Boris Johnson eyes labour law changes as he tells country to 'hold firm' on rail strikes

UK prime minister says reforms are needed to help the travelling public, and railway companies and staff

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson told his Cabinet the rail strike was causing 'unnecessary aggravation'. AP
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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson used his weekly Cabinet meeting on Tuesday to urge the country to hold firm against wage demands by rail unions, whose members are striking over pay and conditions.

This comes as his government seeks to change laws on using agency staff during strikes.

Mr Johnson said the strikes, which have cut rail services across the country and Tube journeys in London, were wrong and unnecessary.

Only a fifth of trains are running on Tuesday and half of all lines are closed. Services are generally restricted to main lines open between 7.30am and 6.30pm.

About 40,000 members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union at Network Rail ― the owner and infrastructure manager of most of the railway network in the UK ― and 13 train operators have walked out. Further stoppages are planned for Thursday and Saturday.

Separate action by 10,000 London Underground staff has severely disrupted Tube services in the capital.

“I want to say something about the rail strikes that are today causing significant disruption and inconvenience up and down the country, making it more difficult for people to get to work, risking people's appointments, making it more difficult for kids to sit exams — all sorts of unnecessary aggravation this is going to cause,” Mr Johnson told his Cabinet.

“We need the union barons to sit down with Network Rail and the train companies and get on with it. And we need, I'm afraid, everybody — and I say this to the country as a whole — we need to get ready to stay the course.”

The prime minister said planned new reforms to the country's labour laws would change the dynamic in the sector, allowing the government to make savings that would make the business more sustainable.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said negotiations with the rail unions involved more than 20 highly technical areas. The government is also refusing a demand for a 7 per cent pay raise, limiting the rail negotiators to a 3 per cent uplift.

“To stay the course, because these reforms, these improvements in the way we run our railways are in the interests of the travelling public, they will help to cut costs for farepayers up and down the country,” Mr Johnson said.

“But they're also in the interests of the railways, of railway workers and their families.

“Because otherwise, if we don't do this, these great, great companies, this great industry, will face further financial pressure, it will go bust and the result will be they have to hike up the cost of tickets still further.”

Mr Johnson said the government had supported the network during the pandemic, when stay at home rules triggered a massive drop off in journeys.

“Don't forget that throughout the pandemic, the UK government supported the railway industry to the tune of £16 billion. We kept our railways going ― and quite rightly too ― we supported railway workers and their families, we supported the whole industry,” he said.

While rail industry passenger numbers have not recovered to 2019 levels, the government is continuing to invest in network coverage ― including the Integrated Rail Plan for the north of England and Midlands.

Figures released by the Office of Road and Rail, which is responsible for the economic and safety regulation of Britain's railways, last Thursday showed total journeys at only 62 per cent of the pre-pandemic levels in the quarter through March.

“And we are making, as everybody knows, bigger investments, longer-term investments in railways, than any previous Government,” Mr Johnson said.

“The Integrated Rail Plan alone is worth £96 billion. What we're doing is truly transformational, we're making a generational investment in railways.

“And we love them, we believe in our railways, we believe in our railway infrastructure as a vital part of levelling up across the whole of the country.

“And I'm proud to be inaugurating Northern Powerhouse Rail, just as I was proud, by the way, to be the mayor of London who started Crossrail in London and the prime minister who completed Crossrail. We need Crossrail for the north of our country as well, and that is what we are doing.

“But if we're going to do these colossal investments ― as we are and as we must — we've got to have reform.

Figures published by location technology firm TomTom show the level of road congestion at 8am on Tuesday was higher than the same time last week in several cities.

In London, congestion levels increased from 77 per cent on June 14 to 98 per cent.

Updated: June 21, 2022, 1:01 PM