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Government hid HS2 problems to keep it on the rails, say MPs

01 June 2020

A committee of MPs has accused the Government of hiding the problems afflicting HS2 from Parliament and the public in order to ensure the project was not scrapped. 

“The Department and HS2 Ltd seemed to believe that a lack of transparency with Parliament and the public on the problems facing the programme would in some way protect it,” says the report by the House of Commons public accounts committee. Its probe follows the National Audit Office’s recent report into the project (LTT 07 Feb). 

Last summer the Government announced that the estimated cost for all phases of HS2 had risen from £55.7bn to £88bn (2015 prices) and the opening of phase one (London to the West Midlands) had been delayed from 2026 to 2029.

The revised costing and timetable were revealed after HS2 Ltd formally notified the Department that it could not deliver Phase One to budget and schedule in March last year.

But the public accounts committee says the DfT and HS2 Ltd “were aware of the scale of the issues facing the programme as early as October 2018”. 

 “Despite being aware of these issues, the [DfT] permanent secretary withheld from us that the programme was in significant difficulty when she appeared before the previous committee in October 2018 and May 2019, even in response to specific questions about the programme’s delivery timeline and budget,” says the committee.

The DfT and HS2 Ltd  defended their actions, telling the committee that there were commercial sensitivities to the discussions at those times, and that options were still being pursued to remedy the situation.

The committee is not impressed, however, stating: “Failure of an Accounting Officer [a permanent secretary] to provide accurate information to Parliament is potentially a breach of the Civil Service Code and a breach of Parliamentary Privilege.” 

Reacting to the committee’s report, HS2 critic Lord Berkeley said the problems affecting HS2 were apparent long before even October 2018.

“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 whistleblowers 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 McLoughlin, 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.”

Quantity surveyor Michael Byng, a persistent critic of the Government’s HS2 costings, said last week: “The realistic estimated cost of Phase 1 was known in early December 2016. My original estimate was £53.6bn, later revised to £47.8bn, compared to the budget for the project, provided in a [parliamentary] written answer dated 21 December 2016 of £24.3 bn.” 

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