Harper: ‘Renewed offer’ on table at latest talks to avert further rail strikes

A “renewed offer” will be on the table at crunch talks to avert more rail strikes, Transport Secretary Mark Harper has said.

Officials from the Rail Delivery Group, representing train firms, will meet with the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union and Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) on Thursday in a fresh bid to break the deadlock.

Mick Whelan, general secretary of the Aslef train drivers’ union, on Wednesday told the Commons Transport Select Committee there was “zero” chance of a resolution.

But Mr Harper later said that was “unfair” as the situation had “moved on”.

He told ITV’s Peston: “I’m hopeful that now that there is a renewed offer on the table, that that (a deal) 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.”

Rail union leaders launched a fierce attack on the Government when they gave evidence to the committee, 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.

Mick Lynch, RMT general secretary, 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.

Mr Whelan 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.

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.”

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.”

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.

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.”