First Minister accused of “misleading the Senedd” over strike comments
The First Minister has been accused of “misleading the Senedd” after he told members that train staff had been deployed from Wales to run limited services in England during last week’s strikes despite Network Rail stating that no such thing had happened.
Transport for Wales was not in dispute with the RMT union, however workers from various train operators and Network Rail were on strike many Welsh services did not operate.
Last week, Leader of the Opposition Andrew Davies MS wrote to Mark Drakeford urging him to correct the record after a debate in the Senedd, saying “I believe that a correction is fully warranted” and that he was concerned that the comment “inaccurate” and “used to justify some divisive, unjust language”.
In First Minister questions the following exchange took place…
Mr Davies MS asked the First Minister “First Minister, the country today is gridlocked because of the rail strikes, the biggest strikes since the 1980s. Do you support the strikes, First Minister? ”
The First Minister replied, “There are no strikes in Wales. There is no dispute between Transport for Wales and the trade union.
“Where I am responsible for these things, workers are not on strike, because of the way in which the Welsh Government acts on a social partnership basis to bring people round the table together to make sure that conversations take place and solutions are reached. How very different from the entirely absent UK Government, who abandon their responsibilities and mean that thousands of people are unable to travel due to the dereliction of duty that is so apparent in their approach to industrial relations. ”
A follow up question from Mr Davies MS asked, “Nothing like winding up the payroll vote to the unions is there when your own are banging their desks. I didn’t hear them banging their desks when they were supposed to be standing up for their constituents who were stuck on trains that couldn’t provide a service, from Transport for Wales. And when you go to Cardiff Central station today, or the rail network in north Wales or mid Wales, there are no trains running, First Minister.
“I do note that you didn’t say that you supported the strikes, which is to be welcomed, First Minister, but surely, in an era when we need the public transport system to come back to life after COVID, we need to move away from the 1950s working practices and move into the 2020s—practices that see people not sharing vans to get to the same site to work, practices that rule on not using drones for health and safety, or the ability to use apps on phones to send messages to workers who are in vulnerable locations. Surely you’ll agree with me on that, First Minister, that working practices do need updating in our railways, whether that’s in Wales, England, Scotland or Northern Ireland, so that we have a safe and reliable rail network?”
The First Minister replied, “Let me explain to the leader of the opposition why trains aren’t running in Wales: it’s because his Government has created a dispute with Network Rail, and Network Rail have removed some of the staff, who could have been available to make trains run in Wales, in order to keep trains running in England. I wonder if he supports that measure, which was a decision of his Government, to deny people in Wales the opportunity to travel—where there is no dispute—by removing those workers to look after what clearly is for them a higher priority than Welsh citizens will ever be.
“The trade unions. Llywydd, of course the trade unions want to negotiate and want to negotiate on safe working practices for the future, but the safe working practices. When you look at what Network Rail is currently proposing, I wouldn’t want to be travelling on a train with a driver that has just worked for 16 hours in a row. I wouldn’t want to be on a train where I couldn’t be confident that the safety arrangements and signalling boxes are what they need to be.
“Llywydd, any dispute in the end is only ever settled by negotiation. What I want to see is the UK Government using the power that it has, the convening power that it has, the muscle of the funding arrangements that it has, to get people around the table and to make sure that those talks resume and head towards an agreed conclusion. It is the absence of the UK Government and their refusal to exercise those responsibilities that is responsible for the issues that people face while trying to travel today.”
The comment that has triggered the dispute is the claim by the First Minister “Network Rail have removed some of the staff, who could have been available to make trains run in Wales, in order to keep trains running in England.”
Later that day, Network Rail Wales and Borders confirmed that “no Network Rail staff have been redeployed from Wales to England during this industrial action.”
Adding “We’re continuing to work with our partners at Transport for Wales and other train operators to keep passengers moving where we can,” they said.
The Welsh Government later effectively disputed that saying, “Network Rail have prioritised deploying their contingent signallers, some of whom normally work in Wales, to keep lines in England running as part of their revised route strategy to deal with the dispute”.
In response to a letter from the Welsh Conservative leader, the First Minister said:
Let me confirm what I said in Plenary this week: Network Rail’s route strategy for managing
the rail strike focuses almost entirely on lines in England.
Whilst Transport for Wales staff have not undertaken strike action this week, the practical
operation of the Transport for Wales timetable depends upon the priorities which Network
Rail decides to deliver. They have decided that there is only one priority route in the whole
I have received a letter from Network Rail which provides further detail of its actions this
week, including information that no staff were moved this week.
Commenting on the response, Welsh Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies MS said: “For someone who likes to present himself a standard bearer for honesty in politics, Mark Drakeford is veering off course wildly.
“I have had to write to him twice in the last couple months urging him to correct the record after he has misinformed the Senedd, yet he has doubled down again despite Network Rail setting him straight on the day of the infraction.
“Thousands of people across Wales were left unable to travel for work and school exams last week, potentially leaving many out of pocket at a time when the cost of living is in the up. Rather than stoking up division, the First Minister should be making sure people can get their jobs and exams.”
“Nobody is perfect but when presented with chances to correct mistakes, it is a shame that Labour’s First Minister has chosen the route of denial in the face of facts. It is not too late for him to change his mind.”
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