A deal may be in sight between UK rail unions and train-operating companies to draw to close months of crippling rail strikes, government officials familiar with the matter said.
However, an agreement with the healthcare unions to end strikes by nurses and paramedics appears further off and may take some weeks, according to the officials close to the discussions, who asked not to be named talking about unresolved industrial disputes.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s administration is grappling with strikes across multiple industries that have ground public transport to a halt and disrupted the National Health Service in the middle of a winter crisis. Unions are demanding bigger pay rises to help their members cope with soaring inflation, as well as making demands on working conditions.
To date, the government has stood firm, arguing that pay in the rail sector is a matter for the train operating companies and track operator Network Rail, while pay for NHS staff is based on recommendations by independent pay review bodies which ministers accepted in full. As a result, rail strikes have dragged on since the middle of last year, while nurses last month staged their biggest-ever walkout.
At the beginning of the week, ministers held meetings with unions across a range of sectors, though those talks didn’t immediately lift the threat of further strikes, with ambulance workers holding a second walkout on Wednesday and nurses preparing action next week.
Also on Wednesday, the bosses of three rail unions — Aslef, the TSSA, and the RMT — told a House of Commons panel that they aren’t close to resolving their disputes with employers. But Steve Montgomery, chair of the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train companies, was more optimistic, telling the same committee that there’s an opportunity to move forward.
The RDG held separate meetings on Thursday with the RMT and the TSSA, after which the unions issued identical statements devoid of bellicose language and suggested progress.
“We have had detailed discussions and we are working jointly towards a revised offer,” they said. “Both parties have agreed to continue discussions over the coming days.”
The RDG is meeting with both unions again on Friday, Sunak’s spokesman, Jamie Davies, told reporters on Friday, hailing the “positive soundings” that came out of the previous day’s discussions.
“We hope and expect further progress in the coming days,” Davies said. “What we want to see as an end to the disruption that people are facing on the railways.”
The Telegraph on Friday reported that the latest pay offer for unions is a 9% pay increase split across two years. It also said ministers have softened their stance on insisting train guards are phased out, leaving services managed only by the train driver.
That’s a development that if true, could help unlock resolution because it’s a red line for the unions. RMT chief Mick Lynch told the parliamentary panel on Wednesday that “we will never accept driver-only operation in any company without a fight. It will never happen while I’m the general secretary. It will never happen as long as the RMT exists.”
While rail staff is paid by private companies, nurses and other health service workers are paid from the public purse, and awarding them an additional rise over and above what’s recommended by the pay review bodies works counter to Sunak’s attempts to rein in double-digit inflation and restore order to the national finances.
But with the public — and senior Conservatives — sympathetic to nurses in particular, Health Secretary Steve Barclay this week has softened his line and has indicated he’s prepared to backdate next year’s pay to cover some of the current fiscal years.
Nevertheless, the Treasury has indicated departments must find cash for pay rises from within their already-agreed budgets, making any decision harder, because it would require finding the money through cutbacks in other parts of health care spending.
Despite the strength of public support for the nurses, Conservative Members of Parliament haven’t been overwhelmed with emails about the matter, according to one of the government figures with the matter. That means the government feels it has breathing space to resolve the dispute.