Government gets tough on strikers

THE government continued to take a tough line against the largest public sector strike in a generation yesterday by threatening to withdraw an improved offer on pensions, draft laws to make future strikes more difficult and bring in the army to secure Britain’s borders.

As 300,000 Scottish public sector workers prepare to walk out on Wednesday, joining more than two million across Britain, the government has said their actions will cost the economy more than £500 million.

Yesterday Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary of the Treasury, warned the unions that an improved offer on public sector pensions could be swept off the table if an agreement is not reached.

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The minister warned that two changes to the offer being put forward by the government – enhanced accrual rates for the new pension scheme and protection from pension charges for anyone within ten years of retirement – could be withdrawn. He said: “I reserve the right to take those enhancements off the table if an agreement can’t be reached.”

The threat was bolstered by Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, who said legal changes to prevent the unions striking on the basis of ballots where there was a low turnout was “an option”. He indicated that ministers were also looking at the rule which requires a union to take action within 28 days of a ballot being held or stage a new ballot.

However, once a strike is held, it also gives the unions a mandate for further industrial action until the dispute is resolved. The minister said it provided a “perverse incentive” to strike. Ministers would now consider a new legal time limit on the mandate that a union has for industrial action after a vote – possibly cutting it to as low as three months.

Meanwhile, the Immigration Minister Damian Green yesterday refused to rule out using troops to help man border checkpoints to ensure ports and airports remained open throughout Wednesday’s one-day action.

The authorities have warned of severe disruption at London’s Heathrow Airport in particular as passport and immigration staff join the walkout. BAA, the airport operator, has appealed to airlines to bring in their aircraft half-full amid fears of delays of up to 12 hours for passengers waiting to pass through immigration. While Green acknowledged that passengers were likely to face disruption, he said it was essential that Heathrow and other airports continued to operate during the strike.

In Scotland on Wednesday schools will be closed and at least 3,000 operations and thousands more hospital appointments are being rescheduled. More than 1,000 procedures due to take place in Lanarkshire are being rescheduled, meaning appointment numbers have been reduced to less than 30 per cent of what would normally take place.

NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde has postponed 1,000 routine hospital admissions and day cases.

Glasgow and Edinburgh airports are in talks with the UK Border Agency to establish the extent of the disruption ahead.