A hybrid bill is a Parliamentary procedure to pass legislation that affects both private and public matters. In other words, there is both a widespread public, possibly national, interest but also a specific effect on particular individuals and organisations who may be adversely affected. The HS2 Bill is therefore the mechanism by which the Government will obtain planning permission for the controversial near-200km line between London and Birmingham.
Steering a hybrid bill through Parliament is a difficult process and the HS2 Bill is the most complex of all such bills. The Crossrail legislation, the last similar legislation on this scale, was rejected at the first attempt, and its second incarnation took two and half years to pass through Parliament, with the MPs on the committee having to deal with hundreds of petitioners and their amendments.
The HS2 Bill therefore has to be incredibly detailed to ensure that objectors cannot find loopholes to exploit and which might scupper the whole process as the committee effectively acts in a ‘quasi-judicial’ role.
So here’s a health warning. Do not attempt to study this bill. It could potentially cause apoplexy or even a cardiac arrest because its contents are so abstruse and incomprehensible. A typical sentence reads – and this was genuinely chosen at random by the Wolmar supercomputer – ‘The nominated undertaker and its contractors will comply as a minimum with applicable environmental legislation at the time of construction, together with any additional environmental controls imposed by the hybrid Bill, except where such legislation has been dis-applied.’ That seems to say the Government will do what the law says except when it does not want to and then bugger people’s objections. And not surprisingly, there has been no shortage of objectors, all of whom will be seeking to have their day at the committee to give evidence – which will, incidentally, be under oath.
Do not, moreover, attempt to lift the Bill. That will certainly cause injury as it is 49,910 pages long, all but 400 of which make up the ‘environmental statement’ (fortunately for the nation’s environment and in particular its stock of trees, the Bill is mostly available online). It is reputed to weigh one and a half tonnes.
Do not, either, even try to simply read this Bill. Apart from terminal boredom you risk causing permanent damage to the eyes since it runs to some 20–22 million words, representing about 80 times the length of Tolstoy’s War and Peace . Originally, opponents of the Bill were given just 56 days to respond, the minimum requirement under the legislation, which would have required a reading rate of 900 pages per day. Fortunately, due to the inevitable errors in producing such a magnum opus, several hundred pages of the environmental statement were omitted and consequently those hoping to read the whole thing were given a further couple of months to ‘depose their petitions’ – the official term for objections.
This is a key part of the procedure for a hybrid bill as it enables objectors to put forward their arguments about the Bill which will then be given its Second Reading. The process that comes after that really is tortuous. A small group of MPs will be selected to sit in committee considering the Bill, line by line, and hearing the so-called ‘petitions’ against it. This is the job from hell given to MPs who have fallen out of favour with their whips or, reputedly, on whom the whips have information that would be career-ending such as an affair with a fellow MP’s wife or calling police officers ‘plebs’. There will certainly not be any volunteers for this Sisyphian task. The members of the committee must not have a constituency interest in the Bill, which rules out whole swathes of potential members and which means that the fate of the HS2 route through the South-East and the Midlands is likely be decided by disinterested and uninterested MPs from the Highlands and Cornwall, sitting on the committee under duress.
The Committee in this case is expected to sit for at least a hundred days, quite possibly more. Even then it is not finished. The Bill will need to go through a Report stage, and be debated at a Third Reading involving the whole Commons and then sent to the Lords, where there is a further opportunity for objectors to put their case and to appear before another select committee.
Because of the complexity of the process, the Bill is expected to take two years to get through Parliament. Exceptionally, hybrid bills are able to straddle Parliaments and will not, unlike all other unfinished Parliamentary business, automatically fall when the general election is called.
And here’s a final health warning. The official name of the current Bill is the High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) which means that a whole new Bill for the second part of the line, the sections north of Birmingham to Leeds and Manchester, will be required. So be prepared for an even heavier and longer hybrid bill next year.