Transport Secretary Mark Harper refused multiple times to deny that No 10 Downing Street or the Treasury had insisted rail unions accept driver-only operation. He was speaking to the House of Commons Transport Committee on 7 December.
On 4 December the Rail Delivery Group tabled a ‘framework agreement’ to the RMT union covering members at train operating companies. The RMT immediately rejected the deal on the grounds it failed to meet criteria around job security, pay rises and protection of working conditions.
The proposal included a 4% pay rise in the first year with the same amount following in the second year and a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies until 1 April 2024. The national agreement was intended to set out the principles for negotiations between individual train operators and local RMT representatives.
Under the RDG’s proposals, ticket offices would be repurposed or closed, with staff redeployed to other parts of stations where it is claimed they would be more visible and better able to help customers. Sunday working arrangements would change so staff would work rostered Sundays either as part of their core working week or as an additional working day.
However, the framework agreement also included a proposal to extend Driver Only Operation across the network – ‘where appropriate technology allows – to improve safety of train dispatch and provide greater resilience in times of disruption’.
Although in the days before talks had been said to be progressing well, it was claimed by The Daily Telegraph that No 10 or the Treasury had insisted on a clause about DOO being included in the proposals.
Asked by Labour MP Grahame Morris to confirm or deny the accuracy of reports in The Daily Telegraph, Mr Harper said: ‘I have not seen the report, so I cannot really comment on it. On the specific point about driver-only operation, we have obviously seen that on quite a significant part of the railway already, so I do not think there is an in-principle objection to it. I know that it is controversial, but it exists on the railways already. In terms of what I want to see, I want the two sides to continue talking. I was asked to facilitate an improved offer. It was made clear to me when I met [Mick] Lynch that, on the train operating side, there had not been an offer. There now has been an offer. I would urge the two sides to continue talking and the unions to call off the strikes.’
But Labour MP Ben Bradshaw pressed Mr Harper multiple times. In one exchange, he said: ‘You cannot claim that you did not see the splash on Monday in The Daily Telegraph claiming that No 10, at the last minute, has added driver-only trains as an issue to the dispute. Was that report incorrect?’
Mr Harper declined to answer the question directly, and despite Mr Bradshaw repeatedly asking him to confirm or deny The Daily Telegraph reports, he would not do so.
RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch said: ‘The RDG and DfT who sets their mandate both knew this offer would not be acceptable to RMT members.
‘If this plan was implemented, it would not only mean the loss of thousands of jobs but the use of unsafe practices such as DOO and would leave our railways chronically understaffed.’
More strikes but no overtime ban
A series of 48-hour strikes by the RMT were planned on 13-14 and 16-17 December, as well as 3-4 and 6-7 January. After it rejected the RDG offer, the union announced further strikes on 24-27 December, which had the potential to disrupt the extensive programme of engineering works planned by Network Rail over the Christmas period.
All planned overtime bans were cancelled, however; a proposed ban from 18 December to 2 January would have led to the imposition of timetables over reduced hours on many routes throughout this period, with some having no services at all.
The RMT also put a fresh offer from Network Rail to a ballot of members, albeit with the recommendation to reject it; the ballot was due to close on 12 December. In contrast, the TSSA union received a ‘best and final offer’ from Network Rail and an online referendum was due to take place for all members in NR bands 5-8 and controllers to decide on whether to accept it. Planned industrial action at NR by TSSA members was cancelled. However, an offer it received from RDG was rejected and TSSA said industrial action at train operators ‘remains on the cards unless progress can be made’.
Meanwhile, ASLEF drivers at 12 train operators voted overwhelmingly to continue strike action in early December, with 93% voting in favour of strikes on an average turnout of 85%.
There has been progress in the devolved nations. In mid-November a pay offer from ScotRail was accepted by RMT members, with general grades members voting in favour of the deal. In Wales, an offer of 4.5% across all grades with a minimum increase of £1,500 full-time equivalent, with a commitment of no compulsory redundancies and productivity improvements has been recommended by the RMT.
Asked at the Transport Committee about whether legislation to mandate minimum service levels on the railway during industrial action would get its second reading in Parliament, Mr Harper could not provide a timeframe. The Transport Secretary agreed that the legislation would not affect current disputes but said he felt it would deliver benefits in the longer-term.