Exclusive: ‘Nepotism’ inquiry uncovers failings at railway museum

AN inquiry into potential nepotism at the National Railway Museum found significant failures in record keeping and in securing alternative quotes when awarding contracts to the husband of one of the museum’s most senior employees.

Unusually, the York-based museum (NRM) refused to provide a copy of the inquiry report when releasing a public statement last month based on the report’s contents.

The statement largely referred only to internal auditors finding no impropriety surrounding payments in excess of £25,000 made to Adrian Ashby, the husband of senior curator Helen Ashby.

But the detailed findings – only disclosed by the NRM in response to a freedom of information request – show a range of failings and reveal auditors were unable to reach a clear conclusion on why payments to Mr Ashby included more than £15,000 to work on a production of The Railway Children, which involved trips to Canada.

The report found the NRM failed to obtain three alternative quotes – as required by its own rules – when granting a series of rail stock painting contracts between 2008 and this year to Mr Ashby, a painter and decorator by trade. For two out of seven contracts examined, no explanation for the lack of competition could be found because key staff had since retired.

No alternative quotes were obtained for three further contracts although auditors said there were “some extenuating circumstances” due to Mr Ashby’s availability at short notice.

But the report added: “However, transparency requires that such procurements are accompanied by a single supplier justification, which we found to be absent.”

In the remaining two contracts, there was evidence two quotes had been sought in one case and three in another, although only two were actually received.

The report, drawn up in response to a Yorkshire Post investigation revealing the payments to Mr Ashby, added: “Evidence was also found there was some misunderstanding as to the requirements of the procurement policy; when it was appropriate to obtain three quotes and what to do if any of the contractors approached
decline to provide a quote.”

Auditors were unable to reach any meaningful conclusion over how Mr Ashby had been paid at least £15,200 to help out on productions of The Railway Children, when it was staged at Waterloo station in London in 2009/10 and in Toronto, Canada, last year.

The report, which noted Mr Ashby might have received further payments through expenses or casual employee holiday payments, said the departure of staff meant auditors were “unable to build a clear picture” of how Mr Ashby had obtained the work.

Auditors also found no evidence Mrs Ashby had formally registered her interests prior to 2009. The NRM has insisted she had declared the commercial connection with her husband since 2003.

The report indicates auditors could only find scant records prior to a note Mrs Ashby wrote in 2009 to then NRM director Andrew Scott to highlight Mr Ashby had been given a contract for paint restoration on Flying Scotsman.

It found: “Limited declaration of interest information was available for Helen Ashby prior to 2009. Access was provided to some register of interest information covering the period 2005 and 2006. These interests relate largely to trustee, director and head of service level roles.

“No interests for this period were noted for Helen Ashby. We understand that declarations of interest may have been captured through annual assurance statements ... though we have been unable to validate this. In our opinion, there has been poor records management in relation to...register of interests prior to 2010.”

The NRM declined to explain why the report had not been made available when a public statement on its contents was released.

A spokeswoman said the statement did highlight recommendations and actions to be taken as a result of the report and added: “We believe that it is reasonable to assume that anyone reading [the statement] would understand that the report had explored and made recommendations in these other areas.”

Asked about the registering of interests, she said: “We provided the internal auditors with all paperwork relevant to this matter that was accessible. We accept the report’s conclusions that our records management has not always been good and we are taking action to improve processes in this area. Furthermore, some information was not accessible to the auditors due to this being in deep storage off site.”

She said the NRM’s former director, Andrew Scott, had been fully aware of the commercial relationship with Mr Ashby and reiterated that the museum would be following up an action plan.