FORMER transport secretary Andrew Adonis has branded the collapse of the West Coast franchise award as 'probably the single biggest failure in British public policy since the poll tax'. The House of Lords has also been told that the rail franchising system is probably 'irretrievably broken'.
The remarks came as the result of a question which had been set down by Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, who was calling for information about what the Department for Transport will do following its withdrawal of the West Coast franchise award to FirstGroup on 3 October.
She had also wanted to know what the costs will be, and whether other franchises will be affected.
Lord Attlee, representing the Government, insisted that the inquiries will be carried out with 'integrity'.
He said: "The Secretary of State has asked Sam Laidlaw to look into the procurement process with the support of independent advice. This review is due to provide findings by the end of October and it would be premature to speculate on them. A second review [to be run by Eurostar chairman Richard Brown] will examine the implications for the wider franchising programme. Both reviews will be published reports. If there are any questions about the thoroughness and integrity of Sam Laidlaw's inquiry, I shall be happy to debate these when his findings are made public."
But some of his questioners were not convinced.
Lord (Bill) Bradshaw asked: "Will the noble Earl think about the fact that the franchise process is probably irretrievably broken? Will he ask the Secretary of State to make a bid for room in the legislative programme in the next Session of Parliament, as I believe it is inevitable that this Act and its successors will have to be reviewed?"
Lord Attlee replied: "I do not believe that the franchise process is inevitably broken, but that is a matter for Richard Brown to review. Professor David Begg has been reported in the Financial Times as saying: 'Because of this procurement failure we risk becoming far too negative and throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We can fix this, we've done it before'. Wise words indeed, and the first and correct step is these two fairly quick inquiries."
Lord Adonis responded: "Is the noble Earl aware that Professor Begg is a non-executive director of FirstGroup and that therefore he is not an entirely independent observer of these events?
"How can Sam Laidlaw, for whom I have the highest respect – he is an executive of great integrity – possibly be judged to be independent when he is a non-executive director of the department whose actions are the subject of an inquiry, including the actions of senior civil servants and Ministers who are with him on the board? Does the noble Earl not recognise that the findings of such an inquiry will always be tainted until they are properly and independently conducted and that independent review cannot take place under a non-executive director of the very department that has conducted probably the single biggest failure in British public policy since the poll tax?"
Lord Attlee maintained that both inquiries would be independent and open to scrutiny.
Meanwhile, all the West Coast bidders have been examining the first detailed feedback from the DfT about the West Coast process, although it is reported to have been 'heavily redacted'.
The feedback is based on a new report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers which was commissioned a few days before the award was cancelled, but it is not clear whether officials lost some of the data or failed to input it properly. The Daily Telegraph reports one insider as saying: “It looks like they ran the numbers and didn’t save the results. PwC tried to repeat the outputs and it couldn’t.”
A DfT spokesman refused to comment on the implications, saying: "We are not going to give a running commentary on what went wrong.”