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Rail Services: First Capital Connect

Volume 714: debated on Thursday 12 November 2009


My Lords, with permission, I will repeat the Answer to an Urgent Question given in another place about train services provided by First Capital Connect.

“The action by drivers on First Capital Connect appears to be co-ordinated and is highly regrettable given that talks are continuing. Passengers are being seriously inconvenienced and we urge all parties to resolve this unacceptable situation as soon as possible.

Concerted action to stop trains running is irresponsible, but train companies need to ensure that their staffing arrangements are robust so that they cannot be held to ransom in this way. The franchise agreement with First Capital Connect requires the company to use reasonable endeavours to run a full service. We are reviewing this position on a daily basis, but the disruption should be halted immediately by an end to the current concerted action.”

My Lords, I am grateful to the Secretary of State for repeating the Statement made in another place. All noble Lords want to see an industry that is safe and efficient and meets the needs of passengers. I am pleased to say that I have no difficulty in resisting reaching for a long screwdriver and interfering by offering a solution, despite the fact that passengers face misery through no fault of their own.

The origins of the problem, exposed by the current situation, go back some time. Both sides of industry have been relying on rest-day and Sunday working. The drivers needed it to ensure a decent income and the train operating companies needed it to ensure that their drivers were available when required. However, there are only a certain number of shifts to be driven, a certain number of drivers to drive them and a certain amount of money to pay them. Surely the industry could have devised a more robust system to keep these in the balance. I think the Secretary of State agrees with me, but what does he think the industry should have done? Does the Secretary of State have a handle on what percentage of drivers work on rest days and Sundays? It seems to me that the rate is very high.

There seems to be some confusion about whether industrial action is taking place. It smells like it, it looks like it, and it has the same effect, especially on the passengers. Rest-day and Sunday working is very lucrative for the drivers. It seems peculiar that many of them suddenly decide of their own volition to not work on a Sunday. It is, of course, extremely disappointing that the drivers decided to disrupt Remembrance Sunday, when old comrades would want to meet up just one more time; in many cases they will not have the opportunity to do so again. It is also surprising that the unions would decide to take this course of action at this particular point in the electoral cycle and when the rail industry enjoys so much cross-party political support.

Franchisees have a duty to maintain the service and the franchise contracts will make provision for how an industrial dispute will be treated. It is therefore crucial to understand whether this is an industrial dispute or not. What does the Secretary of State believe to be the case?

Finally, what can passengers expect in the coming months? Will this problem be resolved or will history repeat itself and matters continue to deteriorate?

My Lords, I declare an interest in that just after 7 am this morning I was on St Albans station waiting to catch a train into London, as I do regularly, with several hundred other commuters who have either found those trains cancelled or found themselves packed like cattle into such trains as did arrive. I experienced the same earlier in the week trying to catch a train home.

I remind the Minister that these are people who have paid £3,280 for a season ticket for that right to travel. If I may use a phrase that may be familiar on the Benches opposite, these are not City fat cats; these are workers by hand and by brain, trying to get to work and get home from work. I hope that what I say conveys some of the anger and frustration of those commuters at the treatment that has been meted out to them.

As the Minister may know, I can show him a few scars from another period of industrial irresponsibility. My then mentor, Jim Callaghan, said in 1978, “This is not trade unionism as I knew it”. It certainly was not, but we did think that capricious and spiteful trade unionism which hurt the many out of all proportion to any dispute was a thing of the past. Such actions hurt fellow workers, the vulnerable, working mothers and children trying to get home from school. Certain trade unions seem to have learnt nothing from the experience of the 1970s. They have forgotten that their industrial militancy brought in a Conservative Government who trebled unemployment and brought in legislation that curbed trade union powers—some victory. As the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, indicated, does this clever way of seeming to cause damage without offending the Trade Union Act need to be looked at? Is there a need to tighten that Act as regards action taken by workers that is not proportionate in terms of the damage they do either to other workers or to the running of life in general?

I have to put it on record that there is in St Albans and elsewhere a lack of confidence in First Capital Connect. Is the Minister aware that we are now saying goodbye to the third managing director of First Capital Connect on this line in the past year? We have said goodbye to Elaine Holt and Karen Boswell, and Mr Jim Morgan will, apparently, leave his post on Friday. Does that indicate management continuity and a management steady hand? Does it explain why things have got so out of control?

I put to the Minister an old hobby-horse of mine: why do a Labour Government not end first-class travel on commuter trains until standard-class passengers are guaranteed a reasonable journey?

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl and the noble Lord for their responses. As the noble Earl said, passengers face misery on this line. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, is one of those passengers and has properly expressed their anger and frustration. I make it clear to the House that I share that anger and frustration. I not only share the anger and frustration of passengers who are being deeply inconvenienced by this totally unjustified action, I also share the concern which the noble Earl expressed about the deep damage being done to the cause of the railways by this action. As Secretary of State I seek to promote the railways as strongly as I can as a form of transport for the future which is efficient and green and should be regarded by passengers as reliable. Action of this kind, which calls into question the reliability of the railways, will cause deep damage to the cause of the railways as regards securing future investment decisions of a kind that we in this House all wish to see. I deeply regret the action. I call on the staff to continue to work and I call on the unions to engage with the management to see whether it is possible to bring about a speedy resolution to the underlying pay dispute. However, this concerted action is not justified and is deeply regrettable. I hope that it will be ended forthwith.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, asked specific questions about industrial relations law and First Capital Connect. We obviously keep the state of industrial relations law under review, but the immediate issue here is that First Capital Connect staff work in a way that ensures that the service can be properly provided. That is what we wish to see. First Capital Connect is expected to use all reasonable endeavours to provide a full service.

It is not my job to use the long screwdriver that the noble Earl mentioned to seek to manage the service myself. I spoke this morning to Mary Grant, the group rail manager of First Capital Connect, who assured me that every effort was being made to run as full a service as possible. I made clear to her our expectation that that would happen. It is important that First Capital Connect continues to use all reasonable endeavours to restore the service, but this situation could be ended immediately if the concerted action on the part of the staff was ended. That step should be taken immediately.

Motion to Adjourn

Moved by

My Lords, I can advise the House that the time for resumption of business will be displayed on the Annunciators.

Motion agreed.

12.31 pm

Sitting suspended.