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Strike disruption threatens to damage the UK’s reputation as a reliable trade partner

4 min read

Inflation-busting pay rises are not just unaffordable, but counterproductive

Industrial disputes, cancellations, staff shortages, timetable uncertainties. The country is facing a level of transport disruption not seen for decades. This is not just impacting frustrated passengers but is harming our economy – and threatens the very future of the services so many of us rely on. 

Over recent months, the Transport Select Committee have heard from representatives for the rail, maritime and aviation industries. They painted a troubling picture.

Disputes over pay and conditions have caused major disruption across the country. Rail passengers have endured the most impactful series of strikes for more than 30 years, with no end in sight. The country owes a great deal of gratitude to rail workers for their vital work throughout the pandemic, but we cannot ignore the financial crisis the pandemic ushered in across the sector. 

Inflation-busting pay rises are not just unaffordable but counterproductive; both for those seeking them, and for the public who will foot the bill. All they will do is increase inflation further, eating up the pay rise in the process. It is right that workers receive a fair deal, but one that is affordable. Funding for this must come from the savings made through modernising workplace practices, bringing the sector into line with other major industries, and not through extortionate fare increases at a time when we need to be encouraging more passengers to use the railway.

No incoming prime minister has faced such a colossal in-tray

Yet strikes have wider consequences. Take what is happening at Felixstowe, the United Kingdom’s largest container port. Handling nearly half of this country’s shipping containers, any disruption here delays the movement of goods in and out of the UK. When 1,900 dockworkers walked out for eight consecutive days over the summer, around £4bn worth of trade was delayed, and maritime congestion worsened. Such instances not only have a significant economic impact, putting pressure on the supply of goods and increasing supply chain costs, but threaten to damage the UK’s reputation as a reliable trade partner. 

This comes at a time when our supply chain is already vulnerable to periodic disruption caused by HGV driver shortages. To tackle this, in our Road freight supply chain report the Transport Committee called for the logistic sector to be given two years to deliver sufficient drivers, workers and facilities – including high-quality services and welfare. Failure to do so would see the government implement a supply chain levy to force industry to pay a contribution to government to build these facilities and train new drivers. The levy would require parts of the supply chain where margins are greatest, such as oil companies and online service giants, to deliver improved standards and resilience to the supply chain they themselves require. It is disappointing government has not taken our recommendation forward.

This disruption, though, is not just damaging. It is happening at a time when the transport sector is still trying to overcome the impact of the pandemic. As people were told to stay at home, journeys on public transport collapsed. Bus usage in 2020/21 declined by 61 per cent, requiring government to step in with a £2bn support package to keep services running. Yet journeys still lag behind pre-pandemic levels. With government support due to end in March, unless we can get people back on board, with the revenues it brings, passengers will face the prospect of current services being lost. 

Flight cancellations too are a symptom of the Covid hangover. As planes were grounded in 2020, staffing levels at airports fell. Airports have faced real challenges in getting staff back onto the front line, resulting in cancellations and passenger number caps. Action has been taken to alleviate pressures, with the government streamlining application and training processes. Yet passengers are still facing an unprecedented level of disruption and uncertainty.

No incoming prime minister has faced such a colossal in-tray. Solving the industrial disputes, dealing with the fundamental causes of cancellations and ensuring services have the revenues to continue will not be easy. But they are challenges that must be met. 

Huw Merriman is Conservative MP for Bexhill and Battle and chair of the Transport Select Committee

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