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THE government has been accused of misleading the public over claims it has no role in negotiations to end rail strikes which have crippled the network across Britain this week.
Statements from the government that the dispute was just between rail operators and unions have been undermined by independent legal advice on the matter, the TUC said after it commissioned the legal advice.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has “overarching direction and control” over how the strike is handled by rail operators which include “very extensive powers” over what can be agreed between rail operators and unions, the legal advice from Michael Ford QC of Old Square Chambers said.
Mr Shapps has “very significant contractual power” to direct how industrial disputes are managed and rail operators are not free to agree terms and conditions with their employees without the involvement of the Transport Secretary, the advice added.
Rail operators can face financial penalties if they fail to agree a mandate before discussions with rail unions on changes to pay, terms and conditions, redundancies, or restructuring, Mr Ford said, according to the TUC.
The legal advice appears to contradict claims from the government the negotiations are only between the rail operators and unions and reveals Mr Shapps may have significant power to end the rail dispute.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “The Prime Minister and his transport minister have misled the public.”
“When they said the government has no role in handling this dispute, that’s not true.
“When they said negotiations are just for the employers and the unions, that’s not right.
“We always believed that Conservative ministers had the power to pull the train companies’ strings behind the scenes. And this legal opinion on rail contracts confirms it.”
Ms O’Grady said that Britain deserves honesty from the government.
“We deserve fair negotiation so we can make fair agreements,” she added.
“Rail workers, who the transport minister once described as pandemic heroes, deserve job security and the decent pay rise that they have earned.”
Ms O’Grady also hit out at government plans to block trade union members from voting online during strike ballots.
An independent review commissioned by the government concluded in 2017 that online balloting was safe and secure to use during strike ballots.
But ministers have continued to drag their feet on electronic balloting and now look set to block it.
Ms O’Grady said: “This is a feeble attempt to look tough by a government that wants to stoke a culture war against unions.
“It is absurd and hypocritical to stop union members from voting electronically on the key workplace issues that affect them.
“Online voting is just as safe as postal balloting, and it is used by many organisations, including the Conservative Party.
“This proves that the government’s Trade Union Act was always about undermining unions and workers’ right to strike, not improving workplace democracy.”
RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said: “We’ve always known the government have extensive powers in these negotiations and this legal opinion confirms that.”
The Department for Transport said it was “misleading” to say Mr Shapps should get involved in the talks.
Lib Dem MP Munira Wilson sparked controversy yesterday after she suggested in a BBC TV interview that the government should have contingency plans in place for the army to be brought in to break the strikes by the RMT.
The government “absolutely has a role to play and should be at the table,” she said.
“And should be working with the army and others to put contingency plans in place if these strikes are going to continue.”
RMT general secretary Eddie Dempsey, who sat across from Ms Wilson during the interview, condemned the proposal and said there was a war being waged against working-class people.
The striking workers are being treated like a “domestic enemy” within the country, he later told the Morning Star.
Mr Dempsey added that employees are being squeezed while billions of pounds are quietly leaving the country for tax havens.
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