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Views sought on UK hybrid bill procedure ahead of next HS2 bill

Changes are being proposed to the way in which ‘hybrid’ bills are considered and disposed of by the UK parliament, with a view to making the process simpler, fairer and less time-consuming.

The parliament has opened a consultation seeking views on a number of aspects of the current process and procedures. They include how best to make sure that members of the public who are “directly and specially affected” by a hybrid bill know how to use the petitioning process effectively; whether parties to proceedings should be allowed to appear remotely at hearings; and whether the £20 ‘petitioner’s fee’ should be retained.

Consultees have also been asked whether it would be appropriate to replicate parts of the process around planning inquiries for major infrastructure projects into the procedure for hybrid bills proposing ‘works’; and whether more could be done to encourage negotiation between project promoters and potential petitioners at an earlier stage of the process, in advance of committee hearings.

The consultation exercise ends on 23 July 2021. The chair of ways and means in the House of Commons and senior deputy speaker in the House of Lords will review the responses before presenting proposals for reform to their respective parliamentary chambers. It is expected that these reforms will include dedicated standing orders for petitions related to hybrid bills, rather than requiring petitioners to use the private bill standing order procedure.

Responses are sought in particular from prospective petitioners and those who have been involved with recent hybrid legislation; members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords; and parliamentary agents such as Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, who are a small number of specialised lawyers authorised by the parliament to represent promoters of and petitioners against hybrid and private bills.

Robbie Owen

Robbie Owen

Partner, Parliamentary Agent

This second stage of the review will need to be concluded swiftly if it is to benefit the next hybrid bill to come before parliament, which is the bill for the western limb of HS2 phase 2B ... intended to authorise HS2 between Crewe and Manchester

Hybrid bills combine elements of public and private bills, meaning that they are of general application but also have a particular impact on specific groups, people or places. They are frequently used to secure parliamentary approval for major infrastructure projects as an alternative to seeking consent under the normal planning process. The planned high speed rail network, HS2, is being delivered using hybrid bills, with two having been passed for phases 1 and 2A in 2017 and 2021.

Those ‘directly and specifically affected’ by the proposals in a hybrid bill have the right to petition parliament with their concerns and have their case heard by special committees of MPs and peers. The idea of the review is to fairly balance these rights with those of the government in ensuring the passage of its legislation, while making the process simpler and less time-consuming for all involved.

This is the second part of a two-stage review, which began in 2016. The first stage of the review introduced interim reforms to private bill standing orders, which currently govern the process for petitioning against both hybrid and private bills. These were put in place in time for petitioning in relation to the bill for the High Speed Rail (West Midlands-Crewe) Act 2021, and included abolishing the requirement for petitions against bills to include a signature; allowing electronic submission of petitions and ‘grouping’ of petitions; and giving MPs in affected constituencies the express right to have their petitions considered.

Robbie Owen of Pinsent Masons, a parliamentary agent, welcomed the second part of this review.  He said: “For several decades UK hybrid bill procedure had stood still, despite the experience obtained from the HS1 and Crossrail hybrid legislation in particular. By 2016 reform was badly needed, however, as normal planning processes had in contrast been extensively modernised.”

“This second stage of the review will need to be concluded swiftly if it is to benefit the next hybrid bill to come before parliament, which is the bill for the western limb of HS2 phase 2B announced in this month’s Queen’s Speech, intended to authorise HS2 between Crewe and Manchester. It also remains to be seen how far the parliamentary authorities will be prepared to incorporate into hybrid bill procedure advances made in conventional planning processes such as allowing virtual committee hearings, expecting committees to be more inquisitorial in their approach and clarifying the rules for when promoters can be required by committees to pay the costs incurred by petitioners,” he said.

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