Not enough hours in the day

When I first clapped eyes on the published programme of the Phase 1 HS2 Select Committee for October and November I felt that someone was, to say the least, being rather overambitious. Taking just the first day, Monday 7th September, I counted 53 petitions listed, although what I suspect was a combination of arm twisting by programme manager David Walker and masses of goodwill from petitioners had allowed some grouping of petitions to reduce the number of separate hearings to 31. It appeared that a long day was in prospect, and this was clearly anticipated in the programme; instead of the usual Monday hours of 2.00 pm to 5.00 pm and 7.00 pm to 9.00 pm being specified, the note on the programme ominously just said “from 2.00 pm”.

Being concerned that time constraints would mean that petitioners from within the Chilterns AONB were in danger of being short-changed by the Select Committee, I determined to monitor the whole day’s proceedings. It was fortunate for me that the watch on demand service on Parliament TV allowed me to do this in manageable bites.

Just what the motivation was in trying to cram so much into the Committee’s day is not totally clear to me. I can understand, and even be sympathetic, if some members of the Committee – but surely not the three who have only recently been appointed – are becoming somewhat fatigued with the whole process, and wish to see it all ended as soon as possible. The Chairman gave some hint that this may be the case in his prologue to the day’s session; he reminded the gathering that the Committee had already sat for 336 hours over 71 days. I also suspect that, although the Committee is theoretically its own master, one cannot rule out the ever-present figures of the Government whips hovering in the background, exerting influence on the Committee to get the inescapable Committee Stage out of the way as quickly as possible. However, I really can’t see that saving the odd day or two is worth risking the fairness of the process to the petitioners who have taken the considerable trouble that is necessary to qualify to appear in Committee Room 5.

The other reason that I strongly doubt the good faith of the September and October sessions planned for the Select Committee is that the die appears to be already cast in that the Committee issued a statement in July, which appears to indicate a fairly set position – yes I know that it says that the statement is made “without prejudging the arguments … from future petitioners”, but come on!. The process is, we have been told, quasi-judicial, but I don’t think that it is normal practice in the courts for the judge to deliver a verdict, however tentative, mid-way through the presentation of evidence.

The day began ominously for petitioners, with Select Committee Chairman, Robert Syms MP, expressing the hope that petitioners would “avoid going over familiar ground” and warning that ”if necessary” he would “be intervening to avoid venturing into areas that have already been covered”. He also cautioned petitioners that they “should be careful not to stray outside the content of their petition” and notified them that he would “be calling people to order if they do so”. He also said (see footnote 1):

“We have community action groups making the points for many areas so, from individuals, we want succinct, punchy presentations that focus sharply and precisely on individual points, a sort of who, what, why and how it impacts on you. We have a lot to get through, and we expect petitioners high up the programme to be concise enough to allow petitioners at the end of the day to be heard as well.”

Excluding breaks for a short adjournments and a number of divisions in the Commons Chamber, the Committee sat for a total of eight and a half hours that Monday, of which 7 hrs 19 mins was devoted to hearing petitions. The remaining time was taken by statements and presentations by the Promoter, who obviously did not share the Chairman’s sense of urgency.

As the result of the inevitable last-minute changes in the list and no-shows the Committee actually listened to sixteen separate petition hearings, involving forty-four petitions plus another three that are identified as not appearing but associated with petitions heard in the list published by the Select Committee. The first petition hearing – involving Halton Parish Council – having taken more than two hours, there was about five hours for the remaining fifteen hearings, an average of twenty minutes per hearing.

In my view, there were signs of petitioners feeling this time pressure and, consequently perhaps, being compromised in making their respective cases – I feel that this particularly applied in the case of the final two petition hearings. Surprisingly, only those presenting one group of petitions registered any protest about their treatment, and I must confess some admiration for the refusal of Sandra MacDonald and Susan Newman to be browbeaten by, in particular, Sir Peter Bottomley, but, at the same time, feel that they actually fared better than everyone else in taking up more than an hour of Committee time (see footnote 2).

Having watched all of the day’s proceedings, my verdict is that, whilst the Committee sailed perilously close to the line marking the point where treatment of petitioners might be regarded as unfair, the hearings did not actually cross over that line on any occasion.

I have some misgivings about the calling of witnesses, however. In his introductory remarks the Chairman set out a procedure for calling witnesses that appeared to recognise that it was unreasonable to expect petitioners awaiting their turn to remain within earshot at all times during a long day (see footnote 3). In all, three petitioners failed to answer the Chairman’s call and were, consequently, not heard. However, in apparent contravention of the Chairman’s procedure, these three were not called a second time – perhaps it had been established that they were either no shows, or had given up waiting as the evening dragged on – whatever, you might have expected him to stick to his own rules, even if only for appearance’s sake.

I am also not a fan of late-night sessions. I appreciate that late nights are run-of-the-mill for politicians – the Chairman explained to petitioners that, “The House is going to be sitting until 12.30 a.m. on European business, so we are here anyway” (see footnote 4) – but there are practical difficulties in getting home from Westminster around midnight. At least this point also appears to have been recognised by either the promoter or the parliamentary authorities, since the Chairman announced, rather late in proceedings, that “there is a coach which will be going back to Buckinghamshire” (see footnote 5). Travel difficulties aside though, I think that it risks being unfair to petitioners to expect them to be at Westminster at 2 pm when they may not be called until approaching midnight.

On a subsequent occasion the bane of politicians, a microphone inadvertently left open, caught Mr Syms advising a colleague that he was “just going to knock off a few [petition hearings] quickly” before adjourning for lunch (see footnote 5). Whilst I appreciate that it is hard for Members to regard the petitioning process as anything other than an irksome task to be endured, I regard it as important for them to recognise the importance of each and every hearing to the petitioner(s) concerned and the often considerable commitment of time and effort (physical and emotional) that has been invested in that hearing. Petitioners should not feel that they have been short-changed in this process; unreasonably long sessions crammed with many petitions carry a significant risk that this will be the case.

Footnotes:

  1. Mr Syms’ opening remarks are recorded in paragraphs 1 and 2 of the transcript for the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee held on 7thSeptember 2015.
  2. Ms MacDonald complained that she was “being really rushed through” presenting her case and that she felt that she was, consequently, “not doing a service to” the petitioners she was representing. Mrs Newman complained that Ms MacDonald had “been hardly sat down before you’re telling her to hurry up and get on with it”. She also observed that it wasn’t their “fault” if the Committee “haven’t left enough time for people”. See paragraphs 226 and 244 of the transcript for the evening session of the HS2 Select Committee held on 7thSeptember 2015.
  3. This procedure is set out in paragraph 5 of the transcript for the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee held on 7thSeptember 2015.
  4. The Chairman’s announcement was made at 11.12 pm and is recorded in paragraph 594 of the transcript for the evening session of the HS2 Select Committee held on 7thSeptember 2015.
  5. Unsurprisingly, the Chairman’s remark is not recorded in the transcript for the session concerned (the morning of Wednesday 9thSeptember 2015). It can, however, be clearly heard at 12:30 hrs in the video.

Important Note: The record of the proceedings of the HS2 Select Committee from which the quotes reproduced in this blog are taken are uncorrected transcripts of evidence, which are not yet an approved formal record. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record in such instances, and it may therefore be subject to changes being made in the light of any such corrections being requested.

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