January 28, 2023

Railway strikes could continue for another six months following an overwhelming majority of train drivers to continue the union action, as controversy increased over whether the government overturned a deal with unions.

Drivers’ union Aslef said they were “in it for the long haul” and that the percentage of votes for strikes in 12 operating companies was higher than before.

Mick Whelan, the general secretary, said: “This shows how angry – and determined – our members are.”

He added: “Strikes are always a last resort. But the implacable attitude of the train companies – with the government acting, with malice, in the shadows – has compelled us.”

Aslef’s new mandate came after the transport secretary, Mark Harper, refused to deny reports that the government was pushing railway companies to include future use of driver-only trains as a condition of a pay deal, potentially jeopardizing an agreement.

Under constant questioning by the House of Commons Transport Committee, Harper repeatedly refused to address the subject.

The RMT union rejected a first formal offer from train operators on Sunday evening. The general secretary, Mick Lynch, said the offer contained proposals that employers and the Department of Transport “knew would not be acceptable to RMT members”.

The proposals, part of an offer of a 4% pay rise in 2022 and the same amount in 2023, include a driver-only operation where drivers operate the train doors on some services, eliminating the need for a guard. The RMT and Asle have long opposed this on grounds of security and employment.

Labor said the government should be held responsible for the rail disruption had it enforced the issue. The inclusion of a point that clearly crossed a union redline is considered a surprise, immediately after a meeting with employers on Friday that was described as positive and which was attended for the first time by a Minister of Railways, Huw Merriman .

Harper was questioned by Labor MP Grahame Morris over reports that the driver-only provision had been included at the request of Downing Street or the Treasury.

“I haven’t seen the report so can’t really comment on it,” Harper replied, prompting another Labor MP on the committee, Ben Bradshaw, to repeatedly press him.

“Detailed negotiations are taking place between employers and unions. It’s not the government’s role to manage the details of the reform down to the smallest detail,” Harper said, after trying to dodge the question several times.

Told by Bradshaw that he avoided questioning whether the government had intervened with driver-only services, Harper replied: “I’ve been clear, you have to make reforms to boost savings. But I’m not going to comment on that.”

He rejected the idea that government conditions could have stopped a deal, saying: “No one is trying to stop a deal, quite the contrary.”

Unlike his predecessor Grant Shapps, Harper was more open to participating in discussions between train companies and unions, saying there had been some “constructive” talks despite the lack of a deal.

On Monday, the RMT union also rejected an improved offer from Network Rail and announced a plan for additional strikes, from 6pm on Christmas Eve to 7am on December 27, which will mainly affect engineering works.

Asked by Conservative MP Chris Loder about a government bill that could effectively ban train strikes by setting minimum required service levels, Harper said given a lack of support from all parties it would not be in time to affect the current dispute .

“That legislation may lead to improvements in the medium to long term, but however fast it progresses, as it has to go through both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, it is not a solution for dealing with the union actions. we are seeing at the moment,” he said.

After the hearing, the shadow transport secretary, Louise Haigh said: “What an utterly disorderly way to conduct industrial relations – to impose conditions at the same time as refusing to accept any responsibility for negotiations.

“If No. 10 forced the issue of driver-only trains into the negotiations at the last minute, then they, and they alone, will be responsible for the Christmas chaos.”

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