Cabinet (Meetings)

First Minister's Question Time – in the Scottish Parliament at 12:01 pm on 8th March 2007.

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Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party 12:01 pm, 8th March 2007

To ask the First Minister what issues will be discussed at the next meeting of the Scottish Executive's Cabinet. (S2F-2761)

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

The Cabinet will discuss issues of importance to Scotland.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

On a very important issue, I remind the First Minister that rail commuters across Scotland are today enduring a second day of travel chaos and misery. When the Minister for Transport was asked yesterday what action he had taken to try to avert this deeply damaging strike, he said:

"It's not for me to get involved".

That is simply not acceptable, is it?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

That is a gross misrepresentation of what the Minister for Transport said and I do not think that it deserves an answer.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I suggest to the First Minister that rail passengers across Scotland will think that the First Minister should be answering such questions, today of all days. From discussions that I have had, and from the comments that have come from members of his Government yesterday and today, it is abundantly clear that in the period from the breakdown of the talks on Monday to the start of the strike on Wednesday, the Executive took no action to try to bring together the two sides of the dispute. On the radio this morning, the Minister for Transport said that he spoke to Network Rail only yesterday and has still not spoken to the rail union. That is just not good enough.

I remind the First Minister that the railways are his responsibility and that Network Rail is funded by the taxpayer to the tune of £1 million each day. Is not that reason enough for the First Minister to have been in there before the strike started in order to knock heads together in the interests of the taxpayer and the travelling public?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

The difference between me and my party and her leader elsewhere and her party is that I believe that we are running a country and a Government, not a railway.

The reality is that Ms Sturgeon grossly misrepresents what the Minister for Transport has said and done. As ever, she seeks to turn a dispute between a private company and the trade union that represents the employees of that company into a political dispute. The reality is that the passengers on our railways should come first.

I regard the strike yesterday, today and tomorrow as unnecessary and unacceptable. Having spoken yet again to Network Rail this morning, I believe that there is an opening or opportunity this afternoon that Network Rail would accept. Network Rail told me this morning that it would meet the trade union within an hour if the strike were called off and the trade union was willing to sit round the table with Network Rail. I believe that that is an offer that the trade union should accept. Even if the trade union had a point, it has made its point in the first 24 hours of the dispute. The union should call off the second 24 hours of the strike immediately, get round the table with Network Rail this afternoon and resolve the dispute in the interests of passengers throughout Scotland.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Is not the First Minister guilty of trying to close the stable door after the horse has bolted? Network Rail is not just any private company—it is publicly funded, so the Government should have acted to try to avert the strike long before it happened.

I will remind the First Minister of the strike's devastating impact on commuters, business and the economy. No trains at all have run north of Stirling, there have been no trains anywhere after 7 o'clock and virtually no freight trains have run. The cost of that to business and the economy is £15 million. In the face of that, what did the Minister for Transport have to say yesterday? He said that his job is to "express ... frustration". Should not the First Minister have thought a lot earlier and a lot more about the frustration that the strike would cause the public? Do not the public have a right to expect him to make a serious attempt to avert the strike, rather than simply to sit on the sidelines wringing his hands?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

Since I became First Minister, on every occasion on which there has been a strike in the public or private sector, the nationalists have called on us to put pressure on the management to capitulate or to give in in the face of that action. That is not the role of Government in this country; our role is to tell the truth and to stand up for those who use the services. The reality is that the strike is unnecessary, because discussions could easily have continued for the rest of the week. In my view, at the very least the second day of the strike is unacceptable. The trade union should accept immediately the offer that Network Rail made to me this morning to get round a table this afternoon and it should call off the second 24 hours of the strike. If the Scottish National Party believed in genuine government in this country, it would support that call rather than try to politicise the dispute.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I support that call and I agree that the strike is unnecessary. However, the First Minister should have put pressure on both sides before the strike started. The First Minister's spokesman said yesterday that the First Minister was disappointed that the strike had happened. I suggest that the First Minister's disappointment is as nothing compared to that of the people who rely on trains to get to their work in the morning. Is not there a clear pattern in that whenever there is a need for strong leadership in Scotland, the First Minister and the Government are absolutely nowhere to be seen? Is not that just one reason why so many people in Scotland think it is time for a new Government and approach and for some real leadership?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

We know that Miss Sturgeon likes to give in, because she gave in in a leadership election that allowed someone from London to be elected as her party leader. I assure Miss Sturgeon and Mr Salmond that the job of a First Minister and Government is not to capitulate and to give in whenever there is a threat of strike action; it is to stand firm and to ensure that negotiations take place. I call on the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, the trade union that is involved, to get round the table this afternoon with Network Rail, to call off the second day of the strike and to ensure that the commuters and passengers on Scotland's railways come first, because the investment that we have put into new railways, new rolling stock and better transport in this country is not being used today as a result of action that need not be happening.