Really not that grand, part 2

(… continued from Really not that grand, part 1, posted on 23 Jan 2017).

It is hard enough for an individual peer or MP to have his/her amendment to a bill agreed when this is decided by a division, but the Grand Committee unanimity rule makes it, to all intents and purposes, impossible.

The system does allow for government-sponsored textual corrections to the bill to be agreed, as these are, by nature, generally non-controversial. There was a total of twenty-eight such amendments to the HS2 Bill that were agreed by the Grand Committee. As an example of why such amendments become necessary, seventeen separate amendments were agreed to Schedule 14 of the Bill: all were required to update the Bill to take account of amendments to the statutory compulsory acquisition regime made by the Housing and Planning Act 2016.

Faced with the impossibility of securing any substantive changes to the Bill, peers wishing to contribute to the Grand Committee tend to table amendments as a pretext for debating particular issues, or, to use a term employed by one of the speakers “to probe the Minister” for clarification of the Government’s intentions (see footnote 1). Such amendments are not really tabled with the objective of them becoming adopted, or even being put to the question, and once they have been debated the usual form is for the proposer to “beg leave to withdraw the amendment” and for the rhetorical question, “Is it your Lordships pleasure that the amendment be withdrawn?” to be asked by the Chairman.

Subjects that were covered in this way, involving eleven amendments that were debated and were all subsequently withdrawn, are:

  • Restoring the HS2-HS1 rail link, but using a different route to the one that has been rejected (see footnote 2)
  • Requiring an updated, independently assessed, estimate of project costs to be produced before proceeding
  • Requiring a review to be carried out of the potential benefits of using mining techniques for tunnel construction at Wendover
  • Introducing the concept of mitigating the impacts of the permitted works
  • Instructing the Secretary of State to pay compensation to an identified business
  • Imposing a requirement to minimise the number of overhead gantries employed
  • Imposing a duty to adhere to Natural England recommendations (see footnote 3)
  • Imposing a requirement to limit lorry traffic during construction
  • Requiring HS2 trains to have flexible floor space for the carriage of cycles, pushchairs and small items of freight
  • Requiring a Complaints Commissioner to be appointed
  • Requiring a duty of care to apply
  • Restricting rights to dispose of spoil

Some of these topics are so fundamental to the basic project concepts, that peers speaking in support were accused by colleagues of wanting to revisit the Second Reading (see footnote 4), and that is a fair criticism; they certainly did not appear to be addressing possible amendments to the Bill that might be considered reasonable at this advanced stage.

To be fair, some of the amendments tabled could rightly be justified as seeking to improve the legislation, at least in the eyes of the proposer. In a charitable vein, I might include five amendments, spanning the following topics, in that category:

  • Requiring a Regional Integrated Command Centre to be set up to ensure that construction work is co-ordinated to minimise disruption
  • Applying the provisions of the Railways Act 1993 to the operation of HS2
  • Requiring HS2 to be controlled by the network system operator
  • Disapplying regulation 25 of the Railways (Access, Management and Licensing of Railway Undertakings) Regulations 2016
  • Prohibiting any financial or managerial link between the HS2 rail infrastructure owner and train operating company

Again, all five amendments were withdrawn.

Some twenty-eight amendments from individual peers were tabled but not subsequently moved, and so these amendments were not officially debated (although some were referred to by speakers to other amendments).

Although the unanimity rule usually works to the advantage of the government, we were treated to one example of a minister falling foul of it. Amendment 16 stood in the name of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, who is Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport, and was, accordingly, a government amendment. Amendment 16 provides that a new schedule, Traffic Regulation, is added to the Bill, and the proposed text of this schedule in set out in Amendment 69. The purpose of these two amendments is to, in the words of Lord Ahmad (see footnote 5):

“ensure that local highway authorities consulted the Secretary of State for Transport before making any orders that affected either specific roads identified for use by HS2 or other roads related to HS2 construction works.”

The new schedule was described by one noble Lord as “four-and-a-half pages of quite draconian powers”, and he questioned its introduction after both Select Committee stages had been completed, “therefore denying the highway authorities the opportunity to petition against it”, adding that he felt he could “say authoritatively that they would have done” (see footnote 6). This criticism was followed by similar sentiments being expressed from all corners of the committee room, as it had been done, indeed, far wider afield (see footnote 7).

One noble Lord went as far as to threaten the Minister that he would oppose the amendment if it were not withdrawn, thus ensuring that it would not be agreed (see footnote 8). The Minister took the hint, withdrawing Amendment 16 and not moving Amendment 69 when the time came for its consideration.

So a victory for democracy, then? Well yes and no, because the Bill was amended at the subsequent Report Stage in the House of Lords to add the Traffic Regulation schedule, but not in the originally-proposed form. According to Lord Ahmad amendments that “address the substantive concerns that local authorities were expressing” were made to the schedule following “constructive discussions with local authorities” (see footnote 9).

There was some further business in the Grand Committee that probably merits reporting. In what is described in Hansard as a “Debate on whether Clause 53 should stand part of the Bill” (see footnote 10), the Opposition Spokesperson, Lord Rosser, reminded the Minister that the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee of the House of Lords had mentioned Clause 53 in a report (see footnote 11), and that the Government was yet to respond to that committee’s recommendation regarding Clause 53. Although the Minister was unable to  confirm if any response had been made, it was agreed that Clause 53, and the associated Clause 54, should “stand part of the Bill”.

In summary, the Grand Committee was little more than a talking shop and didn’t actually achieve very much, as is often the case with Parliament. Apart from some uncontroversial textual corrections, the Bill moves on to the next stage unchanged.

One noble Lord present, at least, appeared to recognise the futility of the proceedings. Lord Framlingham confided to his fellow peers (see footnote 12):

“… I am beginning to wonder what we are doing. If the Select Committee has done everything that needs doing and the Minister will not accept any of the amendments, I am not sure how this Committee will contribute much to the process.”

I think that the only really grand thing about the Grand Committee was the décor of the Moses Room, in which the meeting was held.

Footnotes:

  1. See under Lord Berkeley in Column 118 of House of Lords Hansard, Grand Committee, Volume 777 12th January 2017.
  2. This alternative link, following the proposal of the West London Line Group, would be between Old Oak Common and the West London line north of Shepherd’s Bush. The champions of this proposal claim that it would improve rail links with southern England generally.
  3. Amendment 28, which covered this duty, was actually not moved, but Baroness Young managed to speak to it during the debate on Amendment 15.
  4. See under Lord Snape in Column 69 of House of Lords Hansard, Grand Committee, Volume 777 10thJanuary 2017.
  5. See under Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon in Column 105 of House of Lords Hansard, Grand Committee, Volume 777 10thJanuary 2017.
  6. See under Lord Brabazon of Tara in Column 105 of House of Lords Hansard, Grand Committee, Volume 777 10thJanuary 2017.
  7. For a summary of the views of Camden Council on this issue see the Stop HS2 blog, The Road Amendment issue, posted 16thJanuary 2017.
  8. See under Lord Berkeley in Column 106 of House of Lords Hansard, Grand Committee, Volume 777 10th January 2017.
  9. See under Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon in Column 602 of House of Lords Hansard, Lords Chamber, Volume 778 24th January 2017. Two amendments relating to the Traffic Regulation schedule were discussed at Report Stage: the debate on Amendment 7 may be found in Columns 601 to 609 of Hansard and the text of Amendment 13 and the agreement to it in Columns 624 to 629.
  10. See under Lord Rosser in Column 133 of House of Lords Hansard, Grand Committee, Volume 777 12thJanuary 2017. Clause 53 grants controversial rights of entry to any land near a high speed railway route for survey purposes and, in its previous guise as Clause 51, was the subject of my blog The key to the door, part 1 (posted 27 May 2014).
  11. See paragraph 11 of the report 7thReport of Session 2016-17 High Speed rail (London-West Midlands) Bill, House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, 16th November 2016. The report recommends the deletion of a part of the clause.
  12. See under Lord Framlingham in Column 89 of House of Lords Hansard, Grand Committee, Volume 777 10th January 2017.

PS: To help me write this blog I prepared a summary of the business that was conducted by the Grand Committee. I have epublished this in case it may prove useful to anyone who wants to learn a little more about what went on without having to wade through the transcript.

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