Ministers and unions keep up battle of words

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Ministers were at loggerheads with trade union leaders last night over how to proceed with public sector pension reforms following the biggest day of industrial action in more than three decades.

As many as two million workers – from headteachers to lollipop ladies, librarians to refuse collectors – joined strike action the length and breadth of the country, closing schools, hospitals, transport networks and Government departments.

While it remained unclear whether negotiations with unions had reached an impasse, the Government said their final pensions offer was still on the table and “among the very best available”.

Prime Minister David Cameron told MPs the “irresponsible and damaging” industrial action had been far from universally supported as he defended the Government’s controversial pension reforms.

Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude said intensive negotiations were continuing at the behest of the TUC and said “good progress” was being made.

He branded the strike action as “irresponsible, inappropriate and untimely”.

But unions countered that Treasury Ministers had last met union representatives on November 2.

Unison General Secretary Dave Prentis said: “They have not asked to see us since then. The people we’re dealing with can’t move because of the restrictions placed on them by the Treasury.”

Unions shot down the Prime Minister’s suggestion that the strike had been a “damp squib”. Officials from 30 unions involved reported huge support, with as many as 90 per cent of some organisations taking action, often for the first time in their lives.

The strike closed more than three quarters of schools in England, as well as courts, museums, libraries and jobcentres, disrupted transport, hospitals and Government departments, led to about 15 per cent of driving tests being cancelled, and was described by unions as the biggest since the 1979 Winter of Discontent.

Physiotherapists, teachers, librarians, nurses, lollipop ladies, refuse collectors, weather forecasters and scientists were among those involved in the stoppage.

Civil service union Prospect said action by 26,000 of its members alone disrupted or stopped work at more than 400 locations, ranging from Ministry of Defence sites to prisons.

Len McCluskey, leader of Unite, said: “The Prime Minister is completely out of touch. I have been to 12 picket lines and there has been a fantastic response both from workers and the general public. The Government can try to spin and tell lies, but they have been found out.”

University and College Union leader Sally Hunt said: “Cheap potshots add nothing to what should be a serious debate about millions of people’s futures, and just expose how out of touch the Prime Minister really is.”

While hundreds of thousands joined picket lines or organised rallies and marches across the country, the predicted chaos at major airports failed to happen.

Short delays were experienced at Heathrow and Gatwick airports as contingency plans were put into action, while no delays were reported at Stansted, Luton or London City airports. Some passengers arriving at Heathrow and Gatwick said border controls seemed “better than usual”.

Nationally, the Department for Education reported that 63 per cent of maintained schools and 57 per cent of academies, free schools, university technical colleges and studio schools were closed.

A teacher and a six-year-old boy, who was taken to a school in Milton Keynes by his parent because of the strike, were taken to hospital with burns following an explosion last night. The 35-year-old woman and the boy were being treated at a specialist burns unit at Stoke Mandeville hospital.

The Department of Health drew criticism after telling NHS trusts in England they must not release figures regarding staff on strike or the number of cancelled operations and appointments.

The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) said 90 per cent of its 23,000 NHS members were estimated to be on strike, for only the second time in the union’s 117-year history.

Alex MacKenzie, of the CSP, said: “Physiotherapy staff have demonstrated their anger over these pensions proposals by turning out in huge numbers today. No-one wanted to strike, but our members felt we had to take a stand.”

More than 20 protesters were arrested after members of the Occupy London Stock Exchange group tried to target Mick Davis, the chief executive of mining company Xstrata at their offices near Piccadilly Circus. The anti-capitalist group, which is camped outside St Paul’s cathedral, claims Mr Davis was the highest paid chief executive of the FTSE 100 companies last year.

Two protesters were arrested after a woman police community support officer was assaulted during clashes in east London. Scotland Yard said the officer was attacked as trouble flared at a bus garage in Hackney.

By early evening, there had been 75 arrests across London, according to the Metropolitan Police.

Of those, 37 people were arrested for affray in Dalston Lane, Hackney.

Others were arrested on suspicion of offences including breach of the peace, handling offensive weapons, assault on police and public order offences.