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Mr. Galloway : Two of the members of the Committee have been reselected.

Mr. Banks : I am relieved to hear that at least two of them have been reselected. I did not mean to imply that there was any intentional disservice to the petitioners. I merely wish to know that the petitioners' case is heard to the maximum effect and by the full membership of the Committee. Ultimately, all four members will vote, whether or not they all heard the cases put by the various petitioners.

We are in this mess because Private Bill procedures have been tested to destruction. Clearly they are completely inappropriate for a measure as important as the King's Cross Railways Bill and the location of the second London terminal for the Channel tunnel and associated infrastructure, which is the largest capital investment in transportation this century in this country

Mr. Cormack : The largest ever.

Mr. Banks : That is even longer than this century. I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman, who is so precise on these matters.

The private Bill procedure is not the way to deal with a Bill such as this. The Government have walked away from a major strategic decision. I have been to see the Minister and he has been courtesy itself, but he has never accepted that the decision is so important that it should be taken by the Government and not left to four members of a Committee who have had the decision inflicted upon them. They will have to listen to hours and hours of petitions. This is a strategic decision, and the responsibility should be taken by the Government.

The Government are to blame as well as British Rail, but they are doubly to blame because they have allowed private Bill procedures to be used by British Rail on such a significant development and because they have refused to bring the report on private Bill procedure to the House so that we can vote on it.

I could make the case that we should have the terminal at Stratford where there is no opposition to it, unlike at King's Cross. We are waiting to greet the construction.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd) : Order.

Mr. Banks : I know that that goes somewhat beyond the terms of the motion, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am coming to my peroration, my last sentence.

The hon. Member for Tatton knows our motives for opposing the motion. This debate and the pressures that have been put on the Committee have reminded us yet again that the private Bill procedure is inappropriate and overstretched. If we obtain a debate on it, the Committee members will have served us well, as they have done in the Committee. I repeat that I shall oppose the recommendation tonight. 8.6 pm

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent) : I begin by applauding the Committee for both its assiduity and its integrity. Those of us who are anxious about British Rail's proposals, both in this Bill and in the others that it proposes to bring forward, are extremely grateful to the Committee for the way in which it has forced British Rail to address some of the questions that, in its usual slovenly

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way, it would have preferred to slide past the Committee in the miasma that is characteristic of its normal proceedings. I pay a grateful tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) and his colleagues on the Committee.

I served on a Committee on a private Bill under the scrupulous and assiduous chairmanship of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks). He has said that he understands what is involved, and from my personal experience I know that that is true. He said that hon. Members, or at least most of them, can read, so it could be argued that all that is needed is a transcript. Why should we bother to have a Committee of Members of Parliament when it would be cheaper for professionalsto argue out the matter and to make a decision based on the transcript of those discussions?

That argument under-estimates the importance of cross-examination by members of the Committee. As my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) said, one could ask : if the quorum is to be reduced by one, why not reduce it again? If it was reduced again by a third, one would obtain a recurring decimal--except, in this case, it would not be a recurring decimal, but a spasmodic decimal. The effect of reducing the quorum would be that people would not come so often. I am surprised that the members of the Committee want relief. The proceedings have almost all the ingredients that one could possibly wish for in the life of a Member of Parliament. First, they are complex. We have heard how many days the board of British Rail took to present its evidence. The numbers of days was greatly increased by the need for British Rail to re-present and in some cases re- re-present evidence. The matter is immensely complex and we probably need to have a balance of hon. Members to scrutinise it thoroughly.

The Bill deals with matters of major importance. Often in this place we find ourselves working hard on matters which, sub specie aeternitatis, are of no importance whatever. British Rail is seeking to override carefully constituted protection for the heritage and the environment. Scheduled buildings are not only of major importance in the context of King's Cross but of fundamental importance to the protection of the British environment from John o' Groats to Land's End. If a private undertaking can use the private Bill procedure to demolish the protection of scheduled buildings, there is no safety for any of our landmarks. We may find that the Dean and his bus affiliation in Salisbury would use the private Bill procedure to demolish the cathedral to allow more parking.

The Bill has also provided all sorts of surprises, and it is always rather nice in an otherwise drab routine to have surprises. I am sure that every member of the Committee must have had a frisson of surprise when British Rail told the Committee that, in its brand new 21st-century station, the platforms would not be long enough to accommodate its brand new 21st- century trains and, so that the passengers are not prevented from getting off the trains, the driver will have to get off in the tunnel and walk back down the track. It has all been immensely entertaining. What could be more fun than to discern, for example, that British Rail wants a new station when it cannot give the Committee

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any firm assurance that it will have a line to get to the station? These are matters of burlesque amusement from which, when hon. Members reflect upon them, I am sure that they will not wish to be released.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) has made it abundantly clear that this is an outdated way of handling such major matters. Indeed, the debate is really about the clear and unmistakable evidence that major private Bills such as this can no longer be run in this way and that the promoters can no longer expect Members of Parliament to participate.

Before we get the essential changes that the Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure has previsaged, perhaps we should suggest one or two improvements. I wonder whether this motion would be before us if the timing of the Committee's sittings were to be changed. Why is the timing of the Committee primarily for the convenience of the legal profession? Why does the Committee not sit at times that would suit Members of Parliament, so that hon. Members could come to Question Time and take part in some of the more lively parts of the parliamentary day?

Mr. Neil Hamilton : Perhaps I can give my hon. Friend some suggestions. It is, of course, open to the Committee to set its own normal sitting hours. One of the problems that we have faced during our proceedings when we have wished to sit later in the afternoon is a shortage of shorthand writers. If there is nobody to transcribe what is said, the Committee is unable to sit. That is something else to which the House should turn its attention.

Mr. Rowe : I am both grateful for and appalled by that intervention. That seems a further example of the extraordinarily incompetent way in which we run our own affairs if we cannot so structure our organisation that we can arrange the timetable to make it possible to run the proceedings of our House as they should be run.

It would considerably benefit peititioners if they could meet the Committee at a time that is not during their normal working hours. I suspect that many petitioners have to take time off work and often even have to accept loss of earnings simply to come here to give evidence. What is more, because it is almost impossible for the Committee to predict exactly how long any sitting will last, no doubt the petitioners come and--like out- patients at some of our hospitals--go away disappointed, not having seen the doctor. If we were to suggest altering the procedures of the House so that such a Committee could sit at times that suit Members of Parliament, perhaps we might have less difficulty with the Committee.

The procedure that we are discussing was designed in the 19th century to assist relatively weak private railway companies to override the spoiling tactics and the enormous power of the large landowners. It is no longer an appropriate vehicle for a huge state monopoly that is seeking to override the weakness of individual housholders or, in the case of this British Rail Bill, to override the law of the land. It is wholly inappropriate.

I am not concerned only about the Bill ; I am concerned about the future. There is alleged to be coming--I do not really believe it because we have heard it all before--or there is the faint possibility that at some stage British Rail will bring before the House a Bill to connect the Channel tunnel to either London, Swanley, Ashford or somewhere. There is a faint chance that British Rail might devise some

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way of getting its trains from the Channel tunnel portal to--I can see that I am in trouble, Madam Deputy Speaker

Madam Deputy Speaker : Yes.

Mr. Rowe : If that were to happen, we would be faced with a Bill of such length and such complexity, affecting so many thousands of people and covering tens of miles from Dover to King's Cross or--more realistically-- to Stratford, that I believe that it would prove impossible to find hon. Members prepared to serve on such a Committee. As a high proportion of that Bill's content would relate to planning matters, the time is long overdue for the House to turn the report of the Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure into regulations before we get--if we ever get--the Channel tunnel link Bill.

8.16 pm

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : I speak because of the procedural matters involved, and also as an Islington Member of Parliament. My hon. Friends the Members for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) and for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) cannot be here tonight, but they are interested in the fate of King's Cross and, therefore, in the fate of this proposal.

Although I understand that the motion deals with the quorum of the private Bill Committee, other issues emanate from that, which are of great importance to the House. Other hon. Members have touched on the procedure of the private Bill Committee and on the public's right to know what is going on. I have been following this from a distance. Now that the Whips have left the Chamber, I can reveal to the House that I have never served on a private Bill Committee-- [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) is informing me that he is an agency-- [Interruption.] No, I beg his pardon, he is now a full Whip. Nevertheless, although I have never served on such a Committee, I have observed them from afar. I have been concerned that, so far, the Committee has sat for 33 days, and I have every sympathy for the hon. Members concerned. If I had to serve on a private Bill Committee that was dealing with a part of the country that was far away from London and of no direct concern to my constituents, and had to spend that amount of time on matters of no direct relevance to my area, I can understand that people in my constituency would say, "What on earth are you doing obsessing yourself with the Inverness Harbour Bill?"--or whatever.

I can understand both that and the frustrations of the hon. Members concerned. Although I have a great deal of sympathy with them and the House should have some sympathy with their problems, that is not to say that I shall vote for the motion, so they will have to suffer for a bit longer. Nevertheless, I hope that the House has listened carefully to what has been said and will consider the procedures involved.

In the past, I served as a local councillor. Indeed, I was the chair of a planning committee on a borough council. No borough councillor would get involved in such detail on a planning application or a planning procedure, because that is not the way in which local government works, so why should we expect Members of Parliament to go into the most enormous detail on planning matters?

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This abuse of the private Bill procedure is growing. The procedure was introduced as a form of planning control for major harbour and railway developments. It was the only form of planning control that existed at that time. There was no local government framework capable of dealing with planning, and Parliament deemed this an appropriate form of control.

There would be no point in going into how the railways were built and into the procedures that had to be followed. However, one has to ask whether, in this age, it is appropriate that an enormously important decision in respect of King's Cross, with ramifications far beyond King's Cross--indeed far beyond the railway network of this country : international ramifications--should be thrust upon four Members of this House, who are forced to give up virtually all other parliamentary and political activity to pursue the matter. The House must address itself to that problem, and I hope that it will. I hope that it will recognise that there is something fundamentally wrong with the existing procedures.

I have been involved in road inquiries in the past, and I expect that, if the Department of Transport's plans for my borough go forward, I shall be involved in such inquiries again. There is nothing particularly democratic about the public inquiry system, either. However, the advantage is that the applicant has to put all his cards on the table in advance.

One contrasts that with the case of the King's Cross Railways Bill, in which British Rail seems to make up the evidence as it goes along. Every day, it seems to come up with a new set of papers and a new set of plans, even if it cannot measure the length of a train and compare that with the length of a tunnel.

In the case of a public inquiry on a road or a major building, for example, the inspector reports to the Secretary of State, who makes the decision. The Secretary of State is not accountable for the decision, except to the extent that, theoretically, as Secretary of State he could be the subject of a motion of censure. There is something fundamentally wrong with decision-making as a whole. There are also, of course, the feelings in the community. I represent--Islington, North, which is slightly beyond King's Cross. Actually, the main line from King's Cross runs through it. The Department of Transport, through its consultants, has just put forward a proposal for the creation of a major road through Islington, down to King's Cross, and a road beyond that.

I realise that that matter goes slightly beyond the scope of our debate, but I make the point to underline the concern of the community about the passage of the King's Cross Railways Bill. Many people in Islington are genuinely very worried. They are worried about the size of the proposed development north of King's Cross, and they are worried about the procedures being adopted in respect of the Bill itself.

The Bill has been under consideration for, I think, 33 days--my hon. Friends may correct me if I am wrong--most of which time has been taken up by British Rail. As I said, British Rail has altered its course many times throughout the procedure, and it has not yet come up with a firm proposal for a line leading into King's Cross. It is discussing the provision of a station served by some very outdated tracks.

Indeed, at the moment trains could not get into the new King's Cross international terminal. There is no tunnel that could take them. So a station is being discussed

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virtually in isolation from a rail system that coud cope with the trains. That was pointed out earlier by the hon. Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe). For 33 days, British Rail has had very expensive representation--silks and all the rest--and goodness knows what the cost is. At the end of the day, we shall all have to pay the bill. The procedure involves Members of Parliament being taken away from the political activities for daytime sittings of the Committee. The local community, most of whom have other things to worry about, are unable to be represented, other than through local authorities or by community associations. Some people are making enormous sacrifices to represent them.

The Camden and Islington local authorities are now starting to present their views and their evidence. That evidence is very much out in the open, unlike the case presented by British Rail. Now we are told that it is an appropriate time to reduce the Committee quorum. I understand why the motion has been moved, but what message is to be given to the people of the borough that I represent? How are they to be told that the quorum is being changed, now that the applicants have completed their submission?

I know that it is not the intention of the hon. Members concerned, but one cannot escape the fact that the impression being given to the people in the community is that the views of the two local authorities, both of which are elected--the board of British Rail is not elected--of the local community association, of the King's Cross Railway Lands Group, and of all the other groups concerned are such that they can be dealt with by a smaller Committee. The message is inescapable : that they are less important than the British Rail evidence. I hope that the House will recognise that, if the quorum motion is passed, it will be very difficult to persuade people in the boroughs of Camden and Islington that their views and the views of others--many people are affected--are being taken seriously. It is not appropriate to go halfway through a Bill procedure and then change the quorum. If, when the Committee started, the quorum was three out of four, it should stay at that figure. In the light of all this, the Select Committee on Procedure may well bring forward a procedural proposal. That would be the appropriate time to make such a change. It would be appropriate to consider also the representation of the public at Committee meetings, the sitting times and other procedures. It is not appropriate to chop and change in the middle, because that is seen as unfair to the less well-financed people who are trying to put forward their views.

In future, we shall have to look much more seriously at the major questions arising from these matters. It seems to me that it is fundamentally wrong that a major planning decision such as this should be taken by a Committee of four hon. Members. The local authorities have a sort of walk-on part. They can collect evidence and put it forward. Local communities can collect evidence and put it forward. But a Committee of the House will decide one way or the other. As the hon. Member for Mid-Kent said, this procedure rides roughshod over many other things. The implications of the decision are enormous.

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As a separate matter, there is the enormous office development proposal north of King's Cross. In reality, of course, it is linked to the fate of the King's Cross station development itself ; one cannot separate the two. Nor can one escape the effects on south London constituencies and on Kent as a whole. If this major station complex is not approved, the railway line route south of London will have to be different ; if it is approved, the general direction of the railway line will be more or less set. One way or the other, the effect will be considerable.

I realise that the terms of the motion are quite narrow. However, as in the case of most things that are narrow, the deeper one goes, the wider one wishes they were.

Madam Deputy Speaker : Not in my case. The more I go into this, the more I realise that the hon. Member is straying. It has been a very good- humoured debate, but I wish that he would come back to the motion that was moved by the Chairman of Ways and Means.

Mr. Corbyn : I can only beg your pardon, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was not attempting to deviate one iota ; I was merely trying to explain the depth of feeling in Islington. People in every pub on the Caledonian road talk of little else than the King's Cross Railways Bill Committee. Indeed, the verbatim reports are passed from house to house. They are read as widely as the Islington Gazette.

Mr. Gerald Bowden (Dulwich) : And in Dulwich.

Mr. Corbyn : Yes, in Dulwich as well. One report that I have here is very boring, but some are very interesting and are widely read. I hope that, when the House makes its decision tonight, it will vote the motion down for the reason that I have given : that it is unsustainable, midway through a Committee, despite all the frustrations, which I understand, to change the rules. One cannot move the goal posts halfway through the game. The message that the House will give the people of Camden, Islington, the south London boroughs and Kent, which will all be affected, is that somehow there is one rule for British Rail and a different rule for everybody else. That is not good enough. It is not acceptable, and it will not be understood by people outside the House.

Another message from the debate is that there must be a serious examination of the private Bill procedure. It was never intended that planning decisions of international importance, in this case the biggest construction project that the country has ever seen, should be decided by four hon. Members, all of whom have other pressures on their time. I do not say that they have better things to do, but they have other things to do as Members of Parliament. Their experience on the Committee must have given them food for thought. I am always reminded that people who have served on juries for a long time during a major trial are given absolution by the judge at the end ; he says that they will never have to do jury service again. I hope that the four hon. Members on the Committee will be given absolution from serving on other private Bill committees. I hope that the Whips will read that in Hansard.

The issues are complex. A point of principle is involved. I hope that the House will reject the proposal before it and show that it intends to keep faith with the original procedure. That would give confidence to the people, community groups and local authorities now preparing to

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appear before the Committee that they will be subject to exactly the same rules as British Rail, rather than inferior terms of representation

8.30 pm

Mr. Gerald Bowden (Dulwich) : I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) and his colleagues for their service on the Committee. The whole House owes them a debt for their assiduous attendance and the conscientious way in which they have pursued their duties. In sympathising with their predicament, I fear that I cannot support the motion. It gives me no pleasure to say that, but the motion raises a constitutional point, a broad general point of policy and a particular point in this case before us.

On the general policy point, it would be wrong, as the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) said, to change the rules of the game during play, or to move the goal posts while the players are on the field. It would suggest that the party that had had the opportunity of presenting its case before a full Committee of four, or a quorum of three, was in a stronger, better and more prestigious position than those who present their case later to a lesser quorum. That would be wrong in law and in equity.

It is an important principle that justice should not only be done but be seen to be done. Although I have no doubt that the two hon. Members who would constitute the new quorum would discharge their duties with absolute integrity and objectivity, nevertheless it would appear that the petitioners were being short-changed. It is wrong to try to tamper with, or to make minor repairs to, the mechanism while the vehicle is still in motion. For that reason, if for no other, the motion should be rejected.

The motion illustrates the problems of piecemeal change. The House has had before it for some years a recommendation of the Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure. We have had an opportunity to take note, to digest and to debate it. I regret that that opportunity was missed by the powers that be in suggesting the changes that could be made to accommodate the real shortcomings in the procedure. The shortcomings are before us this evening, but the motion also highlights the misuse and abuse of private Bill procedure by sponsors such as British Rail, which is promoting the Bill under discussion. It is absurd that a Bill can be brought forward to develop a terminal in central London without any mention being made of the route or path to that destination. The Bill is so constricted and constrained that, should someone dare mention the route to the destination, he might well be called to order and would certainly not have the opportunity to appear before the Committee. To be able to make such a great development by the salami process of slicing off first King's Cross and then pieces through south-east London and Kent to the Channel tunnel terminal is wrong. If nothing more, the procedure and progress on the Bill show the inadequacy and shortcomings, and demonstrate that change is necessary.

Mr. Corbyn : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, before other Bills on rail development are promoted by British Rail, it should be forced to produce a detailed plan of the entire route programme and destinations for trains from the Channel tunnel, so that we may have an idea of

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the effect on Kent constituencies, the hon. Gentleman's constituency, my constituency and many others between London and the north of England?

Mr. Bowden : I welcome that intervention. It is a rare and happy occasion when the hon. Gentleman and I can agree so wholeheartedly. It is tragic that 33 days have been spent by the Committee listening to argument- -who knows, the Committee may spend another 33 days listening to further argument--and at the end of it the proposal of British Rail for the route may be turned down by the House, or an alternative proposal may run parallel to it. At the end, all the work of the Committee might be rendered redundant and obsolete because the proposal for the development of King's Cross did not fit in with the chosen route.

That shows the utter waste of public and private money in following a procedure which does nothing to help the country at large but does everything to facilitate British Rail in trying to develop, in an inefficient and secretive way, a Channel tunnel rail link to connect the whole of the United Kingdom with continental Europe.

Mr. Corbyn : I promise that this will be the last intervention. Of course, there is a fear that the Bill will be entirely abortive. That is possible. I understand that we are debating only the quorum of the Committee. In that respect, the quorum would then be dealing with a Bill that was about to be aborted. In the meantime, many people would have lost much money on property deals in the area.

Mr. Bowden : I am concerned about the waste of public money. I do not have quite the same concern about the speculation of private money. At the same time, I am concerned about the blight on so many properties, families and communities. The stress and anxiety that the uncertainty has caused are to be deprecated. That demonstrates more than anything else the need to change the private Bill procedure which is being so misused and abused.

I recognise the difficulties that my hon. Friends and other hon. Members on the Committee are experiencing in neglecting by necessity the needs of their constituents and their own parliamentary duties in the House, and I have no wish personally to prolong their agony. However, it is essential that, if we are pursuing the proposal to develop King's Cross, it should be done on an equal footing for all parties. On that basis, I cannot support the motion.

8.39 pm

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East) : I am opposed to the private Bill procedure, for many of the reasons mentioned by hon. Members from both sides of the House in relation to its general operation. Traditionally, Parliament dealt with private Bills, and public Bills only later came in on a more general and wider basis. We should now have moved on from private Bills, because society has changed so much.

A provision that was right for small traders, the establishment of charters and other provisions seems entirely inappropriate in the modern age. Something that was used by the forces of the petty bourgeois and is now used by the big bourgeois and large corporations, will inevitably be abused. The procedures that were outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) in terms of the report of the Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure should be seriously considered

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and responded to. Measures for the provision of transport such as the one before us should be matters for the public Bill procedure.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford) : Is the hon. Gentleman saying that he believes that matters that fall within private Bill procedure should be dealt with by statutory instrument? If so, will he acknowledge that that would deprive legitimate objecters of the opportunity to put forward issues in Parliament, before a parliamentary Committee, that are of relevance to them in their ordinary daily lives?

Mr. Barnes : An interesting discussion has been taking place. Earlier, hon. Members outlined some of the items contained in the Joint Committee's report that try to handle some of these problems. Although I generally find a great deal in the private Bill procedure obnoxious, I do not deny that there might be specific and limited provisions for which the procedure might be appropriate, if some of the checks and balances suggested in the Committee's report were brought forward.

Mr. Cash : In other words, the hon. Gentleman agrees that the private Bill procedure, with modifications, has his support.

Mr. Barnes : Basically, the major items that have been brought forward as private Bills are an abuse of the House, although they might be in line with the tradition of private Bills that came before 1800. They might have some scope for use if they are carefully checked and controlled. However, our major concern is the abuse of such procedures by strong outside organisations when alternative avenues are available such as the public Bill and planning agreements.

Mr. Gerald Bowden : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if a railway network is planned which is to cover the whole of the United Kingdom and open up every region of that kingdom to continental Europe, it goes above the normal scope and confines of private Bill procedure and should be dealt with in something wider?

Mr. Barnes : I agree with that. Essentially, the private Bill procedure is increasingly used for matters that it was not developed to handle. The case in which the planning agreements should have been used was briefly mentioned ; it involved the two Humber port Bills. The investigation, questioning and public inquiries that they involved should have taken place in the Humber area, not the House. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden) that we are not in the business of attempting a minor, piecemeal adjustment to an unfair system. We should be worried about the suggestion to reduce the quorum, because that would allow us to bumble on with the measure, rather than face up to the transformation that is required.

Other proposals could be put in front of us to deal with a crisis that might occur in the Committee, and they would not produce the same piecemeal adjustment that leads to this sort of system going on and on, as it has. For example, if Committee Members come under too much pressure and experience mental fatigue because of the time involved--I agree that they bear a terrible burden--the House could

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swop the membership of the Committee. I know that that is not entirely desirable and problems will arise from it. However, it happens elsewhere.

I have been on a Select Committee that has been preparing a report that is shortly to be published. I came to the Committee relatively near the end of procedures, when a great deal of work had already been done. I was not involved in any voting because we reached unanimous decisions. I was able, at least towards the end of the Committee, to make a contribution and assist in reaching those unanimous decisions. It is possible, at the halfway stage, for someone else to be drafted in if there is a specific problem. It has been said that hon. Members can read and do not always need counsel to give them detailed information. They can also read the past reports and details of the Committee so that they can make a significant contribution, together with the three other members, to the Committee's final decision.

It would be possible to have a reform in line with the provisions contained in the Committee report that could be seen as an advancement. If there is a massive problem for the Committee to sustain its quorum of three, it could be extended to a Committee of five Members.

I have served on only one such Committee. It lasted for about eight days and dealt with the Birmingham City Council (No. 2) Bill concerning the road race in that district. If a problem arose over the provision we are discussing, some hon. Members here tonight who have revealed that they have never been involved in such procedure could offer to take up the fifth position if we decide that that is a viable alternative.

8.48 pm

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham) : On the face of it, the proposition to reduce a quorum from three to two is the narrowest of procedural points, and I am sure that I would be brought to order if I sought too stray to far from it. However, tonight's debate has shown beyond doubt that that small procedural matter arises only because of some major principles--a confusion of principles--stemming largely from Ministers.

We would not be in this position if we had thought out clearly the strategy we were adopting on railway policy, particularly with regard to the Channel tunnel rail link. If we had clearly thought out our approach to major planning matters, particularly in the light of the report of the Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure, we should not be in this position.

Inevitably, when our principles become confused and our hypotheses muddled, we get into trouble, as we are now. If my right hon. and hon. Friends do not heed the problem we are facing, they should think of the problems that we are likely to face when we come to the further legislation referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton). He spoke of the next major Bill directly relevant to this proposition--that dealing with the high-speed rail link.

If hon. Members on the private Bill Committee are finding themselves in difficulty, imagine the problems that the House will face when we come to a Bill of such immensity and complexity that it will make the King's Cross Railways Bill seem the most modest of propositions. If we do not get this right, how shall we face further proposals of this kind? It is a muddle and the House

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should not try to resolve it by passing a motion in an attempt to put a plaster on what I would call a gaping wound.

I come to the fundamental problem about planning. It is preposterous--the absurdity of it has been made clear tonight--that a planning matter of this magnitude should be determined by a Committee of four Members. It is even more absurd to suggest that that number should be reduced on occasions to two. Because it is an absurd proposition, the House should not accept it.

The Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure tackled the proposition head on and concluded that major planning matters of this kind were inappropriate to be dealt with by this method. The House has had that report for some time, and its conclusions commanded general support from the Front Benches. Its proposals were probably torpedoed in Whitehall by the large number of parliamentary draftsmen who have great skills in handling this procedure. I do not think that politically there were any arguments against what was proposed. If we are to deal sensibly with major planning matters of great concern to the British people, we must get the procedures right, and they are not right at present.

Even if we accepted the Select Committee's report on private Bill procedure, it would not necessarily help us with Bills of this kind. It would still be a matter to be determined by the Government whether the King's Cross proposals--or, indeed, a high-speed rail link proposal--should be dealt with by the planning procedures outside the House, by the hybrid Bill procedure in the House or by a special development order. Those are still political decisions, but it is clear that the present procedure is totally inappropriate for a matter of this magnitude.

Hence, our first mistake has been not to face up to the planning matters. We also have it wrong in terms of the railways, because it is fundamentally ridiculous that a small Committee of four Members--reduced to two on certain occasions--should have almost the power of life and death over something that the Government regard as critical--the hub of the ultimate high-speed rail link linking the Channel tunnel and the rest of the United Kingdom.

That is a wrong proposition. It is a matter of public policy, and the Government should have determined at a much earlier stage that it was a matter of public policy, that the Government were involved and that it should have been a hybrid Bill. A hybrid Bill would have allowed us to avoid the sort of problems that we are now facing, for we would have had a larger Committee, the problems of a quorum would have been avoided and there would have been no difficulty over attendance. The Channel Tunnel Bill is evidence of that.

There are disadvantages and advantages in all procedures, but we would not be in the position in which we find ourselves today if the Government had faced up to that responsibility. They will have to face up to it when we come to further legislation, in relation particularly to the high-speed link. So again we have a muddle, and it has produced the problem that, we face.

I had the privilege--if that is the word--of serving on a similar Committee, through it was not quite so long. I was Chairman of the Committee that dealt with the Ginns and Gutteridge Crematorium Bill, and deliberated for 26 days. I learned a lot about the burning of bodies, about smells and many other things, and, while it probably did not contribute much to my political knowledge, it has

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resulted in my being sympathetic to those who serve on the Committee with which we are now concerned. One appreciates the difficulties that they face.

I also had the privilege of serving on the Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure, and, because of that, I reached a different conclusion from that reached by my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton), who selected a quotation from the report emphasising why it was difficult for four Members to stay permanently on a Committee. The conclusion that that Select Committee reached was contrary to the proposition that we are facing today.

Our proposal--I gather that most people are in favour of the conclusions of the report--was not that we should allow the quorum ever to be reduced to two : it was that the Committee should be increased to five and that the quorum should stay at three, which is the quorum that we have now. If we are minded to implement the Select Committee's report, we must not reduce the quorum to two. The proposition was clearly that it should remain at three, but that the size of the Committee be increased to five.

A further important recommendation was that the members of such private Bill Committees should be drawn from a large panel of Members who would, in effect, be volunteers at the beginning of a Session to serve on such Committees. They would volunteer because they felt that they could spare the time or give priority to such Committees or because they enjoyed them. Many hon. Members enjoy private Bill Committee work, and I do not think that there would be a problem in having such a panel. It must be better to have volunteers rather than pressed men.

I am proud to have served on that Select Committee, and its report, in my view, is one of the best documents the House has produced. It added up to a valuable package. It would have allowed the House to avoid many of the problems that we face today. It would have resulted in better decisions and given greater justice to petitioners and others. Therefore, it would be wrong tonight to deal with the small problem that has arisen in this case and ignore the recommendations of the Select Committee. We should implement the report as a whole. I agree with those who say that it is wrong in the middle of proceedings suddenly to change the rules. It is all very well for my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton--he was out of the Chamber when I expressed my admiration for the service that he has given--to say that the petitioners will not lose. He has not explained why they would not lose by the Committee being reduced from four to two. Is he saying that at no time is the quality of decision-making by four superior to that of two? If so, we should always have had a quorum of two. I cannot understand his argument.

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