Abstaining on HS2 Hybrid Bill Second Reading

I considered very carefully how I ought to vote on the Second Reading of the HS2 Hybrid Bill.

As you may know, I have always taken the view that, while there may be good arguments for a high-speed rail network in the UK, HS2 as currently conceived is not the best way to deliver high-speed rail.  In particular, I have argued consistently that any new high-speed line should follow existing transport corridors wherever possible.

Consequently, I do not believe it would be right for me to support the proposals for HS2 as it stands and I did not do so on Monday (April 28 2014). That left two options – to vote against the Bill at Second Reading or to abstain at that stage. It is worth noting that the HS2 Hybrid Bill must pass through several substantive stages in the House of Commons before it can pass to the House of Lords and subsequently become Law. Second Reading is the first of these, where the principles of the Bill are discussed and voted on.

The Bill is then referred to a small Select Committee of Members of Parliament who have no direct interest in HS2 or the route it currently follows. The committee considers the petitions of those who are affected by the line and determines whether changes should be made. The Bill then returns to the wider House of Commons for what is known as the Report Stage, where further amendments to it can be made. Finally it moves on to a Third Reading debate, where the House of Commons decides to approve or reject the Bill as amended in the preceding stages. Only if the Bill receives a majority in that Third Reading vote is it able to become Law at a later stage and to permit the construction of HS2.

I concluded that the best course of action for me to take at this point was to abstain at Second Reading of the Bill with the proviso that, if it is not improved in subsequent stages of the legislative process sufficiently to mitigate its current adverse impact on my constituents, I will vote against it at Third Reading. I have reached this conclusion for three reasons:

First, it was always worth being realistic as to the outcome of the Second Reading vote.  Given the support for HS2, at this stage at least, from the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative parties in Parliament it was inconceivable that the Bill would not be given its Second Reading, most likely with a large majority. In the event the majority was a little over 400, my vote therefore would not have been influential on the outcome at this point. 

Second, there is reason to believe that meaningful changes may be made to HS2 in the course of the Bill’s Select Committee Stage. Several petitions to improve the line are likely to be put before the Committee by individuals, groups and organisations in my constituency, which I will do all I can to support. It is apparent that HS2 Ltd has so far not given full consideration to the various counter-proposals on the route and suggestions for better mitigation. This makes it more likely that the Select Committee will consider petitions making these arguments in some detail and therefore more feasible that some will be granted. The last Hybrid Bill to pass through Parliament was that authorising the Crossrail project and the Select Committee considering that Bill granted a number of petitions, including some which went beyond the remit which the Government sought to set for it. Although, of course, nobody can predict the outcome of the Select Committee’s deliberations, it is clear they have considerable latitude to recommend changes to HS2 if they are persuaded it is appropriate to do so. The Committee could therefore lessen substantially the impact of HS2 on my constituents. I retain the option of voting against the Bill at Third Reading if they do not.

Thirdly, a vote against the Bill at Second Reading would necessitate my resignation from the Government. While it would be dishonest to deny that this would have an impact on me personally, it could also have a negative impact on those I represent. It is not the case, of course, that ministers get all they ask for, but they do have access to their fellow ministers, which backbenchers do not generally have. Certainly, there is no evidence I can see that supports the theory that advantageous changes to HS2 are best secured by those outside rather than inside the Government. Indeed all the evidence points to the opposite conclusion.  As the Bill proceeds, further opportunities may present themselves to persuade fellow ministers to make changes to benefit my constituency. Again, there are no guarantees here but I believe I should seek to exert pressure on behalf of my constituents at a time when it is most likely to yield results. In view of the outcome of the vote, that time was clearly not the Second Reading of the Bill.

I appreciate that the decision I have taken at this point may be a disappointment to a number of my constituents. I have set out my reasoning in some detail because I believe that you are entitled to a full explanation of the reasons for it. In the end, my responsibility must be not to do what will bring me the greatest short-term popularity, but rather to make the best judgment I am able to on what is in the longer-term best interests of my constituents. I will continue to do all I can to lessen the impact of HS2 on my constituency, not least on the crucial issue of compensation, during the further legislative stages I believe cannot be prevented, from a position that offers the greatest potential influence.