Debate: Rail Strikes
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.