Lessons from history, part 13

(… continued from Lessons from history, part 12, posted on 19 Aug 2014).

Paragraph 7 of Committal Motion 5, by which the House of Commons instructed the HS2 Select Committee how to go about its business, grants the Committee “power to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House”. In other words, the Members of the Committee have the dubious privilege of being able to work on whilst their honourable colleagues vacate Westminster in favour of their constituencies or go en vacances.

An appreciation of just how much potential for additional sitting time that this could give the Committee may be gained from the calendar below, which sets out the Committee’s programme for this current year as far as it is known.

HS2 Select Committee - Public Sessions 2014

HS2 Select Committee – Public Sessions 2014

I have used the same coding scheme as I employed in part 12 of this series. So days on which the Committee is scheduled to hear petitions are marked in red and other public sitting days are marked in green. I have introduced a new colour, purple, to indicate the days in July when the Committee heard issues of locus standi.

The number of days within blue dotted lines, indicating recesses of the House of Commons, is substantial. Altogether, 89 weekdays are encompassed by these blue lines. If we exclude Fridays – it seems very unlikely that the Committee would sit on a Friday – that still leaves 66 days lost that would have been otherwise available to hear petitions, or about 30% of the available days in the year. So there is a considerable potential to improve the throughput of the Committee here.

However, recesses are valued by MPs; they not only give opportunities for rest and recuperation and to spend time with family members, but allow Members to catch up with other tasks that are difficult to fit in during the weekdays spent at Westminster, including duties in the constituency. I would imagine that catch-up time will be particularly treasured by the Members of the HS2 Select Committee, in view of the considerable commitment that they will be required to make to hearing petitions. So I think that we can expect Members of the Committee will be reluctant to forgo many of these precious days.

The HS2 Select Committee started its public sittings in earnest in July, and the first recess period to be encountered was the long – although not as long as it used to be – summer break. I was not surprised to see that the Members of the Committee resisted the temptation to delay their departure from Westminster and will not be meeting at all during the recess. Whether this practice is repeated next year, and in possible future years if the Committee is still sitting, remains to be seen, but I would imagine that it is odds on that this year’s precedent will be followed. Although it has not been tested yet, I feel that the same may be true for the Christmas, Easter and May Day recesses.

So far, we have seen one example of recess time forgone by the Committee, which is the plan to sit for two days in public (15th and 17th September) in the first full week of the four-week recess for the party conference season. The Committee is also planning to use that week for a site visit (16th September) and a private meeting (18th September). Working during this week is possible because none of the members of the Committee are affiliated to political parties that will be holding their conference during those four days.

The next recess to come along will be the “half-term” break in November. Since the Committee’s schedule for November has not yet been published, the stance that will be taken on working during this recess is not known. The most common reason for people taking time off during half-terms is child care requirements and, as far as I can determine, none of the Members of the Committee should have issues in this area. So the Members of the Committee may well elect to work during the November recess, but will only gain a Wednesday and a Thursday if they do.

My understanding is that the recess dates for 2015 have yet to be made public, and will be atypical because a general election will be held on 7th May, but I think that it is safe to assume that there will be a half-term break in February, as has been the case in recent years. If the Committee decides to work through the November break then it would appear to be reasonable to expect that the February break would be treated similarly. Whitsun, although also a half-term recess, is a slightly different case as, by practice, it encompasses the spring bank holiday; for this reason, I feel that there is less likelihood of the business of the Committee continuing during that recess.

In summary, I think that the sitting days that are likely to be gained from the ability for the Committee to sit during recesses are likely to be small in number.

If the Crossrail Select Committee had sat throughout 2006 it could have availed itself of 35 weeks in which it was able to sit on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, without encroaching into recess periods. So, ignoring any loss of sitting days due to private meetings, site visits, and the like, the procedures adopted for Crossrail would have provided 105 sitting days.

Assuming, for the sake of comparison, that the HS2 Select Committee had started its sittings immediately after the 2013-2014 Christmas recess, and was working right through 2014, the number of non-recess weeks during which it would be able to sit on Monday afternoon/evening, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday morning would be 34, with a couple of odd days also being available. This equates to 121 full sitting days. If we assume some extra sitting days during the recesses along the lines postulated above, then the number of equivalent full sitting days might be increased to around 130.

So it looks as if the changes in working practice brought in by the HS2 Select Committee, if they maintain them throughout the life of the Committee, could increase the number of days on which the HS2 Select Committee is able to sit by about a quarter compared to the Crossrail Select Committee.

(To be continued …)

Acknowledgement: The background calendars for the two images that I have used to illustrate this blog were generated on www.timeanddate.com/calendar.

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