A Freedom of Information Tribunal concerning the release of documents critical of the HS2 project, which was due to take place from 10am today (12th December 2013) has been postponed. It is understood that this follows a last minute intervention from the Cabinet Office, in line with speculation this week that the Government were planning to use their veto to block publication of the report, which was previously used to prevent the publication of documents relating to the Iraq War.
On Tuesday, it was revealed that Cabinet Office Secretary Francis Maude, who is responsible for the Major Projects Authority which produced the report, and Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin had written to David Cameron, saying that publication of the MPA report should be blocked for political reasons, saying:
“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.”
This is despite the fact that when launching the ‘Open Government Partnership’ six weeks ago, Maude said:
“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.”
The original ruling in June from the Information Commissioner stated that a report produced by the MPA in November 2011 which rated HS2 as ‘amber-red’ should be released, both for public interests and to comply with the Environmental Information Regulations. This could create a precedent demanding the publication of four subsequent MPA reports on HS2, at least three of which are known to 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”.
If the veto were to be exercised, this would be the first time it had been exercised against an environmental ruling, creating a disturbing precedent. Besides a handful of Ministers, MPs who will be asked to vote of the HS2 Hybrid Bill in the New Year have not seen the details of these reports.
Stop HS2 Campaign Manager Joe Rukin said:
“It seems that Government have taken the first step to making sure that reports which show just how badly HS2 is doing will never see the light of day. Francis Maude recently said that Transparency is an idea whose time has come, and the clock cannot be turned back, but like a complete hypocrite, turning the clock back is exactly what he now wants to do with regard to HS2. We could understand blocking the release of sensitive information relating to national security, but this is information about environmental impacts which the Information Commissioner has said should be release in the public interests.”
“The Government are proving they don’t care about transparency, the public interest or letting MPs properly scrutinise their £50bn white elephant, they just care about getting their vanity project through at any cost. The whole thing stinks of attempted cover-up, hypocrisy, vested interests and political expediency. This is no way to run a railway, what are they trying to hide?”