As a prelude to the Government introducing its Minimum Service Levels ‘rail strikes' regulations, the Transport Committee has urged it not to overlook the risks associated with such regulations, and be prepared to learn whatever lessons are necessary.
The warning comes as the Committee publishes the Government's response to its recent report into the Minimum Service Levels (MSLs) regulations for rail, which set out three criteria by which the Department for Transport (DfT) should judge whether their introduction was successful:
- Whether the MSLs have inadvertently led to novel forms of protest, or of longer industrial disputes;
- Whether they result in greater levels of customer satisfaction and reliability on strike days than at present;
- Whether they led to more effective long-term cooperation and better working relationships between rail unions, the industry, and government,
In response, Ministers issued a one-sentence statement: “The Government welcomes these suggested criteria and will carefully monitor the impact of MSLs”.
The Committee is disappointed that this future-focused aspect of the report has not been fully engaged with.
Elsewhere in the report, MPs set ministers nine tests for how the MSLs should work in practice. Among them were:
- assurances about safety;
- on strike days, services overall would be no worse than currently experienced;
- priority would be given to routes crucial to the night-time economy, other disproportionately affected industries, or used by school traffic and hospital patients;
- passengers with access needs would still be properly catered for.
The Government also rejected the Committee's call for it to carry out further consultation with the sector on how the regulations will work in practice, and said strike action in recent years has had “a significant impact on passengers and the wider economy”, and that it would “therefore be prudent to introduce these regulations as soon as possible”.
In its report, the Committee pointed out that the Government's initial plans were too vague to enable stakeholders to express meaningful opinions on how the regime would work, and it would not be possible to carry out a pilot of the MSLs as there is no provision for this in the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act.
Regarding safety, the response says that more reliable MSL on strike days could help to avoid overcrowding on some services, but adds: “MSLs do not override any existing safety rules, or obligations, and staff who are placed on work notices… will follow standard safety practice for their role as normal.”
Regarding improvement of resilience so trained alternatives are available to cover for specialised staff wanting to strike, the Government said non-statutory guidance has been issued to employers suggesting they “may wish to consider” whether any worker has already been identified in previous work notices, but ministers did not address the point about ensuring resilience.
The Committee was confident that MSLs would achieve a greater level of provision on strike days than at present, as during strikes by ASLEF some operators were “unable to run any services at all”, and during strikes by RMT at Network Rail, “service levels have been around 20%”.
Transport Committee Chair Iain Stewart MP said: “The Government has signalled its intention to implement MSLs as soon as possible. Given that it has an unresolved dispute with the train drivers' union ASLEF, we could see these regulations in action very soon.
“My Committee felt that the Government's plans could have included more detail, as throughout our inquiry voices from the sector were calling out for guidance from DfT on how to prepare for this new way of working.
“We were disappointed by the Government's half-hearted response to our recommendation on how it will judge the success or otherwise of MSLs. There is a risk of MSLs worsening worker-employer relations and that, as a result, MSLs could end up making services less reliable. We will watch with interest how the Department intends to assess the success of MSLs as the regulations come into force.
“I urge the Government to keep a close eye over how this develops and learn lessons where necessary. After all, major changes to timetabling on the rail network haven't always gone seamlessly in the past.”