Legal viewpoint: Select committee calls for hybrid bill process reform

Last month, the House of Commons select committee considering the High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Bill published its second special report of the 2015/16 Parliamentary session. In the report, the committee identifies the positive aspects of the hybrid bill process, but also makes several recommendations to address the problems it highlights.

On the positive side, the committee notes, the legislature has more than one opportunity to consider the principle of the project and can amend the bill provisions. Parliamentary scrutiny via a public bill committee of each house is available, while consideration of petitions gives the select committee wide powers to direct changes. Decisions are made by politicians who understand the needs of, constraints on and realistic options open to government. There is also greater potential for flexibility through the legislature, as decisions in Parliament are less susceptible to legal change.

On the negative side, the committee concluded that: the petitioning procedures and hearing arrangements are outdated. In its view, the government has too much sway over the process and its timing. Also, the process requires a huge time commitment from the politicians appointed to the select committees, which affects their duties and recruitment in the future. Three further problems were also highlighted. First, the time at which the select committee is constituted does not allow for an opportunity to determine the early procedures that will apply to matters it will be dealing with. Second, there is insufficient guidance on who should petition and what about. Third, the process leads to repetition of the same issues before the committee.

The committee recommends a new electronic system for the petition deposit process and retention of the deposit fee to discourage speculative or spurious petitions. It wants the traditional language brought up to date and a stricter approach to petitioners' standing.

It says hearings and programming could be made more effective through clearer scope for committee powers, allowing petitioners to make points in writing and restricting the volume of evidence submissions.

The High Speed 2 (HS2) bill did not break records. That honour goes to the Channel Tunnel Bill, which spent nearly two years in petition. This is neither helpful nor sustainable - whether for project promoters, petitioners or the recruitment of future committee members. It will be interesting to see if the legislature puts forward the means to implement the recommendations in time for the next hybrid bill - whether for Crossrail 2 or the next phase of HS2.

Martha Grekos is head of planning and infrastructure at Irwin Mitchell.

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