SEA views, part 6

(… continued from SEA views, part 5, posted on 24 Jun 2014).

The debate in the House of Commons on the afternoon of Tuesday 29th April 2014 to consider four procedural motions for the High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Bill was, in contrast to the previous day’s Second Reading debate, a fairly unhurried affair. Contributions from backbenchers had been limited in Monday’s debate, initially to five minutes and then to four (for the final five back-bench speeches), and there were many who wanted to be heard. On Tuesday, however, all contributions could be as expansive as the speakers wished and I don’t recall a single request to intervene being declined.

So it was that when Madam Deputy Speaker (Eleanor Laing MP) rose to put the Question on the four motions there was still more than ten minutes of the four hours allowed for the debate remaining. None of the amendments was pressed to a vote and the four motions were adopted on a voice vote without a single “no” being uttered. So it was that, as is often the case, a debate in the Commons had no impact whatsoever on the motions tabled by the Government.

Following this outcome, the recommendation of, and attempt by, the Commons Environmental Audit Committee to ensure that the Hybrid Bill Select Committee “consider and report on the environmental impacts of the project” (paragraph 86 of the HS2 and the environment report) has become something of a busted flush. Indeed, I am writing this blog just a day after the Government’s response to HS2 and the environment has been published (see footnote 1), and this response points out that the Committee’s “recommendation has now been overtaken by the Instruction by the House to the Select Committee” (paragraph 19).

The response also helpfully explains (also in paragraph 19) why the Government considers the procedures set out in the Standing Orders of the House of Commons for Private Business should be sufficient to satisfy the requirements of the Environment Audit Committee without further modification;

“If the Select Committee process leads to any new likely significant environmental effects, be it from changes to the design or new information coming forward from petitioners or further surveying, the procedures set out in Standing Order 224A of the Commons Standing Orders for Private Business require a consultation to be held on this “supplementary environmental information”. The responses to this consultation will be summarised by an independent assessor appointed by the House Authorities. This summary report will be available for the House when it reconsiders the principle of the Bill at Third Reading. In this way the process ensures that all environmental information, whether it touches on the principle of the Bill or not, is properly considered by Parliament as decision maker.” (see footnote 2)

I have two main issues with these procedures.

In the first place the whole process appears to be under the sole control of the Promoter of the Bill (i.e. the Government via HS2 Ltd), since it relies on an additional provision being tabled in the House of Commons by the Government in order to kick things off.

Secondly, and principally as far as I am concerned, we have already seen the worth of the independent assessor report in the one that was prepared by Golder Associates for the public consultation on the Phase 1 Environmental Statement. This report is very sketchy on detail – the consultation submissions in my own community forum area for example, which included one of approximately forty pages by local community organisations, were condensed to less than half a page – and does not attempt to make the assessment that the Environmental Audit Committee is seeking of whether “reasonable or practicable environmental protections and mitigations” have been adopted. I also have grave doubts of whether the assessor’s report has done anything to inform Parliament. I cannot recall, in the whole ten hours or so of debate that took place at the end of April, any backbencher out of the more than seventy that spoke or intervened referring to the information in the report. Indeed I would venture that the number of those Members taking part in the debates who had actually read the report would probably have been a small handful, if that.

It appears, however, that these procedures are all that stand between HS2 and an environmental disaster. All that is apart from the ability of the Hybrid Bill Select Committee to consider, in the words in paragraph 19 of the Government’s response to the HS2 and the environment report, whether “reasonable and practicable mitigation” can be introduced into the hybrid Bill in response to any petition that “raises environmental effects of the Bill”.

I hope that the Select Committee Members turn out to be environmental champions, but fear that “reasonable and practical mitigation” may prove to be inadequate mitigation.

Fortunately, I feel that Ms Walley is not the sort of person who gives up easily. In a letter addressed to the Chairman of the Hybrid Bill Select Committee, Robert Syms MP, and sent subsequent to the April debates, she reminds Mr Syms that the Hybrid Bill Select Committee “plays a vital role in fully addressing the environmental impacts” and of the Supreme Court’s expectation that “the Hybrid Bill process will deliver the requirements of the environmental assessment directives”. Further, she expresses the hope that the Select Committee “will be able to address the concerns [that the Environmental Audit Committee] raised in [its] report, subject of course to such matters also being raised in the Petitions that [the Select Committee] receive”. She also makes a specific request of Mr Syms:

“Please lets us know how your Committee plans to cover such concerns through its evidence-taking. I do hope that your Committee will be able to give these matters the time and consideration they deserve, particularly given the gaps in the process we have rehearsed in our report.”

I think that we can trust Ms Walley to keep her eye firmly on what transpires. Unfortunately, she has announced that she will retire from the Commons at next year’s General Election. I hope that her replacement as Chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee will take on this task also.

Footnotes:

  1. With one exception, the Government has rejected all of the Committee’s recommendations. A very good short summary of, and commentary on, the response is provided in a blog that has been posted by Stop HS2.
  2. Further information on these procedures may be found in the High Speed Two Information Paper B8: Additional Provisions.
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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by chriseaglen on June 28, 2014 at 7:47 am

    The power in the Select Committee is with the Advocate for the Promoter by applying partial challenges and also locus standi objections within the petitioners presentation. The Chairman may not give reasons and in dealing with blocks of petitioners is time limited. The extent of the extra petitioning in consultation of changes coupled with the 29th August 2014 reductions in the remit of the Select Committee provide sufficient indications that the upper hands are with the advocate of the Promoter in each petition mapping the Standing Orders selectively to each petition. The cost of technical and legal advocacy being prohibitively expensive to many petitioners. Like Wimbledon and the European Leaders voting most will be reduced to stunned Mullets. Marshaling the help from HS2 Action Alliance and Stop HS2 is not constrained by the locus standi test because they can supply help and people to help each or some petitioners. There is still the post Royal Assent legal JR challenge and its is important the mapping of activities continues through the next one to two years for the last legal challenge. The process has indicated that MPs do not have the interests in the Chambers to impose scrutiny and scope responsibilities for those parts of the UK and those areas populations which would trouble the Parliamentary process. Too much to do and too little interest in spending £50 Billion in the most cost effective and environmentally less harmful way. Not the way to evolve a nation or nations.

    Reply

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