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Port Of London (Financial Assistance) Bill

Volume 982: debated on Wednesday 16 April 1980

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On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to suggest that the Port of London (Financial Assistance) Bill, which is on today's Order Paper, is not a Public Bill but is either a Hybrid Bill or, possibly, a Private Bill, and ought to be subjected to the appropriate procedure for that sort of Bill.

The long title says that the Bill is to
"provide financial assistance for and in connection with measures taken by the Port of London Authority to restore the profitability of their undertaking by reducing the number of persons employed by them."
Certainly, by that title, the Bill benefits one authority—the Port of London Authority—which is one body within a class or category of bodies, namely, all those that are port authorities. On that basis, the other bodies in that category should have the opportunity to present their cases, by petition, to the House.

I need not remind you, Mr. Speaker, of the ruling of Mr. Speaker Hylton-Foster, but I shall quote it in order to develop my argument. According to "Erskine May", at page 862, Mr. Speaker Hylton-Foster gave the following definition of a Hybrid Bill in 1962:
"I think that a hybrid bill can be defined as a public bill which affects a particular private interest in a manner different from the private interests of other persons or bodies of the same category or class."
I submit that that relates not only to an adverse effect but to a favourable effect.

The Bill deals preferentially and discriminatorily with the interests of the Port of London Authority in a manner different from the private interests of other bodies of the same category or class, namely, other port authorities. Of course, in my constituency I have particularly in mind the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company.

Page 865 of "Erskine May" deals specifically with Bills relating to the Port of London Authority. The paragraph is headed "Port of London" and says:
"The Port of London Bill, 1903, was introduced by the Government and proceeded with as a hybrid bill, but, after being suspended, was withdrawn in the next Session. The Port of London Bill, 1908, a Government bill which constituted the Port of London Authority, was also proceeded with as a hybrid bill, but bills. promoted since then by the Authority have regularly been passed as private bills."
That deals specifically with the sort of Bill that is on the Order Paper today.

When I consulted the usual people whom one consults on a subject such as this I was told that the Bill only provides money and does not alter the law, and that therefore it is a Public Bill dealing with public policy. I should have thought that if it is necessary to have statutory authority for the Minister to give away money to one body, that surely alters the law. Even if it is taken that it does not alter the law—and it must alter the law if we need a statute—I can find nothing in "Erskine May" to support that sort of argument.

I submit that the Bill comes clearly within Mr. Speaker Hylton-Foster's definition of Hybrid Bills in 1962 and well within the precedents of the way in which the House has previously dealt with Port of London Authority Bills. I submit that it is either a Hybrid Bill or a purely Private Bill.

Order. I have an advantage over the hon. Members, because I had notice this morning of the point of order that the right hon. Member for Crosby (Sir G. Page) has raised, and I have the further advantage—I hesitate to say it to the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop)—of having studied "Erskine May", which I know the hon. Gentleman takes to bed with him. I also have the advantage of having looked into the matter in considerable depth during the day.

I am naturally grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in giving me notice this morning, which enabled me to have time to study the matter and to take advice upon the question.

Having listened to the right hon. Gentleman, I must inform him and the House that I am satisfied that the Bill is not, of its nature, hybrid. Its sole effect is to make a grant of public money to the Port of London Authority to help it in its present financial difficulties.

There are a number of instances of Bills giving similar assistance to individual authorities which have been pro- ceeded with as Public Bills. I mention in particular the Rolls-Royce (Purchase) Act 1971, the British Leyland Act 1975 and the Covent Garden Market (Financial Provisions) Act 1977, in respect of none of which was there, as far as I am aware, a claim that they should be treated as hybrid measures.

In my view there is nothing in the Bill that amounts to direct commercial discrimination against any other authorities. I therefore rule that it does not require to be proceeded with as a Hybrid Bill.

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I say with great humility that I share your view, but, purely for the clarity of precedent, I think that it is important to stress that Mr. Speaker Hylton-Foster's ruling, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Sir. G. Page) quoted, contains a word to which emphasis was not given. I think that a Hybrid Bill can be defined as a Public Bill that affects a particular private interest—not a particular interest, but a particular private interest. As I understand it, the Port of London Authority is a public body. Therefore, on that very fine point as well, it would not seem to me to fall within Mr. Speaker Hylton-Foster's ruling.

I am deeply grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I shall sleep a lot better tonight.

May I express gratitude to you, Mr. Speaker, rather than to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop), for looking so carefully into the matter? I am much obliged.

We follow your advice with great care, Mr. Speaker, and the House is grateful to you for giving it, but since this morning's post arrived the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company has let hon. Members know that it is now in serious financial difficulties. From what you have said, Mr. Speaker, it would appear that there is a form of discrimination in the Bill. I should like you to have another look at the matter and report your findings to the House.

I looked into the matter earlier today. The hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends who feel keenly about Liverpool would be well advised to pursue the matter in another way. The Bill is not a hybrid measure.