Confidence in the Secretary of State for Transport Debate

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Department: Department for Transport

Confidence in the Secretary of State for Transport

Mr Gavin Shuker Excerpts
Tuesday 19th June 2018

(2 years, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Transport
Dan Carden Portrait Dan Carden (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard
19 Jun 2018, 3:36 p.m.

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.

Mr Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op) Parliament Live - Hansard
19 Jun 2018, 3:41 p.m.

When Parliament returned on 4 June after the recess, I challenged the Secretary of State, telling him that he was in great trouble over this situation, not least because it would run on for months and months. There has been little to cause me to reassess those comments in the past three or four weeks. For me and my constituents in Luton who travel by train regularly, it is clear that this chaos is not going anywhere quickly, but we are yet to establish who is responsible for the chaos not only when the changes were implemented, but as it is sorted out. I am afraid that the attitude of the Secretary of State has led us to today’s position, whereby we will shortly vote on whether we have confidence in him.

We are now close to the sixth week of chaos on GTR, with the admission that it is going to drag on for months. The Secretary of State said today that GTR will develop a temporary timetable in time for the summer holidays, but that is not good enough. It is a complete abdication of responsibility. GTR’s chief executive has resigned. Network Rail’s chief executive officer and chief financial officer have turned down their bonuses. But there has been no acceptance of responsibility from the one person we ask to sort things out when they go wrong.

Let me be clear about my view on the franchise and who is responsible. I am open-minded on rail. I believe that a transformation project as vast as the Thameslink programme, with £7 billion of taxpayer-invested money, should always have been operated and developed under the direct ownership and accountability of Government Ministers. That is why I said that it should not have been issued on a franchise or management contract back in 2014. It is equally clear that, given its record of failure, GTR cannot be in charge of the major changes that are coming in December 2018. GTR should not be responsible for this franchise when we get to December.

It is clear that franchising is broken. The series of statements, speeches and debates in the past year clearly demonstrate that there is very little good news about the franchising system on our railway, and that is because of one simple reason: there is no clear accountability. Let us be clear: the current system and the decisions that had already been taken to award this franchise could have worked with creative, intelligent leadership from the Secretary of State. That was absent. He lacks the intellectual curiosity to participate and, as I will explain, he had every opportunity to win us round.

I want to talk about two things: structures and the decisions that have been made. Let us look at the institutions that the Secretary of State has chucked under the bus during this crisis; he cited Network Rail, GTR as the operator and the industry readiness board. Network Rail is an arm’s-length public body with one member—the Secretary of State. He is the shareholder and he appoints the chief executive. He cannot walk away from the crossover between his Department and Network Rail.

Secondly, the GTR arrangements are not a classic franchise. GTR gives all the ticket revenue to the DFT—about £12 billion over the seven planned years of the franchise. In return, it gets back £9 billion to run the railway. The DFT takes all the revenue risk. When the railway fails to perform, it is a black hole for taxpayers. Crucially, the DFT sets the specification for the timetable, which I will say a few more words about.

Lastly, there is the rail industry readiness board, chaired by Chris Gibb, who was appointed by the Secretary of State. The representatives on the board include Network Rail’s south-east route, Network Rail’s LNER route, Network Rail’s Anglia route, Network Rail’s Thameslink project team, the Network Rail system, and, crucially, the DFT. In the Secretary of State’s account, we are asked to believe that all these organisations assured him that everything would be fine, that there was no contradictory advice from the people within those organisations, and that three weeks before, the green light had been given to go. I find that very difficult to square with the reality.

I turn to the decisions that have been made and the opportunities to avoid this crisis. First, the initial timetable was set in the franchise ITT—invitation to tender—in 2014. We have no idea whether an operator can achieve 24 trains per hour through the Thameslink core, because the DFT assessed the four bidders and discovered that no one could design such a timetable. Even so, it gave this timetable planning task to GTR. Secondly, on rolling stock, the DFT ignored the warnings on financing trains, leading to a two-year delay in securing financing, instead of standing behind the decision. That resulted in late delivery, late trains, and a lack of training for drivers.

Thirdly, on the reliance on rest-day working, the Secretary of State is directly responsible for pouring fuel on the flames of the disputes when we could have moved to more modern working arrangements on the railway. Lastly, on the late timetable approach, the decision to downgrade the aspirations in July 2017 was made directly by him. There is no evidence that he did anything but stay asleep at the wheel when it came to seeing this through.

It is clear that the Secretary of State’s defence does not wash. Either someone is accountable for the railways or they are not. We need more than a ghost in the graveyard of the DFT.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op) - Parliament Live - Hansard
19 Jun 2018, 3:49 p.m.

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

Joseph Johnson Parliament Live - Hansard
19 Jun 2018, 3:59 p.m.

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.

Mr Shuker Hansard
19 Jun 2018, 4:02 p.m.

Does the Minister believe that GTR should be operating the franchise at the next major timetable change in December 2018?

Joseph Johnson Hansard
19 Jun 2018, 4:02 p.m.

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.