STEPHEN LLOYD MP: Disappointment as rail talks hit the buffers

I was very disappointed to hear earlier in the week the talks between the rail company Southern Rail/GTR and the RMT trade union had stalled.

Friday, 11th August 2017, 8:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 12th September 2017, 11:52 am
Stephen Lloyd, MP for Eastbourne and Willingdon SUS-170614-095516001

This is a blow, so I made a few enquiries and discovered that although we secured some real progress a couple of weeks ago with the Transport Minister finally agreeing to sit down with the trade union leaders involved in the dispute (RMT and ASLEF), with no pre-conditions, something he’d refused to do for the last 16 months, it seems the talks have hit the buffers.

I immediately contacted a senior figure within the union and was told that after the initial positive meeting with the Secretary of State, the talks had reverted to what they’d unsuccessfully been for the duration of the dispute. In other words no Dft (Department of Transport) presence, meeting the unions separately and the negotiations being just with the rail company.

This is disappointing for two very good reasons; firstly the self-same approach has clearly not worked for the last 16 months so why should it now? And secondly, the Dft possesses significant oversight over the proceedings as Southern/GTR only have a management contract, as opposed to a full train operators licence and, consequently, do pretty much what the Department of Transport want them to do.

Clearly the only way to break this deadlock is to get the Dft to take ownership of the problem, which in my and many others view, has been created by the government’s determination to bring in Driver Only Trains (DOO), come want may. The transport department should be active participants in the negotiations and along with Southern/GTR sit down to negotiate with both unions in the same room at the same time.

I was reminded of the absurdity of this intractable dispute when one of the union leaders told me in Westminster that he’d never actually met the Secretary of State for transport, and that prior to GTR securing this rather peculiar management-only contract, they’d not had a single day of strikes in the previous 12 years working with the company.

One could be forgiven for thinking the Conservative government’s rail agenda for Southern Rail was less around improving service for its passengers and more to do with bringing in DOO!

And that plan hasn’t worked very well has it? Meeting each union separately, at different times, and without the Dft is using the same failed approach which has got them precisely nowhere over what is now 17 months.

And having finally got the Secretary of State Chris Grayling to engage with the union leadership, which he should have done months ago frankly, I am incredibly frustrated he’s simply allowed the company to return to their previously failed negotiating tactic.

This MUST change and it must change NOW if we are to end the rail dispute, which has caused so much hardship and inconvenience for Eastbourne and across the entire Southern Rail network. I have written to Chris Grayling demanding he make the necessary calls to ensure everyone gets around the table before it’s too late, and the window of opportunity secured over the last few weeks isn’t wasted.

And clearly tempers on both sides are getting fraught again, which is exactly what I wanted to avoid, and is why I brought both union leaders into Westminster together where they made their open, public offer to suspend the strikes in early August, if Chris Grayling met with them.

We’re now three weeks on and the latest quote from the RMT’s general secretary Mick Cash doesn’t bode well. He said, “I have now seen correspondence from the company to all GTR staff which is completely at odds with the facts. They are deliberately misrepresenting RMT’s position as not having any proposals to try and resolve this dispute, and are now indicating they are not prepared to meet with us anymore. That is clearly at odds with the impression I received from you [Chris Grayling] when we sat down and talked together.”

Bluntly the party’s involved meeting (or not in the Dft’s case) in different rooms at different times simply isn’t working. The Secretary of State needs to do whatever is necessary to get ALL of them together at the same time in the same room and thrash this out. Eastbourne needs its rail service back and if the Dft drops the ball on this, I and many others will hold them accountable.