“I don’t want to comment on that”

This is a guest article by Peter Delow of HS2 and the Environment: it was originally published at HS2 and the Environment.

Put yourself into the position that Justine Greening MP, Secretary of State for Transport, found herself in on Tuesday 10th January 2012.

It must be very hard to stand at the dispatch box in the House of Commons and try to sell a pup to that distinguished gathering, even when the assembled MPs appear to be extremely willing to be gulled. The boss says that you have to do it, but you’re intelligent enough to know that the proposition doesn’t really make much sense.

You may also be slightly embarrassed by memories of your own very vocal opposition to Ministers doing exactly what you are about to do.

How do you tackle this unpalatable task?

Well you could adopt the technique that I have seen in past Common’s examples of bowing your head over your written speech and delivering it in a monotone and at an almost imperceptible volume. Or you can do it the way that Ms Greening did; devouring the dish in front of her with gusto, sampling the edible bits with relish and hiding the bits of gristle in her napkin.

So why don’t we take a look into that napkin and try and identify some of the inedible bits of Ms Greening’s meal that she tried to keep from our view?

I have, in my blog Was it all worth it? (posted 16 Jan 2012), already given one such example, which is the inconvenient results of the public consultation.

Another morsel of gristle was the recommendations made by the Commons Transport Select Committee (TSC) in its report about HS2, some of which I discussed in Beware of Greeks bearing gifts (posted 21 Nov 2011). The TSC advised the Secretary of State that there were a number of issues that should be examined with more care before a final decision on HS2 was made. So did Ms Greening acknowledge the TSC report and its contents in her statement? Not a jot!

An intervention that is even more remarkable than this convenient attack of amnesia by the Transport Secretary came when Louise Ellman MP was called by Mr Speaker. Mrs Ellman is the Labour Chair of the TSC, so you would have thought that she might have asked about the reservations that her committee had expressed. Not a bit of it. In what appeared to be a Lab/Con pact of silence, what she said was:

“It is essential that the UK has a high-speed rail network, and I welcome today’s statement as it helps to achieve that. The Secretary of State said that she was considering how to include in the hybrid Bill a commitment to the whole of the Y network. Will she tell us more about that? Will she assure us that the money that goes to funding the very important high-speed rail network will not be at the expense of essential investment in the existing classic line to develop both passenger and freight services?”

It was left to Dan Byles, member for North Warwickshire and HS2 opponent, to refer to this particular elephant in the room (sorry, that should be “Chamber”):

“The Transport Committee’s detailed report raised a number of serious questions about the business case and the technical assumptions behind HS2. It also made the clear recommendation that the Secretary of State should not make a decision on HS2 until she had addressed those questions. Can she explain why she has chosen to ignore that clear recommendation?”

Ms Greening played with a straight bat:

“I think my hon. Friend would be the first person to agree that the Transport Committee’s overall comment on HS2 was that it was a good value-for-money project. The engineers have looked in detail at every aspect of HS2. I encourage my hon. Friend to look at the plethora of reports that we have put out today, many of them giving technical detail. I hope that will provide him with the confidence that he needs.”

If the Secretary of State was so sure that the points raised by the TSC had been addressed and adequately dealt with, then why didn’t she cover this important aspect in her announcement? She was pretty safe in referring MPs to the “plethora of reports” to check for themselves; I doubt that many of them will have the stamina to do this.

I plan to continue this examination of the contents of the Transport Secretary’s napkin in my next blog.

PS: The Hansard transcript of the announcement and subsequent questions by MPs may be found here.

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