Life in the gulag?

"A gulag," "the salt mines," "punishment detail," - from the descriptions they give of it, MPs mostly don't relish their work on the committees which examine the detail of the hybrid bills which authorise major infrastructure projects.

Certainly the membership of the committee which scrutinised the Crossrail Bill in the last Parliament contained a number of MPs who believed they were only there because they had upset their party whips.

The committee sat a couple of times a week for several years, even sitting when the Commons was in recess; it was detailed and pretty thankless work, with no political profile or pay-off, not least because any MP with a constituency interest in the scheme was barred from taking part.

Now, another long, gruelling parliamentary yomp is about to begin, and it will probably extend beyond the next election. Next week, the committee examining the detail of the HS2 Bill will begin its work. And this time the whips have chosen an array of solid experienced backbenchers - the Conservative trio comprises two ex-ministers and an ex-whip (Robert Syms, who looks likely to chair the committee) - because they do not dare leave this massive and politically sensitive scheme in the hands of the disaffected and the maverick.

The most important point is that the clear intent is to extend the high speed rail network beyond the section dealt with in this bill, which means that this committee will be setting precedents on issues like compensation and environmental protection, which will be cited in a sequence of hybrid bills that will be keeping generations of MPs busy for the next 20 years.

The function of this committee is to hear petitions against the HS2 Bill - people whose property or interests are affected will be able to bring their objections to Parliament. Some will be represented by specialist lawyers, some local authorities have been running workshops to show people how to present their own petitions, some will be presented on their behalf by local councillors or MPs.

One of the early tasks for the committee will be to group the issues so that many petitions can be dealt with as job lots - for example many petitions could be answered by deciding on particular issues around the routing of the line around Euston Station, and some environmental issues might be groupable too.

Several MPs are already preparing to demand compensation for those facing perhaps decades worth of nuisance from building sites in their neighbourhood.

In any event, there will be considerable efforts to "settle out of court" with the HS2 Company agreeing deals with petitioners before their issue goes before the committee - sometimes those deals are reached in the corridor outside, with moments to spare.

Inevitably, it is a time-consuming process and will have to be carried over into the post 2015 Parliament, which is allowable for this type of legislation.

So how much leeway will the committee have to vary the route?

One of the (unsuccessful) amendments proposed to the instructions to the committee by the formidable HS2 opponent, Cheryl Gillan, would have allowed the committee to consider alternative routes. In practice they might be able to vary the line by a hundred yards or so - but the engineering imperative of high speed rail requires straight lines or very gentle curves, and any major diversion would be problematic.

(I've written here before about the precedents set on HS1 - the Channel Tunnel Rail Link - and I rather garbled the sequence of events, attributing the change in the original route to the Bill Committee; in fact the government of the day was so thoroughly "duffed up" by opponents that it rethought its plans and opted for the 'Arup Alignment' - proposed by engineers Ove Arup, approaching London from the east via Stratford. And their original route was never put to MPs in a bill. )

But that doesn't mean that the bill committee is powerless. In particular their decisions on compensation could cost the HS2 company many millions. And they could also add all kinds of embellishments on environmental issues.

The most recent hybrid bill committee exercise on anything like this scale was for the trans-London railway scheme, Crossrail; that committee fought a long and intensive battle to add an extra station to the line at Woolwich - where local MP, ex minister and veteran of the committee on the Channel Tunnel Bill, Nick Raynsford, masterminded a campaign which forced an unwilling government to stump up.

With all three of the main parties behind it, HS2 was never likely to be stopped in Parliament. But those with objections will still have their day in court, during the committee process.

Opponents will doubtless keep up a guerrilla campaign against the bill - but mostly in the hope that they might deter an incoming government from persevering with it, in 2015.