Friend or foe?

As I reported in my blog Talking heads (posted 1 Sep 2013), the Public Bill Committee of MPs set up to carry out the Committee stage of the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill invited twenty-nine witnesses to oral evidence sessions that spanned two whole days of committee business. Having viewed the videos of these sessions and carefully read the transcripts in order to research my blogs on these sessions I have to admit to being surprised, and even shocked, at the treatment meted out to the three witnesses representing bodies campaigning against HS2, compared with the more kindly handling of neutral or pro-HS2 witnesses. It appeared that some Members supporting HS2 were classifying those appearing before them as either friend or foe, and reacting to them accordingly.

If you doubt me on this, view the video of the session in which the two very enthusiastic HS2 supporters, Geoff Inskip and Sir Richard Leese, gave evidence; the session starts at 1hr 2mins into the video and ends at 2hrs 2mins. It is obvious that these two gentlemen are regarded as friends, and are basically given a free platform from which to proclaim their views, which are not challenged at all. On the contrary a number of the questions appear to have been designed to encourage these two witnesses to indulge in pro-HS2 overstatement.

Now I do have to admit that the third witness in this session, Cllr Mark Winnington of Staffordshire County Council, expressed some scepticism about HS2, but was treated no less kindly by the Committee. In my view, he got away with this by not being very incisive in his comments and by benefiting from being bathed by the glow of goodwill radiating from the Members towards the other two witnesses.

The session that opened the afternoon sitting of the Committee on the same day featured three witnesses from the campaign against HS2: Cllr Martin Tett, Leader of Buckinghamshire County Council and Chairman of the 51m group, Emma Crane of the HS2 Action Alliance, and Joe Rukin of Stop HS2. I think that if you view the video you will agree that this session, which starts at 2mins in and ends at about the 1hr point, was far more of an interrogation of the witnesses. I don’t take issue with this at all – witnesses should be challenged on their opinions – it is just that this challenge was notably missing from other sessions, such as the Inskip/Leese one.

Despite the more probing approach, the session was constructive for most of its duration. The three witnesses had admirable command of their briefs and were each able to make a persuasive case. Despite the best attempts of the questioning to wrong foot them, they all seemed able to remain credible and, in my view, were well ahead of their interrogators on points. Perhaps this was the reason why one or two of the Members decided to roughen things up a bit and they clearly saw Cllr Tett, as a representative of the “toffs” of Buckinghamshire, as fair game.

The turning point appeared to be when Kris Hopkins, Conservative Member for Keighley, decided to make capital out of regional rivalries at about 19 mins into the video (Q71 in the transcript):

“There appears to be quite a disparity …between the south and the north of England in relation to the potential of HS2. I am wondering what the cause of that disparity is. Why are Buckinghamshire and its authorities less enthusiastic than the good people of Yorkshire and Lancashire?”

He didn’t quite get out his “their lawns or our jobs” placard, but I think that we all know what he was getting at. Just in case there was any doubt, he posed a second question (Q72):

“You have explained why Oldham or Birmingham might suffer, but we did not get to the point of why Buckinghamshire and those authorities are opposed to it when there is near-unanimous support across the north of England.”

About twenty minutes later, another northern Conservative, Martin Vickers the Member for Cleethorpes, got his chance to have his own dig at Martin Tett. He accused Cllr Tett of being “rather dismissive of [his] colleagues from the northern authorities”; something which the councillor denied (Q80).

About ten minutes further on, the Conservative MP for Redditch, Karen Lumley, made a play to align her midlands constituents with those of her two colleagues further north by claiming that the good people of Redditch would be thinking, “All you care about is the south of England, and what about the midlands and the north? We want some of these jobs as well. We want to rebalance the economy and we think it would be a good thing for us.” (Q84)

However, it was with the next questioner that standards sunk to an unprecedented low. Labour’s Khalid Mahmood, Member for Birmingham Perry Bar, said that his feelings were similar to how, “Mr Stephenson felt when he came to the House for the first Bill for the line from Manchester to Liverpool” (see footnote). He sympathised that George Stevenson had encountered critics like the witnesses before him now and that, “he had to put up with that” (Q86). He continued:

“I know that anything up past Watford, we are a bit simple and we get very easily taken in by the public relations people and everybody else, and do not really realise what we are talking about in most instances. We do not know that we can spend that money much better on the local transport projects that we have, and local accountability. And we are not very good at all of that stuff so thank you very much, Mr Tett, for pointing that out to us.”

Martin Tett’s reaction to this bigoted outburst, which is very visible on the video, appears to be a mixture of frustration and disbelief; a reaction that I can fully understand. I think that Mr Mahmood’s words say much more about his own prejudices than any that Cllr Tett may have. His calculated insult was not only inappropriate, but was also unnecessarily offensive to a witness who was trying to present his evidence to the Committee in a courteous manner.

Footnote: A paper published by Manchester’s Museum of Science and Technology indicates that Parliament was right to reject the initial bill on the grounds that the supporting survey was flawed. George Stevenson took the can for this, probably with justification, and new surveyors were appointed by the L&MR Company. So Mr Mahmood’s historical reference may not have been too apposite.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by chriseaglen on September 9, 2013 at 7:12 pm

    The issue is the wasteful expenditure on what the SST says was planned for the wrong criteria of speed. People want lower rail fares and the opportunity to work or relax. The MPs know sufficient about railways from their regular uses. Unfortunately MPs are not custodians of judgement and making the right and difficult decisions as their Colleagues the PM and FS have reminded the 650 people. Reducing the expenditure of the consultants time and the wasteful purchasing of houses along possibly the wrong route is a measure of their collective failure to understand the value of money. The process being described is being presented as not worthwhile as the outcome is managed not derived from balanced analysis. Seems that this was another Parliamentary Committee short of the approach of the current and past Chair of the Public Accounts Committee.

    Reply

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