Originally published on Peter’s blog:
Everyone – well almost everyone – who contributed to the Lords HS2 Grand Committee appeared to be taking the upmost care to praise the efforts of the eight peers who sat on the HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee. Whilst this bonhomie was, I’m sure, genuine, I can’t help thinking that the labouring of the point indulged in by some speakers in Grand Committee owed much to the participation in the proceedings by four members of that Select Committee (see footnote 1).
Even so, some noble Lords and Ladies really indulged those four Select Committee veterans by laying on the praise with a trowel: Lord Berkeley referred to their “excellent report” (see footnote 2); Lord Adonis said that they had “put an astonishing amount of work into the Bill” and recommended them for “some kind of parliamentary medal for endurance” (see footnote 3); Lord Ahmad opined that they “did some incredible work and showed great dedication and devotion to the cause in terms of the petitions that were heard” (see footnote 4); Viscount Astor thought that, despite operating to “a very limited remit”, the Select Committee “produced a good and admirable report” (see footnote 5); and, Baroness Buscombe was mindful of “the considerable care they took to ensure that people were genuinely listened to” (see footnote 6).
However, there was dissatisfaction with the select committee process expressed by some speakers, notably Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, who, unique amongst those sitting on the Grand Committee, had personal experience of appearing before the Select Committee as a petitioner (see footnote 7). Whilst Lord Stevenson acknowledged that “the committee did exactly what was required of it and went to extraordinary lengths and made a huge personal commitment in doing so” (see footnote 8), and stressed that he did “not in any sense want to do anything to suggest” that he did not hold its members “in the highest regard”, he confessed that he found appearing before them “a very difficult experience”. He explained (see footnote 9):
“It is a very adversarial process, focusing on private interests, and therefore mitigation, rather than on the broader issues that exist. There is no equality of arms because the process is done in a court-like setting with very highly trained, and presumably quite expensive, advocates against you.”
He characterised the select committee process as a “19th century Victorian approach to dealing with the vested interests of private landowners … being used in a situation where it is completely inappropriate” (see footnote 8) and complained that “important issues have fallen by the side”. He said that, whilst he understood the reasons why the Select Committee had decided not to consider alternative proposals where these would require a change to the hybrid Bill, this had resulted in a “gap around the need to regard what local expertise and understanding can bring to the broader picture”. He was left wondering how “decisions are taken in the absence of information and in the absence of a process under which better interrogation could take place” (see footnote 10).
Lord Stevenson assured the Grand Committee that he did not regard it as “in any sense the committee’s fault” there remained “issues” that the Select Committee may feel “it knocked on the head and put to bed” (see footnote 8).
Despite the noble Lord’s obvious desire to avoid the direct criticism of members of the Select Committee, at least one of them appeared to take umbrage at his remarks. Demonstrating the bluntness that we sometimes witnessed during Select Committee hearings, the counter by Lord Young of Norwood Green included the following remarks (see footnote 11):
- “Hundreds and hundreds of assurances have been given and they really have to be adhered to.”
- The Select Committee “went over the environmental concerns meticulously”, with “not an animal or insect … not considered, from hedgehogs to crested newts and barn owls or whatever, and rightly so”.
- Regarding issues raised by petitioners “it did not matter whether they were additional provisions, we debated them at length many times”.
- “As for the costing, we did not take the word of the contractors or the promoters. We looked carefully [at costings], by an independent assessment …”
- “On the idea that we in the Select Committee would somehow pay more attention to the barristers, believe me: we were bored out of our skulls by barristers on many occasions and often paid more attention to people who represented their case effectively, whether they were from the parish council or just individuals.”
- “It should not be suggested to this [Grand] Committee that individual petitioners somehow had not had an opportunity to present their case or were browbeaten by the barristers. Of course it was a robust environment; I do not deny that but we took account of it and listened carefully.”
- “The main thing [that petitioners] had to do was to focus on what they wanted the Select Committee to do, and when they did we supported them.”
- “We made sure that whether it was on environment or noise, or whatever it was, we gave people the opportunity to make their case—not just once but on many occasions.”
The response by fellow Select Committee member, Baroness O’Cathain, was more personal (see footnote 12). She said that the criticism made her feel “utterly traduced, having spent … May through to December, relentlessly, four days a week” on the task (see footnote 13). Saying she was “worn out” and that what had been said about the Select Committee “frankly made me want to give up” and that she “lost the will to live at one stage”. She told the Grand Committee of the wear and tear that serving on the Select Committee had caused:
“It had an effect on us. We were getting colds. We were tired. Our weekends were spent in a daze wondering how to recover.”
The Baroness concluded (see footnote 14):
“I am not trying to plead a special case, but to hear this sort of stuff coming out is not at all rewarding to people who went there, unpaid, and gave up a huge amount of their private life for it.”
(To be continued …)
- Whilst there were only seven members of the Select Committee at any one time, Lord Plant of Highfield was replaced by Lord Elder in May 2016. The four members of the Select Committee who spoke in Grand Committee were: Lord Brabazon of Tara, Lord Jones of Cheltenham, Baroness O’Cathain, and Lord Young of Norwood Green.
- See under Lord Berkeley in Column 51 of House of Lords Hansard, Grand Committee, Volume 777 10thJanuary 2017.
- See under Lord Adonis in Columns 53 and 54 of House of Lords Hansard, Grand Committee, Volume 777 10thJanuary 2017.
- See under Lord Ahmad in Column 58 of House of Lords Hansard, Grand Committee, Volume 777 10thJanuary 2017.
- See under Viscount Astor in Column 79 of House of Lords Hansard, Grand Committee, Volume 777 10thJanuary 2017.
- See under Baroness Buscombe in Column 145 of House of Lords Hansard, Grand Committee, Volume 777 12thJanuary 2017.
- Lord Stevenson’s appearance before the Lords HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee took place on the morning of Tuesday 29thNovember 2016, after being rescheduled from earlier in the month due to lack of time then. It may be watched from the start of the video and is recorded from paragraph 2 in the transcript.
- See under Lord Stevenson in Column 152 of House of Lords Hansard, Grand Committee, Volume 777 12thJanuary 2017.
- See under Lord Stevenson in Column 137 of House of Lords Hansard, Grand Committee, Volume 777 12thJanuary 2017.
- See under Lord Stevenson in Columns 138 and 139 of House of Lords Hansard, Grand Committee, Volume 777 12thJanuary 2017. I presume that it is to the “interrogation” of the Promoter that Lord Stevenson is referring.
- See under Lord Young in Columns 140 and 141 of House of Lords Hansard, Grand Committee, Volume 777 12thJanuary 2017.
- Baroness O’Cathain’s remarks are recorded in Columns 142 and 143 of House of Lords Hansard, Grand Committee, Volume 777 12thJanuary 2017.
- Of course, the task for the members of the Lords Select Committee was far less onerous than their counterparts in the House of Commons. The former sat for 64 days in public, whereas the MPs totalled 160 public siting days and generally sat for longer hours. In addition the MPs had to undertake constituency business, as normal.
- By “unpaid” I assume that the Baroness means that she received no extra payment for her Select Committee work. The House of Lords Publication of Financial Support for Members for June 2016, for example, reveals (on page 17) that for that month, when she attended twelve sitting days of the Select Committee, she claimed attendance allowance for fifteen days, amounting to £4,200.
Having watched many of the petitions in the House of Lords, in my opinion many of the petitioners were not treated well or with respect. Little account was taken of the stress they were suffering on account of loss of property or business.
So, along with many others, I suspect, I weep crocodile tears for the sufferings of the Select Committee, who did not appear mostly to have a clue. For example, the environmental concerns raised by the Woodland Trust & others were broadly dismissed. HS2 Ltd. were rarely challenged, the members of the Committee just accepted their reassurances, on barn owls, replacement of ancient woodland etc. etc.
I believe the House of Lords committee failed us all.