Public wage demands “unaffordable”, says transport secretary | Public salary

Anti-inflation pay rises for struggling public sector workers are “unaffordable”, the transport secretary has said, raising the prospect of winter strikes continuing across the rail network, schools and the NHS.

Mark Harper said there was no “bottomless pit” of money to meet the demands of workers who plan to take industrial action in the coming weeks, even as benefits and pensions rise in line with inflation.

Britain is facing a wave of strikes not seen in a generation, with nurses set to stage their first ever UK action next month as they join planned strikes by train drivers, postal workers, civil servants and potentially teachers in disputes over pay and relationships.

The transport secretary has adopted a more constructive approach to the rail unions after months of deadlock, in a return to the “beer and sandwiches” charm offensive of the 1970s, meeting the RMT boss, Mick Lynch, for talks this week and Aslef’s general secretary. , Mick Whelan, next week.

In a departure from the more aggressive policies of his predecessor, Grant Shapps, he promised to take a “mature” approach to the dispute and help “facilitate agreement” between the rail companies and unions to try to avert strikes over Christmas.

Still, Harper told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on the Sunday programme: “Inflation matching or anti-inflation pay rises are unaffordable. We want to try to give all public sector workers who work very hard decent pay rises, but they can’t be inflation-busting pay rises.

“There’s simply not the money to pay for them given the context, we haven’t seen them in the private sector either, the private sector wage increases have generally been decided below the level of inflation, which I accept is difficult for people.”

He insisted there could be no significant 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 detect and repair faults on the rails.

“The train operators and Network Rail will have the opportunity to reach an agreement, but we have to be able to get that reform package negotiated, because that just throws up the savings. I don’t have a bottomless pit of taxpayers’ money to throw at this problem,” he added.

RMT has announced eight days of strike action in December and January, and Aslef may announce more after a meeting on 7 December. But unless a deal is struck within the next week, rail companies may struggle to avoid days of disruption over Christmas as it takes time to get timetables and services back on track.

Former Tory party leader Jake Berry said he had “real hope” for a settlement as he criticized 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 assurances from the transport secretary that he would “encourage and help” the two sides in the rail industry dispute to reach a settlement, following a stalemate under his predecessor, and said the government had the capacity. to “pull the strings”.

She added that rail workers wanted their “fair share” of the £500m profits made by the industry. “This is an industry that has made £500 million in profits and staff, rightly, who have worked through Covid will want their fair share.”

Labour’s Lisa Nandy said the government should “move heaven and earth” to avert strikes and criticized Harper’s statements on wage increases, telling Sky News: “They are unaffordable because of 12 years of Tory government and 44 days where Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng crashed the economy.

“I think there should be a level of humility around that in the government. What he should be doing is moving heaven and earth to try to avert strikes coming this winter. It’s been a very tough year for a lot of people and nobody wants to see strikes, least of all people who have to resort to strike action.”

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