Speaker’s corner, part 1

A few days ago the man who holds the office of Speaker of the House of Commons addressed the HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee (footnote 1). I have expressed it in that way because the Rt Hon John Bercow MP was quick to point out that he was in front of the Committee in his role as Member of Parliament for the Buckingham constituency, not as presiding officer of the House of Commons.

The advantage of foregoing his not inconsiderable powers over the parliamentary process for his appearance was that he was also able to cast off his obligation of impartiality. Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling disappointed about his temporary demotion to mere backbencher. After all, the Speaker has men with swords at his command and, in theory at least, the power of arrest. Surely a few choice commands could have rid us of this “wretched imposition” – Mr Speaker’s epithet, not mine – of a project at a stroke, or at the very least ejected those promoting it from the parliamentary precincts: I guess not, but it’s a nice thought.

However, Mr Bercow remains a significant public figure, even when devoid of his trappings of office, and his freedom to speak candidly on this occasion about the HS2 project in public has added considerable authority to complaints that the Committee has become all too aware of over the past year, or so, of hearing petitions.

Unsurprisingly, a good deal of what Mr Bercow had to say to the Committee was concerned with detailed matters of the impacts that HS2 would have upon his constituency, and I refer anyone interested in these aspects to the transcript or video of the session, however, he also made some more general points that I feel are worthy of reporting in this current posting.

It was abundantly clear that Mr Bercow is not exactly a fan of the HS2 project. In addition to referring to it as a “wretched imposition”, as I have already noted, he also called it “undesirable, unwanted and unnecessary” (see footnote 2).

He was not very complimentary either about the way that HS2 Ltd had managed its dialogue with his constituents (see footnote 3). Referring to a particular example of ineptitude he described the “standard of engagement” as “unacceptable”. He said that speaking “from first-hand experience”, since he had attended “a significant number” of the community forum meetings that had been held in his constituency, he felt that they were “more of a lecture by HS2 than a genuine dialogue with affected parties”. He added:

“The fact that the body charged with leading the project seemingly has no genuine interest in the individuals and the communities that it will affect – indeed is already affecting – coupled with the lack of compassion is, in my judgement, deplorable. People matter, communities matter, and there has been no real impression in the mind of my constituents that that has been the attitude of High Speed 2. It is high time that HS2 recognise that fact and sought to improve upon their approach.”

It was also clear that Mr Bercow saw this lack of compassion as manifest in the compensation packages that were on offer, which he said were “inadequate and have failed properly to recognise the true impact that the prospect of the project is already having” (see footnote 4). He said that in circumstances where an owner is unable to sell his or her property, and it is expert opinion that this results from purchasers being deterred by HS2, then, “It is the responsibility of the government to ensure that a sale can be made” (see footnote 5).

He returned to this theme later in his address to the Committee, when he was talking about the specific case of a business that was in need of early help to avoid it risking going under. He conceded that “of course the government is perfectly entitled in the vehicle of HS2 Ltd to bring forward an infrastructure project”, but added that if the principle that compensation should be paid to those that suffer as a result is accepted, then “that principle should be applied unhesitatingly and with real commitment, not hesitatingly and without it” (see footnote 6).

Mr Bercow was equally unequivocal on where he stood on mitigating the impacts of HS2, asserting that “with the right to proceed [with the project] comes the responsibility to minimise the negative impact upon those who would be affected by so proceeding”. In his view “if money cannot be found appropriately to mitigate the impacts of this project then it simply shouldn’t go ahead”. He added:

“I understand why HS2 Ltd baulks at the cost. They are deputed to deliver the project, making mitigations as necessary but trying to minimise cost to the public purse. I absolutely understand why that is the starting point on their part.”

But, nevertheless, he concluded that “if there is a price to be paid to minimise the impact, that price should without question be paid” (see footnote 7).

(To be concluded …)

Footnotes:

  1. Mr Bercow’s petition hearing occupied the whole of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee that was held on Tuesday 20thOctober 2015.
  2. The former quote is recorded in paragraph 128 of the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee that was held on Tuesday 20thOctober 2015 and the latter in paragraph 95.
  3. All of the phrases quoted in this paragraph and the extended quotation are recorded in paragraph 7 of the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee that was held on Tuesday 20thOctober 2015. As I reported in my blog Lessons from history, part 16 (posted 4 Sep 2015), Mr Bercow has joined two Conservative colleagues (one current and one former) who have made similar comments.
  4. See paragraph 8 in the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee that was held on Tuesday 20thOctober 2015.
  5. See paragraph 9 in the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee that was held on Tuesday 20thOctober 2015.
  6. See paragraph 34 in the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee that was held on Tuesday 20thOctober 2015.
  7. Mr Bercow’s various comments have been extracted from paragraphs 69, 71 and 83 in the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee that was held on Tuesday 20thOctober 2015.

Important Note: The record of the proceedings of the HS2 Select Committee from which the quotes reproduced in this blog have been taken is an uncorrected transcript of evidence, which is 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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