The speech made by Louise Haigh, the Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, in the House of Commons on 20 June 2022.
No one in the country wants these strikes to go ahead, but as I have repeatedly said, even at this eleventh hour they can still be avoided. That requires Ministers to step up and show leadership. It requires them to get employers and unions round the table and address the very serious issues, involving pay and cuts in safety and maintenance staff, that are behind this dispute.
The entire country is about to grind to a halt, but instead of intervening to try and stop it, the Secretary of State is washing his hands of any responsibility. On the eve of the biggest rail dispute in a generation taking place on his watch, he has still not lifted a finger to resolve it. Not one meeting. No talks, no discussions; only media interviews and a petition to the Labour party. This is a grave dereliction of duty. Should the strikes go ahead tomorrow, they will represent a catastrophic failure of leadership. Ministers owe it to all those impacted by this serious disruption to get around the table for last-ditch talks to sort it out and avert it. If the Secretary of State will not listen to me—[Interruption.]
Order. Can the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) and the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) either go outside or be quiet for a little while?
If the Secretary of State will not listen to me, he should at least listen to his own colleague and former parliamentary aide, the right hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), who said yesterday:
“I can tell you the only way out of a dispute is via negotiation. I’d call on all parties including the Government to get around the table because this is going to have a huge negative impact on people’s lives.”
The Secretary of State’s own MPs and the public know that the only way to sort this out is for him to do his job.
But that is not all, because this week it was revealed that the Secretary of State had not only boycotted the talks but tied the hands of those at the table. He and his Department failed to give the train operating companies—a party to the talks—any mandate to negotiate whatsoever. One source close to the negotiations said:
“Without a mandate from Government we can’t even address the pay question.”
Today, the Rail Delivery Group confirmed that it had not even begun those discussions. That is the reality. These talks are a sham, because Ministers have set them up to fail. It is for the Government to settle this dispute. They are integral to these negotiations, which cannot be resolved unless the Secretary of State is at the table, but it is becoming clearer by the day that Ministers would rather provoke this dispute than lift a finger to resolve it.
This is the same Transport Secretary who just a few short weeks ago was feigning outrage over the disgraceful behaviour of P&O and who is now adopting its playbook. Replacing skilled, safety-critical staff with agency workers cannot and must not be an option. So what exactly has changed between the Secretary of State calling on the public to boycott P&O and now, when he is suggesting that that behaviour should be legalised?
Tomorrow we will see unprecedented disruption. We have been clear: we do not want the strikes to happen. Where we are in government, we are doing our job. In Labour-run Wales, a strike by train staff has been avoided. Employers, unions and the Government have come together to manage change. That is what any responsible Government would be doing right now, because whether it is today, tomorrow or next week, the only way this dispute will be resolved is with a resolution on pay and job security. The Secretary of State owes it to the hundreds of thousands of workers who depend on our railways and the tens of thousands of workers employed on them to find that deal.
Those rail workers are not the enemy. They are people who showed real bravery during the pandemic to keep our country going. They showed solidarity to make sure other workers kept going into work. Some lost colleagues and friends as a result. They are the very same people to whom the Prime Minister promised a high-wage economy a year ago before presiding over the biggest fall in living standards since records began. There is still time for the Secretary of State to do the right thing, the brave thing, and show responsibility. Patients, schoolchildren, low-paid workers—the entire country needs a resolution and they will not forgive this Government if they do not step in and resolve this. Even now, at this late hour, I urge the Secretary of State: get around the table and do your job.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) used a lot of words to avoid saying the four words, “I condemn the strikes.” She can practise saying it if she likes. I condemn the strikes—will she?
I remind the House that the hon. Lady is a former union official. She will therefore know better than most that negotiations are always held between the employers and the unions. She calls on the Government to get the parties around the table, but they were around the table. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) is right that they are not now, because the union has just walked out to call a press conference to say the strikes are on.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley is wrong when she says these strikes are about pay, safety and job cuts. Let us take them in turn. Pay—the unions wrongly told their workers that there would be no pay rise. There will be a pay rise because the pay freeze is coming to an end, so that is untrue.
Safety—it is unsafe to have people walking down the track to check the condition of the lines when it can be done by trains that can take 70,000 pictures a minute and by drones that can look at the lines from overhead. Safety is about updating outdated working practices. If the hon. Lady cared about safety, she would care about modernisation.
Job cuts—the hon. Lady will know there has already been a call for voluntary job cuts. In fact, 5,000-plus people came forward, and 2,700 have been accepted. This is about ensuring we have a railway that is fit for the post-covid world. It is therefore crazy that the RMT jumped the gun and, before the talks had a chance to get anywhere, launched into strikes.
The hon. Lady’s call for the Government to be more involved is a desperate attempt to deflect from the fact the Labour party and its constituency Labour parties have received £250,000 from the RMT. And that is nothing—Labour has received £100 million from the unions over the last 10 years, and Labour Members are here today, as ever, failing to condemn strikes that will hurt ordinary people, that will hurt kids trying to do their GCSEs and A-levels, that will hurt people trying to get to hospital appointments that were delayed during covid, and that will even see veterans miss armed forces celebrations this week.
There is no excuse for the hon. Lady and her Front-Bench team sitting on the fence. I can almost feel her pain as she resists saying the four words, “I condemn the strikes.”