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DfT sued by civil worker suspended in West Coast Main Line fiasco

Virgin train on West Coast Main LineThe Department for Transport (DfT) is being sued by one of the three civil servants who were suspended amid the West Coast Main Line franchise fiasco. Commercial and technical services director Kate Mingay was suspended after the government scrapped the contract it was going to award to FirstGroup following major flaws in the bidding process being uncovered.

News of the lawsuit has emerged as the DfT gets ready for an independent review on the West Coast Main Line’s franchise proceedings. When the 13-year contract was awarded to FirstGroup over Virgin Trains, which had operated the route for 15 years, Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson’s blood began to boil. He dubbed the bidding process ridiculous and filed a legal challenge against the department’s decision.

While preparing to defend the decision in court, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said the DfT discovered significant technical flaws in the bidding process. He wasn’t in charge when the contract decision was made but called off the signing. However, the DfT had to determine how the route would continue being operated, as Virgin Train’s contract was due to end on 9 December. After talks, it was decided that Virgin would continue operating the route for up to 13 months while competition was carried out for an interim franchise deal.

McLoughlin also announced that senior business figure Sam Laidlaw would lead an inquiry while a second, independent inquiry would also be conducted into the system. In the initial report, Laidlaw said several significant mistakes led to a flawed process. The DfT continued the bidding despite knowing there was a lack of transparency in the subordinated loan facility process. This is the amount the bidder has to forfeit if it can’t fulfil the contract.

The report also found that the department continued accepting the risk of a legal challenge. Evidence strongly indicates that the West Coast Main Line franchise process was developed in a hurry, late and without the right planning and preparation. This raised possible significant problems in the ability of the department to effectively carry out rail franchise competitions. Laidlaw is due to give further evidence next week to the Transport Committee.

Amid Laidlaw’s initial report, the DfT suspended three civil servants, one of which was Mingay. At the time, she said that her role in the award of the West Coast Main Line franchise was portrayed inaccurately. This was mostly due to comments from the DfT. She explained that she didn’t have lead responsibility for the project, neither she nor her team had any responsibility for its economic modelling, and she wasn’t involved in briefing ministers of any kind in regard to the project. However, she added that she would fully cooperate with any investigation into the matter; she only wanted to clear up the inaccurate portrayal of her role.

Mingay’s spokesman has confirmed that she has issued proceedings against the department. She is being represented by law firm Mishcon de Reya. The lawsuit was filed last week, and a court hearing is believed to be scheduled for tomorrow.

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