Debate on Bombardier

I’ve now updated my Bombardier page with the link to the written transcript of yesterday’s debate. Click here to visit the page. Below is the transcript of my speech:

I am grateful that we have the chance to debate and question the Minister on the future of the UK train-building industry, especially with reference to the recent award of preferred-bidder status for the Thameslink contract to the Siemens consortium, rather than the Bombardier one. It is of great interest to people in the whole Derby area, not least in my constituency of Amber Valley, that we get to the bottom of how the contract came to be awarded to a German rather than a UK-based manufacturer.

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate in what has been a very difficult time for Derby and Derbyshire. Does he agree that the decision also has an impact on constituencies such as mine, which are as far from Derby as I think Amber Valley is? It has had a profound effect and caused a lot of anger among my constituents, as well as, no doubt, my hon. Friend’s.

Nigel Mills: I am grateful for that intervention. I suspect that part of my constituency is a bit nearer to Derby than my hon. Friend’s, but I accept that we are all in the same area and that we have people who commute to work at the Bombardier plant and work in the many support industries in the area and who are threatened by the decision.

It is worth starting by saying that the area has a proud history with the railway industry, ranging back to the beginning of the industry in the early 19th century—I believe that production began in Derby in about 1839. The Midland Railway Centre is in my constituency. It is a tremendous attraction and I urge everyone to come to visit it, but the last thing we want is for our whole railway industry to become a museum. We want a thriving and growing train-building industry. We have had a thriving and growing train-building industry. Passenger numbers have been up year on year for ages and we expect that growth to continue. There is no reason why we cannot have a viable industry in the UK if the Government support it.

I want to cover two areas in my speech. The way to help to preserve and enhance the train-building industry would have been to give Bombardier the Thameslink contract in the first place. I want to talk about whether there is any way that the Government can still reconsider that decision. We are only at the preferred-bidder status stage and have not signed on the dotted line for the whole contract, so I think there is still scope for that to happen. I also want to look at how we can go forward in a better way to procure such contracts more sensibly, so that there is a level playing field and our only UK train-building company has a fair chance of winning contracts. That may not be how we see the current process.

The award of preferred bidder status on the Thameslink contracts to the Siemens consortium rather than the Bombardier one has led many of my constituents to think that the Government have taken leave of their senses. We have rightly spent the past year talking about the need to focus on the manufacturing sector to provide the skilled jobs we need and to rebalance the economy away from London and the south-east. My constituents have told me that they thought that that meant the midlands and the north, not Germany.

The industry is very skilled, with a huge number of skilled jobs of exactly the kind that we want to attract. The award of this huge £1.4 billion contract to Siemens rather than Bombardier means that we are talking the talk, but not walking the walk. Frankly, my constituents cannot understand why we do not spend taxpayers’ money in a way that produces the overall best benefit to the economy of the UK as a whole and the Derby area. We now risk losing not only the 1,000-plus jobs at Bombardier, but the jobs in the supply chain, which are much harder to quantify at this stage.

My first question for the Minister is this: can the Government reconsider the decision? If not, would she help us to understand exactly why not? We know from Government answers and statements that their view in simple terms is that all they could do was open the submitted bids, compare them to the tender specifications drawn up by the previous Government, work out which one was the most economically advantageous and award the contract. The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has commented that the specifications were very narrowly defined and there was almost no doubt who would win.

We understand now that weighting for overall socio-economic considerations was not included in the specifications. Had that been included, it may have allowed the Government to take into account the overall impact of the job losses, the loss of tax revenues, the benefits they will need to pay out and the overall knock-on effect on the economy. We would all much rather that those things were included in the specifications. Can the Minister confirm that that weighting was not included in the contract?

Having realised that, did the Government consider restarting the whole process and saying, “We got the specifications wrong, and if we are to spend £1.4 billion of taxpayer and passenger money, let’s get it right and spend the money properly”? Did they look at doing that? Could they have done it? If not, why not? There is a lot of concern that we are going ahead with so significant a contract, with such significant implications, when the Government do not even seem to think that the procurement process has been handled properly or included all the conditions that ought to have been included.

One reason why Bombardier has concerns is its record with Department for Transport procurement processes. It can win contracts worldwide. It can even win contracts to build trains in Germany. It can win contracts with everybody else in the UK. Out of the 14 bids it made for contracts from operating or rolling stock companies, it has won 11, but out of five bids where the DFT was running the process, it has won none. Is that just bad luck or does it suggest that there is something wrong with how the DFT procures the contracts? Do the Government think that huge DFT contracts are the right way to go about train procurement or should we look at letting the operating or rolling stock companies, which have great experience running such things, be in charge of the process? There is a suggestion that the very structure of the tender process made it hard for Bombardier to win. The phrase used was “bundled design, build, maintenance and finance” commercial structure—I find it difficult to get my head around that mouthful.

It was not a case of looking for someone to build trains and sell them, but a case of awarding a contract for someone to build, provide and maintain trains and keep them on the tracks for the best part of 30 years. It is a hugely complex financing exercise. I am not sure whether we were looking for a train-builder or a bank. One suspects that it is much easier for a huge multinational, diversified conglomerate with a brilliant credit rating to produce the cheapest bid, rather than the group that can build the best trains. I do not know about other hon. Members, but I am not sure that I can predict where I will be in 2045. I will be 70 years old, and I hope I will be getting a state pension by then, but I am not totally convinced of that. It is scary to think that these train carriages will be retired after me, but that is how long we are talking about.

The contract is to maintain the trains and keep them on the rails until 2045 or thereafter, which is a hugely difficult thing to do. How many of us can predict what the currency of many EU nations will be even in a year’s time? How many of us can predict how many major banks will still be solvent in a year’s time? And yet, we are asking the train-builders to come up with a finance package that in effect runs for that long period. How can they do that cost-effectively? The process started in 2008 and the state of the banks was even worse then than it is now.

Many hon. Members are concerned that the private finance initiative resulted in taxpayers paying people to borrow far more expensively than the Government could, and we ended up having to pay for that for 30-odd years. Is there not a risk that that is what we are doing with this? We are in effect locking people into a hugely expensive way of financing something, but if we did it better there might be a cheaper way.

I looked at some of the original tender documents from 2008, and there was an interesting presentation to interested parties in the “Commercial and Financial Overview”. On the financing side, it states:

“Consistent with HMT best practice, the Department will reserve the right to hold a funding competition”.

Have the Government considered that? If the financing costs made it hard for Bombardier to compete in the award of preferred-bidder status, did the Government think, “Actually, financing is a very risky thing for anybody to try and do for this long period. Should we take that out of the process and tender it separately?”? That might have been worth considering.

The same presentation outlines that the accreditation process structure had a weighting of 40% for business excellence and approach, and 60% for technical capability and experience. I do not know whether those weightings were used in the final process, but if they were, it would be interesting to understand how. We would all like to understand exactly how close these bids were. Where was Siemens stronger and where was Bombardier stronger? I fear that the answer to that probably involves hugely sensitive commercial data that the Minister cannot release today. We want people to understand why we are spending taxpayers’ and passengers’ money in this way, but it is hard to explain the process when we cannot access the full details.

One matter that has been raised—it would be helpful to have some clarification on this—is the lightweight bogie that will be used in the contract. For a contract that Siemens won in Germany, it had to use Bombardier’s bogie, and there is a joint contract in place for that. I understand—I cannot find any evidence for this on the internet—that Siemens has not managed to produce, test or bring into operation anywhere a lightweight bogie. The German train industry was not desperately keen to have its trains experimented on and tested, and therefore Siemens has used the Bombardier-made bogie to ensure that it gets the reliability from scratch. Frankly, such a situation seems a little perverse. The Germans give a contract to a German train company but they are not willing to have their trains experimented on, and we end up awarding a contract to a German train company for our trains to be experimented on rather than awarding it to the UK company that could have used its bogie, which it knows works.

Anecdotally, one of the attractions for Siemens was mentioned by the UK chief executive of Siemens rail industry operations, Steve Scrimshaw, in an interview with Rail Professional in March this year:

A lot of the DfT’s scoring is around deliverability and our trains work straight out of the box.”

Interestingly, that same article goes on to talk about the problems that Siemens has had delivering trains into Scotland, where they have not worked straight from the box and their entry into service was delayed by ScotRail until it could resolve some of the technical issues. It is not the case that Siemens delivers and works perfectly every time, and that Bombardier does not. The fact that Bombardier can win contracts in the UK and around the world shows that it probably has a similar quality of delivery to Siemens.

In light of those issues, the key question for the Government is this: can they and will they reconsider this decision before the contract goes to final status? Some of the concerns about the procurement process that I have set out have led my hon. Friends the Members for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham), for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) and for Erewash (Jessica Lee)—she sadly cannot be here today—and I to ask the National Audit Office to review this procurement process and examine whether we are getting the most economically advantageous position for taxpayers and passengers.

There are doubts whether the DFT is very good at handling these processes based on its experiences with the intercity express programme contract and this one. Let us be honest: this project was originally called Thameslink 2000, but these carriages might hit the tracks in 2015. That is not a tremendous procurement record. Is it right for the DFT to be handling these contracts? My hon. Friends and I have fundamental concerns about whether the right requirements were in the tender specification and whether we can come to the right decision. Therefore, there seems to be a strong prima facie case to have another look at the matter and ensure that we are spending £1.4 billion of taxpayers’ money in the right way.

We can talk about the history of the process and this contract for as long as we like but, whatever happens on that, we need to get these things right in future. The fact that the past two major contracts have not gone to a UK manufacturer are bad enough but, if we are to sort this process out and keep the train-building industry in the UK, we need to start getting such things right and ensuring that there is a level playing field. Let us be clear that no one is suggesting that we want Bombardier in the UK to be a new British Leyland. Bombardier does not want that and absolutely no taxpayer would want that. We have a company that can build high-quality trains for the right price, and it should get the chance to do that. We want a process that creates a level playing field, and for a UK manufacturer to have a fair opportunity to win contracts to build UK trains in the same way that German manufacturers can build trains in Germany and French ones can build trains in France.

What kind of message are we giving to the people we want to invest and manufacture in the UK? It seems that if someone wants to win a contract to build trains for the German rail industry, they must build them in Germany, and that if someone wants to win a contract in France to build trains for the French rail industry, they must build them in France. However, if someone wants to win a contract to build trains for the UK rail industry, they can build them where they like. If an investor is short of money and considering which countries to invest in, what will their conclusion be? They cannot close the French or German plants because they know that they will not win contracts in those huge markets, but they could close the UK one.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I hope he recognises that the issue goes beyond just rolling stock and that it relates to the whole of the rail supply chain. Does he agree that the key question is this: why does the German industry not have more penetration in the French market, and indeed, why does the French industry not have more penetration in the German market, if both those countries are interpreting EU procurement law in the same way as us?

Nigel Mills: I am sure that all our constituents are asking that question. If Germany and France do not open their markets, why do we open our markets so much? We all want a level playing field. If Germany and France are going to reward their industries, we may have little choice but to go the same way. The issue is not new, because the previous Government considered it in 2003. They commissioned a report on how the EU procurement processes were working to see whether there was unfairness or any inappropriate activity. As usual, the conclusion was that there was no clear illegality, but there appears to have been a slight distortion in the results. Interestingly, that report was written by the then UK chief executive of Siemens, Alan Wood. It is amazing how things come back round to bite.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. On the parochial protectionism of other countries, is it not the case that the UK is exceptionally successful in winning EU bidding contracts elsewhere? In fact, we come after only Germany in terms of the number and value of contracts that we win throughout the EU, so it works both ways.

Nigel Mills: I think that Germany wins 26% of the time when it bids, and we win about 14%. However, I am not sure that those statistics work when we are talking about major infrastructure projects that are of huge overall significance, rather than about some of the smaller ones. Frankly, across the EU as a whole, we are a hugely advanced economy, with all the high skills and the value added. Therefore, we expect the UK to be able to do things that other economies cannot yet do, and to be winning contracts. The key point is that thousands and thousands of jobs are at stake. We are risking those jobs by playing by the rules, but it seems that the Germans, French and others are not.

Let us consider the Eurotunnel procurement. That contract was awarded not to Alstom of France, but to Siemens of Germany, which must be doing something right. The French went mad and had a judicial review to try to challenge that contract, because they were so surprised that it had not been awarded to one of their domestic companies. We have to send out the message that we want to encourage our UK train-building industry, which is of huge value to us, and we want the Government to support it.

Perhaps we need to consider again how we go about procuring these train-building contracts. For many years, Bombardier has questioned how sensible it is to have a feast of contracts and then a famine. How does that enable it to be a sustainable, viable business? How does having to recruit and skill up to fulfil one contract and then lay people off and start again make a company cost-effective and ensure that we are getting the best price for our trains? How can Bombardier continually develop in the UK and improve its processes if it does not know from year to year whether it will have a viable manufacturing business in the UK?

Let us not set any hares running. We all hope that Bombardier will retain a strong manufacturing presence in the UK and that this will not be a fundamental threat. However, it is a significant contract, especially on the back of its not winning the intercity express programme contract. It would be helpful if the Government set out what other contracts they expect to award in the rest of this Parliament, and how significant their value may be. We know that Crossrail should be one contract. Many have raised the question whether the Government can now bring forward that Crossrail procurement in the hope that Bombardier can win it and try to protect jobs in the Derby area.

Some have suggested that the Crossrail contract is very closely linked to the Thameslink contract. The amount of cross-savings between the two might make it very hard for a company that does not have the Thameslink contract to deliver Crossrail competitively. Will the Minister confirm that that is not the case, and that it is open to the Government to award the Crossrail contract to a different provider?

Andrew Griffiths (Burton) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Bombardier is a major employer in my constituency, too. He has discussed the success of Bombardier and its ability to win contracts. Is he aware of the statistics that show that of 14 contracts that Bombardier bid for that were not related to the Department for Transport, it won 11, yet of all of the contracts it has bid for with the Department for Transport, it has won not a single one?

Nigel Mills: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. Had he been here from the start, he would have heard me quote those very same statistics. His point is valid, however, and he reiterates the question whether the Department for Transport is handling those procurements in the most effective manner.

I conclude by asking the Minister some questions about future procurement processes. Do the Government think that there is a need for improvement? Should the Department for Transport be handling them? Will the Department guarantee that the socio-economic benefits will be given some weighting in that process? Can the contracts be structured so that UK manufacturing industry has a chance of a sustainable, viable future? Can we look to structure those contracts in a way that gets trains built, and not look for the biggest bank we can find to underwrite 30 years’ worth of financing?

No one should doubt that the train-building industry is of great importance to the Derby area and the UK economy as a whole. We have a proud heritage of train building. We can and should have an exciting future of train building. I urge the Government to do their bit to ensure that that is what we get.