Tuesday 20 December 2016 4:01 am

As militant unions plot Christmas misery, should strike action on railway services be banned?

and Ben Willmott
Ben Willmott is the head of public policy at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

Keith Prince, deputy chair of the London Assembly Transport Committee, says Yes.

Strike action on public transport can have a devastating impact on commuters. Southern’s passengers have suffered huge delays, cancellations and some have lost their jobs because they can’t guarantee they’ll be able to get to their desks.

This appalling situation cannot be allowed to continue. In the UK we don’t allow the police or the armed forces to strike. The reasoning is that there are some services that are so intrinsic to the normal working of our society that the disruption of such services is simply unacceptable. I believe it is time to add public transport to that list.

So if strikes are banned, what should happen instead? My proposal is binding pendulum arbitration, with a judge choosing between the proposals of the train operating company or TfL and the relevant union. This preserves the ability for trade unions to seek redress when their members may have been wronged, while taking passengers out of the crossfire. Who could reasonably object?

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at CIPD, says No.

One can have nothing but sympathy for the commuters stuck in the middle of the dispute between Southern and the RMT and ASLEF unions over modernisation plans. However, while the dispute is an example of the sort of industrial relations climate we thought had been consigned to the past, it remains extremely unusual and should be considered a blip rather than a trend.

The number of working days lost to strike action has dropped by more than 90 per cent in the past 20 years. So far this year, between January and October, 281,000 working days have been lost to strike action, compared to an average of 7m days a year in the 1980s.

Knee-jerk action to legislate to ban strike action on essential public services risks further poisoning employment relations, not just with the parties involved in this dispute but in the railway sector as a whole.

However it is crucial that the rail franchise holder, the unions and government work together as a matter of urgency to come to a long-term resolution over the plans to modernise the railway. Commuters can’t face another year of such misery.