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Ministers hold series of talks with union bosses in bid to avert strikes

Ministers hold series of talks with union bosses in bid to avert strikes

Ministers will hold a series of meetings with union leaders as they seek to prevent future strikes over pay in the NHS, in class rooms and on the rails.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay will meet with leaders including from the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) on Monday, amid cautious optimism the Government might soften its stance.

Teaching unions will attend talks with Education Secretary Gillian Keegan ahead of announcements this week over whether their members will go on strike.

Rail minister Huw Merriman is also holding talks on Monday with train workers after sustained action crippled services, with only one in five trains running between Tuesday and Saturday.

Rishi Sunak raised hopes on Sunday by saying he was willing to discuss pay with health workers, though this is unlikely to prevent strikes if the current pay deal is not renegotiated.

Downing Street declined to deny suggestions the Prime Minister is open to a one-off payment to support health workers with the cost of living this winter.

Mr Barclay is understood to have advocated for the move but the proposal had faced opposition from elsewhere in Government.

Royal College of Nursing (RCN) general secretary Pat Cullen said she felt a “chink of optimism” after noticing a “little shift” in the PM’s stance.

Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak appearing on Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg (Jeff Overs/BBC/PA)

But she warned the planned action will still go ahead without compromise on this year’s pay settlements, as the Unite union accused Mr Sunak of “misleading” the public about the negotiations.

Labour accused him of “taking our nurses and ambulance workers for fools”, with Monday’s talks with health unions set to centre on 2023/24’s deal.

Mr Sunak had told BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg programme: “When it comes to pay we’ve always said we want to talk about things that are reasonable, that are affordable and responsible for the country.

“We are about to start a new pay settlement round for this year, we’re about to start that independent process, and before that process starts the Government is keen to sit down with the unions and talk about pay and make sure they understand where we’re coming from.”

Ms Cullen said Monday’s talks are “not going to avert the strike action” in England on January 18 and 19 without compromise on 2022/23 pay.

But she told Kuenssberg: “The Prime Minister talked about coming to the table, now that’s a move for me because I have said, let’s meet half way.”

She added: “When I listened to that there was a chink of optimism and there was a little shift in what the Prime Minister was saying.”

Mr Barclay said in The Sunday Telegraph he will take a “constructive approach” to negotiations on April’s pay review, suggesting increases are on the table if unions agree to efficiency savings to make higher salaries more “affordable”.

Sharon Graham, the general secretary of the Unite union whose ambulance workers will again walk out on January 23, warned strikes will continue this year without the current dispute being resolved.

“At best, Rishi Sunak is misleading the British public about these so called ‘NHS pay talks’,” she said.

“I repeat that unless and until he accepts the need to make real progress on the current pay claim, there will still be strikes across the NHS this winter.”

Unison will also attend the talks, as will the GMB, which described the talks set to last “just 45 minutes” as “an insult”.

The National Education Union (NEU), school leaders union NAHT and the NASUWT will all be announcing ballot results in the coming week.

Ms Keegan is holding talks on Monday, but NEU joint general secretary Mary Bousted warned they will not resolve a dispute over pay talks deal only with the coming year’s settlement.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “After two years of disrupted education for young people, strike action is simply not a reasonable solution.

“Union leaders have been invited to meet with ministers on Monday to have honest conversations about what is responsible and what is affordable for our country when it comes to pay.”

Scottish Government officials and teaching unions will also hold last-ditch talks on Monday before parents could be forced to keep their children at home later this week.

A passenger at Waterloo East train station in London during a rail strike by members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union in a long-running dispute over jobs and pensions
A passenger at Waterloo East train station in London during a rail strike by members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union in a long-running dispute over jobs and pensions (PA)

In the rail dispute, union leaders will meet Mr Merriman as they continue to insist the Government is blocking a deal to end the long-running row over pay, jobs and conditions.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper denies the allegation, saying he is facilitating talks between unions and employers.

Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) general secretary Mick Lynch said: “Today I want to see the Government stop play-acting because the truth, written in black and white in their rail contracts, is that they’ve been in complete control of this dispute from day one.

“The train operators cannot move without Government say-so.

“The minister cannot hide behind this fairy story that he is just a facilitator.

“His Government can end this dispute today by taking out the conditions they put in to torpedo a resolution and let the companies make a deal.”