A senior civil servant at the Department for Transport has apologised for "any offence caused" after telling a public meeting that train drivers opposed to changes to their working hours can "get the hell out of my industry".
Peter Wilkinson, director of rail passenger services at the DfT, provoked fury from transport unions and the opposition Labour party after his remarks at a meeting – organised by Conservative MP Gavin Barwell to discuss commuters' concerns with local rail services – were reported by local paper the Croydon Advertiser.
According to the paper, he told the crowd that anticipated changes to train drivers' terms and conditions meant that over "the next three years we're going to be having punch ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support".
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He is then reported to have said: "I'm furious about it and it has got to change – we have got to break them. They have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can't afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place. They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry."
According to the civil service code, officials must at all times abide by standards of integrity, honest, objectivity and impartiality.
Wilkinson's comments sparked an angry action from train drivers' union Aslef, with general secretary Mick Whelan writing to transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin to demand Wilkinson's resignation.
Whelan said: "In an industry that is dependent on the goodwill of train drivers, particularly the flexibility required for future electrification, and new trains, it is quite obvious that this man does not know what he is talking about."
Wilkinson himself has now issued an apology "for any offence caused" by his comments.
In a statement, he added: "I care passionately about the rail industry and I am committed to helping government deliver a better rail service for passengers. To do this we need to work with the whole of the rail industry."
Labour has seized on Wilkinson's remarks, however, with shadow civil service minister Louise Haigh saying it was "astonishing that a senior civil servant could behave in such a partisan and vitriolic way in what appears to be a breach of the civil service code".
She added: "I've written to the Cabinet Office asking them to urgently review the rules around civil servants attending events organised by Government MPs, and to reassure the public that the civil service ultimately serves the public and not the Conservative Party."
The Department for Transport said it was "right that Peter Wilkinson has apologised for his comments".
"He has a fine record of delivering a better railway for passengers, and this is what he will continue to do," a spokesperson added.