Thursday, 31 December 2015

Tone and Content

Gwyn Topham writes:

Train companies have been told to act with “propriety” and curb any “political bias” after the taxpayer-funded rail industry mouthpiece sent a barrage of pro-privatisation emails and attacked Labour policy during the party’s conference.

The Department for Transport has issued new rules for the Rail Delivery Group, which represents the train operators and Network Rail, following complaints from Labour.

The RDG was set up as a cross-industry alliance of train operators and Network Rail in 2011 to find ways of making the railways run more efficiently.

But it has become the main lobbying voice against public ownership of rail services – a key Labour commitment since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader.

Philip Rutnam, the DfT’s permanent secretary, intervened after Lilian Greenwood, the shadow transport secretary, raised concerns over the RDG’s use of public funding to promote rail privatisation.

Half the RDG’s costs are now met by Network Rail, a publicly owned and funded body.

Network Rail’s contributions were ratcheted up to £1.3m in 2014-15 from £240,000 the year before, to allow the group to take charge of drawing up and communicating policy for the entire rail industry – which included a series of emails to journalists arguing that Britain’s railways had prospered since privatisation in 1994. 

In a letter to Greenwood, Rutnam said the RDG had now “adopted a communications protocol ... ensuring political impartiality in its communications activity”. 

The rules include a commitment to “at all times demonstrate propriety in communications activity, ensuring it is objective in both tone and content”. 

The RDG must also take caution “not to communicate in ways that could give rise to criticism of party political bias or that public resources are being used for party political purposes”. 

Greenwood said:

“It’s long been suspected in the rail industry that the Rail Delivery Group was displaying a political bias and I’m grateful to [Rutnam] for providing such an unambiguous clarification.

“It was clearly inappropriate that train companies were using taxpayers’ money to fund pro-privatisation publicity drives, especially when they have a direct financial interest in maintaining the status quo.

“If the train companies want to make the case for rail privatisation then they should not use public funds to do so.

“I suspect that passengers would be particularly surprised to learn of this arrangement ahead of the fare hikes in January, especially as they were always told that rising ticket prices were paying for investment and not political activity.”

Train fares will rise on 2 January by 1.1%. An RDG spokesman said:

“Our organisation exists to help the different parties involved in running the railway tackle the most difficult issues affecting the whole industry so that services can be improved for passengers, freight users and the economy.

“Everyone working on the railway recognises the need for further improvements, but we should also use objective and independent data to celebrate the industry’s successes for passengers and rail workers.”

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