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Minister sorry about travel ‘misery’ as rail strikes set to go ahead

Chief Treasury secretary Simon Clarke insisted the Government would not intervene in negotiations.

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Man at rail station

People should prepare for travel chaos as rail strikes are “likely” to go ahead, a senior minister has said.

Chief Treasury secretary Simon Clarke said he was sorry for the “misery” the disruption will cause but it was not up to the Government to resolve the dispute behind the biggest walkout in the industry for more than 30 years.

He told Sky News: “I fear it is likely they will go ahead…

“I think the public do this week need to be aware there will be very substantial disruption and it is therefore sensible to make preparations for that.”

The strikes are set to cripple services on the railways and London Underground from Tuesday, with increased traffic expected to choke roads.

“We absolutely don’t want them to go ahead, I recognise this is going to cause misery for millions of people and I am profoundly sorry about that,” Mr Clarke told BBC Breakfast.

Ministers have faced calls to do more to avert the three planned one-day strikes this week.

Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh said the Government was “hobbling” the talks between unions and rail operators.

“At the moment, without the Government there, the negotiations are a sham,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“It’s not possible for them to find a resolution and avoid the dispute without the Government being represented at the talks, setting a mandate for the train operators and providing genuine scope in order to find a resolution.

“Without them there, it’s impossible for them to find a way forward and, therefore, it is inevitable that industrial action will happen.”

Mr Clarke said the Government would “continue to support” negotiations between rail companies and unions but that it did not “control all the levers” and that getting involved would “confuse things”.

“Ultimately this is a matter between the employers – the train operating companies and Network Rail – and the trade unions, and the Government doesn’t sit directly as a part of those talks for a very good reason – that we don’t intervene in a specific process between an employer and the unions representing employees, but we are there to provide the support and enabling framework for those talks to succeed.”

He said the train operating companies and Network Rail were working to “deliver a sensible programme of reform and a sensible and fair pay deal” with the trade unions, and that “no-one is suggesting there’s some kind of pay freeze required here”.

With the Rail, Maritime and Transport union calling for a 7% pay rise to keep up with soaring prices, Mr Clarke ruled out increases in line with inflation, which the Bank of England forecast would top 11% in the autumn.

“We have an inflation problem in this country… if we don’t want that problem to either intensify or prolong itself, then we need to be sensible around pay awards,” he said.

The Cabinet minister called for reforms of the country’s “seriously outdated” railway practices.

He said: “We need to see reform of some of the practices that make our railway a very unsustainable entity at the moment.

“It cannot be the case that we have put in £16 billion during the pandemic as taxpayers, worth £600 per household, and still have a railway system where some of what goes on occurs and where, frankly, fares are higher than they need to be and efficiency is lower than it should be because of the way the trade unions operate.”