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7.30 pm

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish): I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak relatively briefly on the carry-over motion, but the House should not treat it as a routine matter.

Traditionally, the idea is that a carry-over motion should be passed after a general election, to allow private Bills that are in the pipeline to continue. I understand the arguments in favour. If money has been spent on drawing up petitions and if evidence has been heard, it is unfair if, through no fault of the promoters, they are obliged to start the process again. However, in my opinion that places some onus on the promoters to try to ensure that the Bill passes in a reasonably short time.

Increasingly, in recent years, it has been assumed that it does not really matter if not much progress is made in one Session; the Bill can be carried over into the next Session and the Session after. I notice that the Bodmin Moor Commons Bill has been knocking around in Parliament for more than four years. That is not a good way to deal with legislation. I believe that Bills should be carried over only once, and that there is a strong onus on the promoters to reach compromises--common in the history of private Bills--to ensure that their legislation passes in a reasonably short period.

Like the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), I believe that the private Bill procedure needs urgent reform. We went a long way to do that with the Transport and Works Act 1992; many of us believed that these sessions at 7 o'clock of an evening in the House would disappear when the 1992 Act came into force. On the whole, it is working well. On Thursday 12 June 1997, the House passed the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (Stratford Station and Subsidiary Works) Order 1997, which enabled one of the inquiries into the Stratford terminal to start, under that procedure.

All the evidence suggested that the 1992 Act was working well--until today, when I received a note from the Ramblers Association about the Welsh highland railway and the fact that some of the provisions of the 1992 Act were not being observed regarding footpaths. I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service, will draw to the attention of the Department of Transport the fact that it must ensure that the 1992 Act is used fully and not abused. Otherwise, that method may come into disrepute and more private Bills may end up being debated on the Floor of the House.

As I said in an intervention, private Bills were used a tremendous amount in the 18th and 19th centuries for projects such as canals, railways and reservoirs, and almost always there was much wheeling and dealing behind the scenes. It was fairly common for bargains to be struck. I think I am right that Northampton worked hard to ensure that the railway from London to Birmingham did not go anywhere near Northampton, and then Northampton, having witnessed the benefits of the railway, had to work very hard to try to get a loop line added to it.

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In the 19th century, various great landowners used the blackmail of blocking a Bill in the House of Lords to get their own personal station and to guarantee that express trains stopped there. The tradition of the argument, manipulation and manoeuvring that goes on during the passage of private Bills has a long history.

Legislation should no longer be passed in that way in this country. All private Bills should be dealt with through the Transport and Works Act 1992 or as agreed measures. I should have thought that the wheeling and dealing relating to the Southampton International Boat Show Bill had been done outside the House and all that we needed was a parliamentary Act to give it a rubber stamp, but one or two of the other Bills do not come into that category. The sad history of the Bodmin Moor Commons Bill reveals the way in which the parliamentary procedures do not work well, and need reform.

The Bodmin Moor Commons Bill started as an agreed measure combining three interests--conservation of Bodmin moor, access to the moor and better management of the moor. That would benefit those people who had stock, in that if numbers were limited, grazing would be better and the return from farming activities would be improved.

Had the Bill continued in that vein, it might well have passed through Parliament--this House, at least--without argument, but the Bill was mugged in the House of Lords. People said, "Let us have the sections that give management of the moors, but let us get rid of the access."

I have been unable to discover why Cornwall county council agreed to a deal in the House of Lords that removed all the access provisions from the Bill, destroying the initial compromise agreement. Some of the Labour county councillors for Cornwall, whom I spoke to, were amazed that that deal had been done. I am still waiting to be told on what authority from the county council its agents in the House of Lords removed that clause. One cannot expect the people who originally agreed to the compromise of access, conservation and management, to be happy if a third of the platform was torn away in the House of Lords. That is where the Bill has run into considerable difficulty.

During the past 12 months, when I have been opposing the Bill, I have been asking only that we reinstate the access provisions, to achieve the original compromise. However, the arcane procedure of the House says that a private Bill can only be narrowed. I find that an amazing concept.

If one were promoting a railway and the relevant railway Bill originally said that the line would go from London to Liverpool, I can understand that the last-minute addition of provision for the railway to continue to Preston would be an expansion of the Bill and would be unreasonable. However, if one starts with a Bill that has access in it, balancing conservation measures, it is odd that if access is removed in the House of Lords it cannot be reinstated in the Commons. That is an anomaly. What was narrowing for one group of people was widening for another group. What was widening the rights of the commoners was narrowing the rights of the people to access.

We must get round that. Fortunately, in relation to the Bodmin Moor Commons Bill, there was a way round for the county council, because instead of returning to the

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House and inserting access clauses into the Bill, it was easy for it to set up access agreements to the moor. I have been arguing that the county council should have got on with that.

Access agreements exist frequently in the Peak district and other parts of Britain. Often they exist by agreement between a county council, a national park and the landowner, but there are examples of access agreements that are arranged by county councils in spite of the opposition of the landowner, and there is a process by which the landowner has a right of appeal but eventually the access agreement can be put in place.

It would have been perfectly possible for Cornwall county council to remedy the problem that it had created. It dropped the access proposals in the House of Lords. Having made a mess of things, it might have put them back in place by using normal legislation for access agreements, and while doing so, might have suspended action on the Bill in the House. By now, the council could have returned to the House and said, "We have binding access agreements in place. May we have the Bill for the management parts?" I would then have been happy to let the Bill go through. But no: the county council did virtually nothing for six months. Then, just before the election, the council again tried to rush the Bill through. Not surprisingly, it was blocked.

One or two people in Cornwall have put it to me that we should let this management Bill go through because the Labour Government are committed to right-to-roam legislation, so by the time the Bodmin Moor Commons Bill is on the statute book that right to roam will nearly be in place. I never count my chickens before they hatch. I think it quite possible that the legislation will take some time to go through Parliament. I therefore believe that it would be wrong to allow the Bodmin Moor Commons Bill to go through before access has been sorted out.

I strongly urge Cornwall county council to get back to negotiations with the landowners and to put access agreements in place.

Interestingly, not far away in the south-west is Dartmoor, for which an agreed access measure was produced allowing for management and access. That private Bill went through the House with no problems and is working well. The farmers enjoy grants for their agriculturally sensitive farms, and access is also in place.

I plead again with Cornwall county council to put access measures in place before returning to this House. We have lined up about 100 amendments to the council's Bill. Neither I nor my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) wants to spend a lot of time arguing the case for those amendments when, if the county council were prepared to negotiate, something could be done much more quickly.

Another Bill on the list is the Lever Park Bill. I was delighted to see it, because it solved a small constituency matter for me--namely, the fact that there are proposals to develop the reservoirs owned by North West Water at Audenshaw. I was pleased to see the company promoting a Bill for the area; it came as confirmation that, if it wants to develop anything at Audenshaw, it will have to go through the private Bill procedure. As I keep assuring my constituents, getting a private Bill through the House is no easy matter.

I began objecting to the Lever Park Bill simply to show North West Water that I was capable of making a fuss about private Bills dealing with reservoirs. The trouble is

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that one gets drawn into the process. I warn anyone listening of the snags: showing the slightest inclination towards or knowledge of private Bill procedure induces people to start pressurising an hon. Member and asking him various questions.

The Lever park Bill is designed to introduce a management scheme to the old Bolton reservoirs and the Lever park area around them. That would appear to be a very good idea. I know that the former hon. Member for Chorley was particularly keen on the development of a visitors centre close to the hall, which would improve public access. Equally, some local people do not want more visitors in their back yards.

In order to come up with a management plan, North West Water wanted to get rid of the rights of way running through the area. I can appreciate that the company might find it difficult to negotiate with one or two people who do not want more visitors in their back gardens, but North West Water could and should have entered into detailed negotiations with the Ramblers Association, the Peak and Northern and various other footpath and conservation groups in the area so as to sort out the problems to do with the Bill. Had the company done so, the Bill could have gone through quickly.

I stress again that private Bill procedure should be embarked on as little as possible in the House. Whenever possible, private Bills should be agreed measures that can go through without taking up time. Whenever possible, the Transport and Works Act should be used. If people want to introduce Bills, they must demonstrate that they are prepared to negotiate and arrive at compromises, removing any controversial issues.

I hope that Cornwall county council will get down to serious negotiations if it wants the Bodmin Moor Commons Bill to progress; the access problems must be solved. I also hope that North West Water will talk to the people concerned about access under the Lever Park Bill so that that issue, too, can be solved.

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