Hodge demands civil service changes

A senior MP has demanded sweeping changes to the civil service amid the West Coast main line rail fiasco.

Labour MP Margaret Hodge, who chairs Westminster's powerful Public Accounts Committee, said the "embarrassing and costly debacle" exposed flaws in Whitehall processes.

She called for "proper accountability" to "raise civil servants' game" and improve quality and standards after three Department for Transport (DfT) civil servants were suspended following the Government's U-turn, which will cost taxpayers at least £40 million.

FirstGroup was expected to take over the franchise from Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Rail which runs services between London and Scotland. But Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin scrapped the deal, admitting the DfT made "unacceptable mistakes" in managing bids - and laid the blame "wholly and squarely" on civil servants.

Mrs Hodge said: "It exposes in a very stark way that the present conventions on accountability between civil servants and ministers to Parliament and the public aren't working. It's yet another example ... of where the civil servants themselves have not really captured and taken on the role that is expected of them in today's society.

"People came into the civil service in the past because they were interested in policy, they wanted to devise policy. Today, the job of a civil servant is much more about delivering programmes, and that requires a different set of skills."

Meanwhile, Scotland's transport minister hit out at the "shambolic" handling of the West Coast rail franchise and for the confusion he says it sparked among passengers.

Keith Brown said said the DfT was incompetent for the way it cancelled the award to Aberdeen-based FirstGroup, which was due to take over the cross-border route from Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Rail. The Scottish Government was given no notice of the decision which emerged early on Wednesday morning and cost taxpayers about £40 million.

Mark Serwotka of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union criticised the Government for blaming civil servants for the fiasco, saying the treatment of staff had been "deplorable". He said one of three people suspended from the Transport Department over the debacle was a PCS member.

Mr Serwotka said: "The way ministers have sought to blame civil servants in the Department for Transport before any of the facts have been established has been deplorable, but sadly not out of character. It is entirely consistent with the way the Civil Service is being treated by many ministers as an irritation, rather than as a professional body that works to ensure the smooth running of Government."