I need to inform the House that Mr Speaker has selected amendment (a) in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. Under the terms of the business motion agreed today, the amendment will be moved formally at the end of the debate.
I beg to move,
That this House recognises the vital role of the railways in supporting people and businesses across the UK every day; condemns the decision of the rail unions to hold three days of strikes; believes those strikes will adversely affect students taking examinations, have an unacceptable effect on working people and a negative effect on the economy; and calls on the rail unions to reconsider their strike action and continue discussions with the industry.
The railway is one of the nation’s greatest legacies. The industrial revolution was forged upon it, and for two centuries it has been the means by which we have connected north and south, east and west. It is a proud part of our history, but the truth is that the railways in this country have fallen behind the times. When I became Transport Secretary three years ago, it was clear that our railways were expensive, inefficient, fragmented, unaccountable and desperately in need of modernising and reform. There were delays to upgrades, collapsing franchises and busy lines operating at the very peak of, and sometimes beyond, their capacity, suffering overcrowding and delays. Some working practices had not changed for decades. As a result, we have a railway today that is struggling to keep pace with modern living, particularly in the wake of the pandemic. Our railways need a new direction.
Office workers are working from home more often and the railway has lost around a fifth of its passengers, and also a fifth of its income. The Government kept the railway running when most passengers stayed at home. We kept trains available for key workers and protected the brilliant railway workers who managed the track and ran the trains. So this Government have stepped in. We put our money where our mouth is and we committed £16 billion to support the railways through covid. That is taxpayers’ money, and it is the equivalent of £600 for every household in this country. Put another way, it is the equivalent to £160,000 per rail worker in this country. As a result, the trains continued to operate, the industry survived and not a single railway worker had to be furloughed or lost their job—not one. We stepped up, but the honest truth is that this level of subsidy—which, let us not forget, is not the Government’s money but the taxpayer’s—simply cannot continue forever. If our railways are to thrive, things must change.
As I see it, there are four ways to bring about that change. First, we could continue to attempt to pump billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money into the system in the same unsustainable way we have been doing for the last two years, but that would take money away from the NHS and schools. Secondly, we could ramp up fares, but that would price working people off our railways completely. Thirdly, we could cut services and lines, emulating those sweeping cuts made by Dr Beeching in the 1960s, making it harder for people to access our railways. I do not support any of those options, which leaves us with the fourth option: modernise the railways, making them more productive and getting the industry off taxpayer-funded life support.
Make no mistake, as a Government we profoundly believe in our railways, which is why we have reopened abandoned routes and electrified thousands of miles of lines—not just the 63 miles that Labour managed to electrify over 13 years. It is why we have got behind projects such as High Speed 2, the Elizabeth line and Northern Powerhouse Rail, and rolled out contactless to 900 more stations and digital signalling across the network. And it is why we are transforming the industry through Great British Railways, ending the fragmentation and putting passengers first, but we need the industry to help with that transformation.
The Secretary of State rightly says that billions were pumped into the railways during the covid pandemic. That money kept the system going, and a lot of people worked very hard to keep it going. The train operating companies were preserved and supported, and they did very well during that period, as did many others in the private sector. Why is he now punishing the people who kept the railway system working, and who do all the difficult jobs on the railways, with job losses, inadequate pay and a loss of morale? Should he not talk to their representative unions about the real situation on the railways and work with them to ensure we have an effective, efficient and secure rail system for the future?
I pay tribute to the workers on the railway who kept things running, with a lot of taxpayers’ cash, during the pandemic. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about that, but he talks about inadequate pay. I remind him and the House that the median salary for a train driver is £59,000, compared with £31,000 for a nurse and £21,000 for a care worker. [Hon. Members: “That’s the train drivers!”] The median salary for the rail sector is £44,000, which is significantly above the median salary in the country. What is more, salaries in the rail sector went up much faster over the last 10 years than in the rest of the country—a 39% increase for train drivers, compared with 7% for police officers and 16% for nurses. It is a good package, and we need to get the railways functioning for everybody in this country.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that, coming out of the pandemic, the railways need to be modernised. Is it not extraordinary that, just as we are seeing confidence return, it will be destroyed by these strikes? Does he agree that this is exactly the wrong time, for both our economy and our railways, for these strikes to be happening?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. These discussions were under way when, suddenly, the union decided to ballot its members, incorrectly telling them that a strike would get them off the pay freeze. Nearly every part of the public sector experienced a pay freeze and, in any case, it is coming to an end. These pointless, counterproductive strikes should never have been called, and the Labour party should recognise that fact.
Precisely because of the potential disruption, and instead of calling today’s debate, should the Secretary of State not be taking action to try to resolve these disputes? When did he last meet industry leaders and trade unions to try to get that resolution? Has he had a discussion about bringing in ACAS to resolve this dispute? If he has not, will he commit to doing so now?
I hear what the hon. Lady says. The Leader of the Opposition claims to care deeply about this issue, yet he is not with us today. [Hon. Members: “Where is the Prime Minister?”] The Prime Minister has already said exactly where he is on this issue, but the Leader of the Opposition cannot find his way to the Front Bench when it really matters and when it comes to standing up for working people, Where is he?
The leader of the RMT, Mick Lynch, said only last month, “I do not negotiate with a Tory Government.” He does not want to meet us. That is the reality of the situation.
There have been 52 days of tube strikes since Sadiq Khan was elected Mayor of London, even though he was elected on a promise of zero strikes. He has also said:
“Strikes are ultimately a sign of failure.”
Does the Secretary of State agree that Londoners deserve better? Does he agree that any Opposition Member who backs these strikes is punishing my constituents and my constituents’ businesses? [Interruption.]
My hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan) is absolutely right. We provided £5 billion to Transport for London, and we have not seen the required level of savings. TfL is behind on providing those savings. There has to be a fair balance between taxpayers nationwide and what happens in London, but that has not stopped the RMT striking in London, which will stop Londoners getting to work. We are locked into an atmosphere in which, before the RMT even talks, negotiates or listens to an offer, it goes for a strike ballot.
I will make a little progress before taking further interventions.
We need the industry to help with this transformation. We cannot ignore working practices that are stuck 50 or even 100 years in the past. A modern railway needs to run seven days a week. Right now, too many operators are left short at the weekend, which leaves passengers with substandard services. We cannot continue increasing pay on the railways far above the pay for nurses, teachers, police officers and care workers. We cannot continue with the absurd situation where workers can restart their 20-minute break if a manager dares to say “Good morning” at minute 19. That is insane. We have to change the system, as we cannot continue to fund such practices from the public purse.
My right hon. Friend is making a very profound speech—[Interruption.] The Opposition might not like it, but he is.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the reason there is no chorus from the Opposition condemning these strikes is that the RMT is pouring hundreds of thousands of pounds, if not millions, into the Labour party? [Interruption.]
I think my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) is a former union member, possibly even a former RMT member. He worked on the railways, so he knows what he is talking about. Madam Deputy Speaker has asked us to stick to the facts, so let us do that.
My hon. Friend is right to say that the RMT has donated almost £250,000 to the Labour party and constituency Labour parties over the last 10 years. For the fullness of the record, it is also worth pointing out that the Electoral Commission registered more than £100 million of trade union donations to the Labour party and CLPs over the same 10-year period. Those are the facts of the matter.
My understanding is that the RMT is not affiliated with the Labour party, and I say that as an SNP Member.
We have the strictest trade union laws in Europe, and the thresholds have been easily surpassed in this particular ballot. What discussions is the Secretary of State facilitating between the RMT and the employers to resolve this issue?
Network Rail runs the infrastructure and 14 train operating companies are the employers, and they are meeting on a daily basis. But that has not prevented the unions from striking. That has not stopped the leader of the RMT saying that he would refuse to meet us. So we cannot have this every way.
As my right hon. Friend said, billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money was put into the railway industry and it kept almost everybody in employment. In my constituency, many businesses survive by servicing the footfall through the stations. Because these businesses employed staff and they were people’s own companies, they were not capable of getting the loans and grants that were in place, because they had to keep the company alive and keep the people they employed. So what does he think their reaction is to hearing about more public money spent on the railways, on top of the £16 billion, when they are struggling to get their businesses back on track? This strike will make it even worse for them.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to point that out. Just as the railways and the country are recovering—after two years of being locked down, with many of our constituents having lost their jobs and businesses while coronavirus was going on, without the kind of £16 billion of protection that the railways have enjoyed—now is not the time to strike.
I will make a little more progress and then I will take a couple more interventions.
That brings me to the motion. Instead of having proper negotiations with the train companies and Network Rail, the RMT and other railway unions have leapt straight for the lever marked “strikes and mass disruption”. Just as the industry is beginning to recover from the pandemic and people were starting to be able to travel once again, the last thing we need now is to alienate passengers who are returning to the network. The unions do not seem to recognise that many commuters who before covid had no option but to take the train now have the option not to travel at all. Say goodbye to them and we really will be in danger of losing the jobs of thousands of rail workers.
Again, I will make a little progress. Of course for others who have no option but to travel, the strikes will mean huge disruption. They will mean thousands of people not being able to get to work, some of whom might lose their jobs and be added to the list of those who did during covid. These strikes will mean families losing money; the economy being dented by tens of millions of pounds every day, as businesses lose customers; children unable to get to their exams; and patients unable to get to hospitals.
The question was raised as to whether the Secretary of State or the Government had met the RMT, and he basically said, “Let the negotiations go”. I cannot recall the exact phrase he used. Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the RMT, has written to him today, “I am writing to seek an urgent meeting with the Government, without any preconditions, to discuss the national rail disputes prior to the planned strike action next week, and I would be grateful if this could be arranged without delay.” Will he respond—[Interruption.] We are trying to resolve this matter. Will he respond immediately to Mick Lynch, positively, that he will meet the union now?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I know that it is probably on his record, but for the clarity of this debate let me note that he has £25,000 from the RMT. I say that merely in order to have this conversation with all that information being before the public. If this is a change of heart from Mick Lynch, I welcome it. As I said, just a month ago he said that he would not meet “a Tory Government”. Ministers have and do have meetings with him, but these negotiations are a matter between the employer and the union. The employer is meeting the union every single day, and that is the best way to get this resolved.
Before the previous intervention, my right hon. Friend was touching on the fact that many workers will not be able to get to work because of these strikes. Does he recognise that someone on the minimum wage will lose £160 over the course of these three days of strikes? Should that not be the cause for the Labour party to condemn the strikes today?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is inexplicable how those in the party who style themselves as the workers’ party do not seem to care about the fact that anyone who is trying to get anywhere will lose pay. It is not just about them; it is about people trying to get to the 17 public examinations that will be disrupted. Kids doing A-levels and GCSEs will not be able to get to them. People will not be able to get to their hospital appointments. This is a reckless, unnecessary strike and it should be called off right now.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the excellent speech he is making. He talked about the people who are going to be affected by this strike, and in my constituency that will be contract workers who cannot work at home and young people who are having to use the trains to get to college to take their A-levels. Is it not irresponsible of the unions to be timing strikes in the middle of A-level exams, when so many of our young people rely on trains to get to college?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Thousands of children are taking those 17 public exams, including my daughter, whose transport to get to the exams will be complicated by this strike. It is surprising that there seems, from the noises from Members opposite, to be so little care and compassion about this issue. It is absolutely extraordinary. [Interruption.] This red herring that the unions have not had anybody to talk to is complete and utter nonsense. They are talking to the employers and they did not care about those discussions—they just called the strikes instead. That is what they did.
This is why the Government’s motion calls on the House to condemn the unions for their unnecessary actions. It is why we demand that they get to the negotiating table and work in good faith with the train companies to find the solutions that secure the future of the industry. I hope that these common-sense principles will prevail today. I hope that everybody can agree with that, but I am not sure, given the performance so far, that we are going to see it.
Given that the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, appears not to have publicly condemned these strikes, does my right hon. Friend appreciate that Sadiq Khan might be encouraged to waive the ULEZ—ultra low emissions zone—and the congestion charge for motorists who are now having to come into London? Many of my constituents rely on the trains, and this is just another cost on hard-working families.
Every possible alleviation that can be made should be made. I have not seen that particular proposal, but obviously the Mayor will need to look at it. It is extraordinary that this whole House would not want to stand up for hard-working people everywhere and would not want to ensure that people are able to get to their work and job, and that their livelihoods are not damaged.
Schoolchildren taking their GCSEs and A-levels have been mentioned. For the past two years, children have had to go through unprecedented times. They are in the process of going through exams that have been more stressful than those for any other generation, because of the pandemic. It is absolutely cruel that everybody in this House is not condemning the timing of these strikes and the strikes happening, because those poor children have gone through enough in the past two years and now they are having to suffer in the last weeks of their GCSEs.
My hon. Friend has nailed it. It is completely unfair, it is totally the wrong timing. It should not be happening and the whole House would appreciate Labour Members saying more about it, but they cannot say more about it, because they are divided on the subject. The shadow Levelling Up Secretary says that Labour stands united with those who bring the chaos upon our communities. The shadow Health Secretary, supposedly a rising star, although he is not on the Front Bench today because he does not want to be associated with this, even goes so far as to say that if he was given a chance, he would join the strikes. The shadow Transport Secretary, styling herself today as the shadow Secretary of State for strikes, refuses to condemn the RMT’s plan, which is going to cripple our railways.
What has happened to the Leader of the Opposition? He is not here. What is he saying about this? The Prime Minister has set out his position very clearly; I have not heard the Leader of the Opposition set out his position yet. I do not know whether anyone else has spotted him. He is not here today. Presumably, he has been standing up to his shadow Cabinet and defending the people whose lives will be disrupted by the strike. That is where one would expect him to be, but no. He has been playing a game of real-life Twister—his position hopelessly contorted, with one foot in the RMT camp and the other goodness knows where, stretching credibility. Perhaps it is a position that he thinks will appear boring to the shadow Cabinet. In fact, what he is doing is stretching the patience of the British public by not saying where he stands.
I have been trying persistently to get the Secretary of State’s attention so that he would give way, but he wants to play politics throughout. He talks about wanting to protect hard-working people like those in London, so why will he not commit to meeting the Mayor of London to get a proper sustainable funding plan for Transport for London so that people can use the transport network and get to work?
I am pleased that I have now taken the hon. Lady’s intervention. This is a debate about the national strikes, rather than the future funding of TfL, but since she asks, we have already spent £5 billion supporting TfL. If we had done what the Mayor had asked me to do two years ago, which was to come up with a long-term settlement then, he would have been out of money a long time ago. He should be pleased we did not settle for that.
As I say, this debate is about the strikes that will take place next week. Labour Members should get behind the rest of the country and convince their union friends, who I know give them millions of pounds, that the strike is not in the interests of the British public. Although the Labour party is bankrolled by the unions, we want it to stand up to the union barons, rather than bringing the railways to their knees. The Labour leader might claim to be different, but if you scratch the surface, it is the same old Labour.
Today, the Labour party needs to join the Government and vote for the motion. It needs to put people above its party coffers. It needs to vote to condemn the unions for their irresponsible actions. It needs to stand with hard-working people everywhere, who just want to get on with their lives after two years of considerable disruption.
Thousands upon thousands of self-employed people throughout the country will not be able to earn a penny over the period of the strike. It will cripple the economy and the pockets of our constituents throughout the country. Will my right hon. Friend say how much the general secretary of the RMT will lose of his £124,000 in pay and benefits for crippling the economy of this country?
My hon. Friend is right to point that out. If I am honest, I am more worried about the rail card that the general secretary gets with his job than about his salary, because he will not be able to use it during the strike. I imagine that will be a problem for him.
Prior to coming here, I was a rail commuter. I stood on platform 14 of Manchester Piccadilly every day, Monday to Friday. That is why I am so frustrated that our Mayor has said absolutely nothing about the strikes and that a fellow Greater Manchester MP is enthusiastically backing them. Has my right hon. Friend consulted any of the Labour of MPs who have taken donations from the RMT about whether they will donate to their constituents on low incomes who will not be able to afford to get to work?
The choice is clear: we can stick with the same old failed model, which makes the railways uncompetitive and jeopardises thousands of jobs as people abandon the rail network, perhaps forever, or we can come together to overhaul our railway industry, build a service that people want to use and give the railways a bright future. It is time for the unions to call off these absurd strikes. Strikes should be the last resort, not the first resort. If the unions will not stop, we as Members of Parliament, whose constituents rely on the railways for their work, to see their families, to get on and to use public services, must speak with one voice. People throughout the land will look to this House today to see how their Members of Parliament vote.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. It is unfortunate that he has misjudged the tone of this dispute. We are talking about—[Interruption.] Shh. We are talking about the livelihoods of public servants and about their job security. If he was serious about resolving this dispute, not only would he insist on coming to the table; he would be open to listening to what the unions have to say. Why won’t he?
I would welcome guidance on a very serious point, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thought that Members had to point to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests when they speak in this House. I believe that the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) has received a £3,000 donation from the RMT. Today’s vote is specifically about the RMT and its strike, so I would welcome any guidance on that matter.
I do not agree with the hon. Lady about the tone of all this. It is incredibly important that people are getting around the table and talking. Talks have been going on. Unfortunately, even though talks were going on, the unions sold a strike to their members on false pretences: on the basis that there would be no pay rise, when in fact there was always going to be a pay rise because the public pay freeze had come to an end.
I think that now is the time for this House to come together to show that we support hard-working commuters, key workers, the public and the pupils we have spoken about who are taking their A-levels and GCSEs, each of whom will be unable to go about their business. Or will Labour Members vote with their union baron friends, as we were just hearing, in favour of these reckless, unnecessary, self-defeating, premature strikes? Tonight, the voting record of each and every one of us will be on display. The record will show that those on the Government Benches stood united in favour of the people we represent. The question is, where do that lot stand? I commend the motion to the House.
No one in the country wants these strikes to go ahead. As we have heard, they would be a disaster for workers, passengers, the economy and the rail industry. The good news is that at this stage, they are not inevitable and the dispute can still be resolved. The bad news is that it requires Ministers to step up and show leadership to get the employers and the unions around the table to address the real issues on pay and cuts to safety and maintenance staff that are behind the dispute. Rather than demonstrating any responsibility, the only action the Government have taken so far is to send a petition to the official Opposition. The entire country is about to be ground to a halt, and instead of intervening to try to prevent it, the Government are more concerned with a data capture exercise.
Today, on the eve of the biggest rail dispute in a generation taking place on the Secretary of State’s watch, it is right to say, is it not, that neither he nor his Ministers have held any talks with the unions and the industry to try to settle this dispute?
My hon. Friend is making extremely good points—[Interruption.] Thank you. Does she agree that it is utterly absurd that the Government of this country are petitioning the Opposition Benches to try to resolve these strikes when they would do better getting round the table to resolve the issues themselves?
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is utterly absurd that the governing party of the United Kingdom is so incapable of running this country that it has resorted to petitioning Her Majesty’s Opposition to resolve this dispute? Would not its time be better spent doing its job and trying to get round the table to resolve this dispute?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. I am afraid that it is pathetic that the Government have chosen to petition the Official Opposition when in fact the Transport Secretary has not held a single meeting with either the unions or the industry for over two months to prevent this action from going ahead.
My title, Madam Deputy Speaker, is the shadow Transport Secretary. If the Transport Secretary would like to put his hands up, admit failure and step aside, I would be happy to take control. The fact is that the train operating companies have not been given their negotiating mandate by their Department for Transport, so they cannot even negotiate directly with the trade unions now. The Secretary of State has responsibility and he is completely failing to show it.
My hon. Friend is right. Where we have leaders in charge who are showing responsibility and stepping in and negotiating with the unions and employers, we have resolved disputes. This Transport Secretary has no time to resolve the biggest dispute in modern history. What has he found time to do instead? Looking back at his Tik Tok over the past couple of months, I can see that he had plenty of time for videos, for sit-on lawnmowers, for Spaghetti Junction, and for impersonating Jeremy Clarkson. He spent a collective total of three-and-a-half hours on the media covering the back of his weakened, discredited, law-breaking Prime Minister. He has also found time to grandstand over this pathetic motion in front of the House today, but he has spent not one single second in talks to resolve these disputes. Frankly, it is unbelievable.
But whether it is the chaos at the airports, with security queues snaking out the door, and thousands of families missing out on their hard-earned holidays, or the looming rail strike, set to be the biggest since 1989—when, coincidentally, the Tories were also in Government—the response from the Transport Secretary is the same: to cast around for someone else, anyone else, to blame. It is nothing short of a dereliction of duty and an insults to the hundreds of thousands of passengers who depend on this being resolved.
The truth may actually be even worse than our usual missing-in-action Transport Secretary. It is impossible to escape the conclusion that Ministers would prefer to provoke this dispute and play political games rather than resolve it.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the missing-in-action Transport Secretary. A couple of Conservative Members raised the issue of schoolchildren taking their GCSEs and A-levels, and that is a concern to everybody. Ministers will not be forgiven for failing to prepare for this strike. [Interruption.] I tried to ask the Secretary of State this question. What contingency plans has he made and has he called Cobra? What we want to see now is not more Tik Tok from the Secretary of State, but more common sense, more planning and more contingency.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Was it not telling that there was not a single mention of one constructive step that the Transport Secretary has attempted to take to bring this strike to a resolution? When is he planning on meeting with the industry and the unions before the first day of planned strike action? What safety assessment has he made of the cuts to Network Rail jobs in order to reassure workers and passengers that their safety will not be compromised? Has Cobra met to plan contingencies for the impact on the movement of freight, on schoolchildren missing their exams and on the wider economy? Finally, and most importantly, will he immediately call in ACAS to bring an urgent end to the dispute? That is why we have tabled our amendment to the Government’s motion in front of us today. It is to urge them to convene talks with the industry and the unions and take concrete steps to resolve these strikes.
Labour has been clear, and I will be clear again: we do not want these strikes to take place. If we were in government, we would be around the table in talks to resolve this. Members do not have to take my word for it: in Labour-run Wales, a strike by train staff has been avoided. Employers, unions and the Government have come together to manage change and avoid the disruptive action that this Government are about to oversee.
It seems that we have a Tory Secretary of State for strikes—a Secretary of State giving the green light to strikes. There is an offer on the table from the General Secretary of the RMT. The shadow Secretary of State has clearly referred to ACAS. Does she agree that this is about talk, talk and about negotiation? This is about all those parties—the employers and the trade unions—meeting together. Should the Secretary of State not be taking up that offer from the RMT Union?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Secretary of State could call in ACAS this afternoon in order to take this dispute forward, but, instead, despite repeated promises made to the public, this Government have slashed 19,000 rail services, hiked up rail fares, and presided over near-record delays. The insane system that they have created means that private operators, handed millions of pounds for failing services, will be protected throughout the strike. Those operators have no incentive to settle this dispute. They will carry on collecting their fee and the taxpayer will foot the bill. That is the reality of the Conservative mismanagement of our railways.
Finally, let me say this loud and clear: the tens of thousands of workers who keep our railways running are not the enemy. In 2020, the Secretary of State called them “true heroes”. They kept our country served and stocked during the pandemic. They are cleaners, technicians and apprentices—the very same people to whom the Prime Minister promised a “high-wage economy” before presiding over the biggest fall in wages in a decade. Just six weeks ago, the Transport Secretary and his colleagues confected outrage about the illegal decision to replace 800 P&O workers with agency staff. He even called on the public to boycott P&O, but in reality he is acting directly from P&O’s playbook. The only difference is that he wants to make it legal.
Today, the Government have shown their true colours: they want to gut the rights of British workers. How do they think scandals such as P&O can be avoided or even properly punished if they are going to take the axe to the limited protections that workers currently enjoy? Labour will always fight for fair pay and a decent wage for working people. However, rather than do their job, desperate Tory Ministers are spoiling for a fight to distract from their chaotic, discredited and aimless Government.
I hope this is a serious point of order and not just an attempt to disrupt the debate. I want to be absolutely clear that it is very discourteous to the House to keep interrupting with points of order when colleagues will have the chance to contribute separately. I look forward to this being a proper point of order.
Honestly, the hon. Gentleman should know very well, because he will have seen it on both sides of the House, that it is up to an individual right hon. or hon. Member whether they take interventions. He knows that very well. Quite honestly, that was a bit spurious. Let us have just a bit of courtesy to each other in this debate—[Interruption.] Don’t question me. I call Louise Haigh.
The public will not forgive the Government next week, when children are missing their school exams, patients are missing their health appointments in the face of the biggest backlog in NHS history and low-paid workers cannot get to work, if the Government have not lifted a finger to resolve any of it. What the public need right now is a firefighter; instead they have a bunch of arsonists. If the Secretary of State is remotely interested in doing his job, he will accept our amendment, drop the toxic political point-scoring, and get round the table to prevent these strikes.
Whenever I rise to speak, I always take the energy out of the room, which in this instance may be no bad thing if we are to get ourselves a settlement here.
These strikes are such a huge shame to this industry. We have a situation where diesel is rising to £2 per litre, we have challenges at the airport and we are going into the summer months looking at the leisure market. This should be the time when we can grow our rail market back to the levels it was pre pandemic. Let us remember that rail services used to pay for themselves—indeed, back in 2018 they paid £200 million to the Exchequer—but we have seen that situation reversed to a £16 billion taxpayer subsidy.
In my years both on the Select Committee and chairing it, I have always tried to engage positively with the trade union movement. I certainly did when it came to airlines’ cutting staff; I remember being on the picket line with hon. Members from Brighton with Unite staff. Indeed, the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) said that someone had asked, “Which one of you is the Tory?”, which one would not normally expect with him.
I have always spoken out where I have felt that the workforce have been treated badly, but I must say that rail workers have always enjoyed positive pay. I fished out a release from the RMT back in 2019 where it congratulated itself on an inflation-busting pay rise for its members. Rail workers earn 70% extra on a median basis compared with the typical UK worker. This is a well-paid workforce, and I will always continue to ensure that they are supported and well paid, but they must bear in mind that we need reform on the railway if we are to make it better and safer for passenger and worker.
The Chair of the Select Committee has talked about engaging with the trade unions, which I know he has done positively. Does he agree that his Government should get around the table, facilitate those negotiations and talks and take some responsibility?
I will always support engagement positively. The trouble is that in order to do that, we need industrial action to come off the table, since it is only next week. Of course unions will not do that, because that is their leverage, but it is foolish for a negotiator on one side to allow those talks to commence without any certainty that there will be some give on the other side. I used to work as a negotiator, so I understand how these things operate: there has to be give and take from both sides. It is not good enough to write a letter saying, “We will talk immediately,” without reducing demands or saying, “The strikes will be postponed so that we can have those talks.” I do not believe that letter says that, but that is what is required.
It was right during the pandemic that we threw everything at ensuring the railways operated. It was right then, but if it was right then to get essential key workers to their places and people to their hospital appointments, then it is absolutely right now, given that we have given £16 billion of taxpayers’ money—not our money, but taxpayers’ money—into supporting the rail system.
I want to talk about safety, because that is bound to come up. When we ask for reform, which of course will produce savings, we are also talking about innovation and technology that will make the railways safer. I will give an example: there is no need for railway workers to be walking on the tracks to undertake certain jobs when technology—drones and cameras under the bottom of train carriages—can do those jobs instead.
I have a report in this folder from the Rail Accident Investigation Branch looking at a tragedy in Surbiton, telling Network Rail that it needs to get more of its workforce off the tracks and make more use of technology and innovation. This is not just about safety, efficiency, cost-cutting or manpower-cutting, particularly when we are delivering HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail and Crossrail has just been delivered. There are jobs in the rail industry, but they must be modernised to make them safer for all.
I come from a maintenance background and I know how maintenance works. When you get rid of engineers, you cannot replace them. You cannot decide one day that you have got rid of 500 too many maintenance staff or engineers; they are specialist workers who need training over the years. Once they have gone, so has the knowledge.
Drones and technology can replace people to some extent, but not to the extent being proposed. How do you suggest that the jobs that will be affected will not put at risk the safety of the people using the trains and lead to future crashes that would cost the lives of transport people?
Following your lead, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will just give one example: cracks to rail. Technology now allows a sensor camera underneath a train to click 70,000 images per minute. That replaces an individual’s eyes or teams of men tracking. I would maintain that that not only makes it more likely that the cracks will be spotted, but means it is not necessary to put people on the asset, which is dangerous to them and means closures that we do not need when the train is operating.
This is not rocket science related specifically to the rail industry. Every single industry innovates, moves forward and develops. This Chamber may seem a funny place to stand and say that working practices are rooted in the past, when this very place is all about that, but the way we speak and operate here does not necessarily impact the lives or enhance the passenger services that I believe we could do in rail, if the industry as a whole, working with the workforce, developed and innovated in the manner I advocate.
I come back to the point about collaboratively working together. It is essential. I saw to my cost, as an MP in the region that includes Southern Railway, damaging strikes that went on for far too long. Passengers could not get to work; it had a huge impact on the economic community and on the workforce. The crazy thing about that strike, which was about who opened the doors, the guard or the driver, was that it ended up being settled with a pay rise for drivers. Ironically, that was on the ASLEF side; the RMT side, which started this, did not get that pay rise. The ASLEF drivers got a pay rise of 25% over three years.
I would say to those on the Front Bench: “Of course take leadership, make that noise, but you have to ensure that you see this through.” There is nothing worse than starting this action, causing industrial relations to decline, and then finding out that we withdraw; it would be better not to do it at all.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I have a great deal of respect for the work that he does, but what conclusion does he draw from the fact that there are no rail strikes going ahead next week in Wales, where there has been an active, responsible Government seeking to bring people together and resolve issues? Is it not precisely the point that active government can get the two sides together and attempt to resolve the issues?
I certainly take that point, but just I heard from another member of our Committee that Network Rail is still striking in Wales, and when it is about Network Rail members of the RMT, that tends to shut the railway down. In my example of when the RMT was striking in the Southern region, that did not shut the system down because that only happened when ASLEF drivers were involved. We will both check the record on that, no doubt, but that is how I am informed.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I took your advice to the previous Member who raised a point of order not to do it in the thrust of the debate, which is I waited until this moment, but I thought it right to put it on the record that I was not aware that the shadow Secretary of State declared in her remarks that she had received over £30,000 in donations from the unions. Given that Members’ entries in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests are under particular scrutiny at this time, it is right that in a debate about unions and strikes, all Members are clear about their entries in the register.
This is rather descending into how I hoped a debate on a very serious issue might not be governed. The hon. Gentleman has said one thing and the shadow Secretary of State has said another, but I reiterate that the responsibility for registration lies with individual Members and not the Chair, and I think we need to adopt that practice, frankly. If there are any complaints to be made, they should be submitted to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. That is the appropriate course of action. Perhaps we should now move on with the debate and address the issues in front of us in some detail, as I am sure the SNP spokesman, Gavin Newlands, will do.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I think the rather febrile atmosphere on the Conservative Benches rather gives the lie to the Conservative approach to workers’ rights in this place.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on his motion, because after his part-nationalisation of railways during the pandemic and his—on the face of it, at least—very un-Conservative response to the actions of P&O, his ideological re-education has been a roaring success in the form of this utterly regressive motion before us today. Let us face it, no Tory Cabinet Minister has ever seen their stock drop through a bit of good old-fashioned union bashing, and that is exactly what this motion is. [Interruption.] I am happy to give way to the Secretary of State if he wants. His motion talks about the “effect on the economy” that next week’s proposed action will have. I find that incredible when his Government have set the British economy ablaze in the name of “taking back control”. Is that control only to be taken back when it has a wee Union Jack on it as opposed to a union banner?
Some Conservative Members and their comrades in Holyrood moved at lightning speed recently in their attempt to blame the Scottish Government for the issues experienced with the newly nationalised ScotRail regarding rest day working, but they have gone a little more quiet after ScotRail management and ASLEF worked through the issues and came to a negotiated outcome that the union leadership have today recommended to their members.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree, though, that the SNP Scottish Government have absolutely failed in managing the situation in Scotland? Only a week ago, the SNP said that it would not buckle to the unions, but it has done. It has given a 5% pay rise, plus profit share, with no improvements at all, and the strike coming from the RMT will still affect Scotland in the coming days. So does he agree that perhaps the SNP Scottish Government are not quite as brilliant as he makes out?
It will come as no surprise to anyone that I completely disagree. We are unlikely to have strikes in Scotland, other than the Network Rail issues, which are entirely reserved to this place. I am not entirely sure why the hon. Gentleman does not want people to get a fair wage in this day and age when inflation, partly caused by his own Government, might run at near 10% by the end of this year. I think that 5% is a good deal for the workers and a good deal for ScotRail.
What I am discerning from this debate is that where you have Tories you get strikes. That is the lesson from Scotland and Wales. It is always instructive to find out from the Tories about market forces. Market forces apply only when it comes to bankers; workers should just suck up the cost of living crisis and not use their force in the market to get themselves a decent wage. If this was about bankers’ bonuses, there would be no problems for Conservative Members whatsoever. They should be doing something about the inequality that is driving this. We saw yesterday from the SNP’s prospectus for independence that the UK has the greatest inequality of any of the north-western European countries. That lies at the doorstep of the Tory Government, and Transport Ministers and other Ministers do nothing about it.
I could not agree more. I knew my hon. Friend would manage to shoehorn yesterday’s statements on independence into this debate on rail strikes, and I wholeheartedly agree.
I was talking about the difference in approach between the Tories in Scotland on the ScotRail issue as compared with the current issue. The Scottish Conservatives’ Twitter account said that the SNP Government
“must sort this mess out and address the travel misery facing commuters.”
Graham Simpson called for the Scottish Government to get involved and get round the table. Graham Simpson is a Scottish Conservative transport spokesperson in Holyrood. When he was on “Good Morning Scotland” on 20 May, he was asked seven times how he would resolve the rail dispute and he could not answer on any of those seven occasions. That is the difference in approach we get from the Conservatives in Scotland and the Scottish Conservatives in this place. It would be nice to think that the same energy and vim would be directed towards the Secretary of State and his Ministers for their role in the UK-wide dispute next week, but I somehow think that their social media output will instead absolve the Government of any blame, after throwing the kitchen sink at a Scottish Government only weeks after nationalisation.
Perhaps there is something to be said for real public control of our railways, because under the DFT’s fragmented and privatised system, next week will be catastrophic for our rail network. It would be churlish to point out, but I will anyway, that for years the Scottish Government have called for Network Rail to be devolved to Holyrood and come under the auspices of the Scottish Parliament so as to operate a fully integrated railway bringing together track and services. Indeed, former Rail Minister Tom Harris, now an HS2 Ltd board member, advised the Williams review that Network Rail should be devolved when he was a member of the expert challenge panel, but, as per, the Scottish Government, and the rail sector in Scotland, were ignored. Perhaps if that were the case, and given the likely resolution of the ScotRail dispute, we would have services operating next week in Scotland instead of an almost complete cessation of any rail operations across the country for a week.
At least ScotRail tried to give some certainty to passengers, despite the disruption to services, by publishing an emergency timetable outlining which services were running. As of today, we are promised an emergency timetable on Friday for the disruption starting next Tuesday, and that simply is not enough time for people to plan whatever trips they might have to take. This industrial action has been known about for weeks, yet passengers are waiting until days beforehand to find out what skeleton services will be in place. Whatever other lessons are learned by the DFT from this dispute, a key one will have to be that early information is crucial in allowing potential passengers to make informed decisions about how, where and when they can travel and what alternative arrangements they might need to make.
I was stunned to see the Secretary of State appear to call for an overtime ban for striking rail workers. The entire railway can only function on overtime. One thing that the ScotRail rest day and overtime issue has highlighted is the antiquated rostering system we have in rail systems across the UK. ScotRail has been working to phase that out. That job has been hindered by the pandemic and the impact it has had on driver training—130 new drivers would be in place on the network right now if covid had not hit. Training and recruitment is back on track, with those drivers now scheduled to finish training and be deployed over the next 18 months.
That will go hand in hand with the agreement that ASLEF is now recommending to its members, which will bring Sundays into the working week and put a truly seven-day railway in place over the coming years. That agreement also includes, as highlighted by my colleague on the Transport Committee, the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder), revenue sharing for all ScotRail staff when revenue targets are met. That kind of initiative—giving workers a stake, not just in their job roles but across the service—should be considered across the industry and taken to the negotiating table by the Secretary of State.
Elsewhere in Parliament today, there is a debate on fire and rehire secured by the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi). I was keen to take part in that debate, but my Front-Bench duties have brought me here. One of the key points in the speech I would have made there is equally valid here: modern and progressive industrial relations must involve dialogue and collective working between management and the workforce. It is clear that the Secretary of State appears to have been doing everything possible to run far away from the very thought of even appearing progressive or modern. He suggested that striking rail workers should be banned from getting overtime, despite the reliance of the network on overtime and rest day working—a situation we are working on in Scotland.
The Secretary of State wrote a column for The Sun about “rapacious union barons”
and the RMT executive holding
“a gun to the industry’s head”,
“ministers are determined to ensure strikers cannot milk the system”.
He used veiled threats to bring in unqualified, untrained staff to bust strikes, which simply poured even more fuel on a fire of his own Department’s making. That might go down well around the Cabinet table or at the next meeting of the 1922 committee—at least when it is not trying to change the rules for the next leadership election—but that is not the way to show actual leadership, and it certainly is not the way to negotiate with workers who are at the end of their tether with a Department that has used rail to grab headlines when it suits, but quietly dumps the negative stories when it suits, too, whether that is HS2 to Leeds and Bradford, the Golborne link or the truncated Great Western electrification.
Passengers and rail workers all want to see a better railway that delivers efficiency, punctuality, value and convenience. The Government’s attempt to drive a wedge between those groups and their ambitions are as predictable as they are regressive. They are the behaviours of the past and of those with their heads in the sand. Ministers must meet transport workers and trade unions to resolve this dispute before mass disruption affects us all, and in doing so commit to no redundancies, as the Scottish Government have.
This motion—in fact, this whole approach—is all part of the Tory culture war to cripple unions, undermine strikes, ban disruptive protests and end pickets with temporary agency staff, and it highlights yet again why the Tories are unfit to govern. Rail has a bright future. In Scotland, after decades of underinvestment and gradual decline, electrification and decarbonisation have been a core part of the Government agenda for every party that has been the Administration, whether Labour, Liberal or SNP. Sadly, we have not had a Conservative Government in Scotland yet.
It was ironic. Electrification and decarbonisation are a key part of the drive towards a net zero society and a more balanced and sustainable economy, but that modernisation has to be accompanied by a modern, mature industrial relations strategy. That maturity and modernity was demonstrated by ScotRail and the trade unions in Scotland this month in coming to an agreement that benefits staff and the network, and the contrast with the utterances of the Secretary of State and his team could not be clearer.
The Secretary of State is a dinosaur stuck in the dark ages of industrial relations, retreating to his ideological instincts instead of looking elsewhere to see how to manage a railway and work collectively with staff and unions to plot a path for the future. It is not too late for him and this Government to see sense and join the rest of us in the 21st century, to learn lessons from elsewhere on these isles and in Europe, and to take heed of the voices in the industry, unions and management who want a grown-up discussion about where the industry goes. This motion is not grown-up. If the Secretary of State is serious about a new start for railways, he should seek permission to withdraw it immediately.
I want to bring the debate back to passengers and rail users, because my constituents do not just face the strikes next week; they have faced months of industrial action by the RMT affecting the TransPennine network.
We have seen weekend services completely and utterly disrupted. We have seen regular cancellations of weekday services because of the issues around rest day working and working to rule on that issue. We have the conductor dispute, which means that there is essentially no reliable Sunday service. As someone who has worked for 20 years to improve services at Lockerbie station and to encourage people to get on the railways, I can say that these issues undermine confidence in the railways. Lockerbie station is the hub for the rural south of Scotland. There are, particularly for journeys to Edinburgh—
No, I will not, because the hon. Gentleman would be well advised to learn about the south of Scotland and services that connect Scotland to the rest of the United Kingdom.
We have faced the undermining of confidence in rail travel, but we have also seen—this has not been touched on enough in this debate—disruption to individuals. Constituents of mine travel to hospital appointments on these services. They sometimes have to travel 40 miles to get to the station, only to find that the train has been cancelled at the last minute and they cannot get to a cancer appointment in Edinburgh. They cannot carry out the normal activities that people would want in terms of shopping and leisure, and they cannot carry out their work, and it is totally and utterly unacceptable, and it has gone on for months. The strike and the industrial action have not brought the issue to a resolution; they have simply affected adversely all those people who want to use rail services, and it is not acceptable.
I am not saying that TransPennine and others are not without blame in this. One of my constituents’ complaints, which I have raised with the Rail Minister, the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), is that through something like Traveline, people can actually buy a ticket for a train that has been cancelled, and that cannot be right. It cannot benefit anyone to undermine confidence in rail services. I have worked hard to ensure that my constituents have a full and comprehensive timetable that allows travel not only from Edinburgh and Glasgow, but importantly into the rest of the United Kingdom, and that is being completely and utterly disrupted and undermined.
I travelled to London by train last Monday, because something important was happening in Parliament, only to find that two cancelled trains had to be combined with the Avanti service that was coming to London. The guard threatened to cancel that train too, because there were too many people on it for health and safety. Passengers who wanted to get on the service at Penrith were refused. That is not the way that our rail services should be operating, and it is not the way that the unions, which should clearly want our rail services to not just continue but expand and grow, should support those services.
To conclude, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) did not mention it, but ScotRail does not run all rail services in Scotland; there are other services that connect Scotland to the rest of the United Kingdom. Let us not have such a blinkered approach from the Scottish Government that merely focuses on rail services within Scotland. People in Scotland want to travel across the whole United Kingdom.
Order. As hon. Members can see, there is a lot of interest in this debate. The winding-up speeches will start no later than 4.45 pm, with 10 minutes each for the Front-Bench spokespeople. John McDonnell is next for five minutes, but to get as many people in as we can, we will then drop the time limit to three minutes.
Let me clarify one point if I may. There has been reference to RMT donations to individual Members and the declaration of interests. I thought the declaration of interests was annual, but I make it absolutely clear that the RMT contributed to my constituency party during the general election, which I declared properly and of which I am proud. RMT members were the first to move at the TUC that the Labour party should be established; that union is part of our movement. I am proud to be supported by it and I am proud to be part of the RMT parliamentary group. That gives me a relationship with workers in the railway estate in my constituency, which enables me to speak with some authority—I try, anyway—on rail matters. Let me put that to rest: I am proud of the support that it gives to my constituency party.
If it is on that, no, because there are more important points to be honest.
We need to return the debate to what the dispute is about. I refer to the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman). The union has three demands in the negotiations so I will make three points. The first demand is for no compulsory redundancies—compulsory is the key word. There has never been a time when the RMT has not negotiated job losses, but there has always been a principle that they should not be compulsory. I remember that Bob Crow never lost a dispute, and neither has Mick Lynch, because they are sensible about the nature of the disputes that they get into.
Let me press on.
Let us also be clear about wages in the industry, which are linked. The median wage is £31,000. Drivers are largely represented by ASLEF, so the vast bulk of people who we are talking about are station staff, cleaners and others whose wages range between £20,000 and £30,000. We are not talking about people on very high wages, so inflation proofing is important to them at the moment
The third demand is where we have some problems—I understand that. It is that when there are changes in jobs and conditions of work, they should be subject to negotiation and—this is the difficult bit—agreement. We know that this dispute will be settled at some stage, so the issue is how bloody it will get. What we all have to do, as I say on the RMT parliamentary group as well, is to facilitate an exchange that enables a resolution.
That is why today’s letter is important. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle is right to say, “Well, it was unconditional”, but it is unconditional from the Government as well. At the moment, it is important to just get everyone through the door. The Government have not put conditions on and neither has the union. The union has not asked for conditions from the Government, and nor should the Government ask for conditions from it. Often, in organising a ballot about industrial action, time limits are in place. At this time, when we are faced with the disruption that is there, an act of good faith such as sitting in the same room is important—it might not work.
I am in danger of agreeing with the right hon. Gentleman, who makes a very good point. It may well be, in return for giving way a little in saying, “Okay, we’ll sit down with you and then not strike”, that the RMT needs to hear that there will not be a need for compulsory redundancies, because the way the workforce works, voluntary redundancies should probably be taken up anyway and then that could be the natural progression.
The hon. Gentleman knows what these negotiations are like. My background is the National Union of Mineworkers, then the TUC and so on—I have been a trade unionist for the last 50 years—and in every sort of negotiation, the key issue is just getting through that door. Once we get through that door and are face to face starting those negotiations off, anything can happen. We have all been there, and we can have a bloody great row, but at least we are talking. That is all the RMT is asking for.
Let me just say that Members need to know the atmosphere at the moment. I have been talking at various union conferences—I was at Unison yesterday and all the rest—and there is a concern that we are going back to the 1980s, and I saw what happened in the 1980s. My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), who is here, was an active miner at the time, and I was a member of the NUM head office. What happened then was that there was a Government will to somehow take on the trade union movement, and we got described as the “enemy within”.
If anyone thinks it is to their advantage politically to start taking the RMT on as the enemy within in this situation, they are sorely mistaken, because it is not just about the RMT. At every union conference I have been to, there is a real anxiety. There is an anxiety about protection of their members against this cost of living crisis, and I have to say that there is an anxiety about protecting themselves against some of the threats that have come from the Government—minimal services, bans on overtime and all the rest—which is inflammatory when we are trying to get a negotiated settlement.
I am trying to do that and face the right hon. Gentleman, which is not easy, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Surely it is ironic that, with a Prime Minister who talks about a higher-wage economy, the first time people come along just wanting to maintain wages—not let wages go lower—his Government are opposing it, with the right hon. Gentleman having to make a very reasonable case in this House pointing out why trade union members have to do what they are doing.
Perhaps I pointed in the wrong direction, but I meant no disrespect to the hon. Member.
I have talked at several trade union conferences and I have been consulting trade unions in my own constituency, and the big fear at the moment is that their members are facing a potential avalanche of costs coming at them, and they have had their wages largely frozen for 12 years, with some having in effect had a wage cut. They do not see any light at the end of the tunnel, and they see a Government now threatening intimidatory legislation to undermine trade union rights further, so then we ask the question: what do they do? All they can do—this is all that is left to them—is to withdraw their labour, and that is what we are seeing.
This is not just in the RMT. Unite has 100 disputes taking place at the moment. The general secretary of Unison has for the first time—I have never heard this before—said to Unison members, “Go back to your branches and prepare for action.” The PCS is in dispute as well. If we look at what is happening, it is because we have working-class people frightened for their futures and deeply insecure about their futures. They are faced with a Government who, to be frank, on this particular issue will not even open the door for a meeting. That is why the atmosphere has been so fouled at the moment. I just think that Conservative Members should know that this is not the time for braying speeches; it is a time for consideration and an element of responsibility to be introduced into this debate.
To go back to close to the final comments of the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), she said she was looking for a firefighter—well, here he is. I was a member of the Fire Brigades Union when it was thrown out of the Labour party because we were too militant, so I have been around this circuit many times.
I found the speech of the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) quite frightening, because we can reverse that argument about the trade unions going back and getting ready for a fight. That is turning round to the British public and saying, “You voted Tory, so we’re going to punish you.” That feeling is as strong in my constituency now and in other parts of the country as it has ever been. This dispute does not need to take place, because it is too early to call this sort of strike. It is really early—we are right at the front. Why now? Why call a strike at such an early position? [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) has been chuntering away from a sedentary position for about the last two hours. Shut up! We are fed up with it.
What I am trying to get across is that there is anger here, on both sides, and my constituents will not be able to go to work, because people are on strike who did not have to go to work during the lockdown when the unions were getting their money. What is going on here is that we are being punished. My constituents are being punished by the Labour party, which will not come out against this strike.
No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman. He has been chuntering away for the past two hours, and that’s enough for anybody. Labour Members could contribute to this. They could turn around and say, “This is the wrong time; this is not the right time”. Instead, because they are so petrified of their paymasters, they have to condone it.
I know, and I am very fond of the right hon. Gentleman. His constituency is not completely dissimilar to mine. We both know that we have additional people using food banks, and that those people are in work. There is a huge amount of fear—reasonable fear—within our communities about people not being able to afford to put food on the table and pay their rent. Does he agree that the Government have a responsibility to get round the table, protect livelihoods, and show some respect and concern for those who are suffering from the cost of living crisis?
That is why it was so appalling for a trade union leader to turn around and say that he will never deal with a Tory Government. The right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) could come up with a letter on the day of this debate, when there is almost nobody on the Opposition Benches, even though the unions pay for them, almost completely—[Interruption.] I said the Benches; I did not direct that at the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown). What can my constituents say when figures come out that a train driver earns 50-odd-thousand pounds a year? On my council estates people dream of that sort of money every day of the week. [Interruption.] Yes, they do get paid less than me, but people can put their name on the ballot paper and have a go as well, which is why I beat a Labour MP for my seat. Those sedentary comments from the Back Benches are not useful.
We do not need to have strikes or the cancellation of train services for my commuters all the time. Southern rail, which we spoke about earlier, caused chaos in my constituency. Week in, week out I listened to the local radio, and trains were cancelled because they did not have the staff. The jobs are there. What is going on? Let’s stop the strike now, and then discussions can take place. This is not a nationalised railway; these are employers and that is a completely different situation. We are not in the days of the miners’ strikes; we are not in the days when the Government ran the mines. Railways today are different, and I passionately believe that they are going to try to punish my constituents, and particularly those in the northern seats, because the British public dared to vote Tory—dared to vote Tory!—and the union barons hate it and so does the Labour party.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. After the challenges of the pandemic, the rail industry is just starting to bounce back, and with working from home now a much more accepted working practice, we might have to accept that passenger numbers may not return to pre-pandemic levels. Numbers are trending upwards, as people are returning to work in person or looking to get away for a family holiday, but that recovery risks being a fragile one if the strikes go ahead as planned. Too many passengers have been plagued by delays, cancellations and general disruption to their journeys over the past year. First that was down to the pandemic, then the “pingdemic”, and they are now facing the biggest wave of industrial action in over 30 years.
In my constituency of Chesham and Amersham, more than 6,000 people rely on rail to get to work every day. Those passengers, and others like them who commute into London from the outermost stops on the underground, are facing a double whammy of overground and underground disruption, with strikes in London on 21 June.
The right to strike is fundamental, but that does not mean it is right to strike next week. The RMT should realise that wreaking havoc with the UK’s transport system at a time like this will not make people more sympathetic to their cause. Indeed, I spoke with a transport user group in my constituency this morning and it made that point to me quite emphatically. What we need is for the Government and the unions to get back around the table, as has been mentioned previously, to resolve this dispute before it starts to impact on passengers. And by passengers, I mean patients, students, workers and, as the hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly) mentioned, self-employed people who will not get any lost earnings back. Those are the people the strike will hurt: the people who rely on the railways.
This is not a problem the unions alone can solve. It is all very well for the Government to condemn the decision to strike, but that does not address the key problem. The Secretary of State’s effort to solve the problem, suggesting that agency staff will be able to fill such gaps in the future, will not cut it. I also wonder just how the Government would find 50,000 agency workers, when the UK has a record number of vacancies and not enough workers to fill them. The Government cannot allow people to lose jobs because they cannot make it into the office. They cannot allow the NHS to be disrupted as doctors and nurses are unable to reach hospitals.
It is time for the Government to come to the table and work with the unions to avoid disruption. They need to thrash out a way forward that is fair for workers, fair for the taxpayer and fair for passengers.
I declare an interest of sorts: I am the son of a trade union rep. I am very proud of the work he did in standing up for the people he worked with to secure them better conditions and safety in the workplace. He always said to me that if trade unions did not exist, we would have to invent them. They play a very important role in our society, and I am certainly not someone who comes to this place as a natural union basher. I will say this, though: I think the RMT has got this strike badly wrong in both timing and tactics.
On timing, it will have a huge impact on a huge number of people across the country, particularly as it falls in the middle of exams and after the horrendous two years young people have had. This will make things even worse. It will have an impact on businesses not just in terms of the huge number of lost hours of work, but for those reliant on footfall from passengers, including Twig at Glossop station where I get my Monday morning coffee every week and Edwards Wine Bar in Hadfield where I often enjoy a drink on my way back from meetings. It will also have a huge impact on workers who cannot get to work, including doctors and nurses. And let us not forget the self-employed, who will not be able to earn money because they cannot work due to the strikes.
The strike is also bad in terms of tactics. It is a self-defeating tactic by the RMT. We are at a very critical moment for public transport and the rail sector. It has had a very difficult two years due to covid, with plummeting passenger numbers and record levels of subsidy just to try to keep the service above water. We are now in a position where we face the need to modernise and deal with the drop in revenue. The strike will only harm that work towards modernisation and sustainability. In the long run, I fear that that will have a huge impact on the industry and the workers the RMT professes to represent.
As a number of train operating companies are urging the public not to seek to travel at all by rail during the week of the strikes, is there not an overwhelming case for requiring road congestion charging and similar schemes to be suspended until the rail network is back to normal?
I sincerely hope that that is a proposal the Government and Mayors look at very closely in their areas.
We are currently dealing with very reduced rail services as a result of staff shortages. The three lines I represent are currently running on very reduced timetables, which are causing massive amounts of problems. The problems we see with this industrial dispute will only make that worse. We have seen this go on for months. There has been a large number of cancelled trains, particularly on the Glossop line. We have seen a lot of work to rule and disputes over rosters, which in fact led to a High Court injunction from Northern to ASLEF only a couple of weeks ago. We are already seeing some problems due to industrial disputes and they desperately need resolving.
I really think the RMT has got its tactics and timing very badly wrong. I hope it can reconsider. I sincerely hope we are able to avoid what I believe would be very damaging and self-defeating strikes.
As a proud trade unionist, I start by paying tribute to all rail staff in Liverpool, West Derby and across the country. I stand in absolute solidarity with them and am fully behind their demands for improved conditions, terms and pay and to safeguard the safety of the public. To be absolutely clear, the industrial action that will take place next week is the result of the political choices made by this Government, who are calling the shots. They are a Government who have shown every day they have been in power, throughout the pandemic and in this cost of living crisis, their complete disdain for rail workers and their disregard for their pay and conditions, job security, safety and welfare. It is shameful.
We can see where this Government’s loyalties lie from the way that they were so quick to bail out the private operators who continue to make vast profits while on the other hand bringing this despicable motion to Parliament to attack key workers who are demanding fair pay and conditions. The strikes are absolutely a last resort and the RMT has been talking to employers and Ministers for almost two years to find a resolution. A key part of the dispute is that employers will not withdraw the threat of thousands of compulsory redundancies pushing many rail workers into poverty in the middle of the worst cost of living crisis in living memory. For passengers, that will also mean increased risks to safety and critical infrastructure with fewer staff on the trains, including the removal of guards and catering staff, cuts to cleaning and the closure of all ticket offices. That is not modernisation; it is a managed decline of our railways. The public should also be aware of the consequences of the proposed cuts that are being fought by the RMT: that our railways would be less safe. How can that be acceptable in the world’s fifth richest country?
It would be interesting to know how many Members across the Benches have been on strike to ensure their families’ wellbeing and future. How many realise what it entails to go out on strike as an absolute last resort? I was on strike for six months, locked out of my factory, to save jobs in the printing industry. It is a time of stress and worry about the future and what it may hold for your family. The absolute hypocrisy of a Prime Minister and Government who trumpet soundbites about an economy built on highly paid and highly skilled jobs while bringing motions to this place that go against protecting the jobs he desires.
Members vote to go on strike as an absolute last resort. It happens when everything else has failed. In the strike action planned for Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, I will show my solidarity by joining trade union members wholeheartedly. Would Government Members do the same and show solidarity with the working class?
I agree with my hon. Friend. Why did we not see the same urgency in calling out British Gas for using fire and rehire? Where was the anger and the motion calling out P&O for its disgraceful sacking of its entire loyal workforce by Zoom? There has been a total absence of leadership, a total absence of standing up to those rogue companies and a complete absence of any legislation in the Queen’s Speech to protect workers.
Trade unions are a force for good, unlike the Conservative party, which is responsible for the worst living standards in living memory and continues to let millions of people shiver and starve in their own homes because of the political choices it makes.
I am a former trade unionist and I have probably been out on strike more than most people on either side of this House. I recognise the fundamental right to withdraw labour, but does he not also recognise, as I did, the moral duty not to interrupt others going about their daily business and earning fair day’s pay?
I have listened to the hon. Gentleman and I am glad that he was not a trade union rep who I worked with.
I know what side I stand on. I know and I believe that the trade unions will act in the best interest of people in this country, unlike the people we have heard for the past two hours denigrate trade union members and trade unions.
I express my strong support for the motion, which
“condemns the decision of the rail unions to hold three days of strikes”
that will cause significant and needless disruption for many of my constituents. I commend my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his sensible and reasonable speech.
I am very disappointed with Labour Front Benchers, who are stuck in the past. They always support the unions against the general public; they have no interest in thinking about the suffering that constituents will face if there are strikes next week. The actions next week will harm our economy at this vital time, cost businesses millions of pounds and disrupt vital NHS services and GCSE and A-level exams. If the strikes go ahead, the disruption will be unforgivable. The electorate in my constituency and others will never forget those who did not care and who showed a lack of concern.
There will also be a loss of earnings for the workers and rail companies involved with the walkout, much-reduced spending by those who travel by rail, a knock-on effect on tourism spending, and the potential to significantly intensify the disruption of existing supply chains. Greater London is now recovering financially, economically and socially from the covid pandemic, but the strikes will set back our recovery in our capital city. The Centre for Economics and Business Research estimates that on the first day of the strikes alone, when the mass walkout is set to have the greatest impact, about a quarter of a million people will be unable to work. It predicts that the cost to the economy will be £100 million, with London suffering about 60% of the economic hit.
I understand that on the Southeastern network alone, most stations and routes will be closed, with services severely restricted and a maximum of 20% of trains running. That will cause huge damage to the economy and the travelling public. My Southeastern service is not the best normally: the Secretary of State well knows that it is unsatisfactory, with cancellations, delays and poor information.
Reform of the railways is essential to make them fit for the future. “Modernisation” must be the key word. The Government have provided great support to our railways, keeping trains running for key workers and ensuring that nobody at the train operating companies or Network Rail was furloughed. That was a real investment and achievement by the Government to help the people who work in the industry, which is so vital. It is therefore so disappointing to see the situation that we are in today.
It is still not too late to call off the strike, so I urge the unions to sit down with the industry, take on board the misery that their actions will cause, and act responsibly—maybe helped by Opposition Front Benchers. My constituents deserve nothing less than a service next week.
We come to this situation in very challenging times, with the cost of living biting hard for working people. There are vast numbers of rail workers in York, as the Minister will know, and they are really struggling at the moment. I have been talking to them about the challenges that they have been facing. They obviously want to see the dispute resolved as soon as possible, because they are the ones who are really struggling, with threats not only to their job security, but to their livelihood, as house prices, food prices and energy prices escalate. These are members of the public as well.
The reality is that when we get into a situation of industrial dispute, we need not hyperbole, but humility. We need to come into the industrial space with fresh thinking, ready to listen and engage. I have heard a lot of shouting today, but not a lot of listening. When the general secretary of the RMT is willing to enter that space, take the first move and meet the Government and employers, it is the responsibility of the employers and the Government to come into the space, listen and engage.
In industrial relations, people have to change the direction of their talks to reach a result. If the Government take a step forward, we can see the pathway to resolution. The traditional approach that the Government take to industrial relations is so deeply damaging, so I ask the Minister to really consider the actions that she could take to make such a difference in this dispute.
Many things that the Secretary of State put out were not included in the statement. I could think of a fifth, a sixth and a seventh thing that could be on the table: the long-term stability needed across the rail industry; long-term planning around industrial relations and workforce, in order to get smoothing so as not to have to go down the road of redundancy, let alone compulsory redundancy. There are so many issues. The Government are concerned about the fall in patronage, yet they have not put forward a patronage plan to increase rail travel across the board, which is absolutely essential with the climate crisis that we are facing.
Resolution can be found for this dispute, to provide the long-term security needed across our rail sector. If we are to truly build back better—something that the Government seem to have forgotten—they need to think about how they build strong industrial relations for the future. I trust the Minister is listening, and will act after today’s debate.
It is absolutely right that the Government have brought this motion to the House of Commons today. I heard the cries of Labour in yesterday’s business statement not to bring the motion to the House, suggesting that we should just get parties around the table, but how is that remotely possible when the RMT’s strike ballot date—the date of the declaration of the intention to strike—was 24 May, two days before the pay negotiations even started on 26 May? It confirms a rampant appetite for industrial action that tells us everything we need to know about the RMT—a union so addicted to striking that it was determined to do so before the pay talks even began. We know it is an addiction, because only a few months ago it was even striking against itself, with a picket line outside RMT HQ in north London.
Before being elected to this place, I worked for the railway for 20 years. I left school and worked my way up through the ranks on the stations and on the trains. I was an RMT member as well. But if anyone in the House needs convincing that they should support the Government’s motion today, against the RMT’s series of strikes, let me tell the House about something called RMT Broad Left—the hard left faction of the RMT union.
In order for the present RMT general secretary to be elected, he did a deal with the hard left of his union that in return for their backing, two communists were given leading jobs in the union, including the presidency. And they were not just any communists; they are on record as being anti-Ukrainian, pro-Russian separatists. They protested outside the Ukrainian embassy in London in 2015, following Moscow’s invasion of Crimea, while wearing the black and orange ribbon, a symbol of Russian military valour. I could go on.
This is very, very serious. This country faces being brought to a standstill by Putin apologists—Russian-sympathising, militant communists who are bankrolling the Labour party to the extent that they have bought its silence. We cannot allow that to happen. There is a deeply sinister element to these strikes, and it is this Conservative Government, and this Secretary of State, who are on the side of the taxpayer, the passenger and the staff, because we want to see staff on the railways have a pay rise, but we also need to ensure that we make the railway fit for purpose.
I first draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I received support from the RMT union at the 2019 general election. Anybody reading the right-wing press all the weekend would have thought that that was something to be ashamed of. Well, I want to tell everyone in the House clearly that I am not ashamed; I am extremely proud of it. If I asked every hon. Member sitting here where they got their support from, we might find that there were some very difficult questions to answer. I am proud that I have got support from people in the RMT—the train drivers, ordinary people, the taxpayers.
I will not give way.
The right hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett), who is no longer in his seat, suggested that the members of the RMT and the unions were against the general public. The RMT—the members of the RMT, the members of the trade union movement—are part of the general public. They are workers of this nation, and in this case, we are talking about key workers. I am proud to represent the unions. I am proud to have been a trade union member all of my life. And just for the record, I want to avoid any dispute next week—but if there are disputes next week, I will be standing shoulder to shoulder with representatives of the RMT.
I concur with the hon. Gentleman that we should try to avoid these strikes, but could he help us to understand why the declaration of the intention to strike was made two days before the pay talks even started? That does not show spirit on the part of the RMT to avoid strike action.
I heard what the hon. Member was saying before, but these negotiations have been going on for two years. This is not just about train drivers; basically, it is about the cleaners, the people who work in the ticket offices—as he probably did—the people who work on the tracks, the people who look after people in the trains and the conductors. It is about the track and about health and safety; it is about everything connected with the rail networks. We need these people. These were the key workers. We need these people to support a strong, healthy and safe railway. We need to be careful what we ask for. There have been negotiations for two years now, and that is the frustration.
A letter was sent to the Secretary of State this morning, asking for discussions. He dismissed it, and at the Dispatch Box today he basically laughed when he was asked if he would be trying to facilitate arrangements to avoid the strikes. He laughed! Why does he not accept that the best way to address the situation is to get everybody around a table, lock the door and get it resolved? We are talking about health and safety, about compulsory redundancies and about inflation-proof pay rises. These are basic human rights, to be perfectly honest.
I just want to say: do not believe anybody who is criticising the RMT—do not believe for one second that they will not come for you. Do not think that they will not come for your job, your pensions, your income and your future. As Pastor Martin Niemöller said,
“First they came for the Socialists,
And I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
And I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
And I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for”—
I represent a commuter-belt area and many of my workers need the trains to go to work. On the strike days they will get no service at all and on the days in between they are going to get a Sunday service. If the trains are not running, at best those people will work from home. They might be forced to use a car, but we all know the price of fuel at the moment. At worst, they cannot work at all. Worst of all—as has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Robert Largan) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), both of whom have trade union backgrounds—the unions have jumped the gun. This is way too soon to cause this kind of damage to the economy and to the lives of individual people, and it will be millions of low-paid workers, and exam students, who will pay the price.
I believe in the power of unions. I think it is right that workers should be able to organise, have a collective voice and increase their bargaining power, but where unions are disrupting services that are already losing money hand over fist, demanding pay rises that are undeliverable and resisting modernisation, they are only doing their own workers harm. Any one of my constituents who uses the train will tell you that the railways are struggling to keep pace with demand and the needs of passengers, post-pandemic. Passenger numbers are down a fifth and train revenues are at about 60%. That is causing havoc with train services.
The taxpayer has stepped in. To give some sense of perspective, the Office of Rail and Road put the total industry income at £20.7 billion in 2020-21, of which £16 billion came from the taxpayer and just £2.5 billion came from passenger income. That is clearly not sustainable. The RMT argues that wages should go up by an inflation-proof 11%, but what private sector industry could withstand that logic when revenues are down 60%? Which member of the public—the public are not getting an 11% pay rise, by the way—should pay higher taxes for this increase?
I understand that workers are worried about inflation, but our cost of living package, which independent organisations such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Martin Lewis of MoneySavingExpert have said is very generous, will apply to rail workers, too. People on means-tested benefits will receive £1,200 of support this year to help with the cost of living.
I also understand that workers are worried about job losses. If people stop using ticket offices, however, how is it possible to keep increasing pay over time for a service that is being used less and less? Surely it is best to match workers with jobs and services that are in demand so they have a sustainable path to higher wages.
Five members of Network Rail staff died on the tracks last year, with three of them being directly hit by trains. Does my hon. Friend agree it is right that the Government and Network Rail look to find ways to reduce that risk, including through industry reform? That would also help with some of the issues she has articulated.
I wholeheartedly believe that workers and unions have the right to try to ensure safety. The RMT has been around for a long time and, particularly when the railways were very dangerous during its early decades, it did a huge amount of work to push for safety, which is a good thing. The problem is that the RMT is now leading its members down the garden path. It is driving down the use of trains, which will reduce train revenues and therefore mean less money in the industry for the wages it is trying to achieve.
Opposition Members have not been very clear about their position, but I hope they will clarify in their speeches whether they agree that the unions should delay these strikes and allow time for negotiations, that these strikes are not fair on ordinary commuters in low-paid jobs who will not be paid for work they cannot get to, that an 11% pay rise, funded by taxpayers, is not fair when those taxpayers will not get an 11% pay rise, and that the system needs to be modernised if the RMT wants ongoing pay increases, as these vast Government subsidies are not sustainable.
Nothing excites Conservative Members more than the chance to give the trade unions a good kicking. Some of their speeches have been chilling in their anti-trade union bile. Why do they not get as passionate about the number of food banks in this country as they do about bashing the trade unions and bashing working people who are trying to defend their pay, their jobs, their terms, their conditions and, of course, public safety? As a trade union lawyer for 10 years before being elected to Parliament, I know something that many Conservative Members do not seem to know: working people go on strike as a last resort, not a first resort.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and I have been on strike a few times myself. Does he think that any Opposition Member who has received a donation from the RMT should put that money in a pot to help people who suffer during next week’s rail strike? Does he also think that other MPs who have stolen money from the mineworkers—165 grand in the case of the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) —should pay it back?
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. You have been in the Chair three times when the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) has made allegations. He withdraws his ridiculous remark and consistently comes back to say it again. As Deputy Speaker, you are not protecting the likes of myself. I need your protection.
The only time we seem to hear Conservative MPs worrying about the future of our children, our public services, nurses, doctors and other workers seems to be when they are condemning a potential strike. Isn’t it funny that they do not seem to have this concern for working people at any other point?
Today, I was looking at an interesting letter, dated 27 May 2020, from the Secretary of State for Transport to the RMT. There was a handwritten flourish at the end of the letter in the handwriting of the Secretary of State, and it said:
“Thank you for your continued engagement with Chris Heaton-Harris and me as we try to bring services back together. Your members have been true heroes!”
Those are the words of the Secretary of State for Transport, written in his own hand, to the RMT.
Many self-employed people have been heroes throughout the pandemic. They have gone out every day to provide services. As a result of this strike, they will not be able to go to work, earn money and eat. So what does the hon. Gentleman say to those people, who will not be able to earn money to put food on the table for their families as a result of the actions of the RMT?
What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that the Transport Secretary should reply positively to the letter from the RMT today, which is in the public domain and which asks for a meeting with him and the Chancellor, without preconditions, to try to sort this out. The RMT does not want this strike to have to go ahead.
The truth is that the Conservatives are living their Thatcherite revivalist fantasies; anybody would think we were back to the age of the “enemy within”. Let me tell them this: train drivers, cleaners and people who work on our railways are not the enemy within. They are true heroes. They are the people who keep our society running and who bring our communities together. They deserve to be treated with respect. The Secretary of State put in his own hand that they are true heroes, and I agree. If they are true heroes, why move this politically contemptuous motion today? This is from the same repugnant right-wing box as that sick Rwanda policy. It is all about kicking migrants, kicking workers and seeking to cling on to power. This motion, just like that vile Rwanda policy, is red meat for rabid Tory right-wing Back Benchers. That is why the Conservatives have got so excited and so red-faced on those Back Benches today, shouting about unions and treating them as the enemy within.
Politics is about which side you are on. I am proud to be a supporter of the trade union movement and to be supported by it. The people who should be ashamed are those whose politics are framed not by mass movements of the working class but by the billionaires and those at the very top, who have done very well in this crisis. So I say: meet the RMT, agree to no compulsory redundances, agree that all rail workers should receive a fair pay rise that takes into account the rising cost of living, and agree that working conditions and jobs are subject to renegotiation and agreement with the RMT. Let us also stop lecturing rail workers on modernisation. They want to modernise, but we are not in the best place to lecture them about that, in this Ruritanian palace of powdered wigs, buckled shoes and swords. It makes us look out of touch. I will tell you this: the railway workers earn their pay; not every MP does.
I recognise the vital role that railways play in driving the midlands engine and condemn the disruptive strikes planned for next week. Excuse the pun, Mr Deputy Speaker, but the question is: who is the Fat Controller? Is it Labour or the unions? I am deeply concerned about what Labour’s motives are for not coming out and publicly condemning the strike and about the unions’ motives for having this strike now. They appear to thrive on the disruption the strikes will cause. It is as though they wish to destabilise the country for their own gain. The contempt they hold for the public concerns me greatly.
I completely and utterly agree. This is the first time we have had sight of that.
What will the strikes do? They are a gut punch for people and businesses. Industrial action will not just torpedo our economy; it will wreak havoc with people’s plans and livelihoods: pupils unable to take their exams, festival-goers and sports fans unable to see their favourite acts and teams, and a grieving family in my constituency who have campaigned tireless for justice for their son now unable to travel down to London next week to meet the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove), to discuss how he can better support victims’ families. It is an indulgent strike with a human cost.
What is Labour’s position on these strikes? Well, they cannot make up their minds. As has been said, the shadow Health Secretary said he would vote to go on strike if he were an RMT member, the Leader of the Opposition has his head buried in the sand, and his deputy dodged a question in a BBC interview on whether she supported the strikes, saying that she had a train to catch. Next week, there will be no such trains for Labour Members to use to run away from the simple question: are they for or against the strikes? The British people deserve an answer.
Others have spoken of the donations to the Labour party by the RMT. Labour Members say they are on the side of the workers and preach solidarity, but solidarity with whom? Not with workers; not with businesses. The only people Labour Members are in solidarity with are their union puppet masters. It seems like the RMT and Labour are at platform 9¾ when it comes to the strike and its impacts, yet back in the real world it is working people, businesses and pupils who will bear the brunt. While global cost of living pressures continue to bite, this strike is deeply damaging. We cannot have a railway system that is a steam locomotive in an electric age. Times are changing and the rail system needs to change too. I call on Labour and the unions to side with working people and stop this strike.
Before I begin, I would like to declare a couple of interests: I am a member of the RMT parliamentary group and I serve on the Select Committee on Transport. In fact, I am a member of numerous trade union groups that I am very proud of—the National Union of Journalists, the Public and Commercial Services Union, the bakers’ union, the justice union—and I have the great honour of chairing the Unite parliamentary group. When I first started work—when I had a proper job—I worked on the railways at a time when they were part of British Rail. It was not the RMT in those days; it was the National Union of Railwaymen. That was my first paid employment.
I want to emphasise how important it is that we take the heat out of this situation and think about how we can move forward and get a negotiated settlement. It is absolutely clear that the unions are doing this as a last resort. After two years of talks and discussions, they want to find a resolution to the problems their members face. This issue is not simply about the pay scales for train drivers, although I would say that that is a group of workers we rely on every day—they keep us safe, they are highly skilled and they should be properly rewarded. It is about people who clean the trains, the signalmen and the people who maintain the track. Those are all vital jobs that keep our railways running.
The talks have revealed that the employers—the privately owned train operators and train companies—have an agenda that is being driven by the Government. That will be disastrous for rail workers and passengers alike.
It has become clear that the Government, and the Treasury in particular, are calling the shots and directing employers. They are, in fact, underwriting the costs of the strike. The Transport Secretary referred to modernisation and safety-critical infrastructure, but what we are looking at here are: fewer staff on trains, including the removal of guards and catering staff; cuts to cleaning; and the closure of nearly all ticket offices. That is absolutely no good at all for anybody with disabilities or for individuals who are vulnerable.
The feeling is very strong. I believe the margin was 71%, which is well above the Government’s threshold. Indeed, the treatment of the RMT Union and its members seems to be part of a wider agenda to weaken employment rights. I was one of many Members, including my friend, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), and my hon. and right hon. Friends around me today, who were pressing the case for the Government to act on fire and rehire.
I was in the joint hearing of the Transport and the Business, Enterprise and Industrial Strategy Committees when we were taking testimony from the bad bosses of P&O Ferries who were boasting about their lack of consultation and their intention to drive down terms and conditions. We expect rather more from our own Government when it comes to the way in which the railway is being run. It is a huge and important national asset.
I want to put on record, so that there is no doubt, my solidarity with the RMT Union and with all the trade unions. Basic rights that govern pay and conditions at work were hard fought for and they were won through collective action; they were not handed out freely.
Let us not forget some of those appalling accidents at Ladbroke Grove, at Paddington and so on. One of the proposals that has been put forward is for 3,000 redundancies among people who maintain the tracks—
My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho) is no longer in her place, but I would like to associate myself with every single word of what she said in her brilliant speech. It was a lesson in reality given the financial situation that faces us at this time.
We were asked by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) whether we had ever been out on strike. My answer is no, because I had the temerity to be self-employed. If I went out on strike, I would not have been able to eat. So when I am asked why I stand here and make this speech and whose side I am on, I have to say that I am on the side of the self-employed worker. The hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) talked about a person with disabilities who cannot get treatment, or the older person who cannot get to their cancer treatment, because public transport is cut off to them.
No, I will not give way.
I am on the side of the pupil who is taking their exams and who has gone through an appalling period during the pandemic. For all of these people who will suffer in what will almost certainly be six days of action, the Labour party—certainly those we have heard from today—could not care less. My constituents can suffer at the altar of the Labour party, which is not able to stand up to its friends in the trade union movement. I have not heard one Opposition Member say the very simple words, “Do not go on strike.” If people go on strike, they will destroy people’s livelihoods, destroy people’s jobs and put even more financial pressure on the rail companies that are struggling with a drop in income at this moment in time.
I had a meeting with representatives from the North-West Partnership regarding the west coast main line. The gentleman I spoke to said that the level of business travellers using trains is at 20% of pre-pandemic levels. Why would anybody look at this course of action and say, “No, I am going to rely on travelling by train when I need to go to work, when I need to go to an important meeting, when I need to go somewhere.” I know the Labour party does not like to hear this, but I had the temerity to try to create wealth, to employ people, to pay my taxes and to create a better situation. What we have here is a train system that has gone through a very difficult period. It has seen a drop in income, a drop in revenue.
We must approach this situation with reality. We must also approach it with compassion for everyone, and the compassionate way to deal with this matter is for the RMT to make an immediate statement saying, “We are calling off this strike”—not suddenly to produce on a mobile phone on the day of this debate a letter that none of us has seen regarding a meeting: utterly, utterly counterproductive. It is not in the interests of our constituents, and on the Government side of the Chamber we will stand up for those who are hard-working, who need to get their health treatment or their education, who have done nothing wrong, but who will be punished by the Labour party and the RMT.
This House has just discussed the Government’s disgusting Rwanda deportation policy. On Monday I attended a demonstration against that policy, coming directly from a debate in Parliament on the Government’s similarly disgraceful refusal to ban trans conversion therapy. That debate, the debate on the Rwanda deportations and this afternoon’s motion on the rail strike are connected: they are all about this Tory Government’s attempt to divide our communities and distract from their failure to serve the British people.
That is clear with the Rwanda policy, which has nothing to do with tackling people-smuggling and everything to do with whipping up hate, demonising marginalised groups and pitting people who were born here against people who seek asylum here. That is what the refusal to ban trans conversion therapy—letting abusive practices against trans people go unpunished in order to pit cis women against trans women—is about: division and distraction.
That is also what the demonisation of railway workers and the RMT Union is all about: threatening anti-democratic and anti-worker legislation; vilifying workers who are standing up for jobs, pay and conditions; and pitting those railway workers against other workers. It is all an attempt to distract and divide, at a time when this Government are overseeing a cost of living emergency and a growing poverty crisis across the country.
Railway workers are clear: this strike is a last resort, no matter what Conservative Members say. The union and the workers have been calling for the dispute to be resolved for two years, but Ministers have refused to do so. Ministers have refused to get employers to withdraw the threat of compulsory redundancies against thousands of railway workers or to end the pay freeze for workers, which is really a pay cut, worth thousands of pounds per worker, when inflation rises to 10% and beyond. This dispute is not about modernising the railways or whatever else people say; it is about attacking workers, declining standards and worsening services for passengers.
These workers—we should applaud them for it—are standing up for their jobs and pay, but are being scapegoated by a Tory Government who would rather distract and divide.
My hon. Friend must be aware of the anger that many people who work in the rail industry feel—those who clean and repair the carriages, those who repair the track and those who provide the catering that many Members of this House enjoy—at being told basically to take a pay cut and face compulsory redundancies at a time when billions has been poured into the train operating companies, which have done very nicely out of their cosy arrangement with this Government.
I absolutely agree. These tactics from the Government are to stop us talking about the fact that private rail companies take more than £500 million out of the railway system every year in private profits. It is the richest in the country who are truly raking it in, from the Chancellor, who is one of the wealthiest people in the country, to the record number of UK billionaires, one third of whom donate to the Conservative Party—[Interruption.] Tory Members can make all the sounds they like, but the facts are the facts.
That is all while working people are experiencing the biggest squeeze on living standards since the 1950s. Tory Members want us to believe that railway workers are the problem. They want us to blame refugees, not Tory cuts, for the crisis in public services and why they are at breaking point. They want us to think trans women are a threat to cis women. This House should be clear: the problem is not railway workers, it is not refugees and it is not trans women. The problem is this Tory Government and the billionaires who back them.
That was interesting, but my constituents are not really interested in the greatest hits of the left bank on the Opposition Back Bench. They are not interested in the enemy within or talk of the 1970s and 1980s. They do not care much.
These strikes are a totally unnecessary indulgence on the part of the RMT; its actions will have very limited impact on its members, but will have a huge impact on my constituents. They will miss work, hospital appointments and precious time with their family and grandchildren, and it will add very unwelcome stress, as many hon. Members have said, to young people at exam time. Let us not kid ourselves: the strikes will affect all of us next week. Rail services will not be back to normal, my rail company told me, until the week commencing 27 June—Monday week. It is worse than that: the RMT has a six-month mandate from this ballot. Will my constituents travel next week? Some will. Those who have to be in London who are just one hour from Winchester into Waterloo will probably drive, adding to the congestion, and with the eye-watering petrol costs at the moment. I agree with the several calls we have heard about suspending the congestion charge during this unnecessary strike.
That is not to say that there are no services from my constituency into London next week—there are. South Western Railway, which serves my constituency, will have just over 2,000 colleagues—guards, depot workers, drivers and so on—who will be swept up in the strike next week. The company briefed us this morning. I too have a good relationship with my local rail workers and my local rail company; the difference is that they do not pay me to have that relationship. The company has worked extremely hard to run a service next week. It is trying to match the key worker flows with the capacity. It has trained up managers with supply at the front to give my constituents a basic service between Southampton and Waterloo, albeit that the first train will not be until 7.30 am and the last train leaves at 5 pm, and my constituents in Micheldever and Shawford will be cut out entirely. I am also concerned about the concessions at railway stations, which, as many have said, have had a horrible time over the past few years.
So where to now? If the RMT wants to talk, then call off the strike. Let us take the heat out, because strikes will only up the heat. It is a dereliction of duty for the RMT to say that it does not talk to Tory Governments. It is a disgrace if that is what is being said. We have, “Do not travel next week”, messages going out to my constituents. Let us stop the strikes now, not on Sunday at the last minute, which will not avert travel disruption next week. This motion is very easy to support, because it supports my constituents.
Railways have always been an integral part of our country’s economic and social fabric contributing immeasurably to national prosperity, progress and development.
The support delivered throughout the pandemic totalled £16 billion of emergency funding to ensure that the railways were kept running, but none the less there has undoubtedly been a significant drop in railway usage, which will perhaps not return fully to pre-pandemic levels as we once expected. Strikes caused by the RMT will not encourage the use of trains at a time when increasing passenger numbers is vital. The funding thankfully ensured that none of the 100,000 staff directly employed by the railways were put on furlough, as were many millions of people in other industries around the country. It is unfortunately not sustainable to continue that level of Government subsidy indefinitely, especially given the current financial difficulties and pressures faced by many people, families and businesses across the country, including in my constituency of beautiful Hastings and Rye.
On the serious question of rail strikes, fairness or the lack thereof must be an essential consideration. Having already subsidised the industry through the pandemic to the sum of £16 billion, is it fair that taxpayers will now have their lives and livelihoods hit by these strikes? Strikes will disrupt British businesses, including the small and medium-sized enterprises that form the country’s economic background, and cost them a significant amount. For those that rely on tourism, as many do in my beautiful constituency, the impact will be all the greater, particularly on more disadvantaged people on low incomes—the very people Opposition Members profess to support. We know otherwise, because Opposition Members continue to encourage the RMT to play political games while the British public struggle.
We have already felt the impact of rail strikes on tourism industry businesses in 2017, with huge drops in visitor numbers as a direct result of those strikes. Reforming our railways now is key to making them fit for the future. Only through proper thought and consideration can fairness for both the taxpayer and those who work in the industry be achieved. The Government have my full support for their motion.
The hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) spoke about chilling speeches from Government Members, and I have to say that I have found the speeches from those on the Opposition Benches incredibly chilling. I must be grateful to them, because every time they mention their support for this strike, they remind my constituents what could have been, had they the authority and were they in power.
When hard-working families are facing challenges with the cost of living, and when we are still recovering from the effects of the pandemic, the upcoming strikes will wreak havoc on my constituents. Thousands of my constituents commute to work by train. As a proportion, it is almost double the regional average due to our great connectivity to London, Birmingham, Warwick, Coventry and the surrounding areas. That is not to mention the knock-on effects to the rest of the public transport network and the road network.
Due to the strike action by the RMT, Chiltern Railways has announced that it will be forced to run a significantly reduced timetable, as will Avanti West Coast, London Northwestern and West Midlands trains, all of which run through my constituency. As has already been said, that means patients missing hospital appointments in Birmingham, family days out in London postponed because of the pandemic being put on hold once again and children, who had a hard time through the pandemic, sitting their GCSE and A-level exams with the added stress of getting to school on time. Hard-working families and hard-working people are being held to ransom by the unions and the Labour party.
What does the Opposition have to say to my constituents? The shadow Health Secretary said:
“if I were a member of the RMT…I would be voting to go on strike”.
The shadow Levelling Up Secretary said that she would be standing up with the striking railway workers who will bring our network to a standstill.
Why do the Opposition find it so hard to back hard-working British people and British families? No matter how hard they try and reinvent themselves, they have had more than £100 million in trade union donations over the past decade, and they remain beholden to the trade union barons holding our railways to ransom. That is on top of the news that a shadow Justice Minister said that a Labour Government would take us back into the EU. It is the same old cynical, opportunistic Labour party that backs unions and undermines the British people.
First, like many of my colleagues and even more members of the public, I am deeply disappointed by how quickly this situation has arisen. The RMT has admitted that it is striking before it even knows the final plans for pay and conditions. How can anyone engage in constructive discussions with an organisation that has decided that pre-emptive strikes are the way to do it?
The timing of the strikes is particularly inappropriate, given the ongoing pressures on the UK’s economic recovery as a whole, particularly in the rail and travel industries, and gives no consideration to the fact that many in supply chain businesses had to rely on furlough at best and so did not get full wages for the year.
The RMT says there is never a good time for strikes, but it is its choice. Some times are clearly worse than others. Choosing to strike when students are sitting their A-levels and GCSEs is a particularly bad choice. When the first festivals are being held since the summer of 2019, it is incredibly inconsiderate to say the least. It is an attack on our young people trying to get on, and on so many of the population wanting to finally enjoy some respite from covid.
It is also disappointing that Labour cannot decide whether it supports the strikes. If it supports working people as it claims, how can it have difficulty deciding whether it supports the many in the population or the few in the RMT who are spoiling for an early fight? The strikes will also have an impact on levelling up. I have spent much of my time and energy since becoming an MP advocating for more investment in the rail sector, especially in the north, including Ferryhill station, the Leamside line and other such places.
I sincerely hope that the rail unions will reconsider their actions and that the Labour party will encourage them to do so. They will clearly impact the weakest in society most. It is so disappointing, but not surprising, that those on the Labour Benches are doing nothing to discourage their paymasters from these excessive and premature actions, which will frustrate levelling up, frustrate climate change improvements, frustrate students and frustrate people recovering from life after covid. Do they really want to be responsible for that?
This strike is a great threat to the ordinary working people who depend on rail services for work and especially to those now undertaking exams. The reason that this action is so unjustified and reckless is that we have already seen the rail sector on life support following the huge challenges faced during the pandemic. Services have become increasingly dependent on taxpayer subsidies, and that trend started before covid. Between 2015-16 and 2019-20, the National Audit Office identified that the amount of Government funding for operating and maintaining the rail network doubled.
Now more than ever, it is important that we get people back using the railways so that services remain sustainable. At a time when rail operators are trying to encourage and convince people back on to the trains, we see the country being held to ransom by the unions and the Labour party. These reckless actions will harm ordinary families already struggling with the cost of living.
Wage levels in the sector are already far higher than in most others. The average rail worker now earns £44,000 a year, compared with an average salary of just over £27,000 in Stoke-on-Trent South. Many working practices in the sector are also stuck in the dark ages. The driver rulebook has changed little since the 1960s.
No, I will not.
If anything is to come from the unions’ outrageous actions, I hope that they will influence the Government to finally overhaul those archaic working practices. Unfortunately, I feel that the culture in parts of the rail industry works against the necessary reforms and improvements, particularly in Network Rail, as we have experienced in Stoke-on-Trent in trying to deliver our transforming cities fund to improve local rail services.
The Government are focused on reinvesting in our railways, particularly on making them more accessible to communities across the country. For Stoke-on-Trent, which lost much of its local connectivity under the Beeching axe, improving local rail services through schemes such as the restoring your railway programme and the TCF is absolutely vital for levelling up, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) said.
Locally in north Staffordshire, I hope that the Government support our levelling-up bids for reopening Meir station and the Stoke-Leek line, which we are working on as part of the restoring your railway programme. But these reckless actions by the trade unions and the Labour party undermine all that and threaten to undermine the levelling up of this country and the investment that we are putting into the railways.
As has been said, there is only one question that each and every Member of this House needs to ask themselves today: “Whose side am I on?” On the Conservative Benches, we are on the side of the British public and our constituents—workers trying to get to their jobs, the businesses that rely on them to be there, students travelling to sit their GCSE exams, and veterans wanting to mark Armed Forces Day. Over the pandemic, our constituents supported our railways with £600 from every family in the UK, because public money is not Government money; it is our constituents’ money.
It is now time for the rail unions to support our constituents by accepting that working patterns and demand for rail travel have changed. Our constituents cannot continue to subsidise the status quo when passenger numbers are down by three quarters and 94% of commuters are not going back to commuting five days a week. The way we all work and the jobs we do are changing at a faster and faster pace. No sector is immune. We need to be honest with workers. We do not hide from modernising the railways because it is difficult; we are making huge investments in massive infrastructure projects, overhauling ticketing, putting more staff on platforms, and reopening closed routes.
Conservative Members of Parliament will vote to support our constituents today, but what will Labour Members do? Will they side with their constituents or with their union barons? I accept that it is hard for them to bite the hand that feeds them. The RMT donated nearly £250,000 to the Labour party in the last decade, so why would Labour Members vote to condemn rail strikes when they are on the union gravy train? Today, they have a chance to prove where their loyalties lie. Whose side are they on?
I had intended to go through each element of the motion, but I do not have time, so I will focus on the second element, which is that we condemn
“the decision of the rail unions to hold three days of strikes”.
Precisely as my hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards) said, I know whose side I am on.