The transport secretary has said “reform is vital” as he urged “all trade union leaders to get back around the table with employers” to avert a fresh round of rail strikes.
Mark Harper told MPs he “will do everything I can to end these damaging and unnecessary strikes” ahead of planned meetings with trade union leaders.
Speaking during Commons transport questions, Mr Harper said: “I want a sustainable, thriving rail network, but with 20% of passengers not having returned following the Covid pandemic, reform is vital.
“I would urge all trade union leaders to get back around the table with employers to hammer out the detail of that reform.
“The Government will work to facilitate this and to that end I will be meeting with trade union leaders in the coming days.”
His comments came as Labour’s Sam Tarry (Ilford South) urged Mr Harper to do more, saying: “It’s in his hands to end those strikes and to do so today.”
Mr Tarry said: “The secretary of state knows full well that he sets the flexibility and the parameters (for) both Network Rail and train operating companies on a financial offer they can put forward. It’s in his hands to end those strikes and to do so today.”
Mr Harper replied: “I very much want these strikes to not take place. I’ve set out my ambition for the rail sector and I will be meeting trade union leaders in the coming days including later today.
“But in order to pay for a better offer for rail staff we need to deliver reform, which is why I want trade union leaders to get round the table with the employers to hammer the detail of those reforms, then a better offer can be put on the table and we can end the need for these damaging strikes which cause enormous amounts of damage to passengers and businesses across the country.”
Mr Harper added: “It’s not my interest to block a settlement at all. I want to resolve this issue, I want to facilitate the trade unions and the employers getting together to hammer out some reform measures, to help pay for a better pay offer for the staff.
“I will do everything I can to end these damaging and unnecessary strikes and I hope he’ll do what he can to persuade the trade unions to get back round the table with the employers.”
Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT), who is set to meet Mr Harper on Thursday, earlier said the Cabinet minister has a “direct say” over what the companies in question can offer his members.
He accused the Government of blocking a deal over the weekend, claiming the “most senior” people in his industry told him they were forbidden from making an offer.
The RMT has announced a series of 48-hour strikes in December and January by its members at Network Rail and 14 train companies – and an overtime ban over Christmas and the New Year, which threatens travel chaos over the festive period.