I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Chris Gibb Report: Improvements to Southern Railway.
When I became Transport Secretary last summer, the Southern rail network was already bedevilled by a deep-rooted dispute causing massive disruption to the lives of thousands of people and damaging the economy across the region, but it was not the only problem that Southern rail faced. Those problems included too many infrastructure failures and a lack of joined-up government between track and train, as well as the problems that most of our commuter rail networks face after attracting ever more passengers each year, and far more than in the days of British Rail—a massive capacity challenge. That was the background to my decision to ask one of the railways’ most experienced leaders, Chris Gibb, to produce detailed advice for my Department on what we should do to get things back to normal for passengers: what was behind the poor performance on the route, and how could we solve it?
I asked Chris for his advice, because he has more than 30 years’ experience in the rail industry. It is not just me who acknowledges his experience; when the RMT was demanding the publication of this report, it described him as an experienced figure in the industry, and that was absolutely right. I should like to thank Chris for his contribution. His recommendations have been assessed, and 34 of his 38 suggestions are already in train and being worked on by my Department, by the rail industry and by Govia Thameslink Railway—GTR—which operates Southern. His findings make it clear that industrial action was the main cause of disruption for Southern passengers last year, when things were at their worst.
Southern passengers know full well how much their train service has improved since that industrial action largely ceased in January. Performance has been consistently better since the new year. The public performance measure is up by more than 20 percentage points from its low of 62% last December. That is much better, but it is not the best. There is still a long way to go, but the situation is clearly much better than it was.
Things are getting better for passengers, and the railways have been working much better. That is why it is tragic that the unions’ leaderships now want to carry on a battle that is meaningless and unnecessary. The performance of this railway will carry on improving only if the industrial action by those unions stops, but they seem unwilling to come to the party. ASLEF, the drivers’ union, started its overtime ban again last week, with the result that Southern passengers had 25% of their trains cancelled each day. And just when passengers thought that the services had stabilised, the RMT has called yet more strike action this month. Those passengers are at the mercy of the unions. I have asked the unions numerous times to walk in their passengers’ shoes and to call off the disruption of people’s daily lives that results from this ongoing action.
My right hon. Friend is well aware of the terrible inconvenience suffered by my constituents in Mid Sussex and by many others along the line because of this and earlier strikes. Is he aware of the unions, working together, being encouraged by the Labour party? Or does he see this as a straight inter-union rivalry?
Let me stress again that I know how difficult this has been for my right hon. Friend’s constituents and for others. Their lives have been disrupted and turned upside down in a whole variety of ways. It is certainly the case that, in the early stages, the unions looked as though they were working together on this, but I do not think that relations between the two rail unions are now quite as warm as they once were. I am clear now that I think there is a direct link between the actions of the Labour party leadership, in trying to cause disruption for the Government this summer, and the decision to reprise industrial action. It is absolutely unacceptable that senior figures in the Labour party are being reported as encouraging trade unions to take action this summer. The public are the ones who will suffer.
In support of the point that the Secretary of State is making, is he aware that Sean Hoyle, the president of the RMT union, has described his objective as being to bring down the Government? Will the Secretary of State join me in saying that that is an absolutely appalling motive for ruining the lives of our constituents?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is a shocking state of affairs. The reality is that there are some thoroughly good people working on our railways—people who do not agree with the current action and who just want to do the right job for their passengers. However, their leadership is now leading them up a path that they do not want to go up, and that is not in the interests of the staff or the passengers.
Following on from that point, did my right hon. Friend hear the statement on Russia Today television from Mr Hedley, an activist in the RMT? He said:
“It’s very clear in our rule book, we’re in an antagonistic relationship with the managers and with the bosses. We want to overthrow capitalism and create a socialist form of society.”
How does that help our passengers?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The trouble is that this is all about politics rather than about the interests of the railways or of passengers getting on with their daily lives. It is a tragedy.
Will the Minister acknowledge that page 93 of the Gibb report shows a graph that demonstrates that Southern was the worst-performing company a very long time before there was any trade union industrial action? Will he also explain why he has not got round the table with the unions and GTR? This is an absolute nightmare for our constituents, but the Government cannot pretend that it has nothing to do with them, given that Gibb also says that the Secretary of State is
“already determining the strategic direction of this dispute”.
That is what Gibb says.
I am slightly surprised that the hon. Lady has not declared an interest, given that she has received donations from the RMT union.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I understand that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) is sponsored by the RMT, so can you advise the House on whether she should declare an interest when speaking on this matter?
It is up to each individual Member to note whether they have an interest or not. To be quite honest, I have no knowledge of whether any Member is sponsored by a trade union under the present legislation.
Since last year, we have worked to sort out some of the underlying problems with the management of this railway line, joining up the operations of the track and trains, spending more money on infrastructure, and helping to contribute to a better performing railway. Performance has been rising steadily since the start of the year. Chris Gibb rightly identified a range of problems—I have said to the House that we are working to try to solve those problems—but he was absolutely clear that the principal cause of the disruption experienced by the constituents of the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and others was industrial action by the unions. He said that passengers would have experienced a relatively normal service had that action not taken place.
The Secretary of State continues to argue that the principal reason for the delays is industrial action. Does that not mean that the £300 million pledged by the Government in January is a waste of money and that they should be sorting out the industrial dispute?
No, it does not. We have provided additional money for the infrastructure owned and operated by the public sector Network Rail—an additional £20 million last year and then a further £300 million that is being spent right now to stop regular signal failures, for example—but it is disappointing that all the unions and others can do is misrepresent the situation and claim that we are giving that money to the train operator. They know that that is not true. It is simply not the case. One part of solving the problem on this railway and ensuring that it is the good performing railway that it has not necessarily been in the past, even when the industrial action was happening, is to spend money on the infrastructure, so that we do not get points and signals failures—the things that frustrate people and cause problems day by day.
Part of the problem is that there are not enough drivers on the network, so the train operator is unable to operate its trains when drivers do not take voluntary overtime. Drivers not volunteering to take overtime is not the problem; the problem is that the operator has not trained up or employed enough drivers. I declare an interest in that I received donations from RMT, TSSA and ASLEF during the general election, because I know that we can get a better deal for our railways by working with the unions.
The hon. Gentleman is actually quite right. At the start of this year, we launched an enormous recruitment programme and some 350 trainees are coming through the system at the moment. He will know that the system for training drivers is too tied up in red tape, union agreements and past working practices, so we cannot train drivers as quickly as I would like or bring in extra staff. It is a nonsense that we should depend on overtime to run any part of our rail system on normal working days. Our strategy is to end that situation, but it will be a blow to some of those who depend on overtime as part of their regular income. It is certainly not the case that Southern drivers are keen to see their overtime disappear in the run-up to the summer holidays.
I suppose I should thank Southern for taking me to and from the hospital at East Grinstead for an operation this morning. I have come back for this debate, and I want to ask the Secretary of State about the future and the investment that he is making. The situation in the Reigate and Redhill area needs serious investment in changes to the track layout at Croydon, and Reigate needs a 12-car platform so that it can have proper services into London. Will the Secretary of State provide the resources for Network Rail simply to produce a potential design of a proper station at Reigate? My constituents are hit by fares and by overcrowding on a service that has all the faults identified in the Gibb report by the various parties.
I assure my hon. Friend that I am currently working on what we need to do to ensure that the Brighton mainline, which has not had investment over the years, is capable of meeting the challenges of the future. We are spending far more money on our rail network today than has been spent for decades. The Brighton mainline has been neglected, which is one reason why performance has been so poor, and that is something that we have to change and will.
It is interesting that the Secretary of State criticises the fact that there are not enough drivers and explains how more drivers are being recruited. Chris Gibb said in his report:
“I understand that at least one losing bidder…had too many drivers in their bid…but it may have been the case that the bidder with the fewest drivers won.”
It is complete nonsense for the Secretary of State to indicate that he did not realise the company won the contract with fewer drivers. Surely he must recognise that.
Actually, I was not Secretary of State at the time. The hon. Gentleman says that I should have known, but what I am trying to do is to sort out the problems we have now. I have made it absolutely clear that we do not have enough drivers on this railway—there is no dispute about that—which is why we have launched a big recruitment drive. I wish those drivers were coming on stream now but, as those with union links know, it takes 14 or 15 months to train a driver. I do not think that is sensible, and it should not take that long. That is something we have to address for the future, but we are bringing new drivers on stream as rapidly as we can, within the confines of union agreements.
On Chris’s recommendations, we are doing a variety of things to deal with the problems on this railway, but we should not forget the core issue. Chris Gibb’s main finding—and, yes, there are things for the Department, the train company, Network Rail and others to learn from the report—is that the principal cause of the disruption last year, which caused misery to so many people, was the action of the trade unions. Let us make no mistake, it is the union executives who call strike action and call disputes, and they are the ones who can call it off.
It is worth reiterating that the one thing Chris Gibb was excluded from investigating in his report was industrial relations. He was not allowed to go into it, but he did say that in recent times it had been the single greatest cause of short-term inconvenience. In the section titled “How did the system get to this point?” he clearly says:
“However I do not believe any single party have been the cause.”
On behalf of passengers, I beg that we get beyond the finger-pointing, the “he said, she said” of this debate. Let us all act with a degree of humility. Every single party bears a responsibility for where we are today, from the unions to the franchises and the Government. Can the Secretary of State please accept his own responsibility, act with humility and say what he—
Order. You all want to speak, and I am not getting at anybody in particular, but all I will say is that if we have short interventions, everybody will get to speak. We have a very long list to get through.
The point is simple. We are talking about where we are now. Two weeks ago we had a railway that was performing much better and a service that most users said was much better than it was last year. We had a joined-up management structure for track and trains operating out of a centre at Three Bridges. We had a programme of ongoing spending to try to remove the perennial breakdowns, signal failures and points failures that cause frustration. All that was moving in the right direction, and then, lo and behold, unnecessary strike action is threatened and work to rule is taking place against things that the unions have already been doing for the past six months, that have been working well and that have been delivering improvements. That is where we are now. We had something that was getting better, after a lot of work by a lot of people. It is a tragedy that we now seem to be taking a step backwards. It is not necessary.
If the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) wants this railway line to get better, he should please say to his friends in the union movement, “You do not need to do this. It is not necessary, it is the wrong thing to do and it must stop.”
Does the Secretary of State agree that, whatever the union’s concerns, whether it is rejecting the 24% pay rise or other issues, the only way to resolve its concerns is to get back round the table? Overtime bans and strike action will not resolve the situation; it just makes life worse for passengers.
I absolutely agree. On the pay deal, what I find particularly baffling is that ASLEF is now balloting for industrial action on a 24% pay rise, including productivity changes, that it has accepted on the Thameslink and Great Northern routes. If it is not a political intervention, why would it accept the deal in one part of the company and threaten strike action in the other? Most of us now look at the situation—with the railway line getting better, with things on the mend and with a deal that most people would say is generous and that the union has accepted in the other part of the company—and ask why on earth it is now returning to industrial action.
Why can the Secretary of State not publicly say to both unions and the trade operator, “Let’s meet together, with no preconditions, to negotiate this”? That is what happened with ScotRail, so why does the Secretary of State always want to meet the unions separately? Do it together and do it now!
We had very constructive talks earlier this year, and I want to pay tribute to the leadership of ASLEF for the way they conducted themselves back in the January and February negotiations. It is a disappointment to me now that they appear to have returned to militancy, when I thought a constructive dialogue was taking place. Those talks happened, and they were facilitated by the general secretary of the TUC and by a senior rail executive. An agreement was reached but, sadly, it did not pass the referendum. A further offer is on the table for staff. That offer of change combined with a substantial pay upgrade and productivity improvements has been acceptable to the union on Thameslink and Great Northern. It is a huge disappointment that that cannot deal with this issue once and for all.
The Secretary of State will be aware that this morning several of us from across the House met representatives from the RMT. I have to say that at the end of that meeting we were perplexed as to why still no deal had been done, given the very small number of trains that have been leaving without that second person on board and the very narrow difference between GTR and the unions on how one breaches that. There seemed to be some union enmity prolonging this strike. Can we not just get all of them round the table, bang some heads together and at last get our constituents a train service that stops disrupting their lives?
There is no reason why talks cannot start again tomorrow. I say to the unions that they should call off the industrial action and come back round the table. They are trying to turn the clock back. Sensible arrangements have been in place for years that do not require a train to be cancelled if the previous member of staff has been delayed. Ultimately, this is about whether we are going to modernise our railways or not. We have a rail system that is bursting at the seams due to the successes it has enjoyed in the past few years. Our railways are packed, and we need to look for smart uses of technology and smart ways of working to deliver the capacity that we need for the future, and we need to invest in infrastructure to make sure it is reliable. Those are things we want to do and plan to do. The unions need to work with us, and the message from Chris Gibb’s report is that the unions should stop fighting change and modernisation. Nobody is losing their job and nobody is having their pay cut. I believe that we will need more customer service staff in the future rather than fewer on our railways. I am not in the business of removing staff from working with customers, but we need to have an industry that has the freedom to adapt, develop and equip itself to deal with the challenges of the future. This dispute is all about preventing that from happening; it is about retaining old-fashioned union power and the ability to halt the railways at the whim of union leaders. That is not acceptable. It has been a tragedy for the people on the Southern rail network that they have been on the raw end of this for the past 18 months. Just when we thought things were getting better and the services were getting back to normal, it has started all over again, and it is a tragedy. Opposition Members should say to their union friends, “Stop doing this. Call off your action,” and then we will talk to them again.
May I make it plain from the outset that I am a proud member of the Labour and trade union movement, and very happy to declare the support that I have received from all three trade unions in the rail industry? I am grateful for this opportunity to debate Southern rail and the Gibb report, but it should be noted that this debate should have taken place six months ago, when the report was finished and presented to the Secretary of State. Unfortunately, he decided to sit on the report for six months and wait until after the general election before publishing it, denying this place—and, most importantly, passengers—the opportunity to scrutinise this assessment of the Southern rail fiasco. The Secretary of State should not bury reports until after a general election, when passengers deserve the opportunity to see the findings immediately.
Just last week, the Association of British Commuters went to the High Court seeking a judicial review of the Government’s handling of Southern, motivated by the Transport Secretary’s refusal to assess the force majeure claims of Southern, which is requesting that it not be found in breach of its contract for its abysmal performance—the worst in the country. Those claims were made in April 2016, more than a year ago. The High Court has now ordered the Secretary of State to produce a report on Southern rail within 14 days. Long-suffering passengers should not have to resort to crowdfunding for legal action to seek accountability, and the Secretary of State should not have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, by the High Court to do the job he was appointed to do.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that we won the case?
Perhaps the Secretary of State would like to confirm that he has been ordered by the High Court to produce the report within 14 days, and that he would not have done it otherwise. Who won that one?
Crucially, the section of the Gibb report that would have been the most informative—appendix 9, “Recommendations regarding the GTR franchise agreement”—has been redacted. Where is it? What is there to hide? The Secretary of State has prevented us from seeing the part of the report that would give us more details of the botched franchise design, for which his Department is responsible; the nature of the agreement with GTR, which has been cloaked in secrecy; and the changes that Gibb has recommended. That is to say that the Secretary of State has redacted the parts of the report that would present the greatest political difficulties for his Government if they were released.
It is highlighted that industrial relations are not the only issue. The Gibb report clearly identifies failures to assess accurately the number of available drivers, to train and recruit enough drivers, to anticipate turnover with any accuracy, to plan for the impact of infrastructure enhancements, to account for changes in Network Rail and for timetable expansion, to get the right trains in the right places, and to cater for growth in demand on overcrowded stations.
I do not recall the Transport Secretary doing anything but oppose every single piece of industrial action. It is wrong of him to attack the men and women who operate our railways while washing his hands entirely of the collapse in industrial relations.
The ASLEF drivers have just been offered a 26% pay increase, taking their pay from £51,000 to £63,000 for a four-day week. If that is not a generous offer, I would like to know what is.
Does not that just lay bare a complete failure to understand what this situation is about? It is not about money; it is about the proper running of our railways, so that we have a safe and accessible railway. If Members on the Benches opposite could get their heads around that, we might find ourselves working towards a resolution.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No. The hon. Gentleman has had a go. He can sit down.
The buck stops with the Government. The Tory Ministers who designed and awarded the franchise are responsible for the shambolic delivery of enhancement works and have directed this unnecessary industrial dispute.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way on the point of safety?
I am happy to.
The hon. Gentleman may be aware that I took a Transport Committee group to view the video operation. It was entirely clear to us that a passenger getting on or off the train is visible. Ultimately though, it does not matter what I think or what he thinks; it is the independent rail safety regulator who has confirmed that the system is safe.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has raised that point, which I will address shortly.
We know all too well the Secretary of State’s idiosyncratic approach to workers and unions, but even so, the handling of industrial relations in the case of Southern has been especially appalling, and relations are not helped by the antagonistic behaviour of GTR, the Department for Transport, and Ministers. In February 2016, a senior civil servant at the DFT, Peter Wilkinson, director of passenger services, told a public meeting in Croydon:
“Over the next three years we’re going to be having punch ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support... I’m furious about it and it has got to change—we have got to break them. They have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place. They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry.”
Does the right hon. Gentleman honestly believe that threatening to drown ordinary workers in credit card debt is the right way to go about implementing staffing change?
The Transport Secretary has repeatedly attempted to distance himself from industrial action, claiming that it was a matter for the company, despite the unusually close relationship between him, his officials and Govia Thameslink Railway. That has never been a credible claim and the Gibb report confirmed the suspicions that the Transport Secretary was deeply involved in the industrial dispute despite his claims otherwise. Gibb said that the Secretary of State is
“already determining the strategic direction of this dispute.”
In similar disputes on the TransPennine Express and Scotrail, agreements were reached that avoided further disruption and prevented industrial action.
On Scotrail, the technology is there, but even in exceptional circumstances, a driver cannot operate the train despite 30% of the network operating in that manner. What kind of deal is that? New technology is there but it cannot be used.
It demonstrates what can be achieved when we sit down and have an intelligent conversation with people.
Where there is a willingness to talk on all sides, it is clear that agreements can be reached that benefit passengers. To put it simply, the Secretary of State’s militant anti-worker, anti-trade union stance has significantly worsened industrial relations and had a devastating impact on passenger services. While I am at it, he must come up with evidence for his allegation that the leader of the Labour party conspired in the way that he said he did because it is a complete and utter fantasy. He knows it and he should not come to the Dispatch Box and just make things up that he knows are not right.
If the hon. Gentleman’s analysis of the industrial dispute is correct, can he explain why the Labour council and Mayor on Merseyside have taken exactly the same approach as the Government on this issue?
That is not accurate and I will tell the right hon. Gentleman why. If it were not for the stitch-up with Serco and Abellio taking £17 million out of the deal and £5 million that we could use to have a guard on every train, we would not have the problem. So, yet again, he just serves this up to his mates. He does his deals with these people, extracting the value from our railway system. [Interruption.] Absolutely not. It is important to point out that the Gibb report makes no assessment of the merits and de-merits of driver-only operation. However, despite a lack of assessment, Chris Gibb makes it clear that he supports DOO and thinks that any industrial action is wrong.
I would like the Secretary of State to reflect on the following passage from appendix 1 of the Gibb report. It says:
“We have undertaken this project for CLGR Limited, a consultancy company owned and operated by my family and I, and CLGR Limited has been contracted to Govia Thameslink Railway, as facilitated by the DfT. Discussions have been held under the terms of a confidentiality agreement between CLGR Limited and GTR.”
There we have it—Chris Gibb is contracted to Govia, the very company he is supposed to be reporting on. It is more than just “he who pays the piper”. Surely even this Secretary of State can see this latest blatant conflict of interest. Where is the independence in this report? It is just another stitch-up.
What is it with the DFT? Its senior civil servant, who previously told the world he wanted unions out of his industry, has his own consultancy company—First Class Partnerships, I believe—to advise the parent company of Govia, the very company that was then handed the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern concession on a £1.2 billion-a-year gold plate. This Government would refuse to recognise a conflict of interest if it got up and bit them on the gluteus maximus.
Labour, like the staff who understand and operate our rail network, the passenger groups who have been protesting and have been motivated to take legal action, and disability charities, simply do not agree with the assumption that destaffing and deskilling our railways is a positive step. Despite being first introduced more than 30 years ago, DOO is only in use on a third of the national rail network. It was originally introduced on three or four-car trains at a time of declining passenger numbers. Passenger numbers having increased hugely in recent years, it is now proposed to introduce DOO on trains with as many as 12 cars. In the past 15 years, passenger numbers on Southern have increased by 64%, from 116 million to 191 million a year. That enormous rise in numbers means that at the platform-train interface there are inevitably increased risks to passenger safety, as anyone who travels on Southern services can see.
Can the hon. Gentleman explain why the same union has agreed to 12-car-train driver-controlled operation on Thameslink, with the same company, and on the same lines?
It is somewhat curious, is it not, that people are being criticised for adhering to a previously achieved agreement, whereas, looking at the situation as it is now, they quite rightly want to look at it properly.
Labour believes that passengers are more at risk if they no longer have the guarantee of a safety-critical member of staff on the train to prevent something from going wrong or assist when something does go wrong. The view of Her Majesty’s chief inspector of railways, Ian Prosser, has been laid out in the Office of Rail and Road’s report, “GTR-Southern Railways—Driver Only Operation”, published earlier this year. Mr Prosser is clear that there are obvious caveats to safe operation of DOO, namely legal levels of lighting—that would be a good start—suitable equipment, suitable procedures and the competence of the relevant staff. None has been adequately satisfied, even by his assessment.
If union members are concerned about the points that the shadow Minister raises, why will they not get back around the table to discuss them and resolve the situation, calling off the overtime ban and any ballot for strike action?
To put it quite simply, because they could not get in the door, as has quite rightly been pointed out, when the Government were holding talks at the TUC that were an attempt to divide and conquer—a typical Tory trick to keep the critically important trade union out of the discussion in the first place. Had the Secretary of State had any real intent in that regard, he would have got everyone around the table and got on with resolving the dispute—[Interruption.] He says from a sedentary position that it was the TUC that oversaw things. It did its level best to try to bring this to a conclusion, but not because of the assistance of the DFT or this Secretary of State, because he deliberately excluded the relevant parties.
Sadly, the inference that the Government apparently seek to draw from the ORR report—that all is well and that there is, in effect, no cause for concern over safety—does nothing to assist the process of resolution. Indeed, the Rail Safety and Standards Board has been reluctant to describe DOO as definitively safe, saying:
“DOO does not create additional undesired events but may increase the likelihood of an event occurring or increase the severity of its consequence.”
By the way, Mr Deputy Speaker, you can no longer find that entry on the website—I wonder why.
At a time when there are increased risks of terrorist attacks and a spike in hate crimes, it seems foolish in the extreme to prioritise removing trained staff from services. The safe management of a train when difficulties arise is also key: a case in point was the derailment—
Let me make this point; then the Secretary of State can have a pop.
A case in point was the derailment near Watford Junction on 16 September last year. After a train hit a landslip caused by torrential rain, the guard evacuated the train when the driver was injured in the incident, trapped in the cab and incapable of doing so. If such an accident were to occur on a DOO service, the safety of hundreds of passengers could be compromised. Why does it take a catastrophe to bring this Government to their senses in dealing with issues of safety, rather than wanting to compromise on safety at every turn?
Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that today on Southern rail there are more on-train staff than there were before the dispute started? Is he actually saying that it is Labour policy that if a member of staff is delayed, the previous arrangement, whereby the train could carry on running, should stop, that the train should be cancelled, and that passengers should be turfed out on to the platform?
I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what Labour party policy is: to ensure that there is a second safety-critical trained member of staff on that train. [Interruption.] It means that they have the appropriate training and are not outsourced or sold short on training, which is exactly what the Government want to do.
The changes proposed by the Secretary of State would be retrograde for disabled passengers, whose independence would be wound back. Without a guaranteed second member of staff on board, the ability of passengers with accessibility requirements to turn up and go is severely restricted, requiring passengers to make arrangements 24 hours in advance. Southern passengers have been left stranded on station platforms because, as there is no on-board supervisor on DOO services, there was no one to assist them so that they could get on the train.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way—he has been very patient. Does not the requirement for disabled people to book 24 hours in advance relate to a completely separate service? A conductor cannot leave the train and get someone over or off the platform. The hon. Gentleman is confusing the matter completely.
The hon. Gentleman rather makes my point for me. Why on earth are we discriminating against disabled people, who want the same freedom as able-bodied people to turn up at a railway station and carry on with their journey?
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I am not giving way again. The hon. Gentleman should sit down.
Before the Secretary of State claims that this a conspiracy theory cooked up by ASLEF or the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, a spokesperson for Govia Thameslink Railway said:
“there is no cast-iron guarantee that passengers with accessibility requirements can spontaneously board a train in the assumption there would be a second member of staff on board every train.”
Here is another quote from a representative from a train operating company seeking to introduce DOO, in a recent edition of Modern Railways, on the advantages of trains that could go into service with only the driver on board:
“The good thing would be that all of the regular passengers would still be carried, it would only be the wheelchair users who wouldn’t be able to travel”.
The Secretary of State will be well aware of numerous stories of disabled passengers who have been left stranded as a result of the staffing changes that he is forcing through. Sandra Nighy, 56, of Highfields, Tarring, was left stranded in the freezing cold for more than two hours waiting for a Southern service on Hampden Park train platform near Eastbourne, because there was nobody to help her on to the train. Sandra said:
“the whole situation was horrible and embarrassing and it is unforgiveable when I had booked assistance 48 hours in advance”.
Everyone should be able to use rail services, and providing assistance to those who need it should be a top priority to ensure a good quality of life. The Transport Secretary should be ashamed that he is making our railway less, not more, accessible for disabled people. I firmly believe that the Labour party, passenger groups, staff and the disability charities are in the right when we say that the Government’s objective should be to make our railways safer and more accessible, not riskier and more exclusive.
The Gibb report paints a picture of a chaotic relationship between Network Rail, the Department for Transport and Govia Thameslink Railway, none of which has sufficient oversight or responsibility, leading to poor performance on Southern. Gibb says:
“None of the parties in the system share the same incentives or objectives”.
“that the custodian of the overall system integrity be better identified”.
While those criticisms are clearly true for Southern, they are an accurate summary of what is wrong with the way in which our railways are managed in general. Labour has consistently highlighted the fact that privatisation and fragmentation of the railway has prevented the necessary oversight and responsibility needed to deliver upgrades and run efficient services, which is why, as part of our plans to take rail into public ownership, we will establish a new national body to serve as a “guiding mind” for the publicly owned railway, to avoid the chaos over which this Government have presided.
There is no need for the Government to prolong the suffering of passengers any longer—this industrial dispute is but one part of an unedifying scene—as basic managerial inefficiency characterises this woeful service.
It is within the Secretary of State’s power to end the industrial dispute tomorrow. He can do it by calling off his plans to expand driver-only operation and by guaranteeing a second safety-critical crew member on every train, and he should do so immediately.
As with the east coast main line, which delivered the lowest fare rises and highest passenger satisfaction of any rail service in the country, and which returned over £1 billion to the Treasury, it is time to admit defeat and to take Southern back under public control as a public service.
The privatised, franchised railway system, which allows all comers, including state-owned rail companies from across the globe—with the bizarre exception of the UK itself—to extract profits from passengers and taxpayers alike has had its day. The Government should wake up and recognise the chaos they have created. They should do the right thing and bring our railways back under public control and ownership. If they don’t, a Labour Government will.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Can I just say to all Members, apart from the Front Benchers to come, that I am working on six minutes? I am going to introduce a time limit of six minutes.
Let me start with something that I am sure hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree on: the service Southern has provided for passengers over the last more than two years has been completely unacceptable. There is no disagreement about that. Our constituents are at the end of their tethers, and the service last year, in particular, was wholly unacceptable—to the point that it was causing economic loss and real suffering on the part of our constituents.
The question, therefore, is not whether the service has been poor, but why that is the case and who is responsible. There has been no shortage of criticism on the Government Benches of Southern and Network Rail for their part in the story. Two and a half years ago, at the beginning of 2015, I and other Conservative Members initiated debates in Westminster Hall, asked questions and held a succession of meetings with Ministers about Southern’s performance after it took over the new and expanded franchise.
There were clearly serious problems. There were not enough drivers, and the infrastructure was inadequate because of the London Bridge improvements. It is an irony that the £6 billion London Bridge improvements, which will result in a better service for passengers, have caused a temporary shortage of capacity for the new franchise, which has exacerbated the problems.
In response to the criticism we made on behalf of our constituents, the then Secretary of State and the then rail Minister convened a meeting of the industry. A performance improvement plan was introduced, whereby the industry agreed that it was necessary, step by step, month by month, to improve performance in the new franchise, recognising that it was a matter for not just the operator but Network Rail, which provided the track, and which is, of course, already in public ownership—a point that those on the Labour Front Bench might do well to consider.
As a consequence of that performance improvement plan, performance steadily improved again towards the end of 2015, but it then began catastrophically to deteriorate at the beginning of 2016, and specifically from April onwards. There was no coincidence about that. The reason it deteriorated was the industrial action that began at that time. That was not just the official industrial action on the part of the RMT, but the unofficial action, which the union has denied. There were suddenly very high rates of sickness, and there was a general unwillingness on the part of the workforce to co-operate with the management. It was undoubtedly the case that the operator was already having to improve its performance and already faced difficulties—there is no disagreement about that—but its performance declined catastrophically as a result of that industrial action. That action was then joined by the drivers, whose work to rule was official, rather than unofficial. The consequence was that the service last year was simply appalling.
What was that all about? It was about the alleged lack of safety as a consequence of the introduction of a system that has been operating on a third of the railways for 30 years. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) implied some kind of culpability—some kind of casual response to safety—on the part of the Government, but the Labour Government were in office for 13 years when driver-only operation trains were running. These trains run on the London underground; there happens to be a Labour Mayor responsible for that now. Indeed, the Docklands light railway has no drivers at all.
Currently, according to the figures that the unions gave us in a meeting this morning, over 97% of the trains that Southern is operating still have a safety-trained second member of staff on board. There have been no pay cuts, there have been no job losses, 97% of the trains are still running with a second person on board, and fewer than 3% of those trains are not, and yet the hon. Gentleman implied that there had been de-staffing. Far from de-staffing, there has been an offer of a 24% pay increase to ASLEF drivers. There is no doubt about the unions’ responsibility for what happened last year.
We heard nothing from the Opposition Front Bench about the patients, teachers, pupils and clinical staff whose lives have been wrecked as they have been forced from rail to road, which is far more dangerous. We need to get the railways working properly so that they are all safe and all can rely on them.
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend.
For those who have faced such constraints on their pay over the past few years, it will stick in their throats to see an offer given to the train drivers such that their salaries for a four-day, 35-hour week will rise to over £60,000 a year. That is a perfectly generous offer. Frankly, this has nothing to do with safety at all. The Opposition have been unable to produce any evidence that the service that is now running is unsafe, partly because it runs extensively across the national network and has done for 30 years, and partly because, as I said, there is still a second member of staff on board anyway—it is just that they are not operating the doors.
My right hon. Friend and I have been working on this for a very long time as next-door neighbours. If all that is correct, as it is, can he tell us, with all that we have examined and learned about it, what he thinks this strike is about?
My right hon. Friend’s question would be best addressed to the unions themselves. I think it is about control of the railways—that is what they seek. It is certainly nothing to do with safety or the interests of passengers.
It is telling that since the industrial action fell away and the driver-only operation trains were successfully introduced on the line, the service has started to improve again. That gives the lie to the suggestion that this is only about Southern. It is not only about Southern—it has principally, although not exclusively, been about the industrial action that the unions have unreasonably taken on this railway.
There is no doubt that there is an inadequacy of investment historically on lines that have been carrying more and more people over recent years. In the 12 years that I have been a Member of Parliament, the number of passengers on Southern’s main routes has doubled. I welcome the £6 billion London Bridge investment and the £300 million package that the Government introduced, quite rightly, in response to the Gibb report. However, looking forward, there will need to be substantial further investment in lines that are carrying more and more people on a daily basis, because the infrastructure is not equal to the task of carrying the numbers of people that will only increase with the development that is now anticipated in the south-east. Let us be clear where the blame principally lies for the disruption over the past year—it principally lies with the unions.
I am sure that quite a few hon. Members are wondering what the Scottish National party Transport spokesman can bring to a Southern rail debate. I am hopeful that I can provide a more rounded opinion on the Gibb report, which is what this debate is meant to be about. The Transport Secretary stood up for nearly 20 minutes and union-bashed; he did not give us much about what was in the report, and I think he made a poor start. I say gently to the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) that his suggestion that staff are falsely taking sick days does not bode well for future worker relations. It is indicative of where the Government seem to be with the unions.
In this Chamber, we continually have debates about ideology. The Tory ethos is that the free market will always outperform the public sector, but the fiasco of GTR and Southern rail’s performance over the past few years—not just the past year—suggests otherwise. Calls have been made repeatedly for the franchise to be terminated, but the Government have always refused to act. Instead, they initially helped to reset benchmarks to ensure that GTR was not in breach of contractual performance measures.
Looking back, the report by the Transport Committee complained about a lack of transparency in performance data against contractual obligations. That in itself does not help those who want to understand the contractual position and find solutions. The Gibb report was a welcome interlude, although we have to question why the Government sat on it for six months. They have brought this general debate before us, not in a constructive manner but in a politically motivated, union-bashing fashion, and that will not help things.
I touched earlier on the fact that the Gibb report identified £300 million that had to be spent within the next year to ensure that the 2018 timetable could be achieved. That is quite an eye-watering sum, and it is a massive commitment. The Government committed that £300 million in January, but we are now a quarter of the way into the two-year process, and it would be good if the Secretary of State had told us how the work was advancing. I hope that the Minister will give us an update on that later on.
It took the Government 10 months to complete the programme of work and spend the £20 million that they pledged last November. I will just throw out there the fact that it took them 10 months to get through the initial £20 million programme, but they now expect to deliver a £300 million programme in two years. I presume that some of the £300 million programme will follow on from work identified in the initial raft.
The Secretary of State admitted that the Gibb report confirmed that franchise arrangements have been completely inadequate in their understanding of how infrastructure upgrades would impact on services. That is a failing of the Department for Transport, and the Government have to get to grips with it. The Gibb report also suggested that an immediate revision was required to the overnight timetable to allow for maintenance on the Brighton main line. Again, I throw that out there. What is happening about that, and about the production line maintenance that was supposed to be brought in as a consequence of the report?
I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman has actually read the report. The appendix sets out both the short-term and long-term infrastructure projects, all the way to 2020. If he wants answers to those questions, I suggest that he reads the report.
I am asking for answers from the Government, and I expect Ministers or the Secretary of State to give them to me. The Government announced a £300 million package to be delivered over two years. I am asking what is going to happen and whether the programme is on track, because we are a quarter of the way through the time period already.
The Gibb report also called for a review of little-used stations that have, it claims, too many services, which seems incredible against a backdrop of nearly 59,000 fully or partially cancelled trains in 2016. That is an issue that the Department for Transport could have identified earlier, and it should be resolved.
In terms of industrial relations—a subject that has formed the cornerstone of the debate so far—I am pleased to see that Gibb did say that negotiations must be entered into. Again, I repeat calls from other Opposition Members to the Secretary of State to show leadership and try to lead those negotiations. I disagree with Gibb’s negative comments about collective bargaining, and I do not think that that should have been within the remit of the report. His suggestion that discussions about driver-only operation could have a roll-back effect on other services that are already driver-only operation is a conclusion too far for me.
We have to be clear about the fact that safety is a key issue. The Gibb report confirms that narrow platforms at Gatwick cause overcrowding, and that the lack of station shelters elsewhere is an issue for passengers accessing trains. It is therefore fair for me, looking at this from the outside, to say that DOO can be seen as a problem for staff, because at the end of the day the staff have to deal with the consequences if an incident arises due to overcrowding or when people alight from trains. I would also say to the Secretary of State that this is a serious dereliction of duty, given that the Government are picking up a £38 million tab for lost revenues, as well as setting aside £15 million in compensation for passengers. Think what that £15 million could have done in infrastructure upgrades if there had been proper forward planning.
In Scotland, there has been far wider national scrutiny of the Abellio ScotRail Alliance, which operates Scotland’s trains. It came into being in April 2015, and I must say that it came in as a living wage employer right away, which is to be applauded. However, we must also acknowledge that its early performance was below contractual levels. The Scottish Government took the lead by intervening, and a performance improvement plan was agreed. Since then, 181 of the 249 actions have been completed, and a further 180 action points have now been agreed. The plan has been reviewed by the Office of Rail and Road, which found it to be robust and deliverable, but challenging. Punctuality on ScotRail is now at 90%, and it has been ahead of the UK average for four years.
Looking ahead, the Scottish Government are now exploring a public sector bid for ScotRail when there is a franchise break. On public sector bids, the UK Government have demonstrated, with the east coast main line, that public sector services are not only viable, but profitable for the taxman. The refusal of the Government to acknowledge this in the rush to reprivatise the east coast main line is frankly shocking. The franchise has raised £1 billion, and 2015 was rated as the best year in its history. It shows that public sector franchises can lead the way over private sector ones. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) is just delaying me further. To be fair, he made an intervention earlier that was frankly a speech, so I presume he will cut out some of his own speech. Additionally, the UK now has a franchise system that allows state-run bids from foreign countries, yet the Government still refuse to allow public sector bids. There is absolutely no logic to such a conclusion.
Finally, as was mentioned earlier, there has been some industrial action involving ScotRail in Scotland. The Scottish Government were willing to meet the unions, and they ultimately agreed a deal that the unions and the Abellio ScotRail Alliance have signed off. [Laughter.] That is actually what should be happening, so instead of laughing about it, the Transport Secretary should show leadership and face up to being willing to speak to the unions and getting around the table with them.
To conclude, I hope that the Gibb report will show how these matters can be progressed with GTR. In truth, the Scottish Government have shown what can be done by showing a different attitude north of the border, and I suggest that the Transport Secretary should think about that as well.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I remind hon. Members that a six-minute limit applies to Back-Bench speeches.
Congratulations on your recent election, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Throughout this debate, we should not forget that the terrible service on Southern railway has had a devastating impact on hundreds of thousands of people. People have lost their jobs, or have had to quit their jobs. My constituent, Lee Fenton from Coulsdon, was sacked for persistent lateness due to the poor service on Southern railway. Parents have not been seeing their children because they have not been able to get home on time. Doctors have been unable to treat their patients, and teachers have been unable to teach their pupils because of this terrible service.
As Chris Gibb found in his report, which was long called for by Opposition Members and the unions, the primary cause of the problems in 2016 was the industrial action by the trade unions. The unions’ claim—the nub of their contention—is that driver-operated doors are unsafe, yet 30% of UK surface trains, or 1.3 million trains a year, run perfectly safely with driver-operated doors. The whole of the London underground runs with driver-operated doors on to far more crowded platforms, and so does most of Europe. In June last year the Rail Safety Standards Board wrote:
“No increased risk from properly implemented Driver Controlled Operation has been detected in any research”
that it has carried out. There is clear evidence that driver-operated doors are entirely safe.
The other sticking point with the unions is whether a train can still run if the second member of staff does not turn up because, for example, they are sick, late or on strike. By the way, every train that was scheduled to have two members of staff will continue to have them, but what if that second member of staff does not turn up? The company’s position, which I think is reasonable, is that the train can still run. The union position is that it cannot, which leads to needless cancellations. A strike by conductors is ineffective if the train can run anyway. I believe that that is the real reason why the RMT is so keen on that point.
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), the shadow Transport spokesman, said that there had been de-staffing on the railway. I gently point out that 100 extra on-board supervisors have been hired since the changes were made. Therefore, far from de-staffing, there has been an increase in staffing, and in practice 98% of trains have run with a second person aboard.
I am disappointed that ASLEF has instructed its members to work a four-day week, because it is having devastating consequences for our constituents as we speak. It is completely unacceptable. There are no good safety grounds, as I just laid out, and an incredibly generous financial offer has been made: a 26% pay increase from £51,000 to £63,000 for working a four-day week. There is absolutely no justification for the strike and I call on the hon. Gentleman to prevail on his friends in ASLEF to call off the overtime ban at the earliest opportunity.
There is no question about the fact that we need to train more drivers, and I strongly encourage Ministers to put pressure on GTR to do exactly that. While this unjustified and damaging overtime strike is in place, we should make sure that trains ideally run with eight or 12 carriages and that they are not short-formed. I have had reports from constituents at Purley Oaks station in my constituency of four-carriage trains, which leads to overcrowding. I ask Ministers to look at that.
Having placed responsibility primarily with the trade unions, Chris Gibb goes on to make a number of other points, one of which, as the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) mentioned, is the £300 million programme. I strongly commend the Government for having found that money, which was so urgently needed. The hon. Gentleman asked what work has taken place. I have a note sent to me by Network Rail, which I can share afterwards, which lists the work. It includes high output ballast cleaning—I am not sure what that is, but it sounds good—and work on the Balcombe and Sevenoaks tunnels water management systems. Further particulars are available if he would like to hear them. That investment was incredibly welcome and important.
I am very excited about control period 6—the major capital works programme coming up in a couple of years. With the right investment between South Croydon station and Windmill Bridge junction, we can increase capacity on the entire Brighton main line by 30%. I strongly urge Ministers to move that project forward.
Finally, the franchise is rather too large. I entirely understand why it was let in this form—the works at London Bridge and the Thameslink transformation—but in due course it should be broken down into its component parts of Southern, Gatwick Express, Thameslink and Great Northern, which would allow for much better management. The behaviour of people such as Sean Hoyle, who has stated that his objective is to bring down the Government, is wholly inappropriate. I call on the unions to end their unjustified strike action forthwith.
I know that there are colleagues who are yet to speak whose constituencies have borne the brunt of the appalling state of Southern rail so I will do my best to be brief. I would like to say a few words about the impact of the Southern situation on my constituents and some of the wider issues raised by the Gibb report.
It might surprise hon. Members to hear that delays on Southern can impact on trains in Nottingham, but the linear nature of the rail network combined with forthcoming changes to the Thameslink timetable could have a hugely damaging effect on inter-city midland main line services. The Gibb report rightly states:
“Sometimes funding availability has prioritised elements of the system, without considering the welfare of the overall system.”
This appears to be the case on the midland main line, where Thameslink, long distance and freight services share the same track south of Bedford.
The December 2018 timetable change will increase the service frequency through the Thameslink core to 24 trains an hour. On paper, that is a welcome improvement for passengers, but, in an indictment of disjointed and fragmented railway planning, the new timetable is not integrated with the east midlands franchise. The intensity of the new timetable will impair the ability of operators to recover after periods of disruption. As the Gibb report points out, this problem is compounded by GTR’s theoretically efficient but brittle rostering practices. This means that a single service disruption in Brighton can cause reactionary delays that travel up the line and on to the wider network, paralysing trains hundreds of miles away.
It has been reported in the technical press that there could be a nine-minute journey time penalty for services operating from Nottingham to London St Pancras, and a 12-minute penalty for journey times from Sheffield. That is obviously a real concern for passengers and the business community in Nottingham. I understand that it is not too late to make amendments to the timetable and I ask the Minister to commit to addressing the issue.
The Gibb report is long, technical and in places contentious. There are many issues arising from it that could be discussed, but I want to say a few words about the section on level crossings, which are a continued source of delays on the Southern network. The legislation that governs the closure of dangerous level crossings is archaic and hugely inefficient. It is therefore welcome that the Gibb report says that the recommendations of the Law Commission should be adopted as a new Bill. The issue has a long history and I have pressed Ministers on it in the previous two Parliaments.
Dangerous level crossings are the main cause of external risk on the railways and a major contributor to delays. The issue was referred to the Law Commission by the Government in 2008, and the commission’s recommendations were published in September 2013. In January 2015, the then Liberal Democrat Minister of State, Baroness Kramer, said in another place that the Government wanted to bring forward legislation as soon as possible. Two and a half years later, however, and nothing has changed. On the back of this report, will the Minister give a commitment today to finally bring forward this necessary legislation?
Finally, we need to talk about the lack of transparency that has characterised the Government’s approach to the prolonged period of exceptionally poor service on Southern. As the Transport Committee said in October:
“recently managed, after several attempts and considerable time and effort, to extract information from the Department, GTR’s contractual performance benchmarks, and data relating to GTR’s performance against them, were entirely opaque.”
There are questions about the transparency of the report itself. We know that the final version was submitted to Ministers on 30 December, so the claim that the document could not be released until June because of purdah is, frankly, unconvincing.
In the minutes of the rail national taskforce meeting held on 23 November, it is recorded that Peter Wilkinson, the Department’s franchising director, said that the
“Gibb report had been drafted but was not yet signed off”
by the Secretary of State. The meeting was also told by an individual with the initials “NB”, who may be Nick Brown, GTR’s chief operating officer, that
“GTR had had a lot of input to the review.”
When the final version of the report was published, its sweeping statements about the general state of rail industrial relations and the undesirability of direct operations surprised some observers, especially as several hon. Members on both sides of the House had backed some form of state intervention. We need to know what Govia’s involvement was in the drafting of the report and whether it extended beyond the provision of factual information. We need to hear why first the approval of the draft report, and then publication of the final version, appears to have been delayed. It is vital that the travelling public can place trust in these reports, so will the Minister give the House a specific and unqualified assurance that the Department did not seek to pressure, amend or otherwise influence the report in any way to politicise its content?
The situation on Southern has complex causes, but the imperative must be to end the years of misery that passengers have endured. The Government have a role to play in ending it, and part of that role must be to generate less heat and more light in the months ahead. We do not have to endorse the Gibb report in full to acknowledge that it has made some sensible and practical suggestions. It is vital that Ministers now take all reasonable steps to get the Southern rail network moving again.
This morning I attended a meeting with representatives of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers. It was a futile and frustrating meeting, in which the unions argued that it was proportionate and appropriate to strike because 2.75% of trains on Southern operate without an on-board supervisor. The fact that 97.25% of trains operate with one did not seem to sway them, which will mean untold damage to my constituents once again. In Wealden the service provided by Southern has been unsatisfactory for a long time, and we have raised that time and time again. While its performance has gradually improved over the past year, the behaviour of the unions has deteriorated, and the current industrial dispute is entirely irresponsible and cynical.
I welcomed the Gibb report, and met Chris Gibb last year to discuss the situation and, principally, Southern’s poor management and poor communication. The report does not pull any punches in respect of either GTR’s management or the Department for Transport, but the most damning indictment, by a long chalk, is Gibb’s assessment of the unions. The report plainly states that the primary cause of disruption to passengers has been industrial action by the unions, compounded by incredibly high levels of sick leave among drivers. The report describes the unions’ motives as “debatable” and their actions as “undermining the system”. Having said that, I should add that GTR and Southern are not totally devoid of responsibility. The union’s behaviour does not excuse the previously existing and ongoing infrastructural problems, which are within the control of a franchise whose financial penalties for failings are too lenient.
In any event, my constituents still have to put up with delays, timetable changes, short-form trains, extended engineering works, overcrowding, unsatisfactory compensation processes, nonsensical bus replacements, poor communication, and potential ticket office closures.
GTR’s handling of the dispute does not cover it in glory. Unfortunately, the Uckfield line is known as the misery line in my constituency. The Govia “transforming rail” consultation is certainly a step in the right direction, and I am pleased that passengers will have an opportunity to comment in detail on timetabling arrangements and proposed reforms, but that simply is not enough. GTR must be made to appreciate the seriousness of the inconvenience and frustration that are being caused on a daily basis.
Let me draw the Minister’s attention to appendix 5 of the report, which concerns the modernisation of the Uckfield line. I have already raised the issue with the Minister, and, as he knows, I support Chris Gibb’s recommendation for the electrification of the line and a depot in Crowborough. The Uckfield line connects the towns of Uckfield and Crowborough to London, and is one of the very few routes in the south-east that have not been electrified. It is hard to believe that a major railway line in a highly developed “global” country still relies on diesel trains, which are outdated and increasingly difficult to keep on track. When they break down they are hard to fix, and it is difficult to find new rolling stock. Even in the sweetest spot, when the Southern service is running a full timetable, with a full number of cars and a full quota of staff who have turned up for work, the service is still woefully inadequate.
The Gibb report states that the current fleet is “inefficient”, and that the sustained use of diesel is not viable. It points out that electrification of the Uckfield line would significantly increase passenger capacity and improve performance and timetabling, and would result in more efficient crewing and less pollution. Above all, it would provide a seven-day service in my constituency. An annual season ticket from Crowborough to London costs thousands of pounds. If my constituents are paying 21st-century prices for their rail tickets, they are entitled to receive a 21st-century rail service in return, and that means electrification.
We forget what the present situation means for people’s day-to-day lives. My constituent Christopher, who lives in Uckfield, says:
“The loss of peak trains will make it even harder than usual for me to keep my commitments to work and family, including being able to reliably collect my two 6 and 8 year old boys from school or after school club.”
Electrification and a depot at Crowborough would provide much-needed resilience on the line. No doubt the Minister has read the conclusion of that particular section of the report, which recommends electrification and has a solid financial case behind it. I look forward to having continued conversations with the Minister to try and secure that.
Wealden is in desperate need of a reliable modern train service that offers value for money. My constituents would like to know when the Uckfield line will no longer be known as the misery line, which will come about only once the strikes are called off. I look forward to working with the Minister to ensure not only electrification but a depot in my constituency of Wealden.
I congratulate you on your elevation, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I am staggered that now, 18 months later, the Southern rail dispute is still going on. I find it staggering for a range of reasons, some of which are alluded to in the Chris Gibb report, which I will come on to. I remind Members that it was a resilience report; it was not about the dispute, but was a resilience report looking at Southern rail generally.
On driver-only operation, I appreciate that the unions talk about safety—which is fine; they are perfectly entitled to do that—but there are three key reasons why I disapprove of DOO. First, many female passengers in Eastbourne have contacted me over the last year as I have been campaigning against this dispute and trying to find a resolution, saying, “Stephen, we would not feel safe coming back to Eastbourne late in the night or even early-evening if we were in an empty carriage on our own and knowing there was no second member of staff.” That is a very important point, because effectively it discounts about 50% of the population.
Secondly, in Eastbourne a lot of local children go to St Richard’s school in Bexhill, and many parents have told me that they would be anxious if they knew their children were on a train with no second member of staff. Thirdly, as has been mentioned by Labour Front-Bench Members, there is the issue of disability access. Only a couple of weeks ago, a wheelchair-user colleague at Hampden Park in Eastbourne had to sit on the platform as three trains went through because she could not get on.
Those are three powerful reasons why I am fundamentally against DOO. I do not accept the principle and I do not care if 30% of the rail network already carries driver-only trains.
The hon. Gentleman has explained why he thinks a second member of staff is important. Does he accept that 98% of trains are running with that second person on board and that the alternative for the 2% that are not is that those trains do not run at all?
I agree, and I will address that when I turn to the Gibb report, but I wanted to say something else before getting on to it. If we asked members of the public around the country where they have DOO—outside the underground, as that is a different kettle of fish—whether they would prefer to have a second member of staff on the train, I bet they would say that they would.
The Gibb report identified GTR as being the worst performing operator in the country, with performance deteriorating two or three years before the current industrial dispute. I grant that the report identified industrial relations as being a primary cause of the system’s breakdown, but that featured on only one page of the entire 163-page document. That leads me to wonder just how impartial Gibb was in putting together the report. After all, while doing so he apparently spoke with GTR over 30 times and Government agencies over 45 times, yet he spoke with the two unions zero times. What is going on here?
When GTR won the contract direct attention was given in it to “best price”, rather than deliverability. Extraordinarily, that meant GTR winning without enough drivers. Gibb himself wrote:
“I understand that at least one losing bidder”
included more drivers and that
“it may have been the case that the bidder with the fewest drivers won”.
In other words, it was about cost; it was not about quality or customer care. So it was nonsense for the Secretary of State, who unfortunately has left the Chamber, to say earlier that he is trying to train more drivers and that he wants more train drivers. Frankly, the original contract was won by GTR on cost, with fewer drivers than its competitors.
Who is actually leading in the Southern rail dispute, from the rail perspective? Is it GTR and Southern rail, or is it the Government?
The hon. Gentleman was an MP during the time when the contract was being let, while many of us were not. Did he not raise these questions and make these points at the time?
I certainly did! I welcome the hon. Lady’s intervention and I thank her for reminding me that I was furious about Southern rail at the time. I thought it was absolute rubbish, and I said so frequently. I appreciate her allowing me to remind everyone about that. And it is good to be back; thank you.
Let me go back to the question of who is actually leading for Southern rail in the dispute, and to the Gibb report. Gibb says that the Secretary of State is
“already determining the strategic direction of this dispute”.
As I said earlier, I am not sponsored by the RMT. Members on both sides of the House know that the Government are behind this dispute because they want to bring in DOO. That is as plain as the nose on your face. Yes, at the minute, there is a second member of staff on 97% of the trains, as another Member said, but that was not the intention at the beginning. The intention was to break the RMT and to bring in DOO. My priority is the customer—the rail passengers of Eastbourne who have suffered so much. This is frustrating because the Government went into this ready to have a war. They were ready to have a battle and to beat the RMT, but they have ended up with a complete stalemate in which the two sides have dug in and the passengers, people and communities of Eastbourne and the south-east are suffering.
I will not give way. I am about to finish.
This is ridiculous, and it is about time that the Government and the Secretary of State showed some leadership. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), is in his place, so I shall ask him two questions before I finish. First, will the Government confirm or deny that the Department for Transport has never interfered with or blocked the resolution of the Southern rail dispute? I am asking the Minister that specific question in the Chamber because he has the full responsibility to answer it truthfully, and I will ask it again. Will he confirm or deny that the DFT has never interfered with or blocked the resolution of the Southern rail dispute?
My second question relates to something that a couple of other colleagues have already said, but it is crucial. If the Government are serious about ending this dispute, to the benefit of the entire south-east as well as those in my constituency, why will they not host negotiations with both the unions? We know that they have had opportunities to do that, but they have not done so. They are trying to divide and rule. I say this: Minister, pick up the phone tomorrow and say to Mr Whelan at ASLEF, to Mr Cash at the RMT and to GTR, “I want you to meet me tomorrow in my office in Whitehall. I want all the unions and all the sides together with no preconditions.” I am absolutely certain that if the Government had the guts, and the honesty, to do that, we would resolve the issue within a week. Minister, I wait to hear your answer.
The point of agreement between me and the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) is that the service has caused heartache, distress and job losses for thousands. The report was commissioned to try to find ways to improve the resilience of the service, and I welcome it. I think everyone acknowledges the author, Chris Gibb, to be a serious, experienced individual, and he has produced a report that is thoughtful, helpful and comprehensive. The clear message that emerges from his report is that the primary cause of the appalling service that passengers received last year was the result of members of the workforce
“taking strike action…declining to work overtime and…undermining the system integrity”.
He concluded that
“if the train crew were to work in the normal manner…the output of the system, a safe and reliable rail service for passengers, would be delivered in an acceptable manner”.
The validity of Mr Gibb’s words has been reinforced by the 23 percentage point improvement in performance achieved by Southern over the past few months, when there have been no strikes. GTR has shown that with the support of its workforce it can deliver, as Mr Gibb says, an acceptable level of service for customers.
Like everyone in this House, I am horrified that we are again seeing a return to industrial action. The Opposition were keen to lambast the Government on public sector pay restraint last week, but I am acutely aware of how many public sector workers use these trains. ASLEF, on the behalf of train drivers, rejected a pay offer worth nearly 24% over four years. Passengers will draw their own conclusions. [Interruption.] Is the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) trying to intervene? If he would like to get in, I would love to hear whether he thinks that that is a bad thing that is being put to members. I have offered the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to come in and say that the 24% rise is adequate, but he has declined to do so. I understand, so I will return to my speech.
Passengers do not believe that the DCO trains that have operated on our network for the past 30 years are unsafe. They do not believe that passenger trains operated in Germany, Austria or Canada using DCO are unsafe. Passengers do not want much; they simply want the drivers and the on-board supervisors to do their job, so that they can get into work to do theirs. In the helpful statistics provided by the RMT in a meeting this morning, as referred to by my hon. Friends, it was confirmed that 97.25% of the 70% of Southern trains that used to operate with a second person on board continue to do so. Those trains have a second person who is not preoccupied with opening and closing doors; they are there to help passengers. That is a high proportion, reflecting the additional numbers of OBSs that have been recruited. It is not as high as I would like, nor is it as high as GTR intends it to be—GTR is aiming for 100%—but all train users would rather see the 2.75% of those trains continue to run for the benefit of passengers. If they did not run, the negative impact to the service as a whole would be far more than the 3% diminution in service. It would lead to many thousands of passengers being wholly unnecessarily delayed.
After this morning’s meeting, I just want to clarify whether the unions are striking because 2.75% of trains are running without on-board supervisors. That will have an impact on thousands of paying passengers.
I thank my hon. Friend. She really has to ask the unions why they are still on strike. My understanding is that it is because of the 2.75% of the 70% of trains that traditionally had a second person on board. I am convinced that her constituents and my constituents would rather that those trains continue to run. I look forward to 100% coverage, but the 97.25% figure and the recruitment shows that GTR is serious about ensuring that there is a second professional on board. Passengers have had enough. It is high time that the unions ended their action.
As the Secretary of State made clear, however, it would belittle the report to suggest that it focuses only on industrial action. It is far broader and more useful than that. What runs through the report is the difficulty of operating trains on a hugely well used and complex service. As the report states, Southern is
“simultaneously running at absolute capacity at peak times, and undergoing a period of dramatic… change”.
The introduction of class 700s, new depots at Three Bridges and Hornsey, a doubling of Thameslink peak-hour trains to 24 through central London, and major infrastructure enhancements at London Bridge are all good improvements for passengers. They are vital to maintain a railway that has seen a massive increase in passenger numbers. As the report makes clear, Southern has been under strain with
“unreliable infrastructure, a timetable that is very tight and with overcrowded peak services”.
In some ways, the railways are a victim of success. In the days of British Rail, which the Opposition still seem to recall so fondly, the network was declining and, as Gibb points out, was relatively lightly used. In the 20 years since privatisation, passenger numbers have grown such that, on Southern’s routes, more passengers are now travelling than at any time in the past 90 years. The emphasis that Gibb places on collaborative working is welcome, as are the practical steps that he recommends to ensure that that takes place, many of which have already been implemented. I am pleased that on receipt of the report back in January the Government immediately committed £300 million to meet the basic infrastructure requirements that were set out. It is good to hear the Department’s strong commitment to ensuring that the region secures the investment it requires.
The report also has lessons for the operator, and Gibb makes clear the complexity of the Southern operator’s task. There are few, and I am certainly not among them, who view the scale of the franchise as optimal. However, for those who believe that firing the operator would be a simple gain, Gibb argues persuasively that such an approach is naive. Twice operators have been replaced by Government emergency provision, as the shadow Minister said, and the report implies that this comes at greater cost. In both cases, the routes were running at steady state; Southern is going through a period of substantial change. The implication of the report is that firing the operator would be, at best, risky, and at worst could lead to chaotic failure.
However, it appears to me that the operator, in bidding for the franchise, was too optimistic about what it might be able to achieve by crewing via diagramming software. The system can be highly efficient when it works well, and in theory it should work brilliantly, but that requires perfect operating conditions, which are not what Network Rail delivers. I am therefore delighted by the Secretary of State’s commitment to the additional drivers who are being trained and coming online, and I am pleased that there are now more on-board staff than at the start of this process. They will increase resilience and reduce dependence on overtime. He is determined to ensure that we have a modern, resilient railway that delivers for its passengers. I congratulate him on commissioning this report, and I thank Mr Gibb for his work.
I appear to have a very good hit rate with you so far, Madam Deputy Speaker. You have called me two days in a row.
I have seen great men and women stand at the Dispatch Box and take responsibility for things that were often beyond their control but within their Department’s remit. If we are honest, today’s debate has proceeded along some well-worn tramlines. Conservative Members have said that the entire problem with Southern rail is caused by industrial action, and Opposition Members have tried to acknowledge that the systemic failure has wider implications. This debate was set up to fail from its opening remarks. It is important to be aware that it is not a bug within the system that the Secretary of State chooses not to take responsibility for the situation; it is a feature.
I do not have to declare an interest other than that I commute daily to this place on Govia Thameslink, and the everyday experiences of my constituents, which in some cases mirror my own, are at the forefront of my mind. The House has to take responsibility for the very real failings of the system as a whole and plot a course out of them, and I will explain why that is important right now.
How did we get here? Gibb identifies three or four major factors. First, there is no single system operator. With particular regard to Southern, he says:
“The rushed 1990s privatisation...failed to understand the critical needs of the system”.
We see that in the fragmentation across the planning and the response to critical failures. I have had conversations with the train operating companies, which revealed that they could perhaps better manage disruption if they put their own staff in the control room—so that other train operators, which are already in the control room, do not put their services in front. That is a pretty basic failing, but it underlines the fact that there is not a single point of accountability for this failure.
Does my hon. Friend not think that the Department for Transport should be stepping into that role?
My hon. Friend pre-empts my idea. We should recognise Southern rail as a critical piece of infrastructure for London, the south-east and the whole United Kingdom and treat it as such. The Government should take custody and oversee Southern rail.
Secondly, the £6 billion investment in the Thameslink programme will bring very real benefits, but unfortunately it has been bolted on to a system that has some basic failings. This major infrastructure programme is specified by DFT and led by Network Rail, but it is being put at risk because the basics are being ignored. Gibb instructs DFT to make a call in this calendar year about whether, given what we know about the system, we can turn on an increase in capacity through that £6 billion investment. That is a shocking state of affairs to find ourselves in: the basic infrastructure failures of this system could cause us to waste that money or to delay implementation.
In my constituency, in Luton, we have been trying to get a station rebuild since the Government cancelled the money when they first came to power in 2010. The need is desperate; the station is recognised as one of the 10 worst in the country. The net effect of the Thameslink programme was to make our station worse, as we have gone to 12-car platforms and we have reduced disabled access, and I struggle to explain to my constituents the benefits that will come. My fear is that we will not be able to explain to them why there is not a commensurate increase in capacity, as a result of the basic failings that Gibb identifies.
Thirdly, we have a fragmented system, with not enough focus on integration. Gibb says:
“The infrastructure on the Southern network is in a poor and unreliable condition.”
He goes on to explain that some of these things relate to pretty basic aspects of railway maintenance, such as renewing sleepers, tackling vegetation and dealing with fencing. What an indictment of a system: it does not prioritise the basic upkeep. I served on the Transport Committee in 2010 when we reported on the cold weather disruption, as did the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), who is in his place. That report identified that the third rail running south of London was a major problem, yet we have still struggled to tackle that basic thing. I hope that the Transport Committee will look at the future shape of this franchise at the earliest available opportunity, so that Members will have a chance to have an input there.
Fourthly, all of this situation was led by Government decision making. In the last Parliament, I took a view that with this major infrastructure programme coming in it was not appropriate to let this franchise in the normal commercial way. My view was that it was better for government to manage it. These stations are dealing with one third of all passenger journeys in this country. In a sense, the Government found a halfway house, as they went with a management-style contract in which they took on a large degree of risk and the incentives were changed for the operator. That was a mistake; it was neither fair nor foul, and we are trying to manage a contract that would not work in the first place. Gibb’s comments in the report about why the franchisee was chosen are instructive. It is an open secret that for a long time Sunday services have been cancelled, because, for example, insufficient drivers work on Sundays. The answer to that is not to bully drivers into coming into work; a contract has been taken on and if the operator wants to change the terms and conditions, they should bring forward appropriate proposals.
If this were any kind of project other than Britain’s fragmented railways, we would have an Olympic-style delivery authority taking over this network. It is key to our infrastructure, but nobody is accountable, and the clear message from the Secretary of State today from that Dispatch Box was not that he took responsibility; it was to say, “I am not to blame.” It is time we had a serious discussion. This franchise highlights the problems with our fragmented railway system, and we need to tackle them.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I warmly welcome you to your place, and I warmly recommend and welcome the Gibb report on the performance of Southern rail. I thank Chris Gibb for posing some serious challenges for us all to consider this afternoon.
I wish to focus on a couple of those proposals before turning my attention to what the report outlines as the primary cause for the system integrity to fail: the industrial action, and the illogical position taken by the rail unions and their members. First, let me talk about the resilience in the system. Rail has been one of the great success stories of the past 20 years, but its success has caused the current problem, in that passenger numbers have doubled, but investment in trains and track has not. With 23% of all rail passengers using the Southern network, it only takes one ingredient to fail and the entire network goes down, as this report makes clear.
The report contains difficult sections for hon. Members to consider. It recommends that trains “non-stop” at more stations; that daytime closures occur to allow for engineering; that off-peak services are reduced to give more resilience and allow preparation for the challenge of the peak period in rush hour; that Gatwick station is transferred over to the airport operator; and that depots are transferred to reduce empty trains on the network. It is important that we focus on the big prize and recognise that that series of measures, taken together, could give the system the resilience it so badly needs.
Another recommendation is that some services be transferred from Southern to Southeastern. My right hon. Friend and neighbour, the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), has championed a project to extend High Speed 1 from Ashford to Bexhill, Hastings and Rye. With the innovation in train technology whereby expensive overhead electrification can be substituted by a system of hybrid trains that charge themselves over track, my right hon. Friend’s project looks within reach. As it would require the relevant part of the network to be transferred from Southern to Southeastern, we welcome that recommendation in the report and ask the Department for Transport, Network Rail and the train operators to make the necessary investment in extending High Speed 1. As the Gibb report notes, Southern’s Sussex coast line is at the bottom of the table for capacity, with only 52% of passengers satisfied that they have sufficient carriage space. We badly need to extend High Speed 1 to improve their experience.
I had a seat on the Select Committee on Transport in the last Parliament, I have a constituency reliant on Southern’s services to get people to work and college, and I have had a season ticket on Southern for the past 10 years, so I have witnessed the illogical and devastating impact the industrial action has caused. I say “illogical” because no drivers or second crew members are losing their job—indeed, as we have heard, 100 additional second crew members have been recruited, and trains will operate without a second crew member only in exceptional circumstances, such as when the crew member is stuck on another part of the line. Secondly, no employees will lose pay—indeed, train drivers are being offered a 23% increase to take their pay for a four-day 35-hour week to £60,000, and most would earn £70,000 by working the fifth day.
Thirdly, the crew are not being asked to do anything novel. The dispute is allegedly about a driver controlling doors, but as we have heard, 30% of our rail network has run in that manner for more than 30 years and many of the trains have no second crew member at all. Fourthly, this practice is deemed to be safe. The report by Dr Ian Prosser, the rail safety regulator, has been mentioned. When called on by the rail unions to confirm that the practice was safe, Dr Prosser did just that. In fact, it can be argued that the practice is safer than other modes of operation. A coroner looking into the death of a passenger who fell on to Merseyrail tracks recommended that the operations be focused in one person; that the driver should control both the doors and movement of the train. That links to another argument that driver-controlled doors are even safer. As I saw with the Transport Committee when I travelled in a train driver’s cab, when carriage doors are opening and closing, it is entirely possible to see on the video display unit what is coming in and out of the train. That is what the rail regulator has opined on, but the video can also run as the train moves through the station. At the moment, a conductor cannot see what is happening on the platform once the doors have closed. Unfortunately, that video capacity is not being used at the moment, but it should be. If it were, the system would be safer than current practices.
Although the lack of logic is frustrating, it is the devastating impact on individuals, families and businesses that distresses me the most. People have lost their job because they cannot get to or from work; they have lost earnings because many earning less than £49,000 a year cannot commute to London for higher wages; and they have lost precious time with their family, which they will never get back. The economy in my area, much of it based on travel and tourism, has lost £40 million. Public services have suffered because essential workers cannot get to hospitals and schools or will not relocate to our region because they will be unable to do so. As a result, tax yields go down as well. For people such as Labour Members to call for protection of and investment in public services while supporting their degradation via this strike is rank hypocrisy and a disgrace.
I welcome the report and its findings. I hope very much that we can implement the recommendations and that the unions will cease their pointless action.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. After the next speaker, the time limit will be reduced to five minutes. I call Peter Kyle.
What a huge honour it is, Madam Deputy Speaker, to be called to speak for the first time in this Parliament under your leadership in the Chair. I congratulate you on your elevation.
I share the frustration of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Mr Shuker) that, sometimes in this debate, we have been speaking most about the thing that Chris Gibb spoke about the least. That has been an intense source of frustration. Like every passenger, I utterly despair of the situation. If the Gibb report teaches us anything, it is that there is a lot of blame to go around. No organisation is blameless and, right now, a small amount of humility would go a very long way. That is why the Gibb report is such a useful tool and a credit to him as its author. For the first time we, as parliamentarians and passengers, can finally see behind the smoke and mirrors and grasp the full extent of the dysfunction that is the root cause of today’s problems.
The Gibb report states that,
“all of the elements of the system have been under strain: unreliable infrastructure, a timetable that is very tight…some key stations that are overcrowded, depots that are full and…in the wrong place, and people that are involved in informal and formal industrial action.”
This, in one paragraph, explains why the network has experienced so many catastrophic failures even before the start of the most recent industrial action. For example, two summers ago, Southern reduced its timetable by two thirds for almost four months. It was a terrible blow for commuters. The reason was a shortage of drivers. It was inexplicable to passengers how such a stupid act of planning and incompetence could have happened, and the consequences were far-reaching.
At the time, neither Southern nor the Government would accept responsibility for the shortage, simply blaming, as the Minister did today, the length of time it takes to train new drivers. When things go wrong, passengers deserve two things: an honest explanation of what has gone wrong; and the belief that lessons have been learned and will never be repeated.
This situation has become the “new normal” for passengers. It is a “normal” that has wrecked careers, broken relationships and hampered the economy of the south-east of England. Large businesses such as Brighton and Hove Albion have lost more than £l million in revenue, while charities such as Brighton and Hove Pride lost £140,000 last summer alone.
My point is simple: continued failure on our rail network is not a victimless situation. Its impact is felt deep and wide throughout our communities. That is the reason why an all-party group for the southern commuter was established almost two years ago. It has been an honour to co-chair the group with the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), who is in his place. The group has transcended party boundaries, which has been incredibly important in such a difficult situation.
The Gibb report is clear on the way forward. We need better leadership, more partnership, and much more investment than has been the case for generations. On leadership, the report says that
“the custodian of the overall system integrity should be better identified, empowered and trusted.”
Gibb goes on to recommend the creation of a “system operator”. That is a logical conclusion of the leadership vacuum that has been created by a botched privatisation and an over-fragmented system. It also begs an important question: what on earth is the point of having a Secretary of State, a railways Minister and an entire Department for Transport if we now need a new person to come and give leadership to our rail network? What exactly are Ministers doing—or not doing—that is leaving such a leadership vacuum in our rail network? Rather than having a new rail boss, or “super-boss”, can the current ones not just do their jobs properly? Heaven knows, they are paid enough to do it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Minister is unable to show that leadership, he should think about resigning?
It is an honour to take an intervention from my hon. Friend for the very first time. May I welcome him to his place? There have been failures right across the board. Right now, what passengers really need is for people in those positions to get a grip without delay.
Infrastructure investment is the final piece of the jigsaw. On page 5, the report states:
“The infrastructure on the Southern network is in a poor and unreliable condition”.
The blame for that rests with successive Governments, not with this one alone. Passengers are shocked to hear of the historic under-investment in their rail network. The south-east of England accounts for 30% of our country’s passenger journeys but only 15% of the investment. At a time when Government are focused on HS2 at a cost of over £30 billion, too little is being spent on what Lord Adonis, chair of the Government’s National Infrastructure Commission, said is the greatest transport challenge that we face, which is getting people to and from work every day in the south-east of England.
The Government have unlocked £300 million of funding for immediate investment in the south-east, but to stand a chance of delivering the robust infrastructure we need, this level of investment simply must continue into the next control period.
I agree with every word that the hon. Gentleman says, but does he agree that it is now all the more important to come to an agreement between all the parties, so that this infrastructure investment may proceed? Without it, it frankly would not make sense to create that level of infrastructure.
I could not agree more. I have said so to the right hon. Gentleman off the record, and am happy to say so in this place. I am calling on the unions to get around the table and, as I have said to the Minister in person, I hope that Ministers will be more muscular and more active in this process, rather than sitting on the sidelines. Every party needs to get around the table actively to resolve this problem for and on behalf of passengers.
It is imperative that Government confirm without delay that they will continue investment into the next control period, guaranteeing that up to £l billion will be available for the entirety of that period. Once this industrial action is settled and the remaining structural challenges are once again the focus of our attention, passengers will rightfully demand month-on-month improvements in the service they actually experience. Right now, the infrastructure that underpins our system is too weak to offer the robust improvements that passengers deserve. We must move unrelentingly towards the point where our rail network is bulletproof.
Within a month of becoming an MP, I had asked Ministers to scrap the class 313 units from the Coastway route. Some were built in 1976 and none has a toilet. These trains are loathed by everyone. Some of the things the report finds are so blindingly obvious that they prompt the question why it took the report to say them in the first place. Then there are things that I did not know about, such as suicide hotspots, bridges being struck by vehicles due to lack of signage, and unnecessarily crowded timetabling for historical reasons.
Why we needed an independent review to tell us these things is beyond me. Government, GTR and Network Rail should have easily had the capacity to sort these things out without the need for an independent assessor, but we are where we are. At last we have the manual on how to improve our system. It is now up to the Government and their partners to make it a reality and this Parliament to scrutinise, challenge and support it every step of the way. I, for one, will not let up in that task.
What a pleasure it is to see you in your place, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thank the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) for all he has done, along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), on the all-party parliamentary group on Southern rail. I hope that the group will reform as soon as he is ready.
This is a particularly important debate for me and it is one that is very close to my home, in the sense that I live very near a station on the Southern line, from which I take a train to get here. This situation has had a huge impact on my life and the lives of many of the people I have the privilege to represent. People around our communities cannot get home. Children cannot get to school and therefore the parents, even if they could have got to work, cannot go because they do not have emergency childcare.
I have been working very closely with my hon. Friend the Minister, who has done enormous amounts of work of late to ensure that the rail network gets the money it requires. But in the Gibb report we find many indications of why this is not just about money. It is about so much more. It is about huge amounts of time and infrastructure, and that is why I shall skip over the industrial relations that have been so adequately covered by many of my right hon. and hon. Friends and over some of the aspects of union power touched on by those who are my friends, even if they sit on the other side of the House. I shall focus instead on areas in which we need to take the Gibb report seriously.
As various people know, electrification of the Uckfield line has been spoken about since the 1970s. It was, I believe, the last track to use a steam engine for regular commuting services, right up to the 1970s, and now that legacy is coming through on the diesel line. Surely enough is enough. It is 2017, Thomas the Tank Engine is on an iPad—he is not even a book any more—yet we have diesel trains running on what should frankly be electric tracks. Please, Minister, can we have the electrification we need? Can we catch up with the iPad generation?
There are many people from Edenbridge and District Rail Travellers Association with whom I have been working very closely who have spoken about this and about how we can get this done: how to get the lines dualled—or rather, redualled, as the dual line was removed in the 1990s. Perhaps—here is the real chance—we can get the line to run beyond Uckfield. Imagine that, Madam Deputy Speaker: taking your holidays and deciding that instead of driving down—you do not want to do that, through Croydon and south London, on all those crowded roads—you will get on the tube at Westminster. You take the Jubilee line straight through to London Bridge, where you get on the train. You will travel down some of the most beautiful tracks in Kent, but then you end up by accident in Sussex. However, you will still go through beautiful parts of Kent, travelling on from Uckfield down to the coast. Imagine that, Madam Deputy Speaker, for an evening in Brighton after a day in the House. I can see that you are already desirous of those moments.
I can see that that is something that we can all aim for. There are many issues that we can touch on: the parking at Cowden and Hever; the fact that many folk have to drive to stations such as Hildenborough or Sevenoaks, rather than getting on at the station nearest to them, which has an impact on the environment and road safety. These are narrow lanes with cyclists and horse riders. That is a danger for all of us.
Perhaps the most important issue is the fact that we have to invest in our future. Time and again, we have lived off the legacy of our great-grandparents’ thoughts and dreams—those investments that built the trains, bridges and roads. They were built by the Victorian and Edwardian generations, and in this new Elizabethan age surely we need to emulate that investment, because when we spend on the rail networks we are not spending on getting to London five minutes quicker; no, we are spending on making our nation great, and we are doing it because London is not just the people who live in it. All great metropolises depend on the networks they feed off, and there is none greater than ours and there is none that requires more investment.
Almost a century ago, the campaign to get a train station at Mitcham Eastfields began. The first questions in Parliament about a new station for Mitcham are believed to have been recorded by Hansard in the early 1930s. I myself was part of the campaign for a quarter of a century, so the House can imagine my delight in 2008 when the first train arrived from London Victoria at Mitcham Eastfields station at eight minutes past four on Monday 2 June. The station connects Mitcham with central London in just 19 minutes, and since it opened nine years ago, the growth of the area has been remarkable, with residents now able to commute to work in central London. Mitcham Eastfields has been a huge boost for local housing, and has enabled more students and teachers to access St Mark’s Academy and other local schools. The opening of the station is one of my proudest achievements as the Member of Parliament for Mitcham and Morden.
Unfortunately, Southern rail operates the services that run through Mitcham Eastfields, as well as the other stations in my constituency, including St Helier and Mitcham Junction. My constituents comprise many of the 300,000 passengers who use Southern rail every single day, paying extortionate ticket prices for an appalling service. When Mitcham station was opened, all the tools were there for the growth of Mitcham and ease of transport for my constituents. Because of Southern rail, the reality is the worst rail disruption since 1994. A phone call yesterday from my constituent, Mark, summed it all up. In his words,
“the drivers are often missing, the trains often break down, and I don’t think there is a single day that the train is on time. And that’s not down to striking staff.”
My constituent, Arexa, was put on disciplinary measures and subsequently lost her job in retail because of the unacceptable regularity of Southern delays. Her story is not unique. Only last month my constituent, William, left his dream job, as the company where he worked could not continue to tolerate his lateness. In fact, my constituent, Collis, uses the phrase, “daily REG”—random excuse generator—for the explanation that Southern give for their appalling service. It is not the service that he and his wife deserve, as they pay over £3,000 a year.
In the last week, services in my constituency have been slashed by even more than was publicised, and the current revised timetable has dropped direct off-peak services from London Victoria. Similarly, the proposed new timetable from May 2018 sees a reduction in rush-hour trains, and there is a gap of nearly 30 minutes between the off-peak trains. It is so frustrating to see the intermediate services fly through Mitcham Eastfields without stopping, helping the Surrey shires at the expense of suburban Mitcham.
It is clear that Southern rail is not working and shows little sign of improvement. The services should be transferred to the Mayor of London. Transport for London clearly has the experience and proven track record of running world-class public transport in the capital. In fact, the Gibb report suggests that parts of Southern would be better operated by Transport for London, and I wonder whether that is the reason why the whole of appendix 9 has been redacted from the report.
This issue is beyond politics, and it is affecting the quality of life of thousands of people—people who get up early, go to work, pay their taxes and, on top of that, pay hideously high fares. All they ask in return is for the trains to run on time.
I welcome the Gibb report and agree with almost every one of its findings, and I will not go over many of the comments made by right hon. and hon. Members this afternoon.
My constituency has been particularly affected by the 18 months to two years of disruption we have faced on the Southern rail network. The constituency is served solely by Southern, so there are no alternative rail routes. It is also very rural, and there is no bus service in many parts, so people either drive or get the train—otherwise, they are left completely stranded.
The 18 months of sheer misery were caused by a whole range of things; all the reasons are laid out in the Gibb report, and Southern rail, which I am no fan of, has played its part in this. That has led to dangerous conditions for many passengers. Many times, we are turfed out at Haywards Heath, when the train is terminated and we can go no further. On a dark winter’s night, when there are no taxis about, and there is no other way of getting around, there will be elderly passengers left there, young mums who are desperate to get home to their children, and people who are just trying to get home from work. That has been the legacy of the last 18 months.
We are a tourist destination—we are set on the beautiful south coast, and we are also in the South Downs national park—but the disruption has hit at peak times. In the tourist season last summer, we saw a 25% drop in business in many of our retail areas, and they were hit again during the Christmas period. This has been a devastating time for the tourist parts of my constituency, and businesses are only just starting to pick up now.
Things have improved. Performance rates have improved, and we are now around the 90% mark for daily performance, which has to be welcome. Passengers have started to get used to being able to rely on the train service and feel safe on it, and businesses are starting to see their customers come back and to do business. So for the problems to start up once again, with overtime bans and ballots for strike action, is absolutely heart-breaking.
We are seeking the second person—the on-board supervisor—on trains. When I go back late at night, I see that second person, and it is reassuring to have them there. I would not support a deal that removed them completely. I absolutely welcome the work they do, and I am pleased they are still there.
Southern still has some passenger care issues to tackle. The Gibb report shows that we are on the most congested rail network in the south-east, and the trains are heavily congested. It is an hour and a half’s journey to London, but time after time—even this week, with the overtime ban—first class is not declassified. We had an incident only last week involving a pregnant woman being told off for sitting in first class, but other trains had been cancelled because of the overtime ban. That is a Southern rail customer service issue; it is not something that should be acceptable in this day and age.
Facilities for disabled passengers are a key issue. In an Adjournment debate earlier in the year, I raised the issue of toilet facilities at Haywards Heath, where our trains join to go into London. There are some fantastic facilities now, and people can drive into the new car park and get the lift straight down on to the platform, but there are no toilet facilities for disabled passengers. It is that sort of customer care that Southern still needs to address. When the Minister responded to the Adjournment debate he was fairly positive in urging Southern rail to try to bring on some of the facilities that it has promised.
We also need to look at issues of the flexible season tickets that we were promised when the franchise was let. Many passengers travel to work two or three days a week and the rest of the time work from home. We were promised flexible season tickets. It cannot be right that someone has to purchase a full season ticket when they are only using it two or three days a week. We urge Southern to deliver on its promises and its commitment in the franchise.
I welcome the huge investment that is going into the main rail line, which has been underinvested in for decades, causing 50% of the delays over the past 18 months. That urgent money that the Government have put in is making a difference, and it is a significant reason why performance has improved over the past few months. My final plea is for us to look at Brighton main line 2. If we had a second main rail line, it would enable many of the works that need to be done on the line to be done and give us an alternative route from Sussex to London.
May I, Madam Deputy Speaker, add my congratulations to you following others that have been expressed? It is a pleasure to see you in your place.
I welcome this debate, as the Secretary of State has some major information gaps to fill and some serious questions to answer. It is a shame that he left the Chamber almost as soon as he could, because on top of the six-month delay between the Government receiving the report and its publication, we have had no serious formal Government response. The Minister’s 500-word statement barely stretches to a side of A4. That is indicative of the whole attitude that we are seeing from the Government—all hands-off and no leadership. After two years of the Brighton main line rail nightmare, my constituents expect more and deserve better. They have regularly been in tears of anger and frustration. We have heard the stories of jobs lost, relationships broken up, and businesses taking a very serious hit in Brighton and Hove. All the while, passengers continue to pay through the nose for Britain’s worst-performing rail service.
I have listened to the Secretary of State today. May I point out to him that it will not help passengers to heap all the blame for our long-running rail nightmare on to the unions? The people who work on our railways every day—people who are trained to a safety-critical standard and work on the frontline—are raising specific concerns about access and safety that have yet to be answered. Moreover, the Secretary of State simply cannot keep up the pretence that this two-year-long fiasco is nothing to do with him and the Government. The buck stops with him, whether he likes it or not, and chronic problems long predate the industrial action. That action started a little over a year ago, at the end of last April, whereas we have had enduring problems for well over two years. A glance at the graph on page 93 of the Gibb report makes that very clear. Southern was the worst-performing company a very long time before any industrial action took place.
As the Secretary of State well knows, Chris Gibb says that
“all the elements of the system have been under strain”.
He says that Southern rail was attempting to run too many trains on poor and unreliable infrastructure. He makes a lot of technical suggestions on issues such as signalling, timetabling and service patterns. He says, critically, that strategic leadership is missing. That is not news for long-suffering passengers. With regard to this dispute, the bottom line is that there has been a chronic lack of leadership from this Government and from Ministers. It is plain that we are not going to get anywhere unless we get people talking together.
Does the hon. Lady agree that this is a case of “a plague on all their houses”—that Southern, Network Rail, the unions, and indeed, I am afraid, Ministers, have all failed passengers? Does she agree that it might be worth investigating the possibility of using binding arbitration to get them in the same room to agree a way forward?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I certainly agree that we need a situation where everybody is in the room at the same time, not a strategy where certain unions are picked off separately, and not one where the Government do not sit in the room either.
In his report, Gibb makes it clear:
“In GTR ‘do nothing’ is not an option, so negotiations must be entered into.”
The Transport Committee has called for all parties, including the Government, to sit down together and resolve the dispute, and that was months ago. The involvement of Ministers in the industrial dispute is often officially denied but in one phrase Gibb lays bare their central role, saying that the Secretary of State is
“already determining the strategic direction of this dispute”.
If the person in this position will not get around the table without preconditions, I really do not see how we are going to make any progress.
Can the Minister also tell us where the famous appendix 9 —entitled “Recommendations regarding the GTR franchise agreement”—is? That appendix, which might just shed a bit of light on the issue, is conspicuous by its absence. My constituents think that Southern has failed, as do I, and we want to see that section of the report. Does the mysteriously missing appendix 9 actually tell us whether GTR is in breach of its contractual obligations? Is the censoring of that appendix in its entirety the reason why the report was kept hidden for half a year? Perhaps Ministers want to avoid being pushed for answers about whether GTR was in breach of contractual obligations.
In October 2016, the Select Committee told the Government to “get a grip” on the monitoring and enforcement of the franchise, to speed up their assessment of the franchisee’s force majeure claim and to be prepared to restructure or terminate the agreement should GTR be shown to be in default. Until the court case brought by the Association of British Commuters, however, no action was taken at all.
ABC is also raising interesting and important questions about the safety of the concourse at Victoria station, which I want to touch on briefly. Gibb says:
“At major stations such as Victoria, pedestrian flows, gateline and concourse capacity are all significantly influenced by commercial strategy.”
He pointed to the dangers that arise when many commuters are concentrated in very small areas of the concourse. He points to the Department for Transport as the place from where we should be getting leadership, but are we getting that leadership? Is Victoria safe from overcrowding? Can the Minister give us a timetable and a funding commitment for the works that are needed?
Finally, Gibb says that bringing the franchise into public hands would create disruption and result in projects having to be put on hold, but that lays bare the fact that the Government have allowed the travelling public effectively to be held to ransom by a failing operator. The Government have dismantled Directly Operated Railways, so if they had to strip GTR of the franchise, they would have very limited options in terms of current project delivery. That is a serious dereliction of Government duty.
The state has to guarantee that if the private sector fails, the Government can and will take the franchise back into public control. Without that, there is no stick. The Department needs to rectify the situation and must immediately start preparing a publicly owned organisation to take over on a clear and agreed date. If the industry knew that, for example, in six months’ time the GTR franchise would switch to a directly operated railway, projects could be provided without disruption and my constituents in Brighton Pavilion would have a chance of getting a better deal on the railways.
As this is the first time that I have spoken when you have been in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, may I offer my sincere congratulations on your recent election?
It is difficult, without risking being accused of hyperbole, to describe the sheer misery that passengers and commuters in my constituency and across the south have suffered in recent years because of the significant disruption to Southern Railway services. Many hon. and right hon. Members have described people losing their jobs and facing disciplinary hearings at their place of employment because they are consistently late for work.
At the other end of the day, I have come across many accounts of my constituents being unacceptably prevented from getting home to do the simple but very important things, such as reading their children a bedtime story or sitting around the table to have an evening meal together. Lives and livelihoods are literally being wrecked by the disruption. I have yet to cross you in this way, Madam Deputy Speaker, but many times I have been late to Question Time and debates in this Chamber because of delays to the Southern service that I regularly use to get to Westminster.
Why has this situation come about? I think the reasons are fourfold. First, the franchise structure has been bizarrely established by the Department for Transport. The Government need to learn some serious lessons about the structuring of train franchises. Secondly, as many hon. and right hon. Members have said, the network is by far the busiest in the country, and it is at capacity, or over capacity, on too many occasions. On that point, I particularly welcome the £300 million of investment for Network Rail that the Government are putting in to ensure that the engineering problems are addressed.
Thirdly, Southern and the parent company GTR have, frankly, not performed very well at all. Without repeating the stories that were told earlier, some of the ways in which they have treated their customers have been quite appalling. Lastly, as highlighted in the Gibb review—I congratulate the Government on initiating it last year—militant unions are determined to exploit the misery of passengers and this situation for their own political ends.
There is blame on all sides on this issue, but the people who are suffering—they are standing, often on cold platforms, in the middle of this argument—are the travelling public from my constituency and elsewhere in the country. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) says people are also standing on trains, and that is certainly my daily experience.
This situation needs to be addressed. There have been improvements, and I welcome the millions of pounds of additional investment at Three Bridges and Gatwick stations in my constituency, which is important. Quite frankly, however, there is the issue of the image of Britain that is created when people arrive at London Gatwick airport and try to get to our capital.
Will my hon. Friend comment on the impact on Gatwick? There are problems for my constituents commuting from Southampton to Brighton who decide to travel that way to avoid the M27, and indeed for people trying to get to Gatwick for flights, who are missing them after simply being left on the platform.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There has been a massive impact on the economy, for people trying to do business in the capital or around the south-east, and on lives, when people miss flights to go on holiday. That aspect has not always been highlighted, and I am grateful to her for giving me the chance to do so in the House today.
As I have said, this situation needs to be resolved. I call on the unions to stop their industrial action. A very generous offer is on the table, with over £60,000 for a 35-hour week for drivers. As we have heard, driver-operated doors have had a proven track record for over three decades on the London underground and many other rail systems around the world. As we have also heard, most of the guards on trains will simply be redeployed to more customer-focused efforts, which is very important, particularly in enabling them to help disabled passengers on the network. That means that rather than just standing by the doors that they are opening and closing, they can engage with and support customers better, which is very important.
I urge the unions to get fully back to work, and to support my constituents and other commuters. I urge the Government to continue their investment in our railway, particularly on the London to Brighton main line, and I urge Southern and GTR, as the operators, to be much more customer-friendly in the way they operate so that this misery can finally be ended.
It is a pleasure to be called by you for the first time, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The reality is that this franchise has been a bad franchise for a significant time: it has not worked. I find the finger-pointing at the unions slightly hypocritical, given that Peter Wilkinson, a senior official at the Department for Transport, said only last year:
“Over the next three years we’re going to be having punch ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support...we have got to break them.”
He said that employees had borrowed money for cars on their credit cards and could not afford to go on strike, and he went on and on. If that is not a political motivation to aggravate this strike, I do not know what is—it is a clear ratcheting up of the dispute. Of course, there is always blame on all sides, but the Government and the Department for Transport are in a position of responsibility.
We all want a resolution because we want to ensure our constituents can take the journeys they have paid for. The hon. Gentleman has talked about how much friction there is. I will read a quote from Mr Hedley, the RMT union assistant general secretary. He said on LBC:
“I think all the Tories are an absolute disgrace. They should be taken out and shot to be quite frank with you.”
Is that the new, gentler kind of politics that the Opposition agree with and believe will bring a resolution to this problem?
It does not help when the Government have not been getting the unions around the table in the same room without preconditions. That is how we de-escalate things. People in positions of responsibility, such as the Minister, need to come forward and de-escalate it, and not just point fingers and quote from the radio but actually show leadership.
The reality is that this dispute is not about money. We have heard a lot from the Conservatives about trying to shove cash into the mouths of drivers. This dispute is about safety and accessibility. The unions have put a clear proposal on the table. They have offered to come to a deal that will ensure that disabled and vulnerable people can turn up to the train station without having to give notice, and that there will be safe conditions on the trains. The unions would then withdraw their action. That offer has been disregarded by GTR and its puppet masters in the Government. I call them puppet masters because this is a rigged contract that allows GTR to continue to get the cash incentive to run a service that it fails to run—it does not lose a penny when ticket sales are not made. It does not have to bear the risk. The problem is the contract.
The Government clearly need to bring the contract in-house. Gibb says that that would be disruptive but, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) said, that is because the Government wound down the direct operator and have left themselves with their pants down. They are unable to run a service and they are unable to hold the contractors to account.
The hon. Gentleman has spent most of his speech panning the role of the Government and the Department for Transport and now he is saying that he wants the franchise to be brought in-house, to be run by that same Government and Department that he has been panning. I have no problem with the franchise being removed, but he has to have a care that whoever is taking it over can do a better job of it, and that is not clear at the moment. Could it be a case of out of the frying pan, into the fire?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right—I would not want the Minister to be directly running the railways. It seems that the Minister is barely able to run his own Department and get people around the table to negotiate, which is one of his key responsibilities. Directly Operated Railways operated well on the east coast franchise and the franchise taken off Connex South Eastern. The service improved and it brought money back to the Exchequer. That worked then, and I see no evidence why it would not work in future.
Of course, hon. Members can point fingers at each other—I will be pointing fingers at the Government—but we must try to resolve this without preconditions. That means getting the unions around the table. We must not say that they are welcome around the table only when they have called off their strike. The Government have not got them around the table and we need to make sure that that is done.
If I was a headteacher in a school and had to send my children home because I could not organise supply cover, I would be blamed—not the teachers or the supply teacher who did not turn up. The blame needs to be on the management and on the Government. They need to step up. Our constituents are suffering every single day because of their failings.
I congratulate you, Madam Deputy Speaker, on taking your place.
When I was first elected two years ago, I was campaigning to bring a number of extra train services to Sutton, including by extending the London Overground, but I was rightly told by many passengers—mainly Thameslink passengers, at that time—that they just wanted the trains that were already there to run on time. If we fast forward to today, the complaints about Thameslink in my postbag and my inbox have been clearly overtaken by complaints about Southern. One thing that I knew I was going to hate about being elected as an MP was the return to commuting, which I had not done for a little while. I have been furiously tweeting about the complaints I have received and about my own experience. I even missed a “meet the manager” event at London Victoria station, because I could not get there on one of its trains.
It is predominantly the Brighton main line that causes a lot of the problems in terms of infrastructure and poor linkages. A lot of the problems start when Sutton services link at Selhurst. That is where we need investment. All the trains that go through Sutton at the moment are driver-only operated, and they all work reasonably well until they get to that point.
In the short time I have to speak, I would like to make four points on how we need to sort this out. No one component, institution or organisation in this dispute has come out of it particularly well. The Department has to my mind built up a very unwieldy agreement that takes up 22% or 23% of the entire rail network within its structure. I would like that to be addressed when the franchise is up for renewal.
I would like the Mayor of London to have a greater say in the management of the suburban lines. Now, that is not the Kent line or the Sussex line.
I am glad my hon. Friend is clarifying the fact that he does not include in that the Sussex, Surrey or Kent lines, because of course we do not have a chance to vote for the Mayor of London.
I totally agree and I was very specific about that. The Mayor of London did himself no favours by overstepping that mark.
We need, with the congestion on the lines and the poor quality of the rail, to invest in the lines. The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) talked about the time it takes to get to Mitcham Eastfields. That is great in theory, but sometimes the trains go so slowly. Today, I was going to London Bridge and I might as well have been on a milk float, frankly, with the speed we were going—and then I might have even got a seat, which would have been a bonus.
Southern has been very abrasive in its approach to union matters, especially at the beginning. There are clearly too few carriages so we often have breakdowns, and there are too few drivers, hence the staff shortages, but we must come back to the unions. That is for no other reason than that they are the pressing issue. Chris Gibb said:
“The fact that nobody is being made redundant or losing pay against their wishes, that there will be more GTR trains operating with two people on board, and that safe Driver Only Operation is already extensive in GTR, the UK and Europe, just serves to make this dispute more difficult to comprehend, especially for passengers.”
Let us work backwards and get the unions around the table. Let us sort out this dispute and get a terrible service back to being just an incredibly poor service. From there, we can then make it to the next stage and get it to be a good service. As we have heard, the punctuality figures are starting to come up at the end of the dispute as drivers and new carriages are starting to come on stream. Let us get the £300 million investment in and, when the franchise comes up for renewal, let us look at it in the round and break it up so that it will be more manageable.
Thank you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker. I welcome you to the Chair, and thank you for chairing the debate. May I also put on record my proud relationship with working people through the trade unions, and declare my interest in that regard?
Today’s debate started abysmally. The Secretary of State for Transport failed to mention safety or access for disabled people once. His prejudices against working people came to the fore, clearly not from a party for working people. Thankfully, my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) brought us back to the Gibb report, and we heard a total of 19 contributions.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) for highlighting the consequences of brittle rostering and the problems caused by level crossings. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Mr Shuker) spoke of the bullying that drivers experienced in attempts to make them come to work on their days off. My hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) called for humility, and a focus on the breadth of the issues in the Gibb report. He also identified the Government’s failure of leadership. My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) talked of rail chaos, but stressed that it was not due to industrial action. My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle), who made the 18th contribution, focused on the issue of disability access.
The scene was set for the perfect storm. Today we have heard about the consequences for constituents, the industry and staff. Ageing infrastructure is failing because of a lack of resources and critical management to address vital maintenance. Heavy demand and over-capacity manifest themselves in overcrowding. New working practices—new timetables, new commencement of routes, new trains and technological advances—have been recommended, but there has been no strategic co-ordination to date. Above all, we have failed and fragmented franchises. Collaboration and strategic oversight were the last considerations, and the very worst outcomes from a profit-driven privatisation process have been apparent. Putting profit before passengers has resulted in their paying heavily: financially, for their tickets; in terms of the worst effects of overcrowding; and—Mr Gibb mentions this at every turn—in terms of having to deal with the complete unpredictability of the service. It has been utterly chaotic. The buck stops with the Government and the Secretary of State, whom even the courts have now told to exercise his force majeure to find a resolution.
It has all been matched by a safety-critical industry. Staff rightly fear that they will find themselves before an inquest following an incident involving a passenger, for whatever reason—perhaps because the technology has missed what a second, human, eye would see. It is all happening in a high-risk setting in which there is the potential for an accident, a landslide or terrorism, and the possibility of a driver or passenger falling ill, antisocial behaviour, or some other incident. Those with disabilities are pushed to the back of the queue when it comes to ensuring that people’s needs are met throughout their journey. As we have heard, only 3% of trains do not have a second safety-critical member of staff. We have to wonder why the Government cannot resolve this dispute, and give priority to the dignity of a disabled person who could be left on a platform.
All this is happening in a charged industrial environment in which the Government’s agents, and the Government themselves, have declared that rather than resolving the dispute, which would be easy to do, they are deliberately trying to fuel it—
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I do not have time.
They are deliberately trying to fuel the dispute owing to their ideological aversion to trade unions—wanting to “break them”, in the words of Mr. Wilkinson, the Department for Transport official—as opposed to listening and addressing the real concerns that have been raised and are apparent for all others to see.
The stakes are high, and the Gibb report, although conflicted, recognises that. It is a serious attempt to analyse the multiple problems with the network, focusing on 10 different areas of failure, and then bring those findings together.
Cutting through the layers of self-interest—and no part of the network comes out particularly well—Gibb’s recommendations have sought to put passengers at the centre and he has pragmatically analysed the steps that need to be taken to build one Southern rail service which collaborates across operators, infrastructure bodies, the regulator and contracted services such as maintenance companies, with a reform programme that not only challenges behaviours, but sets a template for the industry to refocus.
The immense task set requires all parties to take a step back and listen to what Gibb is actually saying between the lines of text. This is an immense challenge. There has to be transition. Problem solving and working together is the only way through this and a new approach must be adopted by all. There has to be space for everyone to raise their concerns and, instead of being met by a wall of denial, a bit more flexibility would provide a win for everyone. When people talk about staff shortages, that must be addressed; and when people talk about safety challenges, they must be heard.
I want to return to the fact that we live in critical times and throw this challenge down to the Government. Technology is advancing at a pace, and this is something that we can be immensely proud of. Over the next decade, engineering and digitalisation across the rail industry will take us to new places that even today are unimaginable. But the rail industry is ultimately about people and, as we progress from generation to generation, the reassurances we seek do not change. In a safety-critical environment, passengers want safety guaranteed.
Incidents do occur, and I will never forget working in intensive care as the Potters Bar tragedy happened, and the carnage that I faced as a clinician trying to save lives and put bodies back together. Life is too important.
We lose 40 people on the Southern rail network each year through suicide. That is traumatic for our drivers and of course tragic for those involved. Passengers, or even drivers, take ill. Threatening and antisocial behaviour still occurs. Women can still feel unsafe travelling alone at night, as the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) reminded us—and I note that there is no woman’s voice in the Secretary of State’s team; perhaps that would have been helpful to understand those safety-critical issues.
Terrorism is now a reality that hovers in all of our minds. Overcrowded stations and overcrowded trains do create risks. A disabled person may need assistance, not just with boarding and alighting, but throughout their journey. Who will be the passenger champion on each train? Who will keep them safe? Who will have the vital training in order to carry out those vital tasks? Who will provide the second set of eyes to support safe departure and keep the public safe? Those are the real questions the workers are asking and the Government are refusing to hear, and these are the issues that must be addressed for the sake of the public.
The Government would never dream of taking away cabin crew on a short flight, and yet, on journeys which may take a lot longer, removing the one person who keeps us safe, can answer our questions and concerns, and can help meet our needs, is doing the reverse of establishing what Gibb is calling for: a passenger-centred service.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) said, none of us want to stand at this Dispatch Box and lament, “if only”, and recite that “lessons must be learned.” That is why Labour would build a united, integrated, safe, accessible and functioning service for the passengers, and we would also champion the rights of passengers.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time in your new role. I also welcome the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) to her place as a new shadow Minister. Having had to face the Transport Committee on this very issue on day two of my job, I know the challenge of taking up this complex issue at short notice, and the hon. Lady has acquitted herself well in her performance at the Dispatch Box. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members across the Chamber for participating in this helpful debate today, particularly those whose constituencies are on the line of route—whatever party they represent—who have worked so hard to support their constituents and deal with the impact of the disruption over the past months.
I believe that we have to continue to apologise to all those passengers who have been affected by the disputes and the disruption. We have heard many Members speak eloquently today about lives that have been disrupted, jobs that have not been a success and people who have been unable to get the treatment they need. We have heard so many examples, and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) spoke most eloquently about the impact on her constituency.
It is worth reflecting on why we asked for this report in the first place. The hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) seemed to suggest that I should have sufficient knowledge of these matters to know precisely what was wrong immediately. I think we can all agree that Mr Gibb was a powerful and persuasive performer when he met the all-party parliamentary group on Southern rail, and I brought him in precisely because, in my early days in this role, I wanted to understand what the real issues on the network were. We were having an epidemic of finger-pointing, and I wanted someone with a lifetime’s experience on the railway, in whom everyone on all sides had confidence, to come in and analyse the situation. I think that that is what Mr Gibb has done, and I was surprised to hear some Opposition Members express surprise that he had sought to meet representatives of GTR. I do not think he could have written a proper report without doing so.
It is worth restating the central finding of the report, which is that, were it not for the actions of the unions, passengers would have experienced a much better service. Ultimately then, the quickest and surest path to improvements on Southern is for the unions to refrain from their intransigence. Members on both sides have said that many factors lie behind the poor performance on Southern, and yes, there are lessons for the Department, but one thing is abundantly clear: when the service is not subject to industrial action, performance improves because of the actions that Mr Gibb has recommended.
The Minister is quite right to say that the service has improved over the past six months when industrial action has not been running. However, in the previous two years, service levels were falling without any industrial action taking place. The central finding of the Gibb report is that we need another £1 billion in the next period after this funding agreement. Will the Government provide it?
I will come to that in a moment. The hon. Gentleman has spoken sensibly on this issue, as did the hon. Member for Luton South (Mr Shuker). They both made thoughtful contributions to the debate. I will do my best to answer all the points that have been raised, but I doubt that I will succeed in the eight minutes remaining. I will do my best to write to anyone I miss.
I am grateful to the Minister for taking my intervention. I did not speak earlier because I missed most of the debate. I would just ask him to mention one thing that was not covered. We made a manifesto commitment to customers to establish a railway ombudsman to ensure that the operators are properly penalised when they provide a rubbish service, so that customers do not have to jump through all sorts of hoops to get the compensation to which they are entitled.
I am glad that my hon. Friend mentioned that. It was indeed a manifesto commitment, and it is my personal crusade. I am determined to ensure that we bring it in, partly because of what I have seen for myself in dealing with the issues on Southern. I have had meetings today and—as they always say at the Dispatch Box—I will have further meetings in due course. I believe that this proposal is on track, and we hope to deliver it as soon as possible. I am sure that it will be welcomed across the House.
We have talked about some of the wider pressures on the network. The £300 million investment that we announced in January was a specific response to many of Mr Gibb’s recommendations, but I recognise that more will be needed. The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), who spoke for the Scottish National party, asked about the speed with which it would be spent. We made it clear from day one that it would be spent up to the end of control period 5—that is, until December 2018. That money is being spent at the moment, in addition to the £20 million he referred to. It is, for example, being spent on replacing old tracks, points and signalling. That is not just a matter of replacing bits of old kit; it will result in 15% fewer delay minutes and a more reliable and resilient railway.
There are other examples. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) showed interest in high output ballast cleaning, and I can happily share with him that that is about replacing the ballast on the track. One might think that it is just a matter of cosmetics—not at all. Not only does it provide a smoother journey, but it reduces the number of temporary speed restrictions that increase perturbation on the network and make it harder to adhere to the timetable. Some £17 million has been spent on vegetation clearance, which may also appear to be a matter of cosmetics, but two of the five most recent incidents in the last control period that caused significant delays were due to trespassing. There is a clear link between vegetation management and the likelihood of trespassing on the railways, and that causes delays on the railways.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) mentioned the Uckfield electrification. We are well aware of that project, and we are looking at it closely to ensure that we have the best possible business case. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes referred to BML2, and I know that the Secretary of State has met with the group and is urging it to carry on its work. Others have mentioned issues at stations. A particular finding about Victoria of Mr Gibb’s is that we need single station leadership, much like that being developed at London Bridge. A problem at stations is when train operating companies and Network Rail are all trying to make different decisions at the same time. We need single station leadership at our major termini.
We also recognise—I recognised it on day two at the Transport Committee—that the number of drivers at the start of the franchise was inadequate. We needed to understand why that was. Some of it was down to unexpected departures—fine—but I wanted to be clear about what procedures the Department had in place to ensure that any franchise handover involved adequate driver numbers. I am delighted that we now have over 322 drivers in training across the GTR network, but it takes 18 months to train a driver adequately with the route knowledge they need to operate safely on the network. I look forward to those drivers being part of the GTR network, reducing the reliance upon overtime and reducing the impact of any ASLEF overtime ban.
As we have heard, performance has been significantly better when we have not been facing industrial action. Back in December, it was as low as 62% on the PPM measure, but it is now at 82.5%. That is positive, but it came about only because so many of Mr Gibb’s recommendations have already been put in place. Many people referred to the benefits of smart ticketing. I constantly urge GTR to do more with its key and keyGo smart cards, and I look forward to that benefiting constituents, particularly those in Lewes, soon.
The hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) mentioned the Thameslink programme, and my understanding is that many journeys on the East Midlands Trains franchise will be significantly shorter due to the new Thameslink timetable. That is why Mr Gibb is continuing in his role for the Department and is looking at the Thameslink readiness board, ensuring that all the different actors work together in that complex interaction, which will deliver a significant enhancement to the railway. I look forward to sharing more information with the hon. Lady. Mr Gibb’s willingness to chair the Thameslink readiness board is a sign that an approach to rail where we use expert knowledge and bring it to the table ensures that both Network Rail—many Opposition Members seem to forget that it is publicly owned—and train operating companies point in the same direction and have aligned incentives. She also briefly talked about level crossings, which I take seriously. We must ensure that the Law Commission proposal does what it seeks to achieve, but we also want to address safety around level crossings more widely—not just how we close them more quickly.
We will continue to do all that we can to try to bring an end to the dispute. We have no magic wand, but some evidence that a resolution can be reached is that ASLEF and GTR met for 32 days and managed to reach agreement on two occasions. That proves that things can be done without a Minister having to sit in the room. They are actually grown-ups, and they can reach agreement.
I am afraid that I have already given way.
In conclusion, a lot has gone on already, but there will be a lot more to do. There is far more to do to ensure that all passengers get the timely, punctual and reliable service that they deserve on this railway. My Department will work hard to ensure that that happens. I thank everyone for their participation today.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Chris Gibb Report: Improvements to Southern Railway.