Last updated: June 29, 2011 10:12 am

Cameron urges unions to call off strikes

The prime minister made a last ditch plea for unions to cancel Thursday’s one-day strike, describing the action as “wrong” given the urgent need for reform of public sector pensions.

The pensions system was “in danger of going broke” if changes were not made, David Cameron told the annual conference of the Local Government Association on Tuesday.

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“The strikes are wrong – for you, for the people you serve, for the good of the country,” he said.

With just hours to go before the strike, Mr Cameron insisted that his plans to reform pensions had been distorted, leaving union members with “misconceptions”.

“Of course, in a democracy people can go out and protest,” Mr Cameron said. “But the people marching should know what they’re objecting to and I believe there are some misconceptions flying around.”

The prime minister said public sector workers were being subsidised by private sector workers, with taxpayers contributing “over two-thirds” of the cost – equivalent to £1,000 per household and rising. “We need to rebalance the system,” Mr Cameron said.

Many schools are due to close on Thursday as a result of strikes by teachers’ unions and the PCS union, which represents public sector workers. At least 3,290 schools are poised to shut down although at least 2,492 will remain at least partly open, the government said. It had no information about another 11,209.

As the cabinet discussed contingency plans, it emerged that Heathrow and other airports could be hit by immigration staff going on strike.

EasyJet on Wednesday warned of potential problems: “The challenge will be if the immigration halls, which are small in some airports, start to overflow, which could cause more general problems. We are trying to minimise the impact and have asked airports to find spaces elsewhere for people to queue if the immigration halls do overflow.’’

Jonathan Sedgwick, acting chief executive of the UK Border Agency said: “We will do everything we can to minimise disruption and inconvenience to travellers but our priority will always be to ensure that the UK border remains secure.”

Ed Miliband earlier accused the government of “botching” the reforms and failing to “build bridges” with the unions after talks broke down on Monday.

The Labour leader urged both unions and ministers to think again. “As we saw on the NHS and sentencing, it is typical of ministers in this government to rush ahead with plans only to find they have got the detail wrong,” he said.

Mr Cameron said that increased longevity made it impossible to carry on with the same public sector pension system. A civil servant retiring at 60 will now claim a pension for an average of 30 years – up from 20 years back in the 1970s, he said.

The government plans to make public sector workers pay an extra 3.2 percentage points into their pension pots on average. It intends to increase the retirement age and shift pension increases from retail price index inflation to the consumer price index.

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However, Mr Cameron dismissed any “scare stories” that the government would replace defined benefit schemes with defined contribution schemes. Nor would it “strip workers” of benefits they had already accumulated, contrary to rumours.

“That’s why I can look you in the eye and say public service pensions will remain among the very best – much better, indeed, than for many private sector workers,” he said.

Miles Templeman, director-general of the Institute of Directors, urged the government on Wednesday not to abandon the reforms:

“That would be a disaster and would tell opponents of the coalition’s spending plans that there is mileage in turning up the pressure with strike action. I urge ministers to show the leadership they have demonstrated so far and stick to Plan A.’’

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, insisted that her members were not “burying their heads in the sand”.

“The prime minister seems to think equality means the whole country being reduced to poverty in old age,” she said. “This is a betrayal of those public sector workers who are saving for their retirement and those private sector workers who are denied the chance to do so.”

Unions had earlier warned that there was still a “major gap” between them and the government despite agreeing to negotiate through July to try to prevent the strike escalating into a wider conflict in the autumn.

Brendan Barber, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said after talks with ministers on Monday that there was “the possibility of agreement” in some areas, but major divisions remained over plans to raise the pension age, increase contributions and link pensions to the consumer prices index rather than the retail prices index.

Unions representing more than 2m workers are threatening to ballot members on a rolling programme of strikes this autumn if a peace deal cannot be reached.

The government said that it would enter into separate discussions over the local government scheme, which has a different funding basis from other public sector schemes, and where there have been warnings that many members could opt out if they are made to contribute much more.

But the National Union of Teachers, one of the unions striking on Thursday, said that it was “disappointing to say the least” that ministers did not recognise the particular circumstances relating to the teachers’ scheme.

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