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Industrial Action on the Railways

Volume 823: debated on Monday 20 June 2022


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Transport Secretary in another place. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, with permission, I would like to make a Statement on rail strikes. We are now less than eight hours away from the biggest railway strike since 1989—a strike orchestrated by some of the best-paid union barons, representing some of the better-paid workers in the country, which will cause misery and chaos to millions of commuters.

This weekend we have seen union leaders use all the tricks in the book to confuse, to obfuscate and to mislead the public. Not only do they wish to drag the railway back to the 1970s but they are employing the tactics of bygone unions: deflecting accountability for their strikes on to others; attempting to shift the blame for action that will cause massive disruption and damage to millions of people; and claiming that others are somehow preventing an agreement to their negotiation.

But I do not think the public will be hoodwinked: the families who will be unable to visit their relations; music fans hoping to go to Glastonbury; the students unable to get to their exams—their GCSEs and A-levels; businesses just beginning to recover from Covid; and people who will miss out on medical treatment because of these strikes. That is what they are supporting. They know that this week’s rail strike—created by the unions, organised by the unions—is the full responsibility of the unions, too.

Of course, we are doing our utmost to get the unions and the rail industry to agree a way forward and call off the strikes. This is because in discussions such as this, it is always the employer and unions who need to get together and negotiate. In this case, that is the train operating companies, Network Rail and union representatives. We are not the employer and we will not undermine the process. I hear the calls of the Labour leadership opposite saying that we should somehow get involved and perhaps invite the unions for beer and sandwiches to discuss the situation. Well, we all know that the Labour leader thinks that beer and a curry is a work meeting but we will be leaving this to the employers, who are the right people to negotiate with the unions. Indeed, the unions are in daily talks with the employers—or at least they were until they walked out an hour ago to go and hold a press conference saying that the strikes would be on.

We are doing everything can, despite these strikes, to minimise the disruption throughout the entire network. We are working with the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, the Government’s emergency planning team, to keep critical supply chains open wherever possible. Operators will keep as many passenger trains as possible running, although, of course, with much disruption to the timetable, that will be very difficult on strike days. It is estimated that around 20% of planned services will operate, focused on key workers, main population centres and critical freight routes. But there will be mass disruption, and we advise passengers to avoid travelling unless absolutely necessary, which, of course, for many it will be.

The National Rail Enquiries website will be kept up to date with the latest travel information to ensure that passengers can make informed decisions about their travel. Passengers are strongly advised to check before they travel and encouraged to look for alternative means of transportation if their journey is affected, including on the days between strikes.

We are looking at different options for the railways in order to maintain services amid disruption in both the medium and longer term. We can no longer tolerate a position where rail workers exercising their right to strike can do it without any regard for how the rights of others are affected. Nurses, teachers and other working people who rely upon the railway must be able to travel.

Minimum service legislation is just one part of that. Minimum service levels are a government manifesto commitment and will require train operators to run a base number of services, even in the event of future strike actions. It is a system which works well in other countries, including Belgium and France. So we will be bringing in legislation to protect the travelling public if agreement cannot be reached when major disruption, as with the strikes this week, is expected.

The rhetoric we have seen from union leaders and the Opposition Benches this weekend seems to be focused on widening the division rather than bridging the gap. The whole point of the railway reforms based on the Williams review, which engaged with unions very extensively, is to unite and modernise the industry. Just as we cannot reform the railway with obsolete technology, we cannot do it by clinging on to obsolete working practices. For example, leisure travel at weekends has huge growth potential at the moment. After Covid, people are coming back and travelling at weekends more than before. But on most of the railway, under an agreement that dates back to 1919, Sunday working is voluntary. So the industry cannot do what everyone else does—what other businesses and organisations do—and service its customers. Instead, it has to appeal for people to come and work. Sometimes that is simply unavailable, as happened with large football matches such as the Euro finals, when 170 trains were cancelled. So the industry needs to change.

Unions claim that this strike is about a pay freeze, but this is factually incorrect. We are not imposing a pay freeze. The whole point of these reforms is to build a sustainable, growing railway, where every rail worker receives a decent annual pay rise. Let me be clear: for modernisation and reform to work, we have to have unions that are prepared to modernise, otherwise there can be no deal. This strike is not about pay, but about outdated unions opposing progress—progress that will secure the railway’s future. These strikes are not only a bid to stop reforms; they are critical to the network’s future. If these reforms are not carried out, the strikes will threaten the very jobs of the people who are striking now, because they will not allow the railways to operate properly and attract back customers.

The railway is in a fight. It is in a fight for its life, not just against other forms of public and private transport but competing with Teams, Zoom and other forms of remote working. Today, many commuters who three years ago had no alternative but to travel by train have other options, including the option of not travelling at all. Rail has lost a fifth of its passengers and a fifth of its revenue.

Since the start of the pandemic, the Government have committed £16 billion of emergency taxpayer support—we all know the numbers; that is £600 for every single household in the country—so that not a single rail worker lost their job. We have invested £16 billion to keep trains running and ensure that no one at Network Rail or DFT-contracted train operating companies was furloughed. Now, as we recover and people start to travel again, the industry needs to grow its revenues. It needs to attract passengers back, and make the reforms that are necessary for it to compete. The very last thing that it should be doing now is alienating passengers and freight customers with a long and damaging strike. So my message to the workforce is straightforward: “Your union bosses have got you striking under false pretences, and rather than protecting your jobs, they are actually endangering them and the railways’ future.”

We have a platform for change. We want the unions to work with the industry and the Government to bring a much brighter future to our railways, and that means building an agile and flexible workforce, not one that strikes every time someone suggests an improvement to our railway. Strikes should be the last resort, not the first. They will stop customers choosing rail, they will put jobs at risk, they will cause misery across the country, they will hit businesses that are trying to recover from covid, and they will hurt railway workers themselves. So please, let us stop dividing the railway industry, and let us start working for a brighter future.”

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating the Secretary of State’s words, but I have to say that they did not get any better on the second time of hearing, and I listened to the Statement with increasing despair.

When such a serious dispute is going to cause huge disruption and misery across the country, there are two approaches that a Government and a Secretary of State can take. The first is that they can sit back and do nothing—except perhaps a few media interviews where they blame everyone else and take no responsibility—but that negligent approach makes it even harder to tackle the issue. There is another approach: they can recognise the responsibilities that come with being in government. They can recognise the social and economic cost of strike action and then roll up their sleeves, show some leadership and do everything they possibly can to ensure that there are urgent, meaningful discussions and official talks. That is the job that Governments are elected to do. Even now, at the 11th hour, it is possible. Some of us think it is an essential government duty to facilitate and hold last-minute talks to avert strike action that will be devastating for workers and passengers alike and damaging to an already fragile economy. I heard the noble Baroness trivialising the meetings, talking about beer and sandwiches; I do not care what they eat and drink at these meetings, as long as the meetings take place.

We all know that it is better and probably easier to prevent industrial action than to try to resolve it once the workers have gone out on strike. If these strikes go ahead, it is obvious that there is only one way they can conclude: by negotiation and discussion. Even the Government’s own MPs know that that is the case. This Secretary of State’s former PPS, Jake Berry, expressed his frustration with the Government over the weekend. Pointing out that he was a lawyer, he said:

“I can tell you that the only way out of a dispute is via negotiation.”

He called on all parties—and explicitly named the Government—to get round the table and sort it out.

Can the noble Baroness give me one example—just one will do, even if it is a very small one—where the Government have convened any discussions at all between the employers and the employees in this dispute to find a way through? Unfortunately, I suspect that she cannot. I suspect that there has been no attempt whatever, and yet surely that is a basic requirement of government. If the Minister and the Secretary of State are not prepared to get a grip and do their jobs then they should move over, because there are plenty of others on this side of the House who would be happy to ensure that there are negotiations, rise to the occasion and show some real leadership.

This is worse than just a failure of leadership. The Government have not only stepped back when they should have stepped up but they have tied the hands of those charged with resolving the situation. It has been revealed that the train operating companies have no mandate from the Government with which to negotiate, so when they do have meetings there is nothing to discuss. That information has come from a source inside the train operating companies. Then we have the Secretary of State, as partly repeated by the noble Baroness today, accusing union negotiators of leaving talks to go to a rally. When those talks ended on Friday, the understanding was that further discussions were scheduled for Sunday, after the rail bosses had engaged with the Department for Transport on what they might be able to discuss with the unions. And yet no talks were convened. Why?

When a rail manager said in a radio interview this morning that there would be no compulsory redundancies, the union’s response was that this was the first it had heard of that and how significant it would be for going forward with the negotiations, yet the Secretary of State appeared to refuse to rule out any such job losses on TV. Which is true?

It is really hard to escape the conclusion that government Ministers are content for strikes to take place as long as they are not their fault and they do not have to take any responsibility for them. I have a couple of questions for the noble Baroness.

First, could she say something about how withholding a negotiating mandate from the train operating companies means there can be any meaningful progress? Secondly, given that safety is a key issue, what assessment has been undertaken by the Government regarding the cuts to the maintenance workers? Thirdly, as I came into the Chamber I was given information about a letter written by Steve Barclay, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, to Rishi Sunak. The Government’s message has been very clear on how important it is that we have wage restraint, and they have been very clear on that in this dispute and others. But tonight, this letter reveals that the Government apparently want to remove curbs on bankers’ bonuses to attract more people into the City. On the one hand, we are telling people who are working that they must have wage restraint, so does it not seem somewhat hypocritical to say that the constraints and curbs that have been in place are to be removed in the City? I am grateful to Paul Waugh and the i newspaper for that information.

It comes back to the Government seeming to think that the rules are for other people but not them and their friends. I hope the noble Baroness can say something about this; she must realise how deeply it will affect those who do not want to go on strike and who are trying to negotiate if they find that the Government are using two sets of rules—one for those in the City on high incomes with large bonuses and another for those who are working.

No one wants to see these strikes go ahead; they will be devastating and they will hit hard. But if the Minister thinks that government means not lifting a finger other than to point the blame at others, that is not a way forward. It is a gross dereliction of duty that fails every single test of leadership. The public deserve better from this Government, who want to sit back and do nothing to try to resolve this position.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon. I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement, which opens with a list of those affected by the strikes. I should say that my plans have had to change for the latter part of this week. Potential revellers in Glastonbury have had their plans ruined and people going on holiday have had their plans upset. But it is workers, school and university students, and patients who will be most affected, and whose lives will be most impacted in the longer term by these strikes.

I would take the ministerial hand-wringing about this issue much more at face value if the Government had moved heaven and earth to solve this strike, but they have not. They have not lifted a finger and are making a virtue of this inactivity. Perhaps the Minister could update your Lordships’ House on when the Government last discussed this issue properly with union representatives. What does “doing our utmost” mean in terms of actually doing things? What is the Government’s utmost when it comes to stopping this strike?

This would be bad enough if the railway was being organised under the old franchise system, but as the Minister knows, the Government “took back control” of railways during Covid and essentially imposed a TfL-style service contract system. They are the real employer, and not to negotiate is a dereliction of duty. The Government hide behind the “we are not the employer” excuse, but with the formation of Great British Railways the Government are in charge. They have effectively nationalised the railways. The Government cannot expect this power of owning the railway without responsibility. Their responsibility is to negotiate.

The unions should not be inflicting this misery and should not be in a position to, but Grant Shapps is just as much to blame for failing to have acted to stop it from happening. We should look at the facts. As the Minister said, the railways have suffered throughout the pandemic and passenger numbers are yet to bounce back. This huge interruption will only hurt the recovery of passenger confidence in the railways. Here I agree with the Minister. I also agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that the Government need to understand that and get everybody around the table and thrash this out. Until that happens, we will not get resolution. Can the Minister please explain why her Secretary of State for Transport is more willing to step into the media and try to save the Prime Minister’s neck than he is to sit around the table and save rail passengers from the problems we are seeing?

Meanwhile, we have seen sabre-rattling about agency workers from the Business Secretary of State, Kwasi Kwarteng. Can the Minister please tell your Lordships’ House when we might expect a statutory instrument to be laid here so we can find out what his plans are? On the face of it, it looks like a political gimmick which is actually deeply impractical. This is a tight labour market; it is a tighter labour market than we have ever known. Agency workers are in really high demand. They can pick and choose the jobs that they take. Agency staff are unlikely to choose a role that causes them to have to cross a picket line rather than a job that does not. Where are these people coming from?

Even if the Government manage to find workers, it will not fundamentally address the underlying issues causing the strike actions and it will not save many of the services. For example, train drivers are trained for weeks to learn a new route. We saw this complication during the Covid crisis. You cannot just swap one driver for another, even if they know how to drive the train. What this looks like is the Government seeking to pour petrol on an already incendiary situation. The tone of this Statement adds to my suspicion that this is what is happening. Inserting third-party agency workers into this scenario is likely to inflame tensions and elongate strike action.

For my part, I think the Government think this is putting pressure on Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition and are not intending to solve the dispute. That is wrong. The Statement laughably urges divisions to end, but the Government’s language is inherently very divisive. It is the people of Britain who will suffer: the cancer patient who misses an appointment, the student who fluffs an exam after having to take a much longer journey to school, and the zero-hours worker who misses a whole week’s wages because they cannot get to work. These are the lives the Government are using to fuel their narrow political aims. Does the Minister agree with me that this is beyond reprehensible?

I am grateful to both noble Lords for their contributions on this Statement. I have listened carefully to what they had to say today, and nothing that they said convinced me that there was an alternative way of bringing this dispute to a resolution, because:

“I do not negotiate with a Tory Government.”

Who said that? Mick Lynch. He does not negotiate with a Tory Government. He said that on 23 May. When we are dealing with that sort of attitude—one might say—it is all very well to turn round and say, “Well, have a meeting”. Have a meeting with who, about what? The Government are not the employer here.

I think that the noble Baroness is challenging me on that point. Has she actually invited the unions to a meeting with the Government at any point? I did ask that, and I would be grateful if she would respond to it.

Well, that is marvellous; I have only just started my response, so if the noble Baroness could just hold her horses, that would be brilliant. Let us get back to the questions that she asked and indeed to the Government’s Statement. At face value, it is indeed the case that the current Rail Minister and her predecessor have met the unions in the past to press the need for reforms, and to outline the reforms set out in the Williams-Shapps plan for rail about the establishment of Great British Railways, changes to terms and conditions, modernising railway and creating this fantastic thing that we all want. But this was not part of the negotiations, because the negotiations are between the employer and the unions, as they have always been. That does not mean that the Government do not take great interest in the negotiations—we want to see an increase in pay—but it has to be done fairly, between the passengers, the taxpayer and the workers.

There are working practices that need to change. I am sure that all noble Lords will have heard of some of them, and I suspect that some have thought, “Yeah, it does need to change”. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked about job losses. Over the course of the Covid pandemic, any job losses that have happened to date have been voluntary. A very successful voluntary severance scheme was launched in October 2021. There were 5,000 applications for that scheme—I am sorry, would the noble Baroness like to intervene?

I am trying to answer the questions that the noble Baroness asked. As I was about to go on to say, it is clear that the industry will do whatever it can to avoid job losses. There will be voluntary schemes, and we expect them to be popular. But of course each train operating company, and indeed Network Rail, has a vision for how we will put the reforms into practice, and there will be different ways that each organisation will do that, with the human resources available to it. We will have to see how that all pans out because, obviously, different organisations will require a different number of people to carry our different levels of service.

I turn to some of the other questions that the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, raised. She mentioned that there is no mandate. There is a mandate for both Network Rail and the train operating companies. However, even so—I will say this again and again and no doubt I will be at the Dispatch Box many times talking about it—this is not just about pay; this is about terms and conditions, and we have known about changes to those for a very long time. We need to think about how we get to a stage where we manage to operate a seven-day railway in circumstances where, at the moment, you simply cannot. Southeastern’s high-speed operation, which has been in place since 2009, is incredibly successful. It is a great service, and that is the level of customer offer that we really should be giving to our customers on a modern railway, particularly as leisure travel is so important.

The noble Baroness also mentioned safety. Safety is, of course, the Government’s top priority. We have one of the safest railways in Europe, and there is an enormous uptick in the amount of advanced technology used for safety on railways—such as drones to check rail lines, which is much more effective than doing that by eye, and all sorts of machines that check for internal cracks in the rails. So, yes, there is an increased use of technology, and sometimes that means that people’s roles will necessarily have to change. The noble Baroness said that this will deeply affect the workers, and I agree. I feel very sorry for that, because at the end of the day we need those workers, and we want them to create these railways of the future. We do not want them to go on strike; we do not want them to damage their own livelihoods, which is what striking will do.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Fox, said that the Government are apparently not lifting a finger. I can absolutely reassure them both that the Government have been working on this all through the weekend. Obviously, at the moment, this is the biggest priority for my department. It is taking up an enormous amount of time in the department—rightly so—because you cannot build a modern railway on poor foundations. That is what we run the risk of doing. We must make sure that we have reforms, particularly to working practices, such that we can create the modern railway that we all want. At the moment, we are not there.

The noble Lord, Lord Fox, asked about agency workers, and we are looking at all options for them, because we do not want future strikes to punish the travelling public. When I have more information, I will of course bring it back to your Lordships’ House. In the meantime, I believe I have answered all the questions.

My Lords, I am a great supporter of the railways and use them the whole time—in fact, I used them today. I am also a believer, contrary to what some opposite might think, in everybody deserving a decent day’s pay for a decent day’s work, and I think the unions have a role to play in that. However, this strike is politically motivated: the pronouncements of Lynch and others show that to be the case. Their stopping on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday is designed to cause chaos on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday as well. Would not the answer therefore be—I understand the Secretary of State has this power—to close the railway system between Tuesday and Sunday?

I recognise that my noble friend is trying to be helpful here, and I appreciate it, but the Government are committed to working with the train operating companies to put in place as many services as we can to minimise disruption to both freight and passenger operations where possible. Shutting the railway for the entire week would be shooting ourselves in the foot. We absolutely need to provide those services for as many people as possible, because we know that so many people are reliant on the railways.

My Lords, I get the impression that this crisis has just occurred in the past week, but that is not the case. The trade unions have been talking about this for a long time; the Government have been talking about Great British Railways for a very long time. We do not really know the extent to which these two issues are combined and whether the noble Baroness’s wish for change and the examples she gave will be included in legislation, but it seems very odd that we are now waiting until the last day before anything significant is happening.

I do not buy this business that the Government are not a principal. Since Covid, for very good reasons, the Government have been micromanaging the railways, as the noble Lord, Lord Fox, said. They are not allowing the train operators or Network Rail to negotiate. I do not know whether they mind about that but if they do not, the Government should take it on themselves.

I ask the Minister: what next? We have three strikes this week and, if there is no solution, what happens next? She and the noble Lord, Lord Fox, mentioned agency workers, but the last time we had an issue with agency workers related to P&O Ferries. Ministers were quite critical of P&O, to the extent that the Secretary of State said that he would sack its chairman. Whether he actually had the power to sack the chairman is a different matter, but if this goes on and agency workers are brought in, how can the Secretary of State sack himself? That really would not work. I hope that next week or by the end of this week, whatever the reasons, the Government encourage everybody to sit around the table and start talking about change and how it can be implemented while keeping the services going at the same time. As the Minister said, in France—I have a lot of experience of what happened on the railways in France—there is a rule that the trade unions allow one train in four to keep going, whatever the strike, so that there is at least a minimum service.

The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, asked: what next? The most important thing, to my mind, is for the unions to come back to the table—to sit down with the train operating companies and Network Rail to reach a resolution.

My Lords, I the interesting part of the Statement was, as someone said, its tone, which I think was accurately reflected in the Minister’s delivery to the House. There is clearly no intention from this Government to achieve a settlement. They have convinced themselves that it is in their interest to wind up the issue, reflected in the ministerial Statement in the use of terms such as “union barons”. This strike was because of the frustration among the membership of the unions involved; a massive majority of the entire unionised workforce was in favour of taking action. This is not down to the leadership; it is down to the members and their dissatisfaction. When the Minister comes and reads us a Statement that is more like a Daily Mail op-ed on a bad day, it demonstrates the Government’s total lack of interest in achieving any settlement.

Sorry to interrupt the House again, but I urge Peers to keep their questions succinct to allow more Back-Bench questions to be asked.

Does the Minister understand that part of the reason for this discontent is the Government’s intention to wind back on the pension schemes that cover the railway staff? The Government make policies to make people’s pensions worse; that is part of the problem. Does she understand that?

A review by the independent regulator for pensions recognised the pension scheme is underfunded. There clearly has to be some sort of remedy to address that. In most train-operating companies, workers can retire at 62—several years earlier than most people are able to retire—and, for those who worked for Network Rail after 2012, at 65. There is lots of work to do on pensions, but the noble Lord spoke about the tone and it is quite interesting to see how this has developed. I do not know if the noble Lord was able to watch Mr Lynch on the television this afternoon and take note of his tone.

My Lords, I want to try to take some of the vitriol out of the conversation, just for a moment, to ask the Minister a question. Considering the number of conversations that have been going on behind the scenes, which have not produced a result and have, therefore, not prevented the strike, has any thought been given to working on a really long-term plan—not just for the rail industry but for a number of other industries that are talking about some kind of industrial action? This would allow there to be some hope and clarity in the longer term rather than immediately just trying to resolve this issue at this moment. The longer-term plan could be a real help, if that could be talked about.

I completely agree with the right reverend Prelate and noble Lords will have the opportunity to quiz the Government on the longer-term plan as we bring the legislation forward to put it into place. The right reverend Prelate may have seen the Williams-Shapps plan for rail: it sets out exactly what we want to do with the railways. We are hugely ambitious for our railways; we are investing in our railways; we are reopening abandoned routes all over the country; we are electrifying lines all over the country; we are opening high-tech networks such as the Elizabeth line; we have HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail; and we are creating thousands of jobs, particularly, for example, in train manufacturing. But, as I said, you have to build a modern railway on firm foundations, and we have to get to the stage where there are firm foundations on which to build that modern railway.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement, which I have to admit she did with relish, but when I listen to the tone and content, I find it hard to escape the conclusion that the Government are content, if not enthusiastic, for this industrial action to go ahead because they think it will bring them political advantage. I have only a few moments to ask a question, so I ask the Minister to explain to the House: what is the role of an engaged, ambitious Secretary of State in a dispute such as this? What more, in her view, could the Government do to bring about the solution to this dispute that we all hope to see?

My Lords, it was misjudged of Her Majesty’s Government not to engage more with the union on this issue. To treat the RMT as a pariah, even if the RMT tweets that the Government are a pariah, does not show respect to the members of the RMT. I hope that, after these three days, the Government will start to negotiate directly and ask the union to come in, even if they are not totally running the railways. I share one bit of good news: Northern Ireland railways are not on strike. Does the Minister agree that this might have something to do with the fact that Northern Ireland railways have always been, and probably always will be, in public ownership?

Obviously, in the discussions around this dispute, it is important to separate out the workers and the leadership. No disrespect whatever is intended to the members of the union. We believe that those members who are choosing to strike may not be doing the best for their industry as a whole or for their long-term future. We are trying to get that across to them. I say again that it is important for the union to come back to the table and meet to find a resolution.

My Lords, in responding to the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, who asked about the rhetoric in the Statement, the Minister reflected on the rhetoric of trade union leaders as she saw it. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Fox, also asked about this. The Statement speaks slightingly of the “rhetoric” of the union leaders. In my dictionary, rhetoric is defined as

“the exploitation of figures of speech and other compositional techniques.”

Does the Minister think that the rhetoric of the Statement is chosen to pour oil on troubled waters, or add fuel to the flames?

The structure of the Statement is very much to set out the Government’s position and, to be a little bit Cuprinol about it: it does what it says on the tin. It sets out exactly how the Government feel about this, how we see the necessity for reforms and how we would very much like the union to come back to the table. It tries to dispel some of the myths out there around the role of government and sets out how we can reach a resolution.

My Lords, I declare my interest as co-chair of the newly formed UK freight and logistics parliamentary group. Might I turn the Minister’s mind to freight issues specifically? In her Written Statement on the Future of Freight White Paper, released just on Wednesday, she claimed:

“As a proud free-trading nation, moving goods domestically and abroad has always been a backbone of the United Kingdom’s economy.”

Arising from that, I have questions in two areas. First, what is being done to ensure that essential services are not too adversely affected by this whole circumstance? Might she concede that the railway industry is holding the country to account? For example, 40% of the fruit and vegetables consumed in the UK transit through the Lincolnshire South Holland region; in other words, 40% of the fruit and vegetables consumed in this country travel through an area that will be adversely impact by this process.

Secondly, to quote again from her Written Statement, will the Minister deliver on her intention to

“remove the barriers which prevent the seamless flow of freight”?

What is she going to do about this?

I am very grateful that the noble Viscount is taking such a key interest in freight and I look forward to working with his APPG as it takes shape and moves forward. Freight is an incredibly important area that historically has sometimes been slightly forgotten about. We are hugely ambitious for freight on our railways. We have been working closely with the freight operating companies and Network Rail to see what we can do to get as many freight trains as possible moving over this period of disruption. We also had several meetings, in the weeks prior to any potential industrial action, about what is currently carried by rail freight that we would need to make sure continues to be so, so we feel content that we have a good handle on that.

On longer-term ambitions for freight on rail, we are hugely ambitious for it, as set out in the Williams-Shapps plan for rail but also in the Future of Freight strategy. I will have to beg the noble Lord’s patience because, when we come to debate Great British Railways in the transport Bill, I hope we will have many positive discussions about what GBR can do for freight.

My Lords, I wish to declare an interest: I am a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for GWR, whose services I normally use almost every day but clearly will not be using tomorrow.

My Lords, my interests are slightly different: I try to travel on the trains most weeks.

We have a few minutes left. The Minister will have heard from across the House the disappointment in both the tone of the Statement and the fact that the Government have not been more proactive on behalf of the public in trying to resolve this issue. She said at the end of her comments that she had answered all the questions. Actually, she had not: I raised the issue of the letter from the Prime Minister’s chief of staff to the Chancellor, which appears to be saying that they should remove the curbs on bankers’ bonuses. I asked her if she felt that such action would be detrimental to those involved in this dispute because it seems rather hypocritical to urge wage restraint on one group of workers while allowing large bonuses for another. If she could comment on that, I would be grateful.

I am grateful for the reminder that I had not commented on that. The reason is that I have not seen the letter so I do not know what is in it and am not able to comment.

My Lords, we have had one question about the Government’s structural vision for the future of rail freight. Let us turn to the content of the Statement about the structural vision for passengers. The Statement refers to commuters three years ago having no alternative to taking the train but today having the option of not travelling at all. That rather suggests that trains are competing with Zoom, Teams and so on. It talks about attracting passengers back. There are many advantages to home working in productivity, family life and health and well-being. Should the Government, instead of talking about attracting passengers back, not be talking about the modal shift of attracting drivers out of their cars and on to the rails?

My Lords, that question goes a little further than my brief today, but the Government are very clear that we want a cleaner and greener transport system. Yes, we want to attract passengers back to the railways. At the moment, as I think I said in the Statement, numbers are down by one-fifth, but the interesting thing about the number of passengers travelling at the moment is that the shift has changed quite significantly. Far more people are travelling for leisure purposes; it is wonderful that they are choosing to go by train if they are travelling in the UK for leisure reasons. We have to provide the best possible modern railway that we can, which provides value for money for the taxpayer and for the travelling public, and that is what we intend to do.

As we are all having a second bite at the cherry, if my noble friend believes that the strike is politically motivated—some of the comments from union leaders have been very political, such as “Get the Tories out”, and that is one of the nicer ones—does she expect these strikes to be repeated every other day, perhaps every month, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays? If it is politically motivated, will she look again at the idea of taking on the political motivation of the union and closing it down?

I think the reality is that nobody wants this strike to continue. We will do whatever we can to support the train operating companies and Network Rail to reach a resolution. There has been some pretty sharp rhetoric, and one does not want to see widespread discontent, because that would be harmful to our economy and ultimately damaging to the workers themselves.