While the Information Commission has announced a legal challenge against a Government decision to block the release of secret HS2 reports, the Stop HS2 campaign has demanded that the vote on the second reading of the Hybrid Bill should not go ahead until the reports are made available to MPs.
In January, the Government used a veto to block the publication of the November 2011 Major Projects Authority report which rated HS2 as ‘amber-red’, after the Information Commissioner had ruled that it should be made public in June 2013. This week it was revealed that Dr Paul Thornton, who was responsible for the original request for the documents and the Information Commissioner are launching legal challenges against the use of that veto.
Announcing the legal challenge, Information Commissioner Christopher Graham said:
“The information in the HS2 Project Assessment Report is all environmental information, and my decision notice of 6 June 2013 was issued in exercise of my obligations under the Environment Information Regulations. Therefore under UK law as it currently stands, the Secretary of State’s veto of my decision is unlawful .The reasons given for the HS2 veto do not amount to reasonable grounds, as they merely express disagreement with the reasons given in my decision.”
Ugo Hayter from law firm Leigh Day, which acts for Dr Thornton said:
“This veto can only be used where there is disagreement about where “the public interest” lies in the Commissioners mandate. In this case, the Commissioner has been clear in his submissions to the Tribunal, before the government pulled out, that new information had come to light such there were now no grounds for the government to withhold the information, irrespective of public interest arguments.”
The veto has only been used in a handful of cases, such as preventing the publication of the NHS risk register and cabinet discussions about the Iraq War. A previous veto blocking the publication of letters from Prince Charles was overturned at the Court of Appeal, with this case progressing to the Supreme Court.
As it stands, the Stop HS2 campaign believes that the veto has never before been used to block the publication of information concerning a piece of legislation, prior to a vote taking place. In this respect, the campaign contends that the Government would be deliberately misleading Parliament if the six reports from the Major Projects Authority are not made available to MPs, prior to the Second Reading of the HS2 Hybrid Bill, currently scheduled for Monday April 28th.
Stop HS2 Campaign Manager Joe Rukin said:
“Many people would hope that in a Parliamentary democracy, MPs would have all the facts available to them, before they are asked to commit such massive expenditure to a project, but that is not how this Government works. If the 2nd reading of the HS2 Hybrid Bill goes ahead without publication of all six MPA reports, then Parliament will have been deliberately is being misled by Government, because when the bill comes before MPs, they will not have the full facts on HS2 when being asked to vote on it.”
“All of this information is pertinent to the debate and the vote. If the Government do not release this information, then Parliament should not be sitting to vote on the Hybrid Bill. Using a veto that means MPs will not be fully informed when they come to vote creates a disturbing precedent, which should have everyone worried.”
“The Government will say things have moved on since the November 2011 report, and they are right. But that shouldn’t mean burying that report, it means they should be publishing all the reports the Major Projects Authority have produced on HS2, as only that way will MPs be able to vote from an informed perspective.”
Dr Paul Thornton said:
“The government is claiming they are protecting the willingness of senior officials to ‘speak truth to power’ inside a ‘safe space required for the discussion of policy within government’ what does this say about the willingness of power to speak truth to the public?”