Anger at UK minister’s Qatar trip amid rail fare row
Anger at UK minister’s Qatar trip amid rail fare row
As millions of Britons bemoan the country’s largest rail fare increase in five years, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has been criticized for fleeing the fray with a trip to Doha.
The purpose is to drum up business for Britain as it looks to exit the EU — but unions criticized the timing after protests at 40 UK train stations over ticket-price increases. Fares rose by an average of 3.4 percent, with season tickets increasing by 3.6 percent at the start of the year.
A spokesperson for ASLEF, a trade union for train drivers, told Arab News it was “typical” of Grayling to be absent on the day the train fares went up.
“It’s interesting that he doesn’t want to be around when there’s a lot of justified anger that the privatized train operating companies in this country are profiting yet again at the expense of the passengers that they are meant to serve.”
Carmel Nolan, head of communications at the TSSA, an independent trade union for the transport and travel trade industries, said Grayling was “missing in action” and “doing anything but helping the British rail industry.”
“His job is to be the secretary of state for transport and rail fares have seen the biggest hike in five years,” Nolan said.
“Effectively there’s an extra penalty on workers to go to work and he’s not here addressing a crisis in transport, he’s in Qatar, avoiding journalists, avoiding accountability, no doubt trying to drum up new trading relationships and partnerships because he’s such a hard Brexiteer.”
Bobby Morton, Unite national officer for the rail industry, said: “Chris Grayling’s sudden trip to Qatar smacks of running scared as millions of commuters faced unacceptable rail fare increases for 2018, including his constituents. The transport secretary should have had the guts to have faced the media in the UK, so he could explain what he is going to do to curb such draconian increases in the future.”
The Labour party accused Grayling of trying to escape the outcry over the price hike, which will see passengers paying up to £2,500 ($3,378) more for their annual season tickets than they did in 2010.
“Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has gone into hiding, unable to defend today’s 3.6 percent fares hike and refusing to explain the £2 billion taxpayer bailout of Virgin East Coast. Passengers deserve better than this,” said Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald.
Vince Cable, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: “Rail passengers are shivering on platforms angered by the biggest fare increase in years while Chris Grayling is off globetrotting.”
Speaking on LBC radio, Grayling said he was in Qatar to “win a couple of big contracts” for UK businesses.
"I don’t think I’ve shirked the issue, but I think it’s really important we get out and try and win business for Britain."
Responding to questions raised about the timing of Grayling’s two-day trip to Qatar, after which he will head to Turkey, the Department for Transport released a statement saying he was on “a pre-planned visit to promote the UK overseas, support British jobs and strengthen the important relationship between the two countries.”
The prime minister’s official spokesperson said: "There are ministers visiting a whole host of countries spreading the message that Britain is a very good place to invest and to do business in. Chris Grayling obviously plays an important part in that.”
Transport unions in the UK criticized the rail price hikes and called for a return to public ownership of Britain's railways, which were privatized in the mid-1990s. Many feel that regular price increases have not been reflected in improved services, with delays and cancelations common across the country’s rail networks.
Research by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) found that Britons spend up to six times more of their salaries on rail fares than commuters in other European countries.
“Another year, another price increase. Many commuters will look with envy to their continental cousins, who enjoy reasonably-priced journeys to work,” said TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady.
Grayling’s absence during the UK’s latest rail fare furore has added to speculation that his job may be on the line in the upcoming Cabinet reshuffle.
Grayling, who served as justice minister from 2012 to 2015, was also behind a controversial decision to restrict prisoners’ access to books, which was subsequently declared unlawful and revoked.
'Brexit continues to mean Brexit': Theresa May defiant despite Westminster resistance
- British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Wednesday her government had begun negotiations with the European Union
- May also said talks had already started with Brussels based on the proposal set down in a white paper policy document last week
LONDON: British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Wednesday her government had begun negotiations with the European Union based on her hard-won Brexit plan, pressing on with a proposal criticized by both wings of her Conservative Party.
After narrowly escaping defeat in parliament over her plans for leaving the EU, May signalled she would not drop a proposal on Britain’s future relationship with bloc — the biggest shift in its foreign and trade policy for almost half a century.
But by sticking to her plan for a “business-friendly” departure, May has thrown down the gauntlet to Brexit supporters and pro-EU lawmakers in her party who are at war with each other, and — for some — with the prime minister herself.
Boris Johnson, her former foreign minister who quit over what is called the Chequers plan, was one of the first to renew his call for government to rethink its strategy, saying “it is not too late to save Brexit.”
But at an earlier session of parliament, May stood firm after being challenged by one pro-Brexit lawmaker in her party to explain when she had decided to change her catchphrase from “Brexit means Brexit,” to “Brexit means Remain.”
“Brexit continues to mean Brexit,” May said to cheers from her Conservative supporters.
May also said talks had already started with Brussels based on the proposal set down in a white paper policy document last week after her divided government had thrashed out a deal at her Chequers country residence.
The prime minister insisted she was confident Britain had enough time to negotiate a deal with the EU before leaving in March next year.
While May’s party is in disarray over the plan, EU member Ireland also said it was focusing on the white paper, unwilling to be diverted over the changes to her Brexit plans forced through in parliament this week.
“If we get distracted by individual amendments to individual pieces of legislation ... then I think we get dragged into an unnecessary debate that wastes a lot of time and energy,” Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told state broadcaster RTE.
"WE CAN CHANGE"
May’s vulnerability in parliament, where she lost her majority in an ill-judged election last year, was laid bare on Monday and Tuesday when she faced rebellions from both the pro-Brexit and pro-EU wings of her party.
She won the votes on a customs and a trade bill, but suffered an unexpected defeat on a separate amendment, which means her government must now seek continued participation in the European medicines regulatory framework.
But the government’s approach to securing victory in parliament has not only deepened divisions in her party, but also raised the issue of trust.
One Conservative lawmaker told Reuters the party whips, whose job it is to enforce discipline in parliament, had threatened to call a confidence vote in May if she lost — a move that could bring down the government.
Johnson, figurehead of the Brexit campaign in the 2016 referendum, led those calls in his resignation speech to parliament. He criticized the government for handing an advantage to the EU by agreeing in the talks to a divorce bill before agreeing a future relationship.
“We have time in these negotiations, we have changed tack once and we can change again,” he said. “It is as though a fog of self-doubt has descended,” Johnson said. “We should not and need not be stampeded by anyone.”