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Confidence in the Secretary of State for Transport

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:35 pm on 19th June 2018.

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Photo of Dan Carden Dan Carden Shadow Minister (International Development) 3:35 pm, 19th June 2018

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.