Andrew Adonis, who resigned as chair of the National Infrastructure Commission last month, has criticised the “weak” civil servants in the Department for Transport who failed to challenge Chris Grayling’s decision to bail out the Stagecoach/Virgin East Coast rail franchise.
In a podcast released last week exploring his reasons for resigning, the former Labour minister and peer said the bailout was a “flagrant waste of public money” that came to pass because top officials weren’t paying enough attention to issues other than Brexit.
He also claimed that half of the civil service think the government’s Brexit policy is “trashing the national interest” and pointed to morale, recruitment and retention problems within Whitehall.
Lord Adonis stepped down from his role providing independent advice on the UK’s infrastructure needs after a series of disagreements with the government, and used his resignation letter to spell out concerns that “Brexit is causing a nervous breakdown across Whitehall”.
Transport secretary Grayling announced last year that the contract to run the East Coast line would be terminated three years early, in 2020, which would allow private operators Stagecoach and Virgin, who run the service as a joint venture, to avoid payments in the final years of the franchise.
A new partnership model announced in November is to replace the franchise contract. The government denies that the new arrangements amount to a bailout.
Adonis told the Progressive Britain podcast, run by Labour pressure group Progress, that he had been approached as transport secretary with a similar request from National Express in 2009, and that he had nationalised the east coast line rather than offer the early end to the contract. He has previously described Grayling’s decision as “indefensible” and “a cynical political manoeuvre” to avoid public ownership.
He said: “The civil service has been very weak in this process. I’m amazed that the senior civil servants in the Department for Transport allowed Chris Grayling to do this because of the straightforward value for money issues concerned.
“The civil service is rightly neutral when it comes to party politics, but when it comes to flagrantly wasting public money, at that point – obviously because they’re accountable to government auditors and so on – they normally become quite vocal. Why weren’t they vocal this time?
“I think it’s part and parcel of the problem that about 70% of the Senior Civil Service at the moment is obsessing with Brexit, and it’s proving such a tough call for them that they aren’t paying nearly enough attention to all those other big issues.”
Adonis also accused the government of “systematically bullying” its critics, including civil servants working at the National Infrastructure Commission, which he said was “totally unacceptable”.
Elsewhere in the podcast, he said that many civil servants were leaving government and that the Department for International Trade and the Department for Exiting the European Union in particular were “finding it almost impossible to recruit senior staff”.
“This sort of disaffection of the mandarin class with the government we haven’t seen since the Suez crisis, and it’s for the same reason,” said Adonis.
“It’s one thing to have a disagreement with the government on policy and belonging to a different party – it’s another thing to believe that what the government is essentially doing is trashing the national interest, and that’s what I would say a good half of the civil service thinks at the moment.”