The transport secretary says “reform is vital” in an effort to avoid rail strikes

The transport secretary told the House of Commons that “reform is vital” and urged “all union leaders to get back to the table with employers” to avoid a new round of rail strikes. The Commons debate also touched on other aspects of the UK’s public transport infrastructure.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper told MPs he would “do everything he can to put an end to these harmful and unnecessary strikes” ahead of scheduled meetings with union leaders.

Speaking during Commons transport questions, Harper said: ‘I want a thriving and sustainable rail network, but with 20% of passengers not returning since the Covid pandemic, reform is vital.

“I would urge all union leaders to return to the table with employers to work out the details of that reform. The government will work to facilitate this and to this end I will meet union leaders in the next few days”.

His comments came as Labour’s Sam Tarry (Ilford South) urged Harper to do more, saying: ‘It’s in his hands to end those strikes and do it today.’

Tarry said: ‘The secretary of state knows very well to set the flexibility and the parameters (for) both the rail network and the train operating companies on a financial offer they can present. It’s in his hands to end those strikes and do it today.”

Harper responded, “I really wish these strikes didn’t take place. I have set out my ambitions for the rail sector and will meet union leaders in the coming days, even later today.

“To pay a better offer for railway staff, we need to implement a reform, which is why I want union leaders to come to the table with employers to work out the details of these reforms, so a better offer can be presented the table and we can end the need for these harmful strikes, which cause enormous damage to passengers and businesses across the country.

“It’s not in my interest at all to block a deal. I want to solve this problem, I want to facilitate unions and employers come together to put together some reform measures, to help pay a better wage offer for staff.

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, who is due to meet Harper today (Thursday), said the cabinet minister has “direct direction” on what the companies in question can offer its members .

He accused the government of stalling a deal over the weekend, claiming “older” people in his sector had told him he was barred from bidding.

The RMT announced a series of 48-hour strikes in December and January by its members at Network Rail and 14 train companies, as well as a ban on overtime at Christmas and New Year’s, potentially threatening travel chaos over the festive period.

Labour’s shadow transport secretary told the House of Commons that a couple had written to tell her how they felt unsafe because of overcrowding on trains, describing services across the country as being in “free fall”.

Shadow Transport Secretary Louise Haigh told MPs: “Not only are the North and Midlands not getting the infrastructure they need, but rail services across the country are in free fall, experiencing record cancellations as well as fewer of services than at any other time since the start of registrations.

“A couple wrote to me this week and told me they felt unsafe due to overcrowding and had begun to understand how real tragedies could happen. Will the Minister of Railways apologize for his predecessors who signed the decision to cut tens of thousands of services every month and confirm when those services will be restored?

Transport Minister Huw Merriman responded: “Obviously it is no coincidence that travel habits have changed since the pandemic and therefore rail is only 80 per cent of its pre-pandemic patronage, but in reality services have only been reduced by 10%. So we continue to subsidize on that basis to the tune of £16 billion.

“There is a major government commitment to rail across the country, but at the same time, we have to consider the full burden of taxpayers paying for this and tough decisions will have to be made, but I very much hope that I can work constructively with her to ensure we talk about rail and try to get more people on the rail network.”

Meanwhile, for local bus services, more funding could be available in the future to increase their availability, according to the government, after Labor said the absence of reliable services was a “crisis”.

Haigh told MPs: ‘The crisis facing millions of people across the country right now is the total absence of reliable and affordable bus services. How much of the funding for the improvement of the bus service promised to the local authorities has actually been delivered to these authorities?

“When will the Secretary of State reopen applications to cover the 60 percent of the country that did not receive a single cent in the initial round?”

Transport Secretary Harper replied: “It is absolutely true that the authorities have bid for far more than the £1 billion which has been allocated. We have selected a total of 34 counties, city regions and unitary authorities to receive this funding and will benefit from it.

“We have written to all areas where we cannot offer new funding to offer further practical support and will look into a further round of funding in due course.”

Road and rail infrastructure was also debated in the House of Commons, with former Conservative minister Sir Christopher Chope describing the practice of motorway maintenance budgets which are not spent on motorway maintenance as ‘effectively a fraud on the taxpayers”.

Transport Minister Richard Holden told the Commons: “The Department for Transport allocates capital funds to local motorway authorities so they can spend it more effectively to maintain and improve their local networks based on knowledge, circumstances and local priorities. It is up to the highway authorities how to spend these funds to fulfill their duty.”

Sir Christopher replied: “Isn’t that a rather complacent answer? Because we don’t know that of the £500 million allocated last year for motorway maintenance to local authorities in England, much of it was not spent on motorway maintenance, so it was effectively taxpayer fraud.

“Can my friend ensure that next year’s allocation of money to the highway authorities is conditional on proof that last year’s allocation was spent on highways?”

Evading the question, Holden replied, “The Central Highway Maintenance Fund has a built-in incentive element to drive best practice. However, it would be self-defeating for the central government to go further and ignore local leaders who have the best understanding of the needs of their local areas.”

Turning to rail matters, former Conservative cabinet minister Sir Jeremy Wright has suggested the government is “not delivering on” a promise it made on HS2 compensation.

Sir Jeremy asked Transport Minister Huw Merriman to look into the matter ‘urgently’ and said: ‘For those in the way of this project, being compensated is a long and painful experience.

“This is particularly true for those subject to expropriation where payments are delayed, and to very low interest rates where they are delayed, and valuations are hotly contested.

“This falls short of the promise he was referring to that the government would be fair and that people would not be made worse off by this project.”

Merriman replied: “HS2 Ltd pays interest at 0.5% below the Bank of England base rate. £3.2 billion has already been paid in terms of land acquisitions. There is more to pay.

“The government recognized that there were problems with the acquisitions and a predecessor of mine commissioned a report. We’ll make sure we can learn the lessons.”

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