Gus O’Donnell – a candidate for the governorship of the Bank of England – said the government is placing the blame with bureaucrats, three of whom have been suspended after the contract’s collapse.
“We are suffering in some areas where there are skills shortages, in the commissioning area, the procurement area,” he told the BBC’s Today programme. “The thing [the government is] doing which is, I think, self-defeating, is attacking their own staff; that’s a mistake.”
But the claim was met with incredulity by a spokesman for the TaxPayers’ Alliance, who said that the civil service was badly managed and had plenty of resources. It also said that the fiasco proved that the government’s sums making the case for the HS2 high-speed rail project could not be trusted either.
The Department for Transport remains in talks with Virgin Trains, which lost out to FirstGroup in the now-abandoned bidding process, to extend its franchise past the 9 December deadline.
It emerged yesterday that Virgin handed the DfT a report raising concerns about the process in August, after Virgin knew it was the second favourite but before the winner was announced. The DfT and Virgin confirmed last night that the paper, by Europa Partners, addressed broad issues around the bidding.
The DfT hired PwC in September to comb through the West Coast franchising process. It took the auditors just weeks to uncover the flaws throughout the system that late on Tuesday led to the collapse of the West Coast deal and the suspension of three other competitions.
But the DfT brushed off reports ministers knew of the mistakes in the process before former transport secretary Justine Greening left the department in the 3 September reshuffle. Her successor, Patrick McLoughlin, has spoken of his anger at the “terrible mistakes” made within the DfT.
The department had been taking legal advice from magic circle firm Eversheds during the refranchising process, while Atkins was appointed technical adviser in April 2011.