Anyone but Branson? Mails trawled for evidence of 'anti-Virgin' bias over rail franchise

 

Whitehall Editor

Thousands of internal Department of Transport emails are to be trawled for evidence that civil servants wanted to hand the lucrative London to Scotland West Coast train service “to anyone but Branson”.

Executives at Virgin Trains have long been concerned about the perception of an ‘anti-Virgin’ bias and culture within the department that could have wrongly led the company to lose its bid to run the line to rival First Group.

Now it has emerged that the official inquiry into what went wrong with the franchise process is to examine all the emails between civil servants involved in the process to establish whether there was any implicit or explicit prejudice against the company.

Giving evidence to the Transport Select Committee the most senior civil servant in the department Philip Rutnam confirmed he had had a request to trawl all email correspondence during the period of the franchise process.

“I was rather expecting that they might ask one to be done,” he said.

“They have now asked and it will be done.”

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”.

Mr Rutnam, who took up his job as Permanent Secretary in April, also revealed that he had been banned from seeing any of the flawed calculations used to award the West Coast franchise prior to it being awarded.

“It may the surprise the committee but commercial information from the bidders does not come to the Permanent Secretary,” he said.

“So in term of my involvement from April until July I did not see any commercial information about the process. There was then a phase when I saw letters from Virgin which were making representations about it (the process).

“The consequence of the rules that the Department had adopted was that having had site of that material (the letters from Virgin) I was thereafter debarred from taking part in the decision making process.

He added: “I agree that it seems surprising. But these were the rules.”

Also giving evidence to the committee the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin apologised to taxpayers who are now facing a bill of up to £100m following his decision to scrap the West Coast franchise process. He said they had “a right to expect better”.

But he insisted that cuts to the size of his department could not excuse the failings in the bidding process.

“There were plans to reduce the size of the department before the last election and whichever Government won would have seen a reduction in budget and headcount,” he said.

“Yes there are pressures and there are pressures on the public sector as there are pressures on the private sector. But I don’t think that allows for what we’ve seen.”

On Monday, Mr McLoughlin published the initial findings of an independent report he set up to look into the West Coast bidding affair.

Led by senior business figure Sam Laidlaw, the report said the DfT had been "aware of a lack of transparency" in an aspect of the franchise process but had decided to continue "and to accept the risk of a bidder challenge".

It also said that significant jobs cuts and the reorganisation which had resulted had left lines of responsibility unclear.

The transport committee's chairman Louise Ellman, described the Laidlaw report as "a damning indictment"

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?