HC Deb 18 July 1994 vol 247 cc4-7
3. Mr. Waterson

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport whether he will make a statement on Network SouthEast rail services in relation to passengers charter standards.

11. Dr. Spink

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on Network SouthEast rail services in relation to passengers charter standards.

Mr. MacGregor

I am pleased to say that, on average over the year ending 24 June 1994, 14 of the 15 south-east commuter routes met or exceeded their passengers charter standards for punctuality and 12 met or exceeded their standards for reliability.

Mr. Waterson

But does my right hon. Friend agree that it makes complete nonsense of attempts by management and staff to improve rail services and to benefit from increased investment in the railway system when the whole system can be brought to a halt by a small group of workers harking back to the bad old days of excessive trade union power?

Mr. MacGregor

I agree with my hon. Friend that the strike does not help with improvements for passengers—or, indeed, for all customers, including freight customers —on the railways, for the very reason that my hon. Friend gives. If there are damaging and unnecessary strikes, they frighten traffic off the railway which may not come back. Such strikes can only be at the expense of investment in the railways and thus damage the interests of all those who work on the railways. So I agree with my hon. Friend. The strike is damaging and unnecessary.

I hope that strike action will cease, because it is perfectly possible to reach a modern employment salary deal for the signalmen, as it has been possible to do for so many others. I hope that the signalmen will get on with negotiating that.

Dr. Spink

Notwithstanding the welcome recent improvements, as reflected by the passengers charter, and also the improvements that will flow from the £100 million resignalling project and the 25 317 sliding-door trains that will be introduced at the end of next year, does my right hon. Friend agree that we cannot improve services while the hard men of the left are on strike?

Mr. MacGregor

I think that my hon. Friend is referring to his own line, the London, Tilbury and Southend line. He is right to draw attention to the improvements on that line. Those improvements have come through management and employees working together in advance of the substantial capital investment to which he referred. I repeat that I believe that the strike is damaging to the railway industry and all who work in it. It is unnecessary, because it is perfectly possible to have a good, modern employment package for the signalmen. I hope that the strike will now end.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Will the Secretary of State give us an assurance from the Dispatch Box that, if there were an accident on the railways in the Network SouthEast area arising out of the use of untrained signalmen, Railtrack would be fully insured against any claims for damages?

Mr. MacGregor

Railtrack is taking all the steps necessary to ensure safety, as everyone would. Railtrack has informed the Health and Safety Executive of all the competence checks that it is applying to ensure that its legal duty on safety is met. It is for the inspectorate to ensure that that happens.

Mr. Snape

Does the Secretary of State agree that, if Railtrack is allowed to make an offer similar to the 5.7 per cent. offer that was withdrawn following his intervention, that would be likely to make a majority of signalmen reflect on whether they should go back to work? If his hon. Friends are going to trot out those hoary old stories about the hard left, is not it about time that he joined the hard left and we wheeled out Mr. Solomon Binding and allowed him to negotiate freely between the two sides without the interference of the Secretary of State or some of his silly hon. Friends on the Back Benches?

Mr. MacGregor

I have made it clear that the Government's approach to public sector pay should be followed in this case. The approach is that any productivity improvements for the future—of which there are many because there are still an awful lot of very old-fashioned practices on the railways—should be self-financing and the total cost should be met out of Railtrack's wage bill. That is the position that I have made clear. I believe that the offer that has been made is reasonable.

The real question, which has been often asked and never answered, is whether the Labour leadership will condemn this unnecessary and damaging strike. The hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) has said that he supports the strikers. Will the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), on behalf of the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), say whether the Labour leadership condemns the unnecessary strike, which is damaging to the railways and all who work in them. Yes or no?

Mr. Dunn

Is my right hon. Friend aware that all Conservative Members want to see improving standards of service on Network SouthEast? Is not it clear that the image of the region will suffer so long as the RMT strike continues and continues to be dominated by a handful of Marxist-Leninists, many of whom have friends on the Opposition Benches?

Mr. MacGregor

I agree with my hon. Friend on two points. First, escalating the strike to two days a week looks like a throwback to the sort of actions that we saw in the 1970s, which so damaged the industries affected. Secondly, the strike will be damaging for railwaymen because many passengers are finding alternatives means of transport and some of them will stick to them. Even worse, all that is happening at a time when we are trying to get more freight off road and on to rail, particularly with the opening of the freight terminals to the channel tunnel, a major opportunity for the railways. Having unreliable trains that do not run because of a strike is not the best way of attracting new freight on to the railways. That is why I say that the strike is damaging, unnecessary and not in the interests of railwaymen.

Mr. Harvey

Passengers in the south-east and elsewhere have experienced disturbances for some weeks because of the dispute over productivity and pay. Does the Secretary of State agree that, given that the efforts of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service to bring about a reconciliation do not appear to have succeeded, it is time for the matter to go to independent arbitration? Will he urge that on Railtrack?

Mr. MacGregor

This is a matter for ACAS. I hope that the two sides will get together again with ACAS because I do not believe that all the issues have been thoroughly discussed and negotiated. A modern employment package is on offer which, not least in terms of improved, much-enhanced basic pay and much-enhanced pensions, is in the interests of signalmen as well as of the railway industry.

Mr. Wilson

Will the Secretary of State give a clear and unequivocal answer to the question: is there any person working in a signal box anywhere in Britain on days of industrial action who would not be there at other times in terms of achieving the certificate of competence? Have the conditions changed in any way to accommodate the industrial action? Does he agree that if the Government were to get out of the dispute, it could be solved very quickly? Will he answer another specific question: will he allow Railtrack to restore the 5.7 per cent. offer which took account of retrospective productivity gains which it knew were fair, which the unions knew were fair, and which only the Government prevented from being delivered?

Mr. MacGregor

I understand that Railtrack ensures that all staff operating signals are competent to do so under the provisions of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 and the Railway (Safety Critical Work) Regulations 1994. It is reasonable for the Government to have an approach towards public sector pay, given the substantial proportion of overall Government expenditure that is involved—more than 25 per cent. I note that the Labour party is talking about controlling public expenditure, but shies away from any steps that are taken to do so. It is reasonable for the Government to have an overall attitude to the matter, but it is for Railtrack and the RMT to negotiate. All hon. Members will have observed that, once again, those on the Opposition Front Benches are refusing to make clear their position on an unnecessary and damaging strike.