Transport Minister Patrick McLoughlin, in a statement he has just made to the House of Commons on the West Coast Mainline Franchise collapse, has made a series of announcements.
He was speaking on the Laidlaw Report of the mess the Department for Transport made of the franchise for the west coast rail line – which Ministers have now seen and which will be published soon but not yet.
Mr McLoughlin said:
- The Laidlaw findings made uncomfortable reading for the department and that lessons would be learned;
- Virgin Trains has been granted an extension of 23 months on its contract for the west coast line from London Euston to Glasgow Central – to 9th November 2014 – pending the resolution of the franchise debacle for this route. [They may not, however, get the full 23 months, depending on when the franchise competition is ready to be re-run. The government has the right to shorten the extension by up to six months.]
- There will be an hourly service from London to Glasgow – with the last of the new government-funded Pendolino carriages coming onstream today. his enables more and longer trains on the route.
- From December 2013 there will be two new services on the route – from London to Blackpool and to Shrewsbury.
- The figures on the department’s calculations on the bids submitted were not only wrong they were variously wrong. Bidders were not given similar figures.
- The flawed procedures are recognised to have created serious problems for all bidders, including First Group who were blameless.
- Ministers are said to have been cleared of complicity or responsibility in the mess – because they made the award of the contract without having been told of the flaws in the process. [It should be obvious that no one is going to buy that one.]
- No other procurement processes in the department are affected or tainted by this one. [We cannot accept this. The franchise collapse has been shown to have been driven by a dislike of Sir Richard Branson [an internal ABB code meaning 'Anyone But Branson']. If that retributive modus operandi is the culture in the department, no lone can be sure if that has operated against other, also dislikcd, bidders for other contracts – only better disguised than this one was. However, clearing other departmental franchises of taint may well presage the recommencing of franchise competition Stagecoach boss, Sir Brian Souter is demanding.]
- In future there will be clear and consistent procedures, timelines, terms, conditions on such franchise competitions; and ALL bidders will be required to guarantee their bids against default.
- A single Director General is to be appointed with responsibility for all rail policy and franchising.
The opposition response
Labour’s Shadow Transport Minister, Maria Eagle – clearly on top of the brief to a degree that new Minister, Mr McLoughlin, was not – asked a rapid/fire series of laser focused questions the Minister was unable to do more than stumble over.
She was so quick we could not catch all of the questions she was asking – but she dismissed absolutely all attempts to whitewash departmental ministers, noting that:
- Ministers were responsible for getting rid of 30% of the staff of the department in short order – without considering the operational consequences and with a disastrous loss of expertise.
- Ministers failed to act on repeated warnings that this franchise process was unsound.
Ms Eagle asked, pointedly, if Ministers do not have an obligation to ask questions and not simply to rely on what they are told?
She then asked:
- Whether Ministers had asked for and been given legal advice on whether they might face a legal challenge under competition law in giving Virgin a 23 month contract extension. [The RMT Union is already anticipating such a scenario.]
- Whether a deal has been done with First Group on a quid pro basis, with a promise of another franchise? [Ms Eagle clearly had inside information here.]
The Shadow Minister asked if the Minister could now give an informed estimate for the final cost of the west coast franchise episode, noting that educated estimates were already being made outside the department and running to ‘hundreds of millions of pounds’.
Following the parliamentary statement and response, it was made known that the suspensions of three civil servants prematurely blamed for the mess have been lifted – but they remain subject to disciplinary proceedings,.
One of them has already launched legal proceedings against the Department for Transport on the grounds that she had no responsibility whatsoever for the management of the franchise process.
It ks hard not to consider the evidence, observe the evasions and not come to the conclusion that civil servants, however complicit and.or incompetent they may have been, are being sacrificed in the interests of minister’s careers.
Much of this neither sounds nor smells ‘right’.
It is unlikely that the purposeful and well informed Maria Eagle will let the matter rest there.
- Note: Here is a downloadable pdf of the Report of the Laidlaw Inquiry: report-of-the-laidlaw-inquiry
- Note also that Sam Laidlaw is a non executive director of – the Board of the Department for Transport. His report clears Transport Ministers of incompetence, awareness or involvement in the errors in the process of this aborted franchise award.