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8.11 pm

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham) : Thinking about the debate today reminded me of some lines that I always remember with pleasure, although perhaps I should not, spoken by the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) when he was the newly appointed Secretary of State for Employment :

"I seem to recall that the right hon. Gentleman was the father of the Industrial Relations Act. The Queen's Speech proposes to repeal that Act. Never was a father so impassive in the face of the prospective slaughter of his pride and joy."--[ Official Report, 18 March 1974 ; Vol. 870, c. 688.]

Many of us remember that debate with pleasure.

I had feared that today something which many of us feel some pride in might be slaughtered, perhaps not openly and blatantly, but by some subtle parliamentary means. I have a sense of parentage, albeit with a large number of other strange bedfellows, and a sense of pride in the report that emerged.

I do not wish to be repetitive or platitudinous, but this is the only chance that we have to put on record our appreciation. I want to record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson), the Committee's Chairman, who was outstanding and to whom we all owe a great debt of gratitude. In particular, I want to take the opportunity to place on record my compliments to the Clerks of the Committee, particularly Mr. Andrew Makower and Miss Elizabeth Baker. It allows one to say again just how well served we are in this House by the remarkable Clerks. Mr. Makower and Miss Baker were of the highest standard, combining a great deal of knowledge and intellect with charm. They had a skill of pilotage without appearing to do the steering. Those are remarkable qualities that are not always present in all one's colleagues, at least until they reach the Chair or become Patronage Secretary.

It was a great pleasure to serve on the Committee. Many hon. Members have said that it is a pleasure to serve on private Bill Committees. That is true and it was a privilege and pleasure to serve on this Committee. It has been fascinating to hear how many other people have brought an expertise and objectivity to our discussions today, and that is the point that I want to begin on.

The Committee was as impartial and objective as such a diverse Committee could be. We did not start off with any preconceptions and many of the conclusions that we have put before the House were arrived at by a logical process of listening to the witnesses. We came to some major and radical conclusions which have received almost overwhelming support from the House, and I hope that they will be accepted in that light.

It has been suggested that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was somewhat negative, but that is not fair. He expressed an open-minded approach to some of the major propositions. He said that he would listen to the debate, and it is significant and heartening that virtually every contribution, coming from some significant sources, has virtually endorsed the whole range of the proposals. By significant, I certainly mean the shadow Leader of the House. Endorsements from the Opposition Front and Back Benches are of great importance. It is even more significant to have the immensely welcome contribution of the First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means, which was encouraging, positive and helpful and should give a fair wind to many of the proposals.

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If my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House had any doubts beforehand about the fundamental issues, I hope that he will take on board the opinions that have been expressed and come back with positive action, which means votes, much sooner than would otherwise have been the case. My right hon. Friend was most open-minded and helpful. Nevertheless, we are making some radical proposals. I do not wish to go over the whole report. Other hon. Members can pick out individual matters. I want to restrict myself to the key issues. The first objective is the need to remove from the House many matters which, in the light of modern planning procedures, should not be in Parliament at all. Secondly, I want to deal with some of the more procedural matters and, thirdly, to deal with the tantalising matter of King's Cross and the rail link which is so crucial to our debate. In some ways it is regrettable to relate such general procedural proposals to highly controversial issues. It is said that hard cases make bad law and we should be careful. On the other hand, it is useful to test what we are discussing against real life issues which bring home to our constituents and hon. Members who might not otherwise be listening to our debate the realities and importance of the private Bill proposals.

Let me start with the objective of removing from our parliamentary procedures matters that we describe as public works Bills which would be better dealt with outside the legislature. The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) exposed the real nature of the argument. The Committee came down clearly in favour of the public inquiry procedure. My position on that is clear, particularly in relation to the Kent problem of today. We said that the public inquiry route is better than the parliamentary route ; that applies to those highway matters which come before Parliament, railway matters, harbour matters and tramways and other related matters.

The hon. Member for Newham, South clearly expressed his anxiety that Parliament would be losing some power over major planning decisions. We do not try to control through the legislature most of the major planning decisions that affect our constituents, and none of us would want to. Logic says that we should apply those planning rules to other matters, such as the railways, and in our report we produce a clear, precise and practical set of proposals that would take those matters back into the planning domain.

That would require primary legislation. I accept that there is always a queue for such legislation and that it is not a small commitment to ask the Government to introduce legislation of that sort, the ramifications of which could be considerable. But I am encouraged to believe that my right hon. Friend implied that it would be introduced at some stage. He seemed to accept the principle of our suggestions.

We must accept that there will be a loss of parliamentary control over some planning matters ; a sacrifice will be made by certain hon. Members who will no longer be able to debate issues into which they used to enjoy getting their teeth. Those matters will leave the House.

The next point to be understood by objectors is that it will not necessarily produce a different or better result, but I believe that the planning inquiry route is the right route and is a better system for objectors. It is certainly a more congenial way of putting one's case. There are not strict rules of locus, so more people can put their cases ; it is more

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democratic. Nevertheless, they will put their cases before just one inspector. He or she will make a report to the Secretary of State and there will be a reasoned explanation of the decision. That will be taken as an Executive decision.

Mr. Wolfson : It is said in the report that going down the planning route, as the Committee proposes, is likely to be a much slower process than the present procedure. Will my hon. Friend comment on that?

Mr. Moate : I will come to the question of speed. While I believe that the planning route is not only the right but the better route, I do not want people to think that our present procedures are all bad or that private Bills that are going through or will go through before we have changed the system are necessarily prejudicial to the petitioners or opponents of Bills, because there are advantages. To pursue the point of the King's Cross or Channel high-speed rail link proposal, it is not impossible--we are all speculating--that hon. Members and others who are opposed to the King's Cross proposal might be able to achieve an instruction to the Committee that could change the nature of the Bill. Indeed, they might be able to defeat the Bill. They might certainly be able, through the usual parliamentary tactics, to achieve major amendments to the Bill. It could be argued that none of those would have been available through the planning system.

Equally, if by chance the King's Cross Railways Bill were defeated by the opponents, they might say, "We prefer the parliamentary procedure to the planning system." At the same time, British Rail and the Department, if they were backing it, might say, "What a pity we had the parliamentary procedure. We would have preferred the public inquiry route." It all depends on the ultimate decision, and the sheer satisification of being able to take up more time at a public inquiry is not the be-all and end-all of the system.

Our present system is fair, but it is illogical and these matters should be put into the planning system. The Joint Committee, having examined it, came down clearly and firmly in favour of that proposition. On balance, it would be better for all the relevant organisations outside, as they argued strongly, to go to a planning inquiry.

I have no hesitation in sticking firmly to that proposal and I have no doubt that, had we considered these proposals a year or two ago in relation to, say, King's Cross and the high-speed link, we would now be considering them in the context of the planning system. The Leader of the House attached great importance to the question of speed and said that the planning procedure would be slower and that would be the price to be paid. I do not think that that is necessarily the case and it seems that the point has been exaggerated. The delays in the planning procedure are not created only by the length of the public inquiry. They are caused as much by the bureaucratic processes before and after it. The inquiry need not be lengthy.

We have new rules that should curtail the excesses that have been experienced as some planning inquiries. There is no fundamental reason why a planning process should not be relatively quick. Who, anyway, is assuming that the parliamentary process will be quick? Judging by the remarks of some opponents, there is no guarantee that the

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King's Cross Railways Bill will whistle through at a rapid rate. It would not surprise me if that takes as long as any alternative planning inquiry would have taken.

Mr. Spearing : I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the advantages of the planning inquiry procedure, and I made that clear in my speech. What would he say to the concept that clearing the ground, from the point of view of strategic implications and possibly choice of route at the normal planning stage, should be a precondition of any preliminary procedures in this House, except in the case of a more detailed Bill, the details of most of which would have been thrashed out before it arrived? Would that not achieve the best of both worlds?

Mr. Moate : I would have to consider the hon. Gentleman's proposal carefully before being able to respond. Perhaps he will forgive me, therefore, if I do not respond now.

The report says that, whatever is recommended, nothing can detract from the Government's power to handle big planning matters of national importance in any way they choose. I stress that, because whatever procedures are laid down in this House, the Government of the day, of either complexion, might say that a power station, an airport or a railway line is of such significance that--whether it be by hybrid or private legislation or by special development orders--there are various other routes open. In other words, at various times a Government could decide that matters of such strategic importance should come before the House. Had these recommendations been in place, even on the high-speed link, the Government might have said that the only way to get it through would be to bring it to Parliament.

We have produced a practical and logical set of proposals. They will be for the benefit of the House as a whole and I hope that hon. Members will grasp this nettle, to borrow a phrase from the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). If we do not grasp it now, in years to come Parliament will bitterly regret not having taken an opportunity to reconstruct our approach to private Bills that should last us well into the next century.

I will deal briefly with some of the procedural points that are part of the package. I agree with those who have said that it would be wrong to expect hon. Members to give up some of their powers--the opportunities for guerrilla tactics to stop Bills that they do not like--unless they are satisfied that the package adds up.

I hope that the Government business managers will see this as a package--it cannot all be delivered in one piece of legislation--will accept the general objectives, and will introduce primary legislation and the necessary procedural changes to allow what we propose to take place. Only then would it be right to expect hon. Members to give up, for example, the verbal blocking and the need for 100 hon. Members to vote for the closure. I agree with the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) that, if we took away that need to obtain 100 for the closure, particularly if, at the same time, we made it harder for proposers to carry over a Bill, we might get a genuine debate, because the only requirement would be to achieve a clear majority with 40 hon. Members being present and voting. It would remove an obstacle, but let us not pretend that it would be easy for the proposers.

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I welcome the statement by the First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means that he thoroughly recommended not the option of a Joint Committee of both Houses for an experimental period but that he thought that it should be a requirement. Having taken a Bill through a Select Committee of one House, it does not make sense to repeat that procedure in the other. That practice was described by one witness as boiling one's cabbages twice. Another referred to it as taking two bites of the cherry. It does not make sense to have a duplication of Select Committees. The Joint Committee proposal is logical and makes sense, and I hope that it will be accepted. If one makes the Joint Committee only an option, it is unlikely to be used by anyone to whom it is inconvenient. I hope that we can, for an experimental period, make a Joint Committee a requirement. I feel sure that we shall benefit as a consequence.

As to the Kent high-speed rail link, I declare an interest as a Member for a Kent constituency. However, I am not directly affected by British Rail's proposal, although I could be directly affected by the proposal for an alternative route through my constituency. Come what may, we are going to have the private Bill procedure in respect of that rail link. the Joint Committee's proposals were brought out without a specific route in mind. Ironically--this makes one realise how quickly events have caught up with us--the report comments : "In any case, long stretches of new railway line are at present uncommon."

It is ironic that that statement was made, but that we are now confronted by one of the most highly controversial rail routes of all time.

Whatever our preference may have been, we are on the private Bill route. Speaking personally, my preference was for a public inquiry that embraced the Channel tunnel itself, the rail link, and the link's termini. I wish that some of those who are now complaining the loudest had voted against the Channel tunnel when it was proposed. They did not say then that we should think of the environmental consequences and of the rail link that would be a consequence of the tunnel. However, that is history.

Today I cannot see any conceivable way of persuading the Government to hold a public inquiry. Therefore, we must make the best of the existing procedures, which offer immense opportunities to petitioners to bring their protest to the House and to secure major changes to the Bill. One should also remember the disadvantages of a public inquiry, which generates options and blight across a much wider area. A public inquiry might be presented with four or five main routes, as well as a range of alternative routes, that would be under consideration for six months, a year or even two years. We currently have the advantage that there is only one proposed rail link route, that the whole county is not blighted--and neither are other areas, if one extends the argument--but we have certainty instead. An extended inquiry would delay a decision, and cause massive uncertainty and a great deal of anxiety.

We are, I hope, moving towards the public inquiry system. Assuming that it has the Government's support, that system must be better. The sooner that we adopt it, the better it will be for all concerned. However, for the moment we must make the best use of the procedures that we have.

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8.35 pm

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth) : The first part of my speech will not strike a discordant note, but its conclusion may do so. I begin by joining the tributes paid to the hon. Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) and to his Committee. The House is indebted to them for their substantial work. I also listened to the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) with great interest. I do not intend remarking much on Kent or on the Channel tunnel, although I suspect that we shall have substantial opportunities to discuss the line of route soon, and at rather greater length.

I am, in common with my hon. Friends, eager to see the proposed changes and the implementation of the whole package in the Joint Committee's report. However, I have reservations about three recommendations. Unlike the hon. Member for New Forest, I am anxious about the question of the simple majority. My belief is that the basic motive behind that proposal is a desire to accelerate consideration of private Bills.

The House is not always wise to accelerate its consideration of Bills. The Felixstowe Docks and Harbour Bill lasted for an unconscionable time between 1985 and 1987. I made long speeches on that Bill, as did several of my hon. Friends, at peculiar hours in the early morning. But as we neared the 50th hour of debate, the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths), who sponsored the Bill, began offering concessions. They may not have amounted to a great deal, but had we not kept the debate going, we should not have obtained them. It is possible that the Orwell estuary would be a poorer place if excessively speedy progress had been made with that Bill.

The House must take care, and right hon. and hon. Members give up hours of their time when they would probably be better off in bed. We must bear in mind the fact that, in addition to the convenience of the lawyers and the interests of commercial undertakings, we are under an obligation to care for the individual who may not have adequate resources to care for himself. We ought to care also for the environment, and I am particularly pleased with the report's reference to environment impact assessments, which right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House will welcome.

Environment impact assessments have been undertaken in recent years in respect of a number of private Bills. The hon. Member for New Forest will recall that a considerable amount of environmental information was available to right hon. and hon. Members concerned about the Hampshire (Lyndhurst Bypass) Bill. I even knew how many species of insects there are to be found in the 32 acres plot in contention. As to the Orwell estuary, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds identified not only the breeding species to be found there, but their numbers, together with a considerable amount of other information that was purveyed to the House at rather greater speed than some right hon. and hon. Members would have liked. We have been given a great deal of environmental information about certain private Bills. All we have now is a promise that assessments will be made. There is no commitment to ensuring that environmental interests notified and presented in assessments will be reflected by the Bill. No guarantee is given that adequate compensation will be paid for any damage that is done.

We welcome the insistence that environmental assessments will be made, but in the absence of a guarantee

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that any assessment will be made meaningful, a number of right hon. and hon. Members remain justifiably suspicious.

My final anxiety relates to the obligation of a right hon. or hon. Member to attend a Private Bill Committee. A few years ago, such an obligation would have been very reasonable. I shall not labour the point, but some right hon. and hon. Members represent constituencies suffering appalling economic needs, and they could not honourably give a commitment to attend a debate or Committee of the House that is to take place several weeks or months hence. Right hon. and hon. Members do not know whether there will be yet another industrial or colliery closure, or some other form of bankruptcy and ruin in their constituencies. I would not be prepared to enter into such a long-term obligation, and I feel certain that many right hon. and hon. Members representing the industrial areas of the north of England will be anxious about giving such an obligation when the crying need of their constituents, as of mine, may require them to devote their energies, and to ensure their presence, elsewhere. I shall mention an issue that may not be mentioned in the report. Some of us have expressed concern about two controversial Bills--the Associated British Ports Bill and the North Killingholme Cargo Terminal Bill. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford, North (Mr. Wall)--who may seek to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker--and for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Dunnachie) who served on the Committees on the two Bills. They were unable successfully to introduce an amendment to the Associated British Ports Bill, even though the matter-- as I think all Conservative Members recognise--was very contentious. It was so contentious that the European Community would not give grants for the project.

The matter was contentious because it meant that large numbers of jobs in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire would be lost. It was also contentious because it seemed to embody an idiotic approach to energy policy and to destroy industrial capacity, making our balance of payments deficit much greater. However, my hon. Friends were unable to amend the Bill in Committee because they were in a minority. Therefore, the Bill would not be debated on Report. A number of us were very concerned about that.

I raised the matter in the House some weeks ago, because I had a large number of amendments to table in my constituents' interests. However, when I looked at "Erskine May" and checked with our Clerks, I found that there could be only a Third reading, at which hon. Members would be able to present insubstantial verbal amendments. We would not be able to present written amendments, which might have protected thousands of jobs in our area, allowed us to talk about the problems of the unsafe mining industry in South Africa and maintain our saner energy courses. None of those amendments would have been, or will be, possible. That is the single extra rule which needs to be changed, in addition to the commendable ones that are already proposed in the package.

The North Killingholme Cargo Terminal Bill will proceed to the Report stage because, due to the efforts of my hon. Friends, one amendment was accepted. It is interesting that there are two Bills for two closely adjacent ports, but one will be subject to detailed and lengthy debates on amendments, and the other will not. The promoters of one of those Bills will feel badly done by. I

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am not actually suggesting that we should have a great deal of sympathy with the Bills' promoters. I have very little sympathy with them because it was an abuse to send hon. Members on free trips to South Africa to ensure that they took a slightly rosier view of the Bill than they otherwise might have done.

Mr. Spearing : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his detailed exposition of the importance of the two Bills. As both Bills contained matters of great public importance, were they not unsuitable for private legislation?

Mr. Hardy : My hon. Friend is right. I do not dissent from the view that the private Bill procedure was inappropriate in those cases. I made that point clear in a long speech during the debates on one of the Bills. Unfortunately, we have got them, and one of them may not have been properly considered as a consequence of the inadequacy of the present rules.

I shall not take up much more time because several other hon. Members wish to speak and I have made my point. I shall end with another tribute to the hon. Member for New Forest, who has brought to the House a valuable report, which will serve Parliament well for a long time to come. In the interests of the community as well as the individual, the Government must accept the report in its entirety and ensure that the changes that it produces are not embarrassed or blocked by party calculation. On this matter, the will of the House and the need of the nation are similar.

8.45 pm

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) : I should like to follow the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) with my own broad and warm support for the conclusions of the Joint Committee--that is no mere formality on my part as I am sure it was not for other hon. Members. I join other hon. Members in expressing my warm appreciation to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) and the members of his Committee on a job extremely well done.

The private Bill procedures as has been clearly shown in today's debate, are much in need of a radical overhaul. This is a timely moment for that to be done, given the major and controversial private Bills which are with us and are likely to be with us soon. The House owes a considerable debt to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest and the members of his Committee.

Hon. Members are divided on this matter but the division does not run between the red stripes on the Floor of the House but between those hon. Members who have practical, first-hand experience of the use of private Bill procedures to drive through controversial or unwelcome developments in their own constituencies, and those hon. Members for whom that particular experience is purely theoretical. We very much appreciate the open- mindedness of the Leader of the House in his opening speech. If his constituency of Colchester, South and Maldon was threatened with having a private Bill being driven through by the private Bill procedures, to dump nuclear waste in landfill sites, he might be a trifle more sceptical about the rights of objectors under private Bill procedures than he was in his opening remarks. Those of us who have such

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direct constituency experience know that these procedures leave a lot to be desired in giving proper rights of objection to our constituents.

I shall focus on an area which is of concern to us in Kent, south-east London and my own constituency of Tonbridge and Malling--the crucial interaction of private Bill procedures with the planning process. Although we all have planning decisions which we do not like in our own constituencies from time to time, most of us would accept that, by and large, the planning procedures operate well. They are generally perceived to be operated fairly because they have a strong local content, a strong devolution locally to elected representatives and a strong and easy means of participation and consultation with the people who are likely to be most closely affected by them on the ground.

The great weakness of the private Bill procedures, and the scepticism and fear of them locally, is that for major and highly contentious developments such as a high-speed railway line through green fields, those local people who would most expect to be consulted, have procedures explained to them and be given a genuine opportunity for making their objections felt, find that the traditional means of their involvement in the planning process have been taken away from them. Instead, they are left with a new process, removed from them locally, which makes it difficult for them to participate practically in the process. That is the nub of the problem. I believe that the Committee is entirely right to try to ensure that that does not happen in future, and that for major controversial applications we revert more to the normal planning processes.

It is an illusion that the private Bill procedure gives local people the same rights that they would have in the normal planning process. I do not think that those affected by controversial decisions made in the private Bill procedure would endorse such a view. A Select Committee charged with such a responsibility is bound not to be able to provide as much time as an inspector working full time in a public inquiry ; it will not be able to go into the same detail.

Opportunities to object directly to Select Committee members are very limited. Elected local representatives have no direct involvement in the decision-making process : they are cut off from it completely. As for parliamentary representatives, although those with direct constituency interests can make their views known on Second Reading and on the Floor of the House, they are debarred from participation in the Committee's proceedings.

On 13 April, my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport answered a question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Medway (Dame P. Fenner) about the possibility of British Rail's promoting a private Bill for the high- speed line. He said :

"Objectors have the opportunity to petition against the Bill to Select Committees of both Houses of Parliament, who have the power to amend the Bill in response to the petitions received. This provides an appropriate mechanism for objections to British Rail's proposals to be considered if they have not been resolved in consultations prior to the Bill's introduction."--[ Official Report, 13 April 1989 ; Vol. 150, c. 648. ]

I disagree. In my view the Select Committee procedure is far from being an appropriate mechanism for the hearing

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of objections, and for giving people confidence that their views are being seriously assessed. I strongly endorse recommendation 5, which states :

"In principle, in cases where planning considerations are dominant, all works proposals for which private Bill approval is presently required should instead be authorised through non-parliamentary procedures involving the holding, where necessary, of a public local inquiry into objections."

Our sceptism in Kent about the private Bill procedure is reinforced by our experience with the Channel Tunnel Bill. Let me make it clear that I am in no way criticising Members on either side of the House who served on that Bill ; they undoubtedly did all that they could to assess the project. The fact remains, however, that the Bill went through the whole private Bill procedure and was ultimately approved by the House on the basis of one totally fundamental and incorrect statement made by British Rail. That statement was that there were no plans to build a new railway line through Kent. As a result the Bill was passed with little difficulty, but had there been a public inquiry I do not believe that British Rail's bland statement would have withstood the rigours that such an inquiry can involve. I very much hope that considerations will be given to a public inquiry procedure in future for such Bills, particularly for a high-speed line Bill, and that in that instance the inquiry could be held in Kent and south-east London. The Bill would be presented in the normal way : I accept that British Rail could not obtain all the statutory powers that it would need to construct such a line through the normal planning process, and would need wider powers which can be conferred only through parliamentary legislation and the private Bill procedure. I feel, however, that British Rail--and, indeed, my right hon. Friend and hon. Friends in the Department of Transport--would be well advised to dovetail with the normal private Bill procedure a means of holding a full inquiry in Kent and south-east London. The process will not be credible locally if the Select Committee members hold a few meetings in Kent and a few in south-east London--as happened with the Channel Tunnel Bill--return to Westminster and then produce their report. The fact is that, with the best will in the world, Members of Parliament cannot devote enough time to performing the sort of local inquiry job that is necessary on such occasions. A properly staffed inspector is needed, who can provide a service eight hours a day, five days a week, listening to all objections and evalutating them.

I believe that a Select Committee should be empowered to establish such an inspector to carry out a public inquiry, within a period defined by the Committee. Such an inspector must have the time and resources to report back to the Committee. That, I believe, can be done without prejudicing the basic timetable for a high-speed line Bill. I have taken to heart what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate). There can be no question of giving an inspector the opportunity to hear representations on a variety of alternative routes : that would bring back the serious blight problem from which we in Kent have escaped. There is, however, a sensible role for such an inspector to play.

In the case of the high-speed line, the inspector would make his report only in the context of the particular route that British Rail proposes. That would not only ensure that the House carried out its proper functions in relation to private legislation, but provide a new dimension in

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which those affected by such proposals could have their objections heard in a local framework. They would present oral or written evidence, and the report would be submitted to the Select Committee here. Such a combination of procedures could, I think, deal with the deficiencies highlighted in the Joint Committee's report. A specific feature of the high-speed line proposal directly affects my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), who was here earlier in the debate. That is the possibility of the construction of a new station on a green-field site in the mid-Kent area, the so-called Mid-Kent Parkway station. That is solely a planning matter ; it is not integral to the high-speed line. It is a straight development proposal, not very different from any other large development proposal--for instance, an industrial or commercial proposal for an out-of-town shopping centre or an industrial trading estate, the kind of proposal that is dealt with every day of the week by planning authorities.

I would go further than the Committee : I think that such proposals should be dealt with very firmly, and always, through the local planning system. There is no case for a Committee of the House to be involved in a development which would be an optional extra for this high-sped line. I hope that it will not form any part of the British Rail Bill and that it will be dealt with exclusively through the normal planning process.

I was heartened by paragraph 21 of the memorandum that the Lord President presented to the Joint Committee, which it considered in its proceedings of 16 December 1987. He said :

"The Government recognises however that on occasion the planning aspects of schemes of the type described in paragraph 19 can be very significant and controversial. In one or two exceptional cases over the years, the Government has used its influence, directly with the promoter, to secure the consideration of the planning aspects of the scheme at a public inquiry under the Planning Acts. In appropriate cases, it would be prepared to do so again, or in extremis to ask Parliament to block the Bill".

I very much welcome that statement. The Government should regard the high- speed line Bill as an appropriate case. They should recognise that such a Bill will be a uniquely controversial and contentious piece of legislation, and they should use their influence with the promoters to ensure a public inquiry, within defined limits, on certain aspects of it.

9.1 pm

Mr. Pat Wall (Bradford, North) : This take note debate on the Joint Committee's report on private Bill procedure is very much a matter for old parliamentary hands and for those well versed in the intricacies of parliamentary procedure, so it is with some trepidation that I intervene in the debate.

I welcome the general content of the report. I can see the problems arising from the growing number of private Bills before the House. I am also aware of the controversy among hon. Members and the public in general over the amount of lobbying and the number of consultants in the House at present. As has already been demonstrated, the vast majority of private Bills are concerned with private interests and, although I accuse no one of anything, they may lead to many attempts to influence hon. Members on behalf of commercial interests. As a member of a Committee considering a private Bill from October to the beginning of February, I could see

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that problems caused for ordinary petitioners on private Bills when it came to the cost of travel to London, the expense of overnight accommodation and, above all, the time taken up.

I would like to speak from my own experience of a Committee considering a private Bill and to begin with a quotation from the report of the Joint Committee in paragraph 32 at the top of page 14 :

" Private bills are not in the opinion of the Committee an appropriate system for authorising works of purely local significance. The Committee would regard the transfer of power from Parliament in these cases not as a substantial constitutional shift, but as a logical step in a pattern of historical development and a necessary response to modern requirements."

While I agree with that statement, it does not necessarily follow that anything that is of much wider national significance ought to be the subject of a private Bill. I was a member of the Committee that considered the opposed private Bills, the Associated British Ports (No. 2) Bill and the North Killingholme Cargo Terminal Bill. Such was the complexity and political nature of the Bill that, at the conclusion of its consideration of the No. 2 Ports Bill, the Committee felt it necessary to present to the House a special report.

I would like to read from that report--it may unfortunately be a little boring--two paragraphs to make my point. The first is paragraph 20 :

"The Committee decided unanimously that if the petitioners' assessment of the amount of coal likely to be imported through Immingham proves correct, then the consequences for the British coal industry could be, to use the word employed by Counsel for the Coalfield Communities Campaign, horrendous.' Those consequences might include the closure of as many 15 collieries, the loss of 15, 000 jobs, the permanent sterilization of energy resources, and knock on' effects on local communities across Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and South Yorkshire. The Committee is aware of the dangers of allowing the import of coal on this scale, and is very sympathetic to the petitioners in the case they made concerning this".

I have read that not because I want to go into the details of the Committee's discussion, but to emphasise that this private Bill Committee of four hon. Members was concerned with issues of enormous national significance. It was concerned with the not insignificant effect of imports on the balance of trade. It was concerned with the whole question of energy policy, which has been the subject of great debate in Select Committee. It sat at a time when the privatisation of electricity generation was being discussed. The Bill has also markedly affected the long-standing agreement between the nationalised Central Electricity Generating Board and British Coal on contracts for coal-fired power stations. It has greatly affected the job prospects and economies of a large part of the Midlands and Yorkshire.

These are tendentious national issues and, when it comes to the relationship between the Government and the mining communities, issues of real passion.

I was struck by the fact that the First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means said, correctly, that hon. Members who serve on private Bill Committees must do so in a completely disinterested way. It is impossible for any hon. Member coming to the House as a political animal,

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representing a political party, to be completely disinterested when debating national policy and controversies of such a nature. It shows that this sort of matter should not be the property of a private Bill Committee.

This was the feeling of all four members of the Committee on which I served, two Conservative Members and two Labour Members, and I would like to quote from the report because it makes the point a little more clearly :

"The petitioners' arguments put the Committee in a position of great difficulty. In effect we were invited to make a strategic decision affecting United Kingdom energy policy, and one which affects also Britain's general policy on trade, because it relates to whether protectionist measures are justifiable to safeguard the interests of an important sector of British industry. We do not consider that this is an appropriate decision to be taken by a small committee consisting of four backbench MPs, three of whom are serving in their first Parliament. It is a great burden of responsibility to place upon a private Bill committee. There has been no technical breach of private Bill procedure, but we do consider that that procedure has been stretched to its limits by the various arguments advanced before the Committee. The decisions on energy and trade policy we have been invited to take are, in our opinion, national decisions which are the ultimate responsibility of the national government."

We had two Bills before the one Committee. As the procedure is that the chairmanship of Bill Committee goes alternately to the two major parties, it meant that both Bills were considered under one chairman, who had a casting vote. This meant a built-in majority for the Government in the Committee. There were no objections. I am not suggesting that there was any impropriety, but it is regrettable that such a controversial issue was handled in that way.

I have been a Member of Parliament for about 22 months. When I reached the third month of sitting for three days a week on the Bill--representing, as I do, a constituency with the lowest rates of pay in Britain and with more than its fair share of social deprivation, which involves a large burden of correspondence and case work--I began to feel that my initials were "M.U.G." and that my surname had been changed to "Naive." I understand now why so few hon. Members volunteer to serve on private Bill Committees, particularly Members with large caseloads.

Only four Members serve on those Committees. The quorum is three. I am glad that one of the recommendations is that the quorum should be changed. It meant, in my case, that if one member of the Committee was not present I could not indulge my craving for nicotine. That may have been good for my health, as a nicotine addict. However, it also meant that the normal human function of going to the lavatory became a major issue if one member of the Committee was absent. Bewigged ladies and gentlemen were being paid enormous sums of money an hour. Even a five-minute visit to the gents meant that one was probably depriving them of several hundreds of pounds in fees. That is nonsense.

I support the increase in the number of members to five. Enormous pressure is put on the Chairman. He has the casting vote, in certain circumstances. A Committee of five members would be much fairer and much more reasonable. However, I should be prepared to support the recommendation only if it meant that the 3:2 majority, particularly on controversial Bills, alternated, just as the chairmanship alternates now. If it meant a built-in Government majority, few Opposition Members would be prepared to sit on such Committees.

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We sat for the longest time for many years on a private Bill. At the end of our deliberations we thought that we might get into "The Guinness Book of Records." However, I foresee that the King's Cross development and the Channel tunnel will lead to the deletion of our names from that book, even before it is printed.

9.12 pm

Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks) : I support what all hon. Members have said about the main thrust of the report. It is comprehensive and detailed. It highlights the fact that our present methods of handling legislation have become increasingly out of date and unsatisfactory. That is not surprising, bearing in mind historical development of the private Bill procedure at a time when few, if any, of the present planning procedures were in place. I hope that the fact that the recommendations have been so strongly supported will encourage my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to seek their rapid implementation.

Recommendation 1 reads :

"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."

It is important that we should limit the number of private Bills and that on Second Reading greater attention should be paid to whether it is correct that the Bill ought in fact to be before the House.

I support those hon. Members who argue strongly in support of recommendation 5, which relates to planning considerations. There is a strong argument for taking private Bills, where there is a dominant planning element, out of the planning procedure.

I also support the view that an easily digestible handbook on private Bill procedure ought to be made available. It is difficult for the general public to understand parliamentary procedure. The report suggests that Members of Parliament need a handbook. It should also be made available to the public. It must be written in plain English that can be easily understood.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) referred to the fears of the public if they come as petitioners before a Committee on private Bills. The aura of this place, the limited facilities for doing any work here as petitioners and the difficulty of coming to Parliament are obstacles in the way of petitioners making their case adequately, compared with their position at a public inquiry that is held locally, in familiar surroundings and on familiar ground. People feel more confident in those circumstances.

That is not to imply that our current procedures cannot be turned to good account. I do not intend to refer to Kent in great detail, since other hon. Members have referred to this. I accept that we shall have to deal with the high-speed link within the present legislative framework. There are many ways in which the Bill could be delayed. Hon. Members can put pressure on the promoter of the Bill, British Rail, to make concessions so as to meet the general concerns of our constituents.

The radical proposal of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling deserves to be fully considered by the Government. He has suggested that the Committee that deals with petitions against the high-speed rail link should be provided with greater resources. The final decision will ultimately be made by the House. However, my right hon. Friend has suggested that an inspector should conduct a public inquiry within a time

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