Government 'hopeful' for rail strikes resolution but union bosses accuse ministers of blocking deals
The Government has offered hope for a resolution on the rail strikes "in the coming days", despite union leaders accusing ministers of driving the bitter dispute over jobs, pay and conditions and blocking deals to resolve the row.
Speaking to ITV's Peston on Wednesday, Transport Secretary Mark Harper MP said he is "hopeful" that progress will be made.
"I met the union leaders and my job as Transport Secretary is [to] make sure that there were some offers put on the table from the employers, from Network Rail and from the train operating companies to the unions," he said.
"That happened, and it's now for the union leaders and the leadership teams to deal with the employers and to thrash out both the detail on pay but also importantly on reform," he added.
“I’m hopeful that now that there is a renewed offer on the table, that that can happen, and we saw confirmation today.
“The evidence that was given to the Transport Select Committee that there are conversations going on between various of the unions and the companies and I’m hopeful we’ll make some progress in the coming days.”
However, Mr Harper's comments came as a contradiction to earlier accusations from rail union leaders, who have launched a fierce attack on the Government.
Former transport secretary Grant Shapps was singled out for criticism by officials from three unions when they gave evidence to the Transport Select Committee.
Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT), said the long-running conflict was “conceived” by the Department for Transport (DfT).
“This is Shapps’s project – the dispute has been bequested to the rest of us to sort out,” he told MPs.
Frank Ward, interim general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA), said he had written to Mr Shapps when he was transport secretary asking for a meeting but had no response.
“He was non-existent,” he told the committee.
Mick Whelan, general secretary of the Aslef train drivers’ union, was asked to say how close, on a scale of one to 10, the situation was to a resolution.
He replied: “I think you can include zero. We’re further away than when we started.”
Mr Whelan also criticised the way an offer was made by the Rail Delivery Group last Friday afternoon, saying it was leaked to sections of the media first and contained details that “smashed” agreements with the union.
Mr Lynch added: “We haven’t got an agreement. Until we get an agreement we’re not close to it.”
He said nine clauses were added to an offer made last month, describing it as “sabotage” and blaming the DfT.
Mr Lynch and Mr Whelan made it clear that their unions would never accept driver-only operation (DOO) on the railways.
The RMT boss told the committee that “loads of damage” had been done to the railway because of the Government.
“The damage is conceived and controlled in the Department for Transport," Mr Lynch said. He also claimed the DfT has a “Stalinist obsession about central control”.
Steve Montgomery, of the Rail Delivery Group, told the committee that talks were “further behind” with Aslef than with the other unions, but added that more talks will be held on Thursday in a bid to reach an agreement.
He said the group must “seek permission” from the Government before making offers aimed at resolving the dispute.
Network Rail chief negotiator Tim Shoveller rated the progress towards ending the row with the RMT as seven out of 10, after an offer was rejected last month.
He said “there’s every chance” that at least 50% of RMT votes will be to accept an offer if there are “very carefully targeted discussions”.
Mr Shoveller told the committee more union members are working on strike days.
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “Far from holding up negotiations, this Government is determined to help unions and employers achieve a deal and avoid further strikes, while delivering the much-needed reforms which will put our railway on a sustainable financial footing for the future.
“The industry has put forward fair and reasonable pay offers and, to facilitate progress, the Government has held meetings between all parties in a bid to end this damaging dispute.”
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