Ministers ‘misled’ MPs over Heathrow

14.6.2009   (Sunday Times)

The government has been accused of misleading MPs by trying to cover up lobbying
of ministers by BAA, the airport operator, over the expansion of Heathrow.

Conservative MPs believe they were given inaccurate replies to questions in parliament
about whether Lord Mandelson’s business department had met BAA to discuss expanding
the airport. Justine Greening, the backbencher who asked the questions, will now
ask Michael Martin, the Speaker, to investigate.

The row coincides with the release of official figures showing that, around Heathrow,
illnesses caused by pollution rose by 72% from 2003 to 2008, nearly twice the
national average.

BAA lobbied heavily for a third runway and was given the go-ahead in January.


In a letter written by Mandelson, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act,
he refers to meetings between officials in his department and "representatives
of BAA", in which expanding the airport was discussed. The letter also refers
to a meeting between Baroness Vadera, the business minister, and BAA.

Greening, the MP for Putney, claims that, in a reply to a question she asked
in parliament, Ian Pearson, a minister in Mandelson’s department, denied such
meetings had taken place.

He replied: "Ministers and officials . . . have not held meetings specifically
on Heathrow expansion."

He added that Heathrow may have been raised "as part of a broader conversation"
about other issues.

However, Mandelson wrote in a letter to Colin Matthews, chief executive of BAA,
on November 19, 2008:     "I know that Berr officials have recently met with representatives
of BAA to discuss the issue of new runway capacity and its significance for security
and the long-term competitiveness of the UK economy."

Greening accused the government of a cover-up and claimed it had used "weasel
words" to conceal the lobbying by BAA.

"They can’t even give a straight answer to a straight question," she said.    
"Ministers have been caught out giving an inaccurate answer.     They are now trying
to cover it up."

A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, formerly
Berr, said the minister had not answered inaccurately because no specific meetings
about Heathrow had taken place.   There had been "routine discussions" about UK
competitiveness at which the issue may have come up.    "Ian Pearson’s answer accurately
states that no meeting on the specific issue took place," he said.

Additional reporting: Chris Gourlay