Private Bill Standing Orders

– in the House of Commons am 12:00 am ar 9 Mawrth 1945.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Motion made, and Question proposed,

"That the Report from the Select Committee on Private Bill Standing Orders be considered forthwith."

Photo of Mr James Milner Mr James Milner , Leeds South East

As the House is aware, the Chairman of Ways and Means is primarily responsible for the conduct of Private Bill legislation. The Standing Orders dealing with Private Business make a formidable code of some 160 pages. While there have been piecemeal additions and alterations from time to time, including some substantial changes in the time of my predecessor, now Lord Hemingford, there has actually been no thorough revision for nearly 70 years. The desirability of such a revision was made clear to me at a very early date in my occupancy of the office.

There were two courses open to me. One was to ask the House to appoint a Select Committee to undertake the necessary revision. The other was to ask a number of officials and experts to do the somewhat laborious preliminary work, for subsequent submission to a Select Committee. Upon inquiry, I found that the circumstances were particularly favourable to the second course being adopted. It appeared that Mr. O. C. Williams, Principal Clerk in the Committee and Private Bill Office, had, as a result of many years' research, just completed a detailed history of every one of the Standing Orders in question, and further that we could have the great advantage of the services of Sir Frederick Liddell, the former Counsel to Mr. Speaker, and a man of encyclopaedic knowledge on the subject, and that we could at the same time avail ourselves of the services of Sir Cecil Carr, the present Counsel to Mr. Speaker, with his very wide experience. It also seemed to me that this valuable piece of work could best be done at a time when not many Private Bills were coming before the House.

I ventured, therefore, with the approval of Mr. Speaker, to ask a small committee of officials and experts to make a systematic review of the whole code, Order by Order—the most extensive examination it has ever undergone—as a preliminary to the submission of the matter to a Select Committee if the House so ordered. That committee of officials consisted of Mr. O. C. Williams, Sir Frederick Liddell and Sir Cecil Carr. I also invited Mr. C. E. C. Browne, acting Honorary Secretary of the Society of Parliamentary Agents, to join in the work, on the understanding that his inclusion would not commit that important body of practitioners to any final decisions but so that he might represent their views and interests in a general if informal way. Finally, as it is obviously desirable that the Standing Orders of the two Houses should bear some general relationship to each other, two officials from another place were present as friendly observers, by agreement with the Lord Chairman, who has similar responsibilities to mine in another place. The committee's work took some 10 months and the committee eventually reported to me. The House then set up a Select Committee to revise the Standing Orders relating to Private Business. I was elected Chairman, and I then laid before the Select Committee the report of the informal committee which the Select Committee adopted as the basis for their revision.

I am now asking the House, in effect, to approve the Report of that Select Committee. I ought, perhaps, to make it clear that the object we have all had in mind has not been to introduce any novelties of principle or practice but solely to cut out obsolete and duplicated provisions, to put the Orders into a more logical sequence, to harmonise the language and generally to tidy the whole thing up. Not having been revised for so long, the present code inevitably contains a lot of dead wood. If I may, for one moment, take up the time of the House I would like to give just one or two illustrations. Two of the Standing Orders are devoted to Bills for reviving lapsed patents. They have been quite superfluous since 1907, when Parliament enacted a much simpler procedure in place of a Private Bill for the purpose. Several Standing Orders relate to Railway Bills. They date back to the railway boom of a century ago, when the House had to check promoters, some of whose proposals for fresh railway lines were merely intended to bring pressure to bear upon existing companies to buy them out. All those Orders have been obsolete for years, and certainly since the Railways Act of 1921. There were also a number of Orders about Inclosure Bills, and they were even more antiquated, as most of them dated from 1801 and were superseded long ago by a simpler form of procedure.

All those Orders have been cleared out of the way and with them the Orders relating to the deposit of money, technically known as Parliamentary Deposits, which the promoters of certain classes of Bills have hitherto been required to make. All the Ministries and Government Departments have been consulted. The Report of the Select Committee was unanimous. It contains, as the House will have seen, a complete re-draft of the whole code, with a double index and with sufficient explanation and notes to show how and why any existing Order has been omitted, altered, re-stated or re-grouped. One result is to cut the existing code down by about one-sixth, reducing it by some 27 pages and 43 Orders.

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, it might be convenient if I said one word with regard to the consequential Amendments to the Standing Orders relating to Public Business which, I understand, the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House will shortly move, as they arise out of the Report of the Select Committee. The first Amendment is a mere transference from the Private Bill Standing Orders of a paragraph which should clearly belong to the Public Bill Standing Orders. It is fully explained on page 17 of the Report. I do not think I need go into any further detail. The second and third Amendments of the Standing Orders relating to Public Business which the Committee recommended are consequential on Amendments to the Private Bill Standing Orders, and remove a difficulty as to the setting down of Motions contingent upon opposed Private Business which has been deferred—" de- ferred" is the right word and not "postponed"—by the direction of the Chairman. I think I have now dealt in substance with all the questions before the House.

All the steps which have been taken are in accordance with ancient precedent and I have reason to believe that, as has always happened in the past, parallel action will be taken in another place. If so, while I cannot promise that all the technicalities of the Standing Orders relating to Private Business will be translated into words of one syllable, we shall, at any rate, have done our best to help our Private Bills, which are likely greatly to increase when the war is over, to go forward under a code of provisions which are simpler and a good deal shorter than those in use at present.

In conclusion, I should like to pay tribute—as did the Select Committee and as I am sure the House would wish me to do—to the members of the informal committee for the arduous and valuable preparatory work which they did, work which I am confident will redound to the credit of the House and will be even more greatly appreciated when its results are seen.

Photo of Mr Alexander Walkden Mr Alexander Walkden , Bristol South

In supporting the Motion which, in effect, approves this very excellent Report, I would like to say that having perused it carefully, and having had something to do with Private Bills from time to time for a good many years, I feel that it is a very good piece of work. The Chairman of Ways and Means and his helpers have performed a very good job of work, and I would like to express our appreciation of their labours. This is a very important matter both to the public at large, and to this House. It is true, as the Chairman of Ways and Means has said, that we have not had many Private Bills recently, but in normal times I have known as many as 80 in one Session, working through their course, quietly and nicely as a rule. Undoubtedly, such Bills will come again. Probably we shall have as many as 100 when we are again free to carry on the work of the nation unhindered by war circumstances.

These Orders are very elaborate but I would not say that any of them are unnecessary. On the contrary, I think they are all necessary. Needless to say they are in lovely, limpid, legal language. I like legal language; it runs so well and if one has plenty of time and patience and also an opportunity of reading it carefully is nice and easy to understand. But we on these benches feel that something more should be done to assist public authorities to get the necessary permission from Parliament, without this elaborate procedure. If an authority wants to promote a new enterprise, it has to come to this House for a Private Bill and spend a lot of time and money, to get permission to do something which is legitimate, and which other public authorities have probably already done. In order to minimise the heavy labours of this House and of public authorities who are doing so much useful work throughout the country further simplification should take place. I think we must endeavour to devise some expedient by which a Minister, say the Minister of Health, may give any public authority a certificate or permit to proceed with same proper enterprise which it wishes to undertake, provided there is a good precedent for it. For example, Birmingham has an excellent municipal savings bank, which is of great benefit to the citizens. No other municipality can have such an institution without coming here for a Private Bill, and going through all these Orders to get the authority to do so. One would like to see that method simplified.

I make a further, and perhaps larger, suggestion that it would be a good thing for this House to carry a great enabling Bill, under which local authorities could proceed with enterprises scheduled in that Bill and, by the House as being proper for public authorities to undertake, thus diminishing the number of these Bills, and reducing the labours of this House and the people upstairs. I submit that for general consideration. I hope we shall have it in our minds as time goes on, and see, as opportunity arises, what we can do to help in that direction. There is an example in this present Session of the same kind of thing. Permission has been given to the Minister of Health to hold inquiries, through a Commission, into boundary questions. Boundary disputes involve a lot of time and trouble if they have to pass through the Parliamentary mill. There may be much strife and trouble on these premises about boundary questions, arising hundreds of miles away, in that part of the Kingdom known as Scotland. The Minister can now require his Commissioners to hold local inquiries into these boundary questions, and I believe that these inquiries can pretty well settle the thing on the spot, and the Minister can authorise any extension that is recommended. I speak rather warmly about that because Bristol wants to expand. All its centre has been blown away by those people who, according to my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes)—he is not here this morning—ought not themselves to be bombed. Bristol does not want to fill up that centre but to make a great park, but the authority cannot carry out their plan within their own boundaries. They must go outside to provide homes for their people. I hope that the Boundary Commission will help in that regard.

It is most interesting to look through this Report and note how many new Ministries have come into existence in our time. All the Ministers concerned must get copies of these Bills to which I refer so that they know what is proposed, and are able to see whether it affects their powers and prerogatives. There is the Air Ministry, which is new, the Ministry of Labour is also a new one, and the Ministry of Town and Country Planning is the newest. I think it is brought in specially. Then, there is the Ministry of Fuel and Power, another new one, and the Forestry Commissioners, I am not quite sure whether they are continuing or not. But this shows how wonderfully our country has expanded in social and industrial activity. The fact that we are becoming a stronger and finer country is brought out in this very interesting book.

I cannot help noticing that these Standing Orders affect many enterprises which are really public services, but are carried on by private companies and corporations who come to this House for permission for their activities. I am very pleased to know from paragraph 174 that there appears to be no tendency whatever under these Orders, to impinge upon the ancient right of this House to discuss the affairs of any promoters who come here for further powers. Any promoter who has an enterprise in the nature of a monopoly and a public service, who comes here for further powers, is not to be immune from the traditional right of criticism which we have always exercised That is an ancient Parliamentary right and is also in accordance with modern policy. There are all manner of these enterprises, and they are increasing. Some new ones of a most interesting character have been brought into existence. I cite one, the London Passenger Transport Board, rather a peculiar body. The seven directors constituting the Board are not appointed by this House or by Ministers, but by queer bodies which have nothing to do with London Transport, people like the accountants and the lawyers and the Bank of England, I believe. Certainly the London County Council has some concern in the matter. But this Transport Board does not have to report to this House. While the Minister of Transport is good enough to answer Questions about it he has no authority over it, and we cannot discuss here what it is doing and not doing. That is strange; I think it is wrong. The Board should be associated with the Ministry of Transport, and it should be open to us to consider its operation. The only opportunity which arises for that is when it comes here seeking further powers. It is proper that we should have an opportunity of raising any points that are considered unsatisfactory.

That applies equally to a water company, to the Manchester Ship Canal Company or the Port of London Authority. All these numerous bodies have grown up in our English way, empirically, inconsistently, illogically. But they work. Parliament should however have an opportunity of surveying their activities when the appropriate occasion arises. I hope that all these considerations will be borne in mind. Even if the work has to be done in the old archaic way, under the Standing Orders, instead of in greater freedom under an enabling Bill, we should maintain an intelligent and lively interest in the enterprises represented by these Private Bills.

Photo of Mr Herbert Williams Mr Herbert Williams , Croydon South

I should like to say a word about this matter, as I happened to serve on the Select Committee. I should mention incidentally that no person now living was engaged in the making of the draft of 1874. Our Committee had a very good chairman, and our task was a relatively light one, because of the admirable work done by the informal committee. But I would like to say one cautionary word about what we have just heard. The hon. Member for South Bristol (Mr. A. Walkden) said that these things go through quietly. Some of us take steps sometimes to see that they do not go through too quietly. When the Glasgow Corporation came here for a savings bank, we threw the Bill out. The hon. Member wants to make these things easier, but I do not know whether he would like it very much if the Gloucester County Council wished to appropriate Bristol, instead of the traffic being in the reverse direction. This Session the Metropolitan Water Board is promoting a Bill, for a very good purpose—to provide three new reservoirs. When I want to water my garden now they say that I may not do so. Thus, apparently, three new reservoirs would be a good idea. Yet there are on the Order Paper no fewer than 30 petitions against that Bill. If Ministers had the right to say, "This is a good Bill, and it is all finished," that would be most undesirable.

The hon. Member suggested that it was right that we should preserve our powers to examine these petitions, but that Bristol alone should be exempt. They are to have a free run, but everybody else is to come under the harrow. It is vital that this House should preserve its tradition as an independent, impartial tribunal, and the Committees upstairs on which our colleagues serve are regarded as the most impartial tribunals anybody could have. I have heard tribute after tribute paid to them by people, connected both with municipalities and with public utility companies, and these people say that they always get a square deal upstairs. The hon. Member was suggesting that that judicial process should come to an end, and that the matter should be settled in a hole-and-corner way by some Minister. I hope that he will not hold those views for very long, because if he does, I can only tell him that Bristol must be moving in the direction of Fascism.

Photo of Mr Thomas Harvey Mr Thomas Harvey , Combined English Universities

There is one point with which I should like the Chairman of Ways and Means to deal. He has told us that the Committee have recommended the abolition of certain Parliamentary deposits, in the case of certain Parliamentary Bills, so lessening the expenditure in the case of those Bills. But the Appendix to the Report which gives the table of fees still contains a number of fees that seem to be unnecessarily high for formal processes of Bills. It surely is the object of the House to facilitate local authorities and public services getting through necessary private legislation in not only the most expeditious, but the least expensive, way. It seems a pity that we should still maintain such charges as those given on page 122. On the First Reading of a Bill there is a charge of £15; on the Second Reading of the Bill there is a charge of £15; on the Report from the Committee on the Bill there is a charge of £5; and on the Third Reading of the Bill there is a charge of £15. If the sum involved is considerable, these charges may be doubled, trebled, or quadrupled; or in the case of very large sums, they may be made six times as high. This is an unnecessary imposition on local authorities for absolutely essential work. I hope that, if the Committee have not gone into this particular point in the course of their very useful labours, there may be some assurance from the Chairman of Ways and Means that at some future date, not too distant, it will be looked into and steps taken to lessen the burdens on local authorities and public services, and to facilitate necessary legislation of this kind.

Photo of Mr Hugh Lawson Mr Hugh Lawson , Skipton

I do not pretend that I have looked through the whole of this Report, but on a casual reading I found one thing which appealed to me very much. In paragraph 120 there is a declaration to be signed by Members of Committees. One of the things a Member has to certify is that he will never vote on any question which may arise without having duly heard and attended to the evidence relating thereto. This seems to me a most excellent provision, and it might well be applied to proceedings in this House. On the rare occasions when I vote for the Government, I am usually asked by some Member in the Lobby, "What are we voting for?" It would be a good thing if this rule were applied to our proceedings here.

Photo of Mr Evelyn Walkden Mr Evelyn Walkden , Doncaster

The Report which we are now considering shows that the number of persons, eligible to attend here, who served on this Committee was II. I have looked round the House this morning and, while this is not perhaps the most convenient time for Members to attend, I must point out that I failed to find more than three Members of this Committee present. That certainly is not exemplary. I wonder whether Members should not be reminded that, when a Report of such importance as this is presented, they should have made an effort to be present.

Photo of Mr James Milner Mr James Milner , Leeds South East

In reply to the point raised by the hon. Member for the English Universities (Mr. Harvey), the Committee did not have within its terms of reference the question of fees. That would appear to be a matter of general policy. The matter of deposits was one of procedure. Those deposits were exacted in ancient times as in effect security for costs, to ensure that the objector or the promoter went further with the matter. But the matter of fees at present chargeable was not considered by the Committee.

Photo of Mr Herbert Williams Mr Herbert Williams , Croydon South

Would it not be fair to those of my colleagues who are not present, to point out that they were not aware that this business was coining up this morning? It is not on the general Order Paper, but only on a small slip dealing with Private Business.

Photo of Mr Anthony Eden Mr Anthony Eden , Warwick and Leamington

I am not going to intervene in the discussion between my hon. Friends the Member for South Bristol (Mr. A. Walkden) and the Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams), except to make this observation. A Minister, in that capacity, is a transient being. It is sometimes hoped that, as a Member of Parliament, his life may be longer. But a Minister, equally with any other Member of Parliament, should be chary of taking any step which in any way decreases the power of Parliament over the Executive. I know that my hon. Friend shares that view. I do not think that anything he said this morning, apart from a certain amount of local patriotism, could be otherwise interpreted.

The House is deeply indebted to the Chairman of Ways and Means, to the informal committee, and to the Members of this House who served on the Select Committee, and whose names are immortalised on page 2 of this Report. They have undertaken a very arduous and very necessary task. Private Bill legislation is a separate, but very important, part of our work. The war has, as my hon. Friend said, diminished it temporarily; but, I have no doubt, only temporarily. I have no doubt that after the war there is certain to be a substantial increase in the number of petitions for Private Bills. It will be a great advantage to those who take part to have a revised and simpler code to guide them. I hope the House will express its gratitude for this Report and will approve it.

Question put, and agreed to.

Report from the Select Committee considered accordingly.

Present Standing Orders relating to Private Business repealed: Proposed new Standing Orders approved.—[The Chairman of Ways and Means.]