HS2 brings on board new finance director as it looks to tackle governance question marks after unapproved redundancy payouts

Rebecca Smith
How the finished HS2 could look
How the finished HS2 could look (Source: HS2)

Crossrail’s Elizabeth Gillbe has been hired as finance director for HS2, as the state-funded rail group looks to tackle governance question marks, and deals with the fallout from unauthorised redundancy payouts.

Gillbe joins in January next year, while a new HR director starts within a few weeks.

Chief executive Mark Thurston told MPs on the Public Accounts Committee this week: "We think we've got a good hire there, she comes with a lot of good experience."

Read more: HS2 execs to face grilling by MPs over unapproved redundancy payouts

"These are really key positions for us as a company, so it's important we get the right people who can grow both individually and professionally with the life of the programme," he added.

The appointment comes amid a turbulent time for the rail group, after the Public Accounts Committee this week grilled HS2 executives and the DfT's permanent secretary Bernadette Kelly over unapproved redundancy payments at the rail group, that were revealed by the National Audit Office in July.

HS2 had made £1.76m of redundancy payments after they were forbidden by the Department for Transport, which had expressly stated the organisation should remain at the civil service limit of £95,000 per person.

Chief financial officer Steve Allen stepped down over the matter last week, saying:

The weaknesses highlighted by the NAO report resulted in both the HS2 executive and board being misinformed about the status of critical approvals for redundancies.

Those assurances were given by teams for which I was responsible and, obviously, I regret that.

HS2 has also been dealing with high turnover of staff.

Speaking to MPs on Monday, Thurston said between September 2016 and September this year, turnover at HS2 was 18 per cent. He noted this was "far too high", and one of his priorities is bringing that to the industry norm of around eight to 10 per cent.

"I've spent the lion's share of my first eight months in this job reinforcing the need for stability, for good corporate discipline, clarity around what the purpose of the organisation is, because it has changed quite a lot," Thurston said.

It emerged during the PAC session on Monday that HS2's former chief executive Simon Kirby, now chief operating officer at Rolls-Royce, had received an email from a senior figure at the DfT instructing that redundancy payments should not top £95,000 per person, and had not forwarded it onto colleagues.

And Conservative MP Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, member of the PAC, said of Kirby: "He has made unauthorised payments that have defrauded taxpayers of £1.76m."

Kirby said in a statement: “I have had no contact from either the NAO or DfT on the audit of HS2’s accounts and redundancy payments. I left HS2 in December last year and the decision to make senior managers redundant, and under what terms, was not made until after I left. I did not approve the payments at issue and deny any allegation of wrongdoing.

"While I do not recall whether I forwarded one specific email from David Prout [former director general, HS2 for the DfT] to others within HS2, the issue of statutory severance was well known within HS2 and I recall regular contact between HS2 and DfT – at a number of levels – on this specific issue.”

Read more: HS2 chief financial officer steps down after unapproved redundancy payouts

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