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Union leaders attack Government over rail dispute

·4-min read
Comments by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps were branded ‘incediary’ (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)
Comments by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps were branded ‘incediary’ (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)

Union leaders have strongly attacked the Government over the deadlocked rail dispute, urging ministers to either get involved in negotiations or “get out of the way”.

Leaders of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) and Aslef said public comments by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps since the row flared had been “unhelpful and incendiary”.

Eddie Dempsey, the RMT’s assistant general secretary, told the Transport Select Committee that unions and employers had been “measured” in their negotiations over the past few months, in contrast to comments from the minister.

He described some of Mr Shapps’s comments as “hairy, unhelpful and incendiary”.

Mr Dempsey accused the Government of “picking a fight” with unions over the rail dispute.

Asked whether Mr Shapps should change his stance of not wanting the Department for Transport to get involved in talks, he said: “They ought to be at the table, or they need to get out of the way and allow us to bargain freely and reach settlements, which we have always done.”

Mr Dempsey said that during negotiations, employers often leave the room to consult with the DfT, adding: “We are in a room with people who cannot make a decision.”

Aslef general secretary Mick Whelan said employers were telling unions they could not offer more money because of the Government.

“We are in a Catch-22 situation,” he told MPs.

Network Rail (NR) has made a two-year pay offer in a bid to resolve the dispute.

The RMT executive will discuss the offer later on Wednesday.

Tim Shoveller, NR’s chief negotiator in the dispute, told MPs that good progress has been made in talks following last month’s strikes by the RMT, which had enabled the company to put forward the new offer.

There has been a “huge drop” in passenger numbers as a result of the pandemic, especially among commuters and business travellers, he said.

“Our responsibility is to work with the unions to identify how to make the railway more efficient to reduce extra calls on the public purse.”

Steve Montgomery, who chairs the Rail Delivery Group, disputed the RMT’s claim that the plans aim to manage the “decline” of the industry, adding: “It is about making the industry fit for purpose and move forward.”

Unions described this week’s change in the law to allow agency workers to replace strikers as a “scab’s charter”, which will do nothing to resolve disputes.

Mr Montgomery said that during last month’s strikes there were examples of people being verbally abused or intimidated on social media, which he described as “unacceptable”.

He denied union claims of plans to close 980 ticket offices, saying there has been no agreement to shut any of them.

But he told MPs that some of the efficiencies companies are seeking involve redeploying staff to make them more flexible, adding only 13% of tickets are now sold from ticket offices.

Companies want to cut out the amount of Sunday work being done on overtime, and are looking at the contracts of new entrants as some of the current terms and conditions are “not fit for purpose”.

It is a matter for unions and employers - not Government - to engage in meaningful talks on modernisation practices to avoid damaging strike action and prevent chaos on the railways

Department for Transport spokesman

Commenting on the select committee hearing, a Department for Transport spokesman said: “It is a matter for unions and employers – not Government – to engage in meaningful talks on modernisation practices to avoid damaging strike action and prevent chaos on the railways. Government is not the employer here.

“Previously, when there were strikes by firefighters and post workers, the then Labour government said it’s between employers and unions, and we are continuing with that position.

“It’s important that ministers remain close to the ongoing situation regarding negotiations to ensure that railway staff, passengers and taxpayers are getting a fair deal.

“Industry is offering daily talks to the unions. We encourage the unions to stay at the negotiating table.”

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