The government and health unions are set to hold their latest round of talks today over changes to pensions in the wake of yesterday’s strike.
However, the talks will take place following a “war of words” over how many people took part in yesterday’s strike action and the priority that ministers are giving to negotiating a settlement on the future of public sector pensions.
There have been claims and counter claims over the impact of the strike and the number of public sector workers that actually took part.
The government has sought to downplay the protest, with prime minister David Cameron describing it in Parliament yesterday as a “damp squib” and ministers publically refuting union suggestions that two million public sector workers took part.
The unions have retaliated, arguing it is not possible at this stage to know exactly how many people were on strike and calling on ministers to “stop the war of words” over the strike’s impact and instead return to the negotiating table.
In a statement yesterday evening, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude branded the strikes as “inappropriate, untimely and irresponsible”.
He said: “Our rigorous contingency planning has been working well. Throughout the day it has limited the impact of the strikes significantly and as a result the majority of key public services have remained open.”
Mr Maude added: “We now know that in the health service only approximately 79,000 staff have not been at work today, which means that 85.5% of staff in NHS trusts, foundation trusts, ambulance services and NHS Direct actually turned up yesterday.”
The Cabinet Office statement added that in NHS London, NHS Midlands and East, and NHS South, “no more than 10% of staff were off work”, while around 20% of staff were off work in the North.
But in a statement this morning, Unison head of health Christina McAnea said NHS workers had been “solid in support of the strike” action to protect their pensions.
She said: “Half of all NHS staff were not balloted, but we know that support for the action was strong right across the country.
“Over 400,000 NHS workers took part in strike action in support of their pensions. Many of our members who were working turned up because we had agreed that they should provide emergency cover.
“This action was solid and the government should look beyond the few streets around Whitehall and see what actually happened across the country.”
In a heated debate on the BBC Newsnight programme last night, Public and Commercial Services Union general secretary Mark Serwotka accused Mr Maude of “lying” over government estimates of those taking part in the strike.
Mr Serwotka also claimed that ministers had not attended pension talks with union leaders in person since the start of November and had, instead, been represented by civil servants who had merely explained the government’s latest pensions offer rather than actively negotiating on it.
In a statement, Trades Union Congress general secretary Brendan Barber said: “The government should turn its attention from trying to down play what was the biggest strike in a generation, stop the war of words and get on with serious negotiations where they spell out exactly what they are now proposing in each scheme.
“Unions want to see a fair negotiated settlement and are ready for the intensive talks we now need, but those talks need content and that can only come from ministers.”
In his statement earlier in the day, Mr Maude had said: “Claims that there are no negotiations going on are simply not true. There were formal discussions with the civil service unions only yesterday and there will be formal discussions with the teaching unions tomorrow and health on Friday.”