New Clause 22 - Construction Commissioner

High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:15 am on 8 March 2016.

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(1) There shall be a Construction Commissioner to consider any complaints about HS2 construction including any that have not already been the subject of discussions with the nominated undertaker.

(2) The Construction Commissioner shall administer a scheme for the administration of small claims relating to the effects of HS2 construction.

(3) Notwithstanding subsection (2), the Construction Commissioner shall have authority to consider and adjudicate on all complaints regarding HS2, without limitation including as to the amount of any claim for compensation or monetary relief, but subject to subsection (5).

(4) The Construction Commissioner shall have express power to consider claims for compensation for property losses including damage caused by underground settlement.

(5) The Construction Commissioner shall not have power to consider complaints regarding the approval as a matter of principle of the construction of high speed rail lines.

(6) The Construction Commissioner shall be independently appointed by a process of open competition overseen by a panel of local authorities and other parties with a legitimate interest in the good administration of HS2 construction. The panel shall also monitor the operation and performance of the Construction Commissioner’s office.

(7) The Construction Commissioner shall be appointed within three months of Royal Assent.

(8) The Construction Commissioner shall report annually to Parliament in a report to be laid before both Houses of Parliament which shall include an assessment of the smallclaims scheme. The report shall include an assessment by the appointment panel of the Construction Commissioner’s efficiency and efficacy in complaints handling.

(9) The Construction Commissioner may be dissolved by the Secretary of State no earlier than three months after the completion of construction works authorised by this Act, and not before the Construction Commissioner has published a final report on the administration of HS2 construction and the operation of the small claims scheme.—(Andy McDonald.)

This new clause would allow the Construction Commissioner to consider complaints without limitation as to the amount of any claim for compensation. It would also require the Construction Commissioner to be appointed by a process of open competition.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Shadow Minister (Transport)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

From nationalisation and re-privatisation to perhaps something a little less contentious. The new clause concerns the role of the construction commissioner. I will not read into the record its nine subsections, but it would allow the commissioner to consider complaints without being limited to the amount of claims for compensation. It would also require the commissioner to be appointed by a process of open competition.

In January, HS2 Ltd announced that it was looking to recruit a construction commissioner to investigate any issues that arise during construction of the much-needed new infrastructure project that cannot be resolved through its corporate complaints procedure. In December 2015, it published an information paper that outlined proposals for the commissioner, which stated:

“The Secretary of State will ensure that a Construction Commissioner is appointed by the time construction begins. If people have a complaint during construction that cannot be resolved through the nominated undertaker’s complaints process, they will have the option of referring their complaint to the Construction Commissioner.”

That is a welcome move. I note that during the construction of Crossrail—the Elizabeth line—a construction complaints commissioner performed an equivalent function. There is, however, no reference to the role of the HS2 construction commissioner in the Bill, so I want to press the Minister on what the commissioner’s role will include and exclude with reference to what the information paper states is expected.

The commissioner’s role is not to include the consideration of claims over £10,000. On 26 February 2016, in answer to written question 28079, the Minister said:

“This figure is provisional, based on other infrastructure projects, and will be subject to review by the steering group.”

I invite him to explain whether the limit should be set at £10,000. Does he think that might constrain the commissioner’s effectiveness in investigating issues that arise during construction?

The information paper also stated that the commissioner’s role will not be to consider

“matters considered by Parliament in approving the project”.

I fear that that may be unnecessarily restrictive and could be exploited to prevent the commissioner from carrying out his or her role effectively. The Bill has a long and complicated legislative history, so I am concerned that a liberal interpretation of that would allow the commissioner to consider hardly any complaints, as almost every issue will have been considered at one time or another by Parliament in approving the project.

It is important that the commissioner is not unnecessarily restricted in his or her role, so I invite the Minister to clarify the commissioner’s role in relation to matters considered by Parliament in approving the project. If the commissioner is not to consider “matters considered by Parliament” or claims “over £10,000”, there would not appear to be a lot for them to get their teeth into.  I want to probe those issues and try to secure clarification and reassurance. I look forward to what the Minister has to say.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I will say at the outset that I share the hon. Gentleman’s wish for an effective construction commissioner, and I reassure him that after an open advertisement for candidates HS2 is in the process of appointing one. His or her role will be similar to the one set out in the new clause, but with some exceptions.

The appointment will address the points covered in subsections (1) and (2) of the new clause. The matters covered in subsection (3) will be limited to small claims, as it is more appropriate for larger claims to be dealt with through existing legal processes, such as the lands chamber of the upper tribunal.

Matters set out in subsection (4) will be dealt with in the appointment, except where a settlement deed has been offered, as this provides a direct contractual route for claims. The appointment will align with subsection (5). Under subsection (6), the appointment will be made with the involvement of an independent body—the chief executive of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association; and the contract of appointment will stress the complete independence of the commissioner. With regard to subsection (7), the appointment process is under way, and HS2 Ltd expects to interview candidates this week, I believe.

Under subsection (8), the construction commissioner will provide an annual report and other reports as required on the activities of the construction commissioner’s office and its statement of accounts to the independent body, which will be made up of a variety of project stakeholders. It may be that thereafter the independent body will make the documents publicly available. Finally, under subsection (9), the appointment will continue to the end of construction, and it is anticipated that a full final report will be prepared.

I have not received representations about either increasing or reducing the £10,000 limit, but I would be keen to consider anything that provided a chance to look at the matter again. I suspect that the commissioner might be the best person to review that and make recommendations. I believe that the points that the hon. Gentleman made have been addressed and are superfluous. I hope that he will withdraw the new clause.

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Shadow Minister (Transport)

I am extremely grateful to the Minister for that thorough analysis of the new clause. He referred to every subsection and it would be churlish of me not to acknowledge that those points have been addressed in full measure. I am reassured to know that there is a residual ability to progress larger claims by alternative means. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.