Speaker’s corner, part 2

(… continued from Speaker’s corner, part 1, posted on 29 Oct 2015).

During his presentation to the HS2 Select Committee (see footnote 1) the Member for Buckingham, the Rt Hon John Bercow MP, also reflected upon the public’s view of the project (see footnote 2):

“Huge strength of feeling is to be found in particular amongst those communities directly affected by the project, though it perhaps ought to be added that there is I think also a wider feeling amongst people who are not necessarily in an affected village, but where very substantial sums of public money are involved, satisfaction is needed that the right course is being followed. This is already a very substantial project with very substantial expense.”

He was clear, however, that he did not see a contradiction between his own reservations about whether the high cost of HS2 can be justified and his wish, should it go ahead, to see more money spent on mitigation and compensation (see footnote 3).

“For the avoidance of doubt, let me make it clear that I absolutely can, absolutely can object to the project, which is hugely expensive, and argue for mitigations whose net effect will be to add to its cost. Not only can I do so, but I do so. Of course I do so, because if people bring forward a proposal that is going to be expensive and damaging, and the only way that it can be made less damaging is to make it more expensive, it is absolutely natural and logical and proper that a constituency Member of Parliament should make that case.”

One matter upon which Mr Bercow and the Lead Counsel for the Promoter, Tim Mould QC, appeared able to agree is that it is the Transport Secretary who is making the decisions that are being appealed in front of the Select Committee, with HS2 Ltd merely acting as his agent; as Mr Bercow put it “HS2 is operating in accordance with somebody else’s rubric, and it’s a Secretary of State rubric”. Mr Mould’s motives in raising this distinction – for it was he who mentioned it first – appeared to be in some measure to absolve HS2 Ltd from responsibility for treating communities with what Mr Bercow labelled “insensitivity”, but, perhaps more in his mind was to demonstrate that the decisions, being taken at government level, were “democratically accountable in that way”. What Mr Bercow said that he was seeking was that “people who are making these important decisions should be held to account for them” (see footnote 4).

As the Rt Hon Patrick McLoughlin MP has been Transport Secretary since September 2012, it is at his door that most the blame for the way in which communities and community issues have been treated by those managing the project, if any be due, must surely lie. It is equally surely the case that it is the same Patrick McLoughlin who has the ability to put things right. As Mr Bercow put it, he was looking for an “understanding, human and empathetic approach” from the Secretary of State in regard to one of his asks for his constituency. He added (see footnote 5):

“It would not diminish the Secretary of State or the government in any way; it would enhance them if they erred on the side of being big in matters of this kind. I’m not saying anything to this Committee that I’ve not said to the Secretary of State. I’ve said it to him several times. I mean, you know, I don’t think I could make the point any more publicly without being discourteous and I don’t wish to be discourteous.”

The session included a little mutual ego preening – Members seem unable to resist the temptation to praise each other on such occasions. The Chairman referred to the “passion and eloquence” with which Mr Bercow has represented his constituents and, in turn, Mr Bercow thanked the Members of the Select Committee for “performing [their] public duty” and for “doing it extremely conscientiously” (see footnote 6).

Mr Bercow told the Committee that, during his eighteen years serving the Buckingham constituency, “there has been no other single issue on which [he has] received such a large number of constituency representations”. He said that it had become apparent to him, having “spoken with thousands of constituents about HS2 over the years”, that many were “becoming frankly very despondent” (see footnote 7):

“Consultation after consultation, community forum meeting after community forum meeting, and nothing seemed to be achieved.”

He added (see footnote 8):

“[My constituents] weren’t looking for this, they didn’t want it, they weren’t consulted. There hasn’t been any obvious route to get out of this, given the cross-party consensus and so on.”

He told the Committee that he felt, however, that his constituents who had taken advantage of the Select Committee procedure “do have some considerable hope in the work that [the Committee was] doing”. He said that the Committee represented, in a sense, “the last main opportunity for people who haven’t extracted concessions, mitigations, realignments or whatever, to do so” (see footnote 9).

And he made this plea (see footnote 8):

“So anything that you can reasonably do to secure a better balance in fulfilling the twin objectives of allowing Parliament to achieve its end on the project, if that’s what Parliament continues to want, and allowing people relief will I think be widely applauded.”

I assume that Mr Bercow was not aware of a conversation that had taken place in the Select Committee precisely one week earlier, otherwise I doubt that he would have been able to justify such optimistic aspiration. I will report on this conversation in my next posting.

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 (video, transcript).
  2. See paragraph 95 in the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee that was held on Tuesday 20thOctober 2015.
  3. See paragraph 96 in the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee that was held on Tuesday 20thOctober 2015.
  4. The quotes have been extracted from paragraphs 90, 121, 122 and 124 in the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee that was held on Tuesday 20thOctober 2015.
  5. See paragraph 124 in the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee that was held on Tuesday 20thOctober 2015.
  6. The quotes have been extracted from paragraphs 94 and 97 in the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee that was held on Tuesday 20thOctober 2015.
  7. See paragraphs 96 and 99 in the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee that was held on Tuesday 20thOctober 2015.
  8. See paragraph 101 in the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee that was held on Tuesday 20thOctober 2015.
  9. See paragraphs 99 and 100 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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