Rail strikes in the UK have cost more than £1bn to the economy, and it would have been cheaper to settle the dispute between unions about pay and conditions months before, a minister of government has admitted.
Huw Merriman, rail minister, said that there was a need to reform working practices. He told MPs on Wednesday at the Commons transport select Committee that the government had neither “torpedoed”, nor “interfered negatively”.
Merriman stated that strikes cost the UK’s rail industry £25m per weekday and £15m per day at weekends. He also cited a study that showed strikes had a cost to the wider economy of £700m from June to December.
Ben Bradshaw, a Labour MP and member of the committee, asked if the “over a billion so far…would easily be enough money for this dispute to have been resolved months ago.”
Merriman responded: “If you view it through that particular lens, then absolutely it’s ended up costing more than it would have been if it had been settled.”
He said that the government needed to “look at the overall effect on the public sector’s pay deals” and the need for industry reform in order to implement more cost-efficient work practices.
Merriman said, “It’s these reforms that actually pay for those pay deals and make the railway more efficient over the long-term as well.”
Unions and Labour took advantage of Merriman’s admission. The RMT general secretary Mick Lynch wrote to business groups including the CBI, UK Hospitality and UK Hospitality to emphasize his words.
Lynch stated that Lynch had admitted that the government had “admitted” that the prolongation of the rail dispute was part a deliberate strategy dictated by the government’s concern to lower the pay of railway workers, nurses and teachers.
“The policy was collateral damage to the wider economy and business interests that relied upon pre-Christmas trading.”
Louise Haigh MP (Labour shadow transport secretary), said that the government is now “openly admit[ting]] their posturing, failure to accept responsibility has cost taxpayer dear”.
Merriman was also present when Dame Bernadette, permanent secretary of the Department for Transport (DfT), said that Kelly and Merriman were right about the high economic cost of disruption to the railway. They are acutely aware of these costs.
“But that logic would lead you to settle at any price, which would be bad for both the railway and the economy in the long-term.”
Merriman stated that he was hopeful of reaching a deal soon with the RMT, and talks between the unions and the industry continued this week. Merriman stated that he was encouraged by the fact that Aslef, a group of train drivers, called for further strikes on Monday.
However, he did not answer directly when asked about whether the government was responsible for inserting controversial clauses regarding driver-only operation (DOO), of trains in a payment offer to the RMT. The union claimed that the clauses had “sabotaged”, a December deal.
According to the minister, there had been no attempt by the government to “torpedo” any deal. Merriman said that DOO has “always been involved [in negotiations with unions] as an idea” and that the government wants to see more reform.
He said, “We have not changed our mind about the concept of DOO.” We believe that if the technology is available, it should be. It’s safe, it’s more efficient, and it’s easy to use.
He stated that Downing Street, Treasury and DfT were all involved with the direction of the dispute.
Merriman stated that “the risk is on the government and the funding is upon government and indeed taxpayer.” Employers are given a mandate in terms the financial envelope. Government is responsible for setting the overall framework. However, it is up to the employers to negotiate terms that will allow them to save money and maximize efficiency.
He said, “I don’t believe that we’ve interfered in any negative way.” “I believe we were able to interfere positively.”
Merriman later questioned Merriman about the “current chaos” in northern rail services. He cited Transport for the North figures stating that failing connections alone were costing the Manchester economy £8m per week.
He stated that a visit in Bradford and Leeds had “really left its impression on me”, adding, “It breaks mine to see the performance so low, because we’re letting down people.”