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7.4 pm

Mr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): I agree with the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) and support the revival motion. I support it in order to breathe life into the Bill of which I am now the sponsor--the Southampton International Boat Show Bill. That Bill is about as uncontroversial as a Bill could be. Indeed, in the last Session, it passed all its Commons stages, received a Second Reading in another place in March 1997 and was awaiting an Unopposed Bill Committee when the Session ended.

The aim of the Bill is to amend the facility for the closure of the Mayflower park in Southampton each autumn as originally set out in the Hampshire Act 1983. The park is next to the waterfront and that is, of course, an integral part of the Southampton international boat show, which is now Europe's largest show involving more than 500 exhibitors, 120,000 attenders and more than £40 million of business transacted during the show itself.

The closure of a public park for more than six days requires permission by way of a private Bill. The Hampshire Act 1983 gives permission only for nine days'

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closure. The variation between the closure to provide for public access to the show and park closure for the preparation and dismantling of the exhibition is therefore sought in order to allow an extra day of public showing.

The boat show is very much a part of Southampton. It is welcomed by the city's population, but its international reputation means that it receives visitors from across the world and provides an unrivalled showcase for the UK boat building industry, securing many export orders for that element of the nation's industry. It is therefore very important for the UK as a whole, not just for Southampton or the surrounding region.

The Bill, however, provides not an alteration in the overall numbers of days that the park is closed or partly closed but a variation in the days that it is open to the public to cater for the changing patterns of attendance at exhibitions of this type. The Bill will allow the show to open to the public over two full weekends--two Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

The 10-day opening envisaged in the Bill is now typical of the Southampton international boat show's competitors. Increasingly, visitors wish to extend their visits to such shows over more than one day and book hotels in the vicinity to that end. The provision of two full weekends therefore allows for the maximisation of the facility and brings the boat show into line with its overseas competitors. That is especially important for international visitors seeking to place orders for boats. Indeed, some sections of the UK boat industry, especially the power boat industry, export up to 90 per cent. of their production to overseas visitors.

As I said, the variation will in no way adversely affect the public's general right of access to the park since improvements in efficiency in the setting up and dismantling of the exhibition will mean that the additional day's public opening can be compensated for by less time spent on those activities.

Last year, the UK boating industry's turnover topped £1.75 billion. Overall, it represents a favourable balance of trade to the UK of £291 million a year. It is fair to say that it is a great success story for our country. The Southampton international boat show also provides an unrivalled opportunity for the business to show off its wares and for the public to get a taste of what is on offer and, in many instances, to place orders for the boats on display. I hope, therefore, that the House will find it possible to support that showcase and assist that public success story. By reviving the Bill and allowing it to continue and complete its passage through its various stages, the House will be assisting British industry in a positive manner.

7.9 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): The motion before the House appears straightforward, but it is actually one of the more arcane and esoteric segments of the House's business. I notice in passing that we are debating this subject at the same time as the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons is meeting in Committee Room 20. In addition, the Tory party is having its hustings tonight--

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): Been there, done that.

Mr. Hughes: Some of us are spared having to attend that particular meeting.

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I have a few things to say about the procedure and then about the Bills themselves. I own up to being one of those who has, by blocking the motion, forced this debate and I think it right that we should have this debate. I shall support the passage of the motion--my objective in forcing in the debate was to have the debate, not to block the motion. Therefore, like the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), I hope that, at the end of the debate, the House will vote for the motion and allow the Bills to go through.

A few years ago, the private business of the House reduced considerably after both an inquiry into private business and the changes that, by and large, took transport and works business out of the private Bill procedure. Private business remains a difficult area for the public to get to grips with and understand and I want therefore to comment on how we as the House of Commons might do more to make sure that it is not a hidden corner of legislation. To be honest, the electorate rarely get to know about it or participate in the process.

Private business is, by definition, business that does not affect the whole country, but affects only a specific area or institution. I hope that, as Parliament devolves powers to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and, in time, to London and the other regions of England, we shall get rid of this sort of business from this place. There may be a national interest in the Bills--as the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Whitehead) said, there is a Southampton interest, a south coast interest and a national interest relating to the Southampton International Boat Show Bill--but the reality is that whether the boat show is open for nine or 10 days is very much a Southampton issue and it is better debated by those with a local knowledge and interest, rather than in this place. The same is true of the other Bills that are affected--and, in a sense, hidden--by the motion. If we are contemplating taking democracy out to the people, as the Prime Minister did on Friday, I hope that, by the end of this Parliament, private business will have gone out to the people as well.

My second point is that we must get away from the nonsense of never knowing whether private business is going to come up. It can, in theory, come up on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, but never on a Friday, for some reason that I have never looked into.

Mr. Maclean: There is nobody here.

Mr. Hughes: There will be lots of people here on a Friday to debate fox hunting, so I am sure they could come for other private business.

It is a nonsense that, on a Thursday when the business statement is made, all that the Leader of the House says is, "The Chairman of Ways and Means may set down private business to be considered next Monday," without telling us what that business is, without it ever getting into the public record and, potentially, without anybody apart from those in the know knowing about it more than four days in advance.

Let us take two of the examples relevant to the motion: the Bills relevant to the south-west and Cornwall--I see the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) is present--the Tamar Bridge Bill and the Bodmin Moor Commons Bill. Those are both important pieces of legislation, especially in Cornwall, but it seems to me that, if they were to have come up in tonight's

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slot, it would have been helpful for some sort of public notification to have been given to the people of Cornwall, and not only to the promoters, who clearly have an interest, and to those in the know.

We must get away from a procedure that is nobody's fault, but that means that private Bills are an activity that is carried on between consenting adults in private and only occasionally emerges at the last minute into the public domain. The Clerks are extremely helpful and I make no criticism of them, but a sort of loop that means that one does not know when or how to petition means that the great British public might be shut out. I hope we can, as the House, make private legislation much more accessible to the public.

The Library fact sheet states:

I checked with the Clerk and discovered that "Erskine May", which is in the process of being updated from its 1989 edition, has pages and pages on the subject of private Bills and all the things that one can do with them and how one can object to them.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, had he been in the House 100 years ago, he would have spent more time on private Bills than on public ones?

Mr. Hughes: Indeed, I am aware that the business of the House used to consist almost wholly of private Bills--the building of the railways meant that little else came to Parliament for years and years. I am glad that we have moved to a system of local inquiry, although I have some reservations about the powers of the Secretaries of State under the Transport and Works Act 1992 and believe that the balance may have been moved the wrong way.

I am keen that, as part of the modernisation process of this Parliament, we look for ways to make timetabling, fixing of dates and notification in advance of the proceedings of private Bills far more accessible to the public. The Leader of the House is not in her place, but I hope that, even in the next few weeks, we arrive at a system whereby private business is announced in the business statement so that people have notice of when it is coming up. I know that Government timetabling of business is always difficult, but we now have a system whereby we know in advance about private Member's Bills days and non-sitting Fridays. I hope that the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons will come up with clear fixed dates for the parliamentary session, so that we know in advance about holidays, not because I want more holidays, but because those with young children need to know such things in advance--indeed, parliamentary Sessions should fit in school holidays. It seems to me that we could timetable private business as well.

My last point is that, as part of the procedure, we should make sure that all those with a potential interest in a private Bill should be formally notified, alerted and briefed, rather than the system allowing for people to find out by being tipped off. To take the example given already--the Southampton International Boat Show Bill--notification should be given to Members of Parliament for the county and the city, Members of the

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other place with an interest, local bodies such as the city council and people who are known to have an interest in the subject of boating and marine affairs. There should be a procedure that ensures that notification is not some sort of accident and that briefs all those concerned at the beginning of a Parliament. These days, there are few private Bills--only half a dozen are affected by the motion and, in the last Parliament, there were only about a dozen. It is not too big a task and I hope we can address the matter and become more effective in dealing with it.

I shall deal now with the substance of the Bills. There are the two Cornish Bills--I call them Cornish, but that is like saying the Scottish play. One is clearly Cornish, but the other affects two counties--

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