Inflation-matching pay rises for struggling public sector workers are “unaffordable”, the transport secretary has said, raising the likelihood of winter strikes going ahead across the rail network, schools and the NHS.
Mark Harper said there was not a “bottomless pit” of money to meet the demands of workers planning to take industrial action in the coming weeks, even though benefits and pensions are going up in line with inflation.
Britain is facing a wave of strikes not seen for a generation, with nurses due to stage their first ever UK-wide action next month, as they join planned strikes by train drivers, postal workers, civil servants and potentially teachers in disputes over pay and conditions.
The transport secretary has adopted a more constructive approach to the rail unions after months of stalemate, in a return to the “beer and sandwiches” charm offensive of the 1970s, meeting the RMT chief, Mick Lynch, for talks this week and the Aslef general secretary, Mick Whelan, next week.
In a departure from the more aggressive policy of his predecessor Grant Shapps, he pledged to take a “grownup” approach to the dispute and help “facilitate agreement” between the rail firms and the unions to try to avert strikes over Christmas.
Yet Harper told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme: “Inflation-matching or inflation-busting pay rises are unaffordable. We want to try and give all the workers in the public sector who work very hard decent pay rises, but they can’t be inflation-busting pay rises.
“There simply isn’t the money to pay for those given the context, we haven’t seen those in the private sector either, the private sector pay rises have generally been settled below the level of inflation, which I accept is difficult for people.”
He insisted there could be no substantial pay rise for rail workers without reforms such as seven-day contracts, lifting a ban on overtime, allowing ticket office staff to work on platforms and using technology to spot and repair faults on the tracks.
“The train operating companies and Network Rail will have the ability to reach a deal, but we have to be able to have that reform package negotiated, because it’s only that, that throws up the savings. I do not have a bottomless pit 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 7 December. But unless a deal is done within the next week, the rail companies could struggle to avoid days of disruption over Christmas as it takes time to get timetables and services back on track.
The former Tory party chair Jake Berry said he had “real hope” for a settlement as he criticised Harper’s predecessor for making a “big mistake” by taking a “not me, guv” approach to talks.
Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, welcomed reassurances from the transport secretary that he would “encourage and help” the two sides in the rail industry dispute reach a settlement, after stalemate under his predecessor, saying the government had the capacity to “pull the strings”.
She added that rail workers wanted their “fair share” of the £500m profit earned by the industry. “This is an industry that’s made £500m of profit and staff, quite rightly, who have worked through Covid, want their fair share.”
Labour’s Lisa Nandy said the government should be “moving heaven and earth” to avert strikes and criticised Harper’s remarks over pay rises, telling Sky News: “They’re unaffordable because of 12 years of Tory government and 44 days in which Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng crashed the economy.
“I think there ought to be a level of humility about that within government. What he should be doing is moving heaven and earth to try and avert strikes coming up this winter. It’s been a really tough year for a lot of people and nobody wants to see strikes, least of all the people who are having to resort to strike action.”