Ministers are considering toughening up anti-strike laws designed to curb walkouts on the railways with passengers facing the prospect of industrial action over Christmas.
It is understood that one of the measures under consideration in Whitehall is reviving former prime minister Liz Truss’s plan to make it harder for unions to secure support for strikes.
Currently, unions in important public services like health, education and transport need the support of 40 per cent of the entire workforce for a strike to go ahead.
Ms Truss pledged to change the law to raise this to 50 per cent, half the workforce, voting “yes” for a strike to go ahead.
The Government is already planning legislation to guarantee minimum service levels on the railways, although i understands the plans are fraught with potential difficulties.
Downing Street on Tuesday insisted it was proceeding with laws for minimum service levels, and is believed to be considering whether to toughen the laws as unions threaten havoc on the railways over the festive period.
But Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s official spokesman was on Tuesday forced to defend delays to the relevant legislation, which was initially promised in 2019, stressing that “it’s something we’re proceeding with as fast as parliamentary time allows”.
Pressed on whether the rapid churn of prime ministers and transport secretaries in recent months has played a role, he said: “I think the global pandemic was the largest impact on this legislation.”
The laws are not expected to appear in Parliament before Christmas, meaning it is likely to be months before the Government fulfils its Tory manifesto pledge to legislate to limit the impact of strikes on the railways.
It came as No 10 urged Mick Lynch, the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union general secretary, to call off strikes over the festive period, including a walkout between Christmas Eve and 27 December targeted at Network Rail engineering works that nevertheless threatens to wreck travel plans.
The RMT were urged by No 10 to accept Network Rail’s offer of a 4 per cent pay rise to follow this year’s 5 per cent, and no compulsory redundancies until 2025, rather than the union’s “unaffordable” double-digit demands.
The railway network and infrastructure operator has funded its offer from existing budgets.
But it is understood that for higher demands to be met, it could require either greater taxpayer subsidy, which the Treasury is likely to oppose, or higher fares, which the Government has promised to hold below inflation when annual increases are announced in the coming weeks.
Mr Lynch insisted he does not want strikes to go ahead before Christmas, given the harm it could do to UK’s hospitality sector, but argued that his members are being forced into action by the Government not giving the train operators the mandate to improve their offers on pay and conditions.
A planned meeting between the RMT and the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), which represents the private companies that operate services, meanwhile failed to materialise on Tuesday, prompting Mr Lynch to insist that strikes planned for next week and in the New Year among train staff are “going ahead”.
Mr Lynch is hoping to meet the RDG on Wednesday with chances of averting rail disruption next week now thought to be slim at best, as timetables are beginning to be drawn up.
It came as a YouGov poll suggested public opinion could be turning against the strikes, with half of Britons opposing the walk outs between Christmas Eve and 27 December and 37 per cent supporting them.