Posted 31st January 2013 | 6 Comments

MPs blame ministers for West Coast collapse

A REPORT from the House of Commons Transport Committee following its inquiry into the collapse of the West Coast franchise competition has condemned the ‘irresponsible’ decision to award the contract to FirstGroup, for which it says ministers were ultimately to blame. However, there is no suggestion that FirstGroup or any other bidder contributed to the problems.

But this report is only a majority verdict, and not unanimous. Three Conservative members of the Committee - Karen Lumley, Karl McCartney, and Iain Stewart - said they disagreed with the conclusions of their colleagues.

In a joint statement issued today, they said: "We believe the evidence in the Laidlaw Report shows that Ministers asked the right, penetrating questions during the process but were given inaccurate responses by officials. It has further been shown that resources were available to officials to commission external advice and support should they have required it. We do not believe that it is was 'irresponsible' to run the new franchise process first on the WCML as the Department has shown itself perfectly capable of managing other complex projects in this period."

The report highlights ‘major failures’ by civil servants, some of whom are suspected of misleading ministers. It calls for a full examination of departmental e-mails, in a bid to discover whether officials tried to ‘manipulate’ the result.

It was the controversial calculations of the loans – financial buffers which act as an insurance against failure -- which were challenged by Virgin. Its High Court case derailed the process and led to the award being withdrawn last October.

A report by Centrica chief executive Sam Laidlaw has already exposed major flaws in the DfT’s processing of the 15-year contract, and transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin admitted that his findings made ‘uncomfortable reading’.

Louise Ellman, who chairs the Committee, said: “This episode revealed substantial problems of governance, assurance,  policy and resources inside the Department for Transport. Embarking on an ambitious -  perhaps unachievable - reform of franchising, in haste, on the UK’s most complex piece of railway was an irresponsible decision for which ministers were ultimately responsible. This was compounded by major failures by civil servants, some of whom misled ministers.

“Many of the problems with the franchise competition, detailed in the Laidlaw report, reflect very badly on civil servants at the DfT. However, ministers approved a complex – perhaps unworkable - franchising policy at the same time as overseeing major cuts to the Department’s resources. This was a recipe for failure which the DfT must learn from urgently.” 

The Committee is calling for a full account of the costs of the collapse, which have already been put at £50 million.

Reader Comments:

Views expressed in submitted comments are that of the author, and not necessarily shared by Railnews.

  • John Gilbert, Cradley, Herefordshire

    It would be interesting and enlightening to see what the views of the dissenting Tory MPs were - why, in fact, they dissented. Can this be done please?

  • jbzoom, Guildford

    Blaming the ministers for being lied to by civil servants is typical of the Punch and Judy politics which villainous civil servants encourage, to protect themselves from carrying the can. This Punch and Judy show has deflected attention from the call for a full examination of the departmental e-mails, which is the only potential source for finding out whether the civil servants involved were crooked, malevolent or merely incompetent. Where the Tories do deserve blame is for failing to understand that the basis on which they proposed to offer longer franchises lacked economic logic. The Brown Review has made very good suggestions for shorter franchises, capable of being extended if the operator meets passenger satisfaction and other targets. This would be a dramatic improvement and it is sad that the even the railway press has given him so little credit for it.

  • Tim, Devon

    These committees are pretty pathetic. They all seem to have perfect hindsight and just try to engage in pretty aggressive finger pointing. When the TV cameras are turned on they all play up to the media and try to get themselves on the news with a sound byte.

  • Darren, Manchester

    Isn't it strange that the only committee members unwilling to blame fellow party members all happen to be Conservative MP's?

  • Leslie burge, leicester

    Am I cynical ? Is it that the Committee looking into this fiasco have deliberately not unanimously agreed.We Have so little detail as to what went
    wrong with this Franchising process apart from a lot of big words meaning pretty much anything you would like to make of them.The whole episode looks like a big whitewash to cover individual ministers and civil servants backsides

  • Des, Stafford

    I would like to see more tranparency in respect of all the franchise bids. Ministers said much at the time they awarded the franchise to FirstGroup and proclaimed all the benefits it would be bring in terms of new services. However, as Railnews later exposed, the Virgin bid appeared to offer the same innovations and more! So what of the other contenders? What were they offerring and why were they ruled out?