Transport secretary called out over rail dispute mistruths on BBC Question Time

“It’s the government that causes far more disruption to my twice daily travel on the trains than a union has ever done”

The transport secretary Mark Harper has been accused of “muddying the waters” by presenting misleading narratives in the rail dispute, on BBC Question Time last night.

When answering questions on resolving the rail strikes, Mark Harper attempted to shirk responsibility by referring to train drivers pay and unused ticket offices.

It comes as the RMT union smashed their latest mandate for strike action, meaning members working for 14 train operating companies could strike again over the next six months. 

It is their third mandate in the National Rail Dispute, with the latest receiving a 91% yes vote.

Mick Lynch, RMT general secretary said the mandate sends a clear message to employers of the “huge anger” amongst rail workers.

Speaking about the rail disputes and supposed job losses of ticket staff, Harper said people do not buy tickets from ticket offices anymore and that they are not needed.

Peter Hitchens, an English conservative author, who has been referred to as an “unlikely union man” since his appearance on the show last night, blasted Harper for deflecting the issue and questioned if this had really been agreed.

The loss of ticket offices has raised concerns about passenger safety, with campaigners arguing that vulnerable travellers will be affected the most, including elderly and disabled people as well as foreign visitors who don’t have English as their first language.  

Hitchens said this was just part of the issue, accusing Harper of attempting to deflect responsibility in the railway dispute.

“If you were more concerned about running, maintaining and creating a decent railway service instead of trying to privatise it and squeeze it in favour of roads, I might take your concerns for railway passengers more seriously, at the moment I’m a little doubtful,” said Hitchens.

Mark Harper further deflected questions on when the train dispute would be resolved, saying there was a deal on the table which should be put to union members, therefore shirking responsibility as a minister in ending the strikes.

MP David Lammy laid out how a negotiation involves “perpetual discussion”, pointing out that a dispute that has gone on for almost a year is a “failure on all sides”.

Mark Harper said he had met with the unions when he started the job, but Lammy mentioned how he, “hasn’t done anything since”.

“Of course you have got to roll your sleeves up, you don’t get to sit on the panel and pretend you’re a union boss, you’re the secretary of state,” said Lammy.

“They’ve rejected the deal, get around the table with them and discuss with them and understand that we are living in tough times, meet them half way and let’s get rid of this strike.”

“Stop referring to what train drivers are paid”

Harper went on to refer to train drivers’ wages getting paid an average salary of £60,000, to which presenter Fiona Bruce corrected him that the RMT union does not just represent train drivers but all rail staff, who are on a much lower pay bracket and represent the majority of those concerned.

Hitchens said his “silly” comments on train drivers pay only “muddied the waters”.

“I wish the transport secretary would stop referring to what train drivers are paid, obviously they’re part of the debate but most of those involved aren’t train drivers and they’re not paid anything like that, it’s silly of him to keep saying that as it muddies the waters.”

He added: “It’s the government that causes far more disruption to my twice daily travel on the trains than a union has ever done.”

Aslef, the union for train drivers, have also announced strikes on Friday 12 May, Wednesday 31 May and Saturday 3 June.

The union highlight that most of the drivers have not had a pay increase at all since 2019, which is “not acceptable” with the current levels of inflation.

Aslef has called on Harper to get back around the negotiating table to make train drivers a “sensible offer on pay”.

(Photo credit: BBC Question Time / Screenshot)

Hannah Davenport is trade union reporter at Left Foot Forward

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