Today’s Telegraph carries a report under the somewhat sensationalist headline “Church of England to pray that HS2 will be halted”, which states that
“The Church of England has announced its opposition to the Government’s HS2 proposals after warning that the line will desecrate thousands of graves and shatter the peace along the £43 billion route”.
The report explains that the Archbishops’ Council has petitioned against the High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Bill currently before Parliament because the proposed route for HS2 will pass through three burial grounds at Euston, Stoke Mandeville and Birmingham and the Council is concerned that the human remains exhumed will not be “treated in a decent and reverent manner”. The nub of the Council’s objection is in paragraph 7 of its Petition: that Clause 26 and Schedule 19 of the Bill as it currently stands
“… do not make adequate provision to ensure that during and after the removal of human remains they are treated in a decent and reverent manner or that they are subsequently reinterred in consecrated land. Nor do they make adequate provision to ensure that any monuments that are removed are disposed of in a suitable manner”.
Paragraph 13 of the Petition argues that the absence of such provision from the Bill is “contrary to general legal principle” and, hinting at Article 9 ECHR, contends that the omission fails to strike a proportionate balance between the Church’s
“… right to manifest its religion or belief, in practice and observance in relation to the dead, and the general needs of the community that are to be met by the works for which the Bill provides”.
However, the Church has made it clear that it is not opposing HS2 per se: what it is asking for is a technical change to the Bill.
In response, a Department for Transport spokesman was quoted as saying that
“Though the affected burial sites at Euston, Stoke Mandeville and Birmingham have not been in use for more than 100 years, HS2 Ltd will ensure that the affected remains are treated with dignity, respect and care”.
The High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Bill is a hybrid bill – which means that, though it is a public bill introduced by the Government it has the features of a private bill; and those “injuriously affected” by its provisions have a right to petition against its provisions.
A petition against a hybrid bill is the first step in a fairly complex process. Petitions are heard by the committee on the bill in a quasi-judicial procedure which involves evidence from the petitioners as to why the bill should be amended and argument by counsel for the promoters of the bill and its opponents. During the course of proceedings the promoters may offer concessions to meet the concerns of petitioners – and unless there is an irreconcilable difference of opinion frequently do so. The principal differences between a civil court and an opposed bill committee is that the latter is composed of MPs or peers and the strict rules of evidence do not apply. But its purpose is to make sure that issues such as that highlighted by the Archbishops’ Council are properly ventilated and the arguments properly considered; and if the committee is not satisfied with the promoter’s response on a particular point it may make amendments to the bill to meet petitioners’ objections.
Finally, the author of the Telegraph report, Steven Swinford, is evidently much amused by the fact that the Petition concludes with the words, “Your petitioners therefore humbly pray your Honourable House that the Bill may not be allowed to pass into law as it now stands”. But the words “And your petitioners will ever pray” have long been the standard formula for ending a formal petition. In his memoir, Minority Report, the late Andrew Herron (sometime Clerk of Glasgow Presbytery and Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1971) recalls at p 237 drafting a petition to the General Assembly for a solicitor acting on behalf of a congregation that was his client. Not being much of a typist Herron produced the draft in longhand:
“Now I am the first to admit that my handwriting bears no resemblance to copper-plate, but I was surprised when scanning the typed draft sent to me for final revision to read, ‘and your petitioners will even pay’”!