Committees on opposed bills

45.22When counsel are addressing the committee, or while witnesses are under examination, the committee room is an open court;1 but when the committee is about to deliberate, all the counsel, agents, witnesses, and strangers are ordered to withdraw, and the committee sits in private. At the appropriate time, the Chair calls in the parties and acquaints them with the decision of the committee.

The first proceeding of a committee on an opposed bill, when duly constituted, is to call in all the parties. The counsel in support of the bill appear before the committee. The petitions against the bill in support of which petitioners intend to appear are read by the committee clerk; and the counsel or agents appear in support of such petitions. If no one indicates an intention to appear in support of any petition, the opposition of the petitioners is held to be abandoned, although indulgence has been granted to parties applying to be heard after proceedings have commenced.2

Where petitions complain of matters arising during the sitting of the committee, or of amendments proposed to be made in the bill, parties may indicate their intention to appear as the occasion arises.3

In 1956, during consideration of the North-East Surrey Crematorium Board Bill [Lords] by the committee on unopposed bills, it was brought to its notice that a petition had been deposited complaining of a matter which had arisen during the progress of the bill before the committee. The committee adjourned further consideration of the bill and made a special report to the House.4

The traditional procedure adopted by a private bill committee, when the principle of the bill was opposed by petitioners, was to consider first the preamble, or general expediency, of the bill and subsequently, if it were decided to approve the preamble, to go through the individual clauses. While it is still occasionally possible for a committee to make this clear distinction between principle and detail, it is more often the case that the two are so closely interconnected as to render it impracticable to deal with a bill in this way. Many recent committees have preferred to follow a more flexible procedure allowing them to deal first with the points contested by the petitioners, which may relate partly to the preamble and partly to individual clauses, and to take the necessary decisions on such matters before passing on to the unopposed clauses.5

If the preamble is opposed, counsel addresses the committee more particularly upon the general expediency of the bill, and then calls witnesses to prove every matter which will establish the truth of the allegations contained in the preamble; alternatively, they may confine themselves and their witnesses to the particular provisions which are opposed by the petitioners. The witnesses may be cross-examined by the counsel or agent who appears in support of the several petitions against the bill. Cross-examination is confined to matters comprised in the petitions, except when it is sought to discredit a witness. After the cross-examination, each witness may be re-examined by the counsel in support of the bill.

As already stated (see paras 44.3, 45.17 ), all petitions against a private bill, which have been deposited in accordance with the standing orders, stand referred to the committee; and such petitioners, subject to the rules and orders of the House, must be heard upon their petition. When petitioners appear before the committee, their counsel or agent either opens their case or reserves their speech until after the evidence. Witnesses may be called and examined in support of the petitions, cross-examined by the counsel for the bill, and re-examined by the counsel or agent for the petitioners; but counsel and agents can be heard, and witnesses examined on behalf of petitioners, only in relation to matters referred to in their petitions. It follows therefore that, unless they pray in their petition to be heard against the preamble, petitioners may not argue against the principle of the bill as a whole, but must confine themselves to addressing the provisions which directly affect their interests.

Petitions against alterations (see para 44.3 ) are presented by parties who object to alterations which are proposed to be made in the bill in committee, and which might affect them. Such petitions may contain objections to amendments proposed by the promoters and included in the ‘filled-up’ bill (including additional provisions), or to amendments that either have been or, it is anticipated, will be requested by petitioners or made by the committee.

The procedure for considering such petitions in a committee depends on the circumstances. If the petitioner is objecting to amendments proposed by the promoters, they have a right to be heard after the case for the promoters on the relevant part of the bill has been closed. If, however, they are objecting to amendments requested by other petitioners against the bill, two courses of procedure are possible. Should the promoters be opposed to the requested amendments, they are held to be fully competent to defend their bill without the intervention of the petitioner against alterations, and it is not usual for the petitioner against alterations to be heard. If the promoters are disposed to leave the decision entirely to the committee or to concede the requested amendments, then the petitioner against alterations assumes the task of defending the bill in this respect in the place of the promoters. In such circumstances petitioners against alterations have been heard to make their case for the bill as originally presented before the petitioners against the bill have argued their case for the amendments they propose. If, however, the committee is disposed to agree to the proposed amendments, it may, before taking a decision, give the petitioner against alterations an opportunity of stating their case (which may not be the same as that of the promoters) and of producing any new and relevant evidence.

Under Standing Order 90, the jurisdiction of the Court of Referees extends only to petitions against private bills. The right to be heard of petitioners against alterations is therefore decided by the committee on the bill.

In general, the normal rules of evidence apply, though witnesses are allowed to refer to a written proof of evidence. Under the Parliamentary Witnesses Oaths Act 1871, any committee of the House of Commons is empowered to administer an oath to witnesses examined before it;6 and witnesses before opposed private bill committees are examined on oath.

Ministers or officials7 may be heard at any convenient part in the proceedings; they are not witnesses and may not be cross-examined, but the Chair may allow questions to be put to an official if addressed through them.

When the speeches and evidence in support of the petitions are concluded, counsel for the bill replies on the whole case. If a petitioner has not called witnesses or put in any document, counsel for the bill has no right of reply; but if a petitioner puts in a document (or even, without putting it in, cross-examines the promoters' witnesses upon it) this generally entitles the promoters to a reply. In some cases this reply is restricted; for example, where the petitioner refers to any Act of Parliament8 or judgment of a court, or to the decision, proceedings, or report of a committee of either House of Parliament or other similar body, the reply must be limited to the particular document quoted. Any documents or minutes of evidence on bills of a previous session which may have been referred to the committee may be commented on by counsel without objection and considered by the committee; but reference to such documents by a petitioner does not entitle the promoters to a reply.

The power of a committee to admit clauses or amendments has already been described (see para 45.8 ). If, however, a committee is of the opinion that provisions which would necessitate a petition for additional provision should be inserted in the bill, the further consideration of the bill can be postponed, in order to give the parties time to petition the House for additional provision (see para 43.15 ).9 It should be noted, however, that additional provisions may not be obtained in the second House. Similarly, and as a consequence of this, it is a well-established rule that a clause conferring powers upon the promoters struck out in one House should not be re-inserted in the other, and restrictive amendments imposed by one House on the promoters are not reversed by the other.10

In one instance, a restrictive amendment has been reversed by the other House. A clause in the West Midlands County Council Bill [Lords] 1979, which provided for the control of acupuncturists, was amended in committee in the Commons so as to exempt petitioners from its provisions. The Lords disagreed to the amendment, on which the Commons did not insist.11

There have been a number of occasions when agreements reached between promoters and petitioners have been further explored by the House or have been the subject of comment by the committee itself.

The Bolton Corporation Bill 1949, as presented, had contained a clause authorising the Corporation to provide a residential hotel. Subsequently, as a result of negotiations with opponents, the promoters agreed to strike out the clause in the ‘filled-up’ bill, and the committee on the bill made the necessary amendment. On consideration, a motion was made to recommit the bill to a Committee of the whole House in respect of a clause couched in terms similar to the clause already left out in committee (re-committal was necessary since the provisions of the clause involved a charge upon the rates, see para 35.8 ). The Chairman of Ways and Means, in advising the House to reject the motion, drew attention to the serious consequences which might ensue in future negotiations on private legislation if promoters were to be compelled to insert a clause which they had previously agreed to leave out.12 The motion to re-commit the bill was negatived.13

In the case of the Urmston Urban District Council Bill 1949, where a petition had been withdrawn as a result of a similar undertaking given by the promoters, the committee on the bill made a special report stating that although it had felt obliged to accept the position, it nevertheless regretted the omission of the powers contained in the clause and wished to draw the attention of the House to their desirability.14

By contrast, in the London County Council (General Powers) Bill 1961, the promoters, having included a clause on street trading in the bill at the request of certain metropolitan borough councils, proposed, in the ‘filled-up’ bill, to delete it because one borough council objected, and the committee on the bill accepted this amendment. On consideration of the bill, the House agreed to a motion to re-insert a slightly different provision on street trading.15

When the arguments and evidence have been heard, the room is cleared to enable the committee to deliberate. The parties are then called in and the committee announces its decision.

If the committee finds the preamble proved, the promoters then invite a witness formally to testify to the truth of the allegations contained therein.

If the proof of the preamble is negatived, the committee reports to the House that the preamble has not been proved.16

When a committee has resolved that the preamble of a private bill has not been proved, and ordered the Chair to report, it is not competent for it to reconsider and reverse its decision; instead, the bill should be re-committed for that purpose.17 But to re-commit a bill of which the committee has reported the preamble ‘not proved’ is unusual and done only in very exceptional circumstances.18

In several other instances where compromises have afterwards been effected and the promoters have consented to make amendments, the bills have been re-committed for that purpose.19

Alterations may be made in the preamble, subject to the restriction which applies to any other amendment, that it is not inconsistent with the purposes of the bill (see para 45.8 ), or with the standing orders of the House applicable to the bill. The Chair of the committee is, however, required by Standing Order 142 to report such alterations and to state the reasons for making them.

Under the Parliamentary Costs Act 2006 when a committee (in either House of Parliament) on a private bill decides that the preamble is not proved, or inserts any provision, or strikes out or alters any provision already in the bill, for the protection of any petitioner, and further unanimously reports that one or more of the petitioners against the bill have been unreasonably or vexatiously subjected to expense in defending their rights, such petitioner or petitioners are entitled to recover their costs (or such part of them as the committee thinks fit) from the promoters.20 On the other hand, when a committee unanimously reports that the promoters have been vexatiously subjected to expense by the opposition of petitioners, the promoters are entitled to recover costs from those opponents.21 However, no landowner who bona fide, at their own sole risk and charge, opposes a bill which proposes to take any part of their property, shall be liable to any costs in respect of their opposition.

It has been held that the Act has been duly complied with if all the members of the committee present at the hearing of the case, provided that they form a quorum, have unanimously reported in the manner prescribed for entitling parties to recover costs.22

When costs are awarded, special mention of the award is made in the report on the bill, which is endorsed with the words ‘Costs awarded’ and is ordered to be printed. The costs awarded by a committee have to be taxed by the Taxing Officer of the House if the parties so apply (see para 43.19 ).

The provisions of the Parliamentary Costs Act 2006 are applied to orders considered by a joint committee under the Statutory Orders (Special Procedure) Act 1945, by s 7 of the latter Act.23

Particular duties are imposed by standing order on the Chair of the committee on every private bill (whether opposed or unopposed) to record the proceedings of the committee and report them to the House. Under Standing Order 141, the Chair must sign ‘the committee bill’, which incorporates all the amendments made by the committee, and initial the several clauses added in the committee. Finally, under Standing Order 142, the Chair must report to the House whether the allegations of the bill have been found to be true; and, if the preamble has been amended, why that amendment was necessary and whether the allegations contained in the preamble, as amended, have been found to be true. If the promoters inform the committee that they do not intend to proceed with the bill, the Chair must report accordingly.

Under Standing Order 131A, whenever copies of the minutes of the evidence taken before an opposed bill committee are required, they are provided at the expense of the parties, with the costs being divided in proportions specified by the Private Bill Office. In practice, the House charges the promoters an hourly fee which is intended to recover part of the cost of production. The minutes of evidence taken before committees on private bills are also published online.

If matters should arise in the committee, apart from the immediate consideration of the bill referred to it, which it desires to report to the House, the committee directs the Chair to make a special report accordingly.24 The House may also instruct the committee on a private bill to make a special report.25

If a committee wishes to record a decision on a matter in respect of which it is unable to amend the bill (because to do so would be to incorporate provisions outside the purposes of the bill (see para 45.8 )), it can do so by making a recommendation which is incorporated in a special report. Parties are informed of such recommendations by the committee.26

It is the duty of a committee on an opposed bill, under Standing Order 125, to report to the House the bill that has been referred to them; and the proceedings of the committee should not be protracted by long adjournments. This Standing Order prescribes that every committee on an opposed private bill shall report specially to the House the cause of any adjournment over any day on which the House sits.27 If any attempt of this nature is made to defeat a bill, the House will intervene to prevent it. Frequent or long adjournments may put the parties to considerable expense and inconvenience, and for this reason also they are avoided as far as possible. In practice, committees sit rarely on Fridays and infrequently on Mondays.

If a committee adjourned without naming another day for resuming its sittings, it was formerly held that it had no power of reassembling without an order from the House giving it leave to sit and proceed on a certain day. However, it is now common practice for committees to adjourn ‘beyond the next sitting day’ and to resume proceedings without the need for an order to revive them.


  1. But see Minutes of Evidence, Group A on the Kent Electric Power Bill, 21 May 1941, for an occasion when a committee sat in private for reasons of public security, and on the Dartford-Thurrock Crossing Bill (a hybrid bill), 17 November 1987, for reasons of commercial confidence.
  2. Minutes of Evidence of Committee on London Docklands Railway (City Extension) Bill, 20 May 1986, p 24. See also para 43.17.
  3. See also SO 126 and para 45.17.
  4. CJ (1955–56) 289.
  5. For example, Middle Level Bill 2017–19, Commons opposed bill committee.
  6. See para 38.37. For the power of committees in the Lords to administer oaths, see the Parliamentary Witnesses Act 1858, s 2, and paras 40.28, 46.21.
  7. For example, Minutes of Evidence, Committee on London Docklands Railway (Lewisham) Bill, 10 December 1991 and on Crossrail Bill, 16 March 1994.
  8. For example, Minutes of Evidence, Committee on South Essex Waterworks Bill, 4 April 1962, p 47.
  9. Special Report from the Committee on the Lloyd's Bill, CJ (1980–81) 464; London Docklands Railway (Beckton) Bill, Minutes of Evidence, 15 March 1988; Greater Nottingham Light Rapid Transit Bill, Minutes of Evidence, 5 November 1992.
  10. In 1956, the committee on the Gloucestershire County Council Bill deleted an amendment which had previously been made by the House of Lords at the request of the promoters to give effect to an agreement between them and petitioners. Doubts were expressed as to the validity of this and the promoters obtained leave to withdraw the amended clause on consideration, CJ (1955–56) 220, Opposed Private Bills, Minutes of Proceedings (1954–56), Session 1955–56, 21 February 1956, Gloucestershire County Council Bill [Lords]. See also HC Deb (1995–96) 278, cc 164–65.
  11. Committee on the West Midlands County Council Bill [Lords], Minutes of Evidence, 13 and 14 March 1979; Lords Minutes (1979–80) 31 January 1980; HL Deb (1979–80) 404, cc 997–1003; CJ (1979–80) 394; HC Deb (1979–80) 979, cc 322–44.
  12. HC Deb (1948–49) 464, cc 1104–5.
  13. CJ (1948–49) 231.
  14. CJ (1948–49) 252.
  15. HC Deb (1961–62) 661, cc 1039–80.
  16. Hampshire (Lyndhurst By-pass) Bill [Lords], CJ (1987–88) 701; Wentworth Estate Bill, ibid (1988–89) 544; Hythe, Kent, Marina Bill, ibid (1989–90) 558; Crossrail Bill, ibid (1993–94) 340.
  17. CJ (1924–25) 179, London County Council (Tramways and Improvements) Bill, where the committee was instructed to reconsider its decision on the preamble.
  18. Cf the proceedings in the House on the Piccadilly, City, and North East London Railway Bill 1902, Parl Deb (1902) 113, c 1154, and on the City of London (Various Powers) Bill 1961, HC Deb (1961–62) 661, cc 1080–1116. A motion seeking the re-committal of the Crossrail Bill to the former committee with an instruction to reconsider its decision on the preamble was objected to and was not thereafter proceeded with (ibid (1993–94) 246, cc 131, 149). The promoters of the South Eastern and London, Chatham, and Dover Railways Bill, a multi-purpose bill, could not accept the provisions suggested by the committee in one opposed portion, ‘Railway No 1’, of the bill. The committee therefore reported that the preamble of the whole bill, including other and unopposed portions, was not proved. The bill was re-committed with an instruction to the committee to reconsider its decision upon so much of the preamble as did not relate to Railway No 1; the committee subsequently reported the preamble proved except in so far as it related to Railway No 1, CJ (1902) 306, 314, 330, 343; Parl Deb (1902) 110, c 759.
  19. CJ (1874) 225; ibid (1877) 177; ibid (1924–25) 179. The Local Legislation Committee decided that so much of the preamble of the East Ham Corporation Bill as related to Part II was not proved, but its Chair stated that the committee would welcome reconsideration of its decision by the House in view of the novelty and importance of the questions raised. On re-committal to the same committee with an instruction to reinsert these provisions either with or without modifications if it thought fit, the committee reinserted the powers asked for, CJ (1913) 189, 283, 293; HC Deb (1913) 55, c 2132; HC 267 (1913) pp iii, xxi, xxvi.
  20. Costs granted to petitioners, Wallasey Corporation Bill, CJ (1957–58) 241; British Transport Commission Bill, ibid (1961–62) 189; Portland Deepwater Quays Bill, LJ (1974) 248; Harrogate Stray Bill, CJ (1984–85) 393; King's Cross Railways Bill, Minutes of Evidence, 10 July 1990, p 27.
  21. Costs granted to promoters, Skegness etc, Tramways (Abandonment) Bill, CJ (1886) 206; Folkestone, Sandgate etc, Tramways Bill (in which case the petitioners had been offered a protective clause by the committee), ibid (1890–91) 139 and Minutes of Evidence (Group 2), 5 and 6 March 1891; Bank of Bolton Bill, CJ (1895) 231; Buxton Urban District Council Bill, ibid (1902) 275.
  22. Minutes of the Police and Sanitary Committee (consisting of nine members, with a quorum of five), Lancaster Corporation Bill 1888.
  23. No costs have yet been awarded.
  24. For examples of special reports from private bill committees on their treatment of a bill, or on special circumstances, etc see CJ (1992–93) 108, 141, 212, 524; ibid (1998–99) 374; ibid (1999–2000) 655; HC 647 (2005–06); ibid 961 (2006–07). From joint committees on special procedure orders, see ibid (1984–85) 251; ibid (1992–93) 498; ibid (1993–94) 307; ibid (1999–2000) 60.
  25. CJ (1987–88) 216.
  26. Minutes of Evidence, Kent Water Bill 1954, p 577; also Special Report of the Committee on the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill, HC 534 (1998–99).
  27. For example, Private Business (2002–03) 23.