The next item of business is a members' business debate on motion S3M-5722, in the name of Elaine Smith, on First ScotRail industrial relations. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
That the Parliament understands that a provision exists in the First ScotRail franchise agreement that provides the Scottish Government with discretionary powers to reimburse the company for revenues lost due to industrial action; supports the position of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) that it is wholly wrong for public funds to be used to support private companies such as First ScotRail in disputes with trade unions; also agrees with the STUC that the provision and use of such powers is not conducive to good industrial relations as it weakens the incentive for private companies to reach agreement; further supports the view of the STUC that such powers should not be used in the event of industrial action in the current dispute between First ScotRail and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT); welcomes the fact that the Scottish Government has been in dialogue with the RMT over the issues involved in the dispute, and believes that the interests of constituents in Coatbridge and Chryston, passengers, rail workers and Scotland would be best served by an early and agreed negotiated settlement to end this dispute.
I pay tribute to the many members of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers who are in the gallery today and who work hard in various jobs to help keep Scotland moving.
This debate is about the current dispute involving guards, but it could be about any section of the workforce, as it goes to the heart of collective bargaining and industrial relations. I thank members who signed my motion, and I am pleased that one Scottish National Party backbencher did so as well.
My constituency interest concerns the Airdrie to Bathgate line, which will provide a new service between Coatbridge and Edinburgh. However, that must not be a second-class service and safety must come first on that line. It was, therefore, a shock to discover that the service might be run as a driver-only operation. That proposal has resulted in industrial action by the RMT, which has mounted a campaign to keep the guards on our trains, and has taken action over several days.
No worker wants to go on strike, to lose pay, to stand on picket lines and to fight with their employers, but sometimes people have no choice other than to withdraw their labour. The strike was
What is indemnification? There is a clause in railway franchises that allows train companies to make claims on taxpayers' money to bail them out in the event of strike action. In response to a question by my colleague, Charlie Gordon, last November, on whether the Scottish Government intended to indemnify the ScotRail franchisee, Stewart Stevenson stated that the clause was "drawn up" by the previous Administration. Before we go any further, I must dispel that SNP myth. It is not true. That clause was not drawn up by the previous Administration; it was inherited when the franchise was drawn up in October 2005. However, when the SNP Administration extended the franchise without retendering and without any discussions with stakeholders, it chose to keep that clause in the franchise, even though it was in its power to remove it. Scottish Labour is committed to removing it when we win the election—sorry, if we win the election—next year.
It is important not only to get the history of the clause right, but to examine how it might be used. In a letter to the Scottish Trades Union Congress in May 2006, the then Minister for Transport and Telecommunications, Tavish Scott, said that one of the key principles in assessing the franchisee's behaviour would be
"adherence to the principles of collective bargaining", and he gave an assurance that, before a decision was reached on any requests for indemnification, all parties with interests would be consulted.
In the current dispute, First ScotRail has not adhered to the principles of collective bargaining and has ignored an existing agreement. The RMT has been given clear legal advice that the 2001 agreement that there would be no further extension of DOO transferred to First ScotRail when it took over the franchise from National Express. That was explicitly confirmed in a letter dated 9 November 2004, in which the then managing director, Mary Dickson, stated:
"I can give you an assurance firstly that First ScotRail will not, during the current franchise, be removing Conductors from any of the services on which they are now present."
I hope that the minister will comment on First ScotRail's reneging on that agreement.
The most important point today, however, is not whether the outrageous union-bashing indemnification clause should exist in Government contracts—clearly it should not, and I hope that we
We now know that there was clear collusion between Transport Scotland and First ScotRail, despite the existence of a collective bargaining agreement. A letter sent to Transport Scotland by First ScotRail on 26 February 2009—a year before the dispute began—says:
"As our Franchise ends in 2014 we think it unlikely we would be able to recover the costs of strike action during our Franchise and would if left to decide alone probably avoid such costs by adopting Conductor operation ... Should you decide ... to require us to use DOO, we will obviously need to discuss how any losses we incur can be recovered."
In the response to that letter, dated 22 May 2009, Transport Scotland confirmed that in the Airdrie to Bathgate service
"these services should be introduced using the DOO method".
It went on to confirm the possibility of a bail-out, based on the reasonableness test.
If the clause did not exist, and if ScotRail did not think that it could get its money back, it would have retained conductor operation and there would be no dispute.
Let us remind ourselves that ScotRail said that it would
"if left to decide alone probably avoid such costs by adopting Conductor operation".
When Alex Salmond said to me:
"We continue to urge the RMT and ScotRail to resolve an unnecessary dispute"—[Official Report, 25 February 2010; c 24034.]
his Government agency had already colluded in provoking the strike. When Stewart Stevenson was meeting the RMT, the decision had already been made.
Serious questions now arise about the governance of Transport Scotland, including the whole issue of extending the franchise without full, open and transparent consultation and publication of all information.
When I asked recently whether the Scottish Government would meet the cost of training strike breakers, the answer was that
"no agreement has been made to pay such costs".—[Official Report, Written Answers, 23 April 2010; S3W-32872.]
That is welcome, since a letter dated 22 January 2010 was sent by ScotRail to Transport Scotland outlining the costs involved in covering the jobs of striking workers. It said:
"We are prepared to cap the cost at £300,000 and take the risk above this level. I shall be grateful if you will confirm that you accept this is a reasonable project cost and indicate how you wish us to recover it?"
I hope the minister will tell us that these privateers will not be recovering £300,000 of strike-breaking funding from the Scottish taxpayers, because that is not reasonable. I doubt whether the Scottish people would be happy to discover that the Scottish National Party was championing state-backed union bashing.
The RMT is simply asking that existing agreements be honoured. It is a reasonable request and one that accords with good industrial relations. Will the minister commit to removing the indemnification clause, as Labour will? Will he assure us that no public money payments will be made to the franchisee for lost revenue or strike breakers? Will he reassure the RMT that new stock will not designed for DOO and that existing agreements will be adhered to? The minister must urgently get around the table with all those involved to ensure that existing agreements are honoured, and work in an open and honest way with the RMT to end this dispute.
I welcome the union members in the gallery and I welcome the opportunity to take part in today's debate. I hope that it will shed some light on the facts behind this dispute. I thought that I would have been able to take part in a conciliatory debate, but I am afraid that Elaine Smith's speech has made that impossible.
Elaine Smith and others wish, whether unwittingly or disingenuously, to give the impression that the current Scottish Government is responsible for the current franchise agreement with ScotRail. I point out that question S3W-29329 was submitted in the name of Charlie Gordon, inquiring as to whether the franchise agreement includes provision for indemnification in the event of financial loss as a result of industrial dispute. In his reply, the minister makes it clear that the current franchise was signed off by the previous Labour/Liberal Administration.
I am sorry.
Elaine Smith mentioned that the agreement was inherited in 2005. Labour was in power in 2005—why did it not do something about it then? This is sheer hypocrisy. It is very unfortunate that certain parties have neglected to mention that important point but have, instead, deliberately misled the public into believing that this provision was introduced by the current Administration. I hope that those who are speaking in and listening to today's debate, although perhaps not on the Labour benches, will take due note of that.
Like Elaine Smith and other members, I had a number of questions regarding this provision and I wrote to the minister detailing them. In fact, I even mentioned them at the meeting with the unions, which I attended with Elaine Smith and others. In his response, the minister said:
"No money has been paid to ScotRail. No claim has been made and there is no commitment that payment would be made".
He further stated:
"Any claim would be critically scrutinised and would include seeking the views from third parties including the STUC".
Once again, I hope that members take those facts on board in considering their response to the issue.
As for the safety concerns about drivers operating train doors, such arrangements have been in operation for two decades. Indeed, instead of criticising them, one of the previous Administrations—Elaine Smith's Administration—was in favour of them, so much so, in fact, that it lauded them as a centrepiece of its transport policy. Iain Gray, the then Minister for Enterprise, Transport and Lifelong Learning, who is sitting in the chamber this afternoon, said:
"Improving access in our urban areas will improve ... prosperity, allowing more people to access jobs, education and training ... we are investing in a rail link between Larkhall and Milngavie ..." providing
"a new metro-style high frequency train service", while putting in place the very same arrangements that Labour members seem now to be so against.
I am sorry, but no.
Although Elaine Smith's motion talks about
"public funds" being used
"to support private companies such as First ScotRail",
I note that there has been no mention whatsoever in any motion or any letter of First ScotRail's donations of money to the Scottish Labour Party. I
Finally, I thank Elaine Smith for welcoming the Scottish Government's positive contribution in this dispute and recognising its willingness to speak to the affected parties to reach a negotiated settlement—unlike her colleague Gordon Brown, who told Unite that its dispute with British Airways was "unjustified and deplorable". Perhaps the tide is turning. Perhaps other unions will soon realise that there is only one party that, unlike the Labour Party, will work with them rather than against them—and that is the SNP.
I congratulate my colleague Elaine Smith MSP on securing this debate. In the mid-1980s, when I was working on Strathclyde's suburban railway system, the rail unions and the ScotRail region of what back then was called the British Railways Board agreed on a system of driver-only operation of suburban train services in the Strathclyde Passenger Transport Executive area. The financial and political context for the move was the fact that the passenger transport authority, which at the time was Strathclyde Regional Council, was embarking on a decade of major rail investment of some £500 million in a national political context of the neglect and undermining of the railways under Margaret Thatcher's Government and their privatisation under John Major's Tory Government.
Moreover, the operational context for the agreement was that all suburban trains converged in Glasgow at the heart of the region, stopped frequently at stations and were never far from a railway depot or, in built-up conurbations, from coverage by emergency services. It was never foreseen that such operational arrangements would apply to interregional or intercity services.
Under the current operation of suburban trains, the absence of a ticket examiner who had been booked for a particular train need not lead to the train being cancelled and the consequent inconvenience to passengers. The situation with an intercity or interregional train is quite different, because the conductor-guard is vital to the service's safe operation.
We in Labour are not clear about the original or intended purpose of the indemnification clause in the ScotRail franchise.
The original indemnification clause appears to have been part of franchise arrangements that predated devolution, the existence of the Scottish Government and the existence of the Scottish Parliament. However, I made it clear a couple of weeks ago when rail workers were lobbying that there was obviously governmental responsibility under the previous Labour-led Executive for the fact that there was such a franchise with such a clause apparently lying dormant. I again make the point that we look askance at the use of that clause as an insurance policy for aggressive industrial relations.
When we return to power—I correct Elaine Smith's correction of herself—at Holyrood next year, we are minded to remove indemnification from any future franchise arrangements. In fairness, ScotRail's management did not plan a driver-only operation on the Airdrie to Bathgate line; it has come into the public domain that Transport Scotland instructed it to do so. That is why the minister must account today for his agency's and his Government's responsibilities for the dispute.
I want to focus on safety, which is the most important issue in the debate. It overrides the other issues. I want to focus on the safety of the travelling public and the safety of those who work on our railways. I seek an assurance from the minister in his closing speech that, in his view, the debate on safety has been exhausted. I use the word "exhausted" intentionally. If the debate on safety has not been exhausted, what does he intend to do to ensure that it is?
The Scottish Government has taken some action. I acknowledge that it has sent letters to the rail accident investigation branch, the Rail Safety and Standards Board and the Office of Rail Regulation. I think that the First Minister referred to those letters and to the responses to them in answer to a question that Elaine Smith asked. I think that his view at the time was that a clean bill had been given on safety. I want to look at the responses in a little detail in order to put them on the record and to get the minister's response to them.
The rail accident investigation branch's response is dated 12 April this year. It said:
"we can confirm that the advice" given in previous correspondence, which I have not seen, "is unchanged". It thought that the safety
"like to point out that the level of information in many of the reports is inadequate to assess the likely impact of the presence or absence of a guard on the trains observed."
It thought that there was simply not enough detail in what was provided to give a strong indication of the impact either way. We must ask whether that detail is available so that a confirmed view can be given.
Such decisions are, of course, best taken by speaking to the individuals involved and by undertaking a comprehensive study of safety, not by taking purely anecdotal evidence. There must be a combination of the two. If we take decisions that are based purely on anecdotal evidence, we will probably not reach the best conclusions.
The Rail Safety and Standards Board's response stated that there was no evidence that either driver-only operation trains or non-driver-only operation trains are "generically safer". It carried out a fairly comprehensive study in 2001, which reached that conclusion. The question for the minister is whether things have changed on the railways in the intervening nine years to the extent that a further study might be merited or a different conclusion would result. It struck me as a little strange that the conclusion was based on one study, comprehensive as it was, that was undertaken in 2001.
The third response is from the Office of Rail Regulation, which takes the view that the safety issue has been resolved. However, the letter states that, although the ORR has not reviewed all the historical accidents, it takes the view that they do not "fundamentally change the position." If the historical accidents have not been reviewed in detail, how does one reach the conclusion that the position has not fundamentally changed?
Safety is a most important issue. I have raised questions on which I would like answers from the minister in his concluding speech.
No, thank you.
I echo their call for the minister to confirm today that if First ScotRail were to make a claim to be compensated for costs arising from strike action, the Scottish Government would make no such payment. Such a categorical assurance that Scottish taxpayers' money would not be used in any circumstances to support First ScotRail in the dispute would be invaluable and most welcome.
I extend a warm welcome to the rail workers who have joined us in the public gallery. I thank them for the magnificent job that they do 365 days of the year to help keep Scotland moving. Contrary to the wilder flights of fancy of the tabloid press, trade unionists do not seek out confrontation and they do not strike at the drop of a hat. The reality is that unions and their members know that it is in their interest to negotiate equitable national agreements and to stick to them.
No, thank you.
The current dispute between First ScotRail and the RMT has meant that RMT conductors have been forced to take six days of strike action because of proposals by First ScotRail and Transport Scotland, which is an agency of the Scottish Government that is accountable to the Scottish ministers. That must be kept in mind. The rail workers' use of industrial action has been a measure of last resort. It has been provoked by an intransigent management that has broken a binding agreement. The action is motivated by trade union members' genuine concern about the safety of the travelling public, as Gavin Brown said, and the company's apparent willingness to ignore solemn agreements in the pursuit of profit.
It is indisputable that First ScotRail has broken an agreement. In a letter from the company dated 9 November 2004, the then managing director Mary Dickson stated:
"I can give you an assurance firstly that First ScotRail will not, during the current franchise, be removing Conductors from any of the services on which they are now present."
That is clear. Today is an ideal opportunity for the Government, in the shape of Mr Stevenson, to act as an honest broker and say that it will seek to ensure that ScotRail abides by its agreement with the RMT. I hope that the minister will be able to make that simple and straightforward commitment to the Parliament.
Let us be clear. First ScotRail has said that its franchise includes provision for a second person on all services and that the driver-operated-door trains will have a second member of staff on board. At the same time, First ScotRail has informed the unions that there will be circumstances in which trains will be able to run without a second person on board, so that only the driver will be on the train. Such a shocking admission is in direct contravention of a key part of the existing franchise agreement—that all services must still run with a minimum of two staff on board, which, incidentally, is part of the company's spurious justification for axing conductors.
The reality is that even when a ticket examiner is on a train as the second person, that member of staff, unlike a conductor, is not trained in evacuation and protection, as recommended by Lord Cullen. Although ticket examiners perform a vital role in protecting revenue, it is simply wrong to pretend that they are trained to the same standards of operational train safety as conductors.
The extension of driver-only operation is a unilateral breach by FirstScotrail of a negotiated solemn agreement. Such a betrayal of trust by management is not conducive to good industrial relations. Additionally, it brings into stark relief a question of paramount importance—namely, the need to ensure passenger safety.
The minister must be clear in his response to this debate and use his influence to ensure that FirstScotrail abides by its 2004 agreement. He must give an assurance that taxpayers' money will not be used to indemnify a private company in any circumstances. Let us be clear: both of those actions are within the minister's gift; the people of Scotland demand no less of their Government. I hope that the minister will use this parliamentary occasion to state his Government's support for the workers' case. Nothing less will do if good industrial relations are to be restored. [Applause.]
The day before the country has a general election, it is refreshing to hear Labour members return to their party's roots given the extent to which many have moved away from those origins, particularly down south. I congratulate Elaine Smith on bringing back to this Parliament what I remember as the roots of the Labour Party.
I am trying not to join losing organisations at the moment.
In all seriousness, it is encouraging that we take such a liberal approach to the world that people have the right to go on strike and withdraw their labour and organisations and companies have the right to make the case against that.
On indemnity, regardless of the circumstances and the history of the dispute about which we speak today, it is fundamentally wrong that a Government of any shade should have the opportunity to use taxpayers' money to bail out FirstScotrail. I would apply the same idea to what happened to the banks.
The strange truth is, yes, I agree with the member. That might come as quite a surprise, but given the current state of the railways in the United Kingdom and the mess that the Conservative party made of deregulation, I have no issue with renationalising the railways.
Returning to the subject of the debate, I do not believe that it is acceptable for any company to be protected from the consequences of decisions or of normal, national negotiations that were entered into freely with a trade union organisation as a result of Government money being available. We have heard from Elaine Smith and Charlie Gordon how the situation came about. We heard clearly that the agreement pre-dated devolution and might well have been overlooked by any of the ministers in the previous Administrations. But—and here is the but—had the current Administration consulted fully along the lines in Tavish Scott's letter to which Elaine Smith referred, and with all the parties, it could have resolved the problem without any challenge whatever. There is a golden opportunity here. If trade union organisations and employers are to negotiate on a level playing field, it is grossly unfair for a company that made and declared £18 million of dividends and profits to have a hidden advantage.
I congratulate Elaine Smith, both on her socialist stand and on bringing the debate to the chamber.
I apologise for not being here at the beginning of the debate.
In the past couple of years, I have watched with great pride the rebuilding of the Airdrie to Bathgate rail link. I acknowledge the Deputy Presiding Officer's involvement in bringing that to fruition as a member of the committee that dealt with the bill.
It has been great to see the jobs that the project has created, particularly in a recession, during which many people have faced uncertainty in the job market. I recognise the service that the line will provide not just for my constituents and those of Karen Whitefield but for people throughout the central belt. I am glad that the project was started when it was and that it did not suffer the same fate as the Edinburgh airport and Glasgow airport rail links did.
However, some Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians members in the project's workforce have talked about being brought to work each morning, finding that tasks were not on schedule and being sent away again by their employer, Carillion. I hope that the minister will look into that.
The Deputy Presiding Officer is frowning at me, so I will return to the subject of the motion, which concerns the present dispute.
Many members have talked about cost, but I will return to Bill Butler's point about ticket collectors being asked to do the same job as conductors but for less money. Is that purely a cost-saving exercise? More important, ticket collectors are being asked to do the job without the proper training. Essential evacuation and protection training matters must be dealt with if we are to have a proper answer on that issue.
I am a member of the public who frequently uses train services—particularly between Bathgate and Edinburgh—and I do so with confidence because the service has a conductor. As a single woman traveller, I often feel that it is important to have somebody else on the train to offer help should difficult circumstances arise. Many of my constituents who travel regularly on train services would express similar concerns if they found themselves on a train for which only a driver was responsible and on which the other member of staff did not have the same training as conductors have.
I ask the minister to answer my question about UCATT members, although I do not expect that answer today. In particular, I seek reassurance from him on the safety of passengers and staff and on the ability of staff to do the job that they are asked to do.
I do not want to hear in six months' time that the reopening of the Airdrie to Bathgate rail link has been delayed. The rail link was a good news story from the Parliament and it should not now become a bad news story. I support other members' call for
I thank Elaine Smith for the opportunity to debate one aspect of railways. A broad consensus welcomes the substantial investment in and continuing development of railways throughout Scotland, but the debate relates to trade unions and their relationships with employers.
I commend the work of the STUC and the rail unions, one of which is in dispute with First ScotRail. In particular, I highlight a number of discussions on whether it would be possible for there to be a bid for the next franchise in 2014 in which there is a greater public interest component. Elsewhere, a co-operative venture is looking at the east coast franchise and Go! Co-operative Ltd is looking at running services in parts of England. The STUC remains interested in the proposals that we have made on that front. The discussions that we have been having over the past year will, no doubt, continue.
Of course, it is the responsibility of trade unions to represent and to protect the interests of their members. Last year, I was happy to respond to the request from the STUC and others to contact the Office of Rail Regulation and Network Rail about the programme of renewals on the rail network.
I turn to ScotRail industrial relations. I am pleased that ScotRail has guaranteed that there will be no compulsory redundancies or loss of current terms and conditions for any member of operating staff, including conductors, as part of the driver and ticket examiner operation on the Airdrie to Bathgate service.
Let me continue a wee bit. I will come back to you, Mr Gordon.
I was about to pick up on a couple of points that Mr Gordon made. We are looking at what has happened on parts of the Scottish network where 56 per cent of rail journeys are supervised by ticket examiners.
It is important to realise that the proposal for the operation of the line came from First ScotRail. Of course, it is necessary to discuss the arrangements that are made with Transport Scotland, which supervises the franchise. The debate is about safety. I met the unions on 5 January and again in March, when I received the safety dossier. At every stage, we have sought and received advice from the Office of Rail Regulation, the Rail Accident Investigation Branch and the Rail Safety and Standards Board, on which the RMT is represented.
The advice to ministers, Transport Scotland and First ScotRail is clear. Indeed, given that we have published it, it is clear to everyone else. The advice confirms that ScotRail's proposal for a driver and ticket examiner operation on trains is a safe method of operating trains. The Airdrie to Bathgate service is an extension of the Helensburgh-Airdrie-Drumgelloch line; trains will go on to Bathgate and Edinburgh to form the new service. Currently, those trains operate with a driver and ticket examiner and the Airdrie to Bathgate section and beyond would naturally extend that operation. In Scotland, 47 million journeys a year already operate with that method.
I turn to financial issues. The ScotRail franchise contract does contain a clause that allows the franchisee to ask for reimbursement for net losses as a result of industrial action—
The contract that is before me is clear. I can absolutely tell Parliament and everyone else that we have not advised ScotRail on how to manage the strike. We have not made a decision to reimburse any losses that they can demonstrate, nor have we compensated ScotRail for losses from strike action or paid training costs that relate to the strike. In addition, if a claim is made, before we come to any conclusion—we are contractually obliged to do this under the franchise that we inherited—we will consult the STUC and the unions. That is an important safeguard.
I have to make progress. I still have quite a lot to cover in a short space of time.
It is important to note that, uniquely in the Great Britain rail network, the franchise contract for ScotRail specifies that a second member of staff, in addition to the driver, should be on board to perform revenue protection and customer care duties. Mary Mulligan raised the issue of women travelling alone. The important provision that I have described, which is unique in the GB rail
Different parts of our railway network have different technologies, so it is important that training fits those technologies. We have heard the expert opinions of the ORR, the Rail Accident Investigation Branch and the Rail Safety and Standards Board. It is clear from everything that has been said to me that driver and ticket examiner operation is an appropriate and safe method of operation for the Airdrie to Bathgate service.
Gavin Brown asked whether things have changed on the railways and whether details are available. He also talked about historical accidents. I will provide members with some context. We provided a copy of the dossier with which the RMT provided us to the three bodies that I have mentioned, who responded to its contents. They said that, intrinsically, the dossier does not necessarily give a complete picture. In the letters that they sent to us, they were clear about what is safe and appropriate. In its letter, the RSSB indicates that it carried out a review of data from March 2009 to December 2009, which showed that, where the driver opens the doors, the rate of injuries resulting from boarding and alighting from trains is one third that where train doors are opened from elsewhere.
It is important that we deliver this project on time and on budget, that we deliver the 130 additional jobs that will be created and that we continue to grow the railway network and the services on it. Since the beginning of this franchise, there has been a 25 per cent increase in employment on the railway network; there has been an increase in the number of conductors; and further services, with more conductors, are planned. The appropriate way in which to deal with the dispute is for First ScotRail and the RMT to sit down together. I urge them to do so.