Confidence in the Secretary of State for Transport DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Mr Gavin ShukerMain Page: Mr Gavin Shuker (Independent) - Luton South)
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The motion on the Order Paper is
“That this House has no confidence in the Secretary of State”
and we have already heard from the fourth and final Government Back Bencher who has come along to speak in support of the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State has not stayed in the Chamber to listen to the speeches today, but if I were giving advice to him or to Conservative Back Benchers, I would suggest that they go out and buy a plaque that says, “The buck stops here” and attach it to his desk, because that is what the debate is all about. It is about the public wanting to elect politicians to run a decent railway system. I congratulate my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State on standing up and confidently saying that he wants to be a Secretary of State who runs the railways and is held accountable.
The meltdown caused by the introduction of the new rail timetable in May is just the latest in a chain of crises on our railways. We have an over-complex and fractured rail system. It has too many operators and a complex web of contractors and sub-contractors. This patchwork of competing interests militates against effective planning and delivery of the railway, making Britain’s rail system one of the most expensive and now worst run in Europe. Since 2010, fares have risen three times faster than wages, and in January we had the highest fare increases for five years. That is not to mention the more than £5 billion of public money used to subsidise the private rail network every year.
It seems to me that incompetent rail companies have become too big to fail in the eyes of this Government. The rewards are privatised, but the risks are dumped on passengers and taxpayers, who always end up footing the bill. The public are tired of paying the price for a broken privatised and franchised model. Is that any surprise? What are they getting in return? Higher fares for a worse service; botched timetables and thousands of cancellations; and a policy of de-staffing the railways in the interests of profit, regardless of the consequences for staff and the travelling public.
One of the first campaigns I backed following my election in June last year, was the RMT’s campaign to keep the guard on the train, after Merseyrail announced that it was planning to axe all 207 guards from the service when the new fleet arrives in 2020. My constituents welcome the introduction of new and modern trains—long overdue and for which the unions campaigned—but they also value the safety and security of a guard on the train.
Private rail companies are making huge profits from the travelling public, and it is completely wrong that we are presented with false choices between embracing new technology and protecting secure jobs and public safety. It is nonsense. The campaign has enjoyed the overwhelming support of the public, despite strikes, and I am glad that Merseyrail has recognised that strength of feeling and that talks at ACAS are now taking place. Both the Scottish and Welsh Governments have agreed that there will be no extension of driver-only operation on services that they are responsible for, and I hope that Merseyrail will follow suit so that passengers in my constituency are afforded the same safety standards as are enjoyed elsewhere.
However, the RMT fears that since the Secretary of State was appointed he has been blocking any similar deals in an effort to “take on” the union. These fears were again confirmed when the Public Accounts Committee recently produced a report on franchising that concluded that the blame for the protracted Southern driver-only operation dispute lay squarely at the door of the Government for not engaging properly with the trade unions.
The franchising system fails to allow for industrial relations at all. Train operating companies have little interest beyond the terms of their franchise agreements, and changes are routinely forced through without any serious consultation. The introduction of the May 2018 timetable required changes on a huge scale. Change requires the co-operation, engagement and good will of the workforce, which has been undermined constantly by the rail companies and by the Government’s handling of the DOO dispute.
The rail industry lacks a clear chain of command and clear lines of accountability, so it is easy to blame others. Ultimately, though, the buck stops with the Transport Secretary. Not only has he failed on a managerial level; he has defended, at every turn, the systemic failure of rail privatisation. My advice to him is simple. First, take responsibility. Secondly, listen to the public, who by a vast majority support a return to public ownership and public control of our railways.
The Secretary of State can be in no doubt from the contributions across the House today that the rail chaos is having a devastating impact on people’s lives and jobs and on the economy.
The meltdown in the timetable and the revised timetable is causing serious pain to commuters. We have heard from hon. Members north, south, east and west. The whole nation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) said, is facing the pain. My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) talked about how promised improvements were yet to be delivered, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), who highlighted that the £9 billion spent has led to more chaos. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) reminded us that the northern press has united in its call for the Secretary of State to resign.
My hon. Friends the Members for Easington (Grahame Morris), for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) and for Luton South (Mr Shuker) have all highlighted forensically how the buck stops with the Secretary of State. My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) shared heartrending stories of her constituents sardined into trains and having their safety put at risk due to overcrowding.
Break in Debate
The cancellation of services is now progressively more and more planned by Northern as it seeks to stabilise the timetable and to ensure that the travelling public—the constituents of hon. Members on both sides of the House—can plan their journeys with greater assurance. This improvement, and the stabilisation and increased reliability, must continue over coming weeks. Northern plans to run the timetable until the end of July, when it will review progress and take stock. At that point, it will hope significantly to increase the number of timetabled services while ensuring continued improvements in stability.
The crux of the performance issues, as hon. Members have recognised, is the availability of drivers with the correct training. I am happy to say that, as a result of Northern’s hard work with ASLEF on rest day working, they were able to announce last week that they had reached an agreement for the immediate introduction of a new rest day working agreement. This will allow for more training and a better service for passengers sooner.
Let me turn to GTR’s performance. GTR is also working to increase the predictability and reliability of journeys on its network. It is working actively to reduce on-the-day cancellations, and is now updating its timetables on a Friday evening for the following week, enabling passengers to plan ahead more effectively. Alternative travel arrangements are in place. For example, passengers on the Brighton main line can have their Thameslink tickets accepted on Gatwick Express, and next month GTR will introduce a full temporary timetable across its network as the next step to improve reliability and performance for passengers.
It is worth noting that some parts of the GTR network, including all of Southern, are now experiencing more train services and better performance than ever before. However, I do not consider the service to be anywhere near approaching one that I or passengers would find acceptable and, as the Secretary of State said, we are examining why GTR is taking longer than Northern to improve services. The review that has been commissioned will look at whether GTR has met and is continuing to meet its contractual obligations in the planning and delivery of the May timetable.
That question will be addressed in the review, which is looking carefully at GTR’s performance and whether it has breached any of its contractual franchise commitments. That is not something that we can pre-empt. We are looking at it carefully in the review and, as the Secretary of State said in his opening remarks, nothing is off the table.