Minister sparks fury over pensions

THE row over public sector pension reform intensified last night as the Government was accused of “bombing talks” with trade unions as head teachers became the latest group of workers to announce plans for a potential strike.

Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander provoked fury by warning unions that it would be a mistake to reject the Government’s planned changes which include raising the retirement age to 66 – in line with the state pension– and abandoning a final salary scheme.

He used a television interview and a speech to a political think-tank to set out the coalition’s case for reform amid impending strike action over the changes by the National Union of Teachers, Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the Public and Commercial Services Union.

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The Government’s proposals to raise the retirement age will not apply to the uniformed services like firefighters, police and the military.

Mr Alexander also promised that low and middle earners would receive as generous pensions at retirement as they do now – albeit at a later age – and that those on the lowest incomes would be spared higher contributions.

However the coalition’s plans have created widespread anger among trade unions which increased after Mr Alexander’s speech.

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) became the latest to signal possible strike action over pension reform yesterday.

The NAHT’s national executive agree to ballot members over a walk-out but it if the union does go ahead with industrial action it will not held on the same day as the NUT, ATL and PCS strikes.

Ministers have been warned that as many as 750,000 teachers and civil servants could be involved in the strike on June 30.

Now, a leading union boss has threatened to pull out of talks altogether after accusing Mr Alexander of undermining the process.

The GMB’s national secretary for public services Brian Strutton accused Ministers of already having reached a decision on pension changes.

He added: “If that’s right, if that’s the Government’s position – that they have decided what they want the answer to be – then it is going to make it impossible for us to stay in these negotiations.

“Describing the Government’s position on contribution increases as “plain barking mad”, he added: “I was convinced that the Government was reconsidering its position on that and thinking it through carefully.

“I’m worried now that they are not. If Danny Alexander is going to say ‘Actually, we’ve made our minds up’, then that is a show-stopper.”

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said the speech and the way it had been spun had dealt “a serious blow” to the unions’ confidence in the talks.

Unite union assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said Mr Alexander’s intervention was “tantamount to bombing the talks”.

And the FDA, the union representing senior civil servants and managers, accused “hardliners” at the Treasury of “doing their best to provoke strike action”.

General secretary Jonathan Baume said: “I am rapidly coming to the view that these negotiations are doomed to failure while the Treasury is in the driving seat, and it is increasingly inevitable that there will be widespread industrial action across the public sector, which would be likely to include the FDA.”

Announcing the decision to ballot for a strike the NAHT’s general secretary Russell Hobby said: “With great reluctance, faced with threats and a refusal to negotiate from the government, we feel we have no option but to demonstrate our anger at this attack on the teaching profession.

“Like everyone else, teachers have paid the price for the recession in taxes and pay cuts. They are now also being taxed to pay for the mistakes of others.”