Really not that grand, part 1

“The House of Lords is the second chamber of the UK Parliament. It plays a vital role in making and shaping laws and checking and challenging the government; it shares this role with the House of Commons. The Lords has a reputation for thorough and detailed scrutiny.”

This is how the House of Lords sees itself, according to one of those glossy brochures put out by the parliamentary authorities (see footnote 1), and I have always been brought up to believe that legislation is given “thorough and detailed scrutiny” by their Lordships, both in Chamber and Committee Room. The Lords, I have always thought, could be relied upon to sift the proposed legislation set before it, and identify the inequitable and the unworkable so that bills may be corrected before they become acts.

The Lords Committee Stage of the High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Bill is the first occasion that I have observed the workings of the House in detail, and seen their Lordships deliberating on a subject on which I have gained some knowledge. So this is really the first time that I have put this supposition of thoroughness to the test, and I feel decidedly let down.

As the HS2 legislation is in the form of a hybrid bill, the Committee Stage, in the Lords as was the case in the Commons, has employed the services of two distinctly separate committees, serving sequentially. Readers will be aware that the first of these committees, the Select Committee sat in public session on 64 days between May and December last year, and produced its report just before the Christmas recess of 2016/17. The second committee, the Grand Committee, completed its business in just two sessions in early January 2017.

The need for two committees was explained to peers by Transport Minister, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, as follows (see footnote 2):

“In general terms, a Select Committee in consideration of such a hybrid Bill normally looks specifically and primarily at private interests raised by petitioners, which gives it a very exhaustive opportunity to look at the different options. The role of the Grand Committee is what it traditionally is: to consider the public law clauses of a Bill, not the specific details of a private petition.”

So, it would appear, it was the role of the Grand Committee to give the legislative provisions of the HS2 Phase 1 hybrid Bill the “thorough and detailed scrutiny” that the reputation of the House would dictate was due. I have to say that what I witnessed appeared to fall somewhat short of this expectation. The hybrid Bill documentation is substantial – 69 clauses and 32 schedules spread over 450 pages – and yet the Grand Committee was able to complete its “thorough and detailed scrutiny” in just two afternoon sessions, the first of which, to be fair, did extend into the early evening.

In order to make sense of the seven hours, or so, of debate that the Grand Committee lavished on its task, some knowledge of the rules of procedure that govern such bodies is helpful.

Any peer may table an amendment for consideration by the Grand Committee and/or speak to an amendment. In practice peers that take advantage of this tend to be those with a particular interest or expertise in the subject of the bill under consideration, or with relevant experience, such as being a past Minister of State in a relevant government department, or having relevant previous employment experience outside Parliament, or being associated with a location that is particularly affected by the bill under consideration.

In addition to two peers representing the Government, a Transport Minister and a Whip, and an Opposition spokesperson, a total of seventeen noble Lords and Ladies spoke in the debates held to consider amendments tabled in Grand Committee. Relevant experience and interest was well to the fore, as the speakers included:

  • The transport spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats
  • A former Transport Secretary and two former transport ministers
  • Four members of the HS2 Select Committee
  • An ex British Rail executive and Strategic Rail Authority member
  • An ex railwayman and member of the Crossrail Select Committee
  • A former railway engineer who is now the Chairman of the Rail Freight Group
  • The President of the Countryside Alliance
  • The Chair of the Woodland Trust
  • A former Chiltern District Councillor and another resident of the Chilterns

The really quirky thing about a Grand Committee is that there are no divisions; after debating a tabled amendment, a decision on that amendment is made by the Chairman asking “as many as are of that opinion will say content” and “contrary, not content”. Decisions must be unanimous, so a single cry of “not content” will defeat an amendment.

The clauses and schedules of the bill under examination are worked through in order. When all amendments tabled against a particular clause, or schedule, have been decided, then the question is put that it “stand part of the Bill”. Again there must be unanimity on this; the question cannot be negatived provided there is a single voice in favour.

Clauses or schedules that have no amendments tabled against them will also be put to the same question, in order. At the end of this process the Bill, complete with all clauses and schedules and its title, will have been agreed, amended where agreed.

(To be concluded …)

Footnotes:

  1. See the section Role of the House of Lords in the publication House of Lords Briefing: Role and Work, House of Lords, July 2011.
  2. See Column 95 of House of Lords Hansard, Grand Committee, Volume 777 10thJanuary 2017.

 

 

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