The dishonesty behind the Conservatives’ claim to be building a “Northern Powerhouse” was always going to be exposed, but at the Transport Select Committee yesterday it became increasing clear that Ministers are still not being honest with the public.
Never mind the gap, when he faced questions from MPs, the Transport Secretary sounded like a man who had been decoupled from reality.
said thathe didn’t “acknowledge that there were problems emerging on the Midland Main Line,” even though it is a matter of public record that the cost of the scheme more than doubled from £540 million to £1.3 billion between 2013 to 2014.
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Under questioning, he claimed that he was unaware of the extent of Network Rail’s problems until his civil servants handed him a damning dossier on the 15th of June, despite the fact
that in March Network Rail agreed to:
"The decisions required jointly with the DfT re enhancement deferrals from June."
The official line remains that Ministers had no idea that these projects were in serious trouble until after the election, and we are asked to believe that they were then shocked – shocked – to discover that they had been kept in the dark.
But rail industry employees knew. Network Rail knew. Journalists covering the railways knew. The Regulator knew.
warned in Marchthat the Ministers were “desperate to keep quiet” the fact that the “Government’s rail investment plans are falling apart.” The Transport Select Committee
said in January that:
“Key rail enhancement projects—such as electrification in the North and North West of England—have been announced by Ministers without Network Rail having a clear estimate of what the projects will cost, leading to uncertainty about whether the projects will be delivered on time, or at all.”
It seems that the only people who did not know that the investment programme was careering off track were the Ministers responsible for funding the railways.
The new information disclosed yesterday only raises more questions. If the Department for Transport made a recommendation in mid-June, when did this work begin, and when were Ministers first made aware that these projects were in peril?
These questions go to the heart of public trust in the Conservative Ministers who, just three months ago, were promising that:
“Electrification of the railways is a key part of our investment programme, with work already underway across the North, the Midlands and South Wales.”
The Government must now set out a clear account of who knew what and when, which it signally failed to do yesterday. Otherwise the perception that the Midlands and the North were knowingly deceived will only become more entrenched.