to object, particularly when individuals do not have great resources or find it difficult to raise money to make
Column 524representations. Anyone who goes down the Corridors and enters the House of Lords to witness the proceedings on the Cardiff Bay Barrage Bill will realise what difficulties are involved.
A very affluent body is promoting the Cardiff Bay Barrage Bill and it has no difficulty in bringing its expert witnesses up from south Wales and engaging Queen's counsel to make the case. However, the individual objectors in the area face the expense of travelling here. When they arrive, they may find that there has been a slight alteration in the timetable, a QC may have spoken longer or shorter than expected or the individual may have come up on the wrong day and may be required to come up again the following day. Such people face many problems. Even the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is almost in despair at having to organise and marshal opposition to that private Bill.
I have seen many private Bills pass through this House since I became a Member in 1974. These have included county council Bills and regular British Rail Bills. We should link waterways Bills with those British Rail Bills, although they do not come up quite as often. Many of those Bills have caused a great deal of environmental damage. In many ways, that legislation has involved the worst side of politics, with blackmail, bribery and many chance occurrences. I recall one Bill which failed by a single vote to gain the majority necessary for a closure. Obviously, no one can plan for that. All forms of jiggery-pokery have occurred in private legislation. That is not new : those political processes have occurred throughout the centuries in connection with private business.
We should remember that private business in the past took up much more time than it does now. The burghers of Northampton worked hard for nearly 10 years to prevent a railway line from going through the town and ever afterwards tried to get the railway line put through the town. Those of us who have studied railway history will be aware that various lords negotiated with the railway companies for their own private stations with guarantees that trains would stop. Only once such concession were granted did the lords allow the railway lines to cross their land.
There is nothing new about the shenanigans that have occurred in private Bill legislation. However, we should change things in this day and age. When the Town and Country Planning Act was passed in 1947, the House should have considered private Bill legislation very carefully and taken out most of the planning elements from the private Bill procedure.
Mr. Spearing : My hon. Friend is making a very interesting speech, much of which I agree with. Does he agree that his concept is consistent with the concept that I put forward in my speech--that any private Bill would have to satisfy a Committee of this House that public inquiry procedures had been followed properly? An inspector would probably make a report to the House rather than to the Secretary of State on matters requiring legislation rather than report on matters in the present way.
Mr. Bennett : I accept that. I do not think that there is a fundamental difference between my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) and the Committee. The Committee says that a lot less should be
Column 525done through private Bills. My hon. Friend says almost that his total case is based on the first recommendation and that the others are subsidiary. The Committee says that the first recommendation is the most important and that the others follow. I do not think that there is a great deal of difference. My fundamental point is that this proposal for reform should have come with the new planning legislation after the second world war.
I welcome very much the work that the Committee did, and I pay tribute to the Chairman and the other members. However, I stress that what they have produced is a package. If all their proposals were implemented, most of the groups outside with which I have contact would be very happy. But those people would be very disappointed if only some of the proposals were implemented. If we were to get the balance right by reducing the number of environmental Bills, planning Bills, and things of that kind, the other changes to Standing Orders would be acceptable. But those changes would be totally unacceptable if the recommendations and those that follow from them are not right.
That is why I found the Government's response extremely disappointing. It suggested, almost, that this whole report could be buried for some time and that perhaps they would pick out two or three little points as a sop to the Committee and to the House. That would be totally unacceptable.
The Leader of the House referred to the sovereignty of Parliament. He seemed to suggest that if we were to go down this planning road we would get rid of the sovereignty of Parliament. In the case of the Channel tunnel, the railway line through Kent, and the King's Cross issue, the Government should have introduced legislation setting out the principle that there would be a Channel tunnel and a high-speed link, and that there would be either a London terminus or, as I prefer, a terminus much nearer the midlands to ensure that the whole country would benefit. Those principles should have been set out in Government legislation, and there should have been an inquiry to establish the route. In that way various people could have put forward the alternative arguments.
As I understand it, the King's Cross Railways Bill is a total farce. The London terminus will be established, and the tunnel will be under construction, so two points are set, and the piece between has to be filled in. No one could imagine that the route will be via Manchester or Belfast. As the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden) made clear, his constituents will not be able to appear as objectors to the King's Cross Railways Bill, because they are not, as I understand the Standing Orders, directly affected. Of course they are not directly affected. I am not quite sure what will happen to the people of Newham, who would like to argue that Stratford should have been chosen instead of King's Cross. I am not sure whether those people will be entitled to appear. By a very strict and narrow interpretation of the Standing Orders, they have nothing to do with King's Cross.
Mr. Tony Banks : I can tell my hon. Friend straight away that the promoters, British Rail, have challenged the locus of Newham borough council. The matter went before the Court of Referees, which found against Newham. We will not be able to petition against the Bill
Column 526unless we can attach an instruction at Second Reading, which is something that I intend to do. Paragraph 101 of the report says : "Proceedings over locus standi are uncommon. In the House of Lords, 36 challenges to locus standi have been recorded since 1950 ; in the House of Commons, the Court of Referees has considered only 11 cases since 1977."
British Rail is making up for lost ground : it has challenged over 150.
Mr. Bennett : I understand that. All that I am suggesting is that using the private Bill procedure is ridiculous. What we ought to have is a planning inquiry, at which people could argue for an alternative route and alternative termini. When the inquiry has been completed--some people suggest that the recommendations should be made to the House ; others that the recommendations should be made to the Minister--orders, or a short Bill, could go through the House implementing them. That is the procedure that should be adopted. I do not believe that by accepting the report the House would be giving up any sovereignty at all, and I am disappointed that the Leader of the House made that point.
In an intervention, I stressed to the Leader of the House that he should make very sure that there would be no more jumbo Bills. Recommendation 10 is extremely important--that Government Departments do not use private legislation as a short cut for provisions that they have failed to get through the Cabinet legislative committee. It seems to me important that carry over motions should be debated at the start of the new Parliament. A new group of Members must be able to pass judgment as quickly as possible on the principle. I welcome the proposal concerning environmental impact. It is extremely important that it should be implemented.
I welcome the reforms--so long as we get them in balance. If there are no local government Bills, if the new procedure for British Rail Bills and others introduced by the waterways authority and if planning matters can be dealt with by planning inquiries, it seems to me that the other changes are acceptable.
On the question of having six names, it has been pointed out that at least one Bill has only my name on it. That is the requirement at the moment, but, if necessary, I think I could find five Friends in the House to add their names. Then I could start to argue. There is one thing that causes me to hesitate. On occasions I have put my name on the block and then started to talk to other people, who add their names. If eventually I accepted that a deal has to be done and I have to take my name off, I might find that others have stronger resolve than myself. So that creates a few difficulties.
On the question of 100 Members having to vote for a closure, the real question is the extent to which the Government whip the business. This has been referred to in an exchange. The days named for private business procedure are an amazing affair. I am told that the Chairman of Ways and Means has total discretion and can choose exactly for which day business is put down. Afterwards, the Government have the choice whether to put an order down and use the Whip. Sometimes, a private Bill arrives, and there is nothing after it. One thinks that that is a hint from the Government that they do not mind if it disappears, and a hint from the Chairman of Ways and Means that he does not mind if it disappears. On other
Column 527occasions the Chairman of Ways and Means picks a night when he is pretty confident that there will be other business either that day or the next. It is a very interesting process.
I do not think that it makes a lot of difference if we move to a simple majority for the closure if it reduces some of the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring, particularly if the rest of the package were implemented. I suspect that, if we were to vote on the principle, there would be more chance of people coming and listening to the debate on a private Bill and voting on its merits rather than as a result of pressure from behind the scenes such as, "It does not matter what you do tonight. Don't take any interest in the debate, but please be here at 10 o'clock for the vote." I would not object to that so long as it is part of the package.
The Committee recommends that there should be five Members instead of four. I have always felt that, in equity, it is not a good idea to have four people hearing evidence, because the Chairman, in return for performing his duties, gets two votes. At the moment chairmanships are supposed to alternate. The Opposition get one, and next time the Government get it. Obviously in the case of Bills that are party political, the order in which parties occupy the chairmanship makes an awful lot of difference.
I have been trying to find out what really happens and how easy it is for promoters to manipulate their Bill so that it comes in such a position in the queue that they get a Chairman who might be sympathetic to their case. That is another of those mysterious processes that go on in the House. I shall not go into that, but I want to know what will happen if we move from four to five members. Will there always be three Government and two Opposition members or will selection still be on a fairly random basis, and who will be the Chairman? If the Government have an in-built majority and always provide the chairman that would be going a little further than I would wish. I want more information on that.
I welcome most of the other proposals, but I want to reiterate the point already made by my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) on behalf of the ramblers who object strongly to the proposal for the closure of public footpaths on the basis of safety. At present, under highways legislation and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, people can move for the diversion of a footpath where necessary on safety and other grounds and for closure where a footpath is not used. It is a little much for British Rail to say that it wants to close footpaths on the basis of safety. I do not want people to be injured, but since British Rail is creating the problem it is reasonable that it should find some way of getting under or over a crossing by an underpass or a bridge unless it can demonstrate that the crossing is not used. If people do not use it, legislation exists to close it and British Rail does not need this statutory power. It is not an acceptable ground for British Rail to argue that, because it has speeded up trains or carried out other engineering work on the line, a crossing is not safe. That is my one strong caveat.
I end by emphasising that if all the measures are recommended by the Government for implementation, I will go along with that. But if the Government want to pick out only one or two measures which further swing the balance in favour of the promoters, I shall ensure that those proposals are fought line by line.