Rail body is accused of using public money to pay off disgruntled employees

An inquiry into misuse of public funds and “serious financial impropriety” at Network Rail will begin in January to clear up allegations of wrong doing that have dogged the body over the past two years.

Antony White QC was appointed to conduct the inquiry after talks between Network Rail chairman Rick Haythornthwaite and the general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) union, Gerry Doherty.

Network Rail, and former chairman Iain Coucher, have been accused of a string of financial improprieties by Private Eye magazine and by MPs in the House of Commons.

Last year in the Commons Labour MP Jim Devine alleged that Peter Bennett, Network Rail’s head of human resources, presided “over a culture of fear and bullying” and repeated claims by the TSSA general secretary that the company used public money to pay off employees in order to avoid embarrassing details emerging at employment tribunals.

“According to Mr. Doherty, Network Rail achieves its aims by paying off employees to avoid matters being exposed in the public domain at employment tribunals. Details of the settlements, including the financial details, are covered up by the insertion of a confidentiality clause,” Devine told the House.

He said: “If the company uses public money to ensure that the allegations never see the light of day—that they never reach the public domain—that surely is a matter for the House and for the Minister…Long-serving staff are being forced out, but only after they have signed confidentiality clauses that prevent the culture of fear from being exposed in the public domain. There is a saying among Network Rail’s staff that if someone is called to meet a senior manager, they are ’away to a brown envelope meeting’. That is indicative of the prevailing culture.”

Before he quit in June, saying it was a good time to move on, Coucher earned a basic salary of £613,000 and received further bonuses which doubled his pay to £1.2m, reported the BBC.

Rick Haythornthwaite said: “We have already carried out extensive investigations into the allegations and have found no evidence of wrong-doing. This further inquiry must first flush out all allegations and evidence if we are to determine whether there is a case to be answered.

“This is a serious matter that needs to be closed for the sake of the company and the people concerned. I believe that we are taking sensible and effective steps using by using an independent QC to bring this matter to an ultimate conclusion.”

Gerry Doherty said: “These allegations of impropriety have been a black cloud hanging over NR for the past two years. Now at last they can be examined independently and dealt with accordingly.”