Lessons from history, part 1

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The Life of Reason, George Santayana.

Those of us who have deposited petitions against the HS2 Phase 1 hybrid Bill are looking into the future with uncertainty. After all it is not every day that you have to go to Westminster to appear in front of a select committee of the House of Commons, unless your name is Joe Rukin of course. It is far from clear what is expected of us, and what preparation we should make particularly regarding the written evidence that is required. So, bearing in mind that HS2 is not the only project that has followed the hybrid bill route through Parliament, perhaps we should take a leaf out of Sr Santayana’s book and try to avoid making too many mistakes by looking back at what has happened in the past.

Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on “remembering the past”; one of the documents that I have stumbled across is the report presented to the House of Commons by the Crossrail Select Committee when it had completed its deliberations in October 2007. This report provides, in Volume I, an overview of and commentary on the Select Committee procedures and explains the decisions and recommendations made by the Committee. It also provides details of the cases presented by a number, but not all, of the petitioners. In addition, there are four additional volumes (Volume II, Volume III, Volume IV, and Volume V) that contain transcripts of the oral evidence sessions at which petitioners were heard.

It would appear from the note on procedure that has been issued by the HS2 Select Committee that, unless the Committee elects to make changes later in the light of its experience of hearing petitions, the conduct of the petitioning process will follow closely that employed by the Crossrail Select Committee, so what can we learn from this note and Volume I of the Crossrail Committee’s report?

The Crossrail report (paragraph 7) describes the proceedings as “quasi-judicial” and says that they “operate more like a court”. In keeping with this you will find that the promoter of the Bill (the Secretary of State, represented by HS2 Ltd) will have a legal team, led by a Queen’s Counsel. However, we were promised by Robert Syms MP, Chairman of the HS2 Select Committee, during the oral evidence session held on Tuesday 13th May (see paragraph 45 of the transcript) that the decision had been taken “to dispense with wigs and gowns”.

The Select Committee will normally meet in Committee Room 5. This is one of the committee rooms that lead off the Committee Corridor on the first floor of the Palace of Westminster, accessed up a staircase from the Lower Waiting Hall, off the Central Lobby. Public entry is via the security check at the Cromwell Green entrance, near Westminster Hall. Whilst you are waiting to be heard you will, at least, have the consolation of being able to admire the handiwork of Victorian interior decorator supreme, Augustus Pugin.

Committee Room 5 is set out in the Select Committee Room style, with Members sitting at a horseshoe shaped table and witnesses at a rectangular table facing them. There is some room for members of the public, but this appears to be for no more than a couple of dozen people and could, I would imagine, be further limited if the space requirement of the legal teams dictates. The Select Committee note on procedure advises that “the public, including other petitioners, may attend”, but warns that “space may be limited”. It suggests that any requirements for large numbers to attend should be advised to the Private Bill Office in advance.

The proceedings are subject to the contempt rules of the House of Commons. In theory a member of the public found to be in contempt, by committing any act or omission which impedes the performance of the functions of the Commons, may be summoned to the bar of the House to be reprimanded, or even dragged off to prison by the Serjeant at Arms. However, since the last time that a member of the public was subjected to contempt proceedings was more than fifty years ago, I don’t think that any petitioners need fear these sanctions unduly.

The Crossrail report merely records (in paragraph 17) that avoiding any possible contempt requires that those appearing before the Select Committee are “obliged to be respectful” and adds:

“Repetitious and irrelevant evidence, deliberate delay, and refusal to answer questions were all treated as possible contempts of the House and were deprecated in Committee.”

So due deference will definitely be the order of the day for anyone appearing in front of the Select Committee – you will be required to sign a statement that you agree to observe the rules and procedures of the House of Commons before they will let you anywhere near the Select Committee. Witnesses, but not it appears petitioners, will also be obliged to undertake to tell the truth, by swearing an oath or making an affirmation on the day of appearance, which will presumably be in a similar form to the process used in the courts.

Anyone who signed a petition and is “directly and specially affected” by HS2 will be able to present his or her case to the Select Committee in person. If your petition was submitted by an agent, then the agent will normally present on your behalf. However, you can decide at any stage (up to two working days before your appearance) to be represented by an agent, providing that such agent is either a Roll A agent or a properly accredited Roll B agent. You can also change agents up to that deadline, or at short notice if the situation, such as illness, dictates. What I have not been able to find is confirmation that you can dismiss the agent who signed your petition and elect to represent yourself, but I would expect that this would be permitted, subject to the two-day’s notice applying.

If you, or the organisation that you are representing, have really deep pockets then you can brief a barrister to act on your behalf during the Select Committee hearing, who will make your opening and closing statements and undertake any cross-examination that is necessary.

(To be continued …)

Important disclaimer: This blog is not intended to give legal advice, and I am not, in any case, qualified to provide such advice. You should not therefore rely legally on anything in this blog. If you are in doubt about any aspect of petitioning and giving evidence to the Select Committee you are strongly recommended to seek advice from a suitably-qualified professional. You should also find the staff at the House of Commons Private Bill Office helpful and unbiased (email: prbohoc@parliament.uk).




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