Lessons from history, part 14

(… continued from Lessons from history, part 13, posted on 23 Aug 2014).

Another way in which the HS2 Select Committee might be able to shorten the time that it will take to hear all of the petitioners who want to be heard is to schedule more ambitiously, by which I mean to cram more hearings into every sitting day. The benchmark set by the Crossrail Select Committee is 205 petitions heard over 73 sitting days, or 2.8 petitions per day.

The recently-published programme for hearings by the HS2 Select Committee over the period 1st September to 14th October 2014 provides for 12 days on which 28 petitions are scheduled to be heard, a rate of 2.3 per day. However, the HS2 programme over that period is hearing only petitions from local authorities, businesses and other organisations, but no individuals. I would expect that the rate of hearing petitions will ramp up when the Committee reaches lower down the pecking order and starts hearing from affected homeowners.

The man in charge of scheduling hearing dates for petitioners is a certain David Walker, who is the Senior Legal Parliamentary Clerk at Winckworth Sherwood, one of the legal firms that the Government has engaged as parliamentary agents. I have no personal experience upon which to base this assumption, but I presume that Mr Walker will try and ascertain from petitioners how much time they expect to require to present their petition, and that there is likely to be some pressure and negotiation from Mr Walker to minimise this time.

I think that we can be fairly sure that one of the techniques that Mr Walker will employ to speed up the process of hearing petitions is to follow the precedent of Crossrail and group petitioners with common concerns and/or from the same location to be heard at the same time, or at least in quick succession. The reading that I have done so far of the approaching two thousand petitions that are listed on the parliamentary website leads me to the conclusion that there is considerable scope for combining petitions. It is obvious that in some areas there has been a substantial effort put into organising individuals to petition, resulting in there being a large number of petitions that look very similar to each other. In many cases these petitions use mostly, if not entirely, stock text taken from models produced by the national campaign organisations. In the worst examples of this practice, the petitioner has printed out the typed standard text and merely written his or her name at the head of the petition – yes, really – and other fields that have been inserted into the standard text by its author for the purpose of the insertion of personally-related information by the petitioner have been left unchanged.

I expect that it will not be hard for Mr Walker to convince such petitioners not to bother the Select Committee, Even if he fails in this, it will be very difficult for any such petitioner to follow others of the same ilk without giving the Chairman grounds of either repetition or deviation to shut them up; there will be every chance of proceedings descending into a parliamentary version of Just a Minute!

In part 4 of this blog series I described a day in the life of the Crossrail Select Committee where a number of petitioners from the same area of London (Spitalfields) had been grouped together. In part 9 I expressed concern about the impacts that this practice could have on the right of petitioners to a fair hearing. If the Committee is treated to a large number of petitioners with stereotypical views there is, surely, a very real danger that the odd one that may have an original thought or two could get lost in the general clamour.

One of the jobs that I feel that I really should do, but have so far put it off as it would be a great deal of work, is to analyse the petitions by type of petitioner and issues covered. Without such an analysis it is difficult to assess how many “carbon copy” petitions have been deposited, and what gains there could be in the speed that the Select Committee will rattle through petition hearings as a result.

In part 12 of this blog series I referred to the disruption to the schedule of hearings for the Crossrail Select Committee that had resulted from last-minute decisions by petitioners to withdraw. I said that the Crossrail scheduling team had tended to leave the resulting gaps in the Committee’s programme vacant and commented that I felt that it was “not really fair, or practical, to reschedule other petitioners” in such circumstances. In a letter sent to petitioners by David Walker at the end of July it says that the HS2 Committee “wishes to make full use of scheduled sitting times”. It appears that Mr Walker will be prepared to risk inconveniencing petitioners in the interests of keeping the Committee fully employed, since his letter warns that “the programme may change and petitioners may be asked, within reason, to appear earlier (or later)”.

(To be continued …)

Update: Since this blog was posted the programme for 1st September to 14th October 2014 has been revised. The new schedule provides for 11 days on which 25 petitions are scheduled to be heard, maintaining the rate of approximately 2.3 petitions per day.

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