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Power To Pay Extraparliamentary Commissioners For Service On Inquiries Under The Private Legislation Procedure (Scotland) Act 1936

Volume 78: debated on Thursday 2 May 1985

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'In section 5 of the Private Legislation Procedure (Scotland) Act 1936 (which provides amongst other things, as to the appointment of Commissioners for inquiries under the Act) there shall be added at the end the following subsection—

"(9) The Secretary of State may pay Commissioners taken from the extraparliamentary panel such fees or other amounts in respect of the performance of their duties under this Act as he may, with the approval of the Treasury, determine". '.— [The Solicitor-General for Scotland.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

With this, it will be convenient to take Government Amendment No. 51.

4 pm

The new clause adds a new subsection, subsection (9), to section 5 of the Private Legislation Procedure (Scotland) Act 1936, to empower the Secretary of State to pay fees to commissioners appointed from an extra-parliamentary panel to serve on the inquiries into provisional orders submitted to him under that Act.

Four commissioners are appointed, under section 5 of the 1936 Act, to serve on an inquiry. They are normally two hon. Members appointed by the Chairman of Ways and Means, and two members of the House of Lords, appointed by the Chairman of Committees.

If the Chairmen are unable to appoint four parliamentary commissioners, the Secretary of State appoints as many persons as are required from the extra-parliamentary panel. The panel consists of 20 persons qualified by their experience of affairs who are nominated by the chairmen, acting jointly with the Secretary of State.

Recourse to the panel is very infrequent. Until last November, when two members were appointed to act as commissioners for the inquiry into the Lothian Region (Edinburgh Western Relief Road) Order 1984 only three members from the extra-parliamentary panel had been called upon to serve in the last 20 years.

Section 14 of the 1936 Act provides for the payment of travelling and subsistence allowances for all commissioners, but there is at present no provision for the commissioners from the extra-parliamentary panel to be paid a fee or to be reimbursed for loss of earnings through service as a commissioner. The absence of such a provision might create a difficulty when the Secretary of State next has to appoint a commissioner from the panel. My hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Hirst), who served on a recent provisional order inquiry, will well understand the need for this provision, which seeks to remove the possibility of difficulty.

I apologise to the Solicitor-General in that, because I have only just entered the Chamber, I do not know whether he has already mentioned this point. Is it perfectly clear that such payment would not involve commissioners in a difficulty over the question of an office of profit under the Crown?

No, the new clause would not create any difficulty, because commissioners who happen to be hon. Members will have no access to this opportunity. It is only in those infrequent cases where a commissioner is appointed from the extra-parliamentary panel that there might be a need for payment. The power to pay a fee—the level of which would be determined by the Secretary of State with the approval of the Treasury—will be additional to the provisions of section 14 for the payment of travelling and subsistence allowances. It will apply only to commissioners drawn from the extra-parliamentary panel. Hon. Members continue to receive their normal parliamentary salary when serving as commissioners, and Members of the House of Lords are entitled to allowances on the same basis as for attendance in their House.

I commend the new clause to the House and trust that it will be seen as facilitating the private legislation procedure in Scotland.

The amount is not limited; it is to be determined by the Secretary of State. It will be subject to Treasury approval, and that might lead us to believe that it is likely to be very modest, but should Parliament give an open-ended commitment? It is acceptable that people should be paid, but perhaps Parliament should have some control over the size of the payment.

The level of the fee is to be determined by the Secretary of State. If the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) fears that the fee might be too high, he must be failing to take account of the fact that the approval of the Treasury will be required. It would be a unique experience, if the Secretary of State for Scotland were to find that the Treasury was prepared to agree to the payment of a sum, that the House might consider that excessive.

I see that the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart), with his experience, accepts that proposition.

I am grateful for the opportunity to say a few words about the new clause. I do so with enthusiasm because I recently served as a parliamentary commissioner on a lengthy inquiry. Because only two of the four commissioners were Members of Parliament, it was necessary on that occasion to bring in two people from the extra-parliamentary list. The inquiry was privileged by the appointment of Mrs. Morris and Mr. Lowson. Mr. Lowson was retired, but Mrs. Morris was a very active person who found it necessary to forgo, for nearly three and a half months, practising her profession as a psychologist. It is entirely appropriate that this power should be granted, so that, in future, the private legislation procedure will be able to depend on the services of the talented and able people who are needed to serve in the onerous position of commissioner.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) has pointed out that the amount to be paid would be unlimited. That must be right, because the appropriate reimbursement may vary in different circumstances. Given the Treasury's record, I cannot believe that it will be prepared to pay substantial amounts without justification. I welcome the new clause with enthusiasm.

I welcome—in a somewhat muted fashion—a minor change. There should be room for recompense for those who give such public service. No sum likely to get past the eagle eye of the Treasury would be likely to compensate for the sufferings of the commissioners on the Edinburgh relief road inquiry. The comments of the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Hirst) resembled a cri de coeur.

On another occasion, we could have a useful debate about the way in which the procedure operates, its effectivness as a method of dealing with the immensely complex issues that arise in such inquiries, and the extent to which it can be conclusive. However, while the procedure exists, and while we ask people—we may ask them with increasing frequency in future—to serve from the extra-parliamentary list, it is only right that there should be some provision to pay them for their services. The Opposition would not wish in any way to obstruct the proposal.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.