Mawhinney defies the Ombudsman on rail link

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Indy Politics

Transport Correspondent

The Government is on a collision course with the Ombudsman over compensation claims for blight caused by a proposed new rail line.

It is unprecented for ministers to reject the finding of the Ombudsman and the first time since the creation of the post in 1967 that a conflict has reached this stage.

Yesterday, Brian Mawhinney, the Secretary of State for Transport, defended his decision not to pay any compensation to five families who were affected by proposals to build the Channel tunnel rail link through Kent and who were unable to sell their homes.

In a long, forthright performance at the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration - the committee which oversees the Ombudsman's work - Dr Mawhinney rejected a finding of maladministration against his department.

In January, the Ombudsman, William Reid, found that there had been maladministration by the department in its failure to pay compensation, because delays caused by its changes in policy had resulted in blight.

In March, the department's permanent secretary, Sir Patrick Brown, also refused to concede to the request for compensation, and the committee summoned Dr Mawhinney.

In his opening statement, Dr Mawhinney said yesterday: "I do not accept that, on any possible grounds, there was maladministration."

The crucial issue is whether it is possible for the department to pay compensation to some affected families without creating a precedent for thousands of other claims.

Dr Mawhinney said that 20,000 owner-occupiers lived within 150 metres of the route in properties worth pounds 1.8bn. There were other routes proposed at various stages and he said: "We are talking about selecting a small number of cases from many thousands."

Dr Mawhinney repeatedly argued that defining hardship was impossible and that it was impractical to draw up a scheme that limited the right to compensation to just a few cases. Mr Reid, however, has said "it should be within the whit of the department" to devise a scheme.

Dr Mawhinney said he sympathised with the people involved, but added: "I am not in a competition [with the Ombudsman] to see who has the most heart or who cares most about some tragic cases."

In the only similar conflict, in 1978, the Government eventually agreed to amend legislation and pay compensation to those affected. The committee will now decide whether to support the Ombudsman's claim by referring the matter to be discussed on the floor of the House of Commons, which would be the first time this has happened.