Lessons from history, part 10

(… continued from Lessons from history, part 9, posted on 3 Aug 2014).

The Crossrail Select Committee had ten Members and a quorum – the minimum number of Members required to be present within the Committee Room at any time that the Committee is in session – of three. The HS2 Select Committee also has a quorum of three, but the number of Members is only six.

Robert Goodwill MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport, was asked why the size of the HS2 Committee had been reduced compared to its immediate predecessor during the debate on the four motions covering the appointment of and procedures for the HS2 Hybrid Bill Select Committee held in the Commons Chamber on the afternoon of 29th April 2014 (refer to column 719 in the Official Report). His reply indicated that the size reduction had been brought about by necessity rather than design. He confided that “many people who volunteered to consider the Crossrail Bill did not realise what a commitment it would be”. He added that:

“It would be a big ask to find a large Committee to do this work, given the large amount of time those Members will have to take out of the other parliamentary duties they carry out on their constituents’ behalf. We are very grateful that they are volunteers rather than pressed men.”

Since, to judge by the number of petitions that have been lodged, service on the HS2 Select Committee is likely to be even more onerous than being a Member of the Crossrail Select Committee, it is hard to imagine that any MP would “volunteer” without due application of the stick, or a carrot, or both. Indeed, Mr Goodwill did let slip that some of the Members “have been volunteered”.

Later on in the debate, Kelvin Hopkins MP, who had been a Member of the Crossrail Select Committee, confirmed that the recruitment of pressed men had certainly been a feature of that body, saying that the Whips put him and some of his colleagues on the Committee “as a punishment” for voting against “some civil liberties legislation” (see column 750 of the Official Report). One can only assume that the reduced size of the HS2 Select Committee is the result of the pool of miscreants upon which the Whips can call for “volunteers” in the current Parliament being too small to fully staff a select committee, although this is hard to credit upon looking back at some of the events of the past four years.

Bearing in mind the impact of unavoidable absences, due to illness and the like, the need to address other parliamentary duties and the sheer tedium of attending the committee three days, or more, every week that Parliament is sitting, and even possibly during some recesses, serving a quorum of three with a membership of only six appears to me to be sailing dangerously close to the wind.

I have made some analysis of the attendance records of Members of the Crossrail Select Committee, based upon the list of attendees appearing at the head of each of the day’s transcripts in Volumes II to V of the Committee’s First Special Report of Session 2006‑07. Although being included in these lists does not necessarily mean that a Member attended for the whole session, I have credited each member so listed with a day’s attendance in the Committee. On this basis the average attendance across all Members of the Crossrail Select Committee was 59%, with the individual attendance records ranging from 34% to a very-creditable 79%. The spread of the numbers of Members sitting on any particular day that this attendance record achieved is illustrated in the histogram reproduced below.

Crossrail_Select_Committee_attendanceAlthough a select committee is able to function with attendance at the specified quorum, things are much easier with at a committee size of at least one Member above quorum, which gives Members the chance to pop out from the committee room during the session. The Crossrail Select Committee achieved this ideal on 94% of session days.

Maintaining a quorum of three obviously becomes more difficult if the number of Members serving on a select committee is smaller than the ten that the Crossrail Select Committee had to call upon. Very roughly, reducing the number of members by four would mean that, assuming the same attendance pattern as was achieved for Crossrail, two Members fewer will turn up for each session of the HS2 Select Committee, on the basis of an average attendance of around 50%. Applying this minus two correction to the above Crossrail histogram, indicates that the Committee would have been inquorate for 21% of its sessions and would only have achieved being at least one Member above quorum at 53% of its sessions. This indicates that the Members of the HS2 Select Committee will have to attend much more regularly, and possibly be more strategic about who attends when, than their Crossrail counterparts.

That having been said, so far the Members of the HS2 Select Committee are doing very well. Eleven half-day sessions had been held prior to the summer recess, not counting “site visit” sessions. For no less than eight of these, a full complement of Members is listed in the transcripts. On two occasions the Committee was only one Member light and for the remaining session the quorum was just achieved. The real test, however, will be if adequate attendance levels can be maintained over the coming gruelling months.

(To be continued …)



6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Mark Eades on August 7, 2014 at 5:11 pm

    I am one of those petitioning. I do not understand how committee members can come and go as you describe provided three are present. This is a quasi judicial procedure and the rules of natural justice apply. This means only those present during the oral evidence can adjudicate. From what you say of this committee’s limited manpower it seems inconceivable it can operate as a quasi judicial body. Where does this leave the Supreme Court’s decision to dismiss the judicial review application given its reasoning ?
    Mark Eades


    • Thanks for your comment Mark, and may I wish you a belated welcome to the site.
      Of course the truth of the matter is that Parliament is sovereign in our Constitution and it doesn’t matter what you or I might think about the way that it goes about its business, it is, to all intents and purposes, unchallengeable. This was all too obvious when the Supreme Court ruled on the appeal against the HS2 JR early this year; the idealised concept of the way that our parliamentary democracy functions that the Justices of the Supreme Court chose to portray has little in common with reality. It was, however, a convenient conceit as it avoided the potential for a clash between the Judiciary and Parliament.
      The more that I look into the hybrid Bill processes, the more that I doubt that it is capable of making a through and just review of the HS2 proposals.


  2. Posted by chriseaglen on August 7, 2014 at 8:51 pm

    The approach demonstrates a disinterest in thorough dilligence. Simply going though the motions of having a short period in Westminster. A not serious approach to improvements and damage reduction. The politics of the election will be the distraction to change the statistics.


  3. Posted by chriseaglen on August 10, 2014 at 9:56 am

    There is growing concerns that the process from party manifesto to hybrid bill and project start are in danger of undermining the plans of the counties. This supra implantation of infrastructure against community wishes is an area of national policy concern as the succeeding Judges have now all declared they have no powers to bring sense and sensibility to political driven processes that are not sound. What a catalogue of recent mistakes by Governments in the past 3 or 4 depending on what amounts to a new Government and what is a grande mistake which could have been avoided to lessened.


  4. Posted by Les Fawcett on August 20, 2014 at 2:08 pm

    I drafted a petition which was submitted on behalf of the Coventry Society, I am assured, by an MP. But we have had no notification from the MP or from parliament that our petition was submitted or accepted. Do you know how to check?


    • All of the petitions are listed on the parliamentary website at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cmhs2/petitions/petcontents.htm, but there is no entry under your name or under Railfuture, so it seems that your petition may have got lost somewhere en route. Ask your MP for a copy of the recipt that was issued by the Commons Private Bill Office when your petition was deposited. You can also contact the CPBO at prbohoc@parliament.uk.
      I presume that you are aware that Colin Elliff and Quentin Macdonald jointly deposited a petition proposing HSUK as a better alternative to HS2, but were found not to have locus.


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