MINISTERS have discussed sacking UK Border Agency employees who go on strike on the eve of the Olympic Games, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has revealed. Ahead of Friday’s opening ceremony, Mr Hunt yesterday insisted that he did not want to “escalate” the dispute, but admitted questions had been asked about the employment status of those who take industrial action.
But despite the threat, the Public and Commercial Sector union (PCS) made clear yesterday that its members would not back down.
The strike on Thursday is due to take place, even though only 11 per cent of members took part in the ballot.
Mr Hunt said: “We have a contingency plan in place, and I am absolutely confident that we will get everyone into the country. They’re not going to stop anyone getting in and this is not the time to be pursuing this kind of dispute.
“Sack them? That is the Ronald Reagan approach, and I can tell you amongst ministers there have been people asking whether we should be doing that, but I don’t want to escalate things by talking about that right now.”
He added: “I know amongst those 600 people there are lots of people who want to do the right thing and turn up for work.”
London Mayor Boris Johnson claimed that most workers would want to “get behind” the Games by turning up to work.
He also insisted that London 2012 was the best-prepared Olympics in the history of the Games, despite the government being forced to draft in 8,500 members of the armed forces in recent days to cover for the failure of securiy firm G4S to recruit enough staff. The run-up has also been hit by a dispute over bus drivers’ pay.
Mr Johnson said transport networks were “holding up”, but admitted it was too early to “count your chickens”.
He said: “I don’t think that whatever they do it will disrupt the Olympics or our preparations or disrupt our ability to get people through and in on time to their venues, get the athletes, the Olympics hierarchs, through to where they need to go.
“I do think if you look at the numbers who voted it is a very, very badly supported strike. I don’t think people will want to let down the Olympics, I think the overwhelming majority of people working on the Borders Agency will want to come to work.”
Mr Johnson said the Olympics were going to be a “gigantic schmoozathon” that would shine a spotlight on British business.
International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge believes London has met the standards set by other hosts, the mayor claimed.
Mr Johnson said: “If you look at what Jacques Rogge had to say, he’s been in London for a few days, he thinks that our city is as well prepared as any city in the history of the Games.”
He added: “So far, the traffic system and the transport networks generally are holding up well – touch wood – you can never count your chickens or be complacent about this, but it’s OK at the moment.
“I think possibly what we are going through at the moment as a nation, as a city, is that necessary pre-curtain-up moment of psychological self-depression before the excitement begins on Friday.
“It is only natural that people should be tense, that they should be expectant and there are loads of things we need to get right.”
Thousands of staff at the Home Office, including the UKBA workers, are to stage a 24-hour strike. PCS said its members would walk out on Thursday and would take other forms of industrial action, such as a ban on overtime, from Friday to 20 August.
The union warned it would announce further action if ministers continued to “refuse” to negotiate an agreement, warning that job and spending cuts were hitting services to the public.
The strike will involve staff across the Home Office, including the Identity and Passport Service and Criminal Records Bureau.
Union officials said a work-to-rule and overtime ban could have a big impact on border controls and in passport offices because of the amount of overtime worked. PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said there might not be a strike if ministers came to the negotiating table.
He said: “Everyone is talking as if this strike is happening today or tomorrow.
“We’ve still got a few days to avoid the dispute, I’ve written to [Home Secretary] Theresa May, we’ve written to the management at the Home Office, we still hope and believe the dispute can be avoided, but going on strike is a last resort and I think your listeners deserve to know why we’re doing it.”
He insisted that the demands were “not about personal gain”.
He said: “They are about defending important services, the security of the country, and ensuring that people still have the chance to work all the year round.”
He said government decisions to cut staff had led to four-hour queues at Heathrow, where his members had taken the brunt of anger from travellers.
He added: “We care about the service all the year round, not just in the couple of weeks in the run-up to the Olympics, but I repeat the point, we hope there isn’t a strike, we hope that the government will talk to us.
“We have asked, agreed for Acas to become involved to try and find a resolution, and I am still confident that if the government want to avoid the dispute they could easily do so.”