Not too late to call off rail strikes, Boris Johnson says, as country braces for 'very substantial disruption'

·4-min read

A Cabinet minister has told Sky News he fears rail strikes will go ahead this week - and warned that workers must make sacrifices as the UK battles inflation.

Simon Clarke, the chief secretary to the Treasury, said that although the government was not the legal employer of union members due to walk out, they could not expect "inflation-busting pay increases".

"I fear it is likely that [the strikes] will go ahead," Mr Clarke said. "Clearly we will continue to support the negotiations until such time is there's no more time to discuss.

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"But I think the public do this week need to be aware there will be very substantial disruption and it is therefore sensible to make preparations for that."

Boris Johnson said in an interview with the Evening Standard that it was not too late for the unions to call off the strikes, which he described as an "act of self-harm for rail workers".

"School children are at risk of exam disruption, commuters may have to forego their office once more, and families enjoying a summer's day in the city will no doubt face interruption," the prime minister said.

Education minister Michelle Donelan said the strike would be stressful for college and school students preparing for exams, describing it as "absolutely disgraceful" and urging the union to think again.

The walk-out of 40,000 workers in the biggest rail strike for three decades threatens to bring travel chaos to commuters and choke roads with increased traffic.

Members of the RMT union are walking out in a dispute over pay, compulsory redundancies and safety concerns - as employers look to make savings on a network that has been propped up by taxpayers during the COVID crisis.

Reports suggest it could be just the start of what has been described as a summer of discontent, with teachers, nurses, doctors and postal workers also considering industrial action.

With inflation at a four-decade high, workers are being told to face up to a real term squeeze in their incomes, with salary increases lower than the 9% increase in the cost of living.

Mr Clarke reiterated a previous warning that to avoid an intensifying price spiral, wages would have to remain under control - though the RMT's pursuit of a 7% pay increase is below inflation.

Speaking more widely about pay, he said: "If we are going to forestall the evil of inflation... then we are going to have to show collective, society-wide responsibility.

"I recognise there is sacrifice involved in this situation."

Mr Clarke said the government was hoping that ongoing talks between employers and rail unions would make progress.

He added: "We want to see a resolution that works for everybody. That needs to work for rail workers but critically it needs to work for passengers and the taxpayer as well.

"The taxpayer supported the railway industry very substantially during the pandemic. We're now coming out of that, we need the railway to be a sustainable force in our country. It isn't. Those changes need to be secured as part of this wider negotiation."

The government indirectly controls the thousands of miles of track, via Network Rail, on which privately-owned train companies operate.

Mr Clarke said it would not interfere in the negotiations between employers and employees, saying: "We don't own the railways ourselves."

Paul Nowak, deputy general secretary of the TUC, said the likes of teachers, rail workers and postal workers were not "taking strike action for the fun of it" but had "real concerns about things like pay".

He told Sky News: "A lot of our members are just saying 'enough is enough'."

Labour's shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh told Sky News that it was still possible for Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, to make an eleventh hour intervention and stop the strikes from going ahead.

She said: "We want to see passengers avoid disruption but of course we understand and support rail workers rights to fight for a fair pay settlement."

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union representing civil servants, said his union was balloting 150,000 members over action in September and teachers were also looking at possible strike ballots in the autumn.

He told Sky News: "I'm not sure about a summer of discontent... but what I am sure about is that we will see high levels of industrial action unless the government recognise that front line public sector workers who kept the country running during the pandemic cannot be expected to have a 2% pay rise when inflation is forecast to be over 11%."

A further flashpoint could come this week when the government moves forward with a plan to repeal a ban on agency workers being employed to step in for strikers - a move that is strongly resisted by unions.

Downing Street backed Mr Clarke's position on pay.

A spokesperson said: "He also rightly made the point about not seeking to try and match pay rises to growing inflation, which we do believe would be the wrong approach and would be counterproductive."

Number 10 also argued against intervening in strike talks, saying that "inserting ourselves in to this at the last minute would be a distraction".

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