The Lords Spiritual and Second Church Estates Commissioner, supported by the Parliamentary Unit, provide the formal interface between the Church of England and the Westminster Parliament. In addition, the legislative process is also informed by others within the Church through their responses to consultations and contributions to Select Committees. A recent example of the latter was an evidence session of the High Speed Rail Committee on 7 September 2016. Although reported in the Church Times (£) as Vicar concerned at HS2 tree destruction, this was only one component of the PCC’s concern on the “continued and increased impact on St James Gardens, where the Vicar of St Pancras Euston Road has responsibility for the cure of souls for the thousands of people buried there according to the rites of the Church of England”.
High Speed 2 (HS2)
The planned high-speed railway between London, the Midlands and beyond is likely to have a significant impact on buildings and land along its proposed route; as we have noted earlier, churches, churchyards and associated land and property are likely to be affected. On 25 November 2013 the Government published the High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Bill: this confers the powers required to construct phase 1 of the proposed HS2 scheme from London Euston to Birmingham Curzon Street with intermediate stations in West London (Old Oak Common) and at Birmingham Airport. It also provides for a connection to the existing rail link to the Channel Tunnel (HS1).
The deregulation provisions within the Bill are wide-ranging and those with a potential impact on churches, burial grounds and consecrated land are summarized here and here. The Report stage and Third Reading in the Commons took place on 23 March 2016, when the Commons agreed a carry-over motion to enable the resumption of its consideration in the 2016-17 session. The Bill was given a Second Reading in the Lords on 14 April 2016 and a total of 820 petitions was accepted before the petitioning period ended on 18 April 2016. The Select Committee which will consider the Bill was appointed on 5 May, and is currently taking oral evidence.
On 5 July the Select Committee began consideration of petitions to the High Speed Rail (London – West London) Bill and the programme for the period 5 September to 12 October is available here. St Pancras Parish Church Euston PCC submitted a petition to the Committee that it was “specially and directly adversely affected by the whole Bill”, and on 7 September oral evidence was presented on behalf of the PCC by Ms Dorothea Hackman, churchwarden, and the Revd Anne Stevens, vicar.
Ms Stevens highlighted to the Committee that she was speaking not just on behalf of the church’s congregation, but also of local residents in the community … “and uniquely, on behalf of the dead as well as the living, because the petitioners’ prime concern in all of this is St James’ Gardens to the left of the station … an ancient burial ground owned initially by St James’s Piccadilly for their … overspill, and bought by St Pancras vestry [in 1887].
Responding for the Department for Transport, James Strachan QC identified the four main topics raised by the petitioners as: memorial stones and the burial ground; trees, open spaces in general; and the potential temporary use of a play area. A closing statement was made by Ms Hackman.
An analysis of the merits of the issues raised in the petition and the DfT’s response is beyond the scope of L&RUK. Nevertheless, this exchange of views exposed the problems in communications between the various actors in a complex development such as this. Assurances relating to the matters of concern to the PCC had been made by a number of disparate groups – the statutory undertaker, Camden Council and the Archbishops’ Council; some of these, such as those relating to trees and their replacement, related more generally to the Borough of Camden. The problems of scheduling a major project such as this had also given rise to uncertainties in the detail and timing of certain aspects. With regard to the treatment of gravestones, this is specifically addressed in Schedule 19 of the Bill; while the Archbishops’ Council clearly has an important persuasive role, the undertaking of the work will be directed by the nominated undertaker subject to the provisions relating to notification &c within the Bill.
The presentation of oral evidence to a Select Committee, often on the basis of an earlier written submission, requires careful preparation; the experiences of the St Pancras Parish Church Euston PCC provide a demonstration of the type of issues to be faced at such a hearing. Advice on giving evidence to Select Committees to the House of Lords is published here; and in relation to the House of Commons, the Research Briefing: Select committees: evidence and witnesses.
During the St Pancras PCC evidence session, the Chairman noted that “quite serious allegations” on the conduct of the HS2 construction work had been made by Ms Stevens. The Research Briefing notes:
“Witnesses to select committees enjoy absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give, whether written or oral, provided that it is formally accepted as such by the Committee” [emphasis in original].
The guidance also stresses the duties of witnesses who give evidence to select committees:
“The protection which absolute privilege gives to those preparing written evidence and to witnesses must not be abused. In particular, witnesses should answer questions put to them by a committee carefully, fully and honestly. Deliberately attempting to mislead a committee is a contempt of the House, which the House has the power to punish.”
Perhaps I should say that the formal rules of evidence, in my own experience at any rate, are applied rather less rigidly in private bill and hybrid bill committees than in the courts. During occasional sessions clerking the Commons committee on the Crossrail Bill, I frequently heard counsel for the promoters make statements that sounded to me like “evidence”, rather than questions or even statements on behalf of the promoters of the Bill.
I doubt if that would be allowed in either a criminal or a civil court – though, in fairness, a private or hybrid bill committee is not a judicial proceeding.