UK minister warns public workers to brace for real-term pay cuts amid rail strikes

Simon Clarke says rail strikes this week ‘likely’ and insists government will not intervene in negotiations

Source > Guardian

By Peter Walker Political correspondent

People should prepare for inevitable rail strikes this week, a senior minister has said, as he warned that the bulk of public sector workers should expect a real-terms pay cut this year.

The government would “continue to support” negotiations between rail companies and unions, but did not have a direct role in trying to prevent the biggest rail strikes in three decades, which are due to start on Monday night, Simon Clarke, the chief secretary to the Treasury, insisted.

“I do think it’s important that we send a message this week that industrial action is likely to proceed, and therefore people make sensible preparations now, because there’s no point giving false hope, if you like, that these strikes can be avoided. At this stage it is likely that they will proceed,” he told BBC One’s Breakfast programme.

Ministers have faced calls to do more to try to prevent three planned 24-hour walkouts this week by RMT members, the first of which starts just after midnight on Tuesday morning. This will result in only one in five trains running on strike days, halting services altogether in much of northern and south-west England, Wales and Scotland.

Clarke, in an interview with Sky News, said: “The government doesn’t sit as part of those talks for a very good reason. We don’t intervene in the specific process between an employer and the unions representing employees, but we are there to provide the support and the enabling framework for those talks to succeed. Ultimately, we don’t control all the levers that need to be held here.”

The strike has been called over feared job losses amid restructuring, and concerns that inflation forecast to reach 11% this year would mean staff getting a real-terms pay cut. Other professions, including teachers, could take potential action over below-inflation pay rises.

Clarke said people should not have “unrealistic expectations” about pay, and that those in the public and private sectors should brace themselves for real-terms pay cuts this year.

“In the current situation with inflation, which is a real issue, we do have to be very, very sensitive,” he told Sky.

“If we start having pay awards that take us close to double digits, then we are going to see this problem prolong. That is just the economic reality of where we find ourselves at the moment.”

On public sector pay, Clarke said he would not “pre-empt the results of the individual pay review bodies, but I think it is unlikely that they will match the headline rate of inflation at the rate we are now seeing”.

He added: “And that is precisely the point I’m making, that if we try and match or exceed inflation, if we end up in a cycle where everyone starts targeting the levels that we’re seeing now, 9%, 10%, that is going to be totally unsustainable.

“The point is, very, very few people are going to be getting pay offers which are in double figures. I think it would be highly unsustainable if they were going to do so.”

John Leach, assistant general secretary of the RMT union, said members would seek “justice for themselves”.

“They kept this country moving through the pandemic, they keep the railways moving every single day and it’s that kind of grit and determination that’s going to mean that they will stick with this negotiation and justice for themselves in that regard, right through to the end,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

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