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Southern Rail

Volume 777: debated on Monday 12 December 2016

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with Southern Rail to try to avert the strike action due to start tomorrow.

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and my honourable friend the Rail Minister are meeting frequently with GTR to be updated on the latest position and how the operator will provide services on days of industrial action. It is also important to note that this is a dispute between the operator and the unions. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has also written to union leaders in an attempt to bring this dispute to an end.

Rather than taking sides, should not the Government be trying to put pressure on both sides in this dispute, given the six months of intolerable disruption for consumers in the southern region, and force the parties, through the media, to come to terms through ACAS in the next few days ahead of Christmas?

I agree with the noble Lord. That is exactly what my right honourable friend did: he wrote to both unions and asked them to meet with Southern at ACAS. That was supposed to take place yesterday. That meeting did not take place because the unions had not responded to the invitation from my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. This is not about taking sides—I agree with the noble on that—but about getting this long-standing dispute resolved.

Under the terms of the franchise agreement, the Government receive the fare revenue from GTR, with GTR receiving a subsidy. The Government have accepted that poor performance by GTR has led to a loss of revenue and that, of the GTR estimate of £38 million lost this year from unofficial and official industrial action and poor performance, just £8.4 million has been lost to date due to official industrial action. How much will GTR have to pay back to the Government for fare revenue being less than expected due to its poor performance, which no doubt also reflects through to poor human relations performance?

The noble Lord is aware that there are certain aspects of that contract which are confidential. There is a letter in that respect coming through to the noble Lord, which I signed off this morning. The Government have also committed to extensive compensation and Delay Repay 15 has been launched for long-suffering commuters. But let us be absolutely clear: this is a long-standing dispute and, yes, it involves challenges with the contract itself and with Network Rail, but it also involves challenges with the continued action by the unions. The Secretary of State has been very clear. He has written to the trade unions inviting them to meet with Southern at ACAS and they have not taken up that offer. We need to ensure that we can head off further disputes of this kind and further interruptions to the service because, frankly speaking, over half a million people are going to suffer from further strike action.

Can I ask my noble friend to be very persistent with the Secretary of State? This is just no good. Today, the first two trains this morning were delayed, but we heard no excuse, such as “Sorry, there are no guards” or “no drivers” or whatever. When people then get into the carriages and look at the tabloids that are available today, they see that most of the tabloids have full-page ads from Southern saying, “Oh, we are sorry”, but they hear nothing about it. Why can we not get the board of Southern to go and stand on the cold, wet platforms at 6.15 am and get into London at least an hour late?

I know that my noble friend has raised this issue both in your Lordships’ House and also with me bilaterally. Let me assure her that I do not miss an opportunity to ensure that the Secretary of State is fully aware of the strong sentiments in your Lordships’ House. However, let me also assure her that the Government have set up a scheme by which compensation will be guaranteed to those long-suffering commuters. Regarding her suggestion, I am sure that the board of Southern is listening very carefully. Equally, it did appear at ACAS yesterday and the unions did not. Let us also contextualise this: the dispute with the unions is over driver-only operation of trains, but 99% of the people impacted have signed the new contract. It is about time they got back to work so that the other issues, which are to do with Network Rail and GTR, can be resolved. The dispute is not helping to resolve the issues on the line and it is not helping long-suffering commuters.

My Lords, given that on non-strike days there is continuous disruption on this line—and those of us who travel on it daily have had to suffer the farce that has been going on for longer than six months—can the Minister tell the House what discussions the Government have had with the company regarding the management of its sickness and absence policy? It is precious little comfort to those of us who are trying to get on a train, or waiting for trains, to be told time and time again that there is “a temporary shortage of train crew”. What is the company doing about that? It is all very well to go on about how the union is not doing what you want it to do, but over the last nine to 12 months the company has been coming out of this argument looking shabby indeed.

As the noble Baroness knows, I have acknowledged the fact that the company’s communications have been ineffective and that it has to take responsibility. I have never stood at the Dispatch Box and said that this problem comes from the unions alone. It is a challenge; there are challenges between the company and Network Rail. In that regard, as the noble Baroness will know, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has appointed Chris Gibb to look specifically at the continuing issues: not at strike days—which, as she rightly highlighted, arise—but at ensuring that the issues on the line can be resolved. A new alliance board has also been established, which includes passenger representatives, and its report will be with the Secretary of State by the end of this month.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a resident of Sussex who attempts occasionally to use this line. I thank the noble Lord for his role in supporting Peers who are interested in this subject. How much worse will this transport crisis have to get in the south-east of England before the Government intervene directly to take control of the situation?

As my noble friend knows, the Government have been taking serious regard of all the concerns that have been raised. My honourable friend the Rail Minister meets with GTR weekly. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has appointed Chris Gibb to look at the issues which arise between Network Rail and GTR, and his report will come through at the end of this year—at the end of this month. As I said, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has now written directly to both RMT and ASLEF, asking them to meet with Southern at ACAS, where we hope this issue can be resolved. I agree with my noble friend and with all noble Lords; many in this House and beyond have rightly raised this issue because they are exasperated. That is probably a reflection of the sentiment the Government feel. We are taking major steps to resolve this issue, and I implore all parties, particularly those involved with the dispute, to come forward so that we can tackle the dispute and then the long-standing issues which impact negatively on this line and on many people in the south-east of England.

My Lords, will the Minister consider whether the operators of this service are still fit persons to operate it at all, and will that be taken into account when the franchise comes up for renewal?

The noble Lord raises the specific issue of the contract. I assure him that when we have directly raised issues about the failures of this line, as noble Lords will be aware, GTR has raised the issue of force majeure. We have now gone further and are looking at each case of force majeure, which impacts on 10,000 separate train lines, and which it raised between April and June of this year, to see whether they stack up. The DfT is currently looking at that report to ensure that, every time that is claimed on that contract, it is looked at extensively and we can respond accordingly. Until we have completed that exercise, we cannot hold GTR in breach, because we have to establish whether the basis for it claiming force majeure is valid.

My Lords, will the Minister consider that there is a case for people being summoned to ACAS, not asked whether they would care to come along? The unions are inflicting awful, personal damage on people. A decent industrial relations strategy would let ACAS issue a summons, not an invitation, and it would then have the power to act as an arbitrator in those cases and give a pendulum arbitration decision that would be binding on both sides.

My Lords, industrial relations in this country to a large extent have been dictated by the fact that many people—and rightly so—come willingly to ensure that disputes can be resolved. I hope that all parties concerned in this dispute reflect carefully on their position to ensure that they are acting in people’s true interests. What marks our country’s industrial relations is that, whether you are a union representative, a company representative or an arbiter like ACAS, we come together to resolve disputes amicably and in the best interests of commuters. I hope that that happens in this case.