Government may yet see sense and throw a lifeline to Bombardier

There’s every chance sustained pressure will compel the government to search for a lifeline for Bombardier and change the way it approaches procurement strategy.

Matt Dykes is the TUC’s public transport policy officer

The government’s decision to award the contract for the Thameslink rolling stock to Siemens has been a disaster for the workforce at the Bombardier plant in Derby and across many of its suppliers throughout the country. One thousand, four hundred jobs are to go in the short term at Bombardier, along with an estimated 3,000 in the supply chain.

With a significant gap in the order books, there are serious questions over the sustainable future of Bombardier in the UK threatening the end of train manufacturing in this country.

Grim times then for all involved. But thanks to impressive campaigning by trade unions, local MPs, councillors and community groups, this is an issue that won’t go away. Bombardier fights on.

As a result, this has become an increasingly toxic issue for the coalition highlighting the gap between the rhetoric and reality of the government’s support for UK manufacturing.

The Bombardier campaign has been particularly potent in that it brings together a range of issues related both to manufacturing and the UK rail industry.

Chief among these is the government’s approach to procurement (shared, it has to be said, by previous Labour administrations) where short term, lowest cost definitions of value are prioritised over broader social, economic and industrial aims resulting in losses to the UK economy and Treasury in the longer term.

This is an issue the TUC has long campaigned on; we called for a roundtable on procurement in our budget submission in March and wrote to both transport secretary Philip Hammond and business secretary Vince Cable well in advance of the award of the Thameslink contract to highlight the need for procurement that supports jobs and growth.

Other questions also arise regarding the lack of strategy in our highly fragmented quasi-privatised rail industry as well as issues around the concentration of ownership in the rolling stock leasing market.

From day one the government have handled this badly.

The disastrous decision to award the contract to competitors in Germany was made in the wake of the government spelling out its commitment to support UK manufacturing. If the withdrawal of funding from Sheffield Forgemasters had previously raised doubts about this commitment, the Thameslink decision confirmed them.

Seemingly taken aback by the furore, Secretary of State Philip Hammond hid behind EU competition law, claiming this prohibited a broader interpretation of economic value. The work of academics such as Karel Williams and Chris Bovis, both of whom made valuable contributions to the transport select committee hearings, these arguments have been taken apart.

We were then informed the contract was binding and any attempt to review or renew the tendering process would fall foul of the European Commission. Not so, say the Commission – a review may prove costly in terms of delays and wrangling with Siemens but the option remains open none the less.

Continuing to be outflanked by the trade unions and mainly Labour MPs leading the campaign, the government are now searching for a lifeline to throw to Bombardier. The announcement this week of potential business arising from the renewal of rolling stock for the Cross Country franchise is welcome, as is the intention to review the Crossrail tender, albeit with reservations about further delays to this contract.

Both are testament to the persistence and tenacity of those fighting to keep train manufacturing jobs in the UK.

Polling shows the government has been found out on this issue. The people of Derby have certainly woken up to the role the coalition has played and Conservative MPs in the region must feel uncomfortable at some of the polling data.

The fact that not one Tory MP supported the Early Day Motion in support of Bombardier shows those lessons are not being completed absorbed. But councillors in Lib Dem and Tory run Derby City Council have voted to support unions in a possible legal challenge to the decision, indicating both the strength of feeling in the region and the success campaigners have had in making this a key issue.

The issue has been selected by the Labour Party front bench for debate today to coincide with motions on the future of rail manufacturing moved by ASLEF, Unite, RMT and TSSA that will be taking place at Congress.

There’s every chance this sustained pressure will compel the government to search for a lifeline for Bombardier and potentially change the way it approaches procurement strategy in the future.

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