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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Covid-19 Recovery Strategy, Health and Social Care (Winter Planning), Environment Bill, Urgent Question, Covid-19 Regulations (Scrutiny Protocol), Decision Time, Big Noise Programme (Wester Hailes), Correction


Urgent Question

Rail Strike

To ask the Scottish Government what action it will take to resolve the on-going pay dispute between ScotRail and railway workers, in light of the announcement of strike action during COP26.

The Minister for Transport (Graeme Dey)

Talks with trade unions about the general grades pay claim took place today, and discussions with the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen are planned for tomorrow. Although the railway sector faces a backdrop of significant financial challenges, reasonable offers are on the table, which could lead, through pragmatic and meaningful discussions about efficiencies and modernisation, to an agreement being reached.

Today’s talks have just adjourned and are scheduled to resume on Thursday. Any cancellations as a result of industrial action will have the potential to not only undermine the recovery of our rail services but to impact on vital revenue streams from ticket sales.

We support the right of every worker and trade union to engage with employers to seek a pay deal, but the 26th UN climate change conference of the parties—COP26—is the chance for Scotland and Glasgow to showcase on a world stage the key role that we see for rail in our sustainable future. We hope that staff and unions will understand the importance of the moment and will work with ScotRail to resolve the dispute. We are encouraged that the talks have adjourned until later this week.

Paul Sweeney

I refer to my registered interest as a member of Unite the union. In the past couple of days, 20 ScotRail employees in depots across the country have been sent home—in effect locked out of their workplaces—for refusing to operate machinery that they do not have the necessary accreditation or training to operate. That comes against the backdrop of the on-going pay dispute, which the minister referred to.

As a result, Unite trade union members have overwhelmingly backed strike action in October and November, including dates during COP26. That means that three days of strike action will take place on Scotland’s railways during the most important climate conference in history. Does the minister endorse Abellio’s decision to send home those workers and use anti-trade-union tactics, which fly in the face of the Scottish Government’s Fair Work Convention, simply for exercising their right to withdraw their labour?

Graeme Dey

Having declared his interest, Mr Sweeney is entitled to interpret what may or may not have happened in whatever way he sees fit. This morning, I spoke directly to Unite about the matter. A number of staff members might have found themselves in such a situation, and we have raised the issue with ScotRail.

In an industrial dispute such as this, there is a lot of rhetoric, assertion and claiming. We need calm heads and we need people to get round the table and work constructively to resolve everything in the situation.

Paul Sweeney

I welcome the hint that there might well be a revised offer, but I say with respect to the minister that I tend to trust the integrity of workers and their trade union representatives to tell the truth on such matters. I commend the Government’s effort to respond, but it is trying to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted.

The situation should never have been allowed to deteriorate to this point. For more than 18 months, the Government has steadfastly refused to engage meaningfully with the pay dispute. Workers’ morale is at an all-time low, and they have been left with no option but to vote for strike action. It is not a bolt from the blue or a malicious act; it is the result of sustained unacceptable behaviour by the employer.

We face the prospect of Scotland being an international laughing stock if COP26 delegates cannot use public transport because of Abellio’s intransigence and the Government’s seeming indifference. What will be the next steps if the revised pay offer that is under discussion is refused by the trade unions? Will the minister make it clear to Abellio that the lockouts—they are indisputably lockouts—are totally unacceptable? Will he instruct Abellio to halt the practice before the situation escalates any further?

Graeme Dey

Once again, I refer members to the declaration of interests that was made by Mr Sweeney—there lies part of the problem. The dispute needs to be resolved by everyone coming together in order to do so. I remind the member that I have been in post for only five months, but, over that time, I have encouraged all sides to engage constructively. I was pleased to see the approach that was taken today. It is in no one’s interests for the dispute to continue and for it to impact COP26. With the greatest respect to Mr Sweeney, I say that I hope that rather than portraying one side of the argument, he will encourage the trade unions to engage constructively, as I have done with both the trade unions and ScotRail, to get the issue resolved and for us all to move on.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

Can the minister reassure us that he will encourage ScotRail management to settle the dispute within its current budget? We know that passenger revenues are down and we do not want to be switching more money out of the national health service into the railways.

Graeme Dey

I will not inflame the situation in any way by talking about the nature of the discussions that took place today, because I hope that they have moved on in the course of the afternoon. I can, however, reassure the member that the resolution that is being discussed would be affordable within the existing rail budget.

The minister is right to say that it takes two sides to resolve a dispute, but it is within his gift to get involved. Will he be taking part directly in the talks tomorrow and if not, why not?

Graeme Dey

As I pointed out already and as the member would have heard if he had been listening, the talks adjourned this afternoon and do not resume until Thursday—tomorrow’s discussions are with ASLEF. It is not for a Government minister to be directly involved in such talks—they are for the employers and the unions. However, we have got to this point because of the encouragement and support of the Government to seek a resolution. As I said, both sides need to get around the issue in a constructive way. If they do that, we can get the matter resolved.