Public sector strike hits services and schools
Job centres and courts are being hit and about half of all state schools in England and Wales affected as UK public sector workers stage a 24-hour strike.
Picket lines have been set up as the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) and three teaching unions protest at planned changes to their pensions.
They say the plans mean more work and contributions for a reduced pension.
The government says the plans are “fair to taxpayers” and other trade unions are continuing with negotiations.
Along with the opposition, it has condemned the strike action, although Labour leader Ed Miliband has accused ministers of mishandling negotiations with the unions.
As well as pickets, union leaders and activists will hold a march and rally in central London, where police leave has been cancelled.
The action by the National Union of Teachers (NUT), the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and the University and College Union (UCU) affects England and Wales.
About 12,000 schools are being affected, although the actual total may turn out to be higher.
Information from about 75% of England’s 21,500 state schools showed a third would close, a third would remain open, and a third would be partially closed. In Wales, according to local authority figures, more than 1,000 out of 1,800 schools are either closed or partially closed.
The impact of the co-ordinated industrial action began to be felt at ports and airports on Wednesday evening, when some UK Border Agency staff walked out from 1800 BST.
Travellers have been warned to expect delays on arrival at UK ports and airports.
LATEST ON LIKELY DISRUPTION
- Schools: Based on information about 75% of schools in England, one third to close, one third to open as normal and one third to be “partially affected”. In Wales, more than 1,000 out of 1,800 closed or partially closed
- Job centres and courts: Will remain open “wherever possible”
- Benefits: Little disruption expected as most claims are automated
- Customs/immigration: Trained managers to be redeployed to ensure full checks are conducted and borders remain secure
- Civil service: One in five workers will strike. Staff to be allowed to bring their children into work
- Parliament: Operating as normal with full access maintained
Sources: No 10 spokesman/Parliament spokesman/Welsh local authorities
However, people leaving the UK will not be affected because departing passengers come into contact with security staff, employed by the airports, who will not be taking industrial action.
As flights began to arrive, Heathrow airport said passengers were “generally” not experiencing excessive delays at border control. Gatwick said there were “very slight delays” while Luton reported disruption had been kept to an “absolute minimum” and Stansted said passengers are not seeing delays.
The walkouts by the PCS, which has around 250,000 members including coastguards, police support workers, court staff and driving test examiners, will be staged across the UK.
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency said there have been some walkouts but all coastguard stations are “operational and appropriately manned”.
The government believes one in five of the nation’s 500,000 civil servants will be on strike.
However, it added that the “vast majority” of courts, job centres, and HM Revenue and Customs call centres would remain open as usual.
Speaking on BBC One’s Breakfast, Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude said: “People are going to be scratching their heads, wondering why teachers and some civil servants are going on strike while discussions are still going about how we keep public sector pensions among the best available.
“But people are living longer… It’s perfectly reasonable for people to expect to work a bit longer before they start drawing the pension, which will still be among the very best… to ask them to pay a bit more towards it because other taxpayers who are paying the rest, they’ve seen their own pensions take a hit.”
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Francis Maude: “It’s absolutely unjustifiable”
Mr Miliband said: “Parents and the public have been let down by both the strikers and the government, as they have behaved in reckless and provocative manner.”
But Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS, said his members were left with no choice but to take action as the government was not prepared to “compromise on any of the central issues of the strike”.
“While they are talking, they are not negotiating,” he told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme.
Meanwhile, Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the NUT, said early indications suggested “large numbers” of schools were closed or partially affected by the action.
He said: “We realise that’s very disruptive for parents and we do regret that. We had hoped to reach a settlement before the industrial action, but the government isn’t serious about talks.”
And ATL general secretary Mary Bousted told BBC Breakfast: “We don’t want to be on strike, and we wouldn’t be on strike if the government had been prepared to do what they say they’re going to do now, and that’s negotiate.”
The director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, David Frost, said the government reforms to pensions were “essential” and could have a knock-on effect for businesses.
“The private sector has had to wake up to the tough realities of pension provision in a rapidly changing world, and the public sector must do the same,” he said. He added: “If the UK is perceived as a country where we have a lot of public sector strikes, then I think investor confidence, perhaps in putting new business into the UK, could be hit.”
Some parents working in Whitehall, including MPs, will be able to take their children to work on Thursday, Downing Street said.
There will be no picket line outside Downing Street today but one or two officials from No 10 are expected to join thousands of public servants striking, many of whom will stream down Whitehall in protest at planned cuts to their pensions.
That will be the visible part of this industrial dispute. The invisible and possibly more crucial part is the ongoing negotiations with many unions who are not striking today.
Those involved on both sides continue to believe that this will end with an agreement on reforming public sector pensions.
The significance then of today’s strikes may be what signal they send to the negotiators about union members’ appetite for more action – and the public’s tolerance of it.
No 10 later said that Prime Minister David Cameron’s children would not be with him because their school would be open. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s children will not be at school, but it is not known how they will be spending the day.
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber will address a rally in Exeter, saying: “The brutal truth is simply this: The burden of deficit reduction is being piled unfairly onto millions of low and medium-paid public sector workers who did nothing to cause the crash.
“Their pay has already been frozen for two years, even though inflation is higher than it has been for over a decade.
“Meanwhile those who are actually guilty of causing the crash in the finance sector are busy getting back to business and bonuses as usual.”
BBC political editor Nick Robinson said that people on both sides of the negotiation, as well as Labour Party figures with good union connections, “continue to believe that a deal is the only way that will see the resolution of this – and that a deal is possible”.
“Of course, there is still a significant gap and things could well go wrong,” he added.
The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has called for legislation to impose a minimum threshold on strike ballots before industrial action can be taken.
Are you taking part in the strikes? Do you support or oppose the strikes? How are the strikes affecting you? Send us your comments and experiences.