'It doesn't make any difference' - Chris Grayling defends Qatar trip amid anger over rail fare hikes
Chris Grayling has defended his decision to jet off to Qatar as hard-pressed commuters were hit with eye-watering rail fare hikes.
The Transport Secretary insisted he had not "shirked" the issue after he was roundly mocked for the ill-timed visit.
And he said his presence in the UK "doesn't make any difference" to commuters who were expecting the fare rises for months.
Rail travellers faced an average 3.4% increase in ticket costs as they returned to work after the Christmas break today, with many season tickets up by around £100.
Mr Grayling was accused of "hiding" after it emerged he had departed for a previously unannounced three day charm offensive with ministers and business bosses in the Middle East.
But after touching down in Qater this afternoon, he told LBC radio: “The fare increase was announced a month ago and I’ve actually done radio interviews about it and answered questions in the House of Commons.
“I don’t think I’ve shirked the issue, but I think it’s really important we get out and try and win business for Britain.
“Today, my presence in the country doesn’t make any difference - I can make a difference trying to help Britain get more jobs."
FARE INCREASE SHAKEUP?
He added that he was willing to change the fare increase system by pegging rises to CPI inflation rather than the higher RPI, but he said Labour and the trade unions were unwilling to agree the same for transport worker wages.
"I want us to move to the lower form of inflation," he explained.
"But my challenge to Labour and the unions is that if you want this, the whole industry, including pay, has to be CPI too - they cannot have their cake and eat it."
Downing Street was left red-faced this morning when it was unable to explain the purpose of Mr Grayling's trip.
But the Department for Transport later said his planned meetings were to "promote the UK overseas, support British jobs and strengthen the important relationship between the two countries".
A spokesperson added: "This trip has been specifically arranged to take place outside of Parliamentary time. The Secretary of State has repeatedly answered questions on this issue, ever since fare increases were first announced by the industry in August.”
A spokesman for Theresa May meanwhile said Mr Grayling was “working hard and doing a good job” - despite rumours he is in line for the chop in an expected Cabinet reshuffle this month.