‘Free money': government to look into claims Avanti staff joked about taxpayer cash

The Deputy Prime Minister has pledged to look into claims that rail firm Avanti West Coast described taxpayer funding as “free money”.

The train operator apologised earlier in the week for displaying the message on a presentation slide.

Novara Media, which first reported the incident, said the meeting happened on January 12 and was attended by managing director Andy Mellors.

It published an image showing a slide with the title: “Roll-up, roll-up get your free money here!”.

West Lancashire MP Ashley Dalton raised it in the commons on Thursday, 18 January.

She said: “It emerged this week that Avanti West Coast bosses were recently caught giving PowerPoint presentations bragging about receiving free money from the Government.

“Is this value for money?”

Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden told MPs he was not aware of the matter, although he pledged to look into it.

Mr Dowden replied: “I’m not aware of these allegations but they sound very concerning and I’m very happy to look into them on behalf of the honourable lady.”

Another slide explained how train operators are paid bonuses by the Government even if services are not run completely to schedule, under the service quality regime (SQR).

This included the statement: “Sound too good to be true? Well on this occasion – it isn’t – it’s the absolute truth!”

The Department for Transport last September renewed Avanti West Coast’s operating contract for up to nine years, with Transport Secretary Mark Harper claiming it was “back on track” following major disruption.

An Avanti West Coast spokesperson said: “This does not represent Avanti West Coast’s view of the service quality regime and was an isolated incident.

“These slides were an attempt to explain how the SQR works to some of our colleagues, but the language used in this presentation was unacceptable and we apologise for this.

“The service quality regime is a robust and independent audit which we take very seriously.

“It has been demonstrated to hold us to account to drive up standards as we strive to continually improve our customer service.”