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Confidence in the Secretary of State for Transport

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:46 pm on 19th June 2018.

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Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Transport) 3:46 pm, 19th June 2018

My hon. Friend makes the point so well—more chaos on our railways.

In the past 24 hours, hundreds of passengers have shared their experiences with me, including a relationship breaking down, trains so packed that people are standing for hours while paying more for their tickets, cancellations of trains for hours on end, and people leaving home at 5.30 in the morning to face a four or five-hour commute. One person had no choice but to walk home for four hours in the rain in the middle of their exams. There is lots of stress about getting to work on time and getting home to pick up the children, and lots of stress for those sitting exams and simply not knowing if they will get there on time.

A mother had to sing “Happy Birthday” to her child from Waterloo station because she would not make it home for their birthday.

We all know that the problem is much deeper rooted. Were Robert Adley alive today, he would have seen himself truly vindicated for his call to halt the Railways Act 1993, for he foresaw how fragmentation would eventually create complete chaos across the railways, as my hon. Friend Andy McDonald, the shadow Transport Secretary, set out. Mr Adley dubbed that Bill the then Tory Government’s “poll tax on wheels”. The fate of the poll tax is a stark reminder of what happens when Governments continue to blame everyone but themselves and fail to listen to the public. The public now overwhelmingly call for the renationalisation of the railways, which Labour will deliver.

The failure of one part of the Secretary of State’s Department to talk to the other, with franchises promising one thing despite Network Rail not having the capacity to deliver on his promises, demonstrates that the buck stops with no one but the Secretary of State. No Government can sleepwalk their way through a crisis, and this weak and floundering Government most certainly cannot. To ignore the public, to ignore the industry and now to ignore Members of this House shows utter contempt, for which the public will not be forgiving—not least when people have lost their jobs, been unable to sit vital exams, or missed precious moments of family life. Passengers are exhausted from working very long days due to their uncertain commutes. Passengers are unable to plan. Passengers are unable to have any form of life as their short journeys have been replaced by waits at stations that are 10 times the length of their journeys.

It is clear that commuters are not just frustrated with this totally avoidable Government failure, but with their own MPs for not securing change at the top. Today, we all have the opportunity to make the necessary change. If it is not addressed today, it most certainly will be at the ballot box, and MPs who were silent today when they had the chance to act on behalf of their constituents will find that those constituents will vote accordingly come the next general election.

The problem is that all this rail chaos, which was well known in advance by the Secretary of State, was allowed to happen on his watch because he put his ideology of private interests ahead of public service, because he failed to co-ordinate franchises across the divides in his Department, because he did not intervene and stop the timetable changes when he had the chance to do so, and because he evidently has put himself and his career above passengers and theirs. He was warned time and again but failed to act.

This afternoon’s vote is simply about confidence. Voting against the motion or even sitting on your hands would not only highlight how hon. Members are complicit in the chaos that has ensued over the last few weeks, but show support for how the Secretary of State conducted his Department, his actions in the months preceding the introduction of the new timetable, and the way in which he has let the public down consistently over the last 30 days. Constituents who were late to work again this morning will want to know how their MP voted today—did they place their confidence in the Secretary of State, despite all that has happened, or were they willing to stand up for their constituents and vote for this motion? When constituents miss their family meal and time with their children tonight, will they look up to their MP for taking action through the first step of removing the heart of the problem—the Secretary of State—or will they remember that their MP, when given the opportunity to do something, sidestepped the issue?

Perhaps the Prime Minister will show her full support for the Secretary of State this afternoon by neither voting for the motion nor taking any action to replace the person at the heart of the crisis, thus tying her own leadership to this national public disaster, or perhaps she will start to distance herself from all that has happened and find someone who can respond to this crisis. Surely she cannot continue to back a Secretary of State who has not only failed rail passengers but will continue to preside over the chaos that, as we have heard, he will unable to resolve for weeks if not months. Anyone who understands the need to make a fresh start after a public disaster knows that they need to deal with those responsible, which in this case means pulling Northern and GTR back into public ownership with immediate effect. The public will not forget how the avoidable rail chaos was woefully responded to.

There is one more issue that I want to raise: public safety. Even as we speak, public safety is being put at risk. We heard the Secretary of State take a swipe at the unions—he always does—but they represent the very people who work relentlessly across the network and, in particular, have kept passengers safe over the past few weeks. They have taken action today because they fear for public safety as guards are removed from trains. They are right to do so. If anything makes the case for guards on trains, it is the experiences of the last month. The guards are the very people who help the public in times of need. Labour will never put ideology above safety, let alone public service.

There is another public service issue on which the Secretary of State is failing. In this chaos, I have heard reports of stations crammed with passengers and trains crammed with people. Those people are fortunate to get on board—disabled people have been left stranded at stations because they cannot push their way on to trains. This is a seriously unsafe situation. The country must remember above all that national disasters have occurred when people have been squeezed into spaces that are too tight to hold them. When they are not just standing for hours on their commute but physically restrained on trains, it is easy to imagine how someone could fall on the tracks or fall ill on a train, especially in this heat. If nothing more, all hon. and right hon. Members should vote with Labour to put down a clear marker that they urge the Government to address this very serious issue. The choice today is to stand up for passengers, or to stand up for the Secretary of State and his failure on the railways. I trust that I will see hon. Members from both sides of the House in the Aye Lobby shortly.