Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : I sympathise with the situation of the members of the hon. Gentleman's Committee. I have sat on and chaired, I think, five private Bill Committees and I understand his position, even though I shall be opposing what he proposes. He has just mentioned that the petitioners are about to start making their case. Does he think that they will be disadvantaged by this move, because the promoter, British Rail, has had the opportunity of a quorum of three, whereas now the petitioners will have a quorum of only two?
Mr. Hamilton : The hon. Gentleman may like to know that it is not necessarily an advantage to those making speeches that they be heard ; in some cases it may be the opposite. However, I take the point that he has raised and assure him that, in our opinion, the petitioners will not be disadvantaged by the proposal. If we believed that they would be, I should not be standing here now advocating that the motion be passed.
A full record of the proceedings is taken every day and the transcript is available the following morning. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we have been assiduous throughout the proceedings on the Bill in testing with some vigour the assertions of British Rail. I do not think that the representatives of British Rail would say that every day has been an agreeable experience, as they have been subjected to the penetrating glares and cross-examination of the members of the Committee.
Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham) : If it is not a disadvantage to any party for the quorum to be reduced from three to two, and my hon. Friend advanced the case that a good transcript was available to other hon. Members, why not reduce the quorum to one?
Mr. Hamilton : I appreciate that my hon. Friend thinks that autocracy is the best system of government, and I am sure that many hon. Members have sympathy with that. However, it is a question of degree. From time to time, it is necessary to adjourn the Committee, merely for a few moments, for an hon. Member to make a telephone call, or to perform some other function that it would be too indecorous to mention. For that reason we tabled the motion, and we also recognise that hon. Members have other duties in the House and outside, and it is our opinion
Column 1074that, on balance, this one exception to the general rule ought to be allowed, on the ground of the length of time that the Committee has been sitting.
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) : I can sympathise with the dilemma of the Committee, because I have been a Chairman of a Select Committee, although it did not have to sit as long as the hon. Gentleman's Committee. Does he agree that the problem that the Committee faces and that the House is considering tonight--I believe the problem has applied to other Bills in the past--is that Bills of this description come to the House without being preceded by other procedures? This type of private Bill deals indirectly with matters of public concern that it was not initially meant to deal with. There is a deep-seated difficulty over the nature of the promoter's objectives rather than any shortcoming in the procedures of the House.
Mr. Hamilton : I believe that procedural alterations could be made to shorten the time for which Committees sit. I believe that, if there were a procedure such as a summons for directions in cases before the High Court, to examine which witnesses and the nature of the evidence to be called and other such relevant questions, that might shorten the length of time for which the Committee sits without disadvantage to the promoters or the petitioners on the Bill. There are other options that one could mention.
I have a great deal of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I know that he is a distinguished Chairman of a Committee, as is the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks).
This request is not without precedent, although precedents are not apposite to cover the case of the Committee on which I sit. Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North) rose --
Mr. Hamilton : Would my hon. Friend permit me to make a little more progress with my speech? I hope that the debate will not last as long as the Committee has been sitting, and I want to allow other hon. Members to speak. I hope that my hon. Friend will be patient and perhaps intervene later.
Motions to reduce a quorum on Committees on private Bills have been put before. For example, in 1965 in the Committee examining the Covent Garden Market Bill, one of the hon. Members was taken seriously ill early in the proceedings and the quorum was reduced. In 1986, during the Committee on the Felixstowe Dock and Railway Bill, the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) refused to serve and no other Opposition Member could be found to take her place, so the quorum was also reduced then.
There are not many precedents for what we are asking the House to do. I am fully sensible of the enormity of what is being proposed, and I do not think that it should become a general precedent. The rules and procedures on private Bills are not to be substantially changed, but I believe that when a Committee lasts for an exceptionally long time, such as the length of time that we have endured, it is right that hon. Members should be permitted to be absent for short periods, from time to time, without causing the Committee to adjourn.
The previous record for length of sitting of a private Bill Committee is held by the Associated British Ports (No. 2)
Column 1075Bill and the North Killingholme Cargo Terminal Bill, which sat for 26 days. The Leicester (Crematorium) Bill also lasted for 26 days in the 1982-83 Session.
The Felixstowe Dock and Railway Bill Committee, which sat for 25 days, met for 86 hours in Committee over five months. The King's Cross Railways Bill has already sat for more than 115 hours on 33 days, over eight months, and as I have said, it is possible that it will last for another 15 or 20 days. We shall be well into the lead by the time that we conclude our proceedings.
Looking to the future, that time is probably as nothing compared to what will be endured when, and if, British Rail comes forward in November, as it has said that it intends to do, with its high-speed link Bill to put the rail line through Kent to King's Cross. Therefore, I hope that I carry with me tonight supporters from Kent who sit on the Benches behind me.
I hope that I am making a case based on the length of time that the Committee has served. The average number of sitting days per Committee during the past 20 years is 4.8, so the vast majority of private Bills sit for only a few days, and the total number of hours when the Bill is considered is very small.
Mr. Hamilton : I accept the hon. Gentleman's sedentary comment--we are certainly pushing up the average, but I do not think that that is the greatest of my achievements in my short period in the House. A number of Select Committees on hybrid Bills have sat for lengthy periods, but hybrid Bill Committees are not strictly comparable with private Bill Committees, because they contain a greater number of hon. Members and a smaller quorum in relation to the overall size of the Committee. That is the point that the Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure had in mind when it turned its attention to quorums and made its recommendations.
The two most notable hybrid Bill Committees were the Channel Tunnel Bill-- on which I also had the privilege of sitting--which sat for 39 days in 1985 -86 and 1986-87 and the Dartford-Thurrock Crossing Bill, which sat for 22 days in 1987-88, when there were seven members and the quorum was three.
I have some experience of these matters, and it is on the basis of that that I make this request this evening. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) should have some sympathy with my request, as he sat on the Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure. In paragraph 118 of its proceedings, that Committee says :
"it is now unrealistic to expect members of an opposed bill committee in the Commons to abandon all their other duties in order to attend the whole of the committee's proceedings, it seems desirable slightly to relax the requirement for a quorum." I am delighted to adopt the view of my hon. Friend the Member of Faversham, whom I am pleased to see here to support me.
I hasten to assure hon. Members that the purpose of moving the motion is not to enable hon. Members to take days off regular. I have had one morning and one afternoon off to perform other duties in the House and in my constituency during the 33 days that the Committee has sat ; otherwise, I have sat in the Committee Room
Column 1076almost without exception, with just a few minutes outside. Other hon. Members have had other reasons to be away from the Committee for short periods.
The motion is to facilitate two hon. Members being away from Committee, without having to disrupt proceedings and to adjourn and so cause counsel and witnesses to have a break in proceedings. That causes inconvenience to petitioners, who are disadvantaged when the timetable of the Bill is unexpectedly altered, rather than to promoters.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : The hon. Gentleman has been chosen for special treatment by the Tory Whips to serve on the Committee. Before he proposed the motion, I wonder whether he had a good look around to see whether someone else was available to fill the bill and whether he could make a change and substitute someone else. That would require a new procedure. One or two Tories seem to have a lot of time on their hands. Off the top of my head, I am thinking about the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is prepared to do a couple of days for Barclays for £100,000 a year. Does the hon. Gentleman have that sort of money?
Mr. Hamilton : I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the four hon. Members on the Committee are painfully aware that we are dedicated public servants, unpaid for the extra responsibility on our shoulders, while in front of us sit a suave collection of silks, juniors, agents and others, who are deriving no doubt well-deserved fees for the work that they perform. I should hate the hon. Gentleman to think that there was the slightest tinge of envy in our minds when we look at them.
I speak for all hon. Members on the Committee when I say that it is not our intention to use the latitude that the motion would give us to be away from the Committee in contravention of our duties to the House. We take very seriously paragraph 119 of the Joint Committee report, which states :
"The Committee wish to emphasise that despite the relaxation of these formal requirements, Members of Parliament should still regard themselves as obliged to attend committees on opposed bills assiduously and attentively."
It will be my intention to continue to sit on the Committee every day, in so far as it is possible for me to do so, and we shall attend assiduously to our duties.
Therefore, I commend the motion to the House. I hope that it will not be taken as a generalised exception, but will be treated as the exceptional case that it is. I hope for the support of my hon. Friends and of Opposition Members.
Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Hillhead) : I, too, had the privilege of sitting selflessly on the Committee considering the King's Cross Railways Bill. Somebody up there in the Whips' Office likes me, too. I sat on the Committee considering the Dartford-Thurrock Crossing Bill, to which the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) referred. That Bill dealt with a bridge from one place to another place where I had never been and which I had never heard of. I never crossed the bridge, and probably
Column 1077never shall, but it was a bridge too far for me. I sat on the Committee for all those 22 days under the distinguished chairmanship of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman).
Mr. Galloway : He was a very distinguished Chairman. He did not leave his place very often, either. I see that he has his reward in heaven, his canonisation by the Chief Whip and now sits on the Treasury Bench, so perhaps the hon. Member for Tatton has something to look forward to after all.
Mr. Corbyn : Perhaps my hon. Friend can enlighten the House about a rumour that is going around that the Dartford-Thurrock Crossing Bill may have to return to the House because of the height of the bridge. In those circumstances, presumably my hon. Friend would be more than happy to serve once again on that Committee.
Mr. Galloway : If it is proper to say so, I had always thought the measure a dubious one. After those 22 days, the Committee made a fairly strong recommendation which I understand the House later overturned. It may be that our wisdom has been vindicated and the measure will return.
Having served my 22 days on the Dartford-Thurrock Crossing Bill, clearly I transgressed again, because I was given the chalice of a place under the equally distinguished chairmanship of the hon. Member for Tatton--the Spectator's parliamentary wit of the year. Before the Committee started, I thought that epithet only half right. As each day progressed--and, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, there have been many days--my admiration for him has grown and his wit and wisdom is being amply demonstrated in the Chair of that Committee. I hope that no one will imply that one of the reasons for the tremendously slow progress of the measure is somehow any shortcomings in the chairmanship of the Committee, for the hon. Member for Tatton has acted assiduously, wisely and with a good deal of humor, often finding pearls of humour where none could have imagined it possible in the tedium.
No fault can be laid at the door of the Chair of the Committee, or the Members of the Committee or the highly remunerated silks and others, some of whom are in the Gallery--I realise that I was not supposed to mention them. I have been so long in that Committee that I am losing touch with parliamentary procedure. Some of them are doing well and they have all had their moments. Like Wagner's operas, they have all had their moments and their terrible half hours. Some of them have been Rocky Marciano, others have been Don Cockell ; sometimes the roles have been reversed. It has been a long time. I wanted to give one example to my hon. Friends, most of whom I suspect are ranged against the motion, although I am sure for other reasons than wanting to see me locked up in the Grand Committee Room for any longer than necessary. Last Tuesday, as the House will know, was the day of action called by the Trades Union Congress in connection with the ambulance dispute. I was privileged to be invited by the ambulance workers' trade unions and the
Column 1078Scottish Trades Union Congress to address the rally at George square in Glasgow. It was a very significant occasion.
I could not turn down the invitation, and the Chairman of the Committee, although no doubt his views are different from mine, was willing to release me for that purpose. However, that reduced the available membership of the Committee to three.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Clay) the other Labour Member on the Committee wanted to attend a meeting in the House on the ambulance dispute, and again the Chairman was willing to release him. That meant the collapse of the Committee. The proceedings stopped, causing inconvenience particularly to the petitioners. The promoters have broad backs and their counsel and other legal representatives were not terribly distraught about the break, but those petitioners who were appearing for themselves or had fine legal representation which I understand was working virtually for nothing, were particularly disadvantaged.
It is clearly ridiculous, when a Bill has been considered for 150 hours-- and, despite what the Chairman of the Committee said, I suspect that it will be 150 hours more yet--to expect a quorum of three out of four Members of Parliament to devote so much time to the Committee or to feel terribly guilty about answering a telephone call, a call of nature or anything else. When I was at the rally in Glasgow, I was aware of the responsibility with which I had left my three colleagues trapped in the Committee.
Mr. Moate : The hon. Gentleman explained that there is always a clash of priorities when one is serving on a private Bill Committee, because circumstances such as the ambulance dispute arise. Does he agree that such circumstances would arise whether it was a short or long Bill? If it were a short Bill and the same pressure had arisen, he would have felt similarly obliged to go elsewhere and similarly guilty about leaving his colleagues behind.
Mr. Galloway : By definition, the longer a Bill goes on, the more such clashes of responsibility are likely to occur and to prove problematic. I have much sympathy with my hon. Friends who criticise the private Bill procedure, but that issue is different from the motion that we are discussing.
As a Scottish Member of Parliament, I must be in my constituency on Friday and often have constituency business on Monday. That effectively means that almost all my time in the House is spent in Committee. I cannot attend Prime Minister's Question Time--I have forgotten what the Prime Minister looks like--or questions on foreign and commonwealth affairs, and this week I could not attend Scottish questions. That is becoming intolerable.
I accepted the mantle thrust on me by the Whips of serving on the Dartford- Thurrock Crossing Bill and now on the King's Cross Railways Bill. I trust that they are polishing another Bill for me to serve on when this one is finished. The Opposition's deputy Chief Whip is present, and I am sure that he can hear what I am saying. I hope that the House will pass the motion because it will make life much easier for the four members of the Committee. It will not disadvantage the petitioners--I understand people being anxious about the dangers of disadvantaging them--and no one who has read the transcripts of the Committee's proceedings, which I
Column 1079commend to hon. Members, could claim that the Committee has been a pushover for British Rail. On the contrary, BR has been mauled repeatedly during our proceedings.
I hope that, in all the circumstances, the House will pass the motion.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton), the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway) and the other two hon. Members serving on the Committee on their excellent service. They have displayed selfless public service and commitment to duty. On Second Reading last year, I said that the Government gave consent for British Rail to seek the powers in the Bill. In principle, the Government believe that the Bill's proposals are sensible and that they are a further step in British Rail's plans to create a modern railway to carry traffic to and through London.
Consistent with that approach, the Government support the motion, which is supported by all the members of the Committee and would enable it to complete consideration of the Bill in a sensible way. I am therefore happy to record the Government's attitude to the motion.
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : As I said earlier in an intervention, I sympathise with the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton), my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway) and the other two hon. Members serving on the Committee. I chaired four or five private Bill Committees. Sometimes a streak of malevolence goes through the heart of even the kindest Whip when he is deciding which hon. Member should be given a task that is onerous, unrewarded and unobserved. One of the worst things that can happen to any hon. Member is to be totally unobserved for such a long period. Hon. Members who sit not only on private Bill Committees but on public Bill Committees and Select Committees are the workhorses of this place, and they deserve recognition for that.
The Committee stage of a public Bill used to be rather like dropping into a legislative black hole. There was plenty of action, but they sat only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We now have the advantage of Committees being televised. I am a member of the Committee considering the Broadcasting Bill. It is important for all politicians to know that they have a platform. Therefore, the Committee stage of public Bills has become much more relevant and interesting than it was in the past.
The Committee stage of a private Bill is different ; it is like being fossilised in amber. It may appear very grand--the members serving on the King's Cross Railway Bill look very grand and decorous, I am sure--but, rather as with insects fossilised in amber, there is little movement.
I must underline the fact that I am exceedingly sympathetic to the motion, but for several reasons I shall vote against it.
The hon. Member for Tatton and my hon. Friend the Member for Hillhead mentioned Queen's counsel, who seem to be paid by the word. They seem to assume that
Column 1080members of the Committee are incapable of reading. After one has sat in such a Committee for a few hours, one is almost incapable of doing anything, but one can usually summon up the ability to read a sentence. However, they continue to read interminably. I hope that the hon. Member for Tatton has reminded learned counsel that members of the Committee are capable of reading the papers that are put before them and that there is no need to go through them word by word, at great expense to the promoters and petitioners.
Knowing the circumstances that prevail on private Bill Committees, I believe that it is little wonder that hon. Members are so reluctant to serve on them. I volunteered to do so because I thought that I would learn something. I think that I learned a few things. I certainly learned about the defects of the private Bill procedure, with which I shall deal later. A number of hon. Members, confronted with the possibility of serving on a private Bill Committee, have fleetingly considered taking the Chiltern Hundreds. One or two would have preferred to disembowel themselves rather than serve on a private Bill Committee.
When we were considering how to get hon. Members to serve on private Bill Committees, the Select Committee on Procedure suggested--this was a serious suggestion--the possibility of knighthoods being given. That would not have enticed Labour Members, but Conservative Members might have been enticed by gongs being handed round.
The difference between the Committee stage of a private Bill and that of a public Bill is that, as the hon. Member for Tatton said, the private Bill Committee meets perhaps not for more hours but for more days and at times which are crucial in the House, such as Question Time. The Committee meets on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
The other distinction is that on a public Bill Committee, it is possible for hon. Members to disappear, to come down here and to make speeches. I do not know whether the Broadcasting Bill Committee is still sitting. I should be there, but no one will drag me down here and complain on the Floor of the House that I was not serving on the Committee. Yet that is what can happen to an hon. Member who does not turn up at a private Bill Committee. It is not permissive but mandatory for an hon. Member to serve on that Committee. If an hon. Member refuses to serve on such a Committee or does not turn up, it is incumbent on the Chairman of the private Bill Committee to report the absence to the House. That is the difference, which we must examine.
I suggest to the Minister and to hon. Members who have gone through this rather daunting experience for so many hours that hon. Members of all parties should insist that the report from the Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure, which was presented to the House in July 1988, should be debated properly on the Floor of the House. We should have the opportunity to vote on its various recommendations. It is a substantial report, and I do not intend to take hon. Members all the way through it. However, it is worth reminding the House of a few of the recommendations so that hon. Members know what the report contains.
Mr. Spearing : Before my hon. Friend discusses these important factors, will he permit me to attempt a reconciliation between himself and the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton)? Does he agree that one of the
Column 1081recommendations which was not in the report, although it was good, was the installation of a filter--perhaps a joint Committee of both Houses--to determine whether a private Bill was suitable for consideration by either House? Would that proposal deal with many of these matters?
"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."
The report continues :
"Where the primary purpose may be authorised through other means, the committee on the bill should insist that those means be pursued first, and that the approval of Parliament be limited only to the specific components which require its authority."
That would undoubtedly foreshorten many of the proceedings that are now being endured by members of the Committee.
The other principal recommendation that I want to draw to the attention of the House is recommendation 5, which says :
"In cases where planning considerations are dominant"
which is clearly the case in the King's Cross Railways Bill "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."
There are many objections to the King's Cross Railways Bill on local planning and national strategic planning grounds.
As I have said to the Minister and many other hon. Members, the proposal should never have had to go through the private Bill procedure. It should have been considered in other ways, and there should have been a full public inquiry.
Mr. Moate : I agree on that point, although that is not why I intervened. To correct what the hon. Gentleman said, does he recall that we had an extensive and full debate on the recommendations? We are waiting now not for a debate but for Government moves to implement the recommendations.
Mr. Banks : Yes, but the debate that I seek would be an executive debate so that we could take a decision at the end. We had a take-note debate. I remember the present Secretary of State for Energy when he was Leader of the House putting off the debate for ages, although many hon. Members were asking for one. The then Leader of the House kept saying that the Government were digesting the report. When we came to the debate, it was merely a take-note debate.
I do not know whether the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) shared this belief, but many Opposition Members thought that the then Leader of the House would make recommendations. However, when they were explained to the Prime Minister, he backed off quickly because the Prime Minister had said previously in Question Time that she thought that the private Bill procedures were perfectly adequate for such matters. I realise that the Prime Minister's word is law all the way through, but it is about time that hon. Members began to
Column 1082insist that cases such as the one that we are hearing tonight should never be repeated. That issue could unite hon. Members of all parties in demanding that action be taken.
I wish to draw the attention of the House to a couple of other major recommendations. There is a danger of the report being forgotten. It took a long time for the Table Office to find a copy, and we shall be told next that the report has gone out of print so we cannot discuss it. We shall then be told that all the drafts have been lost as well. I am suspicious about that, and I must insist that we have a proper debate in which we can take decisions. Recommendation 13 says :
"Each House should incorporate environmental impact assessment into private bill procedures by making new Standing Orders."
My God, we need an environmental impact assessment on the proposals for King's Cross. I am sure that, if hon. Members were to seek that, British Rail's proposals would be cursorily and summarily thrown out.
The report also recommends :
"Opposed bill committees should comprise five Members and the quorum should be three."
If even the four or five recommendations that I have read out had been incorporated, the hon. Member for Tatton and my hon. Friend the Member for Hillhead would not have been in their present position. There is a difference between this proposal and the two precedents that were mentioned by the hon. Member for Tatton : the Covent Garden Bill of 1965 and the Felixstowe Dock and Railway Bill of 1986. In the case of the Covent Garden Bill, one hon. Member had a lengthy illness and another suddenly felt a bit dicky, which was not surprising given the problems associated with the private Bill procedure.
In the case of the Felixstowe Docks and Railway Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) refused to serve. There were effective reasons for her not serving. It is not easy merely to appoint another Member because proceedings are already under way. An hon. Member cannot be brought in at a later stage, because that would be grossly unfair to the promoters and to the petitioners. There were specific reasons in 1965 and 1986 why a proposal to reduce the quorum should have been received favourably--as it was. The position here is different.
Mr. Neil Hamilton : It is true that the reasons for the quorum were different for those two Bills, but the hon. Gentleman's argument seems odd. The quorum was reduced in the 1986 Committee because the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clywd), with whom I have the greatest sympathy, refused to undertake the duty imposed on her by the House. In this case, hon. Members are performing those duties, yet they are not to have the advantage of such a move.
Mr. Banks : There is another difference. The matter was brought to a head because my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley refused to serve. We are obliged to her for refusing because, as a result, the Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure was set up. If, after my hon. Friend rendered us that service, we had had a chance to decide on the matter, the hon. Member for Tatton would not have been in his present position.
All hon. Members are taking an honourable approach. People outside and our constituents must understand. Now that the House is televised, I should not be surprised
Column 1083if each of the hon. Members who is serving on the Committee was accosted by their constituents saying, "I've been watching the television and I have never seen you at Prime Minister's Question Time or in Scottish Question Time. Where were you? What have you been doing?" Since the private Bill Committees are not televised, hon. Members should have the opportunity to ensure that everyone inside and, more importantly, outside the House knows what goes on. That is why, if for no other reason, this debate is useful.
I object to the reduction of the quorum. The promoter, British Rail, is the real problem maker and has got us into this mess. British Rail's arrogance and high-handed attitude have not been at all helpful. It is about time that we visited on the heads of those who make the decisions at British Rail a just penalty for the way in which they are prepared to use this procedure.
British Rail had the advantage of a quorum of three, with four hon. Members usually in attendance. The petitioners are beginning to present their case. Camden and Islington borough councils are presenting their case, part of which will be to show why the second London terminal for the Channel tunnel should be located in my constituency and the London borough of Newham, rather than at King's Cross. Petitioners will make that case, but the same quorum of hon. Members will not be present to hear them.
I want to know from the hon. Member for Tatton whether the reduction in the quorum will mean that, on average, there will still be four hon. Members on the Committee. I am worried about why he wishes to reduce the quorum now. It may be because of pressures in the past or intimations that there will be pressures in the future. In other words, an hon. Member may wish to make the odd visit abroad or there may be a reselection crisis in the air. If there will not be the same regular attendance to hear petitioners as there was to hear the promoters, the petitioners will be at a disadvantage.
Mr. Neil Hamilton : There is no sinister motive underlying the request of the Members of the Committee. It would be an unjustifiable slur on his hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway) and for Sunderland, North (Mr. Clay) if the hon. Gentleman were to suggest that we intend to do something which would disadvantage the petitioners. It has been our duty all along to bend over backwards to assist the petitioners, particularly those who are not represented by counsel or specialist parliamentary agents. We have done our best to accommodate them in all their difficulties, given the disparity of resources between private individuals and enormous corporations such as British Rail.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that the only reason why we come now with this request is that we have sat for 33 days, which is seven days more than the previous record. I did not feel that it was open to us to make this request until the exceptional nature of the Committee became evident for all to see.