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Delude Retreat Indemnify Prevaricate Squander

The 'haves' and 'have nots'

A cynic might suggest that ‘society justice’ is a cause only espoused by those scratching around for funds to pay their gas bill; the ‘have-nots’, in other words. You can bet that it rarely impinges on the consciences of 'short selling' share dealers (assuming they have one!) whose attention will undoubtedly be focussed on more lucrative concerns - counting September’s ill-gotten gains, for example.

Most right-minded folk look on with incredulity at Premiership footballers, some of whom command weekly rewards which far exceed a typical worker’s annual salary, despite convictions for thuggery. Does kicking a ball around for three hours a week really out-value nursing, fire fighting and refuse collection by a factor of 100? Only in our topsy-turvy world.

Sky-high energy and food prices have attached solid rocket boosters to the uncomfortable divide between rich and poor. At a time when public service workers are compelled to suffer real-term cuts in living standards, it is grotesque to line the pockets of top executives with taxpayers’ cash. And that’s not just the green-eyed monster rearing its head. Yet, as the Transport Select Committee pointed-out in June, that’s precisely what’s happened at Network Rail.

Having being fined £14million for last Christmas’ humilation at Rugby, Glasgow and Liverpool Street, NR handed out another £1.4million to three of its highest-paid executives. This money came from a £55million ‘bonus pot’ which added upwards of £871 to the earnings of the company’s foot soldiers.

No doubt signallers and trackworkers will have contrasted their fortunes with those of decision-makers higher up. Chief Executive Iain Coucher pocketed bonuses of £305,581 (for performance) and £205,000 (for long-term service) on top of his £539,000 salary. That’s a cool million for 2007. Infrastructure Director Peter Henderson’s £399,000 annual pay-packet received boosts of £219,391 and £153,000 whilst finance head Ron Henderson, who enjoys a basic £385,000 a year, laughed all the way to the bank with cheques for £208,944 and £153,000.

The Transport Select Committee insisted that the New Year overruns had “laid bare an entire catalogue of management failings for all to see.” The “huge financial bonuses” taken by senior managers represented “a gesture which adds insult to injury for the long-suffering passengers” who it described as being “inconvenienced and humiliated”.

In the aftermath of the New Year debacle, Ian McAllister, Network Rail’s Chairman, pointed out that his company had undertaken 1,000 pieces of work over that Christmas period - all but three had gone well. Big deal! Does that justify overworking the cash registers of those who are already amply paid? Would a mechanic expect to have his wages doubled if three of the 1,000 vehicles he had serviced fell apart on the motorway?

Why do the upper echelons expect extra payments simply for doing their jobs competently? Isn’t that what they are already paid hundreds of thousands of pounds for?
Why do the upper echelons expect extra payments simply for doing their jobs competently?

In my view, the way forward is to turn the bonus culture on its head, particularly when public money is involved. At a year’s end, each individual manager’s output should be measured against defined targets. Failure to reach those targets would result in a deduction from the following year’s salary. How’s that for an incentive scheme?

There are however dangers with this approach. Despite recent culls, the rail industry still finds itself over-populated by suits, too many of whom serve no obvious purpose. Imposing performance penalties would undoubtedly drive passengers on safety’s gravy train far below the poverty line. In turn, this raises the horrifying prospect of Bob Geldof launching ‘Skive Aid’ to keep the malnourished in treacle, polluting the air waves with pleas to “give us your f***ing money!” Then the United Nations might have to get involved.

Network Rail risks undermining its success in turning round the industry from “the mess inherited from Railtrack”. Its words, not mine. Gifting vast sums to those who preside over grand - if isolated - fiascos is a misjudgement which rubs passengers’ noses in the brown, sticky stuff.

Last month, a report commissioned by the Office of Rail Regulation from KPMG suggested changes to NR’s bonus scheme. Dismissal of board members might also be made easier. It was found that Network Rail's members had raised concern that ‘executive remuneration’ did not follow an agreed process.

It is time for the regulator to act.

Story added 1st October 2008
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