Rail chief's £1,500 briefing is just more profligacy, critics say

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The Independent Online

Britain's rail chief was under fire yesterday for spending £1,500 of taxpayers' money on a two-hour briefing session with Steve Norris, the Tory candidate for London Mayor.

Richard Bowker, the chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, sought the help of Mr Norris, the part-time chairman of the controversial Jarvis engineering company, after he had been summoned to appear before the Public Accounts Committee in the Commons. Mr Bowker's "spin doctor", Ceri Evans, was press officer to Mr Norris during a previous attempt by the former Tory transport minister to become London Mayor.

The SRA chairman has been heavily criticised recently for spending £20m in nine months on consultants. His organisation is expected to be stripped of much of its power as part of a fundamental reform of the management of the network.

Mr Bowker's critics will see it as a graphic illustration of the SRA's profligacy with taxpayers' money, and it will reinforce the Government's determination to curtail its activities.

The authority chairman consulted Mr Norris before of a hearing of the Public Accounts Committee on 1 March into how services to passengers were improving through expenditure on new trains. The authority has more than 400 staff, some of whom are paid to advise Mr Bowker on such matters.

Gerry Steinberg, the Labour MP for the City of Durham and a member of the PAC, described the briefing session as "a scandalous waste of taxpayers' money". He said: "Did Richard Bowker really think he was going to get value for money from Steven Norris? As a former Tory transport minister and with the Jarvis connection, Norris is one of the people who got the industry into the mess it is in."

Bob Crow, the general secretary of the RMT rail union, said the authority spent huge sums of public money on consultants, but that this was "beyond the pale".

A spokeswoman for Mr Norris pointed out that the Tory politician was a senior partner in Park Place Communications, a consultancy specialising in transport and its impact on the environment.