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More strikes expected despite crisis talks between unions and ministers

A wave of further strike action is expected after crisis talks between ministers and unions failed to resolve industrial disputes involving nurses, teachers and rail workers.

Talks between NHS unions and Health Secretary Steve Barclay were branded “bitterly disappointing” and an “insult”, while education unions warned Gillian Keegan it was “now or never” to prevent teachers going on strike.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and Unite criticised the meeting with Mr Barclay, accusing ministers of “intransigence”.

The Health Secretary suggested that improvements in efficiency and productivity could “unlock additional funding” for the 2023/24 pay settlement, but unions want workers paid more now, raising the possibility of a one-off lump sum to help with the soaring cost of living.

Joanne Galbraith-Marten, director of employment relations and legal services at the RCN, said in a statement: “There is no resolution to our dispute yet in sight.

“Today’s meeting was bitterly disappointing – nothing for the current year and repeating that ‘the budget is already set’ for next year.

“This intransigence is letting patients down. Ministers have a distance to travel to avert next week’s nurse strike.”

The GMB union said ambulance strikes would go ahead as planned on Wednesday after the talks “fell short”.

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Rachel Harrison, GMB’s national secretary, said: “There was some engagement on pay – but not a concrete offer that could help resolve this dispute and make significant progress on the recruitment and retention crisis.”

Physiotherapists also said they would be announcing strike dates later this week despite the talks.

Elaine Sparkes, assistant director at the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, said: “Although the meeting was more constructive this time, there is nothing tangible on the table.

“As such, we’ll be announcing the first of our strike dates later this week as we continue to push for a fairer deal for our members and their colleagues.”

Unite’s Onay Kasab, speaking after the meeting with Mr Barclay, criticised the Government for linking pay with productivity improvements.

“This isn’t a factory we’re talking about, we’re talking about people who are working well beyond their contracted hours anyway just to get the job done because they care so much,” he said.

Cabinet meeting
Health Secretary Steve Barclay (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

“So, for the Government to be talking about productivity in exchange for a (payment) is an insult to every single one of our members.”

A Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) insider rejected Mr Kasab’s comments – and said he had not been one of the union representatives actually around the table with Mr Barclay.

The source said talk about productivity and efficiency improvements had been linked to the 2023/24 pay settlement, rather than a one-off payment.

In the Commons, Mr Barclay told MPs: “It is right that we are engaging with the trade unions, I was pleased to meet the staff council of the NHS today and indeed the chair of the NHS Staff Council, Sara Gorton, said the discussions had made progress.

“Notwithstanding one trade union leader who wasn’t in the talks giving an interview outside the department to comment on what had and had not been said in those talks, but we want to work constructively with the trade unions on that.”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had earlier not denied suggestions the Government was considering a one-off payment to help NHS staff deal with the soaring cost of living, but said any pay settlement would have to be affordable and not further increase inflation.

An ally of Mr Barclay said the issue of a one-off payment was raised at the meeting by the unions, rather than the Health Secretary, who “listened to what he had to say and agreed to take it away”.

The Government had previously refused to discuss wages for nurses and other public-sector workers, insisting those were matters for the independent pay review bodies, but over the weekend Mr Sunak hinted at movement.

On Monday, Mr Sunak declined to get into the “specifics” of the Government’s approach but said that he was “really pleased that union leaders accepted ministers’ invitations to come in today to have discussions across the board and that’s a really positive development”.

Elsewhere in Westminster, teaching unions met Education Secretary Ms Keegan ahead of announcements this week over whether their members will go on strike.

Strikes graphic
(PA Graphics)

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), urged ministers to come forward with “real and concrete proposals very quickly” to avoid possible strike action this year.

She told the PA news agency: “We’ve made it very clear to the Government that the time for intensive negotiations around a better pay offer for this year is now. It’s now or never.”

Rail minister Huw Merriman called in train workers after sustained action crippled services, with only one in five trains running between Tuesday and Saturday.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch dodged questions about progress in rail talks but said that further discussions would take place.

Mick Whelan, general secretary of train drivers’ union Aslef, gave a shrugging gesture as he left the Department for Transport but also declined to give any detail of the meeting.

Industrial strike
Industrial strike

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) leaves the Department of Transport in Westminster (James Manning/PA)

Business Secretary Grant Shapps has said ministers were seeking a more “collaborative approach”, telling BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme: “It is a new year. We are very keen to see these strikes come to a conclusion. We want to see a collaborative approach.”