Ministers should share the blame for rail franchise fiasco

5 October 2012

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5 October 2012 | Adam Leach

Both ministers and civil servants should be held to account over the procurement errors made in the West Coast Main Line franchise tender, according to the boss of British Airways.

Appearing on BBC TV show Question Time last night, Willie Walsh, CEO of BA parent company IAG, said if ministers take the praise for departments’ successes, they should also take the blame for failures. He added both ministers and civil servants have questions to answer over the flawed tender process for the 17-year franchise which was cancelled earlier this week, after it was found to not to have properly accounted for inflation and changes to passenger numbers over its lifetime.

Walsh said: “It’s a mess of monumental scale and people have got to be held to account and I think that’s both the politicians who were involved and the civil servants.”

Asked by moderator David Dimbleby whether ministers should be expected to understand a complex procurement process, Walsh replied: “The process wasn’t that complex. Ministers take the praise when something good happens and shift the blame when something bad happens so I don’t think they should say they weren’t involved.”

Three senior civil servants at the Department for Transport have since been suspended, prompting questions whether officials are being used as scapegoats for ministers. But Ken Clarke, minister without portfolio, said it is not the job of politicians to get too involved with tender processes, suggesting it is DfT officials who should shoulder the blame. “I did a whole tendering process for prison management. I didn’t start taking over personally, the decision over who won the tender,” he said.

“If the transport ministers had said, when choosing who won, we’re not going to leave it to the officials or procurement experts but sit down with figures and work it out ourselves who has won, I would have cautioned either of the good ladies [former transport secretary Justine Greening and minister Theresa Villiers], very strongly, against doing that.” He said the minister’s job was to set the policy about going out to tender in the first place.

Shadow foreign secretary, Labour MP Douglas Alexander, said the ministers were at fault, blaming their decision to change the franchising process and seek to award a contract for a period of 17 years.

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