Mark Harper said it was up to the unions and employers to address their long-running dispute over pay, jobs and conditions. He urged both parties to “hammer out” reforms to deliver a better service.
Mr Harper is set to meet Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT), this morning. Mr Lynch said the Transport Secretary has a “direct say” over what the companies in question can offer his members and accused the government of blocking a deal over the weekend.
The meeting comes after a fresh round of strikes have been announced which are set to cripple services over the coming months. The RMT has announced a series of 48-hour strikes in December and January by its members at Network Rail and 14 train companies, threatening travel chaos over the festive period.
Royal Mail workers, university lecturers and teachers will also strike on Thursday. Picket lines will be mounted outside postal delivery and sorting offices.
‘These strikes are not just about pay’
Mr Harper insisted he has “no interest” in blocking an offer, telling ITV’s Robert Peston he wants to “help facilitate the unions and employers getting round the table to hammer out agreement on reform”.
He said: “It’s reform that generates the savings that can then be used to help fund pay rises for employees.”
He told Sky News’ The Take with Sophy Ridge that he was not going to get into “throwing accusations” around, as he said he hoped for a “sensible conversation” with the RMT on Thursday. He said he would not negotiate with the union, adding: “That’s very clearly for the trade unions and the employers – Network Rail and the train operating companies. But I do think in this case it’s important to meet with the unions. These strikes are not just about pay, this is about long-running talks that are actually about delivering rail reform.”
Mr Harper said he would urge Mr Lynch to call off the strikes and “get back round the table with the employers” to “try to hammer out some of those reforms”.
‘I’ll be questioning him’
Mr Lynch said the Transport Secretary is “very welcome to come round the table”.
Speaking about the government blocking a deal over the weekend, Mr Lynch told Peston: “The only people above these chief executives, the chief executives of the train operating companies, is Mark Harper. Now he may not personally (have) done it, but he’s got very senior officials in the DfT who will be at this meeting tomorrow.
“I’ll be questioning him about that and what his role is, if he says ‘those days are gone, and I’m going to be a facilitator, a person of good will, good offices or whatever you want to call it’, great. Let’s get on with it.”
Members of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) at the Royal Mail will also strike on Thursday and on Black Friday, one of the busiest days of the year for delivery companies.
CWU general secretary Dave Ward warned British postal workers are “facing an Armageddon moment” and they are urging “every member of the public to stand with their postie, and back them like never before.”