Southern Rail - Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:00 pm on 10th January 2017.

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Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Department for Transport) (Jointly with the Home Office), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

My Lords, although the current dispute is a matter for the unions and the train operator to resolve, the Secretary of State has been doing everything he can to try to resolve the dispute and limit the impact of the strikes on passengers. Additional measures have been put in place to help people get to work and there is still a huge amount of work taking place behind the scenes to try to get this long-standing dispute resolved for the benefit of all passengers.

Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Shadow LD Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport)

My Lords, there is chaos on our railways. It is estimated that the Southern dispute alone has cost the Government £65 million and counting, with huge costs, of course, to the economy as a whole. But it is the passengers who are taking the real pain on this, with their daily struggle to get to work. Does the Minister accept that this simply cannot be allowed to go on, and that things are now so bad that it would be very difficult indeed to restore trust between Southern and its workforce? Does he therefore agree that Southern should be relieved of its franchise—which, I suggest, should be passed to Transport for London, which has a very good, proven track record?

Oh!

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Department for Transport) (Jointly with the Home Office), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I am sure that the noble Baroness can read something into the reaction of your Lordships’ House on that final comment. Let us put the dispute into context. There is no basis left for the dispute. In the case of the conductors who have become train supervisors, 222 of the 223 have signed new contracts. The one remaining one is leaving—so that is 100% compliance. As far as the drivers are concerned, they are worried—rightly, as we all are—about safety on the railways. The Office of Rail and Road—the independent office—has adjudicated that driver-only-operated trains are safe in the context of the Southern network. It put out a report on 5 January. I ask the unions—as the Secretary of State has done, not on one occasion but twice—to come and meet him and call off the dispute. Let us resolve this dispute; it has gone on far too long.

Photo of Lord Morris of Aberavon Lord Morris of Aberavon Labour

My Lords, while the general rule is that Governments should not intervene in industrial negotiations, would the Transport Minister care to research what was done to resolve the impasse that my Minister, Barbara Castle, faced in 1967, when the investment of her predecessor, Ernest Marples, in liner trains was lying idle because of the fears of the NUR about operating them? Mrs Castle went to the NUR’s headquarters without any officials, prepared to talk to the union until the matter was resolved, however long it took. Three full days later, agreement was reached. Will the Minister consider this?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Department for Transport) (Jointly with the Home Office), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

While lessons of history in your Lordships’ House are always valued—I particularly value them—the situation with the railways was markedly different at that time. Here, as I have said before, the dispute is between the train operator and the unions. However, the Secretary of State and the Rail Minister—indeed, the whole Government—have ensured that they are doing all they can in terms of helping passengers and compensation. As I said—I have contextualised the dispute now—there is no basis for this dispute to continue. The Secretary of State has asked both unions to come in and meet him and call this dispute off. It is about time that they complied.

Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

My Lords, it is clear that, as a result of poor performance and days of industrial action, passengers, staff and—because of the nature of the franchise contract—the taxpayer are incurring financial costs. What is not clear, in the light of the nature of the franchise contract in which the operator is paid for running the service but does not retain the fare income, is what financial penalties have been incurred by Govia, the train operator of Southern, as a result of poor performance over a lengthy period of time and days of industrial action. What financial penalties have so far been incurred by the train operator Govia as a result of, first, poor performance and, secondly, days of industrial action? If no financial penalties have been incurred by the operator, what is the incentive, first, for the train operator to address issues of poor performance and, secondly, to resolve the current industrial relations issues if neither matter is affecting it financially?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Department for Transport) (Jointly with the Home Office), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

As the noble Lord is acutely aware, he is quite right that train operators are paid a fee, with the remaining revenue coming to the Government. But the basis of the dispute, which is what we are focused on today, is very much a matter for the train operator. I note that the noble Lord refrained from commenting on the two pertinent issues that I outlined. As far as the issue of the company itself is concerned, as I said, the Government have stood behind it in ensuring that it can provide compensation when necessary. We have called upon and implored both the franchisee and the unions to come together to resolve this dispute.

Photo of Baroness Prosser Baroness Prosser Labour

My Lords, as a commuter on Southern Rail

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, did I hear the Minister correctly?

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, did I hear the Minister correctly? Did he say that the vast majority of drivers have already signed up to the new contract to operate the doors?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Department for Transport) (Jointly with the Home Office), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

My Lords, I was referring to the conductors. There are no job losses. The conductors have now signed new contracts to become train supervisors. Yes, my noble friend heard correctly: all but one have signed up, and that one is leaving. As far as the drivers are concerned, the dispute with the drivers’ union is based on the safety of driver-only-operated trains, and the independent regulator has said that in the context of the Southern franchise they are safe to run. Some 50% of trains, including those on London Underground, are driver-only-operated trains. Trains of a driver-only-operated nature run in Canada and elsewhere in Europe. We are not alone in this. The basis of the dispute is therefore undermined; there is no basis to it. The unions need to get their people back to work and help to resolve this. The noble Lord opposite raised long-standing issues. The Government are also addressing those. As he may have followed in the press recently, there is also going to be £300 million focused on the Southern rail franchise to address the long-standing problems on the track and the issues around Network Rail.