Public sector pay rises in line with soaring inflation are “unaffordable”, Transport Secretary Mark Harper has said, raising the chances of a winter of strikes going ahead.
The Cabinet minister said on Sunday there “simply isn’t the money” to meet the demands of workers preparing to take industrial action, but hinted at progress in talks over rail strikes.
Mr Harper indicated a change in the mandate for negotiations and said pay rises could come if rail workers accept reforms, after holding “positive” talks with Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union general secretary Mick Lynch.
The Transport Secretary said 'we simply can’t afford some of the huge pay rises'
Nurses are set to stage their first-ever UK-wide strike action next month, as they join transport and postal workers on the picket lines in disputes over pay and conditions.
Mr Harper told ITV News the country is facing a huge economic challenge "made in Russia" and insisted public sector workers have been offered pay rises that the government thinks are affordable.
"We simply can’t afford some of the huge pay rises that we’ve seen that’s been demanded," he said.
He told the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg that rail bosses “will have the ability to reach a deal”, when pressed about whether they have the mandate to properly negotiate with the RMT.
“But we have to be able to have that reform package negotiated, because it’s only that that throws up the savings,” Mr Harper said.
“I do not have a bottomless pit of taxpayers’ money to throw at this problem.”
A spokesperson for the Rail Delivery Group, said: “We have been clear we want to do a deal with the RMT which delivers the long overdue reforms the railway needs to improve services and unlocks the funds for an affordable pay rise.
“With time running out to avert the widespread Christmas disruption which would result from further industrial action, we need the RMT to call off the strikes and work with us to reach a fair deal for our people, our passengers and for the taxpayer.”
Those hoping the strikes will be called off by Christmas, including TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady, welcomed a “change in tone” from the Government.
Former Conservative Party chairman Sir Jake Berry said he has “real hope” for a settlement as he criticised Mr Harper’s predecessor as transport secretary, Grant Shapps, for making a “big mistake” by taking a “not me guv” approach to talks.
Public sector workers like many in the private sector are calling for significant raises so they do not face real-terms cuts, as inflation soars past 11%.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has agreed to increase state pensions and benefits payments in line with inflation, but has said nurses’ demand for a 19% hike is “unaffordable”.
Royal College of Nursing (RCN) members in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will walk out on December 15 and 20 if the dispute is not resolved.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay has urged the nursing union to “come back to the table” for talks, but he is declining to discuss pay, instead wanting to talk about conditions such as pension arrangements, holidays, rosters and the availability of free coffee.
RCN general secretary Pat Cullen however said it is “negotiations or nothing”. Writing to Mr Barclay over the weekend, she said: “If the negotiation table is empty, we can see you are not serious about progress.”
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