Public sector strike warning sparks union anger

media captionUnison leader Dave Prentis: "We've tried everything we can do to reach an agreement"

The leader of one of Britain's biggest unions has hit back after government warnings over Wednesday's planned public sector strike.

The strike over pensions could involve as many as two million people.

Chief Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander said recent improvements to the government's offer could be withdrawn if the strike went ahead.

Unison leader Dave Prentis said there had been no formal improved offer - government sources rejected this.

Mr Alexander told the Guardian the strike action was "a distraction" to the ongoing negotiation process.

He also said he "reserved the right" to remove from the table two changes put forward by government - enhanced accrual rates for the new pension schemes and protection from pension changes for anyone within 10 years of retirement - if an agreement could not be reached.

'Absolutely criminal'

Mr Prentis, whose members work mainly in local government and the National Health Service, told the BBC the improved terms referred to by Mr Alexander had not be put in any formal form and said the government's "misinformation" was "absolutely criminal".

"Let's be clear what the government did: the day before we announced our ballot result, covering a million workers in our local government services and our health services, they ran into Parliament to make a statement," said Mr Prentis.

"We have never, ever received any offer for all our local government members. We have never received an offer for our health members. They've established principles that we don't even know are going to be given to our members, and yet they say that this deal - and there isn't one there yet - is to be taken away if we take the action."

A spokeswoman for Unison, which has 1.4 million members, said the new offer had not been put on the table for them to consider and said "we are not close to agreement".

A government source has told the BBC the negotiations with public sector unions are proceeding at different speeds.

She rejected criticism from some union leaders that the details of the new offer had not been tabled formally in negotiations.

The source said the unions knew what they were dealing with and that everyone involved wanted the flexibility to look at how deals could be put together in the different sectors.

The unions had not come back with details of how they wanted the new proposals configured, she added.

Workers including teachers, border control staff and some health workers are set to walk out on Wednesday.


Unions say proposals which require their members to work longer before collecting their pension and contribute more are unfair.

The government says change is needed to keep down the cost to the taxpayer, because people are living longer.

media captionSchools Minister Nick Gibb: 'We need to get an agreement reached'

Earlier, Schools Minister Nick Gibb repeated warnings to unions that an improved offer on public sector pensions may be withdrawn if no deal is reached.

Mr Gibb told the BBC: "We made it very clear when that very generous offer was put on the table at the beginning of November that this was conditional on an agreement being reached.

"These days of action are very damaging to the economy, they cost money. We don't want this thing going into 2012."

He said it was "wrong" to strike while talks between the Department of Education and teachers' unions continued.

But Mark Serwotka, of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, said his comments were "classic bullying - take the offer and if you don't we'll take it off the table".

'Ministers' responsibility'

Labour leader Ed Miliband urged the government to keep all channels of communication open, saying they have a responsibility to stop the strike going ahead.

"They should be getting round that table and doing everything they can, leaving no stone unturned, to stop the strike going ahead," he said.

"If the strike is going to be damaging to the country... that gives them even more of a responsibility... to do that."

media captionMark Serwotka, PCS union: "We want fair pensions for all"

Lucy Morton, of the Immigration Services Union, said she regretted its members were striking but it was the only way to get the government's attention.

"This union hasn't taken industrial action at all in its 28-year history. This is something our members feel deeply and desperately strongly about, but nonetheless it's no-one's wish to disrupt the border, or to cause chaos to the travelling public."

BBC political correspondent Ben Wright reports that a senior trade union negotiator, responding to Mr Alexander's comments, said they wanted to "get Wednesday's strike out of the way, meet ministers quickly, knock heads together and try to get a deal done by the end of the year".

London Heathrow has asked airlines to halve the number of passengers they fly into the airport on Wednesday to try to minimise disruption caused by a strike.

'Operations postponed'

Hospital managers are planning to postpone thousands of non-emergency operations on the strike day and patients across the UK have been sent letters warning them of disruption.

Dean Royles, the director of NHS Employers, said outpatient appointments would be postponed and rearranged, and that staffing levels would be similar to a weekend or bank holiday.

"Some minor surgery and operations will also have to be postponed, cancelled, and rearranged for people where we haven't got the staff in place to be able to do those," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Community nurse Monica Hirst, a member of the Unison union, said she was committed to the strike.

She told Radio 5 live: "The offer that's been put on the table doesn't alter the fact that I personally will still be working until I'm after 65.

"I'll still be paying £160 a month more, and as a single parent with a daughter at university it's going to be difficult to find that money, it's going to be really hard."

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