With the petition hearings on High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Bill completed in the House of Commons - after 160 days of sittings over nearly two years - the Select Committee (the Committee) has now issued its Second Special Report of Session 2015-16 (22 February 2016).

In anticipation of the further phases of HS2, the Committee also makes recommendations for improvements to the procedure for dealing with hybrid bills based on the lessons learned over the past two years. These recommendations are further considered in this briefing.

Positives of the hybrid bill process

The Committee identifies the following as particular positives of the current hybrid bill process:

  • The legislature has more than one opportunity to consider the principle of the project, and can amend the bill's provisions.
  • Parliamentary scrutiny in a public bill committee of each House.
  • Select committees consideration of detailed complaints against a bill; a process within which committees may exert political pressure for change, even outside their strict remit.
  • Politicians with an understanding of the needs of, constraints on and realistic options open to the Administration, take the decisions.
  • Potentially greater procedural flexibility by putting overall direction of the project in the hands of primary legislators.
  • Decisions in Parliament are less susceptible to legal challenge.

General issues with the current hybrid bill process

 The following criticisms of the hybrid bill process are acknowledged by the Committee:

  • Many of the current petitioning procedures and hearing arrangements are outdated and no longer fit for purpose.
  • The Administration may have too much influence on the process and its timing.
  • The process is time intensive and has an impact on members other duties which, may affect recruitment to the committees in future.

Three specific problems are also highlighted in the report:

  • The time at which the select committee is constituted does not allow for an opportunity to determine the early procedures that will apply to the matters it will be dealing with.
  • Insufficient guidance on who should petition (standing), and what may be the subject matter of a petition.
  • Too much repetition of the same issue before the Committee (incidentally the Committee report makes that point 4 times!)

Specific recommendations for change

With the prospect of several more hybrid bills in the near future the Committee report records that there are ways to address the identified problems through some quite easily achievable procedural changes. These are summarised below.

  • Petition deposit process: a new electronic system is suggested which is not dependent on personal attendance at Westminster but which retains safeguards. It could allow some limited scope for petition amendment; potentially, once, a sensible number of weeks before the relevant hearing.
  • Petition deposit fee: Committee favours retention of this fee to discourage speculative or spurious petitions.
  • Language: the 'Victorian language' should be brought up to date in line with changes agreed by the House for public petitions.
  • Rights of audience: a stricter approach to standing is recommended with strong guidelines on acceptable standing. The House authorities should recommend standing guidelines, consider the standing challenges and recommend decisions for the Committee, which could then review those decisions and hear any standing challenges orally if it wished.
  • Challenges by the Promoter: the Committee emphasized the importance to efficient process of the standing challenge process taking place in writing as far as possible.
  • Hearings and programming: a number of reforms are suggested to assist reduce the amount of time spent in committee and ensure that it is spent as effectively as possible. The proposals include the following for Committees:
    • clear scope of its powers;
    • clarification of the application of private business standing orders and Court of Referees’ rules;
    • more practical rules for appointing representative agents and scope for a petitioner to appoint more than one agent to accommodate business availability, vacation arrangements and sickness;
    • an express power to direct the order of addressing the Committee; between petitioner and promoter, so that where appropriate the promoter could open and explain any points that have become non-issues;
    • an express power to restrict the volume of evidential submissions and the numbers of witnesses;
    • a facility to allow petitioners to make points in writing, if they so wish.
  • Decision making: in appropriate circumstances an express power to allow the Committee to issue preliminary decisions, express power to issue preliminary decisions.

Conclusions

The Committee Report makes no recommendation on how any of the proposed changes to make the process simpler and less time-consuming, might be implemented. But it is clear in urging the House, and Ministers, to consider changes in time before the next hybrid bill is introduced.  

The aim of any changes should be to ensure that the processes are proportionate that allow lead organisations, residents associations and other seriously affected individuals and bodies are able to set out their points fully, while those who wish merely to reinforce points already made may do so only within an allocated time, or after agreeing to group together.