Better pay and training ‘could have averted West Coast rail bid mistakes’

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A Labour MP and the former head of the civil service have claimed that skills shortages were behind mistakes made by civil servants in the bidding process for the West Coast Main Line.

Earlier this week, the Government reversed its decision to award the West Coast route to rail company FirstGroup, due to flaws in the bidding process.

Following the announcement, three civil servants have been suspended and transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin said that fault lay “squarely within the Department for Transport”.

However, Margaret Hodge, Labour MP and chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, said that civil servants are not given the training they need to carry out their jobs, and former head of the civil service Lord O’Donnell argued that the level of pay offered for civil-service roles is not enough to attract talented workers.

In an interview on the BBC’s Today programme, Hodge said that over recent years the role of civil servants had changed from devising policy to delivering programmes and that a different set of skills were now required.

“While we’ve got incredibly bright, talented and committed people working in the civil service, the training needed to make sure they can manage projects, that they’ve got commercial skills, that they understand IT programmes is not there, and is not built and developed by the civil service,” she argued.

O’Donnell, also talking on the Today programme, said that skills shortages could be tackled if more competitive pay was offered to attract and retain top talent.

He said that while he was in charge of the civil service he wanted to pay “a lot more” to get the best people with the skills that were needed and that “having an arbitrary constraint like the Prime Minister’s salary” wasn’t helpful.

O’Donnell added: “I spent a lot of time persuading people to come and work in the civil service because of the public-sector ethos: that they’re making a difference. The people that line doesn’t work with are hard-headed commercial procurement guys.

“It’s not that they’re greedy but pay is a measure of how much they feel they’re valued.”

The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) supported Hodge’s view that more training is needed in the civil service.

A spokesman said: “With the closure of the National School of Government, the coalition has put at risk the kind of provision necessary for developing well-trained, professional civil servants at all grades.

“We fear the Government is only interested in delivering training on the cheap, which spells bad news for the civil service and the running of government.”

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