A shot of Christmas spirit

It happens that the four-day cycle that I use for posting blogs means that this blog will first appear on Christmas Day. I feel that, on this special day, it is appropriate for me to be both reflective and generous in spirit; I hope that I have managed this in what follows.

When Robert Syms MP, the Chairman of the HS2 Select Committee, pronounced the words “order, order” at just after 2pm on Monday 1st September 2014 he was kicking off a process for hearing petitions against the HS2 Phase 1 hybrid Bill that was to run up to four days a week, for every week that the House of Commons was in session and on the odd days when it wasn’t, for a year or two, or perhaps even longer – for nobody can really be sure when the task will be completed.

At the very least, the process can be cathartic for petitioners who avail themselves of the facility. However there must be very real hope that airing one’s issues with the HS2 proposals in a public forum, in front of a panel of impartial parliamentarians, will bring, on occasion, some much-needed changes to those proposals. In my view, it is far too early to say whether one should be optimistic on this front, but there are signs that HS2 Ltd is being persuaded to adjust its plans in some cases, and to make improved offers of compensation in others. There are also heartening signs that the Committee sees a need for it to intervene in some areas; we have seen this in operation in positive encouragement for opposing sides to talk, in a willingness to involve the relevant government department in seeking solutions to a planning issue, in claiming credit for the proposed lowering of the route in Staffordshire, in suggesting that HS2 Ltd develops a licensing model for land that is required only temporarily, and in a request to review the proposals for the Need to Sell Compensation scheme and suggest improvements.

However, whatever benefits for petitioners may flow from the process, these will come at some cost. I have already referred, on a number of occasions, to the strain that petitioning and appearing at a hearing can place on the petitioners, something that is ably testified to by the article in The Spectator that I referred to in my blog Heroes – just for one day (posted 17 Dec 2014), but what about the many others who find themselves embroiled in this process?

Top of anyone’s list for sympathy and appreciation must surely be the six Members of Parliament who serve as the Committee. I speculated in my blog Lessons from history, part 10 (posted 7 Aug 2014) on whether the Members of the Committee were truly volunteers or were, in fact, pressed men, but, whatever the circumstances of their service, a big debt of gratitude is owed to them. Members of Parliament have many calls on their time and the HS2 Select Committee is a ravenous devourer of that commodity, not to mention the sheer tedium of listening to hour after hour of, often-repeated, complaints about HS2. Whilst, as far as I am aware, there have been no instances of MPs being spotted playing Candy Crush in Committee Room 5, the use of smartphones and tablet computers by MPs during proceedings is all too evident – something that I warned about in my blog Lessons from history, part 7 (posted 26 Jul 2014) – but who can blame them if they do become distracted by the diversions that these devices offer?

The dedication demonstrated by Robert Syms MP is exemplary; he has only vacated his Chair to a stand-in on two occasions, so far. He has handled the proceedings with tact, understanding, kindness, and good humour. Above all, he has been very fair in his approach, and has demonstrated that he, and his Committee, are willing to listen to genuine concerns. He is ably supported by the three Members of the Committee who seem to be the most active: Ian Mearns MP, Sir Peter Bottomley MP, and Henry Bellingham MP. Mr Mearns sits beside the Chairman, and appears to be the natural deputy. Sir Peter is generally the best briefed, having, it appears, usually read all of the supporting paperwork in advance of the session. But beware, Sir Peter is the one most likely to challenge a petitioner, and appears to have the lowest BS threshold. Mr Bellingham, representing a largely-rural Norfolk constituency, appears to prick up his ears whenever farming and landowning issues are mentioned.

We shouldn’t forget, either, the team that support the smooth running of the proceedings of the Committee. Sitting at the Chairman’s left – and I haven’t noticed an occasion when he hasn’t been present – is the Clerk to the Committee, Neil Caulfield. I have personal cause to be grateful to him as I attended a very helpful petitioner workshop that he led recently. He is ably assisted by members of the Commons Private Bill Office; Miguel, who receives petitioners and administers the oath, appears to be as omnipresent as Mr Caulfield.

We should also acknowledge the significant contribution made to the smooth operation of the Committee by the behind the scenes work of scheduling appearances that is handled by David Walker at Winckworth Sherwood.

Also worthy of our appreciation is the work of the Broadcasting Unit operators and Hansard reporters, who ensure that we can find out what has gone on in Committee Room 5 and, if we are so minded, can even watch a live video stream. Although the images are only available to those in the room, and not unfortunately carried on Parliament TV, the work of the small team that adroitly “drive” the video screens that display evidence, who I understand are HS2 Ltd employees, has received praise on a number of occasions from those who are able to benefit from the facility.

Then there are the House of Commons doorkeepers, elegantly dressed in white tie and tails. They work on a rota system to provide security and ensure that those entering or leaving the committee room do so with minimum disruption to proceedings. Assuming that they are listening to what is going on, they must be more knowledgeable about Commons business than anyone!

Although we may find it difficult to be too sympathetic, we should also spare a thought for the employees of and other expert witnesses for the promoter, who find themselves spending hour after hour in Committee Room 5 – come on, after all it is Christmas. The four men who appear to be sharing the brunt of the work are Peter Miller (environment), Tim Smart (engineering), Colin Smith (property) and Rupert Thornely-Taylor (noise).

Finally – and lowest on my personal appreciation list, but only because they must be making an absolute mint of money from the work – are the members of the promoter’s legal team. I have been very impressed by the ability of Tim Mould and James Strachan to assimilate the complex details of each petitioner’s situation as they are wheeled before them, but then I guess that is what QCs learn to do. Whoever takes the lead on the day, there is always a junior barrister at his right hand to assist, although the junior never seems to get the chance to address the Committee. I assume that, somewhere in the background, there is also a Parliamentary Agent or solicitor to complete the team.

I hope that all of these contributors are refreshed by their break away from Committee Room 5, and enjoy the season’s festivities. I wish them all well for the coming year; may they serve to the best of their abilities, and may those that are called upon to give opinion or deliberate do so fairly and wisely.

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