Haigh accuses Shapps of “grave dereliction of duty” over rail strikes

Katie Neame
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Louise Haigh has accused Grant Shapps of a “grave dereliction of duty” over his handling of negotiations with the RMT about the upcoming rail strikes after last-minute talks to resolve the dispute failed.

Addressing the Commons this afternoon, the Shadow Transport Secretary stressed that the strikes, due to begin tomorrow, could still be avoided if ministers “step up and show leadership”.

She argued that the government must “get employers and the unions round the table and address the very serious issues on pay and on cuts to safety and maintenance staff behind this dispute”.

Haigh said the Transport Secretary was “washing his hands of any responsibility” rather than intervening to avert the strikes. She told MPs: “He has still not lifted a finger to resolve it. Not one meeting, no talks, no discussions, only media interviews and a petition to the Labour Party.”

“This is a grave dereliction of duty. And should these strikes go ahead tomorrow, they will represent a catastrophic failure of leadership,” she declared.

Highlighting comments from Tory MP Jake Berry – who argued over the weekend that the “only way out of a dispute is via negotiation” – the Labour frontbencher said: “His own MPs and the public know the only way to sort this out is for the member opposite to do his job.”

She said not only had Shapps been “boycotting” the talks but he had “tied the hands of those at the table” by failing to give train operating companies a mandate to negotiate, an allegation Shapps denied.

Haigh argued: “These talks are a sham, because ministers have set them up to fail. It is for the government to settle this dispute. They are integral to these negotiations. They cannot be resolved unless he is at the table. But it is becoming clearer by the day ministers would rather provoke this dispute than lift a finger to resolve it.”

She accused Shapps of “feigning outrage” over the action of P&O Ferries but now “adopting their playbook”. Back in March, the ferry operator sacked 800 staff with immediate effect and replaced them with agency staff. Haigh stressed that replacing staff with agency workers “cannot and must not be an option”.

She concluded: “There is still time for the Secretary of State to do the right thing, the brave thing, and show responsibility. Patients, schoolchildren, low-paid workers, the entire country needs a resolution. And they will not forgive this government if they do not step in and resolve it.”

In a statement to MPs this afternoon, Shapps said his message to workers in the railway industry was “your union bosses have got you striking under false pretences”, adding: “Rather than protecting your jobs, they are actually endangering them and the railways’ future.”

He claimed that the government have a “platform for change” and that ministers want to work with the unions and industry to “bring a much brighter future to our railways”. He argued: “That means building an agile, flexible workforce. Not one that strikes every time someone suggests an improvement to our railway.”

The RMT confirmed this afternoon that the strikes would go ahead after talks to resolve the dispute failed. General secretary Mick Lynch said: “It is clear that the Tory government, after slashing £4bn of funding from National Rail and Transport for London, has now actively prevented a settlement to this dispute.

“The rail companies have now proposed pay rates that are massively under the relevant rates of inflation, coming on top of the pay freezes of the past few years. At the behest of the government, companies are also seeking to implement thousands of job cuts and have failed to give any guarantee against compulsory redundancies.”

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