Supreme Court ruling on “black spider memos” may lead to release of critical report

HS2 Woodesford

The Department for Transport could be forced to release a highly critical Cabinet-level report on the viability of HS2 after the Supreme Court ordered the release of Prince Charles’ “black spider memos”.

The Department for Transport (DfT) has said it is “considering its options” on releasing the Major Projects Authority’s (MPA) report on HS2, which has previously been vetoed by transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin because it was “against the public interest” for the details to be divulged.

A judicial review of the government’s decision not to release the MPA report, brought by protestor Dr Paul Thornton and the Information Commissioner, is now expected to go ahead after being put on hold in June 2014. The case was delayed as the legal dispute over the MPA was similar to the dispute over non-disclosure of the prince’s private letters, with the High Court ruling the report’s “environmental information” fell under similar regulations to that of part of Charles’ correspondence.

The transport minister used what has been dubbed a “war veto” in January last year to block the publication of the report, which features interviews with key people working on the scheme including civil servants and industry experts.

Written in 2011, the Cabinet report is believed to raise major concerns about the “risky” timetable for construction of the high-speed line, and criticise insufficient work on costs and capability, according to press reports.

The government was accused of censorship after McLoughlin blocked the report being published, despite the Information Commissioner ruling that it should be released under the Freedom of Information Act. The rarely used veto has previously been used to block publication of the Prince of Wales’ private letters and documents on the Iraq war.

Last month the Information Commissioner ruled for a second time that the MPA report should be published, stating that “HS2 Ltd shall disclose to the complainant copies of the MPA reports from November 2011 and June 2012”.

Joe Rukin, campaign manager for Stop HS2, said: “The High Court put the HS2 case on hold awaiting the Prince Charles judgment, as many of the points of law are the same.

“Having lost the Prince Charles case, the entire legal basis for the government vetoing the MPA reports on HS2 has vanished. They simply haven’t got a leg to stand on, and should publish all these reports without further delay, but as that would leave the project in tatters, they will certainly try and defend what is now indefensible in the courts to stretch things out as long as possible.”

Speaking to Building about the report, one of the leading opponents of HS2, Conservative candidate for Chesham and Amersham Cheryl Gillan said: “The full MPA reports on HS2 should be published as it is in the public interest to see the risks and deliverability of what is the largest peacetime infrastructure project in the UK being paid for entirely with tax payers funds.”

Hilary Wharf, director of HS2 Action Alliance said: ““The report will no doubt show that HS2 is a highly risky project and unlikely to come in either on time or within budget.  The Government have sought to hide the report from both the public and the Mps who are making the decision to proceed with HS2.  It is scandalous that legislation last used to prevent release of information relating to the Iraq War is being used to hide the truth about this white elephant from both taxpayers and Mps alike.”

A DfT spokesperson said: “Regarding what the Prince Charles case means for the HS2 MPA report, we are aware of the Supreme Court judgment and will be considering next steps.”