Employment

'Answer the question': Transport secretary grilled over reports government 'scuppered deal' with rail union

Mark Harper has refused to deny the government “scuppered” a deal that could have prevented train strikes this month

Transport secretary Mark Harper was asked to confirm or deny whether the government added a last minute clause on driver-only trains to the latest deal offered to railways union the RMT. Image: Parliament TV

The transport secretary refused to deny the government “scuppered” a deal with rail unions by adding a controversial last-minute clause during negotiations.

At a House of Commons transport committee, Labour MP Ben Bradshaw quizzed Mark Harper, asking him to confirm or deny whether the government added a clause allowing driver-only operation of trains on all passenger services in Britain.

Railways unions the RMT and Aslef have long-stressed the dangers of driver-only trains, which would give sole responsibility for closing and opening train doors to the driver when helping people with limited mobility, disabled people, the elderly and children. 

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Harper was asked about reports that Number 10 added the clause “at the last minute”, and replied: “On reform we’re very clear.”

Exeter MP Bradshaw then cut in, saying: “Answer the question. No, answer the question.”

He continued: “Both the train operators and the unions both say that this issue has been inserted in the last week, by Number 10 or the Treasury, that has scuppered the deal.”

“I met with the trade unions, I was asked to facilitate an improvement…” the transport secretary replied. 

“That wasn’t my question”, Bradshaw responded.

When pushed further, Harper said: “I met the trade unions. I was asked to facilitate an improvement. There was then an improved offer to the unions from Network Rail, and an offer then came on the train operating side that the unions could consider. I regret that they rejected that offer.”

He added: “No one is trying to stop a deal, quite the reverse.”

With no deal in sight with either Network Rail or the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) representing train operators, the RMT has confirmed it will go ahead with strike action on four days in mid-December and also announced fresh action from Christmas Eve until December 27, which is set to cause chaos for people’s travel plans. 

In its latest offer to the RMT, the RDG offered a 4 per cent pay rise for 2022, and another 4 per cent for 2023, as well as a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies until April 2024.

However, the RMT says this came on the condition that the union also accept “driver-only operation of trains in all companies and on all passenger services”. The union has been campaigning to “Save our Stations” by ensuring proper staffing levels to help customers buy tickets, onto and off trains, and keep passengers safe. 

“If this plan was implemented, it would not only mean the loss of thousands of jobs but the use of unsafe practices such as (Driver Only Operated trains) and would leave our railways chronically understaffed,” said RMT general secretary Mick Lynch.

The RMT will put this latest deal to its members, with the recommendation that members reject the offer. 

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