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Railways: High Speed 2 Review

Volume 752: debated on Thursday 13 March 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will reconsider their decision not to publish the November 2011 Major Projects Authority review into HS2.

My Lords, the Government do not intend to reconsider their decision not to release the November 2011 MPA report. The decision to exercise the power of veto to override the decision of the Information Commissioner to release the report was not taken lightly and carefully took into account the views of the Cabinet and the Information Commissioner, and the wider public interest.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but if HS2 is such a good project, I still cannot see what the Government have got to hide. However, does the Minister agree with that group of dangerous left-wing environmentalists—the Institute of Directors—that:

“Across the country, there simply is not the level of business support to justify blowing Britain’s infrastructure budget on a project with such potential to turn into a white elephant”?

My Lords, there has been widespread discussion in this House and the other place and there is widespread acceptance by all the political parties of the benefits of HS2. HS2 is about not just speed but capacity, regeneration, job creation and growth. It will connect nine major cities. It is one of the largest infrastructure projects we have and we should welcome it.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that there is no business case whatever for HS2 north of Manchester? Will he further confirm that the decision not to have tilting trains inevitably means that all the stations north of Wigan will in fact have an inferior service?

My Lords, I do not have in my brief details of the line north of Manchester. I will be happy to write to the noble Lord.

Does the Minister agree that a lot of the demands that we have just heard for the publication of out-of-date information are really mischief-making by opponents of HS2, who wish to use the information only to pick further holes in the case? Last weekend, I was handed a leaflet by people who are against HS2 which referred to the “ultra high-speed line”. That is absolute nonsense, because the trains will run at the same speed as they do now on the Great Western and north-eastern lines and have done for 40 years. Does the Minister agree that it is right to leave the matter in the hands of the extremely competent chairman of HS2, who will come forward shortly with his proposals to cheapen and extend the project?

I agree with the noble Lord that we have in Mr Higgins the best of chairmen for HS2. The Major Projects Authority, which was set up by this Government, monitors all major projects in the UK such as HS2 and gives us an annual report on whether we are on time, within cost and how well the project is doing.

My Lords, how can my noble friend justify not releasing the report? He says that we want a widespread discussion. How can we have that discussion if we are kept in the dark on certain vital pieces of information? Those who are opposed are going to suspect the worst. If the report presents an absolutely clinching argument for HS2, let us have it.

My noble friend makes a very important observation here. I again stress that the decision not to publish this report was not taken lightly. It was decided not to publish because it was not in the public interest to do so. The Secretary of State’s reasoning has been laid before the House. He focused on three specific reasons as to why the report was an exceptional case: first, the exceptional importance of the HS2 project; secondly, the extremely strong public interest in showing that expenditure on HS2 is properly and robustly overseen and controlled; and, finally, the short timeframe between the production of the project assessment review and the request for information, and the timing of the request at this particular stage of policy development within the HS2 project.

My Lords, is it not in the public interest to have transparency and access, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has just said, to all the details? How can we have a well informed public debate? Will the Minister at least tell the House the Government’s current estimate of what HS2 will actually cost?

Yes, they do, my Lords. Last year, they published the first ever Major Projects Authority report, covering transparency on all our major projects. The HS2 project is already subject to extensive scrutiny, including 10 public consultations in the first three years, lasting a combined total of more than 12 months. In addition, it has been scrutinised by the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee, the Transport Select Committee, the Treasury Select Committee and the courts—most recently, the Supreme Court.

In the further interests of transparency, will the Minister make available and easily accessible in the Lords Library the debates in the Lords on the original line of the London to Birmingham railway in the early part of the 19th century? Noble Lords can read there of the ferocious opposition there was from all quarters of this House, explaining that the line would destroy wildlife, wreck communities and be a white elephant. I congratulate the Government on standing firm on this issue. Why look in the crystal ball when we can all read the history books?

I take the point that the noble Lord has made. I will ask the department to make sure that something is placed in the Library from the public records.

My Lords, might this be a more popular project if we stopped referring to HS2 and referred to North-South 2?

My Lords, we have HS1 and this is HS2. It is in a “Y” shape, so it will go to both the east and the west from the south.

My Lords, the noble Lord said that this Government are interested in transparency. Is he aware that we are still waiting for the publication of the risk register about the nonsensical Health and Social Care Act 2012? As to the public interest, does the noble Lord agree that in addition to the issue of speed, the key issue is capacity? The fact is that trains on the current lines going through the Midlands to the north are very full indeed, and capacity has to be dealt with.

My Lords, since privatisation, capacity has doubled in the past 20 years and hence we have HS2 coming. In the mean time, we are addressing capacity as the number one issue and the whole purpose of HS2.