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Unions condemn Government over rail dispute ‘provocations’

Rail union leaders have launched a fierce attack on the Government, accusing ministers of driving the bitter dispute over jobs, pay and conditions and blocking deals to resolve the row.

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.”

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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.

But Transport Secretary Mark Harper later contradicted them, suggesting an end to rail strikes could be in sight.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper
Transport Secretary Mark Harper (PA)

In a pre-released clip from ITV’s Peston, he said: “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.”

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.

“This is their project, they knew that there would be an industrial response from the trade unions, they decided to make what they would think was a great leap forward and provoke the workforce and attack the workforce.

“So the damage has been envisaged in Whitehall by people who know very little about the railway.

“Rather than try to get consent and evolution of the railway, they went for this great leap forward and it’s blown up in their faces.”

He claimed the DfT has a “Stalinist obsession about central control”, adding: “What we get from the DfT is provocations, provocations in language and also what is put into the documents.

“You can also see in the way they run the railway, when there is a Network Rail strike they shut Scotland and they shut large parts of Wales, and they choose to run the parts that connect to England – it’s quite cynical, in my view.”

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.

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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.

He said: “We have absolutely seen in the last set of strikes, just before and especially after Christmas, there has been a return to work by a number of employees, both in maintenance and operations.

“It’s very localised, it tends to be groups of people that will come back in rather than individuals on their own, but nevertheless there is clearly a pattern of that we can see emerge.”

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.”