Monday, May 18, 2020

Row Over HS2 Still Rages as Proponents Accused of Lying to Parliament and Talking Nonsense

Public Accounts Committee Report Backs Critical Arguments
Shipping News Feature

UK – Regular readers will know of the passion with which Lord Tony Berkeley has put over his points of view regarding the HS2 project. Nobody would wish to see an expansion of a successful rail freight sector more that he, and he has warmly welcomed the just published Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report which supports many of his arguments, particularly that the Department for Transport (DfT) and HS2 Ltd have misled parliament.

The cross-party committee questioned evidence given by DfT permanent secretary Bernadette Kelly and HS2 Ltd executives Mark Thurston and Michael Bradley. Having issued his own dissenting report earlier this year, Berkeley clearly feels exonerated saying that never before has a PAC report set out in such stark terms the failings in transparency of the facts given to it during a project’s development. He continues:

“I am pleased that the PAC has taken steps to investigate HS2, but it is clearly not enough. Unfortunately, the report has failed to take into account the even earlier warnings that I, and others, gave the Government several years previously about the cost increases, the many senior whistle blowers who were silenced, and the failures of successive ministers to properly inform Parliament.

”For example, on 16 May 2016, the then Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLaughlin MP, wrote to the then Chancellor George Osborne MP, stating that the Government could not keep to the HS2 budget, but suggested they obfuscate and keep this confidential. HS2 Ltd. and those working on it at the DfT have had no regard for proper process or Parliament.

”As recently as last month, why did the DfT give the go ahead to begin building HS2 on 15 April 2020 when it must have known about the ongoing PAC review? It is very unlikely that Parliament would have given approval had it been provided with the necessary cost information in a timely manner.”

One can see what Berkeley means when looking at the PAC review which at one point says ‘the failure of the Accounting Officer to provide accurate information to Parliament is potentially a breach of the Civil Service Code and a breach of parliamentary privilege’, and Berkeley goes on to urge the Committee to look at further evidence, much of which it now has to hand, and ask the government to include this in its response to the PAC.

The DfT and HS2 were accused of hiding the nature and extent of the project’s problems by the PAC. On May 13 Transport Minister Baroness Vere said in a Written Answer (HL3454) ‘The spend to date on HS2 up to the end of 2019 was £7.5 billion (2015 Q1 prices, excluding VAT). However not all of this is treated as sunk costs in the economic case, as the land and property costs could be recoverable were HS2 not to go ahead’.

The committee’s Deputy Chair Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP said the PAC report on HS2 was one of the most critical, in both the transparency of Government and the handling of a project, that he had seen in his nine years in total on the committee, continuing:

“In March 2019 HS2 Ltd formally told the Department it had breached the terms of the Development Agreement, and would be unable to deliver the programme to cost and schedule, yet the Permanent Secretary did not inform the committee on either appearance that the programme was in trouble. This is a serious breach of the department’s duty to Parliament and hence to the public, which as the report says, will undermine confidence.

“Furthermore, the PAC was in the dark about serious cost overruns and was therefore unable to do its duty to inform Parliament that value for money on the project was at risk. The cost overruns have been blamed partly on the speed that the hybrid Bill committee for Phase One proceeded with. I was a member of that committee, which lasted for 20 months, this is complete nonsense.”

Berkeley has continually given his opinion on the best ways the money earmarked for HS2 could be spent to reinvigorate British railways and he makes the point once again, saying with regard to the Baroness’s response:

”Probably at least half this amount could be recovered if we also include work done on parts of HS2 in the North and for Network Rail around Euston and needed for much needed regional rail improvements. The PAC has now exposed the disregard for parliamentary trust, transparency, probity and the failures of the civil service that have been evident within HS2 for many years. Billions of taxpayers’ money has already been wasted, and much more (£106 billion to over £200 billion?) will be in the future unless parliament and ministers get a grip.

”It is time to cancel Phase 1 completely, allow work on parts of HS2 in the regions to go ahead under the guidance of the National Infrastructure Commission and Network Rail, and finally bury HS2, the company HS2 Ltd and bring to book those who have allowed this to happen.”

To see a full review of the arguments which have raged over this matter simply type HS2 into the News Search box at the head of the page to view a chronological list of articles on the project.

Photo: Committee chair Meg Hillier MP who told those appearing before her: “We want to see an honest, open account, and evidence of learning from past mistakes being applied to bring this project under control, to deliver it within the timeline and budget that have been agreed in justifying the project. The DfT and HS2 appear to have been blindsided by contact with reality”