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Wednesday, 9 January, 2002, 20:03 GMT
Blair attacked over rail 'farce'
Tony and Cherie Blair
Mr Blair's foreign diplomacy has been criticised
Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith has said the government's transport policy has descended into farce under the stewardship of Stephen Byers.

At the first Prime Minister's Questions of the new year, Mr Duncan Smith went on the offensive over transport after a spate of strikes that led to commuter chaos in the south of England.

He said: "I know you've been away for a long time but while you have been away your transport policy has descended into farce."

Now the prime minister is back home, shouldn't he stay home and get a grip?

Iain Duncan Smith
The Tory leader's questioning came within hours of Downing Street issuing a statement defending Tony Blair for mounting a tour of South Asia when there were problems to be addressed at home.

Mr Blair insisted that Mr Byers was in charge of transport policy and said that much of the chaos experienced on the railways today was as a result of the Tory privatisation of British Rail.

But Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said that after five years with large majorities the government could not continue blaming the rail legacy left by the Tories.

Meanwhile Mr Blair condemned the decision by RMT union members to strike saying that nowadays arbitration was the acceptable way to settle such a dispute.

That came as a leading railway industry spokesman suggested that strikes could spread across the network.

George Muir, the director general of the Association of the Train Operating Companies, urged unions not to return to the militancy of years gone by.

Secret talks denied

Earlier a spokesman for Mr Blair said that avoiding war between India and Pakistan was of direct importance to the UK, but stepping into the rail dispute would be counter-productive.

The statement issued by Downing Street came as it denied reports that it secretly tried to end strike action by rail unions by sending in a "go-between".

The Guardian reported that Keith Hill MP had pressed South West Trains (SWT) to impose a 7.6% pay offer on its workers - a move that only resulted in angering the union which then pledged further strikes.

A Downing Street spokesman denied that Mr Hill had secretly intervened in the dispute.

Defending Byers

The prime minister's official spokesman said Transport Minister John Spellar had been in touch with the two sides in the strike, but only to press them to resolve the dispute.

The strikes are unlikely to encourage people to travel by train
The denial of intervention comes as the strike action that has caused misery for commuters in the south of England looks set to be mirrored in the north of the country.

Having suffered 48 hours of disruption rail-users in the south now also face a further two-day walkout at the end of January.

Ken Jackson, the general secretary of the Amicus trade union, said the government should play a role in trying to get the dispute resolved.

"It's for the trade union and the employer to resolve the dispute but of course government should be there to try to persuade people on the way forward," he told BBC News.

Meanwhile a separate dispute between Arriva Trains Northern and the RMT union over pay will see two 48-hour stoppages.

Mr Byers has said he understood the "anger and frustration" of train passengers hit by strike action.

Strikes spread

But barring a breakthrough between management and workers, chaos beckons for commuters on 24-25 January when staff from South West Trains and Arriva walk out.

Arriva staff will also strike on 5-6 February.

Meanwhile RMT members at Connex South Eastern have rejected a pay offer, it has emerged.

Mr Byers, during an interview with BBC News, pledged that he would make a significant improvement to the rail network in the next "three to four years".

But Tory former cabinet minister John Redwood said during a debate at Westminster Hall: "They (ministers) should... start to spend some of the very large sums of money they are talking about making available in a practical and positive way that would make a real difference."

RMT members say SWT's imposed pay rise of 7.6% is over two years and that it is their first pay rise for two years.

The BBC's Laura Trevelyan
"The prospect of more industrial action on the railways is having a political impact"
The BBC's Reeta Chakrabarti
"Prime Minister's Questions was dominated by the issue of the railways"
The BBC's Andrew Marr
"Labour blame Railtrack and ask for more time"
See also:

08 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Perils of a globetrotting PM
09 Jan 02 | UK Politics
'Secret move' to end rail strike denied
08 Jan 02 | UK Politics
New strikes heap pressure on Byers
08 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Blair flies home to frosty welcome
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