Posted on 10.10.12 by David Walton
The decision by the Government to abandon the handover from Virgin Trains to FirstGroup is unprecedented. The financial impact of the u-turn on the public purse is enormous running into around £40 million in refunds to those operators involved in the bid and it is now reported that FirstGroup is considering legal action against the DfT if Virgin Trains is given an extension to its franchise.
Over the weekend one of the civil servants suspended pending investigation into her conduct in managing certain aspects of the bid process issued a public statement defending herself and saying that she was not to blame for the DfT errors.
There is little doubt that this fiasco has seriously damaged the reputation of the DfT and how one of our most important public services is outsourced to the private sector. So when the Government announced its u-turn perhaps it was no surprise that three civil servants were also suspended pending an investigation into what when wrong.
But why did the Government feel the need to inform the public at large that it had suspended staff? Was it as part of its duty to keep the public informed? Was it to redirect the criticism away from itself and to direct attention on unnamed individuals?
Usually disciplinary suspensions are private matters dealt with between the organisation and the employee which must be handled carefully to preserve trust and confidence and confidentiality of both parties. However, when the matter is publicised, these fundamental principles that underpin the employment relationship can become damaged. Whilst the names of the 3 suspended civil servants have not been released, many people in the civil service and those involved in the bid process will know who has been suspended.
For the DfT, the employee’s statement potentially risks damaging the organisation’s reputation even further. Questions arise such as has the employee breached her contract of employment in terms of express confidentiality clauses and restrictions by issuing press statements? For the employee, when the finger has been pointed publically at her, she may well feel that she has no alternative but to defend herself publically. She may already feel that trust and confidence has already been destroyed. This also potentially raises human rights issues such as the right of freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial.
This isn’t virgin territory for the Government who should learn from its mistakes when it summarily sacked Sharon Shoesmith, the former director of children’s services, in relation to the “Baby P” disaster. In that case, the Government sought to blame an individual employee for systemic failings in a public service and ended up being held by the Court of Appeal to have unlawfully and unfairly dismissed her. This resulted in around £1 million in damages of tax payers’ money being paid out to her, illustrating that being swayed by public mood can cost a lot more than just reputation.