What’s the point of 150,000 people signing a petition if a minister can just say ‘You’re all wrong?’

Meet Justine Greening, the UK transport secretary who appears to have replaced Jeremy Hunt as the Government’s political disaster-zone of choice. Two stories have her in the headlines at the moment: The fact she is opposed to a third runway at Heathrow when many of those around her are not, and the decision to award the West Coast Mainline rail franchise to FirstGroup.

At this point, I should declare an interest: I use the West Coast Mainline around twice a week between Manchester and London. It’s currently operated by Virgin Trains, which has kicked up an almighty stink about losing the franchise, which is due to be signed any day now. This post isn’t so much about the rights and wrongs of who has been awarded the franchise – Virgin is far from perfect but basic maths suggests its forecasted growth, and the subsequent payments to government linked to such growth, are much more realistic than FirstGroup’s – as it is about Greening’s response to the subsequent outcry at her department’s decision.

So far, more than 150,000 people have signed a petition on a Government website urging ministers to reconsider the decision to give FirstGroup the franchise. Collecting more than 100,000 signatures is meant to guarantee at least a discussion on whether an issue should be debated in parliament. Greening’s response has been to say she sees no reason why the signing of the deal with FirstGroup should be delayed. She argues, maybe correctly, that a thorough tendering process has been completed and that Virgin only complained when it lost.

That’s as maybe, but lets do some simple maths. One person – Greening – guided by a handful of Department for Transport advisors – the people who have a vested interest in protecting the tendering process they created – says there’s nothing wrong. 150,000 people, however, think otherwise. Being blunt, train operator choice wouldn’t feature in a top 10 of the ‘things most likely to get people signing a government petition’ if I was asked to create such a thing.

Of course, such a list wouldn’t factor in the PR power of Sir Richard Branson, or indeed the relatively inept response from FirstGroup, which clearly didn’t have the damage limitation manual to hand when questions were being asked about why its services on the Great Western Line and around London, were criticised so much. FirstGroup argues that the petition is being supported because Branson is a celebrity, adding that their main business is transport. That’s as maybe, but they’ve still taken six years to find extra carriages for trains across the Pennines … and are now relying on another train company to do the ordering for them.

Regardless of the PR, however, there’s no denying that getting 150,000 people to sign a petition about a train operator is quite an achievement, and you’d expect a government which is committed to transparency – as this coalition has said time and again that it is – to honour its commitment to debate the issues which attract a critical mass.

However, there is little point debating an issue if the transport minister insists the deal which people want reconsidered is signed prior to the debate happening.

That would suit Greening, whose stubborn refusal to listen to the voices of 150,000 people on this issue shows she is either stubborn to the point of foolishness, or is a minister controlled by her department. I suspect the latter – the same was also true of Labour ministers at the DfT – and the latter tends to trigger a dose of the former in attempt to look in charge.

However, what’s the point of a Government pretending to be transparent and open to the public setting the agenda if, when the public uses its right to have a say, the minister involved effectively turns round and says ‘you’re wrong?’

The difference between Greening and her Dft staff/masters and the public signing the petition is simple: Greening and her DfT cohort won’t be around if FirstGroup decides it can’t afford to pay the huge bonuses it has promised Government (something FirstGroup has form for). The travelling public, however, will.

It’s for that reason that someone, somewhere should take Greening to one side and advise that is is highly unlikely that 150,000 could be wrong.

After an assault on FOI, and the thoroughly poor execution of public spending data, should we be surprised to find the first Government minister taken to task by a government petition to believe she’s right, and everyone else is wrong?

2 comments

  1. I’m not sure the alternative you desire is any better. The 100,000 threshold means that the Leader of the Commons will ask the Backbench Business Committee to consider the subject for debate. Let’s assume it agrees to allocate a day to that debate, and the Government gives it a day soon (but not before 4 September, when the Committee next meets). The Minister would have to go to the Commons and explain why she is right and those signing the petition are wrong. As opposed to the situation now – where she is explaining why she is right and those signing the petition are wrong via the press and without the delay to fit with the Commons’ sitting calendar.
    Also, First’s decision to lease its trains from Angel is pretty standard in the industry – the Pendolinos are also owned by Angel.

    1. Hi, thanks for the comment. If the government is serious about letting the public influence what is discussed, and serious about getting the public involved, the stance of a minister refusing to delay slightly a signature on a contract in the face of public opposition is a problem. This is the first time such a petition has really challenged the government, and the minister in control isn’t defending her decision in public at all, she’s hiding behind broadbrush comments about a fair process. A debate in parliament – a meaningful debate in parliament – would force her to be much more accountable.

      My point about the trains on the Transpennine Express is to demonstrate that First – despite claiming to be all about transport in a way which Virgin isn’t – doesn’t move any quicker when it comes to solving problems.

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