While businesses in Sussex suffer, fingers of blame are pointed at Southern Rail, the RMT and the government. Perhaps one man, Peter Wilkinson, is more to blame than most, according to an in depth report in The Guardian.
Peter Wilkinson is the Department of Transport’s Rail Group, Director of Passenger Services, and is the man that the unions believe is at the heart of the prolonged dispute due to his confrontational stance. He also had a significant share in a consultancy firm which advised both Southern’s parent company and the DfT, which awards the all-important franchises. Was there a conflict of interest?
Last February, Peter Wilkinson addressed a public meeting in south London organised by a Conservative MP to discuss the railways. He said: “Over the next three years, we’re going to be having punch-ups and we will see industrial action, and I want your support.”
On the subject of train drivers’ pay, he declared: “I’m furious about it and it has got to change – we have got to break them. They have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place. They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry.”
He’s not the first to come out with fighting talk over union power, but according to a report by in The Guardian (January 10th 2017), he has links with both the government and Govia (Govia Thameslink Railway operates the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchises).
An abridged version of the investigation by Lucas Amin and Rob Evans is below: “The civil servant who awarded Southern its rail franchise made the decision to do so while owning a large share in a consultancy that had been advising the troubled operator’s parent company.
“Peter Wilkinson, who had been hired by the Department for Transport (DfT) to act as its franchising director, was involved in awarding the Southern, Thameslink and Great Northern franchises to Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) in May 2014.
“At the time, he was a director and the joint main shareholder of First Class Partnerships (FCP), which he continued to be for 20 months after his hiring by the DfT in January 2013.
“Govia was a longstanding client of Wilkinson’s company and had been paying it for consultancy advice six months before the franchise was awarded. The government is paying Govia about £8.9bn over seven years to run the three-franchise network, which is the largest to date in terms of passenger numbers.”
“In August 2014, DfT officials concluded that Wilkinson had a clear conflict of interest between his shares in FCP and his government work. After a discussion with the department’s ethics and propriety team, an official wrote that the arrangement in which he was seconded from FCP “feels very uncomfortable”.”
“Official data shows that the DfT made 31 payments worth a total of £805,422 to FCP between February 2013 and October 2014. At least 12 of these payments, amounting to £356,535, related to what the department called “rail franchising”, the area of the ministry for which Wilkinson had responsibility.”
“A DfT spokesperson said: “The department regularly contracts and recruits people with relevant industry and commercial expertise, to help it achieve the best result for passengers and taxpayers. We have robust safeguards to guard against any conflicts of interest.
“Decisions on franchise awards are taken by the department following a fair and open competition. Each franchise award is subject to thorough and independent audit.”
“According to the DfT, Wilkinson was recruited after an open and fair competition to start work at short notice as franchising director, initially for six months, with the aim of kickstarting a faltering franchising programme.”
Wilkinson told Rail Professional magazine two years ago: “Frontline staff are the heroes of this industry, they’re the people who make it work, not people like me in head offices and places; this is a nonsense, we’re just petty bureaucrats.” In that case, let the heroes get on with their work.
The strike has cost our economy too much, and we need people in Govia, the RMT and the government who are prepared to work together. Anyone who obstructs an agreement, must be sidelined.
There is no suggestion that Peter Wilkinson has acted illegally or has allowed a conflict of interest to arise. However, the dispute must end now and if, for the unions, his presence is a sticking point, then surely he must be moved on so a resolution can be achieved.