With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the rail strikes. We are now less than eight hours away from the biggest railway strike since 1989—a strike orchestrated by some of the best paid union barons, representing some of the better paid workers in this country, which will cause misery and chaos to millions of commuters.
This weekend, we have seen union leaders use all the tricks in the book to confuse, to obfuscate and to mislead the public. Not only do they wish to drag the railway back to the 1970s, but they are employing the tactics of bygone unions: deflecting accountability for their strikes on to others; attempting to shift the blame for their action, which will cause disruption and damage to millions of people; and claiming that others are somehow preventing an agreement to their negotiation.
I do not think the public will be hoodwinked. [Interruption.] Opposition Members laugh, but we are talking about the families who will be unable to visit their relations, the music fans who are hoping to go to Glastonbury, the students who will be unable to get to their GCSEs and A-level exams, the businesses who are just beginning to recover from covid and people who will miss out on their medical treatment because of these strikes. That is what the Opposition are supporting. They know that this week’s rail strikes, created and organised by the unions, are the full responsibility of the unions.
Of course, we are all doing our utmost to get the unions and the rail industry to agree a way forward and call off the strikes. In such discussions, it is always the employer and the unions who need to get together and negotiate. In this case, that is the train operating companies, Network Rail and their union representatives. We are not the employer, and we will not undermine the process. [Interruption.] I hear the calls of the Labour leadership for us to get involved somehow, perhaps by inviting the unions for beer and sandwiches to discuss the situation. We all know that the Leader of the Opposition thinks that a beer and a curry is a work meeting, but we will be leaving this to the employers, who are the right people to negotiate with the unions. Indeed, the unions are in daily talks with the employers—or at least they were, until they walked out an hour ago to hold a press conference, saying that the strikes would be on.
Despite these strikes, we are doing everything we can to minimise disruption throughout the entire network. We are working with the civil contingencies secretariat, the Government’s emergency planning team, to keep critical supply chains open wherever possible. Operators will keep as many passenger trains as possible running, although of course with so much disruption to the timetable, that will be very difficult on strike days. It is estimated that around 20% of planned services will operate, focused on key workers, main population centres and critical freight routes. But there will be mass disruption, and we advise passengers to avoid travelling unless absolutely necessary—which, of course, for many it will be. The National Rail Enquiries website will be kept updated with the latest travel information to ensure that passengers can make informed decisions about their travel. Passengers are strongly advised to check before they travel and encouraged to look for alternative means of transportation if their journey is affected, including on the days between the strikes.
We are looking at a variety of different options for the railways to maintain services amid disruption in the medium and longer term. We can no longer tolerate a position where rail workers can exercise their right to strike without any regard for how the rights of others are affected. Nurses, teachers and other working people who rely on the railway must be able to travel. Minimum service legislation is just one part of that. Minimum service levels are a Government manifesto commitment, and they will require train operators to run a base number of services even in the event of future strike action. It is a system that works well in other countries, including Belgium and France, and so we will be bringing in legislation to protect the travelling public if agreement cannot be reached when major disruption is expected, as with the strikes this week.
The rhetoric that we have heard from union leaders and Opposition Members over the weekend seems to be focused on widening the division rather than bridging the gap. The whole point of the railway reforms—based on the Williams review, which engaged with the unions very extensively—is to unite and modernise the industry, and just as we cannot reform the railways with obsolete technology, we cannot do so by clinging to obsolete working practices. For example, leisure travel at weekends is currently a huge potential growth area. After covid, people are coming back and are travelling at the weekends more than before. However, under an agreement which dates back to 1919, Sunday working is voluntary on most of the railway, so the industry cannot do what everyone else does—what other businesses and organisations do—and service its customers. Instead, it has to appeal to people to come and work, and that service has sometimes been unavailable, for instance when large football matches are taking place: during the Euro finals, 170 trains were cancelled.
The industry therefore needs to change. Unions claim that this strike is about a pay freeze, but that is factually incorrect. We are not imposing a pay freeze. The whole point of these reforms is to build a sustainable, growing railway, where every rail worker receives a decent annual pay rise. Let me be clear, however: if modernisation and reform are to work, we must have unions that are prepared to modernise, otherwise there can be no deal. This strike is not about pay, but about outdated unions opposing progress—progress that will secure the railway’s future. These strikes are not only a bid to stop reform; they are critical to the network’s future. If the reforms are not carried out, the strikes will threaten the very jobs of the people who are striking, because they will not allow the railway to operate properly and attract customers back.
The railway is in a fight . It is in a fight for its life, not just competing with other forms of public and private transport but competing with Teams, Zoom and other forms of remote working. Today, many commuters who three years ago had no alternative but to travel by train have other options, including the option of not travelling at all. Rail has lost a fifth of its passengers and a fifth of its revenue.
Since the start of the pandemic, the Government have committed £16 billion of emergency taxpayer support —we all know the numbers; that means £600 for every single household in the country—so that not a single rail worker lost his or her job. We have invested £16 billion to keep trains running and ensure that no one at Network Rail or DFT-contracted train operating companies was furloughed. Now, as we recover and people start to travel again, the industry needs to grow its revenues. It needs to attract passengers back, and make the reforms that are necessary for it to compete. The very last thing that it should be doing now is alienating passengers and freight customers with a long and damaging strike. So my message to the workforce is straightforward: “Your union bosses have got you striking under false pretences, and rather than protecting your jobs, they are actually endangering them and the railways’ future.”
We have a platform for change. We want the unions to work with the industry and the Government to bring a much brighter future to our railways, and that means building an agile and flexible workforce, not one that strikes every time someone suggests an improvement to our railway. Strikes should be the last resort, not the first. They will stop customers choosing rail, they will put jobs at risk, they will cause misery across the country, they will hit businesses that are trying to recover from covid, and they will hurt railway workers themselves. So please, let us stop dividing the railway industry, and let us start working for a brighter future.
No one in the country wants these strikes to go ahead, but as I have repeatedly said, even at this eleventh hour they can still be avoided. That requires Ministers to step up and show leadership. It requires them to get employers and unions round the table and address the very serious issues, involving pay and cuts in safety and maintenance staff, that are behind this dispute. The entire country is about to grind to a halt, but instead of intervening to try and stop it, the Secretary of State is washing his hands of any responsibility. On the eve of the biggest rail dispute in a generation taking place on his watch, he has still not lifted a finger to resolve it. Not one meeting. No talks, no discussions; only media interviews and a petition to the Labour party. This is a grave dereliction of duty. Should the strikes go ahead tomorrow, they will represent a catastrophic failure of leadership. Ministers owe it to all those impacted by this serious disruption to get around the table for last-ditch talks to sort it out and avert it. If the Secretary of State will not listen to me —[Interruption.]
“I can tell you the only way out of a dispute is via negotiation. I’d call on all parties including the Government to get around the table because this is going to have a huge negative impact on people’s lives.”
The Secretary of State’s own MPs and the public know that the only way to sort this out is for him to do his job.
But that is not all, because this week it was revealed that the Secretary of State had not only boycotted the talks but tied the hands of those at the table. He and his Department failed to give the train operating companies—a party to the talks—any mandate to negotiate whatsoever. One source close to the negotiations said:
“Without a mandate from Government we can’t even address the pay question.”
Today, the Rail Delivery Group confirmed that it had not even begun those discussions. That is the reality. These talks are a sham, because Ministers have set them up to fail. It is for the Government to settle this dispute. They are integral to these negotiations, which cannot be resolved unless the Secretary of State is at the table, but it is becoming clearer by the day that Ministers would rather provoke this dispute than lift a finger to resolve it.
This is the same Transport Secretary who just a few short weeks ago was feigning outrage over the disgraceful behaviour of P&O and who is now adopting its playbook. Replacing skilled, safety-critical staff with agency workers cannot and must not be an option. So what exactly has changed between the Secretary of State calling on the public to boycott P&O and now, when he is suggesting that that behaviour should be legalised?
Tomorrow we will see unprecedented disruption. We have been clear: we do not want the strikes to happen. Where we are in government, we are doing our job. In Labour-run Wales, a strike by train staff has been avoided. Employers, unions and the Government have come together to manage change. That is what any responsible Government would be doing right now, because whether it is today, tomorrow or next week, the only way this dispute will be resolved is with a resolution on pay and job security. The Secretary of State owes it to the hundreds of thousands of workers who depend on our railways and the tens of thousands of workers employed on them to find that deal.
Those rail workers are not the enemy. They are people who showed real bravery during the pandemic to keep our country going. They showed solidarity to make sure other workers kept going into work. Some lost colleagues and friends as a result. They are the very same people to whom the Prime Minister promised a high-wage economy a year ago before presiding over the biggest fall in living standards since records began. There is still time for the Secretary of State to do the right thing, the brave thing, and show responsibility. Patients, schoolchildren, low-paid workers—the entire country needs a resolution and they will not forgive this Government if they do not step in and resolve this. Even now, at this late hour, I urge the Secretary of State: get around the table and do your job.
Louise Haigh used a lot of words to avoid saying the four words, “I condemn the strikes.” She can practise saying it if she likes. I condemn the strikes—will she?
I remind the House that the hon. Lady is a former union official. She will therefore know better than most that negotiations are always held between the employers and the unions. She calls on the Government to get the parties around the table, but they were around the table. [Interruption.] Mr Dhesi is right that they are not now, because the union has just walked out to call a press conference to say the strikes are on.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley is wrong when she says these strikes are about pay, safety and job cuts. Let us take them in turn. Pay—the unions wrongly told their workers that there would be no pay rise. There will be a pay rise because the pay freeze is coming to an end, so that is untrue.
Safety—it is unsafe to have people walking down the track to check the condition of the lines when it can be done by trains that can take 70,000 pictures a minute and by drones that can look at the lines from overhead. Safety is about updating outdated working practices. If the hon. Lady cared about safety, she would care about modernisation.
Job cuts—the hon. Lady will know there has already been a call for voluntary job cuts. In fact, 5,000-plus people came forward, and 2,700 have been accepted. This is about ensuring we have a railway that is fit for the post-covid world. It is therefore crazy that the RMT jumped the gun and, before the talks had a chance to get anywhere, launched into strikes.
The hon. Lady’s call for the Government to be more involved is a desperate attempt to deflect from the fact the Labour party and its constituency Labour parties have received £250,000 from the RMT. And that is nothing—Labour has received £100 million from the unions over the last 10 years, and Labour Members are here today, as ever, failing to condemn strikes that will hurt ordinary people, that will hurt kids trying to do their GCSEs and A-levels, that will hurt people trying to get to hospital appointments that were delayed during covid, and that will even see veterans miss armed forces celebrations this week.
There is no excuse for the hon. Lady and her Front-Bench team sitting on the fence. I can almost feel her pain as she resists saying the four words, “I condemn the strikes.”
I call the Chairman of the Transport Committee, Huw Merriman.
I find it extremely bizarre for the Secretary of State to be blamed for not being in the room when these talks, which were ongoing when the RMT called the strikes, were all about intricate, technical reforms of which we would not expect politicians to be in charge, and indeed when the RMT has said it will not negotiate with a Conservative Government. He does not need to waste his time responding to that.
I was down at the port of Southampton with the Select Committee last week, and 30% of everything that comes in on those ships goes to the rest of the country by rail freight. These strikes will affect everyone, not just rail passengers. What are we doing to preserve our rail freight routes?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the cause of the strikes and about it being bizarre that the union walked out this afternoon while the talks were still ongoing, and while still trying to claim there should be more talks.
My hon. Friend is right that the disruption will create a major problem for rail freight, which has been doing pretty well as more freight shifts to rail post covid—about 9% of the overall total. We are now working as closely as possible with colleagues at Network Rail to design the strike day and post-strike day timetables, to make sure that as much freight as possible can travel, but I will not mislead him or the House, as it will be very difficult to achieve. Anyone who cares about our supply chains in this country should be against these unnecessary and unwarranted strikes.
What a pile of nonsense. The glee with which the Secretary of State spoke on Thursday and again today rather tells the story. He spoke of the support for the rail industry and the fact that no one has lost their job. If only we had seen that same support for the aviation industry, which was promised, we would not be seeing the scenes we are up and down this country at airports across this land. In response to P&O’s unacceptable behaviour in replacing staff with agency staff, he called for the company to be boycotted and for it to reverse its decision. Now he is planning to legislate to allow agency workers to replace striking staff. Why does he not care for the rights of rail workers, given that he appeared to care so deeply for the rights of ferry workers?
ScotRail, with the encouragement of the Scottish Government, has negotiated a settlement with drivers to end their pay dispute, get services back up and running and support workers. Despite that, services will still be disrupted as a consequence of the industrial action that the UK Government have stoked with Network Rail workers. Does the Secretary of State agree that devolving Network Rail powers to Scotland is the only way to protect Scotland? Despite his claim that the unions are solely responsible for these strikes, we now know that the UK Government have prevented meaningful negotiations. With inflation heading over 10% and a Tory cost of living crisis, how can he explain or defend preventing negotiations on wage increases, unless stoking an industrial dispute to force through anti-union laws is actually the Government’s aim?
Finally, does the Secretary of State share my concern for the welfare of the Scottish Conservatives, none of whom are with us today? On the ScotRail-ASLEF issue, the Scottish Conservatives’ Twitter account said
“The SNP must sort this mess out and address the travel misery facing commuters.”
Graham Simpson MSP, the Scottish Conservative transport spokesperson, no less, called for the Scottish Government to get involved and get round the table. That is the difference in approach we get from the Scottish Conservatives depending on which Government they are addressing. So does the Secretary of State think that the Scottish Tory approach is shameful; shameless; the standard utterly hypocritical politics of the Scottish Tories; or all of the above?
I will address the point about P&O, because Louise Haigh also raised it. I am surprised that they cannot see the glaring and obvious differences in the disgraceful treatment of P&O workers. For a start, it fired its workers and brought in foreign workers at below the minimum wage—I would have thought that was a fairly obvious difference. Secondly, no one’s wage is being cut here. Thirdly, let me remind the hon. Lady that in the industry we are talking about train drivers have a median salary of £59,000 and rail workers have a median salary of £44,000, which compares rather favourably with that of nurses, who have a median salary of £31,000, and care workers, whose median salary is perhaps £21,000. No one is talking about cutting salaries; everybody here is trying to get the modernisation that could secure the future of our railways, and it is a great pity to see respected Opposition Front Benchers trying to mislead the public by somehow suggesting that this is something to do with the P&O situation when it is entirely separate and different.
The other point worth quashing is the idea that somehow we have not provided a negotiating mandate or that we have told Network Rail not to negotiate. That is simply not true. Network Rail has a negotiating mandate and is able to negotiate. It is negotiating on a package of measures that includes more than 20 areas of reform, which are deeply technical and require not only the input but the work of the employers to negotiate. In return for these reforms lies the route to better salaries—higher pay. But I want to ensure, once and for all, that we quash the idea that our railway workers are poorly paid in this country; they are not.
What has been the monthly rate of taxpayer subsidy to the railways so far this year? What additional flexibilities could managers use to try to get a bigger proportion of services running even on a strike day?
My right hon. Friend is right to discuss the subsidy, which has been £16 billion as a whole through covid—or £16 billion committed, which means that we do not have the exact number yet for the amount of that which is still going towards the operations this year. One thing I can say to him is that without that support the railways simply would not have been able to operate. It is the equivalent of £160,000 per individual rail worker. To turn around and call these strikes is a heck of a way to thank taxpayers. We have lost around a fifth of the income from rail. I hear Mick Lynch, the leader of the RMT, claim that the Government are cutting the money that is going to the railways, but that is a fundamental misunderstanding on his part. The money that is missing is the £2 billion of passenger fares that are not being paid because people are not travelling.
In my area, we witnessed the Paddington and Southall crashes. One of my constituents was a driver who lost his life. We were told then about the modernisation of safety inspections and it was the workers who pointed out what risks they caused. We hear today that there will be a 50% cut in the safety inspections of the infrastructure. Does the Secretary of State really think the British public have more confidence in his assessment of safety on the rails than in that of the workers who actually implement the safety inspections? I believe the British public expect the Secretary of State not to come in here ranting to provoke a strike but to behave with the dignity and responsibility of the high office that he holds.
Order. I cannot have a dialogue. I recognise that there is a difference of opinion. It might have to be settled at another point. We will stick to this point and if John McDonnell wants to raise the matter later, I will listen to him.
Similar to the right hon. Gentleman—this is where we have a lot in common—I had the very sad Hatfield rail accident in my constituency, and Potters Bar is next to where I live. Those were two major rail accidents in respect of which the maintenance of the railway was absolutely key.
I have heard Mick Lynch of the RMT mention this figure of a 50% reduction in safety staff. What is wrong about that is, as I explained in my statement, if we can have automation, with trains taking 70,000 images per minute, and use drones and other technologies, it will put our railway at risk not to use those things, because the modern standards that are required for maintenance will not be available.
The right hon. Gentleman asked how I know about these matters; as Transport Secretary, I have the unfortunate task of having to read all the Rail Accident Investigation Branch investigations, and I sometimes have to respond to coroners as well. Recently, I read with great sadness about a man who was killed while walking along the track to maintain it. We need to get rid of these outdated, outmoded ways of carrying out maintenance and really look after the safety of the railways.
I think the House will appreciate that the way to deal with increasing rail safety and reducing risk to rail workers is not really across the Floor of the House but between the employers and the union safety representatives. Further progress should then come.
The rail unions have a six-month authority to cause industrial disruption; they should not be using it straightaway. In my view, my local passengers—most of whom earn less than rail workers and some of whom do not earn anything at all because they are students trying to take exams this week—would prefer it if both sides of the House could call on the unions to postpone these disputes until they will not affect so many people so harshly. I think, as one of the most union-friendly Conservatives, that my voice is not necessarily going to be heard by the union leaders, but if Labour would join in we could say in a cross-party way, “Postpone the strikes this week, get on with the talks and negotiations, and if people want to take time off to go to a TUC or Labour rally, they should come back to the talks, not just go to the media.”
My hon. Friend is of course absolutely right about this. The absolute truth is that we need to have modernisation—we need to improve our railways. If we work together to do it, we can have a far improved railway and bring back passengers, and we can make easier things such as ticketing—currently, only one in eight tickets are purchased in a ticket office, yet we have the same set-up, with people sat behind the glass, as we have had since the 1990s. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we can modernise and improve the railways, but what is required is for the Labour party, which is much closer to the unions, to endorse that.
When there is an impasse in negotiation, it is the responsibility of all the partners to do whatever they can to resolve the dispute. I have been talking today to railway workers, and they are desperate to see an end to this dispute, but they do need a change in the dynamics. Will the Secretary of State stop his grandstanding, enter the room that the unions are willing to occupy, and engage in dialogue and see where that takes him?
The hon. Lady, whose own constituency Labour party received £3,000 from the RMT, may have missed the leader of her union address a press conference about an hour ago, where he made it clear that he had walked out of the talks to which she is encouraging the employers to return. We are ready to speak. We want to see this settled. Pay offers have been put down, but modernisation is required in return. It takes two to tango.
UKHospitality, the hospitality trade association, believes that the strikes tomorrow, Thursday and Saturday will have a massive effect on the hospitality industry. We are talking about not just the major employers, but the small, family-run restaurants and cafés. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, rather than taking these strikes, the RMT should be going back to the talks and trying to stop these strikes, so that we can protect the jobs within the important hospitality industry?
My hon. Friend is right. These strikes will cost the railways a lot. They will particularly cost people who are unable to travel—particularly the lowest paid, because they often have jobs to which people still have to physically turn up. There is probably not a sector that will suffer more than the hospitality sector. Just as this country is recovering from covid, it is completely unforgiveable of the unions to call their members out on strike when they are doing so artificially and without good cause, while negotiations are still continuing, and on the false prospectus of there not being pay rises when there were always going to be pay rises.
The Secretary of State has mentioned on a number of occasions the various different people who will be seriously impacted by the strike: the exam students; those with medical appointments; and many, many others. Given that he insists that there was nothing that he could possibly have done to avert this strike, can he tell us instead what conversations he has had with the NHS, with education leaders and with others to understand what his Department can do to help health and education staff get to work for the rest of this week to support their critical industry?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question and, indeed, for her vote as well. When this House voted last week with a 278 majority condemning the strikes, I believe that she and her party were in the Lobby putting their position clearly on the record, unlike the Official Opposition.
On those discussions with the NHS, with teachers and the rest, I am engaged with the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, which is the part of Government that co-ordinates with me and fellow Secretaries of State across Government to try, as far as possible, to ease some of the strains and stresses that will come. For example, in the case of exams where people may turn up late, we have been working with the exam authorities. However, there is no magic solution. There are 2,500 stations in this country and more than 20,000 miles of track. The fact is that, if they are closed down as the unions are doing, many people will suffer.
As Transport Secretary, I find that a lot of the time people talk or indeed complain to me about the cost of a ticket on our rail, which can be very high. It is worth knowing that one third of the ticket price is made up of the salary of those who run the trains. As I have said all along, I want to see our railway workers paid well for doing their work, and in fact they are paid very well for doing their work, but we must run our railways as efficiently as possible to keep the ticket price down for the passengers. That is the most important part of the reforms needed and what is unfortunately at the heart of this strike: not pay, but the reform. To answer my hon. Friend’s question about his constituents, I am arranging for people who have annual season tickets, rather than having to rely on a delay repay system, to be able to apply to get their money back for the days they are unable to travel this week.
The Secretary of State knows that the Government have cut £4 billion from our transport system, including £2 billion from national rail. As a result, the companies involved have decided to impose a real-terms pay cut, lengthen the working day for new starters, attack rail workers’ pensions and cut thousands of jobs. That is likely to lead to much poorer conditions for staff and potentially less safe services for passengers. We are on the eve of the biggest rail strike in a generation. When will he step up to his responsibility and do what he can to resolve the dispute?
I am afraid that reading the RMT brief is what leads Labour Members to believe a bunch of untruths. Let me start with the first one: a £4 billion cut, the hon. Lady says. I think I have already explained that, but that is the passengers not coming on the railway. That is why there is a cut in revenue to the railways. What a terrible way this is to address that—going on strike, closing down the railway and putting more passengers off. It makes no sense. She talks about pension reform, but there has been considerable progress made, and it is the Pensions Regulator that needs there to be reform, otherwise the system would fall over. There has been considerable progress made in some of these areas, but again it is worth pointing out to the House that the rail pension age for earlier retirees is 62, and the pension can be about £40,000 a year. Those are rightly generous terms, but they must come in return for reforms to the rail system, otherwise it will fall over. It is not the Government cutting money; it is passengers not travelling.
Meir station was announced at the weekend, and it is fantastic that we are moving to the next stage of the restoring your railway fund. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, just when we are trying to attract more people back on to the railways and investing in things such as Meir station and the restoring your railway programme, it is not the right time to be striking, and that these totally reckless actions by the unions must be condemned?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Here is the thing: I know the Opposition would love to paint us as being anti-railway, as if we want to close it down or we do not care about it, but the opposite is true. There has not been a Government for decades—perhaps ever—who have invested so much in the railway. If we think about the £96 billion for the integrated rail review in the north and the midlands, the £35 billion of ongoing improvements, maintenance and upgrades, and the fantastic announcement on Meir station as part of the restoring your railway bid, reversing the Beeching cuts, there has never been a more pro-rail Government. We just need a union that is prepared to work to enable it to continue to thrive.
To declare an interest, my father-in-law is a train driver and a member of the RMT. I am saddened that from the Government Benches we are not hearing the same loving rhetoric towards our railway staff that we did during the pandemic. The Secretary of State called our railway workers heroes. What has changed, and why will he not get around the negotiating table and see what he can do?
I wish the hon. Lady’s relation well in his job, and I hope he can get back to it very soon. I have just explained that this Government are putting £96 billion into northern powerhouse rail, £35 billion into upgrades and more money into the restoring your railway fund.[This section has been corrected on
I am sure the Secretary of State will join me in thanking the wider members of the railway economy who will have to come together to sustain a skeleton services over the coming weeks. Will he draw a conclusion, though, from the 2016 Southern and Thameslink strike, where a lack of familiarity with the Passenger Assist service for disabled passengers meant that many could not complete their journeys and in the worst-case scenario were left abandoned on deserted station platforms after the last service of the day? When he discusses contingency planning with the many train operators, will he bear that very salient point in mind, because it was forgotten last time and had to be relearned yet again?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who is a distinguished former Rail Minister and knows a great deal about the service. He is absolutely right about Passenger Assist. We are expanding that service by, for example, speeding up response times and introducing things like apps and standards to make sure that people can use our trains. We will shortly complete the work that we have promised on putting in tactile pavements around station platforms to remove another potential risk of using our railways. I am fully on board with everything that he said—we just need our railways running, though.
My mum is one of the RMT members who will be taking industrial action this week, along with many of my constituents, the majority of whom are cleaning workers, catering and gateline staff, and other ancillary roles who are not even on a real living wage and at the sharp end of this Government’s cost of living crisis. My mum and the other key workers in transport are not striking because they want to; it is a last resort because they feel they have been left no choice. A real-terms cut to their pay or the threat of losing their job altogether is far more than the wages they will lose in striking to defend themselves. Will the Transport Secretary therefore tell the House what steps he has taken to enable train operating companies to make an offer on a deal so that this crisis can be fairly resolved and the strikes averted?
They have actually already made an offer—the hon. Lady may not be aware—that the RMT has talked about this afternoon and clearly rejected as well. She talks about the cost of living crisis but fails to mention that it is a global inflationary problem caused not only by coronavirus but now a war in Ukraine on which this country has helped to lead the response. She talks about the salaries of people on the railway. As I have said several times, I want the salaries to be higher. There will be a pay increase this year for her mum and for everyone else. It is important to recognise that a responsible Government have to make the judgment between railway workers, nurses, teachers, care workers and many others. In that regard, she should know that in the past 10 years there has been a 39% increase in railway workers’ salaries compared with just 16% for nurses. We do need to make sure that the fair settlement is fair for everybody.[This section has been corrected on
Accepting that there is never a good time to strike, does the Secretary of State agree that to do so when the cost of fuel is at impossibly high levels, people are struggling to hold down their jobs and rebuild their businesses in a post-covid environment and children are in the middle of their exams shows a callousness from union bosses that should be condemned, and not supported by Labour Members?
Exactly. I think the whole House has noticed that their inability to simply say that they condemn the strikes is the most striking part of this debate. This will hurt ordinary people. It will hurt the cleaners who rely on trains to get to their jobs but will not be able to get there, and in some cases will therefore not get paid. This is a strike led by the union bosses who have misled their members into thinking that there would not be a pay rise without striking when that was never the case.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. As I travelled today from Belfast to London, I was very aware of the hundreds of accents and the thousands of visitors. With all the strikes affecting so many tourists who rely on the trains to get about, what steps are being taken to provide information for visitors who do not know how a strike will affect them, and how can we do more to see an end to these strikes?
That is very much one of the things that we are working on through the civil contingencies secretariat. I am working with my right hon. Friend Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that tourists can still receive information through their hotels, bed and breakfasts or wherever they happen to be staying, because they would not necessarily know to look at things such as National Rail Enquiries, as I hope others would. We are trying to push the message out as widely as possible, but it will be far from perfect. Again, just as this country was starting to recover—just as we came out of coronavirus first, because we got the jabs done first—this is the last thing, among others, that the tourism sector needs.
It is sad that the Labour Front-Bench team will not condemn the strikes that are happening tomorrow, but in Wales, Labour is going further and denying their existence. In my constituency, which I assure the House is in Wales, there are no strikes tomorrow, Thursday and Saturday—Labour is calling them “travel disruption”. I ask the Secretary of State not to forget about Wales and to make sure that we get the trains running again. When is a strike not a strike?
I notice that the tone of the Opposition Front-Bench spokespeople has changed considerably since last week, when they each stood up and claimed that in whichever part of our great United Kingdom they run the Government, there were somehow not going to be strikes. The RMT strikes affect the entire country—Scotland, Wales and England. The only place that is being spared is Northern Ireland. The track and the responsibility of the unions—the RMT—to work with Network Rail means that the disruption, I am afraid, will be wholesale.
May I press the Secretary of State, as a number of hon. Members have—[Interruption.] No, I have not received any money, if that is the conversation that he is having with the Minister of State, Department for Transport, Wendy Morton. I want to press him on agency workers. He has been asked if he will legislate to allow agency workers to effectively bust industrial action in future. What guarantees will he give that those agency workers will have the necessary training in safety and all the rest of it? Is he suggesting that Network Rail should break the law this week by hiring agency workers, and who will pay the fines if it does?
No, Network Rail obviously cannot do that this week, but yes, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will bring forward legislation quickly to allow for what the hon. Gentleman calls agency workers. For this purpose, that is actually more about transferable skills. It will mean that somebody who is sitting at a screen in a control room and is fully qualified to run the screen next door, but at the moment is not allowed to do so because of some antiquated union rules that prevent it, will be allowed to do so. That means that the whole country will not be held to ransom by union barons who prefer to pursue their narrow agenda, supported by the Labour party, when ordinary hard-working people want to get to work. We will be introducing that legislation, and we will be doing it very quickly.
Tomorrow will see yet another day of tube strikes in London, which will be the 53rd day since Sadiq Khan became Mayor of London, even though he was elected on the basis of promising zero strikes. That strike will cause untold misery and disruption for my constituents at a time when businesses in London are just beginning to recover from coronavirus. Does my right hon. Friend agree that London deserves better than Sadiq Khan and his union paymasters, and that London Labour Members should condemn the strikes, rather than tacitly supporting them?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She and the whole House will have noticed that while the Opposition were singing the praises of other parts of the Union, including what they call Labour Wales—I do not think it is Labour at all, but Labour runs the Administration—for not striking, they failed to mention that their own Mayor of London has had 53 days of strikes. The truth is that we need to move ahead with automated trains on parts of the London underground; the metro in Paris has them and it is time we got on with it here.
I will recount, but I think it was 20 areas, and no, I have not done that, but it is the kind of modernisation we would expect. For example, I was just looking at the list, and one working practice means that paysheets have to be done on paper, whereas it would clearly make sense to do them electronically. It would save a lot of time and a lot of money, and I cannot really see why anyone would be against it, but it is a working practice that is not allowed. I mentioned being able to move between different very similar roles but only where somebody is fully qualified, and those kinds of flexibilities in rostering do not exist.
It is pretty much like trying to run an orchestra for Network Rail, but it does not know who is going to turn up or which instruments they will bring, and it has no ability to tell them where to sit—and then it is supposed to make the railway run. We have to modernise our railways.
Obviously, we have this Tuesday and this Thursday, and many of my constituents will have to put up with this chaos. They will also have to put up with it on Saturday, and also on
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I caught Mick Lynch, the leader of the RMT, on TV at his press conference after he walked out of the talks, saying that there is no need for any reductions or changes because, on the basis of last week’s figures, 90% of the passengers had come back. That is completely wrong. Those numbers are not accurate; a fifth of the passengers are still missing. However, there are the occasional lines and the occasional times when 90%-plus have come back, and they tend to be at the weekends. It tends to be on the Saturday and Sunday services, and is all the more reason why we need a seven-day railway, like any other business. We need to be able to run it on a Sunday, because compared with 1919, when these rules were put in place, the world has changed.
My constituents will not be able to use Merseyrail trains tomorrow, but not because there is a strike at Merseyrail. There is no strike because Labour-run Liverpool city region has met the rail unions and avoided strikes at Merseyrail. However, there still will not be any trains in Merseyside because this Conservative Transport Secretary is responsible for Network Rail, where there is a strike, and he has refused to meet the unions for months. Labour has found a way to resolve potential disputes in Wales and in Merseyside, so what is it about this Transport Secretary that prevents him from finding solutions and stopping these strikes?
The hon. Member may want to reflect the same question to the Mayor of London, I suppose, for the same reasons. I am delighted that Merseyrail has been able to do its thing. I do hope that he will now join me—will he join me?—in condemning the strikes, because I think that would have real weight from the Labour and unions party, but the Opposition will not do it, will they? They will not condemn these strikes, and millions of people up and down this country have taken note.
Does the Secretary of State agree with me that Labour Members who refuse to condemn these strikes have no regard for the potential effect on the exam results of children taking GCSEs and A-levels up and down the country? Both the AQA and Edexcel—both well-known exam boards—have confirmed that they will not allow the strikes or their impact to be used as grounds for appeal for students who arrive late or perhaps are unable to arrive at all. Given the experience that schoolchildren in this country have had over the last two years, which has been the worst in our lifetimes, does the Secretary of State agree that it is utterly reprehensible for all sides of this House not to be condemning these rail strikes absolutely?
My hon. Friend puts it brilliantly, and she is absolutely right. It is actually callous. That is what it is. I have a daughter who is taking an exam on Thursday. Thursday is a strike day, and she will now go in by car. I can see that the stress is already building on her, because she is now worried about getting there. Yet the Opposition have nothing to say on the subject. They refuse to condemn the strikes. My hon. Friend is right: it is a callous approach.
The Secretary of State came into the Chamber with confected rage about workers, comparing them with ’70s workers. I do not know how old he was when the Thatcher anti-unions laws came in, but they are what the unions are working under. They are holding up their obligations under the law as it is. He is ultimately responsible for the rail network across the UK, so why does he not get around the table and deal with that?
First, I assure the hon. Gentleman that it is anything but confected rage when I see what is happening not just to my daughter and others taking exams but to hard-pressed people across the country who cannot get to their jobs as well as veterans who want to go and celebrate. Secondly, will he join me in condemning the strikes?
Tomorrow, as Kellogg’s is in my constituency, I was due to host its breakfast club awards in Parliament to honour the 5,000 schools and their teachers who diligently run Kellogg’s breakfast clubs, which aim to tackle food insecurity. Thanks to the strike, the awards have been cancelled. Does my right hon. Friend agree that by striking for more, the RMT takes away from the many?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and she gives another example of how not condemning the strikes is being part of the problem. People must be prepared to stand up for what they believe in. If they want school trips, companies doing corporate social responsibility and people to be able to visit Parliament—all those different activities—they have to be on the side of people using the railway, and they have to condemn the strikes.
It is disgusting how the Secretary of State and the Government have smeared and continue to smear ordinary, hard-working, decent people such as railway cleaners, safety operatives and ticket staff who just want to keep their jobs and get a decent, fair pay rise. Does it not go to show which side the Government are on when they seek to slash workers’ pay while the train companies continue to make hundreds and hundreds of millions of pounds in profits?
I was just checking whether the hon. Member is repeating the RMT’s handout, because what he says is factually untrue in the same way as a series of things that the RMT and Mick Lynch said on television and at the press conference this afternoon. One of the untruths is that anybody is trying to cut anyone’s pay. That, I am afraid, is being propagated by Opposition Front Benchers, who try to suggest that this is somehow like P&O. That is not true. We are putting salaries up. We want people to earn decent wages for decent days of work. We just need to get the reform so that we are not stuck in the 1970s on a railway that is having to recover from coronavirus.
These strikes will cause untold harm to businesses, students and vulnerable people who have lived through some of the toughest of the last two years. Considering the huge sums of money that the RMT donates to the Labour party, does the Secretary of State agree that Labour should publish a table of donor receipts so that constituents can lodge a claim for their lost wages from Labour party coffers or from the extortionate union salaries?
In generations past, the railway industry played a major part in developing seaside resorts such as Cleethorpes. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, were these damaging strikes to continue, all they would succeed in doing is damaging many small businesses in communities such as mine? Will he do all that he can to ensure that working people can get to work on the trains?
This is the great irony: the people whom the strike will hurt the most are not the white-collar workers who will sit behind their computers using Zoom and Microsoft Teams but the people trying to support tourist industries in places such as Cleethorpes—people trying to run bed and breakfasts—and people trying to get to work to do their jobs, and often they can least afford to lose a day’s work. However, they will lose not one day’s but at least three days’ work, and there will be chaos on the other days of this week. It is a disgrace, and the Opposition cannot find their way to condemning it, which is disgraceful, too.
The trade unions decided to go on strike without even knowing what the industry was offering on pay and conditions. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that exposes the strikes for exactly what they are: political game playing from the Labour party and its trade union paymasters, without a second thought for the hard-working travelling British public?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. He has seen through it. The leader, Mick Lynch, said that he is “nostalgic” for the union power of the ’70s, and that is exactly what they are driving for. As my hon. Friend rightly points out, Mick Lynch called his members out on strike, telling them that it was about getting a pay increase, but not telling them that they would already be getting a pay increase because the pay freeze had ended.
The Labour party often says that it represents working people, but having taken £100 million from trade unions, and having failed to condemn the strikes, does the Labour party really represent misery and chaos?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This statement has been running for an hour, and we still have not heard the four simple words, “We condemn the strikes.”
This strike is a real kick in the teeth for hard-working taxpayers, who have dug deep over the past 18 months to keep this industry alive. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Labour party—the spineless party opposite—should grow a backbone and condemn these strikes?
That is an appropriate place to end. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. People have dug deep—that is exactly what they have done; it was £600 per household. People are furious. They paid out that money to make sure that nobody lost their jobs, and what thanks have they got? Where is the reward? Where is the “thank you” for keeping the railway going? It is a strike that will put people out of pay and hit people’s pockets once again, and Labour Members cannot even find their way to say, “We condemn the strikes.” It is a disgrace.
I thank the Secretary of State and all Members who took part in that item of business.