DfT agencies need more ministerial leadership, Shapps says

Transport secretary also reveals Northern franchise could be nationalised over contractor's poor performance

Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA

The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, has said he wants to implement greater ministerial oversight of his department’s agencies in a bid to improve their accountability.

In his first appearance before the Transport Select Committee in the role, Shapps said he had argued for more money and an extra minister to ensure all DfT’s policy priorities are managed effectively.

Shapps told the committee that decarbonisation and making trains run on time “to the minute” were among his priorities in his new post,


He said he was considering taking Northern, the largest commuter franchise in the North of England, into public ownership over its late-running trains and failure to retire high-polluting Pacer trains despite promising to do so.

He said he had asked both Arriva, which operates Northern, and the department's own operator of last resort for proposals, which DfT later confirmed could lead to the franchise being replaced with a short-term management contract with either of the two.

There are now five ministers working under Shapps in the department. He told the committee that he was particularly concerned about having strong leadership on capital projects in what he referred to as “a transport department but also an infrastructure department”.

DfT is responsible for several major infrastructure schemes, including the HS2 and Crossrail 2 rail projects and the development of a third runway at Heathrow Airport.

“While we’re trying to go through the infrastructure revolution, having insufficient leadership through ministers in place would be a mistake,” he said.

He later added: “I don’t think we can under-manage these projects with so much capital involved and then expect to deliver well-run projects on a shoestring. You’ve got to do it properly and that means people and money.”.

Shapps said he had also successfully argued for more money from the Treasury for DfT for the coming year. The Spending Round this month gave the department’s resource budget an 11.4% real-terms increase for 2020-21 compared to this year.

Shapps, who sat on the Public Administration Committee from 2005 to 2007, said his position was informed by his experience scrutinising other public bodies.

“I remember seeing a number of government departments and agencies which had never really had that leadership. And then we’d sit here as members of parliament and criticise the agencies for failing to deliver, when actually I kind of thought that sometimes they hadn’t been given the strategic steers or attention from ministers to know what they’re doing,” he said.

The Civil Aviation Authority, which last month helped repatriate around 150,000 people left stranded abroad when Thomas Cook collapsed, is among the agencies in need of greater ministerial intervention, Shapps said.

“They are in one way excellent: they guard against planes falling out of the sky and they managed to do a fantastic job of repatriation. However, they’ve not really had much ministerial interest over the years and as a result have developed their own policies and cultures,” he said, noting that the CAA puts out statutory guidance that does not need to be signed off by a minister.

“In the end, I think everything should be democratically accountable through a minister and through parliament, select committees and the rest of it… it’s an attempt in a way, I suppose, to address the accountability of the rail network and the roads network and the maritime and air – all the transport areas.”

Shapps said he was keen to avoid a repeat of the botched May 2018 rail timetabling shakeup that led to thousands of journeys being disrupted last summer. Multiple reviews into the chaos that ensued found there had been no clear accountability for delivering the timetable change and the Office of Rail and Road said DfT was partly to blame for failing to take charge of the situation.

He said summer 2018 was a “mess” and was partly down to a massively fragmented rail system. “My view is anything but hands off,” he said, and added that the Williams Rail Review of the rail network. The “root and branch” review of the rail network was announced in September 2019 and is expected to make significant recommendations on regulation, franchising models and ticketing among other things.

Shapps confirmed that the government planned to implement all the recommendations of the review, and that former British Airways chief Keith Williams had effectively been asked to produce a white paper on DfT’s behalf through the exercise.

The review was likely to lead to an overarching body that he informally called “Rail for Britain” that manage major train contracts and be accountable for the rail network. Such a role was previously preformed by the Strategic Rail Authority from 2001 to 2006 before being returned to the DfT.

A shadow body could be set up before the government brings forward to enact the Williams review, Shapps said. He suggested the lines of responsibility may mirror the way Transport for London is held accountable for concession London Overground services, even though they are contracted to a private company.

DfT is ‘ready for no-deal Brexit’

Later in the committee meeting, Shapps attempted to reassure the panel that his department was prepared to mitigate any disruption that could arise if the UK leaves the EU on 31 October without a deal.

He said he believed that contingency measures put in place by DfT would ensure there were no fuel shortages or delays to the delivery of medicines – two risks outlined in the government’s Operation Yellowhammer planning document.

He said contracts awarded to three ferry companies via a four-year “express freight” procurement framework put in place by DfT would deliver “124% of the required medicine”, as well as providing some freight capacity for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the devolved administration.

He also said he was confident in his department’s plan, dubbed Operation Brock, to manage traffic queues that are likely to build up as a result of disruption at ports in Kent. However, he conceded that is “impossible to know for certain” what will happen at the border because is it not yet known whether the French government plans to enforce strict customs controls on UK exports immediately after a no-deal Brexit.

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