UK Politics

Strike risks 'real prospect' of pension deal - Maude

Strike action later this month could threaten the "real prospect" of a deal over public sector pension reforms, the minister leading negotiations has said.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said the two sides were making progress in talks and were "so close" to agreement in certain areas.

Unions did not want "prolonged and protracted" action, he suggested.

But the NASUWT teachers union, among many due to strike on 30 November, said their members had "no alternative".

Millions of public sector workers are set to take industrial action later this month, saying they will be left worse off by proposals which will require them to work longer before collecting their pension and having to contribute more.

The Unite, Unison and GMB unions have already voted for strike action, as have unions representing teachers and probation officers.

'Jumping the gun'

In an event to secure a deal, ministers made revised proposals last month.

Their new offer would guarantee no-one within 10 years of retirement would have to work longer or see their pension income fall and includes the promise of more generous rates of accrual - the rate at which the value of a pension builds up.

Mr Maude said the revised offer was "generous" - as it would give many workers as good, if not better, pension provision, than they have now.

The offer, he added, was "as good as it gets" and the government reserved the right to withdraw the proposal and impose a settlement in the event of sustained industrial action.

"The union leaders have jumped the gun," he told the BBC's Andrew Marr show.

"It is completely inappropriate and irresponsible to have balloted for strike action when the discussions are still going on."

The disruption caused by a strike could do "enormous damage", Mr Maude added, at a time when the economy was "fragile".

He stressed that "intensive" talks were yielding progress. "In some of these schemes, we have got so close now to agreement. There is the real prospect of doing this by the end of the year."

There was not "any appetite for protracted or prolonged action" among union leaders beyond the planned 30 November disruption, Mr Maude suggested.

While unions had the right to ballot their members and people were rightly concerned about their pensions, he said the low turnout in the ballots suggested this was not "an unbelievably passionate matter" for most union members.

'Act responsibly'

Of the 40% of the NASUWT's UK 230,000 members balloted, 80% voted for strike action.

NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates said both sides had a duty to "act responsibly" and try and avoid strike action.

"Our members would prefer not to be on strike. We have engaged constructively with the government on the negotiations," she told Andrew Marr.

While she welcomed the government's concessions, she said they had come at "the 11th hour" and needed to be studied carefully to make sure "they stack up".

"What we have faced is month after month of prevarication and no progress being made in terms of providing us with the information and data we need and evidence there is actually a problem with teachers' members scheme."

She added: "The fact is we have been put under tremendous pressure and faced a ridiculous timescale to try and resolve these issues."

For Labour, shadow chancellor Ed Balls suggested ministers were seeking to "provoke" unions into taking strike action.

He told Sky News that for ministers "to say unions have walked into a trap is, I think, deeply cynical and very unfair".

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