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Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab):
Does my hon. Friend agree that, whatever the merits of a dispute and whatever the issues involved-including the issue, which has been raised today, of whether a company should rely on
overtime to run basic services-punishing the passengers is never the answer, and is never acceptable? Will he make it clear that the Government will consider the wider issues involving how the company operates, and how the union is dealing with these matters?
Chris Mole: I assure my hon. Friend that the Government's clear view is that it is not appropriate to disadvantage passengers in that way, whatever the merits of any disagreement between any group of employees and the management. I also assure him that we will continue to look into the degree to which the company was prepared for this situation, and will consider whether that suggests that it needs to take further action to prevent such events from happening again.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): The Minister will appreciate that my constituents, who use the neighbouring line run by First Capital Connect running to King's Lynn and Peterborough, will want to know whether there is a risk of the action spreading. We have had Great Northern and we have had Thameslink. Does the Minister feel that he can reassure my constituents that there will not be a rolling series of disputes that goes on and on and damages my constituents as well?
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): As a daily user of First Capital Connect services, I have a personal interest in the situation-particularly today, because train cancellations caused me to miss Question Time. Last year First Capital Connect was given the Evening Standard award for the company that combined the worst service with the biggest profits. May I ask my hon. Friend to intervene with the company, and suggest that it solve the problem by spending more of its profits on drivers?
Chris Mole: The question of remuneration is obviously part of the package that the management need to consider in their relationships with their employees. It must be said that before the start of this series of incidents the actual performance on the line had improved significantly, and was relatively good.
Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): My constituents endured similar problems with London Midland earlier in the year. Does the Minister not agree that at the heart of the problem is the fact that railway companies are relying on drivers with shift patterns involving four-day weeks? Will he ensure that when he awards franchise agreements in future, the staffing arrangements are robust and do not rely on goodwill and overtime for the provision of a proper seven-days-a-week service?
Chris Mole: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. One of the challenges for us in the management of franchises is that the starting arrangements can be one thing, but arrangements can change over time. We will need to consider that in the letting of future franchises, and ensure that arrangements that companies put forward as robust, and able to deliver what they commit to in the franchise, remain so.
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend share the bemusement of commuters from my constituency who use Mill Hill and Hendon stations at the fact that their daily travel to work can be disrupted because of a shift pattern whereby voluntary overtime is the main way of supplying a weekday commuter service? Does he agree that that is not acceptable and has to be dealt with? Does he also agree that if industrial action has to take place, it should take place with proper notice given to employers and travellers alike, irrespective of the merits of the dispute?
Chris Mole: My hon. Friend has gone to the heart of the question. The shift patterns are clearly a big part of the problem, but we expect the businesses to have the freedom to manage the franchises within the outputs that we expect them to deliver. Whether the shift patterns need to be changed is essentially a matter for the companies, but we will have to discuss it further with them. My hon. Friend made a point about unexpected changes to the timetable. Those are clearly more disruptive to passengers than anything else, which is why, when there needs to be a change to the timetable, we have to agree it with the company. As I said in my original answer, we intend to ensure that we get back to a full pattern of operation as soon as possible.
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): My constituents will be as grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) as her own will be for bringing the Minister before the House today to answer these questions. My constituents have been flooding me with e-mails complaining about not only cancellations, but short trains, overcrowding and poor communication by the company. Many of them are spending more than £3,000 a year on season tickets and they want to know whether they will get any reimbursement for the failure to deliver the services for which they have paid. They also want to know from the Minister, who says that these actions appear to be co-ordinated, whether such actions are, thus, outside the law. Does that mean that the company can take action against the unions, or do the Government propose to do so?
Chris Mole: The right hon. Gentleman will, no doubt, already have welcomed the investment that the Government intend to make in the Thameslink service over the coming years: some £5.5 billion of investment will be made to improve trains, stations and frequency of service to meet the capacity on one of our busiest railway lines. I am sure that he will want to support that. Reimbursement is a matter for the company-as, indeed, is judging whether the co-ordinated action is anything more than just that.
Mr. Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry, North-West) (Lab): I note the Minister's strictures about drivers, but will he also bear in mind the fact that the company involved has a terrible record? Therefore, will he-or one of his ministerial colleagues-stand ready to intervene personally if it fails to get an agreement with the drivers and others in the very near future?
I thank my hon. Friend for his interest. I repeat the encouragement to all parties to seek a negotiated settlement that will allow the railway to resume its full
pattern of operation as quickly as possible. On his second question, we will of course stand ready to intervene as a matter of last resort, if necessary.
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): The Minister says that he is going to monitor the situation. As another regular user of this line, may I assure him that he will not have to monitor it for very long to see the misery that it is causing to my constituents in Radlett, Borehamwood, Elstree and Potters Bar, who pay substantial amounts of money and feel that their interests have been completely overlooked by both the company and the union, and for whom the word "Connect" is a misnomer? Will he tell us exactly what he is going to do to bring this intolerable situation to an end?
Chris Mole: I remind the hon. Gentleman that we have a privatised railway in which the franchises are let by the Government, and that within the period of the operation of the franchise we expect the companies to use their best endeavours to ensure that the service is delivered. Beyond that, it is not appropriate for us to intervene directly unless the situation gets significantly worse.
Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): My constituents and I use both the First Capital Connect lines: the Great Northern and the Thameslink. Indeed, my constituents who were using Sandy, Biggleswade and Arlesey stations last week to go to remembrance events could not get there. As the Minister is given at least 24 hours' notice of changes in timetables, can he tell us whether there is any suggestion that there will be further disruption on the Great Northern line? Will he ask the company whether it will extend the courtesy of saying what the timetable changes will be to Members of Parliament so that we can give some comfort to passengers, as we will know at the same time as the Minister?
Chris Mole: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive intervention. The whole purpose of the notice arrangement is to ensure that we can get that advance information to passengers when the timetable has to change for such reasons. He makes a reasonable point about alerting Members of Parliament, and we will seek to ensure that that happens.
Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con):
Rail travellers from Kettering will be affected by this disruption, not
least because many of the Thameslink refugees will seek to use midland main line services. Will the Ministers speak with those who run the midland main line to see how capacity and service slots might be improved to absorb this flow?
Chris Mole: The hon. Gentleman is a tad optimistic if he thinks that franchises can turn additional capacity on and off quite as quickly as that. Perhaps he would be more prepared to welcome the announcement that I made earlier in the year that the midland main line would have some additional capacity running in from Watford to relieve congestion on some of those trains.
Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), will the Minister explain to the House how the public can feel that the Government are an honest broker between the unions and the companies in this outrageous situation, especially when I notice that in just six years there have been 81 donations by ASLEF to the Conservative party-sorry, I mean the Labour party- [ Interruption. ] Sadly, not to the Conservative party. They totalled £359,554.01. Is it not true that this Labour Government have been bought and paid for by the unions, are no longer honest and cannot be trusted?
Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): Will the Minister take a constructive initiative on this issue? East Croydon commuters cannot use their First Capital Connect tickets on Southern railways. Will he talk to First Capital Connect, if there are issues to do with compensation to Southern, so that we can find an easy way to increase capacity in that way?
Chris Mole: As I said, we are in continuous dialogue with First Capital Connect. As I told the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone), there are no easy ways to turn additional services on and off.
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. So far, 53 Members of Parliament of all parties have signed early-day motion 2250, calling for Sir Ian Kennedy to carry out his duties
"in line with natural justice",
and for our pay rates to be set independently of MPs and Government. That has been deliberately misrepresented and misreported this morning and signatories have been targeted, presumably to intimidate MPs who have the temerity to express a view contrary to the agenda of The Daily Telegraph. Is this attempt to curtail discussion and chill MPs in breach of privilege, and should I write to you accordingly?
Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his observations. I think that he knows that that is not a point of order for the Chair, but what he has said is clearly on the record. If he wishes to raise a privilege complaint, he should indeed write to me.
Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On 2 July I wrote to the Financial Secretary on the subject of Mr. Richard Summersgill in his role as director of both the child benefit office and the tax credit office-two sites 130 miles apart. I wrote to the Financial Secretary because I found Mr. Summersgill difficult to contact. I am not aware of either an e-mail address or a telephone number through which I can contact him, although my staff have made repeated efforts to do so. I wrote to the Minister about contact in July, and at one stage got members of my staff to ring the Minister's office daily, before I received an apology three weeks ago. I was told that this had slipped through the net, and promised that I would receive a response from HMRC the following week. Three weeks later, after months of effort, I am still none the wiser.
Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I fear that again it does not constitute a point of order but rather a point of legitimate and understandable frustration. The hon. Gentleman's point essentially focuses on delay and inaccessibility, and it is a point that is often made by right hon. and hon. Members. He has underlined it very clearly, and the people about whom he is complaining will have heard what he has to say.
The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Happily, I am not responsible for this particular delay, but as I am in my place on the Front Bench, I promise that I will get further details from the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) and will follow his point up with the appropriate Treasury Minister.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab):
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have in my hands 30 closely typed pages of freedom of information requests going back to
2005 that have not been properly addressed by the Information Commissioner, including one from me that goes back more than one and a half years. What remedy do Members of Parliament have in this situation? Can we bring the Information Commissioner to the Bar of the House and ask him to explain these grotesque delays, which go back almost five years?
Mr. Speaker: I have no responsibility for the matter. It might be a matter of considerable sadness that I have no responsibility for it, but that nevertheless is the position. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman has underlined not only a personal concern but a concern that will be more widely shared throughout the House. As an immensely assiduous and perspicacious parliamentarian, he should use all the parliamentary avenues open to him. I sense, perhaps, an application for an Adjournment debate coming on.
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you confirm that it was widely anticipated that there would be a motion before the House before Prorogation to approve the appointment of Sir Ian Kennedy as the chairman of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority? The fact that that has not appeared on the Order Paper is a matter of great concern. We cannot raise it with the Leader of the House, because she has cancelled business questions for today. What can be done to ensure that that very important appointment is approved-or rather, put before Members of the House of Commons for approval-as soon as possible?
Mr. Speaker: Of course we do not have business questions on a Prorogation day. The tabling of motions is a matter for the Government, not for me, and I can only say to the hon. Gentleman that anticipation is not a matter for me either.
Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart), Mr. Speaker. Can I advise the House that Richard Summersgill is a serial offender? I had the same problem a couple of years ago, which was cured by my tabling a written question asking about his salary and bonuses. I got a phone call within three days.
Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I regret the need to raise yet again the issue of Armistice day yesterday. Last year, on 12 November, I raised a point of order about the failure of the House authorities to fly the flag of our country from all flagpoles on the parliamentary estate. Following my point of order last year, Speaker Martin wrote to me on 28 January saying:
"I have asked the Director General of Facilities to set out to the Administration Committee the present arrangements for flag flying and to put to the Committee proposals to extend the days on which flags are flown to include 11 November, whether or not the House is sitting."
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