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Government to face legal challenge from Information Commissioner over ‘censorship’ of highly critical report on £50billion HS2 rail project

top secret
  • Christopher Graham is launching a judicial review over censored report
  • Warwickshire GP Paul Thornton is taking his own legal action
  • It comes after Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin overruled Commissioner’s decision to publish a report stating HS2 could fail
  • Veto was imposed in January prompting accusations of censorship

The Government is to face High Court legal challenges from the Information Commissioner and campaigners after ministers used a wartime veto to censor information about the controversial HS2 high speed rail project.

Information Commissioner Christopher Graham announced tonight he is launching a judicial review over the Transport Secretary’s veto of a report highlighting official fears that the proposed £50billion project could fail – saying such censorship was ‘unlawful’.

And campaigner and Warwickshire GP Dr Paul Thornton has instructed his own solicitors to launch a separate challenge through the courts.

  The double-pronged legal challenges come after Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin overruled the Commissioner’s decision to disclose the project assessment report under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The veto was imposed in January as anti-HS2 campaigners accused the Government of censorship. They suggested the report – which highlighted  ‘red/amber’ warnings suggesting the scheme was in danger of failing,  undermined the case for the project.

Now Information Commissioner Mr Graham, has announced legal action. Mr Graham has written to Sir Alan Beith MP, chairman of the Justice Committee, saying he has decided to apply for judicial review.

He has told Sir Alan the information in the vetoed review ‘is all environmental information’ and that his June 2013 decision notice requiring its disclosure was issued under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004.

Mr Graham states: ‘The Secretary of State’s veto of my decision notice was unlawful.’

The Commissioner says the appropriate course of action is for him to start a legal challenge.

The Government sparked a furious row by invoking rare emergency powers to ban publication of a damning Whitehall value for money report into the Government’s controversial HS2 high speed rail project.

 Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin announced to Parliament in January that he is imposing a veto  on the report that labelled HS2 ‘amber’ or ‘red/amber’ and in danger of failing.

He insisted that the ruling was ‘in the public interest’ and said: ‘My decision to exercise this power of veto  in this case has not been taken lightly’.

Justifying his ‘exceptional’ decision, Mr McLoughlin said protecting the impartiality of civil servants’ secret advice to ministers had to take precedence over disclosure to the public.

But  furious HS2 protesters said it was the first time since the Iraq War that the ‘hypocritical’ Government had invoked the secrecy laws and branded the gagging order ‘absolutely disgraceful’. They said it was part of a  Government cover-up and a ‘delaying tactic’ ahead of a parliamentary vote on HS2. It will be challenged in the courts by judicial review, they said.

Information commissioner Mr Graham said: ‘There’s important legal issues to be considered here, and I’ll be highlighting our view of them in an open letter to the Justice Committee in due course.’

The Information Commissioner’s action follows the recent Court of Appeal decision in the case brought by Guardian journalist Rob Evans against the Attorney General’s refusal to disclose letters written to ministers by the Prince of Wales.

The Evans judgment, although still subject to appeal, states that the exercise of the ministerial veto in respect of environmental information is incompatible with European law.

Meanwhile lawyers acting for Dr Paul Thornton, from Kenilworth in Warwickshire, have also told the Secretary of State they are proposing legal action after his Freedom of Information Act request vetoed by the Government, despite the Information Commissioner ruling in his favour.

Dr Thornton made the FOI request in May 2012, seeking copies of a Project Assessment Review report showing ‘red-amber’ warnings, prepared by the Major Projects Authority in the Cabinet Office.

Ugo Hayter from Dr Thornton’s law firm Leigh Day, said: ‘The Commissioner has been clear. There were now no grounds for the government to withhold the information, irrespective of public interest arguments.’

Dr Thornton said: ‘We’ll fight this all the way.’

Richard Houghton, of HS2 Action Alliance, said: ‘So far as we can see, the last time secrecy laws of this nature were invoked was during the Iraq war. The implications are immense.’

Tory MP Cheryl Gillan MP  who opposes the line, which will link London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, said the Government’s decision must be reversed: ‘It can only lead to the speculation and conclusion that the report is unfavourable towards HS2.’

A Government spokesman said: ‘It’s important to strike a balance between the benefits of transparency and protecting the ability of officials to ‘speak truth to power’. We have already published project-level data in our annual report of major projects and have no plans to go further.’

Mail Online

10 April

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