Heathrow airport expansion cover-up

7.2.2010   (Sunday Times)


THE Department for Transport (DfT) is facing a criminal investigation following
a complaint that it deleted sensitive internal emails about the expansion of Heathrow

It is accused of disposing of emails to and from the airport’s operator, BAA,
between September and November 2007 as the government prepared to push through
its controversial plans for a third runway.

The investigation unit of the Information Commissioner’s Office, staffed by former
police officers, has asked to interview civil servants at the DfT about the apparent
destruction of evidence.

The emails were requested under freedom of information laws by Justine Greening,
a Tory frontbencher, who has led the campaign against the £9 billion expansion.
She asked for an investigation after spotting gaps in email conversations between
transport officials and BAA.

One email sent between the DfT and BAA on November 1, 2007 referred to potentially
damaging information and asked: "Can we play down?" The reply is among those emails
that have apparently gone missing.

Greening said: "I have been trying to obtain these crucial discussions about
the Heathrow consultation for nearly two years. When they were released it was
clear that some of the material was missing. The deletion of these emails could
be a criminal offence and I am very pleased that the information commissioner
is investigating."

She suspects that the missing emails could show that government officials skewed
the evidence in collusion with BAA in favour of expansion.

Geoff Hoon, then the transport secretary, approved the third runway in January
2009 and indicated he would rush the project through to make it difficult for
the Tories, who are against expansion, to overturn the decision.

Opponents of Heathrow expansion seized on news of the investigation as ammunition
for their judicial challenge to the way the government pressed ahead. The case
will be heard in the High Court this month.

Edward Lister, leader of Wandsworth council in southwest London, who is among
those bringing the legal challenge, said: "We are looking to show that the government
hasn’t played fair all along. Our case will show a government determined to force
through the runway at any cost."

Lawyers acting for opponents of Heathrow expansion believe that the apparent
destruction of internal communications about Heathrow demonstrates "bad faith"
and could strengthen their case that the consultation was flawed.

Other opponents include Greenpeace, the RSPB and residents of Sipson village,
where 700 families will lose their homes if a third runway is built.

Greening has been notified in writing by the Information Commissioner’s Office
(ICO) that it is planning "quite an intensive investigation in a short timescale
with the limited resources available to our office". The ICO, which is also conducting
an inquiry into the "climategate" emails scandal at the University of East Anglia,
said such investigations were rare. The deletion or concealment of records to
prevent disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act is a criminal offence.

BAA is not covered by the act and staff are therefore not required to retain
material. However, they are to be interviewed about the missing emails.

The DfT confirmed it had received an interview request from watchdog investigators.
"We are aware of a possible investigation by the ICO but have not received any
formal notice," it said.

The ICO said: "We are looking into allegations made by Justine Greening MP concerning
requests for information to the Department for Transport. We have contacted BAA
and the DfT to help us establish the full facts."