Rail strikes: how the Conservative government is blocking a negotiated resolution

“For the rail firms, it is like negotiating with a brick wall – and Grant Shapps is the mason who built it. To the public, this brick wall is invisible. And Grant Shapps would prefer that nobody knows it exists.”

By Kevin Rowan, Trades Union Congress (TUC)

We’re not saying the Transport Secretary ‘should get involved’ – we’re saying he’s already involved.

During the last round of rail strikes the Department for Transport put out a statement saying:

“It’s extremely misleading to suggest the Transport Secretary should get involved in these negotiations.”

To be clear, trade unions are not saying the Transport Secretary ‘should get involved’. We are saying he already is involved. And that’s the problem. He is deeply involved, yet pretends he isn’t.

We know this because it is there in black and white in the contracts between the government and the train operating companies (TOCs).

The TUC commissioned an independent legal opinion from Michael Ford QC, who looked in detail at these contacts.

His opinion, which you can download here, advises that the Transport Secretary has “very extensive powers” over what can be agreed between rail operators and unions, and “very significant contractual power” to direct how industrial disputes are handled.

The contracts require TOCs to abide by the Transport Secretary’s Dispute Handling Policy. In addition to this, the Transport Secretary may give TOCs a Dispute Handling Plan to direct them in a specific dispute.

According to Michael Ford QC, this means that the Transport Secretary has “overarching direction and control of the strike… either because the strategy is agreed with the Secretary of State or because the Secretary of State simply directs how the strike is to be handled”.

The contracts also make clear that TOCs face financial penalties if they agree with unions changes to pay, terms & conditions, redundancies, or restructuring that fall outside of the mandate given by the Transport Secretary in these documents.

For the rail firms, it is like negotiating with a brick wall – and Grant Shapps is the mason who built it.

To the public, this brick wall is invisible. And Grant Shapps would prefer that nobody knows it exists. When asked in parliamentary questions to publish the Dispute Handling Plan, his department refused.

But surely it is in the public interest to know the truth about this dispute.

We hope that with public attention returning to the dispute again during this week’s action, he will finally come clean on some important questions:

  • Why is Grant Shapps pretending he has no role in negotiations when he sets the mandate for employers on pay, term & conditions, redundancies and restructuring?
  • What are the secret red lines that Grant Shapps has set, and that will trigger financial penalties if the train operating companies cross them?
  • Why won’t he publish the Dispute Handling Policy and any Dispute Handling Plans so that the public know what the government is demanding? After all, the rail unions have been very open with the public on their demands.

Rail workers do not want this dispute to be prolonged. But due to the Conservative government, the negotiations are a sham.

Genuine negotiations can only happen in an employment dispute if both the employer and the union are in control over the agreements they can reach.

Rail unions would prefer Grant Shapps to give back control of the negotiating mandate to the TOCs. But if he keeps a tight grip on the negotiating mandate, then he should at least come clean on his demands.

And he should agree to meet with rail unions after months of refusing to. Otherwise, how can any progress be made?


Featured image: Grant Shapps addresses rail workers and unions on 16th June 2022. Image credit: Department for Transport and Grant Shapps MP under the United Kingdom Open Government Licence v3.0

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