Commentary: what does this mean for Thameslink?

BBC news story about West Coast franchise

Rarely can one awake to such welcome news, although we have yet to see what precisely happened and how the errors were uncovered.

Some credit must go to Richard Branson for starting court action. Some must go to ministers for reviewing the work that led to the decision to award the franchise to First Group.

Clearly there are civil servants at fault – and again ministers, who must ultimately carry the can: the decision was self-evidently wrong and there should have been greater challenge by DfT ministers before making the announcement.

There are clearly significant ramifications. The franchise system is not fit for purpose. There is a West Coast line to run. And there are obvious consequences for the next round of franchise renewals, including Thameslink.

Those of us who have been campaigning for the exclusion of First Capital Connect can take some heart this morning. But we need a swift resolution because every day in which FCC continues to have the Thameslink franchise is a day of overcharging, overcrowding and contemptuous incompetence.

Commentary: too early for champagne

The news that the FCC franchise is to end early (September 2013) is certainly an opportunity – but also potentially a threat. The announcement is essentially technical – there is no suggestion that the appalling treatment of passengers or poor performance are a key issue. But it does mean that there could be an opportunity in 2013 to have a better company in place. Equally, it could be that First Group could get a 15 year contract from 2013 and campaigners need to focus on this – and on making sure that the new franchise better reflects passenger interests.

The fact that ATOC (see below) has welcomed the move should give cause for hesitation – if not concern – to those who are worried about how the railways are managed.

Meanwhile, the much heralded fare increases, in part necessitated by economic circumstances, will undoubtedly and understandably dismay hard-pressed rail users.

On all these points, Chris will be making representation to the Government over the next few weeks.

One thing, however, is clear: Bob Crow’s hypocritical comments below remind us that the rail unions are no friends of the travelling public.

Article in Railnews:

A REVISED franchise timetable announced by the transport secretary has been welcomed by the Association of Train Operating Companies, but the largest rail union has condemned the new plans as a ‘rip-off’.

Philip Hammond has reduced the length of the First Capital Connect franchise, and extended others. He has also accepted that East Coast cannot now return to private sector operation before the end of 2013.

The transport secretary said the changes were being made to provide ‘clarity to the market’.

He explained: “In producing this timetable, I have had regard to the impact on bidders and their sub-contractors of trying to compete for too many franchises at once, and the likely reduction in value for money to the taxpayer that would result. ”

Mr Hammond’s new timetable means that Great Western and Thameslink (currently First Capital Connect) have been brought forward (by 35 months and 18 months respectively), the next Northern and TransPennine Express can now have a simultaneous start date of April 2014, while two other franchises (East Coast and Greater Anglia) have been extended.

In at least one case, Mr Hammond’s hand has been forced: FirstGroup has already announced that it will surrender the Great Western franchise in 2013. The group therefore avoids paying more than £800 million in premiums which would have been due in the last three years of the original contract.

Three franchise replacements – West Coast, South Eastern and Essex Thameside (currently c2c) – remain unchanged. However, talks are continuing over whether Virgin Trains should continue to operate West Coast between March 2012 – its original expiry date – and December, with the Department for Transport’s own operator Directly Operated Railways poised to step in to fill the gap if necessary.

ATOC, which has been calling for less restrictive franchises, welcomed Mr Hammond’s announcement.

The Association’s chief executive Michael Roberts said: “The next few years present a chance to improve fundamentally how the railways are run. On the right terms, longer and less prescriptive franchises would give train companies more opportunity to invest in improvements, respond more quickly to passengers’ needs and reduce costs.

“We welcome the government’s commitment to a horses for courses approach to franchising. The secretary of state rightly recognises the scale of work ahead to translate principle into practice – his announcement will allow the government and bidders alike to plan how best to respond.”

However, the RMT union dubbed the transport secretary’s plans a ‘rail franchise rip-off’, particularly as the next round of franchises are expected to last longer.

The union’s general secretary Bob Crow said: “Today’s announcement will have the train operators laughing all the way to the bank. These new fifteen year franchises are nothing less than a licence to print money for the same companies who have jacked up fares and ripped off hundreds of millions of pounds in profits and subsidies since privatisation.

“It’s a disgrace that the public sector, who have bailed out the East Coast line when the private company Nat Ex threw back the keys, are only seen as a stop gap when things go wrong rather than a long-term, safer and cheaper option.

“This government have learnt nothing from the costly failure of rail privatisation and are determined, through this programme, to continue to reward those same operators who have robbed the taxpayer blind.”

Lib Dem letter to Murdoch

Proposed take-over of BSkyB by News International

Ever since the report of our Information Commissioner ‘What Price Freedom?’ and the conviction and imprisonment of Goodman and Mulcaire in 2006, there has been growing concern about the policy and practices of UK newspaper titles owned by News International.

Recent weeks have seen the publication of a flurry of further allegations against your company’s publications in the UK which have shocked and sickened the British public, and rightfully so.

It now appears that:

– an investigator working for your newspaper the ‘News of the World’ hacked into the phone of a kidnapped young girl and deleted her messages, giving her family false hope that she may still be alive.

– journalists and editors are implicated with police officers in illegal arrangements to obtain contact details of members of the royal family, which has put the royal family at risk through a completely irresponsible breach of security.

– people working for a News International title have hacked into phones and invaded the privacy of victims of terrorist attacks and the parents of dead soldiers.

We have no doubt that these events led directly or indirectly to the decision of your organisation to close the ‘News of the World’ this week, seeking to draw a line under this terrible affair.

However recent events have made clearer that illegal activities were not limited to the ‘News of the World’. There is now evidence that your papers the ’Sun’ and the ‘Sunday Times’ improperly obtained the medical records of the then Chancellor Gordon Brown so they could run a story about the health of one of his children – as a result of activity which could not possibly have any public interest defence.

People who were in charge of these newspapers are still employed by you at News International in the UK. Your son James, current chairman of News International, and a senior executive at News International’s parent company News Corporation, has admitted that he authorised cash payments to victims of phone hacking, payments which he himself has now admitted were wrong.

People working for your company have sought to cover up the many wrongs which it has committed. Your company has been accused of lying to the Press Complaints Commission, by the chair of the Press Complaints Commission. Only yesterday the police accused News International of trying to undermine the ongoing police investigation into the affair.

News International is simply no longer respected in this country. Given the history of the last six or more years, it should be of little surprise to you that many people in this country have no desire to have any more of our media fall into your hands, tainted as News International is by a history of completely unacceptable journalistic practices. News Corporation, as the owner of News International must take some responsibility for this.

Two days ago the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said you should do the decent thing and withdraw your bid to take full control of BSkyB. Many others have said similar things.

We hope you will respect the widespread expressions of public opinion and change News Corporation’s commercial strategy in this country.

We therefore ask, both on behalf of our party but also on behalf of a very large number of people in this country, that you now withdraw your News Corp bid for BSkyB and concentrate all of your efforts on cleaning up News International. We are clear that this would be the right thing for Britain, and for the reputation of broadcasting and journalism in the UK. We hope you are willing to give a positive response.

Rt Hon Simon Hughes MP
Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Commons

Tim Farron MP
Liberal Democrat Party President

Rt Hon Don Foster MP
Liberal Democrat Spokesman for the Department for Culture Media and Sport

Commentary: UK unemployment falling at fastest pace in a decade

UK unemployment falling at fastest pace in a decade

• Unemployment rate down to 7.7%
• But number of people claiming jobless benefits rises
• Wage growth up just 1.8% in a year
• Public sector sheds 24k jobs, private sector gains 104k jobs

The UK’s unemployment rate has fallen at the fastest rate in 10 years.

The Independent:
“Government hopes that private firms will create jobs as posts are cut in the public sector were given a boost with news that employment in the private sector increased by 104,000 in the first three months of the year to 23 million.

At the same time, public sector employment fell by 24,000 to 6.1 million, and the decline would have been bigger but for the 15,000 temporary jobs created to deal with the Census.

The 88,000 fall in unemployment in the three months to April was the biggest quarterly cut since the summer of 2000.

The reduction was mainly among 16 to 24-year-olds, with unemployment in this age group being cut by 79,000 to 895,000, the lowest figure for two years. “

Commentary: reasons to be voting YES on Thursday

Still in doubt? Then read this article.

‘No wonder the mother of parliaments is being spurned by her children. The collapse of communism in 1989 led to dozens of new democracies. None of them has settled on the British system of first past the post.

Even the old Commonwealth is turning its back. Australia adopted AV 80 years ago, and New Zealand recently adopted the German system. Canada is debating change. No major democracy has gone the other way and adopted first past the post.’

Commentary: Ed Balls on banks

Ed Balls on banks:

· ‘Nothing should be done to put at risk a light-touch, risk-based regulatory regime’ (Bloomberg Speech, 14 June 2006).

· ‘I believe we are right to avoid prescriptive, heavy-handed regulation in Britain’ (Balls, ibid.).
· ‘In my first speech as City Minister at Bloomberg in London, I argued that London’s success has been based on… light-touch principle-based regulation’ (Speech to The Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce and The British Chamber of Commerce, 13 September 2006).

· ‘It is important that the FSA continues to deliver a light-touch and risk-based regulatory approach’ (14 June 2006).

· [The Labour government] will outlaw the imposition of any rules that might endanger the light-touch, risk-based regulatory regime that underpins London’s success.’ (13 September 2006).

But now:
We should have ignored Tory and City claims that we were being too tough on financial regulation and been much tougher still. (Independent, 24 January 2011)

Commentary – Coalition 2, Labour 0

The departure of Alan Johnson in sad personal circumstances has done little to help the credibility of the official opposition.

Ed Miliband’s credibility was already strained after his decision to give the now disgraced Phil Woolas a shadow ministerial position and by his appointment of Johnson as Shadow Chancellor, a man who was clearly struggling to master his brief however able he was in other ways.

The lack of talent means that Balls was in some ways the obvious replacement. Even if he is on the thug wing of the Labour Party and can thus shake the Coalition tree a bit harder, he brings baggage.

He is a ‘deficit denier’, preferring the cosy route of printing money over closing the gap through fiscal stringency. This is the road first of all to dramatically higher interest rates (not least to the government itself) and ultimately of a serious dose of inflation.

Worse still, though, he can be credited with the lax banking deregulation system that brought this country to its knees.

Would anyone want this man in charge of our economy again? I think not.

Commentary: two tribes

The boss of Barclays appeared before MPs yesterday. The Financial Times described it as a dialogue of the deaf and contrasted the atttitude of the City of London with that of the City of Westminster.

This misses the point. The City of London is responsible in theory to shareholders, in practice to the Boards of Directors which agree and indeed receive the billion pound bonuses which so offend the public. The people in Westminster, at the end of the day, represent us. MPs are often criticised, sometimes rightly, for being out of touch. But on this one MPs of all parties are absolutely on the nail.

Diamond was not repentent. He talked offensively about banks being allowed to get on with creating jobs – impervious to the reflection that it is banks which have done so much to destroy jobs.

In fact his performance overall was surprisingly poor from someone so well rewarded: a council chief could have performed much better, as could many others in the public and private sector.

We know that the Coalition Government is wrestling with this problem. The banking levy already imposed is welcome. But if the banks, including the ones I own and you own, do pay bonuses of £7 billion the public will not wear it and will expect their Government to exact retribution.