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24 February 2014
Frances Low joined London Transport in 1979 to handle prosecutions for the British Transport Police, after qualifying with the London Borough of Hackney. Twenty-two years later, as company secretary and legal director to London Transport and London Underground, she is responsible for the legal affairs of the whole of London Underground, including the much-maligned Tube Public Private Partnership (PPP). She has worked under governments of various political hues and seen a revolution in the capital's transport provision.
London Transport itself has been through several incarnations. Policy-driven reforms, such as the decision to deregulate and privatise the bus companies in 1984, have changed the face of the organisation. Low says that today's London Transport, "does not in any way feel like the same organisation as in 1979". Low, who remembers Red Ken from the first time around, says that this constant change is one of the key things that has kept her at London Transport.
Following the privatisation of the buses in 1984, the Government decided to bring market forces in on the underground and the PFI was born. In the 1990s, Low was involved with infrastructure PFIs including the Northern Line revamp and the Prestige, Power and Connect projects, which tackled ticketing, escalators and communications. In 1997, the Tory government came up with the PPP scheme, under which the responsibility for maintaining and renewing Tube infrastructure would be taken out of the public sector.
Low, who has been involved in the management of the PPP from the start, acknowledges that it has been difficult to work with so many political theories. She is deeply critical of some of what she has seen, specifically the privatisation of the railways and the creation of the now bankrupt Railtrack. At the time, she made a comment at a dinner party, which was later repeated to the Minister for Transport, that even Waddingtons, the games manufacturers, could have devised a better privatisation scheme. However, she says that the key function of her job and that of the legal department is to "do what is possible within the parameters allowed to us".
Low holds the position of company secretary and legal director to both London Transport and London Underground. London Transport is a statutory body, of which London Underground is a wholly-owned subsidiary. Since the bus privatisation, there is very little legal work required by the London Transport parent and the underground now takes up the bulk of the department's time.
The legal department's work comes from three main areas - property and parliamentary, litigation and contracts. Property and parliamentary primarily covers estate management of London Transport's existing properties, along with compulsory purchase of new sites. Litigation encompasses employment and personal injury issues, while contract includes the key PFI and PPP projects currently underway.
External lawyers are involved in all three areas, on which they collaborate with London Transport's 38 in-house lawyers. Decisions about where work is handled are taken on two criteria - where there is the greatest expertise relating to the specific area of the law, and where the work can be done in the most cost effective way. Some areas, such as employment, are handled exclusively in-house, while others such as the London Underground PPP rely heavily on outside law firms.
The department uses a number of external solicitors' firms which are hired on a project-by-project basis, with 10 firms currently being used. Of those listed Rees & Freres and Sherwoods are involved with only parliamentary work, while others operate in litigation and contracts. Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer takes the lion's share of the work. Other firms, including Slaughter and May, have done work in specific areas, such as pensions, but are not involved with any project at the moment.
In one instance, the expertise factor has dictated that some of the highest profile public work was kept in-house. The in-house London Transport team handled the judicial review brought by Ken Livingstone and Transport for London, in what Low describes as "a very intensive time for the litigation team". The situation saw Low, who had been fighting on the same side as the Greater London Council in the 1980s, pitted against the authority. The mayor and the revamped Greater London Authority claimed that the PPP proposals conflicted with their statutory duties and applied for judicial review. The London Transport team, which Low deemed the country's primary source of expertise on London Transport powers, defeated the application for judicial review.
The PPP is the most high-profile project for London Transport's legal department to date. Of the qualified staff in the department, 15 are involved in the PPP. Freshfields, the external firm selected for the project, was also involved with the earlier PFIs.
Low defends the PPP selection process, saying that London Transport went further than was legally required, sending out Ojec (Official Journal of the European Communities) notices and holding a beauty parade, before appointing Freshfields. She also points out that there were not that many candidates for the role. Of those she considered up to the main PPP advisory job, most were conflicted out by their relationships with potential bidders. As with all external solicitors taken on, she says that Freshfields' progress is regularly reviewed. In a practice now common within in-house legal departments, lawyers from Freshfields are also placed on temporary secondments with London Transport in order to boost mutual understanding.
She admits that it is not pleasant to pick up a copy of the Evening Standard and read that the vast majority of Londoners are strongly opposed to the PPP. However, she says that in the long run the PPP is the best way to secure much-needed Government funding for London Underground. She says: "People don't understand PPP. It's not the same as rail privatisation, which was foisted on British Rail.
There were lots of interfaces with the Tube so we saw what happened there, and this is totally different. To just be stamped as Railtrack mark two is totally unfair."
Once the PPP is signed, London Transport will be abolished and London Underground will be transferred to Transport for London, the mayor's transport authority. The legal department will move along with the rest of the Tube. Transport for London hasn't officially decided what will happen to the department, but Low does not anticipate major changes.
When not busy fighting against it in the High Court, the legal department already does some work for Transport for London. Low says that because "we already do it more cheaply and efficiently than anyone outside could", most legal work will probably stay in-house, and she says that staff cutbacks in the department are unlikely.
Low says that lawyers leave her department to move on to much more money, or to practice in an area of law not handled at London Underground. The prospects of increased remuneration will presumably be a consolation to London Transport's in-house lawyers working hard on the PPP.
According to Low, they work no fewer hours than the Freshfields lawyers. When people do go, says Low, "they inevitably miss the atmosphere, the teamwork and the opportunity to be involved at the cutting edge".
Alongside the people working on the PPP, other in-house lawyers are involved with work crucial to the day-to-day running of the Tube. This includes the sort of work that Low originally joined to do, such as private prosecutions against people who assault London Underground staff, and applications for injunctions against persistent ticket touts. Although she is no longer closely involved with this type of work, it is clear that the public service element of her role provides job satisfaction. Ultimately, she says that she cannot envisage herself leaving, because "there is just no more important job than keeping the Tube running".
Company secretary and legal director
|Legal Capability||38, including 19 qualified UK lawyers, plus Commonwealth lawyers, trainees and paralegals|
|Company secretary and legal director||Frances Low|
|Reporting to||Managing director of London Underground Paul Godier|
|Location||St. James Park, London|
|Main law firms||Davies Arnold Cooper, DJ Freeman, Field Fisher Waterhouse, Freshfields Bruckhouse Deringer, Hammond Suddards Edge, Nabarro Nathanson, Pinsent Curtis Biddle, Rees & Freres, Sherwoods and Taylor Joynson Garrett|