Major vetoes minister's appeal to striking signal workers

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The Independent Online
DOWNING Street has again intervened in the rail dispute, watering down a statement from the new Secretary of State for Transport which urged striking signal workers to return to the negotiating table.

The statement by Brian Mawhinney was toned down after it left the Department of Transport for approval by No 10.

The revelation came as prospects were fading of a breakthrough in the dispute. Another one-day strike is scheduled to start at noon on Wednesday and Jimmy Knapp, leader of the striking signal workers, warned yesterday that a settlement with Railtrack remained a long way off.

A draft of Dr Mawhinney's statement of 25 July was altered to make it less positive. In particular, the new secretary of state wanted to make it explicit that the deal on the table, including a one-off payment of pounds 250 in return for workers' giving up the right to be paid in cash, is worth 7.2 per cent during the first year.

But this rang alarm bells with 10 Downing Street because of worries about the knock-on effect among other public sector workers of an apparent 7.2 per cent offer. The Government wants tight control of public-sector pay.

Publication of the statement was held up for several hours while the Prime Minister's Office and other departments - thought to include the Treasury and the Department of Employment - haggled over the wording and its relation to public-sector pay policy. When the statement was produced, references to the 7.2 per cent had been removed.

Although the validity of the 7.2 per cent figure is disputed by the rail unions, its inclusion would have helped Railtrack to present its case. It would have presented it as higher than the informal offer of 5.7 per cent before the dispute began two months ago, which was vetoed by the then secretary of state, John MacGregor. One source said yesterday that No 10 had been 'frightened of a big number'.

Brian Wilson, Labour's rail spokesman, said: 'This confirms that the heavy hand of government is still pulling the strings. Dr Mawhinney should stand his ground and insist that professional negotiators, rather than blundering politicians, are allowed to reach a settlement.'

Officials at RMT, the signal workers' union, say the Mawhinney figures are an exaggeration of the amount on offer and that inclusion of the pounds 250 as part of the percentage increase is misleading. But they said that the new secretary of state was showing more imagination than his predecessor and that there were 'positive' elements in his statement.

However Mr Knapp said yesterday: 'There is still no serious gesture, no indication of serious intent from Railtrack that they are prepared to address our position'.

A more accurate indication of the longer-term chances of a settlement will emerge tomorrow after both sides have taken the weekend to 'reflect' on their positions. Three days of informal diplomacy by Acas ended on Friday.

An RMT spokesman said the process had been like trying to 'draw teeth', but the informal talks had not broken down.

A spokeswoman for Railtrack said they were 'looking for flexibility' from RMT.

This Thursday, the result of a strike ballot among 500 supervisors, who have been helping to run signal boxes on strike days, will be announced. The union is convinced there will be a 'yes' vote by the supervisors, whose absence would severely undermine management's ability to provide services.

Mawhinney profile, Business