Ministers ignoring own risk advice by refusing to negotiate with striking unions

Ministers’ refusal to negotiate with striking union leaders on pay goes against the Government’s own official advice on resolving industrial disputes, i can reveal.

Jane Merrick

The Government’s Risk Register, which assesses the likelihood and impact of different threats to the UK, says “negotiation and mediation” is encouraged “as a means of resolving industrial action both before and during a strike”.

Union leaders have said they will pause the wave of strikes if ministers agree to discuss workers’ pay, which is the number one issue at the heart of the disputes hitting the NHS, airports, railways and other key public services this month.

But while Health Secretary Steve Barclay has held meetings with Pat Cullen, the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, he has refused to negotiate on the issue of pay. He has also declined a suggestion from Ms Cullen to use the Acas mediation service.

Ministers have also declined negotiations with the three unions representing striking ambulance workers, and the PCS union on behalf of Border Force staff.

Unite’s general secretary, Sharon Graham, said the revelation showed ministers were being “cavalier with their own rules” and that ministers are “holding the country to ransom”.

The 2020 Risk Register says the threat of industrial action can be tackled through prevention, including “wherever possible, government encourages negotiation and mediation, such as via the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, as a means of resolving industrial action both before and during a strike”.

It also says the impact of strikes can be lessened through monitoring, including “UK Government and the devolved administrations work together closely to monitor impending strike action and resolve it where possible”.

The Risk Register warns that consequences of industrial action may include “disruption to essential services, particularly transport, health and education; disruption to business (via lost working hours); possible public order challenges; economic damage (particularly for transport sector industrial action)”.

Union leaders have warned that ministers’ failure to get round the negotiating table is prolonging the disputes. But the Government has insisted it cannot meet the demands for above-inflation pay rises because it would hit frontline public services.

Rishi Sunak said on Monday he was prepared to hold out for “months” before giving into “unreasonable” pay demands of unions.

But Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “The Government could have stopped these strikes taking place. It is clear from the deal done in Scotland a solution can be found and that unions are more than willing to negotiate.

“Instead, it looks like the Government is being cavalier with its own rules, breaking its own Risk Register rules by refusing to negotiate on pay. What a state to be in.

“It’s Steven Barclay who is holding the country to ransom, not the unions. He will have to carry the can if patients suffer. This Government is guilty of criminal negligence in its deliberate hollowing out of the NHS long before now. If the staff exodus is to be sorted there needs to be decent pay. In fighting for that, those taking strike action are actually trying to save the service.”

A PCS spokesperson said: “The Government should practice what it preaches. PCS stands ready to negotiate whenever the Government wants to come to the table. Only then will we be able to resolve this dispute.”

Unison head of health, Sara Gorton, said: “The Government’s let everyone down. Ministers have known this was coming for months and should have made some effort to resolve the dispute. Instead they’ve dug in their heels and done nothing.”

In an interview with the Daily Mail, the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “The Government is acting fairly and reasonably and will always continue to do so. I’m going to do what I think is right for the long-term interests of the country – combating inflation.”

A Government spokesperson said: “We regret the decision taken by unions to strike and we greatly value the work of all their members across the country. We will do all we can to mitigate the impact of this action, but the only way to stop the disruption completely is for union bosses to get back round the table and call off these damaging strikes.

“We want to ensure people are paid fairly, and we have been reasonable in our approach to agreeing to the independent pay review bodies’ recommendations for public sector pay rises.

“An inflation-matching pay increase of 11 per cent for all public sector workers would cost £28 billion, worsening debt and embedding inflation, which makes everyone poorer. That would be a cost to each household of just under £1,000.”

Army reservists could in future be asked to play a larger role in certain crises, according to a government report on the future of resilience, to end reliance on under-pressure Armed Forces.

The report from the Cabinet Office warns that with the Armed Forces “facing pressure as risks multiply” at home and abroad, personnel “cannot be the first port of call whenever an emergency hits”.

Any changes would see the reserves play a “greater role” in military aid to the civil authorities (Maca) protocol operations and in other areas, and use of the Armed Forces for more routine tasks will be “an indication of policy failure”.