SEA views, part 5

(… continued from SEA views, part 4, posted on 20 Jun 2014).

As the House of Commons set to the business of debating four motions covering the appointment of and procedures for the HS2 Hybrid Bill Select Committee on the afternoon of 29th April 2014 (video) there was a discernable hung-over feeling from the Second Reading debate that had taken place on the preceding afternoon and evening. In contrast to the previous day – well at least by the standards of the attendance at the start of that day’s proceedings – there was a great deal of green leather on show, participation being confined very much to the usual suspects.

The debate was preceded by the passing of a business motion that required all four motions, and the amendments tabled against them, to be debated together. In his opening speech Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Robert Goodwill MP, helpfully summarised the intention of each of the four motions (refer to column 712 of the Official Report):

“The first [number 3] is a motion to establish a Select Committee to hear petitions against the Bill; the second [number 4] is an instruction to that Committee to clarify the principle of the Bill for its purposes; the third [number 5] is a motion to allow the Bill to be carried over into the next Session, and also into the first Session of the next Parliament in 2015-16; and the fourth [number 6] allows the payment of a salary to the Chair of the Select Committee, in the same way as for any other Select Committee Chair.”

The text of these four motions, and of the amendments selected by Mr Speaker for debate, are fully set out in columns 707 to 712 of the Official Report, but in this posting I will concentrate on amendment (d) to motion 4, which was tabled by the Chairman and some Members of the House of Commons Environment Audit Committee. I explained the background to this amendment being tabled in SEA views, part 4. It seeks to add an additional instruction to the Hybrid Bill Select Committee:

“The Committee shall comment on and report to the House for its consideration any issue relating to the environmental impact of the railway transport system for which the Bill provides that is raised in a Petition against the Bill, including whether alternative or additional environmental protections and mitigations should in the Committee’s opinion be further examined.”

Any hopes that there may have been that this amendment would be accepted by the House were dashed by comments made in the opening speech from the Opposition front bench, delivered by Shadow Transport Minister, Lilian Greenwood MP (refer to column 722 of the Official Report). She commented that this amendment “would require [the Hybrid Bill Select Committee] to prepare a report for the whole House on any petition that raises any environmental issue” and that:

“We have concerns about the cost and time implications that that requirement might impose, especially as some petitions could be resolved by relatively minor and straightforward changes to the scheme and, in such cases, it would not be necessary to involve the whole House. I note that when previous instructions were agreed, Standing Order 224A was not in place. That Standing Order provides for an independent assessment of responses to the environmental statement consultation, which has now been published as the Golders report, and it will not be necessary to have two separate reporting processes.”

She also said that it is “important to retain the [Hybrid Bill Select] Committee’s ability to exercise discretion”, and succinctly summarised the Labour frontbenchers’ view of this matter as:

“We want the Government to take a more effective approach to environmental mitigation than they have done so far, but we have concerns about the additional burdens that the directions in the amendment would impose on the Committee.”

She didn’t, however, propose any alternative mechanism designed to ensure that the Government will “take a more effective approach to environmental mitigation than they have done so far”.

It is indicative of the cosy front bench alliance that has formed on matters HS2 (see footnote) that Ms Greenwood’s views on this topic were generally echoed by Mr Goodwill when he made his closing speech. In response to a series of interventions by Ms Walley he claimed that the provisions of the amendment tabled by the Environmental Audit Committee are unnecessary as “that base is already covered”. He explained:

“Standing Order 224A means that the amendment is not required because it introduces a process of consultation for any supplementary environmental information provided at the Select Committee stage. All consultation responses are summarised by an independent assessor in the same way as they have been for the environmental statement consultation. If a petition includes environmental information that does not touch on the principle of the Bill, it is wholly within the scope of the Committee to consider that. If the Committee considers that some reasonable and practical mitigation could be introduced to address the issue, it will amend the Bill to do so. That is a key part of its role and its conclusions will be included in its special report.”

In the final part of this series of blogs I will examine whether Ms Greenwood’s and Mr Goodwill’s faith in the power of Standing Order 224A can be justified.

(To be concluded …)

Footnote: As Michael Fabricant MP put it in an intervention during the Second Reading debate, “where there is a love-in and a cross-party approach, it invariably means that the parties are getting something wrong” (see column 572 in the House of Commons Official Report).

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by chriseaglen on June 24, 2014 at 8:50 pm

    There is a risk for many petitioners if the following is applied and consider that some of the Environmental matters are classed as more wide ranging/general points….

    Partial challenges
    • Likely to be made when the petitioner appears
    rather than at outset
    • For example, petitioner raises objections
    about more wide ranging/general points
    alongside points relating to their premises, or
    challenges principle of the Bill

    Reply

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