Fess up failure fuss, part 2

(… continued from Fess up failure fuss, part 1, posted on 27 May 2017).

Another gladiator who has entered the arena, armed with a freedom of information request, seeking a correction to Sir David Higgin’s “misspeaking” when giving evidence to the House of Commons Transport Select Committee and the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, is FoI specialist Dr Paul Thornton (see footnote 1). Dr Thornton’s request to HS2 Ltd for information (see footnote 2), made on 28th February 2017, seeks to establish what action has been taken by the Company as a result of being notified by Mr Marriott that Sir David Higgins had misinformed Parliament, or of becoming otherwise aware of this.

The response that Dr Thornton has received provides a number of confirmations:

  • HS2 Ltd has not corresponded with either parliamentary committee by way of apology, clarification or correction in respect of Sir David’s evidence.
  • HS2 Ltd were first made aware that there was a challenge to the accuracy of Sir David’s evidence by Mr Marriott’s FoI request submitted on 11thFebruary 2015.
  • HS2 Ltd and the Department for Transport (DfT) have not exchanged any correspondence about the matter.
  • There appears to have been no HS2 Ltd internal correspondence generated by Mr Marriott’s FoI request.

The response also attempts to “spin” the context of Sir David’s comments, by raising some very loosely associated observations on the possible relationship between passenger demand and speed, and the incorrect assumption that this putative relationship could affect the “capacity” of a new railway. The explanation is also advanced that Sir David’s comments were made “in the context of wider discussions about how HS2 will increase capacity”. What is totally missing from the response is any acknowledgement that Sir David’s comment was factually incorrect.

What this response tell us, I think, is that FoI requests are handled at a relatively low level within the HS2 Ltd organisation, and that any matters arising are unlikely to reach the attention of the Company’s executives, let alone end up on the desk of the Chairman and Chief Executive. So the FoI request is probably not the appropriate vehicle for tackling an issue like putative factual inaccuracies in evidence given to Parliament.

Nevertheless, this apparent limitation has not stopped Dr Thornton from following up his information request to HS2 Ltd by a similar request to the DfT, made on 7th April 2017 (see footnote 3). The response that he has received confirms that the DfT has also not corresponded with Parliament about the accuracy of Sir David’s evidence, nor has there been any internal correspondence within the DfT relating to the matter.

The request has, however, revealed one further item of evidence relating to the issue, which is a set of brief notes of Sir David’s Transport Select Committee appearance made by the Head of Public Affairs for HS2 Ltd, which were circulated to various members of DfT and HS2 Ltd staff by email. These notes report the comment about twice the speed meaning twice the capacity but, unsurprisingly, do not make any observation on the veracity of the statement.

So the evidence from FoI requests is that the appeals for an admission and correction have not only fallen on deaf ears, but have probably failed even to reach the ears of those in a position to authorise such a move.

There does appear to have been one intervention, however, that has succeeded in getting the matter in front of the Chief Executive of HS2 Ltd. In a blog posted towards the end of last year, Beleben reports on a “complaint” made to HS2 Ltd by an unidentified individual in August 2016 that “asked HS2 Ltd to withdraw [Sir David Higgins’ and Mr Kirby’s] statements, and provide accurate information” (see footnote 4). After the customary delay – nearly three months this time – and lame excuse, a response was sent that explains that the communication, not being related to the “service that HS2 Ltd provides”, cannot be treated as a complaint – a view that I have some sympathy with – but has been regarded as a “general enquiry”. The response gives no indication whatsoever that HS2 Ltd intends to make amends for promulgating misinformation, but merely trots out what Beleben describes as “off-topic waffle”.

The individual – could that be the blogger him/herself I wonder – appears to have progressed the matter by referring it to the Chief Executive of HS2 Ltd, and Beleben reproduces the resulting letter from Simon Kirby in another blog: whilst this letter is dated 14th November 2016 it was, according to Beleben, not “sent out” until February 2017 – perhaps this is a new ruse by HS2 Ltd to cover up the delays that often seem to be associated with them responding to enquiries and complaints (see footnote 5). Like the initial response received by the complainant, Mr Kirby’s letter contains no hint of remorse, nor any indication that a retraction will be issued, but is long on HS2 Ltd trademark “off-topic waffle”. What the letter does prove, however, is that the accusation that the  HS2 Ltd Chairman misspoke to two parliamentary committees has been aired at Board level, so there can be no excuse for the Company failing to inform the committees concerned of what has occurred.

Clearly, further action, of some sort, is required if HS2 Ltd is to be “persuaded” to change its stance on this matter. I suggest that, once the unwanted and unwarranted distraction of the current general election is out of the way, the help of a sympathetic MP is sought to write to the Chairman of both committees and Sir David to request that the public record is corrected.

Footnotes:

  1. I reported on some of Dr Thornton’s exploits in this field in my blog Peering into the laundry basket (posted 19 May 2017).
  2. The request has been given the identity FOI17-1713 by HS2 Ltd.
  3. The request has been given the identity FOI14743 by the DfT.
  4. See the blog Misinformation is not a service, Beleben website, 9thNovember 2016.
  5. See the blog Too much capacity and not enough capacity (at the same time), Beleben website, 29thMarch 2017.
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