Do you agree with me?

As promised in my blog Talking heads (posted 1 Sep 2013), in this posting and the next  I will reflect on the manner that the Public Bill Committee of MPs set up to carry out the Committee stage of the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill conducted the oral evidence sessions that occupied the first four sessions of the business of the Committee, spread over the two days 9th and 11th July 2013.

On the face of it, these sessions were conducted in a very similar way to oral evidence sessions held by select committees, some of which I have reported on in past blogs. The layout of the room is the same, with Members sitting at a horseshoe-shaped table with the Chairman at the apex and witnesses on a separate table at the open base of the horseshoe.

However, there are at least four important differences that I detected.

In the first place, select committees are a wholly backbench affair, whereas the membership of the questioning panel of a public bill committee includes the minister who is promoting the bill, the Opposition frontbench spokesman, and representatives of the Government and Opposition whips’ offices. The danger of this arrangement is, I fear, that some backbenchers may feel inhibited in the questions that they wish to ask.

Another marked difference with select committees is that the Chairman of a select committee tends to act as inquisitor-in-chief of witnesses; the way that the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, conducts her sessions demonstrates this admirably. The role of the Chairman of a public bill committee is more akin to that of Mr Speaker in the Commons Chamber; he or she is required to preside over proceedings in an impartial manner and, as such, will not ask questions of the witnesses, leaving this to other members of the committee. From what I have seen of the business of the HS2 Public Bill Committee, this can weaken the strength and focus of the questioning and lead to a more disjointed approach.

The third difference is that, as one of the appointed Chairs to the HS2 Public Bill Committee, Annette Brooke MP, pointed out at the start of each of the three sessions that she chaired, “questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill”. However despite the very wide ranging nature of the questioning, the Chairman did not rule any questions out of order and I suspect that this is a rule that is more honoured in the breach.

The final difference is that the Committee agrees a programme motion at the start of the session and the Chairman ensures that the timings set within this motion are strictly adhered to, even cutting witnesses off in mid-sentence when the scheduled time for the end of each evidence session is reached. It is possible however for the Committee to amend the timetable subsequently, as happened twice during the proceedings of the HS2 Private Bill Committee; once to add a witness to the schedule and once to modify the schedule to accommodate a break to allow Members to attend a division in the Commons Chamber. The Chairman also extended the final evidence session, with the agreement of all parties.

I must confess that I was very disappointed with the quality of the evidence sessions. It appeared to me that some Members present saw the sessions as a means of promoting their preconceived views, and not as a genuine learning opportunity. This meant that the chance to examine the case for HS2 forensically was largely lost, whereas points raised by witnesses questioning HS2 were, more often than not, challenged rigorously – I intend to develop this theme further in my next posting.

I also don’t think that the questioning of witnesses was up to the standard that one would expect in a court of law. As I was watching I couldn’t help but recall the American TV programme Perry Mason that was a big hit in my childhood days. The eponymous hero of this TV series was a defence lawyer and a recurring theme as the courtroom drama was played out was either Perry Mason or his legal opponent, the District Attorney, leaping up to interject, “Objection, your Honor!”.

A number of times during the HS2 evidence session, I wished that Perry Mason was present in the committee room. For example:

“Do you think it is crucial that HS2 and HS1 are linked together?” – Q52 posed by Karen Lumley MP to Geoff Inskip of Centro, Sir Richard Leese of Manchester City Council and Cllr Mark Winnington of Staffordshire County Council on the morning of Tuesday 9th July (transcript).

“Objection, your Honor! That is a leading question.”

“Apart from the obvious economic benefits of having high-speed rail from London to Birmingham and then to Leeds and Manchester, do you think there would be greater benefits to your respective city regions if that rail line extended even further north into Scotland and the central belt connecting to Edinburgh and/or Glasgow? – Q103 posed by Graeme Morrice MP to Ben Still Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP and Chris Tunstall Sheffield City LEP on the afternoon of Tuesday 9th July (transcript).

“Objection, your Honor! According to the National Audit Office, amongst others, the economic benefits have not been demonstrated to date.”

“Again, I have not read it [the 51m alternative to HS2], but I have been told that this is what is in there: it does nothing for freight. I am not sure what it will do, apart from not building a new railway.” – Chris Tunstall replying to Q110 from Frank Dobson MP on the afternoon of Tuesday 9th July.

“Objection, your Honor! That is hearsay. The witness admits that he has not read the proposal, so how can he comment upon it?”

“May I say to Sir Richard that he is absolutely right? One of the purposes of the Bill, among others, is that it cements the commitment to phase 1and phase 2. He can rest assured that I am as anxious as he is that the legislative progress goes as swiftly as possible, so that we can get on with building this railway.” – Q42 posed by Simon Burns MP to Sir Richard Lease on the morning of Tuesday 9th July.

“Objection, your Honor! The Minister will have the opportunity to give his views when he gives evidence to the Committee.”

And just to illustrate that I can be fair-minded:

“Can I also make the point that, as currently intended, these business people who will be put out of business will be entitled to no compensation whatever? Their premises are not going to be demolished; it is just that there will be a sort of Berlin wall between them and their principal source of customers.” – Supplementary to Q165 by Frank Dobson MP (anti-HS2) to Dr Adam Marshall of the British Chambers of Commerce on the morning of Thursday 11th July (transcript).

We don’t need to speculate what Perry Mason may have said at this juncture, as the Chairman intervened with, “I remind Members that we should be asking questions, rather than making comments”.

Despite the reservations that I have expressed about the evidence sessions, there was a mass of issues discussed that it would be remiss of me to let pass without comment. Accordingly, I plan to post over the coming weeks some additional blogs that will scrutinise a selection of the topics that the Committee and its witnesses examined.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by chriseaglen on September 6, 2013 at 6:19 pm

    Signs of self importance, clique power. Try listening to Lord Andrew Adonis fly over the politics of 2010 to 2015 in BOOKTALK and you will no longer be surprised. A mixture of the informed and uninformed. The PMs view on his fellow MPs and their decision making was for all to listen and see from Moscow in the interview with the BBC. Do the right thing compared with the weak taking the easy path. The Oxford School of the 21st Century is very confused and lacking in direction, other than perpetual circles. Sounds as though this Select Committee has achieved this ahead of the remaining Parliamentary elements.

    Reply

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