CAMPAIGNERS against HS2 have described an alleged cover-up over the railway’s cost at the Department of Transport as ‘a deliberate conspiracy’.
The project has gone ‘badly off-course’ according to MPs on the All-Party Public Accounts Committee, who published an excoriating report yesterday (May 17).
The report accuses the Department of Transport of hiding details of overruning and spiralling costs from members of parliament.
MPs sitting on the committee from across the House of Commons singled out the Department of Transport’s permanent secretary Bernadette Kelly for criticism, claiming she did not pass on briefings from HS2 Ltd suggesting it could not deliver phase one of the project – which passes through Warwickshire – to budget and on schedule.
Stop HS2 Campaign Manager Joe Rukin said:“Right from the start, HS2 has been a train designed to run on lies. The fundamental philosophy driving the project for over a decade has been to hide the truth, because the justifications for building HS2 were only invented after vested interest lobbyists persuaded Government to back the scheme.
“The Public Accounts Committee report is quite clear, there has been a deliberate conspiracy to hide the truth about the costs of HS2 from the public and to mislead parliament. In our minds, this is not just a breach of trust, this is malfeasance in public office, this is fraud. It is absolutely clear that there should be an immediate criminal investigation, but because this stench in public office goes right to the top.”
The committee questioned evidence given by Ms Kelly and HS2 Ltd executives Mark Thurston and Michael Bradley in March 2020, which “raised questions about the previous picture provided by the witnesses of the project’s health last year”.
The deputy chair of the public accounts committee, Conservative MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, alleged the DfT had breached its duty to parliament: “This report is one of the most critical that I have seen in my nine years in total on the committee,” he said.
“The permanent secretary appeared before the committee in October 2018 and again in May 2019. 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 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.”
Penny Gaines, chair of Stop HS2, said: “Parliament provides scrutiny on the expectation that civil servants and government departments do not lie to MPs and select committees. It is clear in this case, as so often with HS2, that senior civil servants deliberately and carefully set out a misleading picture of the state of the HS2 project to the Public Accounts Committee.
“This is no real surprise to us, as HS2 Ltd have been willing to mislead the general public and people affected by the project, almost from the start.
“Having failed to properly make allowances for the changes made during the hybrid bill stage, they are now blaming Parliament for going too fast, when in fact it was HS2 Ltd and the Department for Transport pushing this project through as fast as they could in spite of obvious design problems.
“We have said for years that HS2 was struggling to keep costs under control and the schedule was long since unachievable.”
A spokeswoman for the Department of Transport said since the government announced plans to progress the building of the railway earlier this year, it had tightened control of spending.
“We have comprehensively reset the HS2 programme, introducing a revised budget and funding regime, with significant reforms to ensure the project is delivered in a more disciplined and transparent manner,” the department stated.