Southern: Labour calls for inquiry into 'murky world' of rail franchising

Guardian Web |

The Labour party has called for an investigation into disclosures that the civil servant who awarded Southern its rail franchise did so while owning a large share in a consultancy that had been advising the troubled operator’s parent company.

Andy McDonald, the shadow transport secretary, said the disclosures by the Guardian “expose the murky world of rail franchising” and pressed for an investigation by the head of the civil service.

“It is clear that the relationship between the Department for Transport, private companies who profit from our railways, and lobbying and consultancy firms is uncomfortably close,” he said.

McDonald’s call for an investigation centres on Peter Wilkinson, who had been hired by the Department for Transport (DfT) to be its franchising director.

Wilkinson was involved in awarding the Southern, Thameslink and Great Northern franchises to Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) in .

Related: Rail franchise mandarin's board gave Southern contract to client of his company

For 20 months after he was recruited to the department, he was a director and the joint main shareholder of First Class Partnerships (FCP), a transport consultancy he had been managing since 2002. He was employed by the DfT as a contractor under an agreement with FCP.

Govia had been a longstanding client of First Class Partnerships and had been paying it for advice six months before the franchise was awarded.

Whitehall documents show the DfT eventually concluded that Wilkinson had a clear conflict of interest between his shares in FCP and his government work as the arrangement in which he had been seconded from FCP “feels very uncomfortable”.

On Tuesday, McDonald said: “For complete transparency it is essential that the secretary of state [for transport] refers these allegations to the head of the civil service so they can be investigated.

“Without a full and open investigation that addresses these alleged conflicts of interest in the awarding of the GTR franchise and other franchises, suspicions will remain about how these rail contracts are awarded.

“Passengers, taxpayers and stakeholders need answers if they are to have any confidence in our railways and how they are being run.”

Referring to Wilkinson, Louise Ellman, the Labour chair of the House of Commons transport select committee, said: “There are unanswered questions about his role at the department.”

The DfT has said while Wilkinson worked as its interim franchising director between and , there were strict procedures to prevent conflicts of interest, while FCP implemented measures to ensure that any conflicts of interest were avoided.

In a statement, a DfT spokesperson said: “The department regularly contracts and recruits people with relevant industry and commercial expertise, to help it achieve the best result for passengers and taxpayers. We have robust safeguards to guard against any conflicts of interest.

“Decisions on franchise awards are taken by the department following a fair and open competition. Each franchise award is subject to thorough and independent audit.”

Since , Wilkinson has been the department’s managing director of rail passenger services on an annual salary of £265,000.

Trade unions allege he is “ the hatchet man” driving the Southern rail dispute, after he told a public meeting that he and others wanted to “break” train drivers.

* If you would like to pass on information in confidence, you can send a message via the Guardian’s SecureDrop service (see how here ).

DISCLOSURE: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not represent the views of Readers should not consider statements made by the author as formal recommendations and should consult their financial advisor before making any investment decisions. To read our full disclosure, please go to: