Talking heads

In my blog Time to write your Christmas cards (posted 28 Aug 2013) I reported on the make up of the Public Bill Committee of MPs set up to carry out the Committee stage of the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill. In this blog and the next two I will report on the business of the first four sessions of the Committee, occupying two sitting days (9th and 11th July 2013).

Since 2006, public bill committees have been permitted to take oral and/or written evidence from outside organisations and members of the public, providing that the bill under consideration started its process through Parliament in the House of Commons. This is in addition to a positive requirement that one evidence session is held with the relevant minister and departmental officials.

The benefits that evidence taking can bring to the committee stage of public bills are identified by Jessica Levy in a report that she authored for The Constitution Unit of University College London; these are discussed in a section of the report under the heading What Value is Added by the New Public Bill Committee Process? (Section 3), and may be summarised as:

  • Provide a mechanism for ensuring that committee members are informed about the subject of the bill.
  • Bring greater openness to the legislative process by putting much of the briefing and consultation by outside interests onto the public record.
  • Increase access to, and engagement in, the law making process for the public and organised interests.
  • Encourage committee members to engage more in the activities of the committee.
  • Improve the quality of debate on clauses and amendments.

However, the degree to which these benefits accrue in the case of any particular public bill committee is somewhat at the mercy of the “usual channels” – see Time to write your Christmas cards – since the selection of witnesses to appear in front of a public bill committee is, in practice, a prerogative of the whips.

Notwithstanding, I don’t think that the selection of witnesses chosen to give oral evidence to the Public Bill Committee for the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill merits too much criticism. Altogether, twenty-nine witnesses were called, including three representing the sponsoring government department (the Minister, the Chief Executive of HS2 Ltd and the Director-General for HS2 at the DfT). Whilst this number included the usual suspects from the lobby supporting HS2 – such as Geoff Inskip of Centro, Sir Richard Leese of Manchester City Council, Jim Steer of Greengauge 21 and representatives from Network Rail – we also heard from county councillors affected by Phase 2, representatives of local enterprise partnerships, two – why two? – gentlemen from the Country Business and Landowners Association (CLA), and spokesmen for the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) and the Scottish Government.

The transport lobby groups were not forgotten, of course; both the Campaign for Better Transport and Passenger Focus had their say. We also heard from a couple of councils affected by Phase 1, with Birmingham City strongly supporting HS2 and the London Borough of Camden having issues. Academia was represented, strangely, by two professors from the same faculty – the Bartlett School of Planning at University College London – although their views on the potential economic benefits of HS2 appeared to differ somewhat. The professional bodies were represented by the Chairman of the Institution of Civil Engineers – unsurprisingly this institution supports HS2.

Experience of a current and a recent rail projects was provided by the inclusion in the list of witnesses of the Chairman of Crossrail and the Chief Executive of HS1 Ltd and there was a well-considered contribution from the Chairman of the Rail Freight Group. Unfortunately, but not a great surprise, putting the environmental case was left to the Campaign to Protect Rural England, an organisation that has hardly been in the forefront of the debate against the environmental damage that HS2 would cause.

Whilst this selection of witnesses represents a very wide range of bodies and interests, I think it is fair to say that, with a very small handful of exceptions, the message that they delivered was largely in favour of HS2, but with varying degrees of enthusiasm. However, to the credit of the usual channels, three voices were permitted to be heard that are most definitely not raised in support of the project. Whilst the reception given to them by the members of the Committee was perhaps not as warm as common manners would have suggested was appropriate – something that I will reflect upon in my next but one posting – at least representatives of the 51m group of local authorities, HS2 Action Alliance and Stop HS2 were given time in front of the Committee.

In the paper that I referred to in my blog Time to write your Christmas cards Dr Louise Thompson comments that public bill committees,

“… are not empowered to consider the main principles of a bill; only the clauses and schedules within it. Amendments which are inconsistent with or which attempt to reverse the decision reached by the whole House at second reading are not admissible.”

In view of this, and the very limited quantity of text contained in the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill, the issues that the Committee has discussed with its witnesses have been surprisingly comprehensive. These are summarised by Oksana Price in a blog posted on the Bircham Dyson Bell website as follows:

  • Capacity of the network (in particular the issue of freight, which was considered by most witnesses to have been overlooked despite being a growing and particularly important part of the railway)
  • Connectivity (in particular regional network developments)
  • Extension of the high speed railway to Scotland
  • Alternatives
  • Unfair economic distribution post-completion
  • The engagement of HS2 Ltd
  • Environmental Impact
  • Compensation
  • Demolition (Camden area and generally)

In the next two blogs I will examine the manner in which these evidence sessions were conducted.

Acknowledgement: The report referred to above is,

Levy, J, Strengthening Parliament’s Powers of Scrutiny? An assessement of the introduction of Public Bill Committees, The Constitution Unit, Department of Political Science, University College London, July 2009.

PS: Videos are available of the four evidence sessions, 9th July (morning, afternoon) and 11th July (morning, afternoon). Transcripts are also available, 9th July (morning, afternoon) and 11th July (morning, afternoon).

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One response to this post.

  1. Thank you Peter, don’t stop writing. Roger

    Reply

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