Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Train Crash

Well, well, well. So that very irritating man Richard Branson was right all along. Cast as the sore loser for seeking a Judicial Review of the decision to award the franchise for the West Coast Main Line to rival rail operator First Group, the very day before a judge was due to start hearing the case, the government caves in.

It's about as embarrassing as it gets for a new minister to have to admit that the 'extremely robust process' of bidding was indeed utterly flawed and as a result the taxpayer now has an immediate bill of about £40million to pay in respect of all the bidders costs, with the whole charade having to start all over again. Even worse, all current bidding processes are now on hold and there are bound to be demands for previous contract failures to be re-examined, particularly that of the East Coast Main Line currently being run directly by the government.

In trying to absorb all this, I can't help but bring to mind several old adages such as 'there's no such thing as a free lunch' and 'you only get what you pay for.' So what the hell has any of this got to do with probation I hear you ask? Well, we are about to suffer the same fate as other key public services and be privatised. 

As I'm writing this, there are civil servants down in London at the Ministry of Justice drawing up contracts for the benefit of private companies such as G4S. How is anyone to feel comfortable or reassured that they are any better than their colleagues over at the Department of Transport in being able to fairly assess the relative merits of different bids, and especially those that have to be measured against public sector bidders? 

I seem to recall that at the time the WCML result was announced it was said the government were mightily fed up with Richard Branson for having very successfully renegotiated his previous contract due to delays in Network Rail delivering the promised WCML infrastructure upgrade. There's just that tad of suspicion that politics plays a rather bigger part in awarding contracts than the government would have us believe. 

Of course normally contract details are not open to public scrutiny and Freedom of Information requests are routinely refused on the convenient grounds of commercial confidentiality. It's taken a complete maverick like Richard Branson to cry wolf on the whole process and put it all before a judge for close scrutiny. And guess what, it would not have held up. So, as the announcement of civil servant suspensions is imminent, I'm left pondering just how many other contracts between the government and private contractors would survive such close forensic examination?                  

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