A railway omnishambles proves Miliband's point

West Coast rail contract scrapped after "significant flaws" in the bidding process.

One of the most powerful sections of Ed Miliband's speech came when, with remarkable fluency, he declared of the government: "Have you ever seen a more incompetent, hopeless, out of touch, U-turning, pledge breaking, make it up as you go along, back-of-the-envelope, miserable shower?" Less than a day later, ministers have demonstrated exactly what he meant.

The Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has announced that the decision to award the West Coast Main Line rail franchise to FirstGroup has been cancelled after the discovery of "significant technical flaws" in the bidding process. The government will no longer challenge the judicial review sought by Virgin, the current operator, which has long argued that the process did not adequately assess the risks of competing bids (it warned that FirstGroup's £5.5bn bid was a recipe for bankruptcy). According to McLoughlin, the reopening of the bids will cost the taxpayer "in the region of £40m".

The staff involved have been suspended from the Department from Transport and two independent reviews, one into what went wrong with the West Coast competition and the other into the wider franchise bidding process, have been launched. What makes this particularly damaging for the government is that Labour had previously called for the contract to be halted in order to allow such a review to take place.

McLoughlin said:

I have had to cancel the competition for the running of the West Coast franchise because of deeply regrettable and completely unacceptable mistakes made by my department in the way it managed the process.

A detailed examination by my officials into what happened has revealed these flaws and means it is no longer possible to award a new franchise on the basis of the competition that was held.

I have ordered two independent reviews to look urgently and thoroughly into the matter so that we know what exactly happened and how we can make sure our rail franchise programme is fit for purpose.

The government will now likely transfer responsibility for the running of the line to the state-owned Directly Operated Railways, which took over the East Coast Main Line in 2009. Labour has called for the government to immediately halt the planned privatisation of the latter. Indeed, with 15 rail franchises due to be awarded before the general election, the argument for full renationalisation has been immeasurably strengthened.

A Virgin train passes along the West Coast mainline route near Abington. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.