- MPs: Ministers must check all e-mail traffic at Department of Transport
- Want to find out why DfT ‘discriminated against Virgin in favour of First’
- Derogatory e-mails about Branson’s group ‘sent between civil servants’
03:49, 31 January 2013
03:49, 31 January 2013
Ministers must check all e-mail traffic at the Department of Transport for evidence of an alleged ‘Anyone But Branson’ conspiracy in the West Coast rail fiasco, MP watchdogs demanded today.
A damning all-party report said there was already proof some civil servants had lied to ministers.
Now it was necessary to find out why DfT staff ‘discriminated against Virgin and in favour of First Group’ over the decision to award the lucrative £7billion West Coast mainline franchise, they said.
Investigation: Richard Branson is pictured in front of one of his Virgin Trains. A damning all-party report said there was already proof some civil servants had lied to ministers in the West Coast rail fiasco
This should be done by instituting a ‘full e-mail capture’, they added.
The MPs’ demands for an full investigation of electronic memos comes after MailOnline revealed exclusively in October how derogatory e-mails about Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Trains were allegedly sent between civil servants involved in the shambles of the West Coast mainline franchise.
Probe: The official independent inquiry into the scandal headed by Centrica chief executive Sam Laidlaw made only a cursory trawl of e-mail traffic
They were said to be part of a culture of bias characterised as ‘ABB – Anyone But Branson’.
The official independent inquiry into the scandal headed by Centrica chief executive Sam Laidlaw made only a cursory trawl of e-mail traffic – despite the allegations of an ‘anti-Virgin, anti Branson bias’ at the heart of Whitehall.
Significantly, today’s damning report by MPs stressed: ‘We cannot categorically rule out the possibility that officials manipulated the outcome of the competition not only to keep First Group in the running for as long as possible, as Mr Laidlaw suggested, but to ensure that First got the contract.’
It added: ‘We recommend that the DfT find a way of undertaking a full e-mail capture, reporting to someone suitably independent, to help get to the bottom of why DfT staff discriminated against Virgin and in favour of First Group during the franchise competition.’
The report continued: ‘Related to this issue is the question of whether or not the staff who ran the franchise competition were biased in favour of First Group, or against Virgin Trains.’
The report notes that Mr Laidlaw had given only a ‘qualified’ view that he ‘could see no evidence of systemic bias or anti-Virgin culture’.
But he had stressed that his inquiry team ‘had not been permitted to review all emails sent by DfT civil servants during the franchise competition.’
Comments: Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin (pictured left on a train with Prime Minister David Cameron) said he was sure ‘most of the people who acted thought they were acting in good faith’
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin told MPs he had not wanted to second guess the motivations of the officials involved but said he was sure ‘most of the people who acted thought they were acting in good faith and doing what was right for the industry.’
The Government awarded the new £7billion franchise to FirstGroup, but cancelled it before the planned handover in December after Sir Richard’s Virgin group, which had offered £700million less, made a successful legal challenge on the grounds that the Government ‘got its sums wrong’.
An insider told MailOnline in October: ‘There is electronic e-mail traffic between the officials. In some of them Virgin is referred to in derogatory terms. Some people sent these messages, others received them.’
Industry insiders said Whitehall officials – some of whom had worked for more traditional train operators – disliked the firm’s maverick approach.
There was allegedly deep resentment when Virgin renegotiated the terms of the West Coast franchise in 2006 on terms which ‘nailed them to the floor’.
‘Some people in the department felt they were stitched up,’ said one source. ‘It’s a catalogue of calamities.’
Three civil servants were suspended by the Department as a result of the fiasco.
Confusion: FirstGroup was told it had won its bid to take over the franchise from Virgin Trains, which run the West Coast Mainline since 1997 – but the decision was scrapped
The Transport Committee said in its report today that: ‘Irresponsible decisions compounded by civil service failures led to the collapse of the west Coast Main line franchise competition.’
It concluded: ‘A more direct description of what happened is that ministers and senior officials were lied to about how the outcome of the franchise competition had been reached,’ said the MPs’ report.
‘We cannot categorically rule out the possibility that officials manipulated the outcome of the competition not only to keep First Group in the running for as long as possible, as Mr Laidlaw suggested, but to ensure that First got the contract’
It said the Transport Department had embarked on an ‘ambitious, perhaps unachievable” reform in haste.
FirstGroup was told it had won its bid to take over the franchise from Virgin Trains, which run the West Coast Mainline since 1997.
But the decision was scrapped after the discovery of ‘significant technical flaws’ in the way the procurement was conducted.
Virgin has now been told it can run the service until November 2014, with the fiasco costing taxpayers over £40million.
Former transport secretary Justine Greening, who presided over the original FirstGroup decision, and her successor, Mr McLoughlin, had both defended the bidding process.
MPs: Ministers must check all e-mail traffic at Department of Transport – Daily Mail
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