A version of this article was first published by The Information Daily.
Given that the only people called by the Transport Select Committee to give evidence to their new inquiry about HS2 were the authors of a report which KPMG got paid £242,000 for, and the people who commissioned that report which invented a brand new untested methodology to bolster the benefits of the project, it is no real surprise that the committee have now heavily endorsed HS2. Though the recommendations which effectively told the DfT to ‘spin harder’ to promote the project, by sticking with the policy of ditching standard project assessments, and to also ditch the official cost of the project for, not surprisingly, a much lower guestimate, may have been a step too far.
However, this political manoeuvring was nowhere near as unpalatable of what happened the day before the publication of that report, when a room booked in Field House for a tribunal hearing became unexpectedly unoccupied. Tthis was due to be the venue for an appeal from the Cabinet Office against the Information Commissioner, against a ruling which ordered the Government to publish a report from the Major Projects Authority into HS2 from November 2011.
The Major Projects Authority was set up by the coalition as part of the Cabinet Office to assess the viability of, you’ve guessed it, major projects, reporting every six months with the assurance that the reports would be published two years after production. Now you don’t have to be a maths genius to realise that more than two years have passed since November 2011, when HS2 was first 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”.
Six months had passed since the Information Commissioner ruling, but at the last minute, with evidence due to be presented in an open court, Ministers decided it would be best if the real state of HS2 joined the Iraq War and the NHS risk register, in being noisily buried. Two days before the tribunal was due to happen, the Daily Mail got hold of an internal Government communication from Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin and Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude who wrote:
“Continuing with the appeal would create political and presentational difficulties at a crucial point in the HS2 project’s development. Counsel has advised that we are very likely to lose the appeal. 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.”
We then find out, that the case has been postponed the day before evidence was due to be heard in open court. The Government have tried to withdraw their appeal, whilst ‘considering’ using their veto. However, it is for the judge to decide whether the case can be withdrawn and s/he will hear arguments on both sides before deciding whether the case is withdrawn. The veto would not only block the November 2011 report, but the four subsequent ones. This is despite the fact that when launching the ‘Open Government Partnership’ six weeks ago, Francis Maude was keen to say:
“Transparency is an idea whose time has come – and the clock cannot be turned back. The best way to demonstrate the power of transparency is by making it real for everyone.”
Whilst the reality of his policy is one as transparent as a lump of coal, Maude himself is transparent, in that you can see right through him. Yet again we see grade-one hypocrisy in politics, with claims of aspiration to a lofty and laudable goal, backed up by the reality of doing exactly the opposite.
And herein is the real scandal, not just with the ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ attitude, and not even because the documents will not be released to the public, but because the Government is deliberately trying to keep the MPs they hope to vote for the HS2 Hybrid Bill in the New Year, completely in the dark. Irrespective of your position on HS2, it has to be accepted that MPs being asked to approve its’ colossal expenditure should have the full facts at their disposal. But like we have seen before, Government has realised that knowing the facts will inform the debate, and inform it the wrong way. So the intention is that the Transport Select Committee can provide their version of the ‘dodgy dossier’, while the actual facts are under lock and key because they are too sensitive to see the light of day.