Anti-inflation pay rises for struggling public sector workers are “unaffordable”, the Transport Secretary has said, raising the likelihood of winter strikes on the rail network, schools and the NHS.
Mark Harper said there was no ‘bottomless pit’ of money to meet the demands of workers planning to take industrial action in the coming weeks, even if benefits and pensions increase according to inflation.
Britain is facing a wave of strikes not seen in a generation, with nurses due to stage their first-ever UK-wide action next month as they join strikes planned by train drivers , postal workers, civil servants and potentially teachers in disputes over pay and conditions.
The transport secretary has taken a more constructive approach to railway unions after months of deadlock, in a throwback to the ‘beer and sandwiches’ charm offensive of the 1970s, meeting RMT leader Mick Lynch for interviews this week and General Aslef’s secretary, Mick Whelan, next week.
Departing from the more aggressive policy of his predecessor Grant Shapps, he pledged to take a ‘mature’ approach to the dispute and to help ‘facilitate an agreement’ between rail companies and unions to try to avoid Christmas strikes.
Yet Harper told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: ‘Inflation-matching or anti-inflation pay rises are unaffordable. We want to try to give all very hard-working public sector workers decent pay raises, but it cannot be anti-inflationary pay raises.
“There’s just no money to pay those given the context, we haven’t seen the private sector ones either, the private sector wage increases have generally been set below the level inflation, which I accept is difficult for people.”
He insisted that there could be no substantial increase in the wages of railway workers without reforms such as seven-day contracts, lifting the ban on overtime, allowing counter staff to work on the platforms and the use of technology to detect and repair faults on the tracks.
“The rail operating companies and Network Rail will have the ability to reach an agreement, but we need to be able to negotiate this package of reforms because that’s the only way to save money. I don’t have a well no bottom of taxpayers’ money to throw at this problem,” he added.
The RMT has announced eight days of strikes in December and January, and Aslef may announce more after a meeting on December 7. But unless a deal is struck within the next week, train companies could struggle to avoid disruption days over Christmas as it takes time to get timetables and services back on track.
Former Conservative Party chairman Jake Berry said he had ‘real hope’ for a settlement as he criticized Harper’s predecessor for making a ‘big mistake’ in taking a ‘not me, guv’ approach to the talks.
Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, welcomed assurances from the Transport Secretary that he would ‘encourage and assist’ the two sides in the rail industry dispute to reach a settlement, after the stalemate under his predecessor , claiming that the government had the ability to “pull the strings”.
She added that railway workers wanted their “fair share” of the £500m profits made by the industry. “It’s an industry that’s made £500m in profit and the staff, rightly, who have worked with Covid want their fair share.”
Labor’s Lisa Nandy said the government should ‘move heaven and earth’ to avoid strikes and slammed Harper’s remarks on pay rises, telling Sky News: ‘They are unaffordable due to 12 years of Conservative government and 44 days in which Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng brought down the economy.
“I think there should be a level of humility about this in government. What he should do is move heaven and earth to try to avoid the strikes to come this winter. It’s been a really tough year for a lot of people and no one wants to see strikes, let alone those who have to resort to strikes.
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