Skip to main content

West Coast Main Line Franchise

Volume 556: debated on Thursday 17 January 2013

3. What his latest estimate is of the cost to the public purse of cancelling the award of the west coast main line franchise; and if he will make a statement. (137494)

I have stated that bidders will be remunerated in full for the reasonable costs of putting together and submitting their bids. As I reported to the Transport Committee on 10 January, I expect that figure to be in the region of £45 million.

I come from the world of industrial manufacturing, where incompetent mistakes get someone the sack. It occurs to me that in this Government no one gets the blame, while hard-working, travelling members of the public pay the price for the mistake through higher rail fares. Will the Secretary of State tell me exactly which Minister, if any, will take responsibility for his Government’s humiliation in this affair?

I think I have been very open with the House. I have made two or three statements to it about the incident involving the west coast main line, and I have commissioned two reports that have broadly been welcomed, I think, by the House. Both those who wrote the reports have given evidence to the Transport Committee, during which, Sam Laidlaw, who wrote the report on what went wrong in the Department, said that Ministers were not made aware.

I thank the Secretary of State for being so open with the House about this matter. It is an issue not just about the cost to the public purse, but about the potential for franchises to be delayed. In my constituency in Deal, we want a hard-won commuting high-speed service to be made an all-day high-speed service. Will he tell us what the impact of the delay might be?

As I said, two reports were conducted, one by Sam Laidlaw and the other by Richard Brown. I published the latter last week, and in the near future will make a statement to the House about how I intend to implement Mr Brown’s recommendations.

As the Clerk has very originally observed, the Secretary of State has brought the matter back on track. We are grateful to him.

The Laidlaw report is clear about where the blame lies for the west coast franchise fiasco—it was Ministers who decided to carry out a botched reorganisation of the Department that left no one in charge of rail, cut one third of the Department’s staff and axed external audits of procurement. Is it not a disgrace that with the well over £45 million of taxpayers’ money that the Secretary of State admits down the drain, every single one of those responsible Ministers is either still in the Cabinet or has been promoted to it?

There are many ways in which one can read the report. The hon. Lady means to put her interpretation on it, and whatever I say will not change that interpretation. It is quite clear in the report that Ministers were not made aware of some of the problems, and if they had been referred up, different actions could have been taken.

If the Secretary of State will not accept what Laidlaw says about ministerial responsibility, perhaps he will accept the verdict of the Brown review, which is also clear about where the blame lies. It was the mistaken decision by Ministers to move to longer franchises as the rule, not the exception, and experiment with this risky new policy on the most complex franchise route. Instead of repeatedly blaming civil servants, who cannot answer back, when will Ministers finally take responsibility for this staggering waste of taxpayers’ money?

I think I have been very open with the House, and I have also commissioned inquiries. Initially the hon. Lady questioned their independence. I am glad that she is now happy to abide by those reports, which were clear that, had Ministers been warned, different actions could have been taken, which is exactly what the permanent secretary said before the Select Committee on Transport.