Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin along with Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude have written to David Cameron to demand that a veto on Freedom of Information rulings, which has previously been used to prevent publication of documents relating to the Iraq War, should be used to prevent the publication of documents relating to HS2.
In November 2011, HS2 got its first ‘amber-red’ rating from the Major Projects Authority, and despite the assurance at the time that these documents would be released after two years, they still remain secret. Following a Freedom of Information request, and a lengthy appeal process, the Information Commissioner ruled in June that these documents should be released in both the public interests, and to comply with Environmental Information Regulations. The Government appealed this decision, and a tribunal is due to be heard by a Judge this Thursday, with Martin Capstick of DfT and Director HS2 Ltd and David Blackall from MPA in Cabinet office being called to give evidence.
According to the Daily Mail, lawyers acting for the Government expect to lose the appeal, after which the veto would be implemented. However, the leaked letter from McLoughlin and Maude is calling for the veto to be put in place before the evidence is heard in an open court room.
The letter to Mr Cameron says:
“Continuing with the appeal would create political and presentational difficulties at a crucial point in the HS2 project’s development . . . [therefore we should] exercise the veto now . . . Counsel has advised that we are very likely to lose the appeal. We consider that the importance the Government attaches to the successful implementation of the HS2 project . . . justifies the use of the veto in this case as exceptional. Disclosure of such recent information would also have a chilling effect on assessments of other Government projects and, indeed, on advice prepared for Government ministers on many other subjects. Counsel has advised that it will be better to veto now rather than after an adverse tribunal decision.”
Since the November 2011 MPA report, which under to the rules stated at the time should have already been published, four more MPA reports have been conducted into HS2, at least three of which have been rated ‘amber-red’, meaning “Successful delivery of the project is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas. Urgent action is needed to ensure these are addressed, and whether resolution is feasible”. Besides a handful of Ministers, MPS who will be asked to vote of the HS2 Hybrid Bill have not seen the details of these reports. Maude & McLoughlin claim that publication would cause ‘political and presentational difficulties’ and could seriously damage the project.
Stop HS2 Campaign Manager Joe Rukin said:
“It is absolutely disgraceful that the Government doesn’t want MPs, who should be fully informed before voting on the colossal expenditure HS2 entails, to actually have all the information about the project. This just proves that there has been, and continues to be an agenda from Government to deceive MPs and the public with spin and dismiss any independent information showing just how bad the HS2 project is. It also shows that this Governments’ supposed ‘transparency agenda’ is as transparent as a lump of coal. What is the point in having reports on projects if they cannot be used to inform the debate around them?”
“Trying to keep this secret is an absolute scandal. When they claim that publication of these reports would cause ‘political and presentational difficulties’ and could seriously damage the project, what they are saying is that the truth will finish off their white elephant vanity project, and it can’t be allowed to see the light of day. This is a complete disgrace.”
Penny Gaines, chair of Stop HS2 said
“What the Ministers wrote is extraordinary! HS2 is not some hidden plan for a secret bunker, it’s is a £50 billion project for a railway which will tear across the countryside in full sight and sound of anyone in the vicinity. The Department for Transport claim that HS2 is a project with a strong strategic case, and yet the government want to veto the publication of the MPA report into it. What makes this even more extraordinary is the report is already two years old, so the Department for Transport should have had plenty of time to deal with the problems identified in it.”
Mrs Gaines added
“In the summer the Department for Transport upped the budget for HS2 considerably. With another £10 billion of taxpayer’s cash for HS2 Ltd to spend it’s no surprise that the MPA think HS2 Ltd are now less likely to go over-budget, especially as the Paving Bill also hands them a blank cheque to spend on HS2.”