Matthew Sinclair is Director of the TaxPayers' Alliance.
Last week I wrote about how Philip Hammond was undermining the coalition's credibility on transparency. Estimates of the number of jobs created and properties affected by noise if the HS2 project goes ahead were given to the Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times respectively for release well ahead of proper publication. That made it impossible for the claims to be properly scrutinised.
Full Fact have written about the case today and they are pretty clear that it doesn't fit with the Code of Practice for Official Statistics. They argue that there is an ongoing problem with the Government deciding statistics are non-official and then using that as a pretext to ignore rules meant to ensure an open and fair debate. Patrick Casey, a researcher at Full Fact, writes that:
"Clearly it is worrying if the rules can be danced around on technicalities so it is welcome that the UK Statistics Authority's remit does to an extent cover consultation documents."
Another attempt to distort the democratic debate over HS2 has been announced this afternoon. Birmingham City Council have announced that they are going to spend £50,000 supporting "the ‘Yes to HS2’ group at a local level." Phillip Hammond said: "I very much welcome Birmingham Council’s strong support for our High Speed Rail plans and their decision to launch this fighting fund."
So the council are going to use taxpayers' money to lobby and campaign for even more – over £30 billion, well over £1,000 per family – to be spent on a high speed line for a fortunate minority, who already enjoy a fast and frequent service. Goverment is going to lobby government, to quote a soundbite the Conservatives were rightly fond of in opposition but which now seems like a hollow joke.
Just over a month ago Eric Pickles was condemning Lambeth council for spending a few hundred pounds on posters which attacked spending cuts. He was right. But how exactly is that compatible with another Cabinet Minister applauding a council spending tens of thousands of pounds to promote its own political views?
I am absolutely disgusted at how the Government are behaving in their attempts to promote HS2. They can and should make their case, but releasing statistics in a way designed to frustrate proper scrutiny and using taxpayers' money to fund political campaigns is an abuse of their position. It just makes me think that their notional commitment to transparency and openness is nothing but a flag of convenience, taken down at the first sign of trouble. Phillip Hammond should be ashamed of himself.