Rail union boss Mick Lynch has accused transport secretary Mark Harper of “not telling the truth” about the negotiations aimed at ending train strikes, as five days of fresh industrial action begins.
The Tory cabinet minister denied claims by the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) leader that the government had blocked a deal before Christmas – insisting it “absolutely isn’t true”.
But Mr Lynch said Mr Harper’s department had intervened by inserting “eight or nine” conditions – including driver-only trains – to thwart a settlement over pay and conditions.
Told that the transport secretary denied the claim, the RMT leader told Sky News: “Well he’s not telling you the truth … He can deny it all he likes – it doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
Mr Lynch said: “We were making progress with the train operating companies, and then on one Sunday afternoon before strike action they decided to torpedo talks by putting conditions on the negotiations that they knew we could never accept.”
He added: “That was a direct intervention of government ministers. If he’s saying that didn’t happen, he’s simply not telling you the whole truth.”
Around half of Britain’s railway lines are closed and only a fifth of services are running as thousands of RMT members at Network Rail and train operators stage two 48-hour walkouts starting on Tuesday and Friday. Drivers in the Aslef union will strike on Thursday.
Mr Harper called on My Lynch and RMT leaders to get “off the picket line and round the negotiating table” as passengers face fresh disruption.
Mr Lynch responded: “I’d go and meet him now if he wants. What we keep hearing from the government is they want to facilitate a deal but they don’t actually do anything … As soon as Mark Harper wants to meets, we are available.”
The RMT general secretary called on the government to set out exact proposals, and said even rail bosses were now “in despair” over the government’s stance. “The most senior people in the industry are as frustrated as we are that the government is not facilitating a settlement.”
Mr Harper, grilled on why there were no talks this week, said: “Because the unions decided to go on strike this week … There’s a fair and reasonable pay offer on the table. There’s not a bottomless pit of taxpayers’ money here.”
The transport secretary also suggested that passengers could desert the railways forever if strikes continued.
“The problem is, post-pandemic, we’ve seen 40 per cent of commuters haven’t returned to using the railways,” he told Times Radio. “The union leaders that are calling people out of strike risk harming the industry, and the workers they claim to represent.”
Ministers are said to fear passengers will be put off from using trains permanently. A government source told The Times said: “This is an act of self-harm – a generation of passengers will just write off the railways. We’re talking about permanent scarring.”
The government is said to be considering offering improved holiday allowances, bonuses and pension benefits to the RMT and other unions in a bid to end the strikes. But the government will “hold firm” over pay, according to the report in The Sun.
Tim Shoveller, Network Rail’s chief negotiator, said the government-owned company wants to “work with the RMT now to make clarifications where there’s been misunderstanding” with the rejected offer, and put it to another vote of union members.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We only need 2,000 people who voted no last time to change their vote and the deal will pass. So, we think that’s within touching distance.”
Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of UK Hospitality, said the latest set of strikes would make city centres “ghost towns for yet another week”. She added: “Enough is enough; this needs to end now.”
Mr Lynch warned of more strikes beyond spring unless the government changes its stance. “We’ve got a mandate that runs through to May, and we could ballot again. We don’t want to do that. We need an improvement in the offer.”