National Audit Office to investigate East Coast rail ‘bailout’

Watchdog to look at decision to allow Virgin and Stagecoach to hand back franchise early

Campaigners protest in King’s Cross station, London against the decision to terminate the East Coast franchise early.






Campaigners protest in King’s Cross station, London against the decision to terminate the East Coast franchise early.
Photograph: Wiktor Szymanowic/Barcroft Images

A controversial decision to allow two companies to hand back a rail franchise three years early is to be investigated by Britain’s public spending watchdog.

Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, was accused of effectively bailing out Stagecoach and Virgin’s joint venture Virgin Trains East Coast by allowing them to cut short their deal to run trains on the East Coast mainline. The termination of the franchise came after projected growth in passengers failed to materialise.

The decision means that the companies were freed from paying around £1.5bn in premiums to the Treasury, though some of the money will be recouped when a new operator is put in place. Virgin and Stagecoach complained that promised upgrades to the line had been delayed.

The National Audit Office (NAO) has announced it has launched an official investigation of the way the Department for Transport (DfT) has handled the franchise. Industry insiders said that crucial delays had meant ministers were left with no choice but to allow the companies to give up managing the line in 2020, three years early.

The DfT has insisted that taxpayers will not be facing any additional costs as a result of the decision. However, any criticism from the NAO will be another blow to Grayling, who has also faced questions over his decision to hand contracts to a consortium that included the doomed construction giant Carillion after serious problems emerged with its viability. Carillion has since folded.

Andrew Adonis, the former Labour transport secretary, told the Observer at the end of last year that Grayling should have faced the sack for his handling of the East Coast mainline. However, Grayling kept his job in Theresa May’s recent reshuffle.

The NAO is expected to report its findings in the spring. It said: “We expect to examine the department’s management of the franchise to date and the implications of its plans for the new ‘partnership’ [to run the line after 2020].”

National Audit Office to investigate East Coast rail ‘bailout’

Watchdog to look at decision to allow Virgin and Stagecoach to hand back franchise early

Campaigners protest in King’s Cross station, London against the decision to terminate the East Coast franchise early.






Campaigners protest in King’s Cross station, London against the decision to terminate the East Coast franchise early.
Photograph: Wiktor Szymanowic/Barcroft Images

A controversial decision to allow two companies to hand back a rail franchise three years early is to be investigated by Britain’s public spending watchdog.

Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, was accused of effectively bailing out Stagecoach and Virgin’s joint venture Virgin Trains East Coast by allowing them to cut short their deal to run trains on the East Coast mainline. The termination of the franchise came after projected growth in passengers failed to materialise.

The decision means that the companies were freed from paying around £1.5bn in premiums to the Treasury, though some of the money will be recouped when a new operator is put in place. Virgin and Stagecoach complained that promised upgrades to the line had been delayed.

The National Audit Office (NAO) has announced it has launched an official investigation of the way the Department for Transport (DfT) has handled the franchise. Industry insiders said that crucial delays had meant ministers were left with no choice but to allow the companies to give up managing the line in 2020, three years early.

The DfT has insisted that taxpayers will not be facing any additional costs as a result of the decision. However, any criticism from the NAO will be another blow to Grayling, who has also faced questions over his decision to hand contracts to a consortium that included the doomed construction giant Carillion after serious problems emerged with its viability. Carillion has since folded.

Andrew Adonis, the former Labour transport secretary, told the Observer at the end of last year that Grayling should have faced the sack for his handling of the East Coast mainline. However, Grayling kept his job in Theresa May’s recent reshuffle.

The NAO is expected to report its findings in the spring. It said: “We expect to examine the department’s management of the franchise to date and the implications of its plans for the new ‘partnership’ [to run the line after 2020].”

The Guardian view on Windsor’s homelessness: a parable of modern Britain | Editorial

Forcibly removing rough sleepers from the streets is one way to maintain an illusion of affluence, but not one that politicians with a conscience should countenance. That such a device looks cruel is obvious even to one who advocates it: Simon Dudley, the Conservative leader of Windsor and Maidenhead borough council, describes homelessness as “completely unacceptable in a caring, compassionate community” in a letter to Thames Valley police, while urging action to remove the evidence from public view.

Mr Dudley focuses his displeasure on a sub-category of the homeless whom he accuses of “aggressive begging and intimidation” and whose plight he sees as “a voluntary choice”. This distinction between deserving and undeserving poor is as old as it is bogus. It is probably true that some of Windsor’s homeless offend the council leader’s sense of propriety and make choices other than the ones he would recommend. But genuine compassion reaches beyond such narrow parameters.

It is also true that extreme poverty changes the character of a town that attracts millions of tourists and will be a focus of international attention when Prince Harry marries Meghan Markle in Windsor Castle in May. A local politician’s interest in removing social decay from the scene is obvious. It needn’t even be a despicable ambition if the royal wedding were set as the deadline for genuine action to address destitute people’s needs with resources allocated accordingly.

But that would indicate different priorities, a different moral outlook. It would require seeing homelessness as a source of collective national shame and not a quasi-criminal act best referred to the police. This obtuseness reaches the top of the Tory party. Theresa May has said she disagrees with Mr Dudley’s approach but she shows no willingness to accept that, under her government, homelessness is becoming an emergency. In one prime minister’s questions session last month, Mrs May asserted that “statutory homelessness peaked under the Labour government and is down by 50% since then”. The statistical lens deployed there was so warped as to present a reversal of reality. The peak that Mrs May described was in 2003, reflecting the persistence of a problem that had become entrenched under the Tory government that lost office in 1997. Labour got to grips with the issue and numbers fell until 2010, when Downing Street was recaptured by the Conservatives. Progress then went into reverse.

Government statistics put the number of homeless households in the third quarter of 2017 at 15,290 (up from 14,930 at the equivalent point in 2016). But the “statutory” definition is narrow and misleading, covering those getting help from local authorities. Many who sleep rough or drift in and out of precarious private accommodation fall below statistical radars. And the evidence of an acute problem is visible to anyone with their eyes open to it.

Homelessness, the big failure caused by a series of lesser ones, is often the visible symbol of social policy under stress. The Tories can only obfuscate for so long before majority opinion recoils in horror at a government that treats abject destitution as a tolerable side-effect of its economic policies. Mrs May is on this trajectory. She might reject the terms used by the leader of Windsor council, but she seems to share his instinct for seeing extreme poverty more as a source of political embarrassment than a spur to action. Her dodgy statistics are a subtler device than police intervention, but both testify to the false belief that a social calamity can simply be swept aside.

‘We did manage a blissful break in Wales’: Philip and Theresa May’s round robin

Dear friends,

Goodness what a year! Theresa has made it very clear that we can’t go into excruciating detail, in case it reaches the “oreilles” of a certain Monsieur Jean-Claude, but to share just a summary outcome, she started 2017 with a super visit to the US, then defied expectations with a splendid election victory, and finished with a stunning success in Brussels! Just in time for a well-earned break which we’ll spend relaxing with Mr Attenborough, after whatever feast our resident star chef is planning (Philip’s hoping it won’t involve too much washing-up!). Alas the cricket hasn’t been quite the triumph everyone wanted, but the Aussies will no doubt be relieved to hear that Theresa’s miracle-working is of the strictly political variety!

Most memorable moments? Frankly it’s hard to choose! That first crunchy crisp after we gave them up for Lent? Philip’s was plain, Theresa made it very clear she’d prefer cheese and onion. And like everyone privileged to be present in Manchester, Philip was left reeling by the most talked-about speech in conference history – is it just us or have we been hearing a bit less about roaring lions recently? Little did anyone guess that, a brief eight months after triggering article 50, Theresa would again do the impossible, striking a historic Brexit deal that, at a very reasonable £45 – or so – billion, left Monsieur Barnier & co looking just a tiny bit worried! We’ll certainly be exchanging a wry smile next time the vicar takes as his text “oh ye of little faith”!

Sartorial note from Philip: it’s really rather nice when your brilliant other half appears in Vogue, looking quite exceptionally fabulous! Perhaps you spotted that we went for quite a dramatic new look, darker tones in the LK Bennett dress and coat, accentuated by a striking upswept “do”? Not an everyday style, but Vogue isn’t everyday either, for us mere mortals, and the interview was super, though we were disappointed that “Brexit means Brexit” did not appear even once! Theresa says she must have said it a million times, though it was technically closer to 43.

We had much better luck with “strong and stable government”, mentioned 1,024 times by Theresa alone, in a super election campaign that showed off what friends know as her fun, “wheat field” side, as well as her integrity and tremendous willingness to listen. Philip has never been more impressed by Theresa’s leadership than when she delivered a bold manifesto pledge then did what they said was impossible – decisively scrapped it within four days. Stylewise, it seemed right to let the embellished shoe do most of the heavy lifting.

So, all in all, a truly memorable first-time election and a super learning experience – following which we wish Fiona and Nick all the luck for the future, we’re only sorry there wasn’t time for the sort of send-off they both deserved!

But that sums up our lives these days: “hectic” would be an understatement, though we did manage a blissful break in Wales – without that clear mountain air “Team May” might never have realised that a snap election was, after all, essential for the strong and stable government the country needs. Later, Italy’s beautiful Lake Garda, with its stable waters reflecting the strong peaks above, seemed silently to applaud our decision. Before too long we hope to roam “the emerald isle” with Arlene and Brian, a super couple who’ve been an absolute rock these last months. Theresa wants to make it very clear how much we look forward to welcoming another wonderful new friend, Mr Trump, and to his staying, owing to the steep stairs at No 10, with Her Majesty the Queen.

On a sadder note, those who remember Theresa’s former colleague, George Osborne, will be sorry to hear of his rapid decline on, we understand, a local evening paper. Both of us pray for a time when he can come to terms with his political failure instead of embarrassing himself on a daily basis. Our hearts also go out, this Christmastide, to David Cameron, last heard of living in a hut. Do join us, as we celebrate another outstanding year, in raising a glass to the “left behind”.

A super Christmas and a strong and stable new year to you all,

Theresa and Philip

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