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Transport secretary says ‘reform is vital’ amid bid to avert rail strikes

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The transport secretary told the House of Commons that “reform is vital” as he urged “all trade union leaders to get back around the table with employers” to avert a fresh 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 that he “will do everything I can to end these damaging and unnecessary strikes” ahead of planned meetings with trade union leaders.

Speaking during Commons transport questions, Harper said: “I want a sustainable, thriving rail network, but with 20 per cent of passengers not having returned following the Covid pandemic, reform is vital.

“I would urge all trade union leaders to get back around the table with employers to hammer out the detail of that reform. The government will work to facilitate this and to that end I will be meeting with trade union leaders in the coming 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 to do so today.”

Tarry said: “The secretary of state knows full well that he sets the flexibility and the parameters (for) both Network Rail and train operating companies on a financial offer they can put forward. It’s in his hands to end those strikes and to do so today.”

Harper replied: “I very much want these strikes to not take place. I’ve set out my ambition for the rail sector and I will be meeting trade union leaders in the coming days including later today.

“In order to pay for a better offer for rail staff we need to deliver reform, which is why I want trade union leaders to get round the table with the employers to hammer the detail of those reforms, then a better offer can be put on the table and we can end the need for these damaging strikes, which cause enormous amounts of damage to passengers and businesses across the country.

“It’s not my interest to block a settlement at all. I want to resolve this issue, I want to facilitate the trade unions and the employers getting together to hammer out some reform measures, to help pay for a better pay offer for the staff.”

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT), who is set to meet Harper today (Thursday), said that the Cabinet minister has a “direct say” over what the companies in question can offer his members.

He accused the government of blocking a deal over the weekend, claiming the “most senior” people in his industry told him they were forbidden from making an offer.

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

Labour’s shadow transport secretary told the Commons that one couple had written to her to say how they felt in danger from overcrowding on trains, describing services across the country as being in “free fall”.

Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh told MPs: “Not only is the North and the Midlands not getting the infrastructure it requires, rail services across the country are in free fall, experiencing record cancellations on top of fewer services than at any time since records began.

“One couple wrote to me this week and said they felt in danger from overcrowding and began to understand how real tragedies could occur. Will the rail minister apologise for his predecessors signing off the decision to slash tens of thousands of services every month and confirm when those services will be restored?”

Transport minister Huw Merriman replied: “Of course it’s a case that post the pandemic that travel habits have changed and so rail is only 80 per cent of its pre-pandemic patronage, but in fact the services have only been reduced by 10 per cent. So we continue to subsidise on that basis to the tune of £16bn.

“There’s a great commitment on behalf of the government to rail across the country, but at the same time, we have to look at the entire taxpayer burden paying for that and difficult decisions will have to be made, but I very much hope that I can work with her in a constructive manner to ensure that we do talk up rail and we try to get more people on the rail network.”

Meanwhile, with regard to local bus services, more funding may be available in future to boost their availability, according to the government, after Labour claimed the absence of reliable services is a “crisis”.

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

“When will the secretary of state reopen applications to cover the 60 per cent of the country that didn’t get a single penny in the initial round?”

Transport secretary Harper replied: “It is absolutely true that authorities put in bids for significantly more than the £1bn that was allocated. We selected a total of 34 counties, city regions and unitary authorities to receive this funding and they will benefit from it.

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

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

Transport minister Richard Holden had told the Commons: “The Department for Transport allocates capital funding to local highway authorities so that they can most effectively spend this funding on maintaining and improving their respective local networks based on local knowledge, circumstances and priorities. It is up to highways authorities how to spend this funding to fulfil their duty.”

Sir Christopher responded: “Isn’t that a rather complacent response? Because don’t we know that of the £500m allocated last year for highway maintenance to local authorities in England, a lot of it wasn’t spent on highway maintenance, so that was effectively a fraud on the taxpayers.

“Will my friend please ensure that next year the allocations of money to highways authorities are made contingent upon them showing that last year’s allocation was spent on highways?”

Sidestepping the question, Holden replied: “The central highways maintenance fund has an incentive element built in to drive best practice. However, it would be counterproductive for central government to go beyond this and override local leaders who have the best understanding of the needs of their local areas.”

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

Sir Jeremy asked transport minister Huw Merriman to look “urgently” at the issue, and said: “For those who find themselves in the path of this project, being compensated is a painful and long drawn-out experience.

“That’s particularly true for those subject to compulsory purchase where payments are delayed, and at very low rates of interest where they are delayed, and valuations are very heavily contested.

“That is not meeting the promise that he referred to that the government would be fair and that people would not be worse off as a result of this project.”

Merriman replied: “HS2 Ltd pay interest at 0.5 per cent below the Bank of England base rate. £3.2bn has already been paid out in terms of land acquisitions. More is to be paid out.

“The government did recognise there were problems with acquisitions and a report was commissioned by a predecessor of mine. We will ensure that we can learn lessons.”

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